Image of Professor Ovtcharenko
We are pleased to share Hostos Community College biology professor Vladimir Ovtcharenko is part of an international team of researchers that discovered and described Myrmecicultoridae, a new family of myrmecophilic spiders.
The new genus and species, Myrmecicultor chihuahuensis Ramírez, Grismado, and Ubick, 2019, was found in the Chihuahuan Desert and had previously puzzled nine spider taxonomists for many years. Greg Broussard, a biology graduate student, discovered specimens in pitfall traps in 1999 while conducting a spider survey of the Dalquest Desert Research Station (DDRS). His major advisor, Norman Horner, unable to identify these specimens and suspecting they represented a new species, sent them to the American Museum of Natural History’s (AMNH) Division of Invertebrate Zoology, where Ovtcharenko worked as part of Dr. Norman Platnick’s spiders group.

“This group was one of the major spider taxonomical centers in this country,” Ovtcharenko, who teaches in Hostos’ Natural Sciences department, explained. “Spider taxonomist sent spiders to AMNH for identification, particularly if it was a questionable taxonomical position of the spider. We received the spiders from Dr. Norman Horner, and Norman Platnick and I spent a lot of time trying to identify them. The general idea was it was probably a spider belonging to a new family. Hence, to confirm this idea, it was necessary to do additional, comprehensive research, and complete a detailed morphological research, phylogenetic, and genomic analysis.”

Additional specimens were collected from the Big Bend region of Texas, and near Cuatro Cienegas in Coahuila, Mexico. The process of researching, analyzing, and designating the spiders spanned two decades and involved a team researchers hailing from the United States and Argentina; in addition to Ovtcharenko, the cohort consisted of: Martín J. Ramírez and Cristian J. Grismado, Museo Argentino de Ciencias Naturales; Darrell Ubick, California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco; Paula E. Cushing, Denver Museum of Nature & Science; Norman V. Horner, Midwestern State University, Wichita Falls, Texas; and Norman I. Platnick, Ward C. Wheeler, Lorenzo Prendini; and Louise M. Crowley, American Museum of Natural History, New York.

In 2019, the team published an article officially describing the new family of spiders in the peer-reviewed journal “American Museum Novitates,” titled “Myrmecicultoridae, A New Family of Myrmecophilic Spiders From the Chihuahuan Desert.”

“As a rule, a new family, genus and species of spiders is described base on unique morphological and anatomical characteristics, as well as a combination of these characteristics with additional phylogenetic and genomic analysis,” Ovtcharenko explained. “Particular for Myrmecicultoridae, they are: structure and function of eyes, the morphology of spinnerets, the structure of additional sensory organs and DNA sequence data.”

Ovtcharenko, who has worked with spiders for close to 50 years, has described dozens of new species over the course of his career. However, unearthing a new family of spiders was a particularly rewarding experience for him. “The discovery of a completely new family, the same new genus and new species, is an extraordinary moment in my research career,” he shared. “Currently, in the world, we know around 48,000 species of spiders belonging to 128 families; a lot of families were established more than 150 years ago, and the discovery of a completely new family is extremely rare.”

Ovtcharenko added: “It is interesting to underline that this new family was discovered not on some abandoned territory on Earth—that it was found near our door, in Texas and Mexico. Thus the discovery shows that we still don’t know life on our planet; we do not know the biodiversity of our planet. Also, the discovery new family of spiders shows additional evolutionary steps in the general Tree of Life because that brings additional data to the general evolution of life in our Earth.”