The Boy Who Looked: The Rediscovery of an Intertidal Spider

This is a guest article by Fam Charko. 

It is well known that in Australia many species of animal are still undescribed by science. A report published by the federal government in 2009 tells us that at that time, the number of described, published and accepted spider species was 6,615, while the estimated number of total Australian spiders was 31,338. It is therefore not surprising that new species are spotted regularly. What is surprising, however, is when a long-lost species is re-discovered in one of Melbourne’s most urbanised areas, by a 16-year-old.

Gio Fitzpatrick, now 19 and Youth Wildlife Ambassador of the Port Phillip EcoCentre, has been fascinated with local wildlife from the moment he could walk. Many St Kilda residents remember him walking around the St Kilda Botanic Gardens as a small boy, overturning stones and looking under leaves for bugs. Gio started environmental volunteering when he was 11 years old and has since deepened his generalist knowledge of local wildlife. He won the 2011 Young People’s Award of the City of Port Phillip’s Civic Awards for his work designing and building nest boxes for hollow-nesting animals in the urban environment.

Gio is adamant about educating people about the wildlife in their own urban environment. He is an active member of the Friends of Elster Creek and one of the most knowledgeable people on general species diversity of the lower Elster Creek catchment area. He spends a lot of time hosting local walks and activities that expose people to the hidden wildlife in their own backyard.

“It occurred to me a few years ago that this area still housed many species that had gone extinct in neighbouring areas,“ Gio says. “I started finding species that didn’t exist in urban areas around here anymore, like eastern rosellas and southern water skinks. This area seemed to be a time capsule of sorts. So I thought it was worth studying and conserving.”

Flashback to September 2013 and I was excited - though hardly surprised - when Gio announced that he’d found a marine spider at Elwood Beach that hadn’t been spotted in over 100 years.

“I was at the Elwood Beach foreshore, where I turned around a few rocks and saw a tiny spider with two enormous protruding jaws, scuttling away,” Gio said.

“Thinking that the intertidal zone - which is submerged in saltwater for several hours a day - was a strange place for a spider, I took some photos and sent them off to Museum Victoria to be identified.”

Ken Walker, Senior Curator of the museum’s entomology collection, responded quite excitedly that it was Desis kenyonae, spotted long ago for the first and only time when discovered in San Remo in 1902. Other species of the genus Desis were recorded 70 years ago in Sydney Harbour and over the last 50 years some have been observed living on the Great Barrier Reef, surviving total immersion of up to five consecutive days.

Intertidal spider Desis kenyonae. Images: Gio Fitzpatrick

 

Flashforward to 2016 and I’m interviewing Gio for Out Of The Blue, a radio program about marine news and developments on community radio station 3CR. We talk about the intertidal spider because Gio has just shot the world’s first ever film footage of this species.

“Intertidal spiders are ‘true spiders’ of the class Arachnida, and so they have to breathe air,” Gio explains. “They weave a little waterproof sack over a small hole in a rock in the intertidal zone, so that when the tide comes up and their rock submerges, they can breathe air.

Intertidal spiders Desis kenyonae. In most spider species, the female is larger, but in this species the female is smaller than the male. Video: Gio Fitzpatrick

In a community that is being rapidly urbanised, linking people with natural areas in their local environment is becoming more and more important. At the moment Gio is working on a comprehensive field guide of fauna of the lower Elster Creek catchment area.

“Not many people seem to know or appreciate quite what a special environment we have here,” he says, “and the closer I look, the more amazing things turn up that you really wouldn’t expect in a place like this.”

“I really love sharing that [local] story with people, because it really made me care about the place and I think that if other people could see that it is actually a living system, that they will treat it that way. And not just this place; it would also allow people a gateway into the broader world of nature.”

Gio Fitzpatrick can be contacted at gio@ecocentre.com. 


Banner image courtesy of Emma Walsh.