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Researcher finds new species of daddy longlegs


September 15, 2006

SOLDOTNA, Alaska -- Don't let the short legs fool you: Alaska's newest eight-legged discovery is a daddy longlegs.

The state now has a 13th species of daddy longlegs, including one that is entirely new to science and has legs about half the length of a common household daddy longlegs.




There are several thousand species of the crab-like, fat-bottomed arachnids worldwide but few in Alaska. This one lives in alpine rock crevices.

Graduate biology student Matt Bowser was out collecting bugs 13 months ago when he found a thumbtack-sized daddy longlegs, or harvestman, in the Kenai Peninsula's Mystery Hills, north of the Sterling Highway and west of Cooper Landing.

Bowser, a University of Alaska Fairbanks student, 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.

Thumbing through his books, he couldn't find a daddy longlegs to match it. Neither could a harvestman expert at Texas Tech University, where Bowser sent a sample. That internationally recognized expert, Texas Tech Natural Science Research Laboratory associate James Cokendolpher, classified it as a new species and is now collaborating with Bowser on a peer-reviewed article describing it.

Finding the distinguishing factor for this daddy longlegs took some prying. Bowser said the easiest way to identify many arachnids is by the genitals, and when he cut one open to get at the penis, he noticed it was different, with hairs growing in a direction he hadn't seen before. Differences in the insect world can be subtle.

On the outside, the creature is a couple 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, which is an Old World import.

To Bowser, a 26-year-old from Orlando with an undergraduate entomology degree from the University of Florida, it's just fascinating field work. To his temporary employers at the refuge, though, he's now 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."

At least, it doesn't happen often with Alaska bugs. The terrain is so vast, the habitat so sparse and the entomologists so few. Agricultural interests fund most insect studies in the Lower 48, and there's relatively little farming in Alaska.

Rather than giving an estimate when asked how many entomologists work full-time in the state, Bowser starts naming them.

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



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