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Rare spiders ‘thriving’ in dark corners of cemetery’s vaults

'All life stages found' in special study

22 April, 2021 — By Richard Osley

Meta bourneti [Thouny]

RARE spiders living in the darkest corner of Highgate Cemetery should be left to live in peace – amid confidence that they are growing in numbers.

Conservationists now believe that the population of orb spiders discovered in vaults eight years ago may now be expanding.

Spider specialist Sergio Henriques, who previously worked at London Zoo but has recently been hired at Indianapolis Zoo in the United States, made an inspection of the spiders as part of a project aimed at taking DNA samples of every living organism in the UK – a list which runs to more than 60,000.

“All the vaults examined on either side of the Egyptian Avenue were home to multiple individuals of Meta bourneti but the species was not just present, it was abundant,” said Dr Herinques.

Meta bourneti are officially classed as “scarce” on a national level because they only live in caves and dark areas.

They may have been breeding in the cemetery for 150 years, however.

Highgate Cemetery

Writing in a newsletter for supporters of the cemetery, Dr Herinques added: “All life stages were found living side by side on this single visit, from healthy egg sacs, recently emerged younglings, small to large juveniles, subadult males and adult individuals both females and males.”

His advice then said: “It is recommended that disturbance is kept limited and current maintenance procedures are maintained as they have clearly been effective.”

The Gothic cemetery is the last resting place for a catalogue of well-known figures, including political theorist Karl Marx, author George Eliot, singer George Michael and TV prankster Jeremy Beadle.

Dr Henriques saod: “Highgate Cemetery presents researchers with a rare oppor­tunity to study cave-like environments in a controlled setting. Therefore, besides its remarkable historical and cultural importance, it can also be seen as a unique laboratory for learning more about how cave-dwelling animals disperse and find such habitats. That is a question that science has yet to answer.”

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