15 New Smiley-Faced Spider Species Named After Leonardo DiCaprio, Bernie Sanders, Others

Long thought to be one species that was found across a large swath of territory — “from northern North America down to northern Brazil” — the “smiley-faced” spiders of the genus Spintharus actually have a lot more diversity than hitherto known. Researchers from the University of Vermont have identified at least 15 different endemic species in the area between the southern United States and northern South America.

When it came to naming the newly identified species, the researchers — Ingi Agnarsson, a spider expert and professor of biology at the university and four of his undergraduate students — chose “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.”

So, among the new names in the Spintharus genus are Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders (S. berniesandersi), actor and conservation activist Leonardo DiCaprio (S. leonardodicaprioi), both former President Barack Obama (S. barackobamai ) and his wife Michelle Obama (S. michelleobamaae), conservationist and television personality David Attenborough (S. davidattenboroughi) and the late musician David Bowie (S. davidbowiei).

In a statement Tuesday, Agnarsson said the discoveries were made as part of an undergraduate research project.

A spider of the species Spintharus flavidus, photographed in Catoctin Mountains, Maryland, Sept. 13, 2015. Members of the species were thought to exist from Canada to Brazil, but have now been found to be at least 15 different species with the same genus. Photo: Judy Gallagher/Wikimedia Commons

Spiders from the Spintharus genus are often called smiley-faced because many of them feature a pattern on their abdomens that looks like a smiling face. The bodies and limbs are predominantly yellow in color.

The late Herbert W. Levi, the leading spider expert when it came to the Spintharus genus, held the view that differences between the spiders across a large geographical area were not a result of them being different species, but rather, variations within one species only. The new research, which uses DNA data, disproves that view. The different spider species have not interbred for millions of years.

“Thoughts about conservation change dramatically when you go from having a common, widespread species to an endemic one, say, Jamaica that has very specific conservation needs. All the sudden we have a fifteen-fold increase in diversity in this particular group —…

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