Eight-legged Johnny Cash: Tarantula spider species named for singer

After being discovered at California's Folsom State Prison, one of 14 new tarantula species has been named after the 'man in black.'

Courtesy of Chris Hamilton
This is an adult male of Aphonopelma johnnycashi from California. The Johnny Cash tarantula is one of 14 new species of tarantulas identified by researchers in a paper released in the open-access journal ZooKeys on Thursday.

More than 12 years after the singer's death, there's a new Johnny Cash – but this one is walking the line on eight legs.

A new species of tarantula has been named after the iconic "man in black." The species Aphonopelma johnnycashi was discovered in the American southwest near California's Folsom State Prison, of which Mr. Cash once sang, and its males are almost entirely black. The discovery was made as part of an overarching examination of the tarantula family.

The study, recently published in the journal ZooKeys, was the result of a decade of work by scientists trying to clean up the tarantula, or Aphonopelma, family tree. The effort has rewritten the text book on tarantulas, drastically cutting down on the number of categories and adding 14 new species, most from the United States. 

"A lot of people think of new species as coming from areas of the Earth that not many humans have been to before ... but that's really frankly not the case," Dr. Chris Hamilton, lead author of the paper, told the BBC. 

Previous classification systems sorted tarantulas into more than 50 separate species. The 340-page study, led by Chris Hamilton of Auburn University, reduces the number of previously known tarantulas to 29 and adds 14 new species. 

The genus Aphonopelma, despite containing popular exotic pets, was previously poorly understood by biologists.

"[T]here’s not really much work that’s been done on tarantulas," Dr. Hamilton told National Geographic. "Past arachnologists would get really frustrated and give up ... It’s a massive, massive amount of work, but that’s what it takes."

The massive amount of work Hamilton refers to is a decade spent collecting and analyzing tarantula specimens. The study contains a collection of over 3,000 specimens, the largest for any single study, according to National Geographic.

Hamilton and fellow scientists working on the report spent more than 10 years gathering tarantulas from the southwestern United States, finding samples of previously documented species and specimens from the 14 newly discovered species.

The team also utilized tarantulas stored by the Auburn University Museum of Natural History and the American Museum of Natural History.

The release of the study is cause for excitement for other research groups that have been waiting for further study into the genus Aphonopelma.

"This paper is an extraordinarily important contribution to arachnology," wrote Paula Cushing of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, to National Geographic. "My lab has been waiting awhile for this!"

Naming of the 14 newly discovered species varied. Some were named in reference to the location of their discovery, like A. mojave after the Mojave Desert. Others paid respect to Native Americans. A. xwalxwal was named after a word from the language of Cahuilla Native Americans meaning "a type of small spider," according to LiveScience.

Aphonopelma johnnycashi was the only one to be named for an artist. 

"I have a Johnny Cash tattoo so I was very happy that it worked out that way," Hamilton told the BBC.

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