If you don't think of spiders as cute and cuddly, then you’ve never met 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-inch long (five millimeters), male peacock spiders are known for their bright colors and a rolling-shaking mating dance that would make Miley Cyrus jealous.
Skeletorus (Maratus sceletus) got its name from the white markings on the males' dark limbs, which give them the look of a skeleton. 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. The report describing these spiders was published on January 20 in the journal Peckhamia.
“These new spiders are spectacular. It’s a mind-blowing find,” says arachnologist Damian Elias of the University of California, Berkeley, who was not involved in the research.
The 53 named species of Maratus spider are found only in Australia, but photographer Jürgen Otto, who has helped to discover 20 new species of peacock spider in the past four years, believes that many others are just waiting to be described.
“The diversity of these spiders is enormous, and new ones keep coming up,” Otto says.
Peacock spiders are a type of jumping spider, related to common jumpers you may have seen yourself. Jumping spiders don't weave silken webs to catch prey, but instead hunt and stalk their prey.
“Their eyesight is incredible—they can see as good as cats [can],” says Elias.
Girard traveled to Australia to study peacock spiders' flashy mating behavior with her friend Eddie King. Girard and King were working in southeastern Queensland when they spotted two new species of peacock spider.
Otto discovered Maratus elephans on a trip to a Sydney museum, where he searched through specimens that had been donated to the museum. After just a few hours of work, he discovered a peacock spider with what looked like a picture of an elephant on the flaps covering its backside. The new species was reported last week in Peckhamia.
A friend brought Otto two living M. elephans males and one female. There, on a table in his house, he was able to photograph the peacock spider mating dance.
To start, when he’s still more than several inches away from the female, the male raises its third pair of legs and waves them around in a move that would be at home in any South Beach club. Then he unfurls the flaps over his abdomen and waves those around. As the female approaches, he begins shivering and rolling his body, sending vibrations through the ground that the female can sense.
The colorful males make it easy to distinguish between species, but many female peacock spiders look alike, even to male spiders. Otto says that male peacock spiders will perform their mating dance for a female of any species—a risky prospect, considering the male is easy prey for both predators and females while concentrating on his performance.
Although scientists first discovered peacock spiders in the 1800s, they went virtually unstudied after a series of papers in the late 1950s, Otto explained. Some scientists have said that the spiders’ small size may explain the lack of research, but Otto isn’t convinced.
“They’re big compared to the mites I’m used to seeing,” says Otto, who works for the Australian Department of Agriculture inspecting goods imported into the country. “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. It appears to be high time that Sparklemuffin got some new friends.
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