Prowling the foothills of the Sierra Nevada in California, evolutionary biologist Chris Hamilton would spend much of his time examining holes in the ground. He'd keep his eyes peeled for the telltale signs: a clean circle, lined with a translucent white silk.
When he would spot the right burrow, he'd dig out a tarantula.
"When you get it out of its burrow and you look at it, you almost immediately know, 'Whoa, I wasn't expecting to see that,'" Hamilton told Mic.
That's what happened in the case of one of Hamilton's most memorable finds: a bunch of predominantly black male tarantulas in the foothills around northern California's Folsom State Prison — an area that hadn't been sampled much before, according to Newsweek.
"I thought, 'Boy, this really could be something,'" he said.
In fact, it was. Hamilton had discovered a new species of tarantula — one he ended up naming Aphonopelma johnnycashi, after "Man in Black" Johnny Cash. The species was one of 14 new U.S. tarantula species documented by Hamilton and his fellow researchers in a sweeping taxonomic paper published Feb. 4 in ZooKeys.
Hamilton and his teammates, Brent Hendrixson and Jason Bond, spent a decade working to rewrite the evolutionary history of the tarantula — a topic that not many people have studied.
"They're cool, they're unique," Hamilton said, "but when it comes down to how much actual biological knowledge is really out there about them, there's not much."
By examining thousands of already collected specimens and conducting their own field research, the trio didn't just find 14 new species — they also realized that 40 previously categorized "species" of tarantula weren't, in fact, their own individual species. Tarantulas are difficult to tell apart, and past researchers seem to have mistakenly categorized tarantulas as different species when they were actually the same.
"There were a lot of species described that ended up not being valid," Hamilton said.
Of the 14 species, eight are miniature tarantulas, which Hamilton said are his favorites.
"It's always a really fun time to look for those and dig them up," he said. "They put up a big show — they try to make themselves look big and terrifying, but you just kind of laugh at them because they're so tiny."
Talk to Hamilton, and you'll come away convinced that all tarantulas are actually pretty fun. They get a bad rap — perhaps due to films like Tarantula and Arachnophobia, or the fact that they have fangs, or simply their sheer number of legs, Hamilton said.
In reality, "they're nice little spiders," he insists.
"Most tarantulas, they're big teddy bears," Hamilton said. "They look fearsome, but I've never been bitten. And I've dealt with thousands."