The largest spider fossil ever found has been uncovered by researchers in China.
The spider, a member of a species called Nephila jurassica, reached a size of about two inches from end to end. It was discovered in northeastern China, in a rock formation near Daohugou village.
The fossil dates back to approximately 165 million years ago, the period known as the Middle Jurassic.
“Compared to all other spider fossils, this one is huge,” researcher ChungKun Shih told National Geographic. “When I first saw it, I immediately realized that it was very unique not only because of its size, but also because the preservation was excellent.”
Spiders from the same family are still around today. The female giant golden orb-weaver spiders can be as large as 4 or 5 inches in diameter – although males the males of the species average less than a quarter of that size. These spiders are famous for their enormous webs of golden silk, webs so large and so strong that they can actually catch bats and small birds.
There are few fossil records of Nephila. Before this latest discovery, the oldest Nephila fossil found dated back to 34 million years ago. The freshly uncovered fossil tells scientists that this family of spiders originated over 35 million years earlier than had previously been believed, and the genus Nephila dates back 130 million years earlier.
Scientists believe that the ancient spider likely originated on Pangaea, the supercontinent that eventually broke apart to form the seven continents we know today. The modern golden orb spider typically is found in tropical climates, so the new fossil suggests that ancient Daohugou was much warmer than it is now.
The new fossil is only the second female Nephila fossil that’s ever been discovered. Researchers suspect that the ancient male N. jurassica were much smaller than the females, just as their descendants are today, but the researchers won’t be sure of this until a fossil is found.