The global trade in arachnids, tarantulas and emperor scorpions in the lead, takes place on the internet with virtually no visibility or control, according to a study which points to its largely illegal nature and the threats to biodiversity.

The growing popularity of the trade in “exotic animals” from the invertebrate group has “nearly driven diverse species to extinction,” notes the study published Thursday in Nature communications biology.

Its authors, led by Benjamin Marshall of Britain’s University of Sterling, charted the global trade in more than 1,200 species of arachnids, from 111 websites operating in nine languages ​​over a month in the summer of 2021.

Three quarters of the arachnids offered online were spiders and the rest mostly scorpions. Among spiders more than 400 species of tarantulas were available, and more than 200 species of buthidae scorpions.

The use of the internet to study this traffic is explained by a glaring lack of official data on the invertebrate trade, which concerns millions of arachnids, according to the researchers.

And for good reason, invertebrates are “often neglected in protection policies and practices” for their species. The International Convention on Endangered Species (CITES), for example, only counts one species of scorpion out of the more than 2,300 known. And of more than a million invertebrate species, less than 1% have been assessed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

The study finds that the novelty and uniqueness of certain species are often put forward to facilitate their sale, particularly with regard to tarantulas and jumping spiders. Some sites now offer “mystery boxes” of spiders, the contents of which the future owner will discover by opening them.

In addition to the lack of regulations concerning the species marketed, there are effects specific to the characteristics of these animals. They are considered “cool”, according to the study, and the little space they require makes them particularly suitable for urban habitats.

Delivery by post

Their business has seen a resurgence of interest with the periods of confinement due to the Covid epidemic, according to searches on this subject on Google, according to the study. An interest greatly facilitated by the possibility of having an animal delivered, including illegally, by post…

“A challenge in measuring the true dimension of the trade in arachnids is the small size of their body which facilitates trafficking and laundering (consisting of going through a third country less attentive to their trade)”, notes the study. Especially since some species are very resistant and can easily withstand a trip in a small box, without water or food. Unlike vertebrates, they are undetectable by Customs X-rays.

Based on seizure data from the official US LEMIS database, the study notes that many arachnid species are offered from countries of which they are not native. The study cites Chile as an example, where more than 50% of the arachnid supply belongs to species that do not live there, suggesting that the country serves as an “exit door for species native to other South American countries.

In the study, three-quarters of arachnid species offered for sale online are not listed in CITES or LEMIS trade records.

The phenomenon is all the more worrying for biodiversity as many species recently listed by science are already on the market. This complicates the possibility of studying their distribution. These animals are generally long-lived and reproduce slowly.

“Without better data and regulation, there will be no way to assess the impacts of trade on the majority of species,” the study says. Since many arachnids are taken directly from the wild and not bred, its authors fear that “many species of spiders and scorpions are heading towards extinction”.