It was exciting in recent days to see the news about the discovery of a new family of spiders, in a cave in Oregon. New species are found all the time, especially among the arthropods. But a new family is a big deal. It means that an animal is different in very significant ways from others of its kind, the way owls are different from other birds, or bears from other mammals. And while new families of spiders get do designated from time to time in the course of taxonomic revisions, a new spider family has not been discovered in nature since the 1890s.
Biologists at the California Academy of Sciences spent two years studying the specimens to see if they might belong to a family already known to science. They mapped the anatomy, examined the DNA, and consulted with spider experts all over world. But in the end, the arachnologists all agreed: these spiders have striking differences from the ones already known - including odd, sickle-like legs, a simplified breathing apparatus, and two rows of serrula teeth (for mushing prey) instead of one.
This discovery is remarkable not only because – as people keep noting on the spider forums – they are very cool spiders. It also suggests that these critters evolved rather early in the timeline of arachnid history, and this gives us new clues about the evolutionary history of spiders in general. And then there’s the caves. Sometimes it seems that we live in a rapidly shrinking world, and that with habitat destruction spreading, surely there must not be much left out there to discover. But there are parts of our world that are still very little known. This is true of the deep ocean (which is actually the largest habitable region of the planet); and it is true of caves. It was in fact a team of amateur cavers who first encountered these spider, and the species is named after one of them, Neil Marchington, a deputy sheriff in Oregon’s Deschutes county. Cave researchers are finding evidence that many miles of interconnected cracks, fissures and crevices may exist underground, and this could mean that our discoveries from this realm are only beginning. Nice account from PBS Newshour Original publication in ZooKeys Neil Marchington and his fellow cavers (photo) on Flickr.