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Meet the new Bernie Sanders spider

  • Together with four of his undergraduate students, Ingi Agnarsson, a spider expert and professor of biology at the University of Vermont, described 15 new spiders in a paper published by the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society this week.
  • All 15 of the new species belong to the genus Spintharus and are known as “smiley-faced” spiders because of the patterning on their abdomens that resemble a smiley face.
  • Each of Agnarsson’s graduate students, who did the photography and lab work to document the new species, were given the chance to name a few of the spiders. “[B]ut we all named the Bernie Sanders spider,” Lily Sargeant, one of the students and a co-author of the paper, said in a statement. “We all have tremendous respect for Bernie. He presents a feeling of hope.”

Several newly discovered spider species have been named in honor of US Senator Bernie Sanders and other outspoken supporters of human rights and climate action.

Together with four of his undergraduate students, Ingi Agnarsson, a spider expert and professor of biology at the University of Vermont (Sanders’ home state), described 15 new spiders in a paper published by the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society this week.

“This was an undergraduate research project,” Agnarsson said in a statement. “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.”

All 15 of the new species belong to the genus Spintharus and are known as “smiley-faced” spiders because of the patterning on their abdomens that resemble a smiley face.

The spiders were formerly believed to belong to one single species widely dispersed across the Americas, from northern North America all the way down to northern Brazil, according to Agnarsson. But a research team led by Agnarsson and co-author Greta Binford of Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon that collected Spintharus specimens found throughout the Caribbean islands, the Southeast United States, Mexico, and Colombia, discovered that that single species was actually several endemic species. “And if we keep looking, we’re sure there are more,” Agnarsson said.

This is a female Bernie Sanders spider — Spintharus berniesandersi — in a lateral view. Composite photo created by undergraduate students in Ingi Agnarsson’s laboratory at the University of Vermont. Photo Credit: Agnarsson lab.

Each of Agnarsson’s graduate students, who did the photography and lab work to document the new species, were given the chance to name a few of the spiders. “[B]ut we all named the Bernie Sanders spider,” Lily Sargeant, one of the students and a co-author of the paper, said in a statement. “We all have tremendous respect for Bernie. He presents a feeling of hope.”

Sargeant expanded on the rationale for the naming of Spintharus berniesandersi: “Our time on this earth is limited. But I think that ideas are not that way. It is my hope that through naming that spider after Bernie we can remember the ideas that he has at this pivotal point in the life of our nation.”

Chloe Van Patten, another of Agnarsson’s graduate students and co-authors, said that she named S. leonardodicaprioi in part because of her high school “obsession” with actor Leonardo DiCaprio. “I’m over my crush, but now that he’s involved in environmental issues, I love him even more,” Van Patten said. “So I named a spider after him hoping that if he read our study, he might go out to dinner with me and talk about climate change.”

Other spiders were named after British broadcaster, writer, and naturalist Sir David Attenborough (S. davidattenboroughi), as well as rock star David Bowie (S. davidbowiei), “who passed away prematurely in 2016, but whose music will continue to inspire the generations to come,” the researchers write in the paper.

Former US President Barack Obama (S. barackobamai) and lawyer, writer, and former First Lady of the US Michelle Obama (S. michelleobamaae) also had spiders named after them.

“I’m a second-generation American and I’m black,” Sargeant said. “It is through a diversity of perspectives that we achieve innovation in science and I appreciate how much the Obamas value diversity.”

Aside from honoring leaders, artists, and ideas that they hope to preserve for posterity, the researchers said that describing these 15 new Spintharus species has important implications for conservation efforts, which, they noted, depend on good taxonomy. The conservation status of each of the new species will have to be evaluated on their own and, because they each have a unique “smile,” could become a source of local pride.

“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,” Agnarsson says.

Herbert W. Levi, a leading expert on the Spintharus genus who passed away in 2014, had previously concluded that the many distinct color patterns he’d observed in the widely dispersed “smiley-faced” spiders merely represented different variations within one species. “These are cryptic species,” Agnarsson said. “As Dr. Levi’s work clearly showed, they’re hard to tell apart by looking at them.”

By using new molecular techniques, however, Agnarsson and Binford were able to show that the DNA evidence does not support Levi’s conclusion — in fact, it has been millions of years since the spiders last interbred.

“All the sudden we have fifteen-fold increase in diversity in this particular group — just because we did a detailed study,” Agnarsson added. “That tells us something about biodiversity in general. The more we look, the more we discover.”

Students and a scientist at the University of Vermont have discovered 15 new species of ‘smiley-faced’ spiders — and named them after, among others, US Senator Bernie Sanders. Illustration by Glynnis Fawkes.

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Follow Mike Gaworecki on Twitter: @mikeg2001