There are famously unexplored parts of the world that promise to harbour as yet undiscovered species for the determined naturalist, but you wouldn’t expect the suburbs of Sydney to be one of them. The species to be discovered aren’t everyone’s cup of tea; they’re Australia’s colourful little jumping spiders.
One man isn’t afraid of these little cuties, and we hope you won’t be either by the end of this article. Dr Jürgen Otto has photographed all the wildlife around Sydney, where he works as a government scientist, and was at a loss for what to do next until he stumbled across the tiny Maratus volans in the bush around the city in 2005. Since then he has discovered several new species and found out a lot more about the genus whose members are commonly described as peacock spiders.
Dr Otto believes he is the first to capture the peacock spider’s incredible courtship behaviour on film. He has shared these videos with an increasing number of enchanted followers on YouTube and Facebook. He has found that even people who profess to be afraid of spiders find something to love in the peacock spider.
“People who admit to an intense fear of spiders comment on peacock spiders being surprisingly cute.”
Take a look.Peacock spiders tend to be tiny, less than 5mm across. The females are very difficult to see as they are a dull brown and therefore camouflaged against the undergrowth. The males, though, are easily identifiable. They’re fantastically coloured, some of them iridescent, with vibrant blues, reds, yellow, purple and greens. Macro photography of these creatures reveals a set of four beautiful big eyes behind a fluffy pair of pedipalps drawn up like a puppy dog begging for a treat.
And then they really get going. Dr Madeline Girard of the University of California at Berkeley has recently completed a study into the courtship dance of Maratus volans in the lab. When a male sees or scents a female near, his pedipalps start twitching and his abdomen starts vibrating. When he’s got her attention, he stretches his third pair of legs in the air like a ballet dancer. Some species have scales on these legs to reflect a blue flash of light to further mesmerise the female. This isn’t the killer move, though, as he has one more trick up his sleeve. His abdomen raises to vertical and he opens a pair of brightly coloured flaps (properly known as the opisthosomal fan) just like the peacock’s tail. This fan is then displayed in a dance with the male running left and right rhythmically, still extending his third pair of legs and twitching his pedipalps at the same time.
Of course, the object of this display is mating and if the female is receptive, the male climbs on top of her and inseminates her. He then scarpers pretty quickly and, even though he can be dancing for up to 51 minutes, he tries again with another female as soon as possible.
Dr Otto is an acarologist (an expert on mites) and describes himself as an amateur arachnologist, having come to it through a developing interest in wildlife photography. He thinks amateurs have a lot to contribute to the field.
“Australia is a large country and, with very few spider experts looking for peacock spiders, it seems photography enthusiasts can play an important role in the discovery and documentation of new species.”
He has inspired amateur naturalists and photographers to hunt for new species of peacock spider. Because of their distinctive markings, they’re easy to identify, and very photogenic. Several have been named after their discoverers, such as Maratus robinsoni and Maratus purcellae. Maybe the peacock spider will thaw the hearts of future arachnologists, whether professional or amateur.
Other understudied arachnids
Professor Chris Buddle of McGill University in Montreal is keen for new arachnologists to be trained. He thinks spiders should be “adored as much as Pandas, or the Mona Lisa”. Here are some examples:
- Linyphiidae, otherwise known as money spiders. There are 4300 known species but because these spiders are so small, they are difficult to accurately identify.
- Pseudoscorpiones are on order of arachnids related to spiders and resemble miniature scorpions. They eat dust mites and clothes moth larvae, so are actually very helpful.
- Opiliones, often known as harvestmen, are another arachnid order worthy of study. Nobody knows why they sometimes mass in aggregations of up to 70,000 individuals, or even the life history of an individual.
Otto, J. C. and D. E. Hill. 2011. An illustrated review of the known peacock spiders of the genus Maratus from Australia, with description of a new species (Araneae: Salticidae: Euophryinae). Peckhamia 96.1: 1-27.
Otto, J. 2012. Ready to dance : peacock spiders. Landscope, Volume 28 Number 1: 14-20