•For the first time in 127 years, researchers described a new masteriine spider species from the Philippines.
•The researchers named the spider Masteria urdujae, in honor of the legendary warrior princess Urduja.
•Despite its small size, the cave-dwelling, possibly vulnerable M. urdujae may play a significant role in its ecosystem.
A cave-dwelling spider guardian is the sort of thing one would expect to find in a Dungeons & Dragons scenario or a Tolkien novel, not an academic paper. It wouldn’t be that much of a stretch to say, though, that the newly named spider species Masteria urdujae fits the bill.
Discovered at the entrance zone of a cave in Pangasinan, M. urdujae is the first masteriine spider from Northern Luzon, and the first new masteriine species from the Philippines described in 127 years.
Oh, and it got its name from a legendary Filipina warrior princess, to boot.
In a paper submitted to the Journal of Asia-Pacific Biodiversity last January 9, co-authors Joseph B. Rasalan and Dr. Aimee Lynn B. Dupo described the new species. They based their observations on a male sample collected in 2017 near the entrance of Pelpel Cave in Brgy. Centro Toma, in the second-class municipality of Bani.
M. urdujae is the the third Philippine masteriine species to be discovered so far. It joins the ranks of M. caeca and M. cavicola, discovered in Rizal province and recorded in 1892.
Described as “entirely brown,” M. urdujae has six eyes, a pear-shaped bulb, and a body and legs draped with long, brown hairs. The smallest among the masteriine spider species in the Indomalayan region, M. urdujae is roughly 4 mm in length — about as small as the head of a matchstick.
Given its diminutive size, it may seem farfetched for M. urdujae to have some rather large and fearsome relatives. However, a quick glance at M. urdujae would make you think of a tiny tarantula, and with good reason.
Masteriine spiders, tarantulas, and trapdoor spiders all belong to the same group: mygalomorphs. Mygalomorphs carry many of the same traits as their relatives from the Triassic era, over 200 million years ago.
A lucky find
In an interview with FlipScience, Rasalan shared that the specimen was collected by a colleague during a joint expedition with the University of the Philippines Los Baños Museum of Natural History (UPLB MNH), professors and students of the Cave Ecology course under the UPLB Institute of Biological Sciences, and Balincaguin Conservancy, a Pangasinan-based caving group.
At the time, Rasalan was still working with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) Biodiversity Management Bureau. Now, he is pursuing his Masters degree under UPLB’s Forest Biological Sciences program, while working with Dr. Dupo as her graduate apprentice.
Interestingly, according to Rasalan, the team wasn’t even out to find new species.
“Identification of any species, especially on arthropods or any small organism can only be determined after your fieldwork: cooped up in the laboratory – conducting rigorous observation of specimens under a dissecting microscope, and thorough review of related literature,” explained Rasalan.
“While I don’t remember exactly when I realized that the specimen I was studying was potentially a species new to science, it was definitely during the course of the lab work.”
M. urdujae bears the name of Princess Urduja, the famous warrior princess of Philippine folklore from the 14th century. Hailing from the kingdom of Tawalisi, she is typically depicted as a fierce, courageous, and skilled warrior.
Experts have long debated the true location of Tawalisi. However, many now believe that it was part of Pangasinan, based on the writings and calculations of Dr. Jose Rizal.
“Raising awareness is part of a biologist’s job,” said Rasalan. “Since this species was collected in Pangasinan, naming the species after a well-known figure of Pangasinan might just help in that goal.
“Besides, I’m a metalhead, and Princess Urduja was described to be a strong warrior princess. Naming a spider after her just fit the bill for my tastes.”
More to discover
For a spider as small as M. urdujae, one might wonder exactly how it stands out from other species.
“In the case of most spiders, they can generally be distinguished from other species through the analysis of the male reproductive organs,” Rasalan explained. He likened it to “having specific keys for specific locks.”
When it comes to Masteria species, arachnologists look at eye arrangements, leg processes, and other characteristics in addition to the male genitalia.
Oddly enough, naming this new species after the mysterious Urduja seems apt. Many details about it, including the strength of its venom, have yet to be ascertained.
Regardless, Rasalan highlighted the importance of treating the species as vulnerable — and of stopping activities that may further endanger it.
“It may be more apt to consider that this species is very likely to be vulnerable, given that this species was found at the entrance zone of a cave, making it very susceptible to disturbances within and around its habitat – these include caving activities, forest fragmentation and other such disturbances,” the arachnologist shared.
“[T]his spider might just play a big role in the cave ecosystem where it was found, despite its very small size.”
Call to arms
“Going back to studying spiders and doing taxonomic work after years of working in the government was a big challenge,” affirmed Rasalan, who felt that the study was a very personal endeavor. “I’d like to take this chance to say this to anyone interested or involved in the natural sciences – there is much to do, and very few of us left.
“We are at the forefront in protecting our country’s environment. Let us put up a good fight.”
Sounds exactly like the kind of thing Urduja would say, doesn’t it?
Cover Photo: Romeo Mananquil
Author: Mikael Angelo Francisco
Bitten by the science writing bug, Mikael has years of writing and editorial experience under his belt. As the editor-in-chief of FlipScience, Mikael has sworn to help make science more fun and interesting for geeky readers and casual audiences alike.