Tarantula named after Johnny Cash is one of 14 new species

The man in black plays muse to the spider set.

The findings of a decade-long research project that had biologists scouring every bit of tarantula turf in the southwestern United States have been published, making it clear how little we previously knew about these enigmatic arachnids. Including their connection to one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century.

Tarantulas within the genus Aphonopelma are unique in the world of spiders; dark and furry, they range in size from diminutive to terrifying, as in the case of those with a six-inch leg span. (As you can see below, the largest (Aphonopelma anax) and smallest (Aphonopelma paloma) tarantula species in the country.) Within the U.S., Aphonopelma can be found in 12 states from the Mississippi River to California.

TarantulasDr. Brent Hendrixson/Dr. Chris A. Hamilton/CC BY 2.0The new study included almost 3,000 specimens and is the most comprehensive taxonomic study ever performed on a group of tarantulas – it describes 14 new tarantula species, nearly doubling the number of known species from the region.

"We often hear about how new species are being discovered from remote corners of the Earth, but what is remarkable is that these spiders are in our own backyard," says Dr. Chris Hamilton, lead author of the study. "With the Earth in the midst of a sixth mass extinction, it is astonishing how little we know about our planet's biodiversity, even for charismatic groups such as tarantulas."

Hamilton notes that more than 50 different species of tarantulas had been previously reported from the U.S., but that many of them were shoddily defined and in fact belonged to the same species. With new methods employed to distinguish between species, the team arrived as 29 species in the United States, including those 14 which are new to science.

tarantulaDr. Chris A. Hamilton/CC BY 2.0Which is a newsy enough story on it own, but wait, there’s more!

Biologists are fun people too, and especially when getting to name new species. You thought naming a pet was fun? How about naming a previously unknown spider?

Upon considering names for one of the new tarantulas, Hamilton was inspired by the man in black, the legendary Johnny Cash, and thus we have Aphonopelma johnnycashi, above. Not only is the spider pitch black, but it was discovered in California near Folsom Prison, a place that goes hand in hand with Cash.

So does naming a giant menacing spider after a beloved music star make it any less intimidating? Hard to say for the arachnophobes, but it sure is getting a lot of attention, and like they say, all publicity is good publicity. But even so, it’s good to remember that although tarantulas may be the creatures of your nightmares, they are generally harmless. Says Hamilton, the species in the U.S. do not readily bite, are not dangerous, and are really just "teddy bears with eight legs." Awww.

Tags: California | Insects

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