The peacock spider – strutting casanovas
That inexplicable and embarrassing fear that arrives when eight legs creep into my periphery effects me on a daily basis (much to the delight of friends who soon realised a hilarious response could be elicited by throwing a tomato stalk at me). However in some cases, the fascination outweighs the fear. This fella, who is not bigger than a pin head (maybe why I like him so much), belongs to one of those species. The male gender of Maratus volans is a flashy specimen and quite the ladies man. They belong to the family of jumping spiders ‘Salticidae’, which aren’t half as terrifying as they sound, partly because they are diddy and partly because their jumping ability is comparable to Napolean Dynamite pulling off some ‘sweet jumps’.
Endemic to Australia, these tiny little things have super spidey vision that exceeds that of all other spiders in the land. Their distinctive four pair eye pattern has inspired many awful alien movies, whilst the two larger anterior median eyes at the front almost gives them a cute appearance. That said, if you zapped them up to tarantula size there would still be a me shaped hole in the wall. They use these plethora of eyes in a robotic manner, scanning the environment and zooming in on objects of interest (but probably without the cool mechanical sound effects).
As keen Bear Grylls fans they are also pretty handy at whipping up a sleeping bag if they fancy a duvet day, using their silk to create a ‘pup tent’. This is actually the main use for their silk, as they don’t create webs to catch their food. They are in fact pocket-sized lions among their kind, actively stalking and pouncing on their prey. Although teeny, they have poison in those mini fangs that can kill a full grown human instantly. That might be a slight exaggeration, but they can definitely take down a large mosquito. They also have some ninja moves that keep them ahead of the game; the first being their ability to jump rapidly. This is mainly employed for ambushing and pranking one another (probably, they seem like a fun bunch). They can also hit stealth mode and use their silk to lower themselves into otherwise inaccessible areas, grabbing prey from above (if we could film that with a certain backtrack playing, mission impossible 6 (spidey edition) might actually be worth watching).
However, the main thing that makes these striking gents so remarkable is their unique stripey colour patterns and the abdomen-extended flap on their back which can be flicked up and down. This vibrant ensemble is purely for the ladies and is used in an elaborate courtship ritual – a typical date night plays out as follows (the story you are about to read is true, only the names have been changed to protect the innocent):
Dave sees Susan from across the leaf. He has been zooming in on her for a while, and is quite taken with the sheer volume of hair on legs and her large and mysterious anterior median eyes. Dave feels a tingling in his legs, and knows what he has to do. In one swift movement, he throws one pair of his legs up together. Impressive. But this is only the warm up. Susan happens to glance in his direction and he decides to bring out the big guns ….BOOM. Throwing up his sexy abdomen flap always seals the deal. She knows what time it is. Legs waggling behind his erect flap (everyone loves a multi-tasker) he saunters toward her, teasing her by vibrating his flap to the tune of ‘freak like me’. When he reaches her he pulls out his practiced winning moves: lowering his flap he stands uncomfortably close and brings his raised legs forward over her, hovering there for an inappropriate amount of time. He slowly lowers his legs nanometre by nanometre – no one wants a sexual harassment suit on their hands. Hours later when he is certain she isn’t saying no (women give very mixed signals these days), he mounts her. Walking away two seconds later, Dave is satisfied and Susan is not really sure what happened. Smooth moves Dave, smooth moves.
If you want to see them in action, have a gander at one of Jurgen Otto’s clips:
Girard M B, Kasumovic M M, Elias D O 2011 Multi-Modal Courtship in the Peacock Spider, Maratus volans PLoS ONE 6 e25390
West, S A and Gardner A 2013 Adaptation and inclusive fitness Current Biology 23 R577-R584
Clark D L and Uetz G W 1990 Video image recognition by the jumping spider Maevia inclemens (Araneae: Salticidae) Animal Behaviour 40 884-890
Tarsitano M S and Andrew R 1999 Scanning and route selection in the jumping spider Portia labiata Animal Behaviour 58 255-265