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New Species of Peacock Spider has Leopard Spots and Cat-like Moves

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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peacock-spider-jurgen-otto

A new species of peacock spider, called Maratus pardus. Credit: Jurgen Otto

This is my second post in a week featuring spiders doing undeniably adorable things – dancing and cartwheels. It’s as if spiders know they have a reputation problem and have launched some kind of secret PR campaign to highlight their cuter, less-likely-to-give-you-skin-rot members. But then a bunch of ‘yellow sac spiders’ (cuteness diminishing) invaded a Mazda factory in the States, forcing the company to recall 40,000 cars (cuteness diminished). When a Mazda spokesman was asked by the New York Times why he thought the spiders were so attracted to the cars, he said, “Don’t ask me, I’m terrified of the damn things.” Right on, Spokesman. I hear you.

If only jumping spiders could invade cars in plague proportions instead. They’re so loveable. It’d almost be a selling point to have those big, puppy dog eyes looking up at you from the dashboard. And if peacock jumping spiders got involved, it’d probably be the one thing that convinces me to get my license.

And now new species of peacock jumping spider has been discovered in Western Australia. Named Maratus pardus, the species is just 4.5 mm long, and belongs to the only genus of spiders in the world known to have flexible abdomen flaps that can be raised right up behind their heads. Decorated with incredibly bright and varied colour patterns in the males, these appendages are unique to each species, and play a crucial role in their elaborate courtship displays.

The male M. pardus’s colour pattern features a background of light blue or blue-green iridescent scales with an arrangement of 14 to 18 spots of red-orange or orange scales in the centre. These spots are flanked by a series of light yellow scales that form distinct borders along the sides of the abdomen flap.

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New species of peacock spider, Maratus pardus, displaying for a female. Credit: Jurgen Otto

Spotted by David Knowles, who runs a company in Perth, Western Australia that educates the public about invertebrates and biosurvey called Spineless Wonders, 20 years ago, the species has been formally described in the journal Peckhamia by Sydney-based biologist Jurgen Otto and the journal’s editor, David Hill. The unique spotty pattern on the male’s abdomen flap, plus its slinky, cat-like movements, prompted the pair to name it after the leopard – ‘pardus’ comes from the Ancient Greek word for ‘leopard’.

“It is the only species with such distinct spots on the back, and therefore can be easily distinguished from other peacock spiders, quite beautiful I think,” says Otto. “The cat-like behaviour is not unique to this species, and in fact is shared by all jumping spiders. They very slowly approach their prey and then pounce on them.”

Having examined 30 specimens, including males, females, and juveniles, Otto and Hill have identified the equally beautiful Maratus volans as the species’ closest relative. According to their records, M. pardus is now known from the subcoastal swamplands of Cape Le Grand National Park, about 630 km south-east of Perth, and from an unspecified area near Ravensthorpe, some 540 km south-east of Perth.

Like the other 27 known species of peacock spider – all of which are endemic to Australia – M. pardus males and females participate in an elaborate courtship ritual that involves the brightly coloured males showing off their abdomen flaps for an extended period of time as they raise their legs in the air and move around the female. The whole time, they never take their eyes off their potential mate, on the one hand to show their commitment, on the other to watch for signs of an attack. Like many spiders, female peacock spiders are quite happy to attack an unwanted suitor if she’s feeling harassed.

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Success! A pair of Maratus pardus peacock spiders mating. Credit: Jurgen Otto

“Obviously you have to get a female to make the male display,” says Otto of the filming process, “but when a female is introduced and the male becomes aware of her presence, the response of the male is quite quick. Then it depends on the female’s reactions what happens next. In most instances, the females I find are already gravid [pregnant] and they do not want to mate. So, as I have shown in the video, they will either escape from the male, attack him, or they lift up their opisthosoma [posterior] and walk away from him. Sometimes the males still keep pursuing them (god knows why), [but] sometimes they get the message.”

Peacock spiders might be the only spiders in the world to wield expandable abdomen flaps, but that doesn’t stop the rest of the jumping spider family (Salticidae) from participating in their own complex courtship rituals. Researchers from the Elias Lab at the University of California, Berkeley have been investigating the courtship dance of a species of North American jumping spider in the genus Habronattus, the males of which emit a noise that sounds just like a revving motorbike to attract the females.

“All peacock spiders produce sound during their display, and the visual part is only one component, but we are unable to hear it,” says Otto. “Species in the genus Saitis also lift up their third pair of legs during courtship, but they lack flaps. Obviously with the big eyes that jumping spiders in general have, courtship is a lot more visual than perhaps in other spiders that rely more on touch.”

