February 6, 2016
Newly Discovered Tarantula Inspires Scientists To Name Spider After Johnny Cash

Scientists decided to name a newly discovered spider species after Johnny Cash.

Chris A. Hamilton of Auburn University, Brent E. Hendrixson of Millsaps College, and Jason E. Bond of Auburn University were part of a 10-year study that focused on tarantulas in the United States. On Thursday, February 4, that spider study was published in ZooKeys, a peer-reviewed open-access scientific journal.

The study (Taxonomic Revision Of The Tarantula Genus Aphonopelma Pocock, 1901 [Araneae, Mygalomorphae, Theraphosidae] Within The United States) focused on the 55 species known of the tarantula spider. Scientists collected nearly 3,000 specimens of the spider species from all across the American Southwest.

The tarantula spider is well known due to pop culture, showing up in everything from movies, like Arachnophobia (1990) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), to comic books; both Marvel and DC have villains or heroes code-named "Tarantula." Although it's portrayed as a dangerous spider with a terrible bite and aggressive tendencies, many of the tarantula spider species are docile. In fact, people from all around the world keep tarantulas as pets.

(Arachnophobia Scene: Be advised there are spoilers and sequences of horror and adult language.)

The lead author of the study, Hamilton, insisted that the spider species in question was really made up of "teddy bears with eight legs."

Despite the tarantula spider being well known through pop culture and the pet community, there hasn't been much research into how these magnificent creatures live in the wild.

Even their diversity has been in question. The tarantula spider species that are known to scientists all share characteristics of their aesthetics with each other. It's true that their size differentiates greatly, ranging from small enough to fit on a United States quarter to being as large as an adult male's hand, but their body structure tends to be eerily similar.

"There was huge murkiness as to what was a species," Hamilton told Live Science.

Up until this past Thursday it was believed that there were 55 species of the tarantula spider that existed in the United States.

[ Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images ]"We often hear about how new species are being discovered from remote corners of the earth, but what is remarkable is that this spider is in our own backyard," Hamilton added in a press release. "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."

Hamilton's study cut that number of know tarantula spider species nearly in half.

By comparing each spider using DNA testing, as well as other methods, the scientists involved in the study were able to combine or eliminate the majority of the 55 tarantula spider species until only 14 were left. On top of that, the scientists discovered 15 brand new species, bringing the total count of tarantula spider species found in the United States to 29.

One of the new spider species found was a medium-sized tarantula. The female spider is dark brown, but the male of the species is completely black with no other markings. It was that coloring that led the scientists to name the remarkable creature after the Man in Black himself: Johnny Cash.

[ Photo by AP Photo ]That was not the only reason.

Aphonopelma johnnycashi (the full scientific name of the Johnny Cash spider) is found predominately around Folsom State Prison in California. That name may sound familiar because it's undeniably associated with Cash.

There, Cash performed and recorded a live album in 1968. Not only that, but one of his most quoted lines comes from the song that was inspired by the prison, "Folsom Prison Blues."

"I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die."
"It immediately fit," Hamilton said.

Aphonopelma johnnycashi is the only new tarantula spider species to take the name of someone famous, but Hamilton insists it wasn't just about the comparison of the spider to the singer.

"It's a really important mechanism for reaching out to the public and getting them involved," Hamilton said. "We want the public to love these new species, too."

[Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images]