The animal dances and raises its tail flap, which, once unfolded, resembles an abstract Indian blanket of intense color. The creature hops around, alternately raising its legs like an air traffic controller, gesturing back and forth. His large, furry mouthparts almost make it look like he’s laughing, or at least a little amused at this outrageous act.
Meet the peacock spider. Males of several species within this group of spiders show remarkable mating displays to win mates of the opposite sex. Jürgen Otto may have done more than anyone else to document and share images of this arachnid’s amazing breeding ritual — it even won over people who previously hated spiders, Otto told Live Science. [Watch the Peacock Spider’s Mating Dance]
For a creature this small — most species are about an eighth inch (a few millimeters) long — the screen is surprisingly complex and visual. Because of their small size, and perhaps because they only live in certain areas of Australia, the animals are not well documented. But Otto, an entomologist who usually studies sea mites, is trying to change that. Live Science corresponded with Otto to learn more about his experiences with these remarkable animals.
Live Science: What’s your favorite thing about peacock spiders?
Jurgen Otto: I realize they are colorful, but that’s not the most important thing for me, as I’m partially color blind. It’s the fact that they perform some complex rituals on a scale where it seems almost surreal, to the point where it’s hard to believe. Humans usually associate complex behavior with large animals, usually vertebrates [animals with backbones]so it’s very unexpected to see a similar behavior in much smaller invertebrates, particularly spiders that most people hate so much. [Incredible Photos of Peacock Spiders]
I also like the way they interact with their environment, how they show fear, excitement and curiosity. In fact, someone has called them “kittens with too many legs”, and I think that’s a really good description. Of course, the two large front eyes contribute a lot to that impression. These spiders are considered cute even by the most loyal arachnids, and I regularly get comments from people telling me how watching my videos helped them overcome their fear of spiders. I also like that it takes a lot of patience and perseverance to observe, photograph or film them. And only those who are willing to invest the effort are rewarded.
LS: How did you first get interested in peacock spiders?
JO: I didn’t know about it until I came across one on a walk in nearby bushland [near Sydney]purely by accident. It caught my eye by the way it jumped – it seemed more agile than other spiders. The one I saw then was one of them Maratus volansand I had no idea at the time what it was or if there were other similar species.
While doing some more research, I discovered… that there was a suspicion that Maratus volans would use his flaps in courtship. But nobody really saw it [this].
A few years later I finally got lucky and was able to observe and photograph the courtship of that spider [for the first time]. I realized that this was something very special and exciting, not just for me, but for the whole world.
So I went ahead, shooting this species first and filming it later when I figured out how to use video mode in my digital SLR [camera]. Then I discovered that there are many more species, most of which are still undescribed and which showed the same behavior. One by one I tracked them down… some were completely unknown to science. The biggest buzz for me was when I managed to get the first pictures of the color pattern of the tail flaps of some species.
LS: What is your favorite kind of peacock spider?
JO: That’s a very difficult question to answer. In a way I like them all, and they all have their special charm. maratus volans, I think it’s still the most flamboyant of them all, so probably my favorite, probably also because my obsession with peacock spiders started with that species. However, Maratus vespertilio is probably a close second. I think it’s extremely cute, and I also love this species for its man-man jumping competitions, which I haven’t seen in any species. [Creepy, Crawly & Incredible: Photos of Spiders]
LS: How do you film peacock spiders?
JO: When I started filming them, I had no idea how to go about it. I just thought one day to explore the video option on my DSLR, a Canon 7D with a 100mm macro lens. So I kept filming them, adding scene after scene to my collection. I had no previous experience editing video footage.
The equipment professional documentary filmmakers use is very different from mine, much bigger cameras, large stable tripods, etc., and for a while I thought it would be something to strive for to get such equipment. However, I now realize that the small, simple and inexpensive setup I used was almost ideal for the job, as I could track the spiders on the ground and use natural light. Once you’ve found a place where they occur, all you need to do is look for specimens and check them out, or better find a couple that’s already dating.
LS: How could this have evolved?
JO: I’m not sure, but it probably evolved in a similar way to birds of paradise or peacocks, as a result of sexual selection. [Sexual selection involves the development of exaggerated features, like the tail-feathers of a peacock, which broadcast an animal’s evolutionary fitness.]