Out in the Open

Why a scientist is dedicated to preserving a spider that serves no known purpose to the ecosystem

Today's dire state of biodiversity has led conservationists to essentially triage, attempting to tally which species are most important to save. And while there's no evidence an extremely rare spider called the horrid ground-weaver does much at all to ensure our survival, Andrew Whitehouse is determined to preserve it.

The horrid ground-weaver was discovered in 1989, and the rare species can only be found in Plymouth, England

The horrid ground-weaver is an extremely rare breed of spiders that is indigenous to the city of Plymouth, England. (John Walters)

This story was originally published on June 21, 2019.

When Andrew Whitehouse discovered that a housing development was to be built over the home of one of the rarest species on the planet, he made it his mission to put a stop to it.

The conservationist from Plymouth, England had nearly 10,000 people sign a petition to save one of only three known habitats of the horrid ground-weaver (Nothophantes horridus) ー a breed of spider on the brink of extinction.

"This spider isn't horrible at all – to me it's not," Whitehouse told Out in the Open host Piya Chattopadhyay.

"[Its name] actually means it's bristly, and it's got some really large bristles on its legs, and it's also got bristles on its face, almost like a little bit of a mustache," he added.

After tirelessly fighting, Whitehouse was ultimately able to stop the housing development from being built over the horrid ground-weaver's home.

Global biodiversity crisis

Andrew Whitehouse is a bug conservationist in Plymouth, England. (Submitted by Andrew Whitehouse)

A United Nations review on biodiversity published in May reports that over one million plants and species are now threatened with extinction. Human activity is the driving force ー the exploitation of animals, pollution and climate change are all contributing factors.

The report also warns that 40 per cent of invertebrate pollinator species such as bees and butterflies are facing extinction. Whitehouse says that without them, we'd lose crops, vitamins and colour in the world.

"They recycle waste and turn it back into nutrients, they keep our soils healthy ー we are entirely reliant on invertebrates for our existence," he explained.

The dire state of biodiversity has led conservationists to essentially triage, attempting to tally which species are most important to save.

No matter how small something is, it doesn't mean it's less important.​​​​- Andrew Whitehouse, bug conservationist

The spider that serves no known purpose

But what about that spider Whitehouse is so enamored with? Is that worth saving?

Since its discovery in 1989, researchers, including Whitehouse, have been trying to learn more about the rare breed. Currently, there's no evidence showing that the horrid ground-weaver serves any meaningful purpose to the planet.

"We haven't really discovered what contribution it makes to the functioning of ecosystems … we really don't understand enough about the spider, and its kind of micro-environment that it lives in to be able to say definitively what's the point of the horrid ground-weaver," Whitehouse admitted.

But he believes that we should think of wildlife from less of a utilitarian perspective. Instead of trying to understand the purpose of a species, he says we should learn to share the planet with all the other species on earth.

He adds that this spider's existence should mirror the way we think of other well-liked endangered animals, such as pandas or whales.

"It would be sad if my kids lived in a world where there were no pandas left. And this is kind of similar. In fact, this is rarer than pandas, this tiny spider. No matter how small something is, it doesn't mean it's less important."

This story appears in the Out in the Open episode, "Holding On".


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