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Arachnids from all over the world could be at risk of extinction because of the exotic pet trade.
Researchers have warned that spiders, scorpions and their relatives are at risk from uncontrolled collecting from the wild, and that some species might go extinct before they are scientifically described.
Scientists have called for greater protections for spiders and scorpions after finding that hundreds of thousands are being harvested from the wild to be sold as pets.
A study, published in Communications Biology, found that over 1,200 species of arachnids were being traded online, of which almost 80% of species were unmonitored. Tarantulas were one of the most affected groups, with over half of tarantula species being available online.
With Endangered and Critically Endangered species among the arachnids being traded, and many more yet to be assessed, there is a danger that these animals could be driven to extinction through demand for exotic pets.
The authors say, 'These species are undoubtedly vulnerable to unsustainable trade, especially as novelty appears poised to play a role with colour, colloquial names and place of origin listed alongside for sale arachnids online.
'In any event, since arachnids are often highly specific to a certain area, efforts are needed to monitor what is in trade, to verify identities and trace origins of specimens belonging to this group in order to prevent potentially unsustainable trade and species extinction arising from trade, without the data or regulations needed to ensure sustainability.'
Every year, millions of animals are shipped around the world to satisfy the exotic pet trade. While the trade was previously the preserve of the wealthy, the ease of travel and online communication has seen the industry expand as demand for unusual pets rises.
Demand is highest for birds, with at least 585 species known to be traded. Parrots make up the highest proportion of bird species, followed by song birds and falcons. The birds are followed by reptiles and mammals in having have the most species being bought and sold for use as pets.
The trade in these animals can be illegal, especially if they are caught from the wild. The CITES convention regulates the trade of thousands of species, with species protected at different levels depending on which appendix they are listed in. Wild-caught species in Appendix I, such as gorillas and red pandas, are banned from being bought and sold except in exceptional circumstances.
National governments can also restrict trade, with Tanzania putting a ban in place on live wildlife exports in 2016.
However, not all trade in exotic pets breaks the law. Restrictions on captive-bred animals are generally more lenient, provided licenses are obtained, while many species are not subject to any restrictions.
The invertebrates, the animals without backbones, are among the organisms which are generally overlooked by trading restrictions. For instance, while there are over 50,000 species of spider in the world, there are only four entries for spiders in CITES' appendixes.
With the ongoing expansion of the pet trade, collecting animals from the wild could have serious consequences for in-demand invertebrates and could see species disappear before scientists even know they exist. Less than 1% of invertebrates have been assessed as part of the conservation Red List, while many more species are likely to be still undiscovered.
To assess how the exotic pet trade was affecting arachnids, the researchers systematically searched the web in multiple languages to identify which species were being most advertised for sale online.
Overall, 1,264 arachnid species were identified as being bought and sold between 2000 and 2021, with the number of species generally increasing year on year. Of the species listed for sale online, 79% were not included in the trade databases of CITES or US law enforcement agencies, suggesting that these animals are not being monitored.
Attempts to monitor the trade are further complicated by the use of different names for the same arachnid as well as patterns of importing and re-exporting that make it difficult to identify the source of a particular individual. The researchers even reported finding 'mystery boxes' of spiders available for sale where identification is impossible.
This puts species collected from the wild at risk of being overexploited. Around two-thirds of individuals were found to be wild-caught, including over 77% of emperor scorpions, accounting for 700,000 animals, being imported into the USA.
As three quarters of arachnids are endemic, meaning they are only found in a single country, collectors targeting species could pose a greater threat to their survival.
The search also examined how the different arachnids were advertised online, with tarantulas often advertised as having particular colour or geographic variants. The scientists suggest that some of these variants may be undescribed species, which are being put at risk of disappearing before being discovered by science.
The researchers argue that many of the traits which put other animal groups at risk of extinction, such as small home ranges, apply to arachnids too, but without a similar level of protection.
They recommend that new regulations are brought in to begin to understand the trade in arachnids and prevent species at risk of extinction from being targeted.