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Tiny discovery, big news

By: Madelaine Love, Category: Museullaneous, Date: 03 Apr 2017

Citizen scientist and peacock spider enthusiast Stuart Harris’s latest find proves there’s still a lot to learn about these tiny arachnids.

Saratus hesperus

Saratus hesperus
Photographer: Stuart Harris © Stuart Harris

Back in 2013, Stuart’s passion (and keen eyesight) saw him make his fourth peacock spider discovery, while working amongst the grapevines of Mount Majura winery near Canberra. 

”I was helping to plant and train young vines on patchy ground when I saw a blue jumping spider. Luckily I had my tube in my pocket and collected it, then sent it up to Jürgen for verification.”

Jürgen, of course, is Dr Jürgen Otto, biologist and champion of the peacock spiders, credited with bringing these dazzling creatures into the public eye almost 10 years ago. In that time the tiny spider has made a big impression, wowing nature lovers worldwide with its vibrant colours and dance-like mating display.

So far 59 other named species of peacock spider are known to science, but Stuart’s latest discovery was different.

“In the beginning this new species looked just like any other peacock spider. Each new species is a complete surprise when it comes to its design - these are patterns that don’t exist elsewhere in nature it seems, so while it had a characteristic pattern on its abdomen, this really did not come as a surprise,” says Dr Otto.

What did come as a surprise were the distinct colour patterns he noticed on the (impossibly cute) juvenile spiders he’d raised from eggs.

Saratus hesperus juvenile. Photo © Jürgen Otto.

“They have eight dark spots on their otherwise pale abdomen, looking almost like a turtle shell - think Ninja turtle. None of the other peacock spider juveniles I have raised have such a conspicuous pattern."

Saratus hesperus juvenile with mother. Photo © Jürgen Otto.

Further study of the species revealed that the spider, in fact, belonged to a whole new genus.

“The main reason why (scientist) David Hill and I assigned this species to a new genus is that the male pedipalp and female epigyne differ significantly from peacock spiders in the genus Maratus. These are very small structures and can only be seen at high magnification under the microscope.” 

Dr Otto and Hill named the new genus ‘Saratus’, while Stuart drew inspiration from the large yellow dot in the middle of the spider’s two-tone blue abdomen to come up with the species name 'hesperus'.

“This reminded me of the planet Venus, or Evening Star as it is called, which we often see setting in its yellow magnificence with the back drop of the darkening dusk sky. It also has yellow legs. Venus is highly sulphuric in nature and the colour yellow is associated with that,” Stuart said.

There're more than likely other yet-undiscovered species of Peacock Spider out there, and the challenge of finding them continues to draw in citizen scientist like Stuart. 

“What’s interesting about Stuart's discovery is that once again it was made in an urban or suburban setting, and in a city (Canberra) where many entomologists or other scientists work. It is surprising that such a striking new peacock spider species wasn’t noted there earlier, and that it was again discovered by a citizen scientist,” Dr Otto said.

Saratus hesperus juvenile with mother. Photo © Jürgen Otto.

Peacock spiders are of course stunning, but they also have an undeniable…cuteness. So what is it about them (other than their size) that makes us say ‘awwww’? Well, it could have something to do with the love we have for our pets. 

“The way peacock spiders move around, observe their environment and react to it is reminiscent of cats and dogs. It is no coincidence that many of the people who are enchanted by peacock spiders are also cat and dog lovers. They push themselves up to see better or be seen, they tilt their “heads” like if they were trying to look at something from a different angle, like humans, dogs or cats do,” Dr Otto explains.

It doesn’t hurt that they are completely harmless to humans.

“In the thousands of hours I engaged with them I have never seen one even attempting to bite, and even if they did their small size means that one probably wouldn’t even notice,” says Dr Otto.
 
“So in all we have an animal here that is cute, looks and behaves like a cuddly pet, is harmless and extremely colourful.”

What’s not to love?
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Learn more, and meet live peacock spiders in our Spiders - Alive & Deadly exhibition on now! 

You can also check out Dr Jürgen Otto's Facebook, Flickr and Youtube or view a catalogue of peacock spiders here.