Longleat in Wiltshire has joined an international rescue programme to try and save one of the world’s rarest spiders.
The critically endangered species of wolf spider lives within a small valley on the uninhabited Desertas Grande island, part of an archipelago off the south east coast of Madeira. It is estimated that only around 4,000 Desertas wolf spiders remain in the wild.
Longleat is now working with the Portuguese government on a conservation programme, along with six other collections including Bristol Zoo.
In December Longleat received a total of 52 young ‘spiderlings’, which it plans to raise to adulthood. Longleat will then establish a satellite breeding population of the spiders with batches being released back into the wild to boost native numbers.
Keeper James Gott, who is overseeing the spider project, said: “As well as being one of the rarest wolf spider species, Desertas wolf spiders are also among the largest with a legspan of up to 13cms.
“Historically there have been no native mammals on the island so the spiders are effectively one of the top predators.
“However, the recent expansion of an invasive grass species into the valley the spiders live in has prevented the spiders from being able to live in their normal rocky environment, putting them increasingly under threat. Since 2005 the spiders’ range has declined abruptly.
“As well as setting up our own breeding colony we hope the new spider laboratory in our Animal Adventure area will aid with research on this little known species and also raise awareness of their plight,” he added.
The spiders are being looked after in a carefully-controlled environment which mimics conditions in the wild and staff are even monitoring temperatures on the island.
“The plan is for one of our keepers to travel out to the island in the near future to help with population monitoring and habitat restoration, including hopefully supplementing the wild population with some of our captive reared animals,” he added.
For more information on Longleat go to www.longleat.co.uk