SMC students discover new spider species

Santa Monica College student John Speargas uses an aspirator, a device that allows a person to suck up small animals and safely deposit them into a glass or plastic vial without hurting them and without the need to handle the creature. SMC students used this method to collect spiders and ants in Death Valley National Park.

A group of Santa Monica College students discovered a species of jumping spider during the launch of a comprehensive animal and plant inventory in Death Valley National Park.

The surprise discovery came Sept. 29 when a group of about 30 SMC students in geography professor Bill Selby’s field studies course spent a few hours collecting spiders and ants in what was the first day of the National Park Service’s long-term inventory effort.

“For a community college, this is unusual,” Selby said. “New species of plants and animals are being discovered every day, but usually by researchers and graduate students, not folks like us.”

Selby recently got word from the National Park Service of the discovery, which came after specimens were sent to the University of New Mexico for identification. Scientists say it can take months or even years for a new species to be formally recognized by publication in a science journal.

David Ek, assistant chief of resources management at Death Valley National Park, said the new species is part of a genus of spiders, Pellenes, which is found mainly at higher elevations and in mountains. There are 40,000 species of spiders in the world and approximately 3,000 in North America.

The students also collected 322 ants, representing 11 species, one of which had never been found in California before. In addition, a specimen collected near Stovepipe Wells Airport was identified as a species that was only recently discovered in a similar habitat in San Bernardino County.

Ek said that the National Park Service will send the new spider specimen to an expert entomologist to be described in scientific literature. The scientist will give the new species its name, following certain restrictions, guidelines and protocols, he said.