Real life cryptozoology: the green-faced Habronattus

We’ve all heard of the Yeti, the Sasquatch, the Loch Ness Monster and other such presumably-fictitious creatures that we dream (or fear) we will find someday. Biologists who study biodiversity have our own versions of these, though they aren’t fictitious — just very hard to find. We go into the woods, deserts or oceans, hoping to some day find one.

My “Yeti” was a jumping spider: the green-faced Habronattus of southern Arizona. I have been studying Habronattus for many years, and thought I knew the various species well. Then, I came across a specimen in the American Museum of Natural History that had been collected in the Chiricahua Mountains by Barbara and Vince Roth in 1977. It was unlike any I’d seen before, a male with a metallic green face.

After I moved to Arizona in 1990, I *so* much wanted to find the green-faced Habronattus, and learn more about the species. I found that there was lodging at the site where Barbara and Vince had found it, the Sunglow Ranch. I convinced my family to have a vacation there, and while they were relaxing, I stole off to look for the beast. No luck. Over the years we tried 3 or 4 such vacations at Sunglow, none with spider success. I collected all over southern Arizona over the 13 years I lived there, and never found it. I’m not sure you’d call it an obsession, but my students and friends heard about it. The tiny Yeti remained hidden. I was baffled. Normally, if a Habronattus lives in an area, I’ll find it. I’d been doing this for decades.

In 2012, nine years after I moved back to Canada, I got a query from Thomas Shahan, asking me to identify a Habronattus male found by Maddie Girard on an expedition by the Damian Elias lab. She’d found it in an area I’d collected frequently, Mt. Hopkins Road in the Santa Rita Mountains, an hour’s drive from where I’d lived for 13 years. Thomas’s photo showed a completely unfamiliar male with a blue spot on the face, surrounded by red. I had a momentary thought “Could this be the green-faced Habronattus?” — but no, its face wasn’t green. Eventually, the specimen was sent to me, and I saw that when preserved in alcohol — as the Roths’ specimen had been — the blue spot turns green. It was the green-faced beast, found at last.

We went to Arizona in 2013, and, having the latitude and longitude from Maddie, we were able to go to the exact spot she found hers. Within a couple of hours we found more, and also discovered why it had evaded me for years. The spiders live hidden in clumps of grass. Normally, one finds Habronattus simply by looking on open ground, but this species appears to spend most of its time deep inside or under the clumps. Once we understood the habitat, we discovered it at several sites. The green-faced beast was mysterious no longer.

Habronattus luminosus female, and the grass clumps in which it lives.

Habronattus luminosus female, and the grass clumps in which it lives.

And now it has a name. Last week, in the paper that described Habronattus roberti and Pellenes canadensis of my previous blog posts, I formally named the green-faced beast as Habronattus luminosus — a nod to its first known locality (Sunglow), and to its pale colour. The tiny Yeti found, studied, and catalogued. And now, available for more detailed study. In fact, the specimen I used as the reference specimen for the species (the “type specimen”) was collected by Nathan Morehouse and Daniel Zurek for studies on spider vision.

By the way, I admit it, my pride was momentarily hurt that I wasn’t the one to have rediscovered the green-faced Habronattus. But of course, what matters is that it was found. And, how wonderful it is that there are young people with sharp eyes, like Maddie, to continue to uncover the biodiversity that remains to be found.

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