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The Endangered Unknown: Spruce-Fir Moss Spider

By Peter Kleinhenz
December 2, 2011
File under: Animal Stories, Arachnid, Insects, Wildlife

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The tallest peaks of North Carolina and Tennessee seem like a very unlikely place to find a tarantula but, remarkably, one can be found there. The Spruce-Fir Moss Spider, Microhexura montivaga, is one of the smallest tarantulas on Earth and is only about the size of a BB gun pellet.

The spider’s common name provides a specific habitat description of the species, since it lives under moss that grows on north-facing rocks that are scattered throughout high-elevation Fraser Fir/Red Spruce forest. Here, it constructs a tube-shaped web that it uses to catch its prey, which scientists assume to be mainly springtails.

One would think that the highest forests in remote parts of North Carolina and Tennessee would safeguard this tarantula from most threats, but that is unfortunately not the case.

The Spruce-Fir Moss Spider is restricted to just a few moss mats on just a few rock outcrops on just a few mountains within its range. In the past 100 years, logging throughout the Southern Appalachian Mountains has been extremely extensive and reduced the already-rare Fraser Fir/Red Spruce forest even more.

Today, the remnants are threatened not by man, but by an insect. The Balsam Wooly Adelgid is an invasive species that infests Fraser Firs and eventually kills them. The death of these trees expose moss mats the Spruce-Fir Moss Spider lives in, and desiccation of these mats can occur shortly after.

Combatting the Adelgid is not an easy task, so the best bet for the future survival of this truly amazing spider is habitat protection. Most of the areas it can be found are currently protected, but many are close to trails which leaves them vulnerable to human disturbance. By being simply being aware that the spider exists, people will be more inclined to appreciate these beautiful areas from the trail.

Many people don’t like spiders, but even tiny tarantulas fulfill important roles in the ecosystem and need to be saved from extinction.

Work Cited:
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Spruce-Fir Moss Spider. Asheville, NC: Asheville Field Office, 2000. Print.

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