The "man in black" may be gone, but he'll never be forgotten, especially among arachnologists. Researchers from Auburn University and Millsaps College have reclassified 55 known tarantula species down to 15, while adding 14 new species, including Aphonopelma johnnycashi. The mostly black tarantula species was discovered near Folsom State Prison in California, which is the subject of one of Johnny Cash's most famous songs, "Folsom Prison Blues," recorded during a concert at the prison in 1968.
The 10-year study assessed nearly 3,000 tarantulas found throughout the southwest region of the U.S., with the researchers looking at differentiators such as DNA, anatomy, geography and behavior. Spiders were collected by researchers, citizen-scientists and borrowed from museum collections, particularly the Auburn University Museum of Natural History which houses 2,300 tarantula specimens gathered over a 50-year period. Results of the tarantula study, the most comprehensive ever, were published in the journal ZooKeys.
Researchers sought to shine some light on the diversity, distribution, behavior and habitats of the spiders, which had remained murky until now. Because tarantula species are similar anatomically, but with a wide variance in size from 6 inches (15 cm) to less than an inch (2.5 cm), the taxonomy proved problematic to previous scientists and was the reason the spider was divided into more species than was merited.
The researchers further grouped their 29 species into five lineages: a California-only group, a western group, eastern group, high-elevation group and group with several miniaturized species. Tarantulas are found throughout Mexico and Central America, and across the southern third of the U.S. from the Mississippi River to California. They thrive in a diversity of environments, and generally live underground in silk-lined burrows.
As for the Johnny Cash tarantula, study lead author and arachnologist Chris Hamilton from Auburn University's Department of Biological Sciences said the male spider's dark coloration reminded him of Cash's trademark black attire. The researchers were tasked with naming all 14 of the new species as well. A. saguaro are found in Saguaro National Park in Arizona, while A. superstitionense are located in that state's Superstition Mountains.