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How the Fagilde’s Trapdoor Spider owes its rediscovery to the small Portuguese community that risked their lives to save their land

By Laura Moreno on December 14, 2023   duration

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This week, Portugal’s remote village of Fagilde and its neighboring village of Vila Garcia have an unusual cause for celebration.

It’s not every day that your town is home to one of the world’s most wanted lost species — especially when considering that the species in question happens to be an eight-legged enigma, measuring only a few centimeters long, living a quiet and mysterious life behind a hidden trapdoor underground. The odds get even smaller when you consider that the scientific expertise needed to track down and identify this long-lost arachnid is currently one in 10 million. That is according to one such specialist and the leader of the successful search, entomologist and real-life “Spider-Man,” Sérgio Henriques.

Thanks to the persistent work of Henriques, his small expedition team, and the help of a local community whose intimate relationship with the land spans generations, today the Fagilde’s Trapdoor Spider is back on the map.

Defending the forest

It’s been almost a decade since Henriques — who is invertebrate conservation coordinator at the Global Center for Species Survival at the Indianapolis Zoo — first started following the trail of clues to find the spider, one of Re:wild’s top 25 most wanted lost species. Heading back to his home country of Portugal in 2011, his first trip to the region was a promising one. Finding small hidden trapdoors — the impressively engineered homes of the spiders, and their namesake — on the forest floor next to the town, Henriques left Fagilde with the hopes of one day returning to the search.

But in the years following this first trip, Henriques started to hear about a series of large fires that had broken out in the area, damaging and destroying homes and forests. As one of many places around the world experiencing the impacts of climate change through increased fires, parts of Portugal’s countryside were devastated.

Fagilde's Trapdoor Spider burrow. The species was one of the world's most wanted lost species by the Search for Lost Species, but was rediscovered in 2023. Photo by Sergio Henriques.

After seeing photos in the news of a burning hill next to the exact forest that was home to the trapdoors he had surveyed, Henriques had assumed the worst.

What he didn’t know and what he would find out almost a decade later, is that against all odds, the forest had been saved.

The Correias, owners of the local bakery Quinta da Tapada, remember when two large fires threatened their home, their family business, and the forested land next to their property.

“The fire almost destroyed everything,” says Alexandra Correia. “It was on top of our houses and coming toward the dense woods of the forest. But with the help of the firefighters and the entire population of our small town we were able to control it.”

It is because of these efforts that the spider and its habitat was saved, allowing Henriques and his team to rediscover the spider later. 

“It’s thanks to them and that long, grueling day and night, risking their lives to save it, that the forest is still there,” Henriques says.

The real-life “Spider-Man”

But fighting the fire off wasn’t the only contribution the Correias made to Henriques’s  work in the search for the long-lost spider.

An important part of Henriques’s work in the area involved education and outreach. Between examining the forest floor for trapdoors and interviewing local landowners, Henriques also spoke to 150 students, introducing himself as the real-life “Spider-Man”.

For Ana Martins, a school teacher in Fagilde, Henriques sparked a new interest in the children who had never heard of this rare spider from their hometown. “Normally they would see a spider and be afraid. But now they say, ‘Professor, take a photo! Maybe it is the Fagilde’s Trapdoor Spider!’ Now they are educating their parents and grandparents about the importance of protecting the forest, not just this species but others as well.”

True to the community spirit of many small towns in Portugal, it’s worth noting that Henriques had a little extra help in bringing the spider to life for the children.

Following Henriques’s presentation, the children got a special, spidey-inspired treat. Baked with love by Alexandra Correia’s mother, Estel, the students were presented with Quinta da Tapada’s latest creation: homemade Fagilde Trapdoor Spider cupcakes.

A Fagilde's Trapdoor Spider cupcake baked by Ester Correia in Fagilde, Portugal. Photo courtesy of Quinta da Tapada.

Planting two generations ahead: a future-thinking culture

While there was no way for the Correias and the people of Fagilde to know their firefighting efforts would lead to the rediscovery of a lost species, their bravery in defending their home and the surrounding natural world is indicative of a deeper relationship many Portuguese have with the land and the future of the land.

According to Henriques, a Portuguese proverb illustrates the spirit of this relationship well: 

This vineyard of mine (I planted them), my parent’s olive growth (they planted them), the oaks are from our ancestors (our forefathers planted them). Or "vinhas, minhas; olivais, dos nossos pais; montados, dos antepassados” in Portuguese.

Fagilde's Trapdoor Spider climbing back into the soil near her burrow. Video by Sergio Henriques.

“I think this is very hard to explain to non-Portuguese, because while our culture is not necessarily very forward-thinking, it is ultimately future-thinking,” Henriques says. “We were taught not to plant things now for ourselves but for our grandchildren. The thought, especially in remote areas, is to do things planning two generations ahead. We plant thinking ahead because that’s how our grandparents planted for us. Now it’s our turn for our grandchildren. We plant trees in whose shade we will never sit.”

Ultimately, the rediscovery of Fagilde’s Trapdoor Spider is not only cause for celebration, but also a moment to appreciate this kind of relationship with the wild — a relationship that defends forests, plans for future generations, and reminds many of us of the ways we can come together to protect the natural world.

About the author

Laura Moreno

Laura Moreno is a writer and communications specialist from the world of ocean conservation, working to share the stories that drive the protection and restoration of the wild. She is passionate about elevating the voices that inspire us from the front lines of conservation and exploring the species that remind us of the magic of what's worth protecting. When she's not writing or looking at photos of nudibranchs, she spends her time surfing between one of two west coasts, California and Portugal, and digging for hidden sonic gems in record shops. Laura loves finding the right words, sounds, movements and music that make good stories come alive.

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