Canadian biodiversity waiting to be discovered and described

This post was originally published on Reflections on the Spider’s Eye.

Much of my recent field work has been in dark tropical rainforests — literally dark, as the tall trees shade thoroughly, but also figuratively dark, obscure, as yet little known to us. There, it is not surprising at all to find species new to science, especially among small creatures that most people ignore — like spiders.

Our habitats here in Canada are rich in diversity, but not nearly as rich as the tropics. We’ve been studying Canadian creatures for a couple of hundred years. This might lead you to think that we’ve found almost everything there is to be found in Canada. In fact, for very small creatures, like microbes, mites, fungi, and others, there are no doubt thousands yet to be discovered in Canada. For slightly larger creatures, like jumping spiders, new ones don’t show up every day, but they are there.

In a paper published earlier this month, I described a new species of jumping spider from Canada, a black and white striped species in the genus Pellenes. One of the perks of discovering and describing a species is that you get to choose the name. In honour of the 150th anniversary of Canada’s confederation, I named the new species Pellenes canadensis.

A male (left) and a female (right) of Pellenes canadensis, and the ground on which they were found, Mt. Baldy, British Columbia.

Pellenes canadensis, so far, is known from just three localities, two in southern British Columbia (Mt. Baldy, east of Oliver; near Midway) and one in northwestern Montana. It lives on open ground at mid to high elevations. It was first collected 40 years ago at the Montana locality by my brother David, parents Louise and Robert, and myself. We were on a family vacation, and as was our custom, we included beetles and spiders among the scenery of interest. David and I found it again five years later in southern BC, and then in 2013, Heather Proctor and I found it at Mt. Baldy.

The name “Pellenes canadensis” is anchored to the Mt. Baldy locality, because I designated one of the specimens from there as the “type specimen.” That’s the specimen that serves as the reference point for the name. Whatever biological species we place that specimen into, the name follows it.

I knew in 1977 that the species was new to science, but it’s taken me 40 years to describe. Biodiversity is so big, there’s so much to discover, there are so few of us doing it, and we get relatively little reward for doing it, that we have a big backlog of new species awaiting our attention. I know of at least four other jumping spider species in Canada that are new to science and waiting to be described. Today, though, I am so pleased to have finally sent a postcard from a 1977 vacation, and to have had the chance to simultaneously honour Canada and this little jumping spider.