A tiny spider that looks like Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night masterpiece is among seven new species discovered by a 22-year-old Australian entomologist nicknamed the "Spider Man".
Joseph Schubert at the Melbourne Museum has now named a dozen species of dancing invertebrates known as peacock spiders. Aptly nicknamed “Australia’s mini birds of paradise,” males have brightly colored abdomens and third legs used for dramatic courtship dances similar to their namesake avian friends.
The pearl-sized spiders are found in a number of habitats across Australia, from sand dunes to grasslands, some exhibiting highly specialized adaptations to survive extreme environments. The distinct patterns found on males are made of tiny scales and hairs that reflect both visible and ultraviolet light that create “remarkable ornamentation” reminiscent of a peacock display. Schubert says he was inspired to name the species by these dramatic colors, as well as the people who first described them.
“Some of the species in this paper were discovered by citizen scientists who documented the localities and sent images to me – their help is so important for this kind of research,” said Schubert in a statement. Schubert was sent the specimens for identification by the non-profit group, Project Maratus – a coordinated effort to investigate distributions throughout the island nation.
A study published in the journal Zootaxa describes the new spiders, five of which are found in Western Australia (Maratus azureus, Maratus constellatus, Maratus laurenae, Maratus noggerup, and Maratus suae). Two other species, Maratus volpei, and Maratus inaquosus, were discovered in South Australia and Victoria, respectively. There are now 85 total species known to science. Images of the newly described species show the dramatic patterns and colors that have inspired their names.
“I would have to say Maratus constellatus is my favourite by far – it’s such a nice looking species, the pattern reminds me of Starry Night by van Gogh. Plus I travelled a very, very long way to find it!” said Schubert, who adds that this is just the beginning in an ongoing list of Maratus discoveries.
“I don’t think we are anywhere near done yet, considering how many species have only recently been discovered and how many sites are yet to be explored – I’m still actively on the hunt for new species of peacock spider!”
Perhaps as entertaining as the spiders’ coloring is their unique courtship dance. According to a description published in Cell, males will perch atop a ledge and use their white-tipped third legs to attract less-dramatically colored females. When they’ve secured a female’s attention, the male will produce vibrations that result in his twerky, quirky dance. If the female shows interest, he will then raise is abdomen and show off his flaps through a series of quick-footed leg movements.
The entire display can last for over an hour, depending on how picky his audience is.
For his grand finale, the male will showcase his “pre-mount display” – a final gesture to sweeten the deal. Copulation can last from several minutes to over an hour.