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Jurgen Otto

Peacock spider (Maratus volans) © Jurgen Otto

Peacock spiders

Jurgen Otto

Fast facts

  • Latin name: Maratus spp.
  • Notable feature: Intricate brightly coloured tails and a wavy dance
  • Where in the UK: Only found in Australia and China

These Australian jumping spiders may be small, but they are also the most spectacular, colourful and high energy spiders in the world.  

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The greatest attribute of jumping spiders is their advanced eyes.  Spiders have eight, occasionally six, eyes, but they are generally quite simple organs, specks of black or silver that can detect light and dark, shadow and movement and some fairly rudimentary blurry images, even at low light levels.  The two central front eyes of the jumping spider are much more advanced – large, fronted by spherical lenses, with an internal focussing mechanism and complex four layered retina.  All this means that a jumping spider can see fine detail, in colour and at different distances. 

Clear vision evolved as a predatory weapon, the jumping spider can see its prey from metres away, creep up and then pounce from a distance of over 20 times its body length to deliver an instant fatal bite. 

 

 

Tiny dancers

But some jumping spiders have gone on to develop an appreciation of beauty – and the species with the greatest eye for beauty are the peacock spiders.

The male peacock spider has black and white stripy legs, when he encounters a female he initiates courtship by waving his legs like semaphore flags, then if this is accepted he launches his trump card, unwrapping from around his abdomen a disk of brilliant shining and metallic colours and holding this vivid artwork vertically while dancing back and forth.  The female watches enthralled and if she is swept away by his magnificence she will allow him to mate, sometimes after first turning and doing her own dance to him, wiggling her abdomen seductively.

There are 44 species of peacock spiders in the genus Maratus.  Most are about 5 mm long, but the intricate blue, red, yellow, purple, orange and black pattern on the tail of each species is unique and so is the choreography of each species’ dance.

New discoveries

All but one of the peacock spiders live in Australia, usually in dry scrubby habitats, the one overseas relative lives in China.  The first peacock spider was described by British arachnologist Octavius Pickard-Cambridge in 1874, and their enchanting dances and displays have only been widely appreciated very recently indeed. While the dancing of one Maratus species had been noted, this was not widely known and dancing had not been seen, or even apparently suspected, in any of the other species.

In 2011 a naturalist Jürgen Otto changed all this, he filmed and released an amazing video of the dancing courtship of one species, Maratus volans.  When first described people believed that this spider used the flaps on the side of the abdomen to glide through the air, this idea persisted despite this and other species of peacock spider being quite common in suburban cities. 

Since 2011 the profile and study of peacock spiders has taken off, 16 new species being described, each beautiful and unique, with Jürgen involved in many of the discoveries.  Some of the papers are nearly as gaudy as their subjects, such as “A new peacock spider from Australia displays three 'sapphire gems' on a field of gold” (Otto and Hill 2013)

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Dancing peacock spiders with their eye for beauty are able to charm many people who are otherwise afraid of spiders, and the story of Jürgen’s unveiling of the behaviour of these little spiders is an inspiration to all naturalists.

Peacock spiders are a visual treat, so have a look at Jürgen’s photo library.

Here is an interview with Jürgen about his passion for these tiny dancers.

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