Here’s a fun fact to chew on while planning your next trip to America: the southwestern United States is brimming with tarantula diversity. Today in the journal ZooKeys, biologists describe 14 previously unknown species of tarantulas living in the American Southwest, including Aphonopelma johnnycashi. Country music legend Johnny Cash has a new namesake. Fourteen new species — that’s rather astonishing. This is 2016. We have reusable rockets and same-day shipping, and yet, somehow, we hadn’t a goddamn clue how many giant fuzzy arachnids were living among us. How can that be?
According to Chris Hamilton, lead author of the study, part of the problem — aside from the fact kids aren’t exactly racing off to school to become spider biologists — is that even for experts, distinguishing species is tough business. Take the genus Aphonopelma, one of the most widespread groups of tarantulas in the United States. Within it, many spiders that were once classified separately based on morphology have since turned out to be the same species. Other tarantulas, the extremely rare and geographically restricted ones, have simply eluded detection.
“A very important point that we want the public to understand is just how much work is involved in taxonomic research,” Hamilton told Gizmodo in an email. “It takes a lot of people, time, and funding to thoroughly understand how much diversity is on Earth.”
To modernise, standardise and improve our understanding of tarantula diversity, Hamilton and his colleagues undertook a decade-long taxonomic study, collecting thousands of Aphonopelma tarantulas across the American Southwest, and comparing them with specimens archived at the Auburn University’s Museum of Natural History. They used a range metrics, from anatomical and behavioural data to genetic markers, to classify their furry subjects. Ultimately, they concluded that there are 29 species of Aphonopelma in the United States, including the fourteen new additions.
“One of the most remarkable things that we discovered during this research was just how diverse the miniature Aphonopelma were in the United States,” Hamilton noted. These small tarantulas, some of which fit on a quarter, are likely to be widespread in Mexico, too, and Hamilton hopes to extend his work south of the border soon.
But here’s the question we all want answered: what’s up with the Johnny Cash tarantula? According to Hamilton, this particular species was discovered near California’s Folsom Prison, of “Folsom Prison Blues” fame. Between that and the male spider’s dashing black attire, it’s hard to imagine Cash wouldn’t have approved.
Hamilton hopes that naming an unknown spider after a famous American will spark public interest in these fascinating, and under-appreciated creatures. “We don’t start research like this with the plan that we’re going to be famous, and certainly not that it would make us rich,” he said. “We do it because we love the work and the organisms.”
Perhaps, now, a few more people will start to love them, too.
Top left: The Man in Black himself, via Associated Press. Right: The Johnny Cash tarantula, via Chris A. Hamilton. See the resemblance?