A little over three years ago, researcher Troy Alexander discovered something extremely unusual within the 678,000-acre Tambopata National Reserve in southeastern Peru. On the underside of a tarp outside of the reserve's research center, Alexander spied an tiny, woven circular picket picket fence surrounding a strange white tower.
After spotting three more of the structures on trees in the jungle, he decided to post a photo to Reddit in an effort to discover the name of clever species responsible.
The bizarre but beautiful structures found by Alexander were discovered within the Tambopata National Reserve in Peru. They've since been spotted in French Guiana and Ecuador. (Photo: Troy S. Alexander/Tambopata Research Center)
The response back from entomologists the world over only deepened the mystery. To Alexander's surprise, no one had any idea.
"I've had some experts write me and say they don't have an expert opinion on it because it is so bizarre," Rice University ecology graduate student Phil Torres told LiveScience. Torres worked with Alexander to unravel the mystery behind the structures.
In December 2013, Torres led a team on an eight-day expedition to discover more of the structures and, with any luck, to spy the tiny architects behind them. Their big break came on a small island in the middle of a fish pond. There, on the trunks of bamboo and Cecropia trees, they found 45 of the circular creations. As they watched, a spiderling emerged from under one of the tall, white spires.
To their delight, the structures appeared to be an intricate protective playpen for spider babies.
"We think they can build multiple structures, as we saw clusters of them in certain areas that we suspect were from the same female," Torres told (now defunct) iScienceTimes. "We also don't know why it is made. Such an elaborate structure for a single egg comes with a high investment from the adult, it must have evolved for an adaptive purpose."
Earlier this week in Ecuador, Torres and fellow entomologist Aaron Pomerantz recorded the first live birth of what has been nicknamed the "Silkhenge spider." As you can hear in the video below, it was a very exciting moment for the pair.
As for the spider itself, scientists still aren't sure what species it might belong to. Earlier efforts to genetically sequence Silkhenge DNA have potentially matched it to several families of spiders.
"As far as I can see, the barcoding just confirmed it's a spider," Torres told National Geographic. "This is one darn tough egg to crack."
Because no one knows what a mature Silkhenge spider looks like, much less how they build their structures, the next step for Torres and his colleagues will be to raise some spiderlings to adulthood. All previous attempts have sadly failed.
"If hours and hours of observations can result in this, hopefully it can also result in what we’re all really after — watching an adult make this darn strange thing," he added.