SCIENCE & TECH: Scientists Name Newly Discovered Spiders for Star Trek Characters
Star Trek fans and spider enthusiasts have unexpectedly converged on a new frontier.
Scientists in Brazil announced that they had identified three new species of spiders and subsequently named them Kirk, McCoy and Spock after some of the main characters of “Star Trek.”
The trio of spiders are part of the Roddenberryus genus, a taxonomic classification named for Gene Roddenberry, who created the 1960s science fiction television series that spawned decades of films, sequels, comics and a community of devoted Trekkies.
Mr. Roddenberry, who died in 1991, “inspired generations of kids to pursue scientific careers,” wrote Alexander Sánchez-Ruiz, a zoologist, and Alexandre Bragio Bonaldo in their article in European Journal of Taxonomy, published on Sept. 6, explaining how a science fiction franchise became the basis for the spiders’ names.
The nomenclature was not entirely frivolous. Dr. Bonaldo, a researcher at the Paraense Emílio Goeldi Museum in Brazil, said in an interview that the spiders’ wide, fused heads and thoraxes, known as the cephalothorax, and long abdomen of the spiders “make them ideal candidates for names inspired by the Star Trek universe.”
“They somewhat resemble Star Trek spaceships,” Dr. Bonaldo said. “Arachnologists have a long tradition of giving interesting scientific names for new genera and species, as most of us believe it is a great opportunity to acknowledge people or draw parallels with pop culture and local customs.”
Once Dr. Bonaldo and Dr. Sánchez-Ruiz agreed to call the genus Roddenberryus, naming the three species after the main characters “became, as Spock would say, ‘only logical,’” they said. “Kirk” honors James Tiberius Kirk, the captain of the series’s spaceship, the U.S.S. Enterprise. “McCoy” was named for Dr. Leonard McCoy, the ship’s chief medical officer, and “Spock” shares a name with Kirk’s pointy-eared Vulcan First Officer.
McCoy, Spock and Kirk now belong to a family of spiders known as Caponiid, which is unique for having only two eyes instead of the more common eight, and rows of teeth, bristles, orange carapaces, pale abdomens and claws.
The spiders are found across the Americas, Africa and Asia, but they are commonly within a single location, such as on an island or in another strictly defined area. Roddenberryus Kirk is from the Guanacaste and San José provinces of Costa Rica, while Roddenberryus mccoy hails from Baja California Sur in northwest Mexico. Roddenberryus spock is found in Campeche and Quintana Roo in Mexico.
Dr. Bonaldo added that the discovery of new genus and species provided the team with material to study the evolution and diversification of their subfamily, Nopinae, “and potentially illuminate the intricate biogeographic history of Central America and the Caribbean.”
It is not unusual for arachnologists to name newly identified spiders after a celebrity, pop culture icon and now, even a fictitious human-Vulcan hybrid. The climate activist Greta Thunberg was the inspiration for spiders of the Thunberga genus of Madagascar in 2020. Peter Jäger of the Senckenberg Research Institute and Natural History Museum in Frankfurt, Germany, said the spider named after Thunberg was meant to draw attention to the threat that climate changes pose to species diversity in Madagascar and elsewhere.
He said in a statement that he meant to “commemorate this incomparable artist who left us much too early, but what matters most to me here is the idea of conservation.”
“We only protect what we know — and an attractive name is much more likely to be remembered,” he said.
Dr. Bonaldo said that his favorite unique names include Strotarchus beepbeep, a fast-moving spider named after the Road Runner cartoon from the Looney Tunes series, and Myrmecium oompaloompa, which mimics ants and can be found in cocoa plantations in the Brazilian state of Bahia.
More than 51,000 species of spiders have been identified worldwide thus far — according to the World Spider Catalog — representing about a third of the estimated 150,000 to 180,000 species, said Linda Rayor, a behavioral ecologist at Cornell University. Now, more than 1,000 species are identified each year, up from about 200 in 1925, she said.
“Enormous numbers of spiders are being identified constantly,” said Dr. Rayor, who is also the president of the American Arachnological Society.
“Within that context, arachnologists have a recent history of giving them cutesy names,” she said.
As voracious eaters and top predators, spiders are hugely important to the ecosystem. “To me, the identification is less exciting in and of itself,” Dr. Rayor said about the relevance of the Star Trek-themed spiders. “Far more important is conserving habitats.”