A Halloween Spiderpalooza

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.

Comments always are welcome.
For more videos, see Jürgen Otto’s YouTube channel.  For photos, try his Flickr page.
For a hilarious video of a peacock spider dancing to the Village People’s “YMCA,” click here.
For some serious science, PECKHAMIA, the major publication of the Peckham Society, is a good source. Founded in 1977 as an informal alliance of amateur and professional naturalists or scientists with an interest in jumping spider research, the society was named in honor of George and Elizabeth Peckham, early pioneers in their study.

Reconsidering The Lilies

Egg dyeing; a surfeit of candy; patent leather shoes; fancy dresses in pastel colors; white gloves, and hats decorated with straw flowers: such were the traditions of Easter during my childhood, and I loved them all.

Only one aspect of our celebrations held no appeal: the appearance of the ubiquitous Easter lily. Its image adorned greeting cards, church bulletins, and the Easter Seals we affixed to letters and bill payments, while live plants filled store aisles, appeared at the front door in the hands of well-meaning neighbors, and nearly outnumbered worshippers on Easter Sunday.

Everyone said they were beautiful. It’s true that they were pretty enough, but what others called their fragrance, I thought of as their odor. In my twelve-year-old opinion, eau de skunk would have been preferable.
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Attentiveness

(Click to enlarge)

 

One flower at a time, please,
however small the face.
Two flowers are one flower
too many, a distraction.
Three flowers in a vase begin
to be a little noisy.
Like cocktail conversation,
everybody talking.
A crowd of flowers is a crowd
of flatterers (forgive me).
One flower at a time.  I want
to hear what it is saying.
                                                      “Bouquet” ~ Robert Francis

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The Poets’ Birds: Songbirds

Eastern Kingbird (Click for greater clarity)
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all.
And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.
I’ve heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.
                      ~ Emily Dickinson

Around 1813, Emily Dickinson’s grandparents, Samuel Fowler Dickinson and Lucretia Gunn Dickinson, built what may have been the first brick home in Amherst, Massachusetts. Fowler Dickinson, an attorney who participated in the founding of Amherst College, soon had company in the house other than his wife. In 1830, the Dickinsons’ son Edward, also an attorney, moved with his wife and young son into the western half of the Homestead. It was there, on December 20 of the same year, that Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born. In 1833, her sister Lavinia was born: also at the Homestead. Continue reading

Keeping Quiet

Common Gallinule ~ Click image for greater size and clarity

Naturally enough, birds tend to attract human attention by their activities: flying, feeding, courting, fighting. A mockingbird singing at 4 a.m. will not be ignored. A blue jay, irritated by a squirrel’s antics, can be heard for blocks.  Chattering sparrows, self-important grackles, and apparently demented woodpeckers all vie for their share of the spotlight.

Around the water, things are different. Rookeries are raucous, and the increasingly desperate cries of mallards in mating season can penetrate walls, but water birds generally tend to be quiet sorts: like children of an earlier time, cautioned by parents to be seen, but not heard.

A sure sign of winter, the arrival of coots and gallinules on the Texas coast is especially quiet. One day, there are none. The next day, flotillas of birds bob like decoys on the water: placidly drifting from place to place, picking their way through lily and lotus on elongated toes, quietly clacking and chirring to one another in clipped, metallic tones. Continue reading