Bernie the spider? Newly discovered spiders named after prominent figures

By Dana Kobilinsky

A female Bernie Sanders spider. ©Agnarsson lab

A team of undergraduate students led by their biology professor recently discovered 15 new species of “smiley-faced” spiders throughout North and South America.

In a study published in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, they named these spiders after public figures that advocate for climate change mitigation, including David Attenborough, Barack Obama, Michelle Obama and Bernie Sanders.

The yellow smiley-faced spider, named for the smiley face pattern on their abdomens, was thought to be one species, but the team suspected it might actually be many endemic species. They completed genetics work and determined that this was the case.

Agnarsson and his undergraduate students used the genetics work to identify and describe the 15 new species. “And if we keep looking, we’re sure there are more,” he said in a press release.

The team led by Ingi Agnarsson, a spider expert and professor of biology at the University of Vermont and lead author of the study, examined spiders from Jamaica, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, the Lesser Antilles, Florida, South Carolina, Costa Rica, Mexico and Colombia.

“This was an undergraduate research project,” Agnarsson said. “In naming these spiders, the students and I wanted to honor people who stood up for both human rights and warned about climate change — leaders and artists who promoted sensible approaches for a better world.”

The team named a few of the species Spintharus davidattenboroughi, S. barackobamai, S. michelleobamae, S. berniesandersi, S. davidboweiei and S. leonardodicaprioi.

Agnarsson said it’s hard to tell the spiders are different by just looking at them, which is why previous research has shown they’re all the same species. But, he said, the DNA data clearly shows they are distinct, meaning that they haven’t been interbreeding, or exchanging genes, for millions of years.

“Thoughts about conservation change dramatically when you go from having a common, widespread species to an endemic, on, say, Jamaica that has very specific conservation needs,” he said. Preserving one widespread species is dramatically different from protecting the habitat of specific local species, he said.

“Here’s the thing,” Agnarsson said. “We need to understand and protect biodiversity in its many forms, and we felt compelled to recognize leaders that understand this.”

Lily Sargeant (center) was part of a team of four undergraduate students that studied and photographed spiders with their professor, Ingi Angarsson. They discovered 15 new species and named them after public figures who warned about climate change. ©Joshua Brown

Dana KobilinskyDana Kobilinsky is a science writer at The Wildlife Society. Contact her at dkobilinsky@wildlife.org with any questions or comments about her article. You can follow her on Twitter at @DanaKobi.

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