A tarantula named after singer Johnny Cash is among 14 new species identified by scientists who spent a decade collecting the hairy spiders and studying nearly 3,000 of them.
The spider doesn’t sing, but it’s black and can be found near the California prison that was the setting of Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues.”
The researchers also collapsed the number of U.S. species from 55 to 29, including Aphonopelma johnnycashi and Aphonopelma atomicum — named, with a wink to “Tarantula” and other sci-fi B movies, because it was collected near the atom bomb test site in Nevada.
“This is unequivocally the most important work on tarantulas ever done. It sets an incredibly high standard for taxonomy which few will be able to attain,” Robert Raven of Australia’s Queensland Museum wrote in an email after reading the paper.
The 340-page study by biologists Chris Hamilton and Jason Bond of Auburn University and Brent Hendrixson of Millsaps College “will be referenced for many many years,” Raven said.
A National Science Foundation grant let the three collect nearly 1,500 spiders from the 12 states where tarantulas live — the public sent another 300 or so — and analyze DNA from more than 1,000. They also studied 1,200 specimens lent by the American Museum of Natural History and The Natural History Museum of London.
“Prior to our research, those two places had the largest collections of North American tarantulas in the world,” Hamilton said.
While he was doing the tarantula work for his doctoral dissertation, Auburn built a museum that now houses the new specimens, he said.
The group used more DNA specimens and a much broader range of DNA than any past studies, as well as analyzing anatomy, behavior and ecology, said Ingi Agnarsson, who lined up peer reviewers and evaluated the study as an editor for the journal ZooKeys, which recently published it.
“It’s an awesome paper,” said Agnarsson, an associate biology professor at the University of Vermont.
The group checked DNA for 54 of the 55 supposed species. The exception was Aphonopelma phasmus, which was found in a remote part of the grand Canyon that researchers couldn’t get to.
Atomicum’s name refers to the Nevada National Security Site. Hamilton wrote the name also is “in homage to the famous sci-fi B movies of the 1950’s, of which Tarantula (1955) was the most entertaining.”
Since atomicum is one of the smallest U.S. tarantulas, the name is “slightly ironic,” he wrote.
It’s not quite the smallest — that’s Aphonopelma paloma, which can sit comfortably atop a quarter, Hamillton said.
Hamilton, who is such a fan of Cash that he has a tattoo of the late singer on his right arm, said the name “johnnycashi” — pronounced “Johnny CASH-eye” — came to him almost as soon as he was sure that it was indeed a new species.
“We’re describing diversity on the planet, but it should still be fun,” he said.
Would johnnycashi’s venom burn, burn, burn, “A Ring of Fire”?
Nope, said Hamilton, who says most tarantulas are not aggressive. The fangs would hurt more than the venom, he said.