Meeting Dr. Peter Jäger, renowned German arachnologist, was my wildest dream coming true.
For several years, I had been following his work on spiders from Laos. I love spiders and Laos alike and mustered up the courage to email, asking if we could meet when he next visited this country.
In July 2016, he informed me that he would be arriving in Laos for a visit and we agreed to have breakfast the following morning, as he was planning to head out of Vientiane later that day.
He was warm and easy to talk with and we hit it off quite well. This was a spider-collecting trip and he was going to visit several caves in the beautiful karst mountains in Bolikhamxay and Khammouane.
I offered to drive him. To go spider hunting with an expert of his caliber was a dream I had had for years, and this was the perfect opportunity. Peter – we were now on first name terms – agreed, and in a few hours we began a 5-day journey that would become one of the most memorable experiences in my life.
We spent most of our days and nights in and around caves and karst formations; Peter with his specimen bottles, and I with my camera gear. In an attempt to reach a cave Peter had been to before, we rode motorbikes through a swamp. About an hour and a half later, with engines stalling regularly from water in the tailpipes, we decided to return to Thakhek. It was disappointing, of course, but Peter didn’t mind, and neither did I. It was exhausting but enjoyable. Another failed attempt to reach a cave involved a long and sweaty trek through thick secondary forests, along with Jonas Ewert, a biologist working in Thakhek. We lost our bearings and gave up, but what fun it was!
Many spiders are nocturnal, including the one I was hoping to see: Heteropoda maxima, commonly known as the Giant Huntsman Spider. This was one of Peter’s more interesting finds in Laos; he had described it in 2001. Heteropoda maxima, a cave-dwelling species of spider has a leg span of 30cm –the largest in the world. We saw and collected many species of spiders, but didn’t see Heteropoda maxima until our last night.
I shall not mention where we found Heteropoda maxima, because it has gained unwanted attention from collectors for the pet trade. But find it we did, and it was magnificent. The individuals we saw had not reached their maximum size yet, but were still very impressive, with leg spans of 23-25cm. Heteropoda maxima is easily identified by its size and rather unique striped pattern.
Of course, we saw several other interesting animals on this trip, including scorpions, frogs, and a couple of very interesting snakes. For me, however, the highlight was having seen the Giant Huntsman in its habitat, and topped by the fact that Peter and I had become good friends by the end of the trip.
Xe Bang Fai Cave Biodiversity
Generally, the cave fauna of Hin Nam No NPA is the most diverse in Laos and probably in mainland Southeast Asia. Recent initial surveys of cave habitats in Hin Nam No have recorded at least 70 fauna species,
with 7 of these being new species and 5 endemics. However, the total cave biodiversity is likely to be much higher than this and is considered to be significantly greater than nearby areas in Vietnam.
World’s Largest Spider - Giant Huntsman Spider
This impressive spider has been entered into the Guiness Book of
Records as the largest spider in the world, with a 30cm length.
Text and Photos By: Aloke Sahu