A group of Santa Monica College (SMC) students has discovered a previously unidentified species of jumping spiders during the launch of a comprehensive animal and plant inventory in Death Valley National Park.
The surprise discovery came September 29th, 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 concerning 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.
“We expected that the inventory would uncover new species, but SMC was the first group out on this study and for them to find what they did was quite unexpected,” said David Ek, assistant chief of resources management at Death Valley National Park.
The students, who broke up into ten groups assigned to different areas ranging from sea level to 10,000 feet high, collected 21 spiders, representing 14 species. The group at the 4,000-foot elevation, in Emigrant Canyon, found the new species.
Ek 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.
“Our records may be the lowest, most southerly and more arid record for the entire genus,” Ek said. “This is another indication of the diverse, unique and special resource of Death Valley National Park.”
The students also collected 322 ants, representing 11 species, one of which had never been found in California before, Ek said. In addition, a specimen collected near Stovepipe Wells Airport was identified as a species that was only recently discovered in similar habitat in San Bernardino County.
Ek said that the National Park Service will now 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.
There are instances in which suggestions from the student or students who found the spider might be taken into account in the naming process, Ek said.
However, Selby said it is not known which of the four students in Emigrant Canyon collected the new spider species. He said their task was “to collect anything that moved” — and that is just what they did.
Ek had enlisted the help of Selby and his students when he heard of their planned weekend field study trip. He said the inventory seeks to identify every plant and animal in the national park, “from microbes to bighorn sheep.”
Death Valley — the largest National Park outside Alaska and the largest protected desert habitat in the United States — is considered unique because of its extremes in topography and abun- dance of biodiversity. With elevations ranging from 282 feet be- low sea level, the lowest point in the U.S., to 11,000, it can be snowing in one place and just a few miles away be 100 degrees, Ek said.
Selby has been leading Santa Monica College field studies trips for more than 20 years, from Morro Bay to San Diego and from the Sierra Mountains to Southern Arizona. In the spring semester, he will lead trips to San Diego County, and he says he expects to work with the National Park Service again, as well as conduct Santa Monica Mountains and urban Los Angeles excursions.