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USU spider-women stumble upon new species

Published: Monday, Jan. 20 2014 6:05 p.m. MST

A male Theridion logan, also preserved in ethanol. The picture was taken through a microscope. He is a little smaller than the female, which is typical in spiders. This specimen was also collected in Logan Canyon.

Stephanie Cobbold

LOGAN — Stephanie Cobbold and Lori Spears knew they had found something rare.

A spider they had collected while earning Ph.D.s in ecology at Utah State University wasn't fitting any description in their species identification keys. But they knew the odds of discovering a new species in Utah were slim at best, and the two researchers weren't about to get their hopes up.

Cobbold and Spears sent the spider to Herbert Levi, an arachnid classification expert at Harvard. Months later, he had the answer.

"He said, 'Yes, it's a new species,'" Spears said.

The Journal of Arachnology ratified the discovery in November in an official description of the spider, which bears the name Theridion logan after its discovery in Logan Canyon.

"I was very, very excited," Cobbold said Friday. "Discovering a new species is something that many biologists dream about."

So far, the spider is known to exist in Cache County's Green, Logan and Blacksmith Fork canyons — and nowhere else, according to Cobbold.

Spears says finding a new species in Utah is especially significant because most new species are discovered in tropical areas, which have greater biological diversity.

"When new species are found, we usually think of areas that are remote and not well-studied," Spears said. "We basically found this spider right next door to campus. It goes to show that new species can even be found in our backyard."

At only 1 to 2 millimeters long, Theridion logan is black and white with a series of chevron shapes on its abdomen. Although the shrub-dweller is in the same family as the black widow, it poses no threat to humans, Spears said.

Spears says the spider wasn't classified until now probably because it was either misidentified or it wasn't collected by researchers.

Though the spider appears to have a limited range that is frequented by recreationists, Cobbold says there is no immediate cause for concern.

"Some people have expressed concern that parts of the canyons ... might become closed to the public to protect this new species," Cobbold said. "We do not have nearly enough information to know whether Theridion logan truly has a restricted range or not, and we have no evidence suggesting that this spider is affected by recreational use of the canyons."

The discovery indicates there is still much to learn about Utah's wildlife, Cobbold said.

"This new spider suggests that other species remain to be discovered, which is exciting," she said. "Given that this spider was found near the city of Logan, I would imagine that there must be several other undescribed species in the more remote parts of Utah."

Cobbold and Spears made the discovery while studying spider communities at USU. Spears continues to work at the university as the coordinator of the Cooperative Agricultural Pest Survey and Cobbold just finished working as a biologist for Idaho Fish and Game.

Email: mjacobsen@deseretnews.com

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