It was thought that the spider genus Spintharus contained three species, only one of which lived in the Caribbean.
Then, Ingi Agnarsson took four undergraduate field biology students on a trip to study biodiversity in the Caribbean. While there, they discovered the Spintharus genus is way more diverse than previously known. They collected, studied, described and named 15 new species. Their study was published Tuesday in The Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society.
Even with all the new species being named, Agnarsson is sure there are more to be discovered. They studied spiders from only about 30 islands, and they know there are more of this genus on larger islands and elsewhere.
“I’m certain there will be dozens of more species of this group,” said Agnarsson. “And that’s one of the goals of this paper, to draw attention to this gold mine of diversity.”
This genus is known as “Smiley Face Spiders,” because they appear to have smiley faces, or clown faces, on their backs. They also have distinctively ornate webs. While some species of this group look similar, Agnarsson and his students used molecular testing to determine that they had collected 15 unique species.
The students got to name the spiders, and they chose to honor celebrities they felt are champions of human rights and conservation: there are Spintharus berniesandersi, S. davidattenboroughi, S. barackobamai and S. michelleobamai, for example, after Bernie Sanders, David Attenborough, Barack Obama and Michelle Obama.
Agnarsson says the celebrities don’t yet know they were included in this research, but he hopes they will see it in the news.
The four students Agnarsson selected were taking independent undergraduate field biology courses at the University of Vermont, and he brought them to the Caribbean because there is an abundance of understudied species there.
Without an in-depth study, it’s possible for a taxonomist to think that all these different animals belong to the same species. The differences between them could be attributed to intraspecies variance—different attributes being present from one individual to another.
Typically, a scientist might wait to publish a study until he or she had described all the species in a genus, but it was clear that there are far too many in this case to do that. Furthermore, Aganarsson and the students felt it was important to publish this research to demonstrate a bigger point: that there is an abundance of under-explored biodiversity in the Caribbean.