New tarantula-killing parasite named for actor Jeff Daniels

Add one more arachnid accolade to the mantle of famed performer Jeff Daniels.

A newly discovered tarantula-killing parasite was named for the star of the film “Arachnophobia,” as an homage to the heroic (albeit fictional) actions of Dr. Ross Jennings that saved a town from those damned eight-legged freaks in 1990.

It is “a distinction no other entertainer can claim,” the discovery team at the University of California, Riverside, said in a release.

“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,” Daniels told UCR.

The parasitic nematode — scientifically called Tarantobelus jeffdanielsi by those brilliant folks — ultimately starves tarantulas to death while also immobilizing the appendages around their fangs, according to the West Coast research facility.

Jeff Daniels found some humor in the scientific discovery named after himself.
NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

“When I first heard a new species of nematode had been named after me, I thought, ‘Why? Is there a resemblance?’”

Putting it bluntly, the newfound microworms — just like Dr. Jennings — are cold-blooded spider killers, UC Riverside parasitologist and Tarantobelus jeffdanielsi team leader Adler Dillman said about the rare discovery.

“If they get this infection, they will die of starvation,” Dillman said, adding that some cases may take several months as tarantulas “don’t have to eat particularly often.”

The telltale sign of the parasite is when tarantulas “exhibit strange behaviors like walking around on tiptoe and not eating,” according to researchers who began their project in 2019 when a wholesale tarantula breeder contacted Dillman.

The breeder then sent some specimens “for help identifying a mysterious infection” that caused “an odd white mass around the mouth area” in the big bugs.

It was later determined that these killer nematodes are found on the mouths of tarantulas rather than inside their stomachs and do not appear to cause any exterior harm to the creepy crawler, UCR reported.

“It isn’t clear that the nematodes feed on the spider itself. It’s possible that they feed on bacteria that live on the tarantulas,” Dillman said.

Although rare, this parasite is deadly for tarantulas.
Although rare, this parasite is deadly for tarantulas.
Adler Dillman/UCR

Research now published in the Journal of Parasitology also demonstrated that the nematodes — who can survive up to 11 days in the lab and produce an estimated 160 babies — feed on E. coli, suggesting this particular parasite is a bacteria consumer.

Though, there is still one mystery out there when it comes to Tarantobelus jeffdanielsi.

Dillman says further research is needed to learn how the parasite seizes control of the organs that tarantulas use to operate their fangs, the pedipalps.

From there, ideally there will be more ways on “how breeders can treat or even prevent jeffdanielsi infections.”

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