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Did You Hear about the New Species of Spiders Named After Leonardo DiCaprio, Bernie Sanders and Barrack Obama?

The new species of spiders have been named in honor of leaders and artists who promoted sensible approaches for a better world

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Did you hear about the Bernie Sanders spider? (representational image) Pixabay
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Vermont, September 30, 2017 : What if we tell you that a team of researchers has recognized and named 15 new species of spiders in the Caribbean after your favorite stars like Leonardo DiCaprio, Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders?

Not in Hollywood, Washington, DC or Vermont – but you might now be able to catch a glimpse of Spintharus davidattenboroughi, S. barackobamai, S, michelleobamaae, S. berniesandersi, S. davidbowiei along with S. leonardodicaprioi on the Caribbean islands and some other southern spots.

Ingi Agnarsson, expert of spiders and professor of biology at University of Vermont, who led the new study revealed the rationale behind the undergraduate study and on choosing the intriguing names. “(We) 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”, he said.

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The Smiley-Faced Spider

Popularly recognized as a global hotspot for biodiversity, there continues to be several species in the Caribbean that are outside the spectrum of research and study. This includes the ‘smiley faced’ spider in the genus Spintharus- named for a smiley face pattern on their abdomens.

Previously recognized as one widespread species, researchers from the UVM discovered that there exist many more endemic species within the genus, 15 of which have been recognized in the research.

These samples were collected from Florida, South Carolina, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Jamaica, Mexico, the Lesser Antilles and Columbia.

Each team member got to decide names for the new species of spiders. Alongside naming them after friends and family members, many species have been named after distinguished figures.

“We all named the Bernie Sanders spider together,” said Lily Sargeant, one of the students who worked on the project. “We all have tremendous respect for Bernie. He presents a feeling of hope.”

Some of the other names include,

Spintharus davidbowiei

Named after the great artist David Bowie, who passed away in 2016. His music will continue to inspire generations and the authors decided to honor his legacy by naming a spider in his name.

Spintharus barackobamai

Named after the widely popular, and largely loved, former President of the United States Barack Obama. The authors love him for his statesmanship and humanitarianism, and named the spider species after him, to honor their president and his devoted service.

Spintharus michelleobamaae

Named in honor of the Former First Lady of the United States for her poise, confidence and elegance, her fight for human rights and for always striving to uphold the principles of justice, fairness and equality for all.

Spintharus davidattenboroughi

The authors of the research also named a species of spiders after the naturalist and broadcaster Sir David Attenborough, to recognize and celebrate his efforts to educate people of the wonders of the natural world and sowing a seed of caring for nature in humanity.

The study has been published in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society.

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Electric Fields Used By Spiders To Take Flight: Research

Charles Darwin remarked on the behavior when tiny spiders landed on the HMS Beagle, trailing lines of silk.

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A spider sits in her web. Researchers from England think spiders might be sensing and using electrostatic fields to become airborne.
A spider sits in her web. Researchers from England think spiders might be sensing and using electrostatic fields to become airborne. VOA

Since the 1800s, scientists have marveled at how spiders can take flight using their webbing. Charles Darwin remarked on the behavior when tiny spiders landed on the HMS Beagle, trailing lines of silk. He thought the arachnids might be using heat-generated updrafts to take to the sky, but new research shows a totally different cause may be at play.

Erica Morley and Daniel Robert from the University of Bristol in England were interested in exploring a second explanation for the spiders’ ability. They thought spiders might sense and use electrostatic fields in the air.

“There have been several studies looking at how air movement and wind can get spiders airborne, but the electrostatic hypothesis was never tested,” Morley told VOA.

Some observers suggested electrostatic fields might be the reason the multiple draglines some spiders use to float don’t get tangled with each other. Biologist Kimberley Sheldon from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, who was not involved in the new research, pointed out that “though these spiders will have five or six draglines, those strands of silk do not get entangled. So we’ve known for a while that electrostatics probably [are] at least interacting with the spider, with the silk lines themselves, to keep them from getting tangled.”

Morley and Robert created a box with a grounded metal plate on the bottom and a plate on the top that they could pass an electrical current through. The scientists placed spiders in the box and turned on the voltage, watching as the creatures reacted to the electric field.

Reaction to current

When the electric field was on, the spiders lifted their abdomens into the air and started tiptoeing by raising up on the very ends of their legs. Morley told VOA that spiders only tiptoe right before they release silk draglines to fly away, in a process called ballooning.

And when the spiders did balloon and rise into the air, turning off the electric current caused them to drop.

Sheldon compared it to taking a balloon and rubbing it against your clothing. “If you hold the balloon [near your head], your hair stands on end. That’s kind of what’s happening with the spider silk.”

Spiders Use Electric Fields to Take Flight: Research
Spiders Use Electric Fields to Take Flight: Research. Pixabay

Clearly the spiders were able to sense the local electrostatic field and respond appropriately by releasing silk, but Morley and Robert wanted to know how.

“As a sensory biologist, I was keen to understand what sensory system they might use to detect electric fields,” said Morley. “We know that they have very sensitive hairs that are displaced by air movements or even sound. So I thought that it’s possible that they might be using these same hairs to detect electric fields.”

This was exactly what she observed. The small hairs along the spiders’ legs react not only to physical experiences like a breeze but also to the electric field. In nature, it makes sense for spiders to sense both the electrostatic field around them as well as wind conditions. Spiders probably use both when taking off and navigating the skies.

Mathematician Longhua Zhao from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland has made computer models of how spiders balloon. She told VOA, “I think that both the electrical field and the fluid mechanics [of air flow] are important. They definitely play very important roles. However, we don’t know at this point which is the dominant factor.”

Also read: Did You Hear about the New Species of Spiders Named After Leonardo DiCaprio, Bernie Sanders and Barrack Obama?

Lead researcher Morley pointed out that spiders aren’t the only invertebrates to balloon. “Caterpillars and spider mites, which are arachnids but not spiders, balloon as well.” Morley hopes to see others follow up her research to see if these other animals respond in a way similar to the spiders. (VOA)