A perk of being very famous is that people love to put your name on things, like airports and sandwiches. Organisms are no exception. By December 2016, nine newly discovered species bore Barack Obama's name. So far, President Trump has one, a tiny moth whose head is capped by a sweep of whitish scales. The moth, Neopalpa donaldtrumpi, is found only along the California-Mexico border.
On Tuesday, a second figure from the 2016 presidential campaign got a species. Spintharus berniesandersi, named after Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), lives in Cuba. It is small and lemon-yellow and barely a millimeter wide. On the spider's back is an ornate pattern halfway between a distorted smiley face and grimace.
Four University of Vermont undergraduates, with the guidance of biologist Ingi Agnarsson, identified Spintharus berniesandersi. The students also found 14 other new spider species, which they named after political figures (Obama got his 10th species; Michelle Obama her first), artists (singer David Bowie's second spider) and celebrities (naturalist David Attenborough, his umpteenth).
“We don't mean this to be a political paper. We decided to honor the people who we think are doing the right thing,” Agnarsson, a spider expert at the University of Vermont, told The Washington Post. In picking taxonomic names, Agnarsson said, it was the job of scientists to recognize leaders who drew attention to environmental and social issues.
For more than a century, biologists believed the genus Spintharus was just two species of American spider. One species was confined to Brazil. The other was thought to have the run of the Americas, sprinkled along the Eastern Seaboard, across the Caribbean islands and into the southern continent.
No longer. In a paper published in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, the team of undergraduates and scientists fractured the single intercontinental species into 15 new ones.
“My lab is running a huge biodiversity discovery project in the Caribbean,” Agnarsson said. DNA analysis revealed that the Spintharus spiders in the Caribbean could not possibly be one species — they were too genetically different to be breeding with one another. Agnarsson said that the genetic split was probably 30 million years in the making, stemming from the islands' geologic separation.
A few identifying traits arose as the islands drifted apart. Some of the spiders had complete smiles on their backs, one with “a very distinct clown-like smiley face with a white nose,” Agnarsson said. Also, their genital structure had evolved rapidly, probably another barrier against interbreeding. (Why spider genitals change so quickly is a matter of “long and deep scientific debate,” Agnarsson said, but could reflect an evolutionary arms race between male and female spiders.)
For agreeing to a year's worth of lab work, Agnarsson gave his students naming rights. Working in Vermont in the midst of the 2016 campaign, lab discussions inevitably veered toward Sanders, he said.
The students' decision to name a spider after Sanders was unanimous.
“We all have tremendous respect for Bernie. He presents a feeling of hope,” said Lily Sargeant, one of the undergraduates who worked on the project, in a news release.
Sanders is not the only former presidential hopeful to have a species named after him. Texas billionaire Ross Perot has a dinosaur, Pachyrhinosaurus perotorum. Hillary Clinton almost had an extinct lizard named after her — except “Clintondon” didn't sound right, discoverer Nick Longrich told Reuters in 2012. (Longrich went with the name Obamadon.) Dutch horticulturalists named a strain of tulips after Clinton in 1994, when she was first lady.
Though spiders might not be the most metaphorically flattering animals, most scientists insist that giving a species your name is a compliment. In fact, the ethical guidelines of the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature state, “No author should propose a name that, to his or her knowledge or reasonable belief, would be likely to give offence on any ground.”
The planet is rife with animals that need names. The catch is that the overwhelming majority lack backbones. Which is why both George W. Bush and Bill Clinton have beetles. (Bush called to thank the entomologist who named the slime-mold beetle Agathidium bushi.) Nelson Mandela and Angelina Jolie have spiders, too. Scaptia beyonceae is a horsefly with a gold-hued posterior.
Last September, biologists named a parasite found only in the lungs of certain Malaysian freshwater turtles after Obama. Retired biology professor and parasite discoverer Thomas Platt defended the choice as an honor: Parasites “are amazing, beautiful and cool as hell,” he wrote in a Washington Post op-ed last year.
Leonardo DiCaprio got a spider Tuesday, too. Chloe Van Patten, a University of Vermont student and author of the study, lobbied for the actor. Spintharus leonardodicaprioi also happens to reflect a childhood crush.
“I'm over my crush, but now that he's involved in environmental issues, I love him even more,” she said in a news release. “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.”