Paula Cushing, senior curator of invertebrate at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, has sent spiders to space. Now, researchers have named a trapdoor spider after her.
In a paper published this month in the journal ZooKeys, scientists Rebecca Godwin and Jason E. Bond identified 33 new species of spiders under the Ummidia genus. They named one of those species Ummidia paulacushingae. (When you’ve got a PhD and you find a new creature in the world, you’ve earned the right to give it a name in the annals of scientific history.)
In the early days of taxonomy, Godwin told us, scientists usually stuck to words that described the species they discovered. That word might indicate that a spider is brown, for instance. But there are lots of spider species that have yet to be identified, and many of them are brown, so there’s been a need to stray from straight-up descriptors.
“You have to get a little bit creative,” Godwin said.
So scientific naming has become a way to honor humans, cultures and places. Bond earned some fame outside his field when he named a spider for Stephen Colbert, who said on his Comedy Central show in 2008 that he “begged” for his own spider “through a hail of tears and spit” after he learned Bond named a species after Neil Young.
There are some traditionalists out there who scoff at using this scientific platform to highlight celebrities, but Bond says the practice has helped bring attention to his field.
“I felt like it more importantly helped to highlight biodiversity and the fact that even here, in North America, there are species that yet remain to be discovered,” he said.
Other species described in the paper are named for Godwin’s husband, native tribes that once occupied the land where specimens were found and Bessie Coleman, the first Black and Native American woman to obtain a pilot’s license in this country.
Godwin, Bond and Cushing all said one could look at names like these to get a glimpse of people and places that were important to scientists through history.
“There are a lot of names for Star Wars characters. There’s always an element of entertainment and literature important to people during those time periods,” Bond said.
Naming one spider for Bessie Coleman, Godwin said, was an opportunity “to raise up names that would be lost to history,” highlighting both the person and a creature that may otherwise be overlooked.
Unlike Colbert, Cushing did not need to beg for this third species to be named for her.
As the former president of the International Society of Arachnology and the first woman to lead the American Arachnological Society, both Bond and Godwin said she has made a huge impact on the study of arachnids. She also helped Godwin get situated in DMNS’ laboratories to work on this paper and study the trapdoor spider that now bears her name. The species is also a Colorado native.
Cushing said she was grateful for the nod.
“When someone recognizes your contribution to a field enough that they name a species after you, that’s a huge honor,” she told us.
Trapdoor spiders build silk-lined burrows that they hide in, waiting beneath a wafer-like lid for unwitting prey to pass by. When they sense dinner nearing the edge of their holes, they strike and drag the creatures underground.
“It’s really a beautiful animal, kind of a shiny body and they’re pretty robust,” Cushing said. “It’s a little bit cute, a little bit scary.”
She said she’s fine being associated with these characteristics. She had to be an assertive leader when she headed both arachnology societies.
“I saw them as opportunities to get a lot done for the field, and to get a lot done you have to be persuasive and get people to participate in these goals you’ve set,” she said.
Bond, who Cushing said is her “academic sibling,” told us it’s a fair comparison. In paper’s section that explains the name, he wrote he is “generally afraid of her.”
“I’ve always looked up to Paula as a more senior, well-known figure in the world of arachnology,” he said. “She’s also a force of nature there at the Denver museum … I’ve been in both fear and awe of her.”