Wednesday, 26 June 2013

New to nature No 107: Typhochlaena costae

There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, that Harvard professor and mycologist Roland Thaxter once gave a public lecture on the Laboulbeniales, an enigmatic group of fungi that grow on the integument of insects. A woman in the audience is said to have asked: "Professor Thaxter, this is all interesting, but of what value is it to mankind?" to which Thaxter replied: "None, thank God!"

Much species exploration is undertaken out of pure curiosity about the living world, so it is easy to understand why progress in some obscure taxa has been slow. Other groups, however, are so significant that neglect of their taxonomy is inexplicable. Theraphosidae is one such taxon.

The theraphosids include about one-third of the 2,693 documented species of mygalomorphs – tarantulas and funnel web spiders. In the intricate sub-webs of invertebrate animals in many terrestrial ecosystems these are "top" predators, making them of special interest to ecology. They have been used as model organisms in such diverse studies as molecular biology, biochemistry, pharmacology, ethology and biogeography, and they have a large and devoted following in the international pet trade. Yet their taxonomy, natural history and phylogeny remain incompletely studied.

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