The world is inundated with a global network of people buying and selling spiders and scorpions with very little regulation or oversight, according to a new study.
Researchers have documented thousands of arachnid species being sold on websites all over the planet, many of which are likely wild-caught.
The vast majority of these species are also overlooked by any international wildlife trade regulations such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
These findings reveal a major blind spot in the global wildlife trade and underscore the need for more data on the conservation status of these animals to prevent them from becoming extinct due to overexploitation.
“The idea of sustainable occupations as a concept is a bit laughable without better data,” said Benjamin Marshall, PhD researcher in biology at the University of Stirling. The Independent.
Mr Marshall and his colleagues had previously looked at the global reptile trade and said arachnids – a group of animals including spiders, scorpions, mites and other mostly eight-legged creatures – appeared to be a good next step.
“The thing about arachnids was, okay, what’s another group of frequently overlooked species?” he says.
The team began collecting data on the arachnid trade, scouring the internet to see what was offered for sale in nine different languages.
They searched the scientific names of over 52,000 different species on 103 websites and found a ton of different species for sale – 1,264 to be exact, from jumping spiders to burrowing scorpions to an entirely different group called ” whip scorpions”.
Some of these groups were also well represented on these websites – more than half of all known tarantula species were available for sale, for example.
But among these hundreds of species available for sale, very few of them have their trade regulated. Only 29 of the species found are covered by CITES, a global treaty that regulates wildlife trade. And only 251 were found in a US Fish and Wildlife Service database tracking wildlife trade.
The researchers noted that millions of individual animals were bought and sold, many of which likely came directly from the wild.
These results point to a large, mostly unregulated market for spiders and scorpions, and that may just be the tip of the iceberg.
Some of the species they found for sale might have been mislabeled, Marshall notes, or even undescribed species being marketed as something else. John Losey, an entomologist at Cornell University, said The Independent that many species may also be sold under common names instead of scientific names, or even misspelled names.
Dr. Losey and his colleagues published a similar study earlier this year, finding that certain regulated, endangered and protected insects and spiders were available for sale online. He said the new paper was “excellent” and the results were important in showing how little we know about the arachnid trade.
Trade in other wildlife, especially large animals, is closely monitored and regulated by governments around the world. Ivory, for example, is heavily guarded to prevent the poaching of elephants for their tusks.
But although spiders, scorpions and other quivering creatures are not as big as an elephant, they are no less important. Insects and arachnids are vital to human life, notes Dr. Losey, from pollination to the decay of dead plants and animals.
“If insects were to disappear, we humans couldn’t survive very long without them,” he says.
To protect these creatures from any potential threat, we need to know how each species is doing in the wild – and how something like the wildlife trade might affect them, adds Dr Losey.
These discoveries might also make some spider lovers want to take a break the next time they search for a new friend.
“I think there’s an assumption, if you’re buying a pet, that it’s from captivity,” Marshall says. And if caught in the wild, this collection could pose a threat to the species, he notes.
But the real problem, says Marshall, is that we don’t have enough information about arachnid populations or this global trade network to know just how much of a problem it might be.