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MailTribune.com
  • Josephine County cave spiders buoy scientists

    Entirely new family of arachnids was discovered south of Grants Pass area
  • Arachnophobes beware: A new family of spiders has been discovered in two caves south of Grants Pass.
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  • Arachnophobes beware: A new family of spiders has been discovered in two caves south of Grants Pass.
    The new species of Josephine County cave-dwelling arachnid has been given the scientific moniker of Trogloraptor marchingtoni in honor of Neil Marchington, a self-taught biologist and spelunker who helped bring the caves and its eight-legged residents to the attention of the scientific community.
    "It's exciting to be part of a whole new discovery of spiders," said Marchington, 31, of Bend, the son of retired Medford teachers Scott Marchington, now of La Pine, and Sally Marchington of Medford.
    "It's remarkable, really amazing, to think you were in a group that discovered an undiscovered species in the Grants Pass area," added Neil Marchington, a deputy sheriff in Deschutes County when he isn't spelunking.
    Marchington is a member of the Western Cave Conservancy who, along with graduate student Tracy Audisio of San Francisco State University and others, helped bring attention to the spider. Dead specimens were collected in 2010, followed by live samples last year.
    "We think this is a pretty historic moment in arachnology," said entomologist Charles Griswold, 61, an internationally known spider expert at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco.
    "This spider is so evolutionarily different we had to propose a new family name to contain it," he added of Trogloraptor, Latin for "cave robber."
    One of the caves is on private land; the other is on U.S. Bureau of Land Management property. Those studying the spiders have requested the sites not be named out of concern that visitors could damage the fragile underground environment.
    The BLM issued permits for the 2010 and 2011 scientific expeditions into its cave, said Robin Snider, a biologist with the agency's Medford District.
    "It was nice for us to have these people come in to study these invertebrates — we don't have the skills they have," she said.
    The agency's goal is to protect the cave from vandalism, she said, noting it is very sensitive to intrusion.
    "These spiders are in their own environment, their own microclimate," she said. "We want to protect that."
    Griswold, along with Audisio and postdoctoral researcher Joel Ledford at the University of California-Davis, have written a paper that has been accepted for publication in ZooKeys, a major zoology publication.
    When Audisio first brought in a specimen, no one at the academy had any idea what the creature was, Griswold recalled.
    "We consulted all the standard reference works — it didn't fit into any known family, living or fossil," he said, noting that detailed studies of its anatomy and DNA also determined the spindly spider about the size of a 50-cent piece was new to the world of science.
    "We now want to continue the research on its evolutionary position," he said. "How does it use those trap-like feet to capture its prey? Their claws are long, looking like a scythe or a switchblade knife. We know they make a little web and hang beneath it.
    "But it has no obvious cave adaptation," he added. "It has functional eyes, but they probably enable them only to see the difference between light and dark."
    Since that discovery, a different species of Trogloraptor was discovered living in the redwood forest of Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, he said.
    But Griswold, who found one of the spiders while visiting the caves in Josephine County last summer, said the underground caverns are special.
    "We know these caves harbor unique organisms that are very fragile," he said. "And there may be other unique organisms to be discovered in these caves."
    Marchington also stressed the importance of preserving the sensitive ecosystem of the caves.
    "It's important people realize anything they do in caves has an impact," he said. "We need to be very mindful of what we do and how we protect these places."
    However, given the fact the spiders aren't warm and fuzzy looking, Marchington doesn't think a lot of people will want to be around them.
    "At one point when we were collecting them — I was crawling on my back — and one dropped off the ceiling," he said.
    "I screamed."
    Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.
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