Scientists scouring the fields of Folsom, California found a new kind of black tarantula which they have named after Johnny Cash, the US music legend who sang of the jailhouse blues.
The eight-legged creature named Aphonopelma johnnycashi is all black, the way Cash often dressed when he strummed his guitar and sang songs like “The Man in Black” and “Folsom Prison Blues” in his bass-baritone voice.
“I’m a huge Johnny Cash fan,” said Chris Hamilton, lead author of the study in the journal ZooKeys which identified the tarantula as one of 14 new spider species discovered in the southwestern United States.
“But I didn’t go into this searching for something I could name after him,” he told AFP.
Instead, Hamilton along with researchers at Auburn University and Millsaps College sought to closely examine tarantulas found throughout the southern United States, west of the Mississippi River.
During a decade-long hunt, they collected nearly 3,000 specimens in multiple states.
They found that the Johnny Cash spider was widespread, but had long been considered as another species, known as A. iodius.
“It is quite similar looking,” said Hamilton.
“When we really started collecting lots of specimens from across the distribution and looking closely at their morphology, DNA, and ecological variables, we saw that these specimens were unique and certainly warranted being separated as a separate species.”
Given the deep black colour of the males, combined with the location of the spider in Folsom, California – home to a state penitentiary where Cash performed for inmates in 1968 – “the name popped into my head. It just fit perfectly,” Hamilton said.
While researchers did not pick up the tarantula directly at or outside the prison, Hamilton said he “wouldn’t be surprised” if the tarantulas roamed free in the area.
“They are found all over that area of Folsom, California and the western foothills of the Sierra Nevadas.”
Prior to this study, more than 50 different species of tarantulas were known in the United States, but they were poorly organised and some were misidentified as being different species when they were actually the same.
Now, Hamilton and co-authors say there are 29 US tarantulas in the Aphonopelma genus, 14 of which are new to science.
“I’m not surprised that so many previously described species were found to be invalid,” said Marshal Hedin, a professor of biology at San Diego State University who was not involved with the work but described it as “rigorous and much-needed”.
In the past, “researchers simply didn’t have many characters to work with, and were sometimes perhaps overzealous”, said Hedin, who also serves as the acting president of the American Arachnological Society.
“This new study combines all of the powerful components of modern taxonomy – large samples, digital studies of morphology, huge DNA datasets,” he said, describing it as “remarkably comprehensive” and “significant for many reasons”.
Researchers also found unexpected diversity in tiny tarantulas, those about the size of a silver coin.
“One of the most remarkable things that we discovered during this research was just how diverse the miniature Aphonopelma were in the United States (and most likely Mexico too),” Hamilton said in an email to AFP.
“Eight of the new species belong to the miniature group,” which is believed to have shrunk in size over time, though experts do not yet understand why, he said.
In the meantime, researchers also have concerns about how climate change will impact America’s big and hairy spiders, possibly forcing some north into cooler climes or higher elevations that may not be as favourable as habitat.
“Two of the new species are confined to single mountain ranges in southeastern Arizona, one of the United States’ biodiversity hotspots,” said co-author Brent Hendrixson of Millsaps College.
“These fragile habitats are threatened by increased urbanisation, recreation, and climate change.”
Other new spiders identified during the project were given names that were suited to their habitat, including the Aphonopelma xwalxwal, found in the homelands of the Cahuila Native Americans, incorporating their word for spider, “xwalxwal”.
“As a Native American (Chickasaw Nation), I like to be able to tie Native American history to species that can be found in their ancestral ranges,” said Hamilton.
Tarantulas may look scary but experts say they rarely bite and their venom is not considered dangerous to humans. – AFP, February 5, 2016.