Auburn University professor discovers 33 new trapdoor spiders, names them for celebrities

By Candis Birchfield and Phillip Coxwell, College of Sciences and Mathematics


What do President Obama, Bono, Cesar Chavez and a creature from Star Wars have in common? They each now have a previously unknown breed of spider named for them.

Jason Bond, biological sciences professor and curator for the Auburn University Museum of Natural History, has discovered 33 new trapdoor spider species from the American Southwest. These newly described species all belong to the genus Aptostichus that now contains 40 species, two of which are already famous Aptostichus stephencolberti and Aptostichus angelinajolieae.

Bond has named one of the newly discovered spiders Aptostichus barackobamai, in honor of Barack Obama, 44th president of the U.S. and reputed fan of Spiderman comics. Another species was named Aptostichus bonoi from Joshua Tree National Park, named for the lead singer of the Irish rock band U2. The genus also now includes other notable names such as: Aptostichus sarlacc from the Mojave Desert, named for George Lucas' Star Wars creature, the Sarlacc from the fictional desert planet Tatooine; Aptostichus edwardabbeyi, named for environmentalist and author Edward Abbey (1927-1989); Aptostichus pennjillettei, named for illusionist and intellectual Penn Jillette; and Aptostichus chavezi, named for Mexican American and civil rights and labor activist Cesar Chavez (1927-1993).

Bond, who is a trapdoor spider expert, said he was excited at the prospect of such a remarkable and large find of new species in the United States and particularly California.

"California is characterized as a 'biodiversity hotspot," Bond said. "Although this designation is primarily based on plant diversity, the region is clearly very rich in its animal diversity as well. While it is absolutely remarkable that a large number of species from such a heavily populated area have gone unnoticed, it clearly speaks volumes to how little we know of the biodiversity around us and that many more species on the planet await discovery."

Like other trapdoor spider species, individuals are rarely seen because they live their lives in below-ground burrows that are covered by trapdoors, made by the spider using mixtures of soil, sand and/or plant material and silk. The trapdoor serves to hide the spider when it forages for meals at the burrow entrance, usually at night.

Aptostichus species are found in an amazing number of Californian habitats to include coastal sand dunes, chaparral, desert, oak woodland forests and at high altitudes in the alpine habitats of the Sierra Nevada mountain range.

"This particular group of trapdoor spiders is among some of the most beautiful with which I have worked," Bond said. "Species often have gorgeous tiger-striping on their abdomens. Aptostichus, to my mind, represents a true adaptive radiation a classical situation in evolutionary biology where diversification, or speciation, has occurred such that a large number of species occupy a wide range of different habitats."

Bond also noted that while a number of the species have rather fanciful names, his favorite is the one named for his daughter, Elisabeth.

"Elisabeth's spider is from an incredibly extreme desert environment out near Barstow, California, that is the site of a relatively young volcanic cinder cone," he said. "The spiders make their burrows among the lava tubes that extend out from the cone. It is a spectacular place to visit but the species is very difficult to collect because the spiders build rather deep burrows among the rocks."

Last Updated: Feb. 20, 2013

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