Spider Science: What’s in a Name?

According to his Web site, television personality and talk show host, Stephen Colbert, has successfully lobbied for a Hungarian bridge to be named after him and for an ice cream flavor to be created in his honor. So when Colbert learned that an ECU biology professor had recently discovered a new yet-to-be-named species of spider, he jumped at the chance for taxonomic immortality.

Department of Biology associate professor, Dr. Jason Bond, has discovered dozens of new species of spiders and millipedes over his career, and he has given names to many of them. He usually follows the more traditional standards of binomial nomenclature, but sometimes, such as the case of Myrmekiaphila neilyoungi— the trapdoor spider he found in Alabama and named after his favorite musician—he’s been a bit more creative. Bond has also named spiders after his wife Kristen, Angelina Jolie, and Nelson Mandela.

In fact, it was because of Myrmekiaphila neilyoungi, that Colbert learned of Bond and his new spiders. Colbert made the formal request on the June 24 episode of his television program, “The Colbert Report,” and the good-natured Bond agreed. As a result, a trapdoor spider species Bond discovered in California was christened Aptostichus stephencolberti.

Up close and personal with Aptostichus stephencolberti.

But before any naming can take place, a new species must be found. And while the statistical record makes that appear to be a relatively easy thing to do—of the estimated 10 million species on the planet, only one and a half million of them have been identified and classified—it is a challenging process.

“Fortunately, there are a lot of people who have been collecting spiders, particularly trapdoor spiders, for a long time.” said Bond, whose search for new spiders has taken him around the world.

Collecting trapdoor spiders and trapdoor spider burrows has come and gone as a fad among kids in California for decades. Some of these collections, as well as the collections of amateur arachnologists, eventually find their way to museums like the American Museum of Natural History or the California Academy of Sciences. The museums catalog the collections, making note of where they were found, and often loan them out to scientists.

“I almost always start with a museum collection,” said Bond. “I look at the museum collection and I sort out all the specimens that I’m interested in. Then I figure out where they were found and go out and start looking.”

Trapdoor spiders are narrowly endemic. They are only found in very specific locations. Once they reach maturity and dig a burrow, they rarely ever leave it. This trait is both helpful to science and harmful to the spiders.

A friend of Bond’s sent him his collection of spiders he found in Dana Point, California, in the 1970s. Bond believed it to be a new species and went to California to look for more. Upon his arrival, he discovered that a golf course now sat on the location where his friend found the spiders. Due to its localism, the entire species was wiped out when the golf course was built.

For researchers like Bond, however, knowing that a spider rarely leaves its habitat has helped locate more new species.

“Once you go out and start looking in those different places, you immediately get an idea of what type of habitat they are in,” he said. “It gives you a vision of where the spiders ought to be.”

Taxonomists—biologists who identify organisms—also use geographical information systems (GIS) to assign probability values to areas on a map where spiders are known to live. The GIS information contains information relevant to habitat such as temperature, precipitation, altitude, and vegetation.

The location of trapdoor spider habitats also assists in the identification of spiders and the possible discovery of new species.

“The way taxonomy was always done traditionally was with just looking at the spiders under a microscope and saying, ‘Well, this one looks different than this one. It must be a different species,’” said Bond.

Scientists have learned that isn’t always the case, and have posed the question of which is more important; that humans see a difference, or that the spiders do.
“Something that looks different to us may be meaningless to the spiders. Spiders don’t see very well. They’ve got all sorts of chemosensory apparatuses, and all kinds of mechanical receptors, and other sorts of things that you certainly can’t see with a microscope,” Bond said.

Current methods of taxonomy still utilize morphology, but scientists also use DNA sequencing to determine genetic differences, as well as ecological distribution using niche-based distribution models.

Bond can also use the probabilities from GIS information and genetic information to determine if two similar looking species are actually the same.

“If we’ve got two very genetically divergent populations that seem to look the same, we then ask, ‘Are they found in the same type of habitat? Is the selective regime the same?’ If the selective regime is not the same, then perhaps they are adaptively diverged. If they are adaptively diverged and genetically diverged, we might pose the idea that they are two separate species,” he said.

Once a new species is found, the naming can begin. It too isn’t as easy as one might think. There are strict rules, called the international code of zoological nomenclature, for formally proposing a name to a new species of organism. As long as those rules are adhered to, there is fortunately room for a little imagination, hence Aptostichus stephencolberti.

Discovering new species of spiders and naming them is really just a byproduct of the larger work being done by Bond and team of researchers at ECU. They are primarily focused on studying evolutionary diversification among arthropods—specifically spiders and millipedes—in order to better understand how new biodiversity is generated.

“There’s lots of diversity out there,” said Bond. “And while a lot of folks tend to focus on things like birds and mammals, what you might characterize as the charismatic mega-fauna, it’s really the smaller things like spiders and insects and millipedes that sort of run the world. They perform what we characterize as essential ecosystem services. Essential ecosystem services are the things that biodiversity does for us that maintain both our existence and our quality of life—things like fresh air, pest control, clean water, pollination of crops, agriculture, and pharmaceuticals.”

Some scientists have proposed the Earth is in the midst of a mass extinction. As species are lost the biosphere changes, and for scientists to understand those changes more and more species need to be identified, especially among the smaller organisms like insects, spiders, and millipedes that do so much. Bond compares the biosphere and all the things living in it to a big house of cards. Insects, spiders, and millipedes are the cards at the bottom. If the cards at the bottom are pulled out, the house will collapse.

“For someone to go out and evaluate what’s there, and what’s being harmed, or what’s disappearing, you have to be able to identify it. So we sort of provide the vehicle for identification,” he said.

Bond said he has received numerous requests to name spiders after people, but he hopes that the public will find more interest in the plight of spiders around the world, than the interesting names he gives them.