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the pages of 'The British Tarantula Society Journal'
So who was
responsible for the Theraphosidae?
Tarantulas belong in the spider family
given the scientific name Theraphosidae. But ,who first
came up with that name and why? To answer this you must
take a trip into the treacherous world of spider systematics, where science meets history in the often
difficult quest to track down who said ,what and why.
Anyway it turns out that Theraphosidae was first proposed
as a family name back in 1870 by the eminent Swedish arachnologist, Tord Tamerlan Teodor Thorell (1830-1901),
professor of zoology in the University of Upsala. One
possible source of confusion is that he created
Theraphosidae in a weighty book about European spiders,
which is not the first place you'd go looking for
tarantula names. Anyway, the full reference is as
Thorell, T. 1870. On European spiders.
Part 1. Review of some European genera of spiders
preceded by some observations on zoological nomenclature.
Nova Acta Regiae Societatis Scientiarum Upsaliensis,
Series 3, Volume 7, 1-242.
Now at this time there was some debate about the best
name to use for what we would now call mygalomorph
spiders. The problem went something like this. Way back
in 1800 the great French natural historian Baron George
Cuvier created the name Mygale, which is ancient Greek
for 'shrew. Knowing this, Cuvier intended Mygale to be a
name for small, furry mammals. All well and good, until
in 1802 another French naturalist, Baron Charles
Athanasie Walckenaer, also used the name Mygale for a
large, furry, perhaps vaguely shrew-like spider from
South America which he called Mygale blondii. Of course 'mygalomorph' is taken directly from the name
Walckenaer was a little bit naughty in that he shouldn't
have used the name Mygale, because it was already in use
somewhere else. However the rules of taxonomy were a
brand new idea back in the early 1800's and not everyone
followed them as strictly as they do today. Aynway, some
people tried to get round the confusion by changing the
spider name Mygale to Myogale or Myogalea. But this
didn't address the real problem, i.e. that Mygale was a
name first used for mammals and so shouldn't have been
used for spiders. Someone had to find a replacement for Mygale.
Meanwhile in 1805 Walckenaer made the problem he had
created worse by renaming Mygale blondii as Theraphosa blondii. This spider is of course the Goliath bird-eating
tarantula. the largest spider and a popular pet today
(the modern spelling leaves out the last 'i'). Anyway
natural historians could now chose to use either Mygale
or Theraphosa for big hairy. spiders since both names had
the same definition. Most went for Mlygale and new
species of large spiders were Generally put in this
genus. The only dissenting voice,was a chap called Eichwald
whlo in 1830 thought that Thieraphosa, not Mygale, was
the correct name. Now it's important to realise that back
in the early 1800's the taxonomic hierarchy of species -
genus - family - order, etc. was not quite as rigid as
today and the early arachnologists often talked about
'groups' or 'tribes' of spiders. The point is that Mygale
could mean both a genus and a family in a modern sense,
depending on who was using it.
Now, if things weren't confusing enough there were soon
to be a couple more names doing the rounds for big, hairy
spiders. In 1811 another Frenchman, Antoine Guillaume
Oliver. divided Walckenaer's Mygale spiders into two
groups which he called 'les Arignees aviculaires' and
'les Arignees mineuses'. In 1818 the celebrated French
naturalist, Jean Baptiste de Lamark, more famous for a
theory of evolution that predated Darwin, created a new
name for 'les Arignees aviculaires'. This was the genus
Avicularia (the name means bird keeper or bird catcher)
and was based on another of today's most popular
tarantulas, the South American pink-toe, Avicularia avicularia. Then in 1825 yet another French naturalist,
Pierre Latrielle came up with a genus name for 'les Arignees mineuses' -,which he probably called
Ctenize, though amid
some confusion this was subsequently changed to Cteniza.
Some of these spiders are now in a separate family, the Ctenizdae.
Anyway, by the middle of the last century the names Mygale, Theraphosa, Avicularia and Cteniza could all be
used for the group of spiders that we would call
mygalomorphs today. Enter Thorell in 1870 trying to bring
some order to the general chaos among spider taxonomy.
Thorell realised that Mygale was a popular name and that
many arachnologists wanted to keep it, even though it was
wrong. However, he also knew that as more species of
hairy spiders were being described the genus name Mygale
was becoming less common and was restricted to only a few
Thorell argued that Cteniza was essentially the same
group of spiders as the troublesome Mygale and that furthermore
Theraphosa would form a better group name than Avicularia
as Walckenaer's Theraphosa was the older name. The rules
of taxonomy suggest you should always use the oldest
available name, Mygale was wrong so Theraphosa became
next in line. Thorell therefore decided that he was
justified in proposing a new name, now a formal family
name, for all the large, hairy spiders and went for Theraphosidae, taking the name from
Theraphosa. That is
where the current name Theraphosidae comes from.
© Copyright 'The British Tarantula
Last Updated: April 04, 2007