Grad student discovers new species of spider in Alaska

Posted: Thursday, September 14, 2006

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

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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 working with a national arachnid expert on a journal article 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."

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