The largest orb-weaving spider known to science has been found in Africa and Madagascar, and what a web it weaves. Females of the new Nephila komaci species have a body length of 1.5 inches and a leg span of four to five inches, and their webs often exceed three feet in diameter.

Researchers from the United States and Slovenia discovered the spider and published their findings in the Oct. 21 issue of the journal PLoS ONE.

"It was surprising to find a giant female Nephila from South Africa in the collection of the Plant Protection Research Institute in Pretoria, South Africa, that did not match any described species," said Matjaž Kuntner, chair of the Institute of Biology of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts.

Nephila spiders, or giant golden orb weavers, have always been known as the largest web-spinning spiders in the world, but the enormous females of this new species take the cake (the males are tiny in comparison). Scientists plan to study the evolution of the dramatic size difference between male and female Nephila spiders.

The researchers are asking the public to find new populations of N. komaci in Africa or Madagascar, both for study and because the spiders are so rare.

"We fear the species might be endangered, as its only definite habitat is a sand forest in Tembe Elephant Park in KwaZulu-Natal," said Jonathan Coddington, co-author of the study.

"Our data suggest that the species is not abundant, its range is restricted and all known localities lie within two endangered biodiversity hotspots: Maputaland and Madagascar."

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World's largest orb-weaving spider discovered
Gigantic spider measures 5 inches across and spins webs up to three feet wide.