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Students Win Extra Credit for Spider Discovery in Borneo

A troop of 20 students went into a one-month course in Malaysian Borneo expecting to learn about the tropical rainforest's complex ecosystem, but they're coming out of it with a nice little spin-off: the reported discovery of a new spider species.

In addition to the orangutans and other eye-catching species at the Danau Girang Field Center, the students took note of the smaller species on the forest floor — such as the millimeter-long spiders that weave tiny webs between dead leaves.

"When we started putting our noses to the ground, we saw them everywhere," Danish student Jennie Burmester said in a news release from the Dutch-based Naturalis Biodiversity Center, one of the sponsors of the field course.

Image: New spider
The spider known as Crassignatha danaugirangensis is just a millimeter (0.04 inches) long.Tom Fayle

With the aid of instructor Jeremy Miller, the students determined that the spiders represented a previously unknown species. To confirm the find, they used microscopes rigged with smartphones to take pictures of the critters' tiny genitals. (That sounds icky, but they're a distinguishing trait.) They dusted the spider webs with puffs of corn flour from the kitchen to study how they were built.

Slideshow: Treasures from the Heart of Borneo

Finally, they wrote a paper describing the species (Crassignatha danaugirangensis) and sent it via satellite to Biodiversity Data Journal for review.

Miller acknowledged that there are probably thousands more spider species waiting to be found, but said this discovery was still important. "It means we provide a quick anchor point for further work on this species," he said. "The naming of a species is the only way to make sure we’re all singing from the same score."

Update for 4:45 p.m. ET March 7: In an email, I asked Menno Schilthuizen, a professor at Naturalis and Leiden University, whether the students would be getting a passing grade in the course. The answer? "Absolutely!"