Chris Hamilton, an animal lover and evolutionary biologist who also happens to have a Johnny Cash tattoo, was once afraid of spiders and decided to get a pet tarantula to dispel his fear. It worked. Much better than expected. He fell in love with the animals, which he now calls “big teddy bears.” He has handled thousands of them, and never once been bit.
He also began trying to find out as much as he could about the arachnids. Turns out that not much was really known about the creatures; the data gathered to date was so fragmentary that some so-called species had been described on the basis of only one or two specimens.
So he and two colleagues, Brent Hendrixson and Jason Bond, set about re-writing the natural and evolutionary history of American tarantulas, making some fascinating discoveries in the process.
In all, the team found 14 new species and in the process of completing their study, published Thursday in the journal ZooKeys, they also determined that 40 other previous listed “species” of tarantula were not, in fact, individual species.
One of the actual species lives in the foothills around Folsom State Prison in northern California, the male of which is all black. So, of course, the team named the new species Aphonopelma johnnycashi, after Johnny Cash, nicknamed the “Man in Black,” who recorded a best-selling live record at the prison and wrote the song “ Folsom Prison Blues.”
Of the 13 other species, eight are miniature tarantulas, some smaller than the size of a quarter, says Hamilton.
“This study is phenomenal in its scope and sets a new standard in the field—one that will be difficult to match,” says Ingi Agnarsson, a biologist at the University of Vermont, who wasn’t involved in the research. “Never before has there been so much data brought to bear on the taxonomy of a spider lineage.”
The team worked on the project on and off over the past decade, during which time they (with the help of some volunteers) turned up 1,800 new specimens, most of which are now housed at Auburn University, where Hamilton works.
One reason why there were so many incompletely described “species” prior to this study is that many of the animals don’t have a lot of distinguishing characteristics; even to experts, many of the animals are very difficult to tell apart, says British tarantula researcher Andrew Smith, who called the previous North American taxonomy of this group a “nightmare.”
They also live in many different areas of the Southwest U.S., some in remote mountains, and aren’t exactly easy to get your hands on (assuming you want to). “Tarantula spiders are the devil to find,” Smith says, explaining how he and a colleague “spent hundreds of hours, driving darkened unmade roads in search of males and as many more hours scouring the area for the females in their burrows.” (While males wander widely in search of mates, females generally stay close to the holes they dig for themselves.)
Four of the newly discovered species hail from the Sky Islands region of southeastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico, which has one of the highest levels of biodiversity in the country—and where, incidentally, the country’s only wild jaguar was recently spotted on film. It’s also an area frequented by entomologist, especially during the monsoon.
Hamilton says he hopes the finding will get people to appreciate tarantulas and the natural world more. He says that tarantulas—at least the species in North America—are quite calm and not harmful. They also have personalities; you can tell when they’re angry, for example. “But even when they look mad, it’s just a big show, it’s like a big dog’s bark,” he says.