If a male’s courtship dance is well received and a pair successfully mates, the female will lay a clutch of 5 to 13 eggs inside a silken sac, where they will be incubated for two weeks. It takes another two weeks for the hatched young to develop and grow inside the egg sac, and their mother will stay to protect them, neither of them eating or drinking anything at all. After this, the young will molt and leave the egg sac, growing to adulthood in the course of several months.

Having collected a number of adult male and female M. pardus individuals from Cape Le Grand, Otto managed to raise a number of juveniles too. You can see the size difference in this image:

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Please don't eat me, mum. Adult female and juvenile Maratus pardus. Credit: Jurgen Otto

They might look like a happy family, but all is not what it seems. “I have made them jump onto the same stick and then quickly got a picture,” says Otto. “They would not usually sit that close together and it was not easy to get them sit still for very long. I only did that so I could capture them in one picture and show the size difference. In fact, they are probably at risk to be eaten by their mother, but whether that happens I don’t know. You will find a picture [on my Flickr site] where mom Maratus sp. 3 pounced on the young. At first I thought the young is gone, but after what seemed like a couple of seconds she released him/her. I was very surprised by that. Obviously something told her that she should not eat it.”

Otto has recorded a bunch of incredible peacock spider courtship displays, and they’re all available on his YouTube channel. His Flickr gallery is also well worth a visit, and features several as yet undescribed species of peacock spider.

Related posts:

This Spider Rollin’, They Hatin’: New Species of Cartwheeling Spider

It’s Not Funny Anymore, Golden Wheel Spider

Two New Species of Chinese Spider are Positively Weeny

 

Bec Crew About the Author: Bec Crew is a Sydney-based science writer and award-winning blogger. She is the author of 'Zombie Tits, Astronaut Fish and Other Weird Animals' (NewSouth Press). Follow on Twitter @BecCrew.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Affluence14009669 12:45 pm 05/3/2014

    This was truly a fascinating article, and what an incredible little guy to discover! I look forward to reading more on the behavior and ecological standpoints of this species.

    It is so horrifying how misunderstood and ill-treated spiders are as a whole and i hope this particular series of articles may be a step in the right direction to change these misconceptions.

    As a research project i surveyed 300 students at a local highschool, which is located on the Halls farm in Nelspriut south Africa asking them to identify the four species if venomous spiders in thier area from 15 spider images. only 7% of candidates could. It was also asked if the killed spiders they find and 94% of people did. This is truly horrendous.

    Thank you for such articles aiming to change this.

    Shannon Mitchell
    u14009669

    Link to this
  2. 2. 14072859 7:02 am 05/4/2014

    I’m personally also quite careful when encountering a little creature with eight legs. I would move away from it or even try to put it outside. Nevertheless I get extremely annoyed if somebody just kills a spider without even thinking about it. Articles like this make us aware of how amazing something so small actually is. It informs us and help us to have a better understanding of this species that most of us find so terrifying.

    Yes, spiders can be dangerous and in some cases even deadly, but we shouldn’t let our fear of the unknown scare us to the point where we destroy something amazing and unique. Maybe knowledge about spiders will decrease the fear people have for them and this is exactly what this article does.

    Spiders also have their place in the ecosystem, a valuable life form, and should be treated with this kind of respect.

    What an interesting article!

    Link to this
  3. 3. Lauren14060869 12:41 pm 05/4/2014

    This was really a lovely article to read. I have a few questions and it would be really great if you could answer them for me.

    Will these spiders actually bite humans and what will happen if they do?

    How does one catch such small spiders?

    When you’ve caught them, what do you feed them and have you noticed them maybe being stressed at first because of the new enviroment?

    I come from South Africa and I don’t think we get such colourful spiders here so this article and photos really do help to understand them more.

    Lauren Parsons
    u14060869

    Link to this
  4. 4. Bec Crew in reply to Bec Crew 7:19 pm 05/4/2014

    Thanks so much, Shannon! That’s very kind. It’s really disappointing about the school kids, it happens in Australia too. The only education we really get about dangerous vs not dangerous spiders when we’re young is from our parents, and if they’re terrified of them, we don’t have much chance of changing that for ourselves, which is a real shame.

    Link to this
  5. 5. hkraznodar 11:09 am 05/22/2014

    @Lauren: I can only speak to the behavior of North American jumping spiders. Our jumping spiders will only bite a human or large animal if they are being crushed by said person or critter. I have a serious spider phobia but get along very well with jumping spiders. Until they get to be larger than what fits on my palm because that really triggers my phobia.

    There is a related spider called the wolf spider that gets larger than my hand. They eat birds and mice when they get large enough. I simply cannot tolerate them at all no matter what size even though they only bite if harmed too.

    All spiders can be relocated with patience and care, including toxic ones. Spiders found in my home are always relocated outside except the jumping spiders. Obviously I’m not the one doing the relocating.

    Link to this

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