UIndy professor, students discover new spider species

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Photo contributed by Marc Milen

Photo contributed by Marc Milen

Assistant Professor of Biology Marc Milne and his past students Elizabeth Wells and Tyler Ploss have discovered a new species of spider in Johnson County. And while the spider will not make anyone Spider-Man, it is an important and exciting discovery according to Milne.

Milne, who has been discovering and researching spiders for years, said that the 2.5 millimeter orange spider is an Oreonetides.

Milne said that the spider was discovered on a trip to the Glacier’s End Nature Preserve, also known as the Hills of  Gold, during the Central Indiana Land Trust and Indiana Academy of Science “bioblitz.” Glacier’s End is so named because it is one of the most northern areas in Indiana that has not been hit by glaciation.

“When the glaciers came down from northern Canada, they swept through Indiana,” Milne said. “And they stopped around a little bit south of Indy, and so this is about 35 miles southeast of  Indianapolis. So this is one of those areas that [is] just at the edge before the glaciers stopped. So it was never hit by glaciation. So that means … the habitat there is rather old. Therefore, the species out there, including the spiders, have been there for a while, and the community is a bit more stable and hasn’t been wiped out.”

During the “bioblitz,” several researchers who study different taxonomic groups get together, explore the area and try to find as many new species as possible. Along with Milne and his students, his wife and fellow University of Indianapolis professor in the English Department Leah Milne attended.

According to Milne, he and the students were there to find new distribution records, or spiders that were from other areas, such as Illinois or Ohio, that had never been found in Indiana before.

“The main goal of the bioblitz was to determine what species are there, whether they are common and uncommon … just whatever is there,” Milne said. “… But even better than that, we found an undescribed species, which is what all the buzz is about.”

The Oreonetides was discovered after seven hours of searching, Milne said. The Oreonetides is a “small, sheet web-weaving spider” and most likely eats small, soft-bodied arthropods. It has venomous glands, like 99 percent of spiders, Milne said, but it is so small that it is not a danger, because it is not able to pierce human skin.

Photo contributed by Todd Moore

Photo contributed by Todd Moore

“We don’t really know much about this species,” Milne said. “We know what it looks like, and we can infer other members of the genus, how it eats and how it reproduces and how it behaves. But since we haven’t really seen this specific spider, we don’t know exactly what this species does.”

According to Milne, the next big step is to find the male spider, since only a female has been found. He said that he would like to go back to Glacier’s End to find a male and hopes that that will help with learning more about the Oreonetides.

“We can’t really describe the species until we find a male,” Milne said.

After a male is found, Milne said that a report will have to be written with a description and illustrations by hand. It will then be submitted for peer review as a publication and be evaluated and checked by other spider specialists.

Milne said that he, Ploss, junior environmental science major Brody Deno, a retired professor, a worker from Indiana State University and a student from Ohio State put out an article that describes 71 new records for Indiana.

“The previous number of total spiders in the state before we started looking was 385,” Milne said.

This brings the total to 456, Milne said, but there are more to be found.

“We think there are probably around 600-something, so we’re still continuing to look, and we submitted this in the summer. And since we’ve submitted, we’ve found 17 more.”

Milne said that the discovery  shows that even when it comes to life on Earth, there is still more to discover, and that new species can be found close to home.

“Even the basic biology of what animals are in your forest, we don’t even know the answer to that question,” Milne said. “And I think that’s what this discovery highlights. It’s not just spiders. There are researchers discovering all kinds of new species in Indiana. There are new isopods being discovered every year, new insects being discovered every year, and of course, new spiders being discovered every year. It’s just [that] you don’t hear about it very often. This highlights that really more research should be done on what species are out there…. I think this highlights [that] even the world in our relative backyard is relatively unknown.”

Photo contributed by Marc Milen

Photo contributed by Marc Milen

Milne said that spiders are an important part of the ecosystem because they eat disease-carrying organisms such as flies and mosquitoes. They are also the prey of many birds, so it will be exciting to find out what role Oreonetides plays in this system. He also is glad that his students play a part in his discoveries and thinks it is a special opportunity.

“The students are excited about it,” Milne said. “And I think for the students, it’s a bigger deal to them than it would honestly be to me, because I think you sometimes have this feeling in college that what you are doing is insignificant, and what you do really isn’t going to affect the world…. But students help me collect this. I usually find one or two species in my lab, maybe even more, and this is due to students helping me do this. This goes to show that students can help professors with their research and really can discover new things that really aren’t known about the world.”

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