When Li Wenhua stepped into his orange orchard one November morning in 2016, it was unlikely that he expected anything other than a fairly routine day at work. The Chinese farmer lives just outside of Chengdu, in Southwest China, where the humid air can make winters unpleasantly cold. However, he was in store for more than bad weather that day.
Li was an ordinary farmer. His is one of the most prevalent surnames in China, second only to Wang, and it’s shared by over 100 million people worldwide. But while it was the surname of the emperors during the illustrious Tang Dynasty, Li himself couldn’t lay claim to any royal blood.
With Li being a citrus farmer, his thoughts were likely focused on trying to ensure a strong orange crop. That year, orchards throughout China had been hit by citrus greening disease, reducing their expected yields. But as he walked through his orchard, he moved closer to discovering something that would improve his fortunes regardless of the health of his trees.
In fact, though, the health of trees generally isn’t much of a concern in Pujiang County, the area in which Li lives. Often referred to as “the garden of Chengdu,” Pujiang is a place more than 50 percent of which is covered in trees. But while this creates a rich and fertile ecosystem, it’s unlikely that Li was expecting to find something so exotic – or potentially valuable.
More than 40 million people in China survive on an annual income of less than $350 apiece. In addition, around 500 million of the nation’s inhabitants each have to live on a daily income of below $5.50. Given such poverty, what Li was about to find would likely be a big deal for most Chinese people.
While busy at work on the orange farm, Li saw what looked like an unusual object sitting just in front of him. It was unlike anything he’d ever stumbled upon while walking through his orchard. The presumed object didn’t quite fit in with the brown soil, the green grass or the orange of his fruit. Indeed, it seemed to Li to be manmade.
The farmer initially believed that it was some type of cultural artefact – perhaps a pendant or medallion that had been lost centuries before. So as he moved closer towards it, he quite possibly thought that he might have something valuable on his hands.
Li’s assumption that the object was a historical artefact seemed credible. Pujiang County’s roots go back almost 2,500 years, when it was created after the Shu Kingdom had been conquered by the Qin Kingdom. So, it was possible that Li was looking at an ornament or coin that was more than two millennia old.
However, just when Li had come to the conclusion that he’d found a long-lost manmade object from which he could potentially make some money, his discovery… moved. The farmer suddenly saw a body in motion and realized that the supposed object was alive. It was, in fact, a spider – albeit the strangest spider that he’d ever seen.
Spiders are fairly common in Pujiang County and in China as a whole. There are more than 3,000 species of spider in the country, including two types of tarantula – the golden earth tiger and the Chinese bird spider.
Meanwhile, after getting over his initial shock, Li subsequently carried the spider home with him in a plastic bottle. And once his neighbors had heard about what he’d discovered, they rushed over to his house to see the strange specimen for themselves. He then scoured the internet for info on the creature and was taken aback by what he read.
It was called a “Chinese hourglass spider” – a species that was perhaps once feared to be extinct. Since 2000 it had been sighted on just five other occasions, meaning it was an extremely rare creature. First recorded during the 5th century BC, the spider is distinguished by the hard, flattened disc that ends its large abdomen.
The book in which it was first recorded, meanwhile, is Erya. The oldest known Chinese dictionary, the tome’s 15th chapter contains an account of a creature that closely resembles the Chinese hourglass spider. So while Li hadn’t exactly found an ancient relic, he had discovered something that has a long ancestry.
As the spider’s name suggests, its lower abdomen is shaped like one half of an hourglass. Unlike many hourglasses, though, the abdomen is a muddy brown, allowing the spider to blend in with its surroundings. The only exception to this camouflaged coloration is the disc, which caps the bottom of the abdomen – and which led Li to believe that he’d found an antique.
Another more generic name for the creature that Li found is “trapdoor spider.” This name derives from the fact that the animal lives in an underground burrow. It uses its hard abdominal disc to close the burrow’s entrance and to protect itself from predators and the elements.
The Chinese name for the hourglass spider is “li shi pan fu zhu,” and its Latin-derived scientific name is Cyclocosmia ricketti. “The spider is of extreme scientific value,” entomologist Zhao Li told People’s Daily. “And it is definitely a rare species in Sichuan province.”
Li’s discovery was made even more remarkable by the fact that the hourglass spider is usually found in Zhejiang and Fujian provinces rather than Sichuan. And although it was known that the creatures can tolerate temperatures as cold as 55 °F, the winters in Sichuan tend to be far colder. Li’s find had therefore helped to advance our understanding of the spider.
Meanwhile, as peculiar and even frightening as the Chinese hourglass spider might appear on first sight, some people nonetheless keep spiders of the same Cyclocosmia genus as pets. This is possible thanks to the spider’s calm temperament, although its rarity and strangeness also make it attractive. But Li had no intentions of buying a spider tank for his mantelpiece.
On average, the female of the species has a disc with a diameter of half an inch and is just over an inch long. But even if the size of the spider’s body is modest, its market value certainly isn’t.
Li discovered that the spider can sell for around 12,000 Yuan (RMB), which is equivalent to about $1,900. And having learned this, he decided to trade the spider to someone looking for a new pet – which is likely to secure him a sum of money greater than what millions of Chinese people earn in a single year.