Maratus elephans: The peacock spider with an elephant on its butt
A newly described peacock spider is named for the elephant face on its abdomen -- and has an unusual way of dancing.
Michelle StarrScience editor
Michelle Starr is CNET's science editor, and she hopes to get you as enthralled with the wonders of the universe as she is. When she's not daydreaming about flying through space, she's daydreaming about bats.
Following the recent discovery of the adorable Sparklemuffin and Skeletorus comes another peacock spider with a cool trick up its abdomen (or, as it is known more colloquially, its little fuzzy butt) -- a pattern that resembles the face of an elephant, earning the little guy the name Maratus elephans.
Its discovery has been catalogued in a new paper by peacock spider enthusiast Dr Jürgen Otto and jumping spider journal Peckhamia editor David Hill -- although, as it turns out, a preserved specimen of the spider has been in the possession of the Australian Museum since 2001. And it wasn't even until just a few years ago that Dr Otto knew about it.
"I have known about that spider since 2012. There was a day that I put aside to look through the spiders in the Australian Museum in Sydney. Like any other museum, they keep collecting lots of invertebrates during various surveys there. But often they're just being stored and nobody looks at them for many years, maybe never. I think museums generally live in the hope that the material they collect will one day be found useful by someone who is a specialist in a particular area, and until then these specimens just get preserved, for a very long time," he explained.
On the day in question, Dr Otto was examining all the spiders that the museum had labelled "Maratus" -- an oddity in and of itself, since peacock spiders were all but unknown in 2001; if the museum had simply labelled them as "spider," Dr Otto noted, he would not have found them in the museum's collection.
But Maratus elephans turned out to be quite elusive when Dr Otto tried to find it in the wild.
"I remember I started quite early in 2012 so not to miss them, I think round about August, but it turned out to be rather cold and after searching for many hours I attributed my failure to find them to cold temperatures or the season in general. I kept going back several times that year, but could not find anything."
But, just as he was giving up hope, a friend of his and fellow spider enthusiast -- Stuart Harris, with whom Dr Otto has worked previously -- offered to search while in the area in October 2013. He returned with three Maratus elephans spiders -- two males and a female.
Aside from its elephant-faced pattern, the spider stands out from the rest of the Maratus genus due to the male's unusual courting dance.
"The dance of this spider is similar to that of Maratus volans and Maratus pardus, and that is one of the reasons we grouped it together with these two spiders," Dr Otto said. "The one thing that makes it special is that one of the legs seems to be kept in front of the fan, and the other behind. That is quite unusual and I haven't seen in other spiders."
Dr Otto works during the day as an acarologist, studying mites and ticks for the Australian Department of Agriculture, and works with peacock spiders as an unpaid labour of love in his spare time . For his efforts, he's the world's most prolific cataloguer of the Australian peacock spider. Together with David Hill, he has described 20 species in the last four years -- more than in the previous 100 years. And, he said, there are a lot more to come -- specimens in museums, as well as spiders other people and he himself has photographed.
"The number of spiders I am fairly convinced belong to this group that I call peacock spiders now stands at 38," he said on Facebook. "Looking through my records, specimens I have seen in museums and photographs of others, I know of at least 25 additional species, so a fair bit to go til I documented them all, and almost certainly more will turn up."
This is no mean feat; there is Dr Otto's day job to contend with, which slows the process down considerably; there is no one funding research into peacock spiders; and there are very few experts working with peacock spiders to aid Hill and Dr Otto with the process.
"There is nobody at the Australian Museum who works on these spiders and who would have been willing, interested or able to describe them," Dr Otto said. "If I hadn't decided to go into the museum that day, I think these spiders would still not be known today."
You can also see Maratus elephans' fabulous dance below, as well as an additional video, simply because peacock spiders are the best thing ever (or, as Dr Otto calls them, the "cats of the spider world").