Who could be afraid of this? Juvenile peacock spider (Maratus albus)
(all photos courtesy of Jürgen Otto)
Jürgen Otto is passionate about spiders: not just any spiders, but the tiny Australian creatures known as peacock spiders. Famous for their brilliant colors and intricately patterned courtship dances, their genus, Maratus, includes sixty-seven species and subspecies.
The first peacock spider was described by British arachnologist Octavius Pickard-Cambridge in 1874. In the past decade, Otto and his colleague David Hill have discovered more than half of the currently documented species. One species has been found in China, but the others all live in Australia, primarily in the bushlands on the southern portion of the continent.
Peacock spiders are so small (the one in the photo above is sitting on a pencil) that most people don’t notice them, even in the heart of their territories. Recalling his own first encounter with a peacock spider, Otto says:
I did not know anything about them until I stumbled over one during a walk in nearby bushland [near Sydney] purely by accident. It attracted my attention in the way it jumped — it seemed more nimble than other spiders. The specimen I saw then was one of Maratus volans, and I had no idea at the time what it was or that there were other similar species.
Maratus volans in his full glory, with abdominal flaps extended
A true thumbnail portrait of Maratus volans ~ notice the folded abdominal flaps
For many years, people believed that peacocks (a variety of jumping spider) used the flaps on the sides of their abdomens to glide through the air, but no one actually had seen them use the flaps for any purpose. Eventually, Otto’s research unearthed a suggestion or two that Maratus volans used its flaps in courtship, and his work with the spiders confirmed it.
When a male peacock spider encounters a female, he initiates courtship by waving his legs like semaphore flags. If she seems interested, he raises the flaps at his sides and displays his brilliantly colored abdomen while dancing back and forth.
If he performs well and the female finds him acceptable, they will mate; occasionally, the female will do her own little dance of acceptance. But color patterns and dance moves are species-specific, meaning that males with atypical dances, or color patterns that resemble those of a different species, can come to a sorry end.
There’s little sentimentality among female peacock spiders. If she doesn’t approve of the dance, or mistakes his abdominal pattern for that of an unfamiliar species, she’ll often have the male for lunch — as the main course.
The mating dance of a Maratus personatus (who apparently was refused, but lived to tell the tale)
Watching one of Otto’s videos, it’s easy to assume the spiders are dancing in the wild. But most videos are shot in his home, where he maintains a “spider room” for studying and documenting the various species in every stage of development.
At one point, he kept a pile of leaves on the dining room table for photo shoots, until his wife objected, and other accomodations had to be made. As for the filming itself, Otto’s techniques are relatively simple:
When I started to film them, I had no idea about how to go about it. I simply thought one day to explore the video option on my DSLR, a Canon 7D with a 100mm macro lens. So I just kept filming them and added scene after scene to my collection. I had no prior experience in editing video footage.
The equipment that professional documentary makers use is very different from mine, with much larger cameras, big steady tripods etc., and for a while I thought that getting such equipment would be something to strive for.
However, I now realize that the small, simple, and cheap setup I used was almost ideal for the job as it allowed me to follow the spiders on the ground and use natural lighting. Once you find a place where they occur, you simply have to search for specimens and watch them or, better, find a pair that is already engaged in some courtship.
Otto’s affection for his subjects is obvious, as is his hope that people introduced to them will develop the same affection. He often mentions that the spiders are considered cute, even by self-declared arachnophobes, and that he “loves the way they interact with their environment: how they exhibit fear, excitement, and curiosity.” Seen through his eyes, the spiders are less fearful than fascinating: the very opposite of the Halloween horror they’re often portrayed to be.
What’s also clear is that he enjoys their dancing, and sometimes is amused by it. I suspect only someone with a great deal of affection for these creatures and an ability to be amused by them would have come up with this video. It’s a musical tribute with a sly title. For the male peacock spider, staying alive certainly does depend on his ability to dance his tiny little heart out.