Biologist Finds New Spider Species Hiding In Western Grasslands — And Another, And Another

By Ben Wolford on April 16, 2014 1:07 PM EDT

Fort Pierre National Grassland has, until recently, concealed the existence of three previously unknown species of spiders. (Photo: U.S. Forest Service)

Fort Pierre National Grassland has, until recently, concealed the existence of three previously unknown species of spiders. (Photo: U.S. Forest Service)

A biologist in South Dakota has made it his business to root out the undiscovered arachnids hiding in his backyard. So far, L. Brian Patrick has found three new spider species, according to the Agriculture Department, which recently wrote about Patrick's streak on its blog. All of them were living in the Fort Pierre National Grassland, west of Sioux Falls, S.D.

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As the USDA notes, it didn't take a trek deep into the rainforest to find these bugs. It was really just a few drives down Interstate 90. Patrick is chair of the Department of Biological Sciences at Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell, S.D., and his main research interest is local biodiversity — but mostly the spiders and beetles. To that end, he established the South Dakota Spider Survey.

"I am not surprised that I am finding new species living in the Fort Pierre National Grassland," Patrick told them. "This particular type of northern mixed-grass prairie hasn't been heavily sampled, and the protection and management of the land by the USDA Forest Service has helped maintain the integrity of this biologically unique ecosystem."

So Patrick has taken it upon himself to sample it. To find new spiders, he uses all the modern tools of his trade. Ziploc containers, cups, a net, hands, interns.

And they make traps. Here's a classic one called a pitfall trap: bury a cup in the ground; spiders fall in and can't climb out. Here's another one called a ramp trap: put a ramp leading to the cup so that they climb the ramp and fall into the cup and can't climb out. Real advanced stuff.

Here's the key, though. It's knowing what you've got in the cup. Patrick takes his samples back to the lab and compares their features to those of known species. Sometimes he consults with other experts. If the differences are sufficient, then voila: "Two New North American Theridion Species," published November 2013 in the Journal of Arachnology. In it, he describes T. pierre, a tiny green spider that looks like this. According to the Dakota Wesleyan, there were 44,540 known species of spiders as of January, but biologists estimate that's only 10 percent of the total number of living species.

Patrick may have three more new spiders on the way, two dwarf spiders of the genera Ceraticelus and Mermessus and one other. Soon, the one-man spider spotter will take his show on the road, according to the USDA. "After the grasslands, he plans to head to northeast South Dakota to look for more spiders hiding out in the wetlands, prairie and tree belts." He figures he's the only arachnologist in the state. Even Patrick admits: "It's not very sexy to work in South Dakota."

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