What do Bernie Sanders, Leonardo Dicaprio, David Attenborough, David Bowie, Barack and Michelle Obama have in common? Of course, these are all celebrity names, but these celebrities all have spiders named after them. Students and researchers from the University of Vermont have recently discovered fifteen new species of smiley faced spiders. These spiders belong to the genus known as spintharus.

According to professor, Ingi Agnarsson, from the University of Vermont, the spiders were named after politicians and artists who have stood up for human rights and have warned against the consequences of climate change. These spiders are named for the smiley face design that can be found on their abdomens. It was previously thought that smiley faced spiders only included one single species that ranged from northern North America down to northern Brazil. This theory changed when researchers further examined smiley faced spiders within Jamaica, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, the Lesser Antilles, Florida, South Carolina, Costa Rica, Mexico, and Colombia. Now researchers believe that there are several species of smiley faced spiders, and not just one single overarching species. Professor Agnarsson, along with his research team, described fifteen distinct types of smiley faced spiders.

The now deceased, and former leading expert on smiley faced spiders, Herbert W. Levi, did not subscribe to the belief that multiple smiley faced spider species existed. Levi was convinced that the varying features found on smiley faced spiders were only small differences in one single species of spider. However, the research team from the University of Vermont has made use of more modern technology that can analyze an organism’s genetic makeup. This recent research strongly indicates that at least fifteen different smiley faced spiders exist. Although the different species are hardly discernible from each other, DNA analysis shows that these spiders have not been interbreeding for millions of years. Therefore these different spiders, which are located in vastly different environments, have not been exchanging genes with one another. This makes smiley faced spiders from different regions genetically different.

Do you believe that genetic testing should always be used before establishing a species? Or is visual observation sufficient for establishing a distinct species?

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