A team of biology students recently discovered a new spider species, built a makeshift taxonomy lab, wrote a joint publication, and sent it off to a major taxonomic journal.
The aim of their one-month course was to teach students about the rich tapestry of the tropical lowland rainforest in Malaysian Borneo. Discovering a new spider species was an added bonus.
“When we started putting our noses to the ground we saw them everywhere,” said Danish student Jennie Burmester.
The tiny, orb-weaving spiders are only one millimeter long, and they belong to the family Symphytognathidae. The students observed them building tiny webs that they suspended between dead leaves on the forest floor.
The students then decided to make the official naming and description of the species a course project. They rigged microscopes with smartphones to produce images of the tiny spider’s even tinier genitals (using cooking oil to make them more translucent), dusted the spider’s webs with puffs of corn flour to make them stand out, and described the way they were built. They also put a spider in alcohol as a holotype, the obligatory reference specimen for the naming of any new species, which will be stored in the collection of the Universiti Malaysia Sabah.
Finally, they named the new spider Crassignatha danaugirangensis, after the field center at Danau Girang Oxbow Lake where they conducted their research.
“This tiny new spider is a nice counterpoint to the large-mammal work we’re doing, and having it named after the field center is extremely cool,” said field station director Benoît Goossens.
All of the data and images were then compiled into a scientific paper, which was submitted to the Biodiversity Data Journal, an online journal for quick dissemination of new biodiversity data.
“This is a fine example of how the taxonomic world is embracing the digital era,” said Peter Schalk, chair of the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF). “Open data and rapid publication form the key for sharing information which in turn provides valuable input for responsible management of the world’s biosphere. One of the most important achievements of this paper is that all data associated with this species have been harvested from the article and collated with other data on GBIF and the Encyclopedia of Life right on the day of publication, through a specially designed format called Darwin Core Archive. This is indeed a real time data publishing.”
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