Sch­warzeneg­ger’s Spi­der

Newsweek International - - CONTENTS - BY AN­DREW WHALEN @And­whalen

In the 1987 movie Preda­tor, an alien stalks a team of Spe­cial Forces com­man­dos, led by “Dutch” (Arnold Sch­warzeneg­ger), who cuts vines and sharp­ens sticks to build traps and take down the tit­u­lar crea­ture.

Some of Dutch’s tech­niques were re­cently adopted by a group of sci­en­tists, who hap­pen to be fans of the film. They were in pur­suit of a re­al­life preda­tor, a new genus of gob­lin spi­der, which, like Dutch’s band of ex­trater­res­trial hunt­ing sol­diers, fiercely dom­i­nate their ecosys­tems. In­stead of snare traps and mini­guns, the sci­en­tists set pit­fall traps: PVC tubes filled with a mix of for­ma­lin preser­va­tive and de­ter­gent. They buried the traps just be­low the sur­face of the soil.

The tiny spi­ders—at 2-mil­lime­ter they are as along as a nickel is thick— move through the dirt, be­neath the leaves that cover the for­est floor. As they stalked their prey—mainly spring­tails and book­lice—they would tum­ble into the pipes. The sci­en­tists later col­lected the dead spec­i­mens and used an ar­ti­fi­cial di­ges­tive en­zyme to re­veal in­ter­nal soft tis­sue be­fore analysis.

As if this im­i­ta­tion of the movie weren’t flat­tery enough, the sci­en­tists later dubbed the genus of gob­lin spi­ders Preda­toroonops, af­ter the alien. “We named the genus and the species in honor of the par­tic­i­pants and the pe­cu­liar­i­ties of the film,” says An­to­nio Brescovit, an arach­nol­o­gist with the Bu­tan­tan In­sti­tute of São Paulo, who co­or­di­nated the sur­vey of the forests.

The spi­ders are part of a tra­di­tion of sci­ence adopt­ing pop cul­ture names, in­clud­ing the Matt Groen­ing crab, the Kate Winslet beetle, the Frank Zappa snail, the Dolly Par­ton lichen and a bee and a jel­ly­fish named for Shel­don Cooper’s Big Bang The­ory catch­phrase, “Bazinga.” The gob­lin spi­der P. schwarzeneg­geri isn’t even the first species named for Arnold; there’s a beetle with beefy arms (Agra schwarzeneg­geri), as well as a mi­nus­cule fly that has un­usu­ally large forelegs (Me­gapropodiphora arnoldi).

Brescovit and his team got the nam­ing idea when they no­ticed the gob­lin spi­der’s phys­i­cal re­sem­blance to the Preda­tor alien. Ex­am­in­ing the spi­ders through an LEO 1450VP scan­ning elec­tron mi­cro­scope, they spot­ted tarsal claws at the tip of their legs and fanged ap­pendages— or che­licera—hang­ing in front of their mouths.

In all, the team col­lected 29 spec­i­mens, in­clud­ing 17 new species of the Preda­toroonops spi­ders. Preda­toroonops dutch is named for Sch­warzeneg­ger’s role, and Preda­toroonops dil­lon for the Carl Weathers char­ac­ter, who Dutch says has been “push­ing too many pen­cils” for the

It’s a tra­di­tion of sci­ence to adopt pop cul­ture names, in­clud­ing the Kate Winslet beetle and Frank Zappa snail.”

CIA. Oth­ers bear the names of di­rec­tor John Mctier­nan (P. mc­tier­nani), the fic­tional coun­try where Preda­tor takes place (P. valverde) and the nick­name Val Verde na­tives gave the “de­mon who makes tro­phies of men”

(P. old­de­mon). “I looked at the film about 10 times, to en­sure that the nomen­cla­ture was cor­rect and that all were hon­ored,” says Brescovit, who is as fas­tid­i­ous with his pop cul­ture ref­er­ences as he is with his elec­tron mi­croscopy.

Brescovit de­scribed the dis­cov­ery in the June 2012 is­sue of the Bul­letin of the Amer­i­can Mu­seum of Nat­u­ral His­tory. In be­tween de­scrip­tions of mi­cro­scopic struc­tures sep­a­rat­ing one Preda­toroonops from an­other (it takes a com­bi­na­tion of che­licera and gen­i­tal struc­tures to dis­tin­guish a P. billy from a P. pe­ter­halli, named for the ac­tor in­side the Preda­tor suit), Brescovit and his col­leagues in­clude notes de­scrib­ing the in­spir­ing char­ac­ter: P. blain “refers to Blain Cooper, played by Jesse Ven­tura in the orig­i­nal

Preda­tor; he of­ten chews to­bacco and wears a bat­tered, old slouch hat.”

There was an­other rea­son be­hind the choice of names: A lit­tle Hol­ly­wood glam­our might help raise aware­ness for for­got­ten and threat­ened species that live in jun­gles. “It shows how lit­tle we know of the fauna that in­hab­its the for­est lit­ter,” says Brescovit. “The de­struc­tion of these forests can help to ex­tin­guish small species and in­crease the loss of di­ver­sity. Like the species of this genus of spi­ders, there are mil­lions of oth­ers, of sev­eral tax­ons, suf­fer­ing the same dan­ger, with­out be­ing de­scribed for sci­ence.”

The process of nam­ing has al­ways had power, whether re­li­gious, as in the word that cre­ates the world, or in its abil­ity to cre­ate a leg­end, like the gi­ant squid of sailors’ night­mares. With six movies in the Preda­tor se­ries (the lat­est opened on September 14), we now un­der­stand the fic­tional beast bet­ter than its real-life name­sake, liv­ing only a few miles from São Paulo, one of the big­gest cities in the Western Hemi­sphere.

“Al­most noth­ing is known about the bi­ol­ogy of Preda­toroonops,” Brescovit says, “and they are dif­fi­cult to keep in cap­tiv­ity.” In that way too, the gob­lin spi­ders are just like their name­sake.

ARMED AND DAN­GER­OUS Preda­tor’s cast, from left: Ven­tura, Shane Black, Sch­warzeneg­ger, Bill Duke, Weathers, Sonny Land­ham and Richard Chaves. Be­low: The movie’s alien above a di­a­gram of the gob­lin spi­der species named for Ven­tura’s char­ac­ter.

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