Newly Discovered Parasitic Worm Named After Jeff Daniels

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Jeff Daniels is now the proud namesake of a tarantula-killing, hermaphroditic species of worm.

Scientists at the University of California, Riverside discovered a rare new species of a worm that attacks and kills tarantulas. The research team dubbed the worm “Tarantobelus jeffdanielsi” after the actor, musician and producer, because Daniels’ character in the 1990 horror-comedy film “Arachnophobia” saves a town from a deadly swarm of spiders.

There are more than 25,000 described species of such nematodes, which are cylindrical parasitic worms that are one of the most abundant animals on Earth. But according to UC Riverside, Tarantobelus jeffdanielsi is only the second time one has ever been found to infect tarantulas.

Daniels’ character in “Arachnophobia” is “a spider killer, which is exactly what these nematodes are,” said UC Riverside parasitologist Adler Dillman, who led the team that discovered the nematode.

In a statement provided by UC Riverside, Daniels quipped: “When I first heard a new species of nematode had been named after me, I thought, ‘Why? Is there a resemblance?'” He continued, “Honestly, I was honored by their homage to me and ‘Arachnophobia.’ Made me smile. And of course, in Hollywood, you haven’t really made it until you’ve been recognized by those in the field of parasitology.”

The discovery of the jeffdanielsi nematode came after a wholesale tarantula breeder contacted Dillman in September 2019 for help identifying a mysterious infection in some of their tarantulas. UC Riverside scientists discovered the new worm species as the culprit; an infection by jeffdanielsi causes the appendages that control the tarantula’s fangs to stop working — and eventually the spiders die of starvation.

The UC Riverside team’s work describing Tarantobelus jeffdanielsi was published this month in the Journal of Parasitology. In addition to confirming that jeffdanielsi infection is lethal to tarantulas, Dillman’s team learned how the worms reproduce and where on the spiders they reside. Jeffdanielsi are mostly self-fertilizing hermaphrodites that produce their own sperm and eggs; on average, a single hermaphrodite can produce 160 babies in its lifespan.

According to UC Riverside, one mystery that remains to be solved is how the nematodes are able to change the tarantulas’ behavior and paralyze their pedipalps (the organs that control their fangs). Dillman plans additional studies to understand this, as well as how breeders can treat or potentially prevent jeffdanielsi infections.

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