July 2015
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It's a fact!

Behold Sparklemuffin and Skeletorus

 
  Sparklemuffin was the pet name PhD student Maddie Girard gave Maratus jactatus, which has blue and red stripes on its midsection
 
  Skeletorus (Maratus sceletus) got its name from the white markings on the males' dark limbs, which give them the look of a skeleton
 
  A marking on the flaps covering the backside of Maratus elephans looks like a picture of an elephant
 
  Male peacock spiders are known for their bright colours and a rolling-shaking mating dance that would make Miley Cyrus jealous
If you don't think of spiders as cute and cuddly, then you've never met Sparklemuffin, Skeletorus, and the elephant spider. Scientists have identified these three new species of peacock spiders in various parts of eastern Australia.

Skeletorus (Maratus sceletus) got its name from the white markings on the males' dark limbs, which give them the look of a skeleton. Sparklemuffin was the pet name Maddie Girard, a PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley, gave Maratus jactatus, which has blue and red stripes on its midsection. The report describing these spiders was published on 20 January 2015 in the journal Peckhamia.

The 53 named species of Maratus spider are found only in Australia, but photographer Jürgen Otto, who has helped to discover 20 new species of peacock spider in the past four years, believes that many others are just waiting to be described.

Diversity

"The diversity of these spiders is enormous, and new ones keep coming up," Otto says. Peacock spiders are a type of jumping spider. Jumping spiders don't weave silken webs to catch prey, but instead hunt and stalk their prey.

Girard travelled to Australia to study peacock spiders' flashy mating behaviour with her friend Eddie King. Girard and King were working in south-eastern Queensland when they spotted two new species of peacock spider.

Otto discovered Maratus elephans on a trip to a Sydney museum, where he searched through specimens that had been donated to the museum. After just a few hours of work, he discovered a peacock spider with what looked like a picture of an elephant on the flaps covering its backside. The new species was reported on 19 March 2015 in Peckhamia.

Flashy dance

A friend brought Otto two living M. elephans males and one female. There, on a table in his house, he was able to photograph the peacock spider mating dance.

To start, when he's still more than several inches away from the female, the male raises its third pair of legs and waves them around. Then he unfurls the flaps over his abdomen and waves those around. As the female approaches, he begins shivering and rolling his body, sending vibrations through the ground that the female can sense.

The colourful males make it easy to distinguish between species, but many female peacock spiders look alike, even to male spiders. Otto says that male peacock spiders will perform their mating dance for a female of any species – a risky prospect, considering the male is easy prey for both predators and females while concentrating on his performance.

Although scientists first discovered peacock spiders in the 1800s, they went virtually unstudied after a series of papers in the late 1950s. With so few professional scientists working on peacock spiders, Otto says that amateur naturalists and photographers are likely to be the ones discovering new species.

VIDEO: Take a closer look at the peacock spiders of Australia. Video courtesy Jürgen Otto

Source: National Geographic