It's the 21st Century. The days of naturalists like David Douglas and Archibald Menzies wandering the Pacific Northwest and finding discoveries new to science at every turn are long over, aren't they? Surely we know every nook and cranny of this place by now.
And yet. ...
On a recent tour of the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, we came to the office of Rod Crawford. The Burke, I was told, is not known for its bug collection (mammals, fish, birds, yes), but Crawford is their spider man (technically, their Curatorial Associate of Arachnida). His office door is shut, no light shines from beneath the door. Our guide gently knocks and we hear a shuffling from inside. I am reluctant to enter, being close to arachnophobic. The door opens and a man stands there, eyes blinking like a mole, looking a bit like a character played by Wallace Shawn. He works in the dark to provide a nocturnal environment for some of his specimens, which can be heard scuttling in the background.
He's very friendly to our intrusion as we're introduced. He tells us that he has just identified what he believes is likely a new species of crab spider. Yes, a brand new species. Found where? Here in Seattle, on Foster Island, to be exact. In an email later, he elaborates:
I could tell immediately that it was a female crab spider of the genus Philodromus, and one of the "Philodromus imbecillus" group (about 10 closely related species, of which only one, Philodromus insperatus, is known from Washington). To tell which species it was, would require dissection, which I couldn't do on a fresh specimen not yet fully preserved. So I set it aside until I came to that collection in the course of curating and cataloguing last year's material in the order in which collected.
Having done so, I found that the internal female genitalia does not match insperatus (which occurs mainly in sagebrush country anyway), and is similar to Philodromus marxi, a species of the Atlantic states that has very different, metallic body coloration. So as far as I can tell from one specimen, it's a new species.
He says he just informed the Arboretum folks of his conclusion. In a follow-up call, UW Prof. Sarah Reichard, the Arboretum botanist and a specialist in the restoration of rare species, said the find is "cool" and gets "us geek scientists beyond excited."
Crawford needs more specimens for study, and must jump through various hoops to describe, illustrate, and demonstrate his discovery to the satisfaction of the scientific community before it's accepted. Reichard said the Arboretum is currently discussing going out to look for more, possibly this spring (little is known about the spider's life cycle, so it's an educated guess as to when they might be found in abundance).
Crawford pulls out a tray of small test tubes containing dead spiders floating in clear liquid, including this newbie to science. You almost need a magnifying glass to see some of them. The average spider is quite tiny, much smaller than a pepper corn, which makes you realize how anomalous the giant, scary ones are. (Crawford has a Web page devoted to spider myths.)
I have two immediate reactions to the news. The first: amazement that a new species might be discovered on Lake Washington, much less next to a major state highway, a place well-trafficked by joggers and nature walkers. We're not talking deep in the old growth here. The specimen was found during a so-called Bioblitz, an intensive effort involving volunteers to document and map what species of flora and fauna live in the Arboretum. The blitz, held last spring, consisted of scientists, lay people, undergrads, even kids to help them survey the park.
Another Bioblitz is being discussed for later this fall. Reichard says citizen scientists do extremely valuable work in Washington, where there is a lot yet to be discovered, especially among invertebrates like "insects, spiders and soil organisms." Even plants. A newly identified species of Indian paintbrush was found recently in the San Juan Islands.
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