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See Seven New Dazzling, Dancing Peacock Spiders

Hailing from all over Australia, the spiders were identified by a scientist who used to fear them

Maratus azureus, a newly discovered species of peacock spider from Western Australia (Joseph Schubert)
smithsonianmag.com

Peacock spiders are hardly the kind of arachnid worthy of fear; these colorful, rice-sized, eight-legged creatures are famous for their bright, rainbow-hued buttocks, elaborate mating dances and ninja-esque jumping skills. And though they do technically produce venom, their jaws are so tiny that they can’t actually puncture human skin.

Spider enthusiast and Museums Victoria researcher Joseph Schubert has just named seven new species of peacock spider, bringing the tally to 86 species in total, Jonathan Amos reports for BBC News. The abundance of the species in Australia suggests they’ve struck a relatively successful way of life down under, where almost all of them are found.

Though he admittedly once feared the spiders, Schubert has since come around to their dazzling allure, Bernard Lagan reports for the Times. At age 22, the Australian researcher has played a hand in discovering a total of 12 species in the genus Maratus, to which all but one species of peacock spider belong.

The seven new species include, in alphabetical order, Maratus azureus, Maratus constellatus, Maratus inaquosus, Maratus laurenae, Maratus noggerup, Maratus suae and Maratus volpei. Collectively, they hail from across the continent, though most were identified in Western Australia, according to the statement. M. inaquosus was discovered in Victoria, and M. volpei in South Australia.

Several of Schubert’s efforts were helped along by the efforts of citizen scientists, who would send in photos of arachnids they’d come across by chance. “I’d think, ‘Oh wow, that could be a new species!’” he says in a statement. To honor their contributions, Schubert wove some of his collaborators’ names into the latter halves of new spiders’ monikers. His “favorite by far,” though, is M. constellatus, according to BBC News.

“It’s such a nice looking species,” Schubert says. “The pattern reminds me of The Starry Night by Van Gogh.” (Constellatus means “starry” in Latin.)

Maratus constellatus (Museums Victoria / Joseph Schubert)
Maratus inaquosus (Museums Victoria / Joseph Schubert)
Maratus laurenae (Museums Victoria / Joseph Schubert)
Maratus suae (Museums Victoria / Joseph Schubert)
Maratus noggerup (Museums Victoria / Joseph Schubert)
Maratus volpei (Museums Victoria / Nick Volpe)

“Plus, I travelled a very, very long way to find it!” he adds, referencing his thousands-mile-long trek to Kalbarri—a town located a seven-hour drive north of Perth—where the species was discovered.

Like other Maratus species, the new members of the peacock spider family tree show extreme differences in coloration between the sexes. The lurid stripes, whorls and specks that give group their name are characteristic only to males, while females come in a more drab palette of browns, blacks and beiges.

Females, however, retain the upper hand. When the time comes to couple up, males will shake, shimmy and waggle their rears in an astounding display of eight-legged choreography. But if her suitor’s fanny-flapping is not up to snuff, the female may make a meal out of her would-be partner.

As Schubert sees it, the quest to uncover the world’s peacock spiders is far from over. “Considering how many peacock spider species have been discovered in the past few years,” he tells BBC News, “I certainly think that there are more out there to be found."

About Katherine J. Wu
Katherine J. Wu

Katherine J. Wu is a Boston-based science journalist and Story Collider senior producer whose work has appeared in National Geographic, Undark magazine, Popular Science and more. She holds a Ph.D. in Microbiology and Immunobiology from Harvard University, and was Smithsonian magazine's 2018 AAAS Mass Media Fellow.

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