If I told you that there exists a 5 millimeters Australian peacock, would you believe me? Although we can find a large number of incredible animals in this country, scientists haven’t yet discovered such a small bird. However, we can find a small peacock-like animals: the peacock spiders (Maratus sp. Salticidae Family, also known as jumping spiders), whose ‘abdomen’ or opisthosoma (the posterior part of the body in some arthropods, including arachnids) have a flap-like extensions that they can unfold to the sides of its body as real peacocks do.
The last month we introduce you these organisms at our different websites (Facebook and Twitter). Through this article, you will learn its most relevant characteristics and you’ll find out the hidden function of its drop down opisthosoma.
Peacock spiders are a part of Salticidae family, whose members are also known as ‘jumping spiders’. This family has up to 5000 species (probably, they form the largest and diverse group of spiders known nowadays), and they’re located all over the world (they can be found even at the top of Mount Everest; this is the case of Euophrys omnisuperstes). Even so, most of them inhabit tropical forests.
¿HOW CAN WE DISTINGISH THEM FROM OTHER SPIDERS?
Usually, spiders from Salticidae family get to be a size of few millimeters as adults (normally they don’t exceed 10mm long). From an anatomical point of view, the members of this group are characterized by its two big, simple front eyes flanked by two smaller ones, plus four eyes more located over them. The size and the position of these eyes give them an excellent vision in comparison with other spiders, and even compared to other group of arthropods its vision is extraordinary.
Look at these big eyes! Can you resist them?
Besides its excellent vision, these organisms have the ability to cover a distance of 50 times its length in one jump, because of what they received the nickname ’jumping’. Thus, their ability to travel long distances in just one leap and their extraordinary vision are the main traits that make these spiders being excellent predators: they hunt by stalking their prey without making spider webs or silk traps. Moreover, some of their legs tend to be longer than the others, letting them to catch preys way better.
Spiders of this family usually present a noticeable sexual dimorphism (that is, remarkable physiognomic differences between males and females). Jumping spider males have bigger oral appendixes (or pedipalps) than females, which they use during mating dance and copulation as much for attracting the attention of females as for giving females their spermatophore (capsule or mass containing spermatozoa) during mating.
In addition to these developed pedipalps, males of some species of jumping spiders have a colorful, and even iridescent, opisthosoma (the posterior part of the body in some arthropods, including arachnids). Some of them even have an opisthosoma that can reflect UV radiations which are detected by females thanks to their extraordinary vision (as some studies suggest). In contrast, females use to be more cryptic or darker colored than males (but not always).
The flashy opisthosoma of males attracts the attention of females, and this is complemented with mating dances composed by different dance moves: they vibrate their opisthosoma and their pedipalps or move their anterior legs, they move from one side to the other, etc. Usually, these mating dances tend to be very complex.
NOW, JUST AS A MATTER OF INTEREST…
There exist some jumping spider genera that mimic ants. This phenomenon is known as ‘myrmecomorphia’, term used to describe the fact that some animal imitate ants or also the organisms that accomplish the mimic (‘myrmecomorph’).
Some of the most famous species resembling to ants are inside the Myrmarachne genus.
With this example, and what has been explained above, it becomes clear that the Salticidae family is a very diverse group at various levels.
MINIATURE PEACOCKS: THE PEACOCK SPIDERS
At the end of XIX century, the reverend and zoologist Octavius Pickard-Cambridge, who loved spiders, discovered a surprising organism: a small spider just over 5mm whose males have a flamboyant opistosoma.
According to this definition, there seems not be any difference between jumping spiders and these new organisms. But the true is that these miniature spiders have an ace in the hole: the opisthosoma of males has lateral and flexible flap-like extensions that they can unfold like wings to the sides of their bodies and over their prosoma (that is, the anterior part of the body in arachnids). Finally, when its function ends they can be folded again.
So, due to its colored and expansible opisthosoma this new spider was named ‘peacock spider’.
Probably, the most famous peacock spider is Maratus volans, one of the first species called as ‘peacock spider’. To date there have been identified up to 30 species of peacock spiders, and each presents subtle variations in the patterns of its opisthosoma. All of them are included in Maratus genus, whose members (but M. furvus) are endemic to Australia. Moreover, Jurgen Otto and David Hill have recently identified two new species of the Maratus genus in Queensland: Maratus jactatus and Maratus sceletus.
Although in the beginning it was been suggested that these flap-like expansions let them fly (because of what they were called ‘flying peacock spiders’ at first place), later studies revealed that these expansions have a more ‘romantic’ function. Let’s discover it in the next section.
A SURPRISING COURTSHIP
As well as male peacock do when they see a female, these Australian spiders use their opisthosoma in order to impress the females during courtship (that usually takes place on september-november).
Throughout this process, males perform a mating dance which is a little different from the ones performed by other jumping spiders: at the first place, they make vibrate their opisthosoma and their pedipalps; then, they raise their third pair of legs and shake them vigorously in order to attract nearby females; finally, they raise their opisthosoma and unfold the lateral flap-like extensions showing its colored pattern. Then, they make vibrate their opisthosoma to show its iridescence and they begin to move from one side to the other while shaking their legs.
But, as everybody knows, an image is better that any word, so I invite you to see the next video (made by Jürgen Otto) where you can see a male of Maratus volans dancing for his ladies:
- Lim M.L.M, Li D. (2005). Extreme ultraviolet sexual dimorphism in jumping spiders (Araneae: Salticidae). Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 89: 397–406.
- Otto J.C., Hill D.E. (2015). Two new peacock spiders of the calcitrans group from southern Queensland (Araneae: Salticidae: Euophryinae: Maratus). Peckhamia 121.1: 1-34.
- Otto J.C., Hill D.E. (2014). Spiders of the mungaich group from Western Australia (Araneae: Salticidae: Euophryinae: Maratus), with one new species from Cape Arid. Peckhamia 112.1: 1-35.ç
- Otto J.C., Hill D.E. (2011). An illustrated review of the known peacock spiders of the genus Maratus from Australia, with description of a new species (Araneae: Salticidae: Euophryinae).
- Salticidae, Jumping spiders.
- Two New Species of Peacock Spiders Discovered in Australia. Sci-knews.com.
- The extraordinary courtship dance of Australia’s peacock spider. The Guardian.