Tarantula Breeder's Call Led to Discovery of New Species

Of worm, that is
By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff
Posted Jan 19, 2022 8:37 AM CST
New Tarantula-Killing Worm Gets a Hollywood Name
A tarantula visibly infected with jeffdanielsi.   (Adler Dillman/UCR)

(Newser) – Having a new species of worm named after you may not seem like the highest honor, but in the case of Tarantobelus jeffdanielsi, it's a worm that comes with a cinematic edge. This particular species of nematode is a tarantula-killer, hence its name, which is a nod to the actor Jeff Daniels. He starred in the 1990 film Arachnophobia, and UC Riverside parasitologist Adler Dillman explains the name fits: "His character in the film is a spider killer, which is exactly what these nematodes are." Though there are more than 25,000 nematode species, this is just the second one known to infect tarantulas. The discovery started with a 2018 call to Dillman from a wholesale tarantula breeder, who had suffered multiple tarantula deaths and "noticed white discharge in the oral cavities of the tarantulas."

Dillman quickly realized those white areas were actually "a large group of nematodes intertwined inside the tarantula's oral cavity," per a study published in the Journal of Parasitology. The infection causes the tarantulas to walk on their tiptoes and stop eating. The spiders' pedipalps—those are the organs that control their fangs—also become paralyzed. Death comes eventually, per a press release: Tarantulas don't need to eat often, but they will ultimately starve. In terms of eating, Dillman notes "it isn't clear that the nematodes feed on the spider itself. It’s possible that they feed on bacteria that live on the tarantulas." A lab experiment in which lab-grown worms ate e. coli bolstered that theory.

How did Daniels react when he heard that a worm (a self-fertilizing hermaphrodite, no less) had been named for him? Like this: "When I first heard a new species of nematode had been named after me, I thought, 'Why? Is there a resemblance?' Honestly, I was honored by their homage to me and Arachnophobia. Made me smile. And of course, in Hollywood, you haven’t really made it until you’ve been recognized by those in the field of parasitology." (Read more discoveries stories.)

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