Fossil range: Devonian
(Shear et al., 1987)
Previously interpreted as the world's oldest spider, Attercopus belongs to an extinct order of arachnids named Uraraneida; thought to be close to the origins of spiders. Attercopus can be envisaged as a spider-like animal able to produce silk, but which lacked true spinnerets and retained a segmented abdomen bearing a flagellum-like tail resembling that of a whip scorpion.
This important fossil from the Early Devonian (about 390 million years) of Gilboa, New York State, was originally described as a member of the extinct order Trigonotarbida and named Gelasinotarbus? fimbriunguis. It was later assigned to a new genus Attercopus and reinterpreted as the oldest, and most primitive, example of a true spider (Araneae). This hypothesis was based on the supposed presence of unique spider features such as silk-producing spinnerets and the opening of a venom gland on the fang of the chelicera.
Further study - based on new fossils from a comparable Devonian locality called South Mountain - and comparison with other material from the Permian of Russia indicates that Attercopus does not actually have spinnerets. The specimen which looked like a tubular spinneret is actually a folded sheet of cuticle. It would, however, have produced silk from a series of silk gland openings, or spigots, located across plates on the underside of the abdomen.
It seems unlikely that Attercopus spun webs, but it may have used its silk to wrap eggs, lay draglines or construct burrow walls. The opening for the venom gland is also a misinterpretation. A segmented tail, or flagellum, also belonged to this animal. Attercopus fimbriunguis is not a spider, but it is probably close to the type of animals which did give rise to modern spiders today.
Its name is taken from the English dialect word "attercop" (= "spider"), which came from Anglo-Saxon ator-copp = "poison-head".
Species: A. fimbriunguis