There’s not an arachnophobe on the planet who couldn’t warm to these little darlings.
They’re called peacock spiders, they jump and they’re endemic to Australia. But don’t worry too much about the jumping bit, because they’re harmless.
Of the genus Maratus, the incredibly colourful and active spiders were once thought to fly, although it had been reported back as early as the 1950s that one species was using its display to attract mates. It took until 2008 for Sydneysider Jurgen Otto to capture that behaviour on film.
Otto posts regular updates about the spiders on his Facebook page, as well as some amazing videos of their rituals and habits on his YouTube channel Peacockspiderman. His most recent post was this beautiful collage at the top of the page, which went a bit viral this week.
But the close-ups are the best, seemingly giving the little creatures personalities of their own:
His passion started in 2005 when he “stumbled across Maratus volans” in Sydney. He’d heard it sported a pair of colourful flaps and after playing with it for a while, he got the male to flare up.
Otto’s first experience with a peacock spider was a path in Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park near Sydney in 2005.
“It literally hopped across my path and I nearly stepped on it. Its colouration and swift movements intrigued me and I went back to the same spot repeatedly every couple of weeks to see whether I could perhaps find another one.”
It took him three years. And when he did, he tested a theory that the “wings” on its back for which it was named (“volans”) were actually for mateship displays.
“I managed to track down the female, then still unknown to science, and I exposed a male to her. I was just blown away by the spectacle that followed.
“The flaps were extended, a pair of legs went up into the air and the spider kept moving from side to side.”
Otto published the pics on the web, became an overnight sensation and found a lifelong passion.
From there, his collection (and fans of the spider) has rapidly expanded and there’s now some 37 identified species of peacock spider on his books. He has pictures of another nine unnamed species and knows of another five he hasn’t yet photographed.
The most recent two additions were actually found in southeast Queensland by graduate student Madeline Girard from the University of California, Berkeley.
Otto told Live Science that Skeletorus looked “dramatically different [from] all other peacock spiders”, making him think the group is even more diverse than we had thought.
This is Sparklemuffin (Maratus jactatus) trying to get lucky:
And this is Skeletorus (Maratus sceletus), getting his spooky on:
Otto met Girard to see Skeletorus, but he couldn’t be enticed into displaying by the females Otto had with him. It took another year for Otto to find more individuals in the region, and when he did, he was “amazed” to see the male in action.
Otto says he uses a Canon 5D III and Mp-e65 macro lens combined with Mt-24EX macro flash for stills and a Canon C100 combined with 100mm macro lens for video. He’s based in St Ives but will happily hop across to WA in his holidays on word there’s a new peacock spider about.
“My entire spare time is now devoted to these spiders, be it photography, filming, editing, raising young, writing scientific papers, communicating on the internet etc., I certainly don’t find time watching TV.”
The spider season only lasts from about September to November. Otto says he gets many requests from people asking if there’s a particular method to finding the spiders.
“My answer is ‘No, there isn’t’. “You simply have to walk around and observe the ground wherever you are, it’s as simple as that,” he says.
“Pretty much every habitat in the southern half of Australia seems suitable for them – coastal sand dunes and heath, open woodlands, any type of shrubby country, even desert sand dunes are inhabited by these spiders. Strangely you may find a concentration of them in one spot and when you walk a few metres they disappear.”
“Spider searches can be both frustrating and exhilarating. You can end up searching for hours and hours and not find anything or you can stumble upon a species new to science as soon as you step out of the car.”
If you already think they’re just as cute as buttons, they’re also between 3-7mm long, which just make’s Otto’s work all the more marvelous:
Otto does have a favourite – Maratus volans:
“It was the one that first introduced me to this group and changed my life, it is also one of the largest and the most flamboyant.
“Maratus speciosus is one of my most popular ones – everybody loves ‘Peacock Spider 7’ and I have to say it is a spider I would not have imagined to exist even in my wildest dreams. That clown face is unbelievable.”
“Then there is Maratus robinsoni, an absolute tiny spider, under 3mm in length. It changes its colours every time it moves.
“I don’t know, it is so hard to decide, I just love them all.”
“I’m even very fond of Maratus vespertilio (Peacock Spider 3), a species that is quite drab and people don’t seem to get as excited about it.”
Six years later, Otto has uncovered 37 species, several still unnamed, and there’s “a few more” sitting on his hard drive waiting to be outed. “Blueface”, at the top of this page, is one such unnamed species, and also happens to be one Otto raised himself from an egg.
“Who knows how many more are out there?” he said. “I will keep looking, chipping away.”
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