When the Reverend Octavius Pickard-Cambridge discovered the first peacock spider in 1874, he was more excited by what he thought were wings than the bright colours on the tiny creature’s abdomen.
He named the spider Salticus volans – volans being a constellation in the southern sky that is meant to look like a flying fish.
And so for a while, there was the idea he’d discovered a flying spider.
The wings in fact are flaps that are part of the male’s peacock-like display – along with the brightly coloured, fanning abdomen – to woo females.
Only found in Australia, there are now 74 species of peacock spider, and the hunt is on for more.
So there’s that.
Confusion in the sweet, tiny peacock spider world persists. For instance, is there a sticky situation between rival spider researchers? We’ll get back to that.
A taxing job
This week, taxonomist, entomologist and Monash University research assistant Joseph Schubert was credited with discovering three new species of peacock spiders in West Australia. It’s been all over the news.
In fact, Mr Schubert was quick to point out to The New Daily that his job was classifying and naming the new species – Maratus aquilus, Maratus felinus, and Maratus combustus – and they were actually found by three enthusiasts from Sydney who call themselves Project Maratus.
“I didn’t discover them so I feel it’s unfair on the group for me to get all the credit,” he said.
Even so, he had the job of rigorously writing up the research paper that is reviewed and officially births the species into scientific life.
Project Maratus is headed by a bee keeper from the University of Western Sydney Michael Duncan.
Mr Duncan said he and two citizen scientists discovered the new spiders “on a targeted research trip in southern WA”.
So what do they look for when on the hunt?
He said: “As a group we identify habitat that looks suitable for these spiders to live and spend countless days hunched over with our eyes fixated to the ground scanning for movement.
“As they are a type of jumping spider, you can often see movement as they spring from one twig to another.”
Mr Duncan described Mr Schubert as “an up and coming taxonomist with a huge interest in jumping spider taxonomy and we liaised with him to give him an opportunity to describe these unique Australian gems and he really did them justice”.
This brings us to Jürgen Otto – who works in biosecurity for the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources, identifying mites on incoming goods – and who is possibly the first person to photograph peacock spiders, in 2005.
“Until then, there weren’t any on the internet,” he said.
The undisputed Peacock Spiderman
His peacockspider.org is the place to see a great library of photographs and videos, some of which feature Mr Otto talking to camera. He is the undisputed Peacock Spiderman, and has been profiled in news outlets around the world. Indeed he is a curiosity himself – being partly colour blind.
Mr Otto half expected the Maratus Group would ask him to classify the new species – but they instead approached Mr Schubert, whom Mr Otto calls a good friend.
“Actually I wasn’t involved in the study,” he said, by way of explaining his initial reluctance in participating in this story.
“The people who found them won’t talk to me. They’ve locked me out their social media site. They used to cooperate with me but for some reason they have decided rather to compete. It’s quite sad how it’s developed.”
He said that when he travelled to Western Australia recently: “I emailed them and asked to for the coordinates [where the new species were found] so I could photograph them and didn’t even get a reply.”
In emails, Mr Duncan said: “Rivalry? Not sure where that’s come from. He’s put peacock spiders on the map worldwide and full credit to him.”
And then: “It’s standard practice in new discoveries in taxonomy to not reveal locations before a paper is published. The locations were shared with the WA museum where they are supposed to be.”
And then another: he said he was surprised the media was focusing on “anything but the discovery of these unique Australian gems. I often say at public talks, wouldn’t be great if the spiders were acknowledged on coins or postage stamps like other iconic Australian animals”.
Mr Schubert simply said he was in a difficult position, stuck in the middle. Later, in an email he said: “I think it would also be worth noting that pretty much everything I’ve learnt about peacock spiders has come from Mr Otto and his colleague David Hill, they’ve been very helpful mentors.
“It was only about three years ago when I was 18 or so that I found my first peacock spider and had no idea what species it was. Never did I think I would be working on them.”
At this point someone might say “ouch” – except peacock spiders are harmless.