Calling all Hufflepuff, Gryffindor, Ravenclaw and Slytherin – this is not a drill. A new spider discovered in southwest India has been named after J.K. Rowling's sorting hat – and the Wizarding World's creator approves.
Eriovixia gryffindori is a dead leaf mimic. The tiny spider is nocturnal, bunkering down in the foliage of its forest home during daytime hours. That mottled, triangular abdomen helps it blend in, but the researchers who discovered it couldn't help but notice that it also gives the creature an uncanny resemblance to Hogwarts's legilimency lid.
"This uniquely shaped spider derives its name from the fabulous, sentient magical artefact, the sorting hat, owned by the (fictitious) medieval wizard Godric Gryffindor," they explain in the Indian Journal of Arachnology. Rowling's own fictional spiders – most notably "Aragog", a giant spider who was close friend to Rubeus Hagrid – hail from southeast Asia, so we're not surprised she was excited by the new discovery.
"I'm truly honored!" Rowling wrote on Twitter, congratulating the researchers on the discovery of "another Fantastic Beast". (Whether or not the sorting hat now has to eat itself remains undetermined.)
The tiny 7mm spider was found in the Western Ghats mountains, which stretch some 1,600 kilometres from the north of Mumbai to the southern tip of India. According to lead author Javed Ahmed, locating a camouflaged needle in a very large haystack takes both a keen eye and a lot of practice.
"You get accustomed to picking out cool critters in the undergrowth," he says. "The same way seasoned birders are able to spot their quarry!" The animal's unique colouration instantly jumped out at the researchers, but to confirm a new-species hunch, they had to get up close and (very) personal with it. That's because the best way to discern one spider from the next is by looking at its genitals!
The rolling peaks of the Ghats mountain range harbour an impressive array of endemic species – about one-third of the plants, half the reptiles, and more than three-fourths of the amphibians known to India can be found here – but in recent years, their home has come under threat.
Much of the habitats here have been logged or converted for use by the coffee, tea, rubber and oil palm industries. Illegal logging and hunting also pose a major threat to the area – despite the fact that it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2012.
"This mountain chain is recognised as one of the world's eight 'hottest hotspots' of biological diversity along with Sri Lanka," says UNESCO. The dense forests also play a role in regulating India's monsoon season, so protecting what remains of these habitats is crucially important.
Over 300 of the species known to reside in the Ghats mountains are considered globally threatened, and 51 are critically endangered – and that's just what we know so far. E. gryffindori is the sixth find for the team in the last two years, and they hope their Harry Potter hat-tip will bring some much-needed attention to the region's invertebrates.
"Naming the spider after a beloved series icon has certainly made a lot of people take notice," says Ahmed. "Once people realise just how fascinating, unique and essential these wonderful organisms are, the (unfounded) fear and loathing vanishes."
Four of the recently discovered spiders were found in a single grove, a small patch of forest that is considered sacred by local villagers. That land has been traditionally guarded for generations, but because the UNESCO listing doesn't afford legal protection to the entire range, it too is threatened by urbanisation.
"It's easy and far more common to be enchanted by the more 'charismatic' life forms," says Ahmed. "Tigers, pandas, elephants, lions... even birds." But the undergrowth's smallest inhabitants occupy an important role that scientists are still working to understand. "They quietly go about doing what they do best: helping maintain a delicate natural balance in an ecosystem. They keep the 'machinery' in working condition."
The sorting hat spider is known from just a single female specimen, so the team's next step will be to seek out a male. That mission, however, will likely prove tougher than the first find – male spiders tend to look radically different from their female counterparts. "They're (usually) also much smaller," adds Ahmed. "Some spiders are harder to find than others."
Locating a mating or courting pair is really the only way to "marry" arachnids, which means the team will have to get very lucky to make it happen. In the meantime, it seems they have a few "wands at the ready" to keep us occupied.
"We might name another cool spider after Aragog!" they add. A combination of Greek and Latin, Aragog roughly translates to "leader of the spiders" – so we can't wait to see the creature that earns the title!