Scientists have uncovered a ‘hidden’ global arachnid trade, with dire consequences

Scientists have discovered an extensive uncontrolled trade in spiders, scorpions and related species around the world. Many of these arachnids are wild-caught and threaten these spectacular beasts with potentially unsustainable harvesting practices.

The team discovered spikes in interest in these animals during COVID lockdowns.

“The trade in these groups exceeds millions of individuals,” conservation biologist Benjamin Marshall and colleagues at Suranaree University write in their paper on the magnitude of the trade. They explain that while the trade in some groups of animals is well known, other classes are completely overlooked, especially invertebrates.

The researchers scoured online listings and discovered 1,264 different species for sale. This is probably an underestimate, as they only searched in a subset of languages ​​and didn’t hunt for social media where trade is known to take place as well.

Most of these species (more than 70 percent) are not recognized as being traded by any regulatory authority. In contrast, most reptiles sold as such are listed as such on LEMIS (US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Law Enforcement Management Information System) and CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora).

They even found a single collector with 205 species of spiders.

Colorful captive tarantula eating feed worm. (Bry Wark/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

“More than 25 percent of tarantulas described since 2000 are already traded,” the team explains, “and a lack of regulation means that even undescribed species can be exported unsupervised.”

The dazzling variety of large fluffy tarantulas is highly sought after (which may come as a surprise to arachnophobes). But animals like tarantulas are of particular interest because they have traits known to make species more vulnerable, such as longevity (up to 30 years).

Because our world desperately needs more of us to be better connected to the world outside of humans, pets can help encourage this connection, and they’re really good for our own health, too. Even the creepy creeping ones.

But taking on the responsibility of caring for an animal requires a lot of work, even before you purchase them. This is especially true of so-called exotic animals, especially if their trade is unregulated – because if you get it wrong, you risk directly contributing to the extinction in the wild of the animal you value so much. Or even unintentionally cause the untimely death of the animal.

Many species of arachnids are desired for their unique traits and colors, which means they are probably rarer.

“The wildlife trade is a major cause of biodiversity loss,” the authors say. Recent analysis has shown that the pet trade poses a major potential threat to much greater numbers of species than previously realized, with 36 percent of reptiles and 17 percent of amphibians on the trade, with about half of the individuals coming from wild populations.”

However, regulating the trade in invertebrates is especially challenging because their small size makes them so easy to smuggle – often through regular postal services. They are also not detected by X-ray and thermal scans. There is even advice online on how to mail baby spiderlings.

Another big problem is that there is still so much we don’t know about these animals. We miss even the most basic details about them, such as their life history and ecological role (like what they eat), let alone their range and conservation status. Some groups of arachnids, such as scorpions, don’t even have a centralized database of species names.

Only 1 percent of the more than 1 million described invertebrate species have been assessed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and nearly 30 percent of those do not have enough data to draw a conclusion on conservation status.

Of the species Marshall and colleagues found for sale, only 2 percent were on CITES. But given the lack of data, this doesn’t really tell us much about how many of the species traded are endangered.

Much of the information they found was clearly inaccurate, with the origin of species often stated in places where they are not actually native and many species have likely been misidentified.

Infographic of the research results.(Marshall et al., Communication Biology, 2022)

“Existing regulations in most countries do not provide adequate protection for most species,” Marshall and team write. But they recognize that large-scale regulation of wild-caught species can be unrealistic given all the challenges.

“Lack of data on most species ranges means it is currently impossible to assess vulnerability and develop appropriate management or conservation policies.”

Instead, they propose that, in addition to working on the regulatory side, switching to certified breeding programs would provide those wishing to acquire these animals with a way to do so with minimal risk to wild populations. They suggest that DNA barcoding of fecal samples could help identify species.

“While attempts to restrict trade sometimes conflict with sustainable livelihoods, unsustainable trade cannot deliver stable economic gains in the long run,” Marshall and colleagues explain. This “ultimately undermines future access to that same ‘livelihood’ for other species that depend on them, and the ecosystem services they provide.”

Our desire to admire and cherish the strange, strange and beautiful life on this planet must not jeopardize their very existence.

This research was published in Communication Biology.

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