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New spider named for Pierre area

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This photo provided by L. Brian Patrick shows a male Theridion pierre spider. Theridion pierre is the official name of a diminutive spider discovered by Patrick, an arachnologist from Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell, S.D. He found it on the Fort Pierre National Grassland.

PIERRE, S.D. | It's one strand in a web of possible discoveries.

While discovering a new species of spider in Pierre's backyard is exciting in its own right, what that discovery means about potentially unknown animals is even more so.

Theridion pierre is the official name of a diminutive spider discovered by Brian Patrick, an arachnologist from Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell. He found it on the Fort Pierre National Grassland.

The millimeter-long arachnid was found by Patrick and several interns during two summers of research in 2011 and 2012. They used a variety of traps set out in different parts of the grassland.

Once he suspected that he was dealing with a new species, Patrick sent his findings to Harvard University arachnologist Herbert Levi for verification. Levi, a world expert on the Theridion family of spiders, confirmed the find and named the species for the grassland.

Their findings, along with another new species discovered in Utah, were published by Levi and Patrick in the Journal of Arachnology last fall, the Capital Journal reported.

While interesting, Patrick said finding a new species isn't as uncommon as people think. New mammal and bird species are rare because their size makes it difficult to remain hidden. But spiders such as T. pierre are so small that, despite their abundance, they are easily overlooked. And scientists such as Patrick are discovering them left and right.

According to the World Spider Catalogue, maintained by Norman Platnick of the American Museum of Natural History, there are 44,540 species of spider in the world as of last week. There were only 36,000 species announced when Patrick started his work in the mid-2000s.

Patrick, who receives semiannual updates about that count, said Platnick noted this is the first time that more than 500 species have been announced in a six-month span.

The discovery of new beetle species might take place even faster, Patrick said.

That sounds like a lot, but experts believe only 10 percent of spider species, and indeed all animals on Earth in general, have been documented by humans so far, he said.

In short, that means there is more work to be done in South Dakota. Patrick is still sorting through all his finds from the grasslands, and said there is the possibility for up to five more new species that could be identified once all the research is done.

But that's not all he found out there. Also caught in his traps were species whose find in South Dakota is the farthest west, east or north they've ever been documented.

Of course, that's mainly because there has been little work done on the sparsely populated northern Great Plains, Patrick said. There is the real possibility that he is the only arachnologist working in the state, and for good reason.

"It's not very sexy to work in South Dakota," he said.

The big grants are usually given to study new species in places such as the rainforests of Borneo, where people expect to find hordes of new species. Patrick meanwhile is operating with several small grants — one from the state Department of Game, Fish and Parks is actually called the "Small Grant" — that covered his equipment expenses and paid an undergraduate researcher.

"I'm poor; I have to work in my backyard. Turns out my backyard is pretty fertile," he said.

Another common misconception about the prairie is that it's a two-dimensional environment, unlike rivers or forests where completely different creatures can live at different depths and heights. Patrick said in talking with colleagues he's always found the prairie is comparatively rich in species.

"I always have more diversity in my grasslands than they do in their forests," he said.

Patrick plans to finish recording his work from the grassland and turn his attention to other areas of the state. He's interested in heading to the northeast part of South Dakota with its diverse ecosystem of wetlands, prairie and tree belts to see what spiders can be found there.

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