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New 'Johnny Cash' Tarantula Among 14 New Spiders Found In US

Feb 05, 2016 10:50 AM EST
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Fourteen new hairy, large-bodied tarantula species were recently found in the southwestern U.S., one of which was named after the late famous singer-songwriter Johnny Cash. Researchers from the Auburn University Museum of Natural History say this discovery nearly doubles the number of known tarantula species from the region, which is now home to a total of 29. 

"We often hear about how new species are being discovered from remote corners of the Earth, but what is remarkable is that these spiders are in our own backyard," Dr. Chris Hamilton, lead author of the study, said in a news 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."

The tarantulas belong to the genus Aphonopelma, and are among some of the most unique species of spider in the U.S., ranging dramatically in size from six inches or more in leg span to no more than the size of an American quarter. (Scroll to read more...)

Hamilton and his team have spent more than a decade searching for tarantulas throughout scorching deserts, frigid mountains and various other habitats in the American Southwest -- sometimes even in people's backyards or vast museum collections.  In total researchers studied nearly 3,000 specimens, undertaking what they say is the most comprehensive taxonomic study on a group of tarantulas to date.

One of the species, Aphonopelma madera, lives on forested "sky islands," or mountains surrounded on all sides by Arizona's deserts. Others, such as the tiny Aphonopelma atomicum, reside in silk-lined burrows near Nevada's nuclear test sites.

Aphonopelma johnnycashi, named after Johnny Cash, was found in California near Folsom Prison -- famous for Cash's song "Folsom Prison Blues" -- and boasts an all-black coloration, mimicking the dressing style for which Cash was given the nickname "man in black."  

Within the U.S., researchers say, Aphonopelma are found in twelve states across the southern third of the country, stretching from west of the Mississippi River to California. The spiders are generally seen most during warmer months, when males are on the hunt for mates.  

Many of the newly discovered species have abundant populations and relatively large distributions, but others are restricted in their distribution and require conservation efforts.

"Two of the new species are confined to single mountain ranges in southeastern Arizona, one of the United States' biodiversity hotspots," Brent Hendrixson, co-author of the study, added. "These fragile habitats are threatened by increased urbanization, recreation, and climate change. There is also some concern that these spiders will become popular in the pet trade due to their rarity, so we need to consider the impact that collectors may have on populations as well."

Their study was recently published in the journal ZooKeys.

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