Spider lovers, get out your dancing shoes: Arachnologists in Australia have found seven new species of the colorful creatures known as peacock spiders, tiny jumping spiders notable for their bright rumps and disco-like mating rituals.
Since 2013, spider enthusiasts Jürgen Otto and David Knowles have been on a mission to formally identify peacock spiders Knowles had seen previously but hadn’t gotten the chance to name.
On one trip late last year, the amateur arachnologists walked along the edge of Lake Jasper in Western Australia with the sun beating down on them. Otto says he wasn’t expecting to find any spiders, since these animals shy away from the heat.
But the spider hunters got a pleasant surprise when Knowles spotted something crawling along near the sand track and signaled Otto.
“I noticed an interesting pattern on its back, certainly an unusual one, and some iridescent patches,” Otto says in an email. “It was of average size for peacock spiders and looked characteristic for the genus. One thing I noticed were the long [bristles] on the legs and also interesting marks behind the eyes. I could only see these details, though, after photographing it.”
Otto later named this species Maratus vespa, after the Latin word for “wasp.” Two other trips around the country’s south and west coasts turned up six more previously unnamed species, which are described in a paper published May 22 in Peckhamia, a scientific journal specializing in jumping spiders. David Hill, the journal’s editor in chief, co-authored the paper with Otto.
The discoveries bring the number of known peacock spider species up to 48. Otto and Hill’s study notes that 16 additional Maratus species lie in limbo and need to be studied more before they can officially be part of the clan.
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In addition to M. vespa, the duo identified M. albus, M. bubo, M. lobatus, M. tessellatus, and M. vultus. M. australis, also mentioned in the paper, had been photographed before but not named.
Otto and Hill picked the Latin names based on how each spider looks. While M. vespa resembles a wasp, M. bubo invokes the Latin genus for horned owls, and M. albus is covered in white fuzz.
That way, the names “mean something about what [observers are] seeing when they see the animal,” Hill says.
The new peacock spider Maratus albus is named for its snowy white fuzz. [Photograph By Jurgen Otto]
Like other peacock spiders, all these adorable arachnids have eight legs, front-facing eyes, and furry bodies. They come in a range of colors, sporting patterned brown-and-white coats as well as vibrant and iridescent scales.
To differentiate between species of peacock spider, Otto says scientists have to study the design of the male’s fan—if he has one—as well as the coloration on the insect’s head region and the ornamentation on its legs. But the main factor for telling apart species is their mating dance.
Generally, the dance consists of the male working through a series of patterns, flaunting different movements and body parts to attract a potential mate.
For instance, a male M. vespa waves his iridescent fan from side to side in an arachnid show of “come hither.” The way the female watches, intently and from a few millimeters away, is the hallmark of the species, Hill says.
“It’s a behavior I haven’t seen in other species before,” Otto says. “It’s this thing she’s absolutely fascinated by.”
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A male Maratus tessellatus peacock spider (right) puts on a show for a female. [Photograph By Jurgen Otto]
Humans seem pretty fascinated by peacock spiders, too: With their tiny bodies and overall cuteness, the not-so-creepy-crawlies have gotten quite popular.
Otto is a mite entomologist by occupation, but peacock spiders are one of his passions. He’s devoted a Facebook page to them that has more than 66,000 likes, while one of the videos on his spider YouTube channel has almost 5.4 million views.
“Jumping spiders in general have a pretty big fan base,” Otto says. “I’m constantly reminded of small animals when I watch them.”
Future discoveries are likely to come from other regions of Australia such as Queensland, which is currently a blind spot in peacock spider research, Hill adds.
“I now believe there could well be additional species to be discovered,” Otto says.