New spider-like species discovered in 305 million-year-old fossil

Diamond’s powerful X-rays reveal characteristics of ancient arachnid

 
 Courtesy of Garwood et al 
 
Scientists have discovered an ancient relative of modern spiders by carrying out cutting-edge scans of a 305 million year old fossil using Diamond’s powerful X-rays.
 
The fossilised spider-like creature was found inside a rock that was discovered in France some decades ago. Most of the animal’s body is completely encased in dense rock, and so palaeontologists were never able to classify it until now.
 
The team from the University of Manchester used laboratory CT scanning to reconstruct an image of the creature, but in order to accurately classify the creature, the group need to explore its anatomy in more detail.
 
And so the group turned to high resolution synchrotron tomography: a technique that exploits energy waves to determine the internal structure of an object.
 
Scientists at Diamond’s Joint Engineering and Environmental Processing beamline (I12) were able to provide the exquisite detail required to allow close examination of the spidery animal’s anatomy.
 
The group discovered a key difference between their fossilised animal and modern spiders: unlike regular spiders, the ancient creature lacked ‘spinnerets’: special organs that allow spiders to weave their webs.

 

 Courtesy of Garwood et al 
 
“The earliest known spider is actually from the same fossil deposit – and it definitely has spinnerets,” said lead investigator Dr Russell Garwood.
 
“So what we’re actually looking at is an extinct lineage that split off from the spider line some time before 305 million years ago, and those two have evolved in parallel.”
 
The animal has now been classified as an entirely new species outside the order of true spiders.
 
The intense X-ray light produced at Diamond allows scientists to scrutinise matter on a level that would be impossible with standard laboratory equipment.
 
Diamond’s CEO, Prof Andrew Harrison, said: “This innovative work provides us with fascinating new insights into prehistoric life on Earth.
 
“The Manchester group’s findings at Diamond demonstrate how central intense synchrotron light can be to piecing together complex puzzles such as this.
 
“The work also demonstrates the real breadth of research that goes on here at Diamond – whether it’s ancient arachnids or cutting-edge technology and medicines, we really are enabling a huge range of compelling scientific research.”
 
 
The findings are published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B: DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2016.0125
 
  
Principal Beamline Scientist, Michael Drakopoulos on I12, where the tomography experiments took place.