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Arkansas Ties to Major Tarantula Study

Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission - Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Study Uses ANHC Data, Names a New Tarantula After Famous Arkansan 

The state of Arkansas and, specifically the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission (ANHC), have some unique ties to a new, comprehensive overview of tarantulas in the United States published online February 4 in the journal ZooKeys.

Even though tarantulas as a group are generally well known and easily recognized by the public from their appearances in popular culture, far less was known to science about their distribution, diversity and how they lived in the wild, according to the study's lead author, Chris Hamilton, an arachnologist and graduate student at Auburn University's Department of Biological Sciences.

The study researchers evaluated approximately 3,000 tarantula specimens and integrated DNA into the study along with anatomy, geography and behavior. In addition to the spiders they collected, the researchers based their analysis on museum collections and citizen science efforts, including the 2004 tarantula survey conducted by the ANHC. The Arkansas Tarantula Survey was noted as one of the few with a large number of validated observations (393). Follow this link for the full report of the Arkansas survey, as published in the Journal of the Arkansas Academy of Science.

Aphnonopelma johnnycashiAfter 10 years of research and analysis, Hamilton and his colleges identified 14 new tarantula species, reclassified 40 old names, suspending some and combining others, resulting in a final 29 species for the United States, down from the 55 on record when the work started. The Arkansas Tarantula Survey was the ANHC’s first venture into statewide citizen science projects and helped establish baseline data for tarantula distribution in Arkansas. This recent and more in-depth study is an exciting example of how the ANHC data is continuing to play an active role in science.

One of the new tarantulas discovered by Hamilton is the other Arkansas link to this story. One of the new spider species, Aphonopelma johnnycashi (pictured at left), has a particularly well-known namesake — famed singer, songwriter and Arkansas-native Johnny Cash. The spider was abundant near Folsom State Prison in California, which inspired Cash's song "Folsom Prison Blues" and where he performed and recorded a live album in 1968. And the tarantula's dark coloration reminded Hamilton of Cash's preference for head-to-toe black attire, which earned Cash the nickname, "The Man in Black."

The tarantula species documented in the ANHC survey remains the only tarantula found in Arkansas and Hamilton’s new study did not change its name, Aphonopelma hentzi. It is known by several common names – Texas brown tarantula, Oklahoma brown tarantula, and Missouri brown tarantula – and occurs in those states as well. The mix of common names points to the importance of this latest research in establishing defining characteristics for tarantula taxonomy.

While the ANHC no longer collects public reports of tarantula sightings, we do continue to provide materials and programming to help people understand and appreciate the ecological role of the largest spider in our state. For more information, visit the animal page in the Education section of our website and look for tarantulas!

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