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Student says he's found spider species

A previously unknown creature has been roaming the Kenai Peninsula's Mystery Hills — or at least its alpine rock crevices.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A previously unknown creature has been roaming the Kenai Peninsula's Mystery Hills — or at least its alpine rock crevices.

Matt Bowser, 26, a University of Alaska Fairbanks graduate student, has identified what is believed to be a new species of spider, a thumbtack-sized daddy longlegs, or harvestman. Bowser is writing a journal article on the spider with a national arachnid expert that will undergo peer review.

Bowser was collecting bugs 13 months ago when he found the spider north of the Sterling Highway and west of Cooper Landing.

Bowser brought samples back to his lab at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, where he is helping federal managers conduct a comprehensive study of refuge creatures.

He searched books but could not find a spider to match his specimen. He sent a sample to a harvestman expert, James Cokendolpher, an associate at the Natural Science Research Laboratory at Texas Tech University. The internationally recognized expert classified the spider as a new species and is collaborating with Bowser on the journal article.

Differences in the insect world can be subtle. Bowser said the easiest way to identify many arachnids is by the genitals. When he cut one of the spiders open, he noticed hairs growing in a direction he had not seen before.

The spider is shades of brown, with beige spots. It is about 5 millimeters across when stretched out, compared to the 9 millimeters of the common, gray-brown household daddy longlegs.

Bowser is originally from Orlando, Fla. He holds an undergraduate entomology degree from the University of Florida. His temporary employers at the refuge call him an "entomologist extraordinaire."

"That doesn't happen," refuge manager Robin West said of the discovery. "You might find something new to Alaska or a range, but new to science is something else."

Few entymologists study Alaska's vast terrain. Agricultural interests pay for most insect studies in the Lower 48 and by comparison, there's little farming in Alaska.

"It's such a frontier here," Bowser said. "It's pretty easy to make a contribution. In the Lower 48 you have to look harder to find something new."

Derek Sikes, entomology curator at the University of Alaska Museum of the North in Fairbanks, said that what is most exciting about Bowser's discovery is that it means curious people are poking around Alaska.

"We've yet to reach a point where we can say we know all the species — or even most of the species — in Alaska," he said. "It's nice to know that there are people in Alaska now, like Matt, who are interested enough and competent enough to recognize a new species."

The discovery has been going through a documentation process. The spider will not be recognized as an official new species until it undergoes peer review and publication in a journal, such as the Journal of Arachnology. Sikes said experts already are aware of the find and approval is likely.

Bowser has been trying to learn what the spiders do. He observes some in a terrarium and others during overnight stays in the mountains, using an unobtrusive red light to watch them during their active periods.

"They mostly sit there," Bowser said. "They may be sitting and waiting for something (tasty) to come by," he said, though he has watched one sit stonelike as a would-be meal pranced in front of it.

That happens in his home terrarium too, where they prefer dead flies.

Generally, harvestmen are opportunists that will kill many insects but are just as content scavenging on dead bugs, he said.