The Arachnid Collection Behind the Exhibit

by AMNH on

Research posts

World's Largest Collection of Spider Specimens  
A rack holding hundreds of tiny vials containing spider specimens in collection at the Museum.
These vials of spiders preserved in alcohol are just a tiny sample of the collection at the Museum. In fact, with over a million spiders, the Museum has the largest research collection in the world.
© AMNH/R. Mickens

A visitor to the Museum’s Spiders Alive! exhibition, which showcases live examples of approximately 20 spider species, might not realize that upstairs, out of public view, is the world’s largest spider collection. The Museum’s research collection contains more than 1 million spiders preserved in ethanol—a growing resource for scientists worldwide.

“Almost every important paper on spider systematics relies on specimens borrowed from our collection,” said Norman Platnick, curator of Spiders Alive! and curator emeritus in the Division of Invertebrate Zoology. “At any given time, we have many thousands of specimens on loan to dozens of researchers all around the globe.”

Platnick’s work is an example of how the collections are used. Platnick is collaborating with more than 45 investigators in 12 countries on an online inventory of goblin spider species. Goblin spiders, which are usually less than 2 millimeters long, are noted for catching their prey by hunting, rather than by spinning a web.

In addition to spiders, the Museum also boasts the world’s third-largest collection of scorpions and the largest collection of lesser-known arachnids in North America.

“You can think of it like a library of the natural world,” says Lorenzo Prendini, who is curator of the non-spider arachnid collections in the Division of Invertebrate Zoology.

“Each specimen in the collection is a permanent record that a particular species occurred at a particular place at a particular time.”

Many of the specimens are irreplaceable. These include holotypes, unique specimens that define their species and are used by scientists to identify and classify new specimens. Specimens are also irreplaceable for another reason: many come from habitats that no longer exist.

In South Africa, Prendini once collected scorpions in regions rich with plants of the fynbos, a mostly endemic group of heath-like plants including the rooibos tea plant. Within 15 years, he said, one site was ploughed for tea cultivation. Another became an airstrip.

In addition to serving as a historical record, the collections provide a window to the future. Many specimens in the collections are waiting to be identified at the species level. Doing so requires a serendipitous match between specimens collected and specialists who happen to visit the collections or request to borrow materials.

“Many potential new species are locked away in the cabinets of the collection, waiting to be discovered by somebody who knows what they are,” says Prendini.

Meanwhile, many discoveries await in the natural world, and researchers continue to add to the collections through regular field expeditions.