Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” brought the city and prison national notoriety, and now a newly identified species of tarantula inhabiting the Folsom area bears the singer’s name.
The “Johnny Cash” tarantula, or Aphonopelma johnnycashi, is one of 14 new species of tarantulas identified in a study published in ZooKeys described on its website as a peer-reviewed, open-access journal on biodiversity research.
Chris Hamilton, a postdoctoral researcher who was part of the Auburn University team that conducted the study, said most species are not named after someone famous, but rather for something unique about them or where they are from.
“Some of my favorite names,” he said in an email, “are Aphonopelma johnnycashi, obviously, named because this new species can be found around Folsom Prison and males are generally all black, which fits Johnny Cash’s persona.” Cash was known for dressing all in black.
As an American Indian, a member of the Chickasaw Nation, Hamilton said he also likes to tie Native American history to species found in their ancestral ranges. Another tarantula in the study, Aphonopelma xwalxwal, is found in the area where the Cahuilla people are from, and xwalxwal means “spider” in their language, he said.
Although he didn’t collect any specimens within Folsom city boundaries, Hamilton said the Johnny Cash tarantula is found all around the area. Specimens have been collected in areas around Placerville, Auburn and Plymouth and have been seen in Folsom, particularly around Folsom Lake and in neighborhoods near Highway 50, he said.
“They’re completely harmless and they are not going to do anything to harm you,” Hamilton said. “They won’t attack you – you have to do a lot to get them mad enough to bite.”
Hamilton said he has handled thousands of them and never been bitten.
As for the significance of identifying the species, he said, “I think the most important aspect of this research, for the public, is that most of the public think of new species being found in remote, tropical places. But in reality, most of the diversity on the planet has probably already been collected. It’s sitting in jars or drawers in natural history collections.”
Adding this type of information to traditional taxonomic work, he said, is rapidly changing how taxonomy is carried out. “It’s an incredibly valuable ‘tool’ in our tool shed,” he said.
Hamilton said he has been trying to connect with Johnny Cash’s relatives to tell them of the singer’s latest namesake.
“I would absolutely love to tell them myself,” he said, “or at least find out that they now know about it.”