Friday, 10 February 2012 By: Jenny Vu

#10 The Dancing Peacock Spider - Interview With Jurgen Otto

In the bushlands of Sydney, lives an most unexpected resident. It is rarely ever seen but if you keep your eyes open, you may spot it. It's a 4mm long spider with the most spectacular array of colours and an even more spectacular dance. This tiny jumping spider is the peacock spider (Maratus volans).

Photo taken by Jurgen Otto Source: Jurgen's flickr
Recently, I caught up with the only man (to everyone's knowledge) who has captured some amazing footage of the Peacock spider's courtship dance, Jurgen Otto. And here is our interview, enjoy. :)

Firstly, tell us a bit about yourself. 
What drew you to spiders and photography?

Jurgen:
I have been fascinated by spiders since I was a little boy when I spent most of my time exploring the undergrowth. Not quite sure what drew me to spiders, but I remember clearly that the spiders I was most fascinated by were little "zebra jumping spiders" that were common around our house in Germany. I was fascinated then by their two large front eyes and by how alert they were and reacted to everything that was going on around them, still something that excites me today.

My interest in photography developed while I was living for a number of years in the Australian tropics with a bit too much time on my hand. Wildlife was abundant and the new digital SLRs that just came on the market then made it so convenient to capture it. Birds, mammals and reptiles were my main subject, with some insects and spiders thrown in for good measure. The large goannas that lived across the garden fence in an historic cemetery were one my favourite subjects as they basked on the old graves.

Life changed when my family moved to Sydney in southeastern Australia and I found myself in an environment with fewer flashy animals to photograph. My enthusiasm for wildlife photography suffered at first and I turned to flowers to fill my hard drives. However, then I discovered peacock spiders.....

Photo taken by Jurgen Otto Source: Jurgen's flickr

How did you find out about the peacock spiders? 

Jurgen:
I first came across one of these spiders a few years ago in bushland near Sydney. I think it was the way it jumped and its small size which got my attention, more nimble and smaller than other spiders. I had my camera with me and took a couple of shots which revealed some striking iridescent colouration. 

After some searching I found a picture of this spider in an book where it was called "Flying spider". It was claimed that it had flaps on the abdomen which it uses to glide, hence the name "volans", latin for "flying". Later I read that this was likely to be a myth since in the related species Maratus pavonis similar flaps are extended during courtship. Would the male of Maratus volans show me his wonderful display if I found a female for him ? The problem I was facing was that the female of this species wasn't known to science, and I had no clue what it actually looked like. I searched around and found a drab looking candidate in a male's vicinity. Bingo. As soon as I dropped it next to the male, he displayed and I got my first snaps.

What would you say, drew you most to peacock spiders?

Jurgen:
Great colours, a complex and spectacular behaviour and the fact these spiders were so little documented made them very exciting to study and photograph. I just felt I had to introduce them to the world. Apart from that, the longer I observed the more I saw similarities between them and us. We are used to see emotions such as curiosity, fear or excitement in larger animals, think of your pet dog for example. Seeing them in 4 mm long peacock spiders forever changed the way I relate not only to jumping spiders, the "teddybears of the spider world", but also to spiders in general. I just find it impossible now to think of them as "just a spider", let alone to squash one.


Watch this video by Jurgen as he describes and films the behaviours of the peacock spider during it's courtship dance. If you can't watch the video, just keep on reading as I've asked him to describe it in words. :)



You said in the Catalyst videos that you were the only one to have footage of the courtship dance, before you filmed it, had anyone else seen and/or described the courtship dance?

Jurgen:
I have no evidence that anyone else had observed the courtship dance in Maratus volans before. There certainly were no descriptions, photographs or film footage of it. It was hard to believe then and still find it puzzling today. How could something that colourful and with such spectacular
behaviour be overlooked, in particular as this species occurs so close to Australia's biggest city. Having said that, it was known for some time (but not publicised much) that such a courtship dance was performed in at least one another species, Maratus pavonis, and this is the species that whose name is used now for the whole group (pavo, latin for peacock).


Photo taken by Jurgen Otto Source: Jurgen's flickr

For my readers who can't access the video, can you describe to us the courtship dance which the male Maratus volans peacock spider performs for the female?

Jurgen

When the males becomes aware of a female in his vicinity, possibly through lines of silk she drags around, he gets visibly excited and starts searching for her. He lifts one or two legs, signalling his presence, and waiting for the drab looking and well camouflaged female to show herself. The moment both make eye contact is always full of excitement, in particular for the male. You can see how he tries to get the best possible view of her, all of a sudden he is completely focused, everything else becomes seemingly irrelevant. 

Then the male starts to move closer, constantly monitoring the female's behaviour, in case she is more interested in food than in mating. Eventually he flips up his abdomen and expands the pair of colourful flaps that are normally folded around the abdomen, like a peacock spreading its tail feathers. Simultaneously he raises two legs and while stepping from side to side he waves these around in front of her. 

Depending on her response the male continues to approach the female and eventually mates with her, usually under a twig or leaf. To get access to the female's genital opening though the male has to twist the female's abdomen by 180 degrees, not an easy feat. It reminds me of some kind of contortionist's act,  and it always amazes me how placid the female is during that procedure.

Photo taken by Jurgen Otto Source: Jurgen's flickr

How many species are there in the Maratus family?
Do they all have this flap and participate in a courtship similar to the Maratus Volans?
Jurgen
To date 8 peacock spider species are scientifically named and described (volans, vespertilio, splendens, pavonis, mungaich, linnaei, harrisi and amabilis), but I have photographed three more species which still need to be named. When it comes to spiders Australia is still poorly known and it is likely that many more species will turn up once people start looking. A researcher at the Western Australian Museum has reported to have found at least 20 species of peacock spiders, but expect even that number to increase.

All of the species currently assigned to the genus Maratus have flaps, some like volans or mungaich have large and impressive ones, others like linnaei and pavonis have small or barely visible ones. All species perform some kind of courtship dance, and with the exception of M. linnaei, the flaps are extended during the courtship. I recently found that the flaps in male M. vespertilio are not only used to impressive females but also in ritual fights with other males. That is quite exciting as such male to male interaction has never been observed before in peacock spiders. Seems like there is a lot to discover in peacock spiders.



Are there any more particular spiders 
that you find fascinating? 

Jurgen:
Australia is full of fascinating spiders, wolf spiders that carry their babies on their backs, wrap-around spiders that wrap their flattened bodies around twigs, ogre-faced spiders that have huge front eyes and hold their web between their front legs, or the beautifully coloured jewel spiders, to
name just a few. There is a group of bizarre looking spiders in Australia called Pelican spiders or Assassin spiders, which I have not yet seen, but would love to photograph. Plenty of things to keep me busy.

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Thanks again to Jurgen who has let me used his photos for this post and for letting me interview him. I definitely found it interesting to learn more about him and his journey towards the peacock spiders.

If you want to see more photos of these amazing spiders and it's relatives (omgosh more colourful spiders!), please visit Jurgen's Flickr.

I hope you have all enjoyed this post! There will be many more like this one as I will be interviewing many more biologists and photographers and having photography features. Thanks for reading! :)


3 comments:

Anonymous said...

It's soo small.
>w<
~Owl

Jenny Vu said...

I know! It's amazing how Jurgen has been able to capture these guys not only in photos, but also in video!

Anonymous said...

That's such an amazing feat of natural selection! For an organism so small to display in such an extravagant way during courtship, wow.
thanks so much for sharing this unique insight into the tiny, almost secret world of peacock spiders with us

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