JACKI LYDEN, host:
Now a biologist whose branch of research is sometimes regarding as obsolete. For this week's Science Out of the Box we go into a lab full of spiders.
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LYDEN: Gustavo Hormiga is an arachnologist and a taxonomist. That's a scientist who discovers, classifies and names life on earth. It's one of the oldest fields of biology, but for a long time it seemed a little fuddy-duddy and out of fashion. But in an age of climate change and growing habitat destruction, however, Gustavo Hormiga says taxonomy couldn't be more hip or important.
Mr. GUSTAVO HORMIGA (Arachnologist; Taxonomist): We know the amount of deforestation going on. You know that, you know, when they wipe out, you know, the slope of that mountain in the Andes, you know, there are a lot of things that live there that don't live anywhere else. If those species have not been collected we would not even have the hard evidence that those species exist, right.
LYDEN: Ever existed, huh?
Mr. HORMIGA: And that's going on now. We have extinction going on at a massive scale. So it's extremely important to actually collect and document those species before they disappear.
LYDEN: Hormiga spends a good part of his year combing the forests of Australia, China and North America for spiders. We caught up with him at his lab at George Washington University. We wanted to get a first-hand look at how a taxonomist goes about the daily grind of drawing new branches on the tree of life.
Mr. HORMIGA: Okay. Taxonomy 101…
LYDEN: Hormiga pulls out two female spiders from glass vials and places them under a microscope. They're members of the genus Orson Welles. And we'll have a bit more on the celebrity moniker later. Hormiga discovered them on the Hawaiian Islands.
Mr. HORMIGA: What I'd like you to do is to see whether you can actually see any differences between the two of them.
LYDEN: Okay. So, I'm looking at two Orson Welles spiders. They're both female. They're brown, kind of a nice amber color with some white markings. But if we are looking at just the abdomen, it's actually quite easy. Because the one on the left has a kind of a carob paste extending out on the abdomen. A little tiny cape, and the other one is not wearing a little tiny cape.
What I called a tiny cape - you think of something better - it's actually the epiginum(ph). It's part of the female spider's reproductive system and it turns out that these tiny differences in a spider's copulatory organs are often how scientists distinguish one species form another.
Close-up drawings of spider parts lie scattered around Hormiga's lab. He personally sketches out every angle of the spiders he studies inside and out. And to the untrained eye these simple pencil drawings look like works of art.
Mr. HORMIGA: And this is a detailed rendering of the many anatomical parts that make these copulatory organs. Locked in this anatomy to a large extent is the history of the evolution of the group. So if you understand, you know, the parts and what the comparisons are and the similarities and dissimilarities across species you can record a lot about the evolutionary history.
LYDEN: Hormiga's constantly trying to figure out how one kind of spider relates to another and where they sit on the tree of life. For instance, about a decade ago a colleague in Hawaii sent him some spiders from a bunch of different islands.
Mr. HORMIGA: You know, for every different place was a different species. There was no branch in that particular part of the spider tree to accommodate this.
LYDEN: The missing branch on the spider tree intrigued Hormiga so much that he packed up his bags and went to Hawaii on a collecting spree. In the process he discovered a whole new group, or genus, of spiders. This genus was notable because compared to their closest relatives, these spiders were giant and that's where the name came from.
Mr. HORMIGA: If you like movies you realize that Orson Welles was very unique. He was gigantic in a way in terms of movie making. These guys are very unique. They're also very gigantic. So I just said, okay, I'm going to name them Orson Welles.
LYDEN: Which one's Rosebud?
Mr. HORMIGA: I don't have that one but what I did is, for example, there is one species from Monkahili(ph) which at the top has a radio tower. And then I remember his radio show, the…
LYDEN: "War of the Worlds."
Mr. HORMIGA: …"War of the Worlds." And so I name it Orson Welles Bellum(ph) from the Latin word for war…
Mr. HORMIGA: …Bellus.
LYDEN: And there's also Orson Welles Malas(ph), for touch of evil, and Orson Welles Toledus(ph). That's a nod, of course, to Citizen Kane. To date there are 12 known members of the Orson Welles genus. And, by the way, giant in this case means about the size of a thumbtack.
Overall, scientists like Hormiga have named some 40,000 spiders so far. But they say there could be 110,000 more waiting to be named, and that number overwhelms Hormiga.
Mr. HORMIGA: This is intellectually an intoxicating experience. I mean, you'll find in most taxonomists, they really love their job. I'm here looking at things that nobody has ever seen before. I'm here, you know, describing how they look, describing how they're lived and I'm going into those forests thinking why, you know, catching them it has some sort of romantic side to it.
Nobody ever before has seen this. And you get to see places that unfortunately you have to wonder at the end of the day whether a few decades from now are going to be there. So there is also kind of a moral obligation to do this.
LYDEN: Gustavo Hormiga travels to Oregon and California next. Good things spiders live in nice places. He'll collect spiders from a known family, but if he stumbles upon an unidentified spider, he's already been thinking of a name: Pink Floydia.
Want to test your taxonomy skills? Head to npr.org to see if you can tell the difference between two Orson Welles spiders.