Scaly Spiral (tail of a male Parson's chameleon, Calumma parsonii, Madagascar)
Assassin/Pelican spider (Archaeidae), Madgascar, a small spider that hunts other spiders.

Assassin/Pelican spider (Archaeidae), Madgascar, a small spider that hunts other spiders.

Antipode

This bizarre-looking arachnid is an assassin spider, aka pelican spider (family Archaeidae). They're small, with a body length of just a few millimeters. They aren't found many places besides Madagascar, so they were high on the wish-to-see list for several of the people in my group. (Don’t act surprised. You know me and the company I keep.)

These spiders don't build a web, but instead hunt other spiders. That can be risky, since their prey can potentially bite back – so when they grab another spider, they use their long necks and super-long mouthparts (the chelicerae, which end in the fangs; they're the pelican-beak-looking structures on its head) to hold the captured prey at a safe distance until the pelican spider’s venom kills it.

They’ve actually been in the news a bit – several new species have been discovered in Madagascar, and among other news outlets, the New York Times science section featured them in a video in early 2018. I mean, not many spiders make the Times.

A word I encountered while reading up on Madagascar before my trip was "antipode." It means the other side of the world. Not metaphorically, but specifically: if you draw a straight line from where you're standing through the center of the earth and out the other side, that point opposite you on the planet is the antipode of your location. It's as far from home as you can get without a spaceship.

My antipode, from here in Los Angeles, is a point in the Indian ocean a bit southeast of Madagascar – so, without getting in a boat, where I stayed in eastern Madagascar was about as “antipody” as I could manage. I went there immediately after a trip to Mozambique; I figured since I was already in south-eastern Africa, I was ninety percent of the way to Madagascar, as close as I might ever be, and couldn’t pass up the chance. So after Mozambique I flew down to Johannesburg for a connecting flight to Madagascar’s largest city, Antananarivo (“Tana” to locals).

On the flight, I sat next to a Malagasy woman, who was coming home to deal with an unspecified family emergency. She was married to an American man and now lived in New York City. She had a lot to say about her country. She told me that the original people who came to Madagascar were not African, as I would have supposed given the island’s location, but were seafaring Southeast-Asian people from places like Borneo. She told me how I’d notice that the main building material, the making of which was also one of the main ways to make a living, was hand-formed red bricks made from unfired, sun-dried, red clay mud. She said she was glad I was spending money as an eco-tourist, because that encouraged saving the small amounts of forest still remaining. She said that her home country's sometimes corrupt political system, systemic poverty, and resulting poor environmental track record made her sad. She said that even so, many people supported conservation, and that lately the political situation there had been improving, and she hoped that other, richer countries might see this recent stability and be more willing to provide help, instead of just engage in more resource exploitation. And then we landed and she said goodbye.

Our group met our driver at the airport, and from there we drove about five hours to a lodge in the eastern forest. The drive was an adventure in itself; by the time we got out of Tana, it was the end of the day, so much of the trip was in the dark, and the national highway is a two-lane, winding, mountainous road with no shoulder, not even as wide as my home residential street, with villages built right up to the edge of the asphalt, and used by everyone and every kind of vehicle – pedestrians, oxcarts, speeding transport trucks, bicyclists, cars, dogs. Whee!

We got to the lodge in one piece, then spent the next eight days exploring the area. Madagascar is the fourth largest island in the world (after Greenland, New Guinea, and Borneo), and has many types of habitat, but instead of moving around, we stayed in one place to more fully explore the single habitat of eastern highland forest.

It was awesome. We saw a ton of wonderful creatures, and much of what we saw was a direct result of help from our local guides. But… we were an unusual group. Yes, we wanted to see lemurs and chameleons and geckos like everyone else, but we also wanted to see and photograph as many insects and spiders as possible, including the aforementioned assassin/pelican spiders.

As knowledgeable as our guides were, they’d never heard of these spiders. Which wasn’t surprising — pelican spiders are tiny and not particularly colorful and definitely aren’t what most people come to Madagascar to see. But it wasn’t long before someone in our group (Nicky Bay; a wonderful photographer you should look up) found one, and in fact we ended up seeing several before the trip was over. And once the guides saw the first one, they knew what to look for and could help search. But since their job is not just finding things but teaching their clients about what they’re seeing, they also wanted to learn more about the spiders.

So one night in the dark forest someone in our group took out his cell phone and played them the video from the New York Times.

Later that same night, farther down the trail by myself, I turned off my flashlight and put down my camera and in the pitch dark texted my wife hello from the other side of the world, a message from one antipode to the other that took two seconds to arrive, me as far from her as I could be without a spaceship, which, as it turns out, is not that far at all.


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