A challenging, years-long survey has uncovered 14 new species of U.S. tarantula, including one named after Johnny Cash.
Some, like Aphonopelma madera, live on forested “sky islands,” mountains surrounded on all sides by Arizona’s deserts. Others, like the tiny Aphonopelma atomicum, nestle themselves in silk-lined burrows near Nevada’s nuclear test sites.
And Aphonopelma johnnycashi, named for the legendary country musician, makes its home near Folsom Prison, California.
True to form, adult males are mostly black, a getup of which Cash—the Man in Black—would have no doubt been proud. (Also see “New Tarantula (Not Beetle) Named After John Lennon.”)
To uncover the new species, a three-person team led by the Florida Museum of Natural History's Chris Hamilton spent more than a decade on the hunt, logging thousands of miles of travel across the United States, hundreds of hours of laboratory analysis, and fieldwork on remote mountains and in scorching deserts.
“For such a popular organism in our culture, whether it’s Hollywood movies or B movies, there’s not really much work that’s been done on tarantulas,” says Hamilton, who was at Auburn University in Alabama during the research. “Past arachnologists would get really frustrated and give up.”
“It’s a massive, massive amount of work, but that’s what it takes,” he says. “There’s no easy way around it.”
Casting a Wide Net
The 340-page analysis, published on Thursday in Zookeys, rewrites scientists’ understanding of Aphonopelma—a greatly understudied genus of harmless North American tarantula.
Its publication comes as a relief to its authors, who have kicked around the idea for it since the late 1990s, and the broader arachnology research community.
“This must sound incredibly cliched, but it’s a dream come true for me,” says study co-author Brent Hendrixson of Millsaps College in Mississippi.
“This paper is an extraordinarily important contribution to arachnology,” wrote Paula Cushing of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, who wasn’t involved with the study. “My lab has been waiting awhile for this!”
Despite the fact that Aphonopelma tarantulas are fairly well known as a group, museum curators like Cushing “groan when we receive specimens,” she wrote, because it’s so hard to identify individual species. (See “Puppy-Size Tarantula Found: Explaining World's Biggest Spider.”)
To break through the quagmire, Hamilton and his colleagues, Hendrixson and Jason Bond of Auburn University, pieced together the largest Aphonopelma collection ever assembled for one study: more than 3,000 specimens.
More than a third came from the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, where most had sat collecting dust for decades, says Hamilton. Additional specimens came from the Auburn University Museum of Natural History and museums in the United Kingdom and Austria.
But the majority of spiders came from the wild. The researchers’ quest for tarantulas took them on more than 20 field expeditions across the country, and even more still were mailed in from hobbyists and the public, thanks to a Google-optimized webpage called “So You Found a Tarantula!” that Hendrixson created in 2000.
"I like to call myself a tarantula ambassador," says Anette Pillau, a personal assistant in the Los Angeles area who collected more than 20 tarantulas for the project in her spare time. "Hollywood has made them into these big scary things, but then you realize how fragile they really are."
The team then measured the spiders’ bodies and sequenced their DNA, eventually constructing the first-ever comprehensive family tree for Aphonopelma.
Surprisingly, they found that prior records that called for 55 species were way off, since many of the old species were named from just handfuls of specimens. Aphonopelma hentzi, for instance, had been mislabeled as nine different species through the years. (See “Photos: Colorful Tarantulas Found.”)
And sure enough, their collection revealed more than a dozen new species—including one that may have shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die.
Nod to Native Americans
Naming new species after famous people like Johnny Cash helps the researchers attract public support for their science, which is vital to understanding life on Earth.
But members of the team also named some species for deeply personal reasons.
For Hamilton—a member of Oklahoma’s Chickasaw Nation—the species represented a chance to highlight Native American history, which is long underrepresented in the sciences.
So he named Aphonopelma xwalxwal, a southern Californian miniature tarantula, after the local Cahuilla tribe’s word for a small spider.
“It was kind of perfect,” says Hamilton.
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