The entrance to the ‘Egyptian Avenue’ at Highgate Cemetery
Around 100 meta bourneti spiders were found in sealed vaults
Published: 17 January, 2017
by TOM FOOT
A CLUSTER of rare slug-eating spiders, believed to be 150 years old, has been found lurking in pitch-black Gothic tombs in Highgate Cemetery.
Wildlife experts discovered around 100 meta bourneti in eight sealed vaults in the cemetery’s “Egyptian Avenue” during a routine bat survey in December.
It is the first sightings of the massive orb-weavers – measuring 3cm, the largest spiders in the country – ever officially recorded in London.
“They were everywhere,” said spider-finder Tony Canning, the London Wildlife Trust’s community outreach worker for Camden. “When you see them in real life, they are as big as anything you will see in this country. It doesn’t sound big but it is the body mass. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea.”
The Highgate tombs had not been opened since the 1830s but were being refurbished by cemetery bosses.
Mr Canning – in scenes reminiscent of Indiana Jones in the Raiders of the Lost Ark – crept into the marble-stone tomb and saw dozens of spiders crouching on the ceiling. Tear-drop shaped egg-sacs were suspended from the roof by silky threads.
Mr Canning said the spiders would have eaten whatever came into the tombs because “you cannot afford to be too fussy in that situation”, adding: “They eat whatever they can, they even eat slugs but they can go for weeks without feeding.”
Meta spiders do not attack humans and Mr Canning said the threat of spiders to the public was in general – and “even in Australia” – “greatly exaggerated”.
Mr Canning gave one of the spiders to Spider Recorder at the London Natural History Society, Edward Milner, who confirmed his suspicions after checking under a microscope.
Experts say meta bourneti are “particularly fascinating” because they live in total darkness. Even the pale glow of the moon could be too bright for their shy eyes – so they never venture outside.
Mr Canning said: “We shone a torch on them but they didn’t seem to notice – they didn’t run away. There are probably others in dark places in London – in railway tunnels, sewers, cellars and drains.
“But not many people spend a lot of time down there. And the ones that do are not looking for spiders, they are mainly avoiding them.”