Paul Marek can now add “Spider Man” to his list of professional titles.
Not because he recently acquired superpowers, but because the Virginia Tech assistant professor of entomology has had an actual spider named after him.
And not just any spider. A tarantula.
The spider, now known as Aphonopelma mareki, is a black dwarf tarantula related to the better known, considerably larger, and more hairy species of tarantulas. And contrary to every arachnophobes’ nightmare, most of these species are rather docile. Marek said it just takes a gentle nudge to scoot one into your hand. Not that most folks who aren’t entomologists would want to do such a thing.
“They’re like the puppies of the spider world,” said Marek, who is in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
The specimen named for Marek is part of a 55 species-naming extravaganza that took his colleague Brent Hendrixson of Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi, 16 years to fully catalogue. Hendrixson’s 340-page work was recently published in a paper in the journal ZooKeys.
As a graduate student at East Carolina University, Marek shared an office with Hendrixson who would frequently receive spider specimens in the mail.
“The office we shared had a row of 20 or so tarantula species in cups on a shelf,” said Marek. “The cleaning staff did their best to avoid our workspace.”
Eventually, Hendrixson moved to Millsaps College. Marek moved to work as a post-doc at the University of Arizona, where he would often see his arachnid namesake on hikes outside of Flagstaff. He collected specimens and sent them to Hendrixson in the mail.
While it’s typical for species to be named for their discoverer, Marek also considers the naming of his newly minted spider self an honor and a testament to his friendship with Hendrixson.
“My coauthors and I wanted to recognize Paul not only for discovering the first adult males of this new species, but also for his myriad achievements,” said Hendrixson. “He is an exceptional evolutionary biologist, educator, mentor, and advocate for biodiversity research. He is also a great friend and a lot of fun in the field.”
Marek is no stranger to naming species himself, having catalogued many species of millipede in the Department of Entomology.
“I like to name things for their geographic region,” he said.
Marek has described at least two millipedes in Southwest Virginia, one aptly dubbed Brachoria virginia with yellow legs and small white patch above the red medial spots that dot each segment of the arthropod.
And as any good entomologist would do, Marek gave the ultimate wedding gift to his soon-to-be wife as they hiked on their wedding day and stumbled across an as of yet unnamed species of millipede that Marek hopes to name Rudiloria charityae, as an homage to his wife, Charity.
Other faculty at Virginia Tech who have had species named after them include David G.I. Kingston, University Distinguished Professor of Chemistry at the College of Science. Kingston had a tree named after him in 2007, a yew species called Taxus kingstonii, also commonly known as the Kingston yew.
Poet and University Distinguished Professor Nikki Giovanni has won numerous awards, but among her most interesting accolades is having a species of bat named after her. In 2001 Robert Baker, a Horn professor of biological sciences at Texas Tech, wanted to honor her because he was enamored of her writing, so he named a bat after her called Micronycteris giovanniae, meaning Giovanni’s small night flyer.
According to Marek it is not unusual for collectors to name species after well known persons such as Giovanni, even if they don’t know them personally. Consider another of the spiders named in Hendrixson’s paper that pays homage to the Man in Black — Aphonopelma johnnycashi.
Nationally ranked among the top research institutions of its kind, Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences focuses on the science and business of living systems through learning, discovery, and engagement. The college’s comprehensive curriculum gives more than 3,100 students in a dozen academic departments a balanced education that ranges from food and fiber production to economics to human health. Students learn from the world’s leading agricultural scientists, who bring the latest science and technology into the classroom.
Written by Amy Loeffler