Meet the tarantula in black

Of course this new arachnid species is named for Johnny Cash

Aphonopelma johnnycashi

WALK THE LINE  Aphonopelma johnnycashi males are covered in black hairs and emerge from their burrows to hunt a mate. “During mating season, males are out wandering and you can see them crossing roads,” says arachnologist Chris Hamilton. 

Dr. Chris A. Hamilton (CC BY 4.0

Near the grounds of Folsom Prison in California walks a male tarantula clad entirely in black.

When Chris Hamilton, an arachnologist formerly at Auburn University in Alabama, discovered the spider in data from a big tarantula survey, he noticed it came from the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Country music legend Johnny Cash and his “Folsom Prison Blues” immediately came to mind. So Hamilton, now at the University of Florida in Gainesville, named the species Aphonopelma johnnycashi. It’s one of 14 new members of the Aphonopelma genus described by Hamilton and his colleagues February 4 in ZooKeys.

Aphonopelma tarantulas can be seen scampering into burrows in deserts, mountains and backyards across the southern United States. Yet they are hard to distinguish based solely on their body features and appearance.

Over 10 years, the researchers collected and ran molecular and genetics tests on  1,800  Aphonopelma tarantulas and their relatives. They found that the Aphonopelma spiders could be classified into 29 species (14 of them new to scientists). “We knew that doing this was really going to be the only way to get the clear picture of the species boundaries of this group,” Hamilton says.

A. johnnycashi tarantulas had previously been lumped in with a similar species, but the genetic data suggests the two are actually distinct species. The genomics work made the difference, Hamilton says.

Like the iconic man in black, A. johnnycashi has a fearsome exterior. But the spiders are relatively harmless to humans — hardly the type to bite a man in Reno just to watch him die. 

Helen Thompson is the multimedia editor. She has undergraduate degrees in biology and English from Trinity University and a master’s degree in science writing from Johns Hopkins University.

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