Seven New Species Of Peacock Spiders Discovered In Australia
Sparklemuffin and Skeletorus have been joined by seven newly-described species of disco-dancing peacock spiders
This was a Forbes Editor’s Pick.
The research team who introduced the world to Sparklemuffin and Skeletorus, two tiny but brilliantly colored disco-dancing peacock spiders, now report they’ve described seven more that are new to science. These new species of peacock spiders were discovered in coastal areas in both southeastern and southwestern parts Australia, according to two recently published papers (ref and ref) by Jürgen Otto and David Hill.
Although the first of these diminutive spiders was described more than 100 years ago, they were generally overlooked until Dr. Otto happened to photograph one that jumped into his path during a family walk through the bush. Later, when he looked at the photograph on his computer, he was astonished at what he saw. He’s been sharing photographs and video of these tiny animals with a growing number of fans ever since.
Dr. Otto, who pays the bills by studying mites and ticks for Australia’s Department of Agriculture, chases peacock spiders in his spare time, cameras in-hand.
Peacock spiders are tiny members of the jumping spider family, Salticidae. These distinctive spiders are all classified into one genus, Maratus, with 67 total named species and subspecies — more than half of which were described by Dr. Otto and his colleague, David Hill, an American academic who is the general editor of the journal, Peckhamia, which specializes in publishing scientific articles about jumping spiders. Peacock spiders have been found across much of Australia but prefer more temperate bushlands on the southern portion of the continent.
These spiders are highly sexually dimorphic: whilst adult female peacock spiders are cryptically colored, male peacock spiders feature brilliant, and often iridescent, colors and color patterns, usually on their top side of their abdomens. Males also have fuzzy legs and flaps on the sides of their abdomens that they raise and flutter at females during elaborate courtship dances. These brilliant color patterns and precise dance moves are species-specific, and are the result of female choice: males with atypical dances or color patterns can be mistaken for lunch by an intended sweetheart.
Peacock spiders are so small (4–5 mm long, or less) that most people don’t notice them, even when tramping through these spiders’ scrub and bushland homes.
Unlike most spiders, peacock spiders “turn people’s opinions of spiders upside down,” as Dr. Otto told news.com.au.
“They’re funny little spiders with these fancy flaps and fancy moves; they’re like little birds of paradise. They’re so small yet perform and move in such interesting ways.”
According to many arachnophobes (myself included), these spiders are so cute and so tiny that they inspire curiosity rather than terror. For these reasons, I sometimes think of them as “spider ambassadors” — they’ve certainly won me over.
“They’re not scary hairy black things that are dangerous,” Dr. Otto agreed, adding that they have personalities to match their brilliant colors and intricate dances.
“They’re beautiful, they display curiosity and fear, they hide behind leaves when they’re scared,” Dr. Otto said.
“These are reactions and behaviours more like pets or mammals so I often compare them to puppies and kittens.”
Five newly-described peacock spiders live in the southwestern corner of Australia
Four of the newly described species of peacock spiders were found in the southwestern corner of Western Australia, along with a new subspecies of Melinda’s peacock spider (Figure 152.1).
Tufted peacock spider
The tufted peacock spider, Maratus cristatus, is named for the eight distinctive tufts of white fluff that extend above the adult male’s abdominal fan, which become obvious during his courtship dance.
“Cristatus has a pattern on its back that resembles the Union Jack and in addition has eight plumes of white setae (hairs) at its back that no other peacock spider has,” Dr. Otto said.
Circuit-board peacock spider
The circuit-board peacock spider, Maratus electricus, does not flare its abdominal flaps whilst dancing, but it does perform some impressive handstands during its dance routine.
“Electricus stands out by its striking pattern of parallel red lines that make it look like a circuit board,” Dr. Otto said.
Triangular-crowned peacock spider
The triangular-crowned peacock spider, Maratus trigonus, gets its name from the distinctive triangular shape of the extended fan on the abdomen of the courting male, where the top is much wider than the base.
“Trigonus can be easily recognised by the white crown at the tip of its abdomen that is not present in any known species,” Dr. Otto said.
Jewelled peacock spider
The jewelled peacock spider, Maratus gemmifer, is named for the bright, iridescent gem-like spot on each lateral flap of the male’s fan.
Northwestern subspecies of Melinda’s peacock spider
This is for those of you with keen eyesight: the northwestern subspecies of Melinda’s peacock spider, M. melindae corus, looks a lot like the jewelled peacock spider. But if you look closely, you’ll see that it lacks two bright “gems” on its abdominal fan, and it has a white spot on the back of its head that the jewelled peacock spider lacks.
Linnaeus’ peacock spider
In this paper, Dr. Otto and Dr. Hill also document the courtship dance of Linnaeus’s peacock spider, Maratus linnaei, for the first time. This species, which was previously described, is only known from Two Peoples Bay National Park in the southwestern corner of Western Australia near Albany.
“The interactions between female and male in this species are unlike any other species I observed,” Dr. Otto writes on YouTube.
“You probably ask why the male of this species tries to lure a female towards him that is obviously not interested in mating. Honestly, I have no idea; he is clearly far too optimistic, and risks his life.”
“The males remind me of Spanish bull fighters.”
Two newly-described peacock spiders live in the southeastern corner of Australia
In a second paper that was published a few weeks later, Dr. Otto and Dr. Hill described two more species of peacock spiders found in southeastern Australia (Figure 153.1).
Sapphire Coast peacock spider
This spider was discovered by citizen scientist Helen Ranson as she looked through leaf litter whilst she was on a Nature Walk with BioBlitz. Ms. Ransom showed her find to “spider man”, Stuart Harris, leader of her BioBlitz group, and he identified it as a species that was new to science.
“She said to me ‘Oh Stuart, what’s this?’ And I looked at it, and was like, ‘Oh no, that’s a new species.’ I just knew straight away,” Mr. Harris told the Sydney Morning Herald.
This new species was named for Australia’s Sapphire Coast where it was found, and also for the sapphire spots on each side of its abdominal fan.
Nimbus peacock spider
The pale coloring of this small peacock spider is unusual. The species was named for nimbus clouds because, according to Dr. Otto and Dr. Hill, the white color pattern against the pale blue background on their fans resembles “a group of clouds across the sky at dusk.”
Bat-like peacock spider
In this paper, Dr. Otto and Dr. Hill also documented the courtship dance of one another peacock spider, the bat-like peacock spider, Maratus vespertilio, for the first time. This species’ unique male-male “hopping contests” were unknown to science and were only discovered accidentally whilst filming.
Jürgen C. Otto, and David E. Hill (2017). Five new peacock spiders from Western Australia (Araneae: Salticidae: Euophryini: Maratus Karsch 1878), Peckhamia, 152.1:1―97.
Jürgen C. Otto, and David E. Hill (2017). Two new peacock spiders from southeastern Australia (Araneae: Salticidae: Euophryini: Maratus Karsch 1878), Peckhamia, 153.1:1―34.
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Originally published at Forbes on 18 September 2017.