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NMSU scientist describes three new species of spiders

LAS CRUCES - Three, tiny jumping spiders from Mexico will be formally described for the first time this year by New Mexico State University science specialist and graduate professor David B. Richman.

New Mexico State University science specialist and graduate professor David B. Richman examines a freeze-dried tarantula specimen at NMSU's Arthropod Museum in Skeen Hall. (NMSU Agricultural photo by J. Victor Espinoza)

In keeping with long-held tradition, the precise scientific names of the three will be announced for the first time in the Journal of Arachnology. Richman said all three are members of the genus Sassacus, in the family Salticidae.

Richman came across the three as he was working on a revision of this genus. Specimens of the three spiders were collected long ago, some in expeditions funded by the Rockefeller family in the 1930s and 1950s. The specimens Richman studied were in collections maintained by the American Museum of Natural History in New York City and the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.

One of the three spiders inhabits sand dunes south of Juarez, Mexico. It resembles a beetle in shape and is covered by iridescent, white golden scales. The second spider, found as far north as the Mexican state of Quintana Roo in the Yucatan peninsula and south into South America, has a unique lily-like pattern on the abdomen. The third spider, found in the Sierra Madre Occidental mountains of western Mexico, has distinctive gold and white scales.

"It's mind-boggingly beautiful," Richman said.

It's certainly not the first time the scientist has lent a hand in helping to understand the world of spiders. Richman has an extensive background in spiders that spans more than four decades. Last year, he was the senior author of four chapters and junior author for four chapters in a project to revise "Spider Genera of North America," first published privately in 1982. The new version is called "Spiders of North America," and was published by the American Arachnological Society. The book now includes 68 families, 569 genera and some 3,700 species of spiders for the continent, north of Mexico.

"I'm rather happy this thing has come out," Richman said of the book. "It was a monumental piece of work."

Having a hand in the book's revision was especially meaningful for Richman, who was a friend and colleague of the original author, Vincent Roth, who died in 1997.

"Vince Roth was a mentor of mine and a member of my master's committee at the University of Arizona," he said. Richman earned his master's degree in zoology at the University of Arizona and his Ph.D. in zoology at the University of Florida, and has served for more than 25 years on the staff of the Department of Entomology, Plant Pathology and Weed Science at NMSU. He also currently serves as the curator of the university's Arthropod Museum.

Richman continues his work in the process of revising the genus Sassacus, named after a Native American chief who was born in Connecticut about 1560. The revision will include the three new species.

Richman has formally described nine new species of spiders in his career. The last was another jumping spider, Thiodina hespera, found in the western part of the United States, which he described in a 2004 Journal of Arachnology article along with Richard S. Vetter of the University of California, Riverside.

Richman started studying spiders in 1961 as a teenager in Yuma, Ariz.

"The study of spiders is a frontier. When I started looking at spiders around Yuma, nobody had ever done it so many of the species were undescribed," said Richman, whose curiosity remains undimmed. Recently, he has developed an interest in the aquatic organisms of southern New Mexico. But his connection to the world of spiders will be assured for future generations - in 2004 a species of jumping spider, Phidippus richmani, was named after him by G.B. Edwards, curator of Arachnids and Myirapods for the Florida State Collection of Arthropods in Gainesville, Fla.

"That's the first time something has been named after me," Richman said. "It's a pretty little guy, too. I'm pleased to have that spider named after me, although the spider probably isn't."