ECU Biologist, Spider Appear on ‘Colbert Report’
By Erica Plouffe Lazure
It’s been the summer of the spider at East Carolina.
A pair of newly discovered trapdoor spiders made national headlines – and the late-night talk show circuit – after an ECU biologist named them after a rock star and late-night talk show host.
Jason Bond, who studies and classifies new species of trapdoor spiders, enjoyed a first round of international media attention this spring after he named a spider after the rock legend Neil Young. News of the Myrmekiaphila neilyoungi reached as far east as The Times of India, as far north as Canada’s CBC, and in venues as widely read as the New York Times, the International Herald Tribune, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Bond’s naming venture also caught the attention of late night talk show host and comedian, Stephen Colbert, who complained on his show, “The Colbert Report,” that no spider had been named after him.
“I have lots of animals named after me: turtles, eagles, Ontario Junior League hockey mascots,” Colbert said. “The world demands an eight-legged tribute to Stephen Colbert and I do not mean another barbershop quartet.”
On June 24, Colbert called Bond during his show to inquire about the spiders, and to ask if Bond would name one of the 27 recently-discovered spider species after him. Bond agreed.
“So tell me about my spider,” Colbert said. “Does it shoot poison darts? Does it lay eggs in your ears?”
Colbert’s spider lives underground, in the sandy dunes on the California coast. The spider creates a “trapdoor” of web and soil at the opening of its lair and waits until a meal passes by. The spider then lashes out to capture the prey. Spiders in the trapdoor genus are distinguished primarily on the basis of differences in genitalia, Bond said, and through differences in DNA.
With several spiders in tow, Bond appeared live on “The Colbert Report” to talk about the newly named spider, the Aptostichus stephencolberti.
Colbert, in a Dating Game-style format, “interviewed” the three spiders before selecting the trapdoor species that best suited him. Because Colbert doesn’t pronounce the “t” in his last name, it is silent in the spider’s name as well.
Ever since word got out that there are still a couple of unnamed spiders, Bond has received inquiries from across the country asking for the honor. He’s not made any decisions just yet. The rules to naming a new species, Bond said, are rather strict.
“But as long as these rules are followed you can give a new species just about any name you please,” Bond said.
While Bond’s spider-naming has made international headlines, the naming of spiders is one small aspect of his research, which encompasses taxonomy, evolutionary studies and biodiversity. Bond has received grants from the National Science Foundation to classify the trapdoor spider species and to
contribute to the foundation’s Tree of Life project. The findings of his discovery appeared in the August issue of the scientific journal Systematic Biology. Other spiders in Bond’s arsenal have been named after Nelson Mandela, Angelina Jolie, and Bond’s wife, Kristen.
Bond is both a spider systematist – someone who studies organisms and how they are classified – and taxonomist – someone who classifies new species. Of the estimated 10 million species on the planet, only one and a half million of them have been identified and classified.
“People are surprised there are still so many species that have yet to be discovered,” Bond said. “But in reality we’ve probably only described a tenth of the species on the planet.”
There are more than 40,000 known species of spiders, Bond said, which represent a small fraction of those that have yet to be discovered. His research tracking the evolutionary diversification among spiders and other arthropods shows how new biodiversity is generated. Preserving the smallest species and their habitats is as critical as preserving the larger ones.
“While a lot of folks tend to focus on things like birds and mammals, it’s really the smaller things like spiders and insects and millipedes that sort of run the world,” Bond said. Bees, for example, pollinate plants for crops, while spiders keep the insect population in check. Destroying their habitats, whether through pesticides or development, he said, harms everyone.
“What organisms are we losing that has kept the ecosystem in check? We focus so much on human health and human quality of life. But that needs to have a broader definition that includes other aspects of scientific study,” he said. “If we can’t feed people or have access to clean air, our priorities will have to shift very quickly.”