Wildlife

Do the Rumble-Rump with Peacock Spiders

June 23, 2014

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Peacock spider. Photo © Jurgen Otto/Flickr used with permission
Peacock spider. Photo © Jurgen Otto/Flickr used with permission

Chances are that if you enjoy unusual animal behavior, you’ve seen your share of fascinating courtship dances, from beautiful birds of paradise, to goofy blue-footed boobies, and even seahorses.

But did you know that even tiny spiders can have impressive colors and dance moves?

Peacock spiders (genus Maratus) were first described in 1874 (although the genus was renamed from Salticus to Maratus in 1991), but new species have been discovered as recently as October of 2013.

The pictures alone don’t do these dances justice, check out Jürgen Otto’s peacock spider YouTube channel to see them in action. It may not be apparent in the videos just how small they are: only about 5mm long (about 3/16 of an inch)!

Peacock spider shown on a watch for scale. Photo: Flickr user Jean and Fred under a Creative Commons license.
Peacock spider shown on a watch for scale. Photo: Flickr user Jean and Fred under a Creative Commons license.

It’s also only recently that their mating rituals have been studied (and documented via high quality video).

In a 2011 paper (Multi-Modal Courtship in the Peacock Spider, Maratus volans (O.P.-Cambridge,1874)) Girard et al. were able to break the dances down with high speed video and laser vibrometry, revealing that these spiders use vibratory signals in addition to visual displays as part of the courtship process.

While a wide array of animals communicate via vibrations, from rubbing body parts together like crickets, or drumming their feet like kangaroo rats (Randall 2014), seeing how these vibrational signals work in peacock spiders is pretty incredible.

The Girard paper found several kinds of signals with names that sound better suited to dancing in a club, like “rumble-rumps,” “crunch-rolls,” and “grind-revs.”

If you never thought reading about spider mating could be remotely interesting, this paper stands ready to prove you wrong.

Peacock spider. Photo: Flickr user Jean and Fred under a Creative Commons license.
Peacock spider. Photo: Flickr user Jean and Fred under a Creative Commons license.

In addition to trying to impress females with their dances and displays, Otto and Hill (2012) also found that the males of at least one species also display their “fans” to each other and engage in “hopping contests” to get the other male to back off.

While these sometimes culminated in two males grappling, no injuries were observed as a result of these contests.

There is a lot we don’t know about these spiders, including their precise habitat needs, and how narrow the distribution is of the various species.

We do know that some of their habitat is protected, such as the Stirling Range in Western Australia (home to Sarah’s peacock spider, shown below), but it’s unclear how much of their habitat remains unprotected. The Nature Conservancy has also assisted Bush Heritage Australia and Greening Australia Western Australia to protect purchase properties near to the Stirling Range for conservation, but these sites have different soil, vegetation, and history, and may not provide suitable habitat.

If you’re still not convinced that these spiders are worthy of internet stardom, perhaps this video syncing their dance up to the Village People’s YMCA song will change your mind!

Correction, 24 June 2014: An earlier version of this post stated that The Nature Conservancy in partnership with Bush Heritage Australia was working to protect areas where the spider lived, including the Stirling Range. In fact, the Stirling Range is fully within a national park, and the Conservancy’s work is in areas that are nearby, but where these spiders have not been documented. The site has different properties and may or may not provide habitat for these spiders.

Jon Fisher

Jon Fisher is a senior conservation scientist for the new Center for Sustainability Science at The Nature Conservancy. He is leading efforts to put rigorous science front and center in our sustainable agriculture work, and finding ways to improve sustainability through corporate practices and public policy. More from Jon

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