Meet Aphonopelma johnnycashi, one of 14 new species of tarantula identified as part of a decade-long effort to describe as completely as possible the taxonomy and geography of the American tarantula—a surprisingly limited field of research.
Across 12 southern states spanning from the Mississippi River to the California coast, biologists with Auburn University and Millsaps College searched mountains ranges, deserts, and everything in between, eventually coming up with 3,000 individual tarantula specimens. The result represents the largest taxonomic study of a group of tarantulas ever conducted, and is based on a new "integrative" approach to spider taxonomy involving anatomical, behavioral, distributional, and genetic data. The group's work is described this week in the open-access journal ZooKeys.
So, yes, as it turns out our knowledge of the American tarantula has been fairly limited and scattershot. Researchers had previously counted about 50 different tarantula spider species in the US, but as the Auburn group explains, many of those were poorly defined and/or referred to the same species. The aim here was to take a more unified, coordinated approach to describing the tarantula genus.
Part of the problem in classifying tarantulas is in that one species can be wildly different in size and appearance from another. On the one hand, we have furry six-inch rat-spiders; on the other, we have real little dudes that could fit on top of a quarter. You can see the scale range above.
So, what a tarantula looks like isn't all there is to it and this is where the integrative approach comes. It's not enough to just see the spider, one must also watch the spider go about its spider life. One characteristic behavior occurs during tarantula mating season, in which male spiders start roaming around in the open en masse looking for mates; I've been in tarantula country when this happens and it's about as fucked up as you can imagine.
Anyhow, the "johnnycashi" name was chosen because the species was discovered near Folsom Prison (of "Folson Prison Blues" fame) and because the mature males of the species happen to be solid black in color (the "man in black"). To the researchers' knowledge, they do not write and record country music, but we still have much to learn.