We’re sure no one has ever thought of spiders as being cute and cuddly, but you’ve never seen Sparklemuffin, Skeletorus , and the elephant spider. Scientists have identified these three new species of peacock spiders in various parts of eastern Australia. Less than a quarter of an inch long, male peacock spiders are known for their bright colors and a rolling, shaking mating dance that would make Miley Cyrus jealous.
Like almost all spiders, peacock spiders are venomous, but that doesn’t mean they’re dangerous to humans: their little jaws are so tiny that they couldn’t even puncture our skin. Like all jumping spiders, the peacock spiders don’t build webs. They stalk their prey like lions, when the time comes, they pounce, and can take down prey three or four times their size. Each species has its own mating dance.
Damian Elias, an arachnologist from the University of California, Berkeley says “These new spiders are spectacular. It’s a mind-blowing find.” Jurgen Otto, a mite biologist at the Australian Department of Agriculture in Sydney says that peacock spiders have become his passion. “People simply don’t expect such beauty and complexity from something that small, let alone something that is a spider,” says Otto. Although scientists first discovered peacock spiders in the 1800’s, they went unstudied for a long time. Some scientists say that the spiders’ small size may explain the lack of research, but Otto isn’t convinced. He says “They’re big compared to the mites I’m used to seeing, it’s just a matter of perspective.” With so few professional scientists working on peacock spiders, Otto says that amateur naturalists and photographers are likely to be the ones discovering new species.
The elephant peacock spider, Maratus elephans was named for the pattern on its abdomen that kind looks like an elephant’s face. This species was discovered by peacock spider enthusiast Jurgen Otto and jumping spider journal Peckhamia editor, David Hill. Aside from its elephant-faced pattern, the spider stands out from the rest of the Maratus genus due to the male’s unusual courting dance. “The dance of this spider is similar to that of Maratus volans and Maratus pardus, and that is one of the reason we grouped it together with these two spiders.”
Skeletorus (Maratus sceletus) got its name from the white marking on the male’s dark limbs, which give them the look of a skeleton. Male Maratus sceletus generally approach the female from the opposite side of a stem or blade of grass. Male peacock spiders have spectacular iridescent fans on their butts and they do a fancy dance to show them off. The dance of each species is unique, but most of them involve sensual leg waving and booty shaking. If the female spider is not satisfied by the male’s mating technique, he becomes easy prey for the female……poor chap.
Sparklemuffin was the pet name Maddie Girard, a Ph.D. student at the University of California, Berkeley, gave Maratus jactatus, which has blue and red stripes on its midsection. Male Sparklemuffin spiders have butts like ski caps made out of jewels and a mating dance that makes them look very, very drunk. Jactatus means ‘rocking’ in Latin, a reference to the very rapid lateral rocking that punctuates the courtship display of males of this species.
There are now some 58 known species of the peacock spider. These species are found only in Australia. Otto has helped to discover 20 new species of peacock spiders in the past four years and believes that many others are just waiting to be discovered. “The diversity of these spiders is enormous, and new ones keep coming up.”Otto predicts that the spiders will soon become as iconic for Australian wildlife as kangaroos and koalas. “What is fascinating is how they change people’s perception of spiders in general. Many people contact me and confess to being arachnophobes, but they tell me that watching my videos is helping them overcome their fear of spiders,” Otto says. His passion started when he was on a stroll with his family in 2005. As a trained mite specialist, he is used to looking for small organisms and noticed a tiny spider on the path. When he researched the particular species he believed it could fly but actually it jumps very quickly. Otto then collaborated with other experts and started publishing papers on peacock spiders. “Since finding my first peacock spider in 2005, I cannot stop photographing and filming them. There are so many aspects that fascinate me about them, such as their cat-like behaviour, the way they approach and catch prey….” “I would hope that some of this knowledge will contribute to protecting the habitats they live in. It is difficult to make people feel strongly about invertebrates to the extent that they want to protect them, but with these spiders there is a good chance that this will happen.”