Article posted on the Washington Post by Rachel Feltman on February 5, 2016
New species of tarantula found near Folsom Prison named for Johnny Cash
A study published Thursday in ZooKeys announced the discovery of a staggering 14 new species of tarantula.
The researchers were trying to clean up the taxonomy of the genus Aphonopelma, a group of tarantula species native to the Americas. Before the new study from Auburn University and Millsaps College, scientists had identified over 50 different species in the genus. But this record was wrong: Many of the species outlined in the scientific literature were based on just one or two spider specimens, and many of them were based on the description of male spiders alone. Because male tarantulas undergo a lot of changes when they reach sexual maturity, that left room for a lot of accidental redundancy.
But after a decade of hunting for spider specimens all across the Southwest – and studying 3,000 specimens in total, including many from the Auburn University Museum of Natural History – the group suggests that only 29 of those original species are actually unique.
Another 14 were identified that were previously unknown to science.
“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,” Auburn University’s Chris Hamilton, lead author of the study, said in a statement. “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.”
Aphonopelma johnnycashi clearly has the best name of the new bunch. “This species can be found near the area of Folsom Prison in California,” the authors write in the study, “and like Cash’s distinctive style of dress (where he was referred to as “the man in black”), mature males of this species are generally black in color.”
Hamilton says that despite their creepy reputation, tarantulas are harmless to humans. They don’t bite, and the researcher calls them “teddy bears with eight legs.” They’re certainly fuzzy enough to fit the bill.
But the researchers don’t want too many folks to fall in love with these eight-legged teddy bears: While many of the new species seem widespread, there are a few that could easily be threatened by climate change and habitat loss. Hobbyists hoping to get one for themselves could make matters even worse.
“Two of the new species are confined to single mountain ranges in southeastern Arizona, one of the United States’ biodiversity hotspots,” co-author Brent Hendrixson of Millsaps College said in a statement. “These fragile habitats are threatened by increased urbanization, recreation, and climate change. There is also some concern that these spiders will become popular in the pet trade due to their rarity, so we need to consider the impact that collectors may have on populations as well.”