Peacock spider man discovers dazzling new species while searching for the 'Hokey Pokey'


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ABC Science
By environment reporter Nick Kilvert
July 21, 2018

When the beat drops: Maratus unicup knows how to bust a move.

(Flickr: Jurgen Otto)

On a trip trudging through the wet and cold of southern Western Australia last year, Jurgen Otto rediscovered a dancing spider dubbed the Hokey Pokey.

And in the process, he stumbled across a species never before classified.

Along with his colleague David Knowles, Dr Otto has discovered most of the 70 known species of peacock spider — and he loves them.

It's because, he says, they're more like dogs or cats, or people, than spiders.

"They're very charming animals. They've got these big eyes, and it's very easy to like them … I've often compared them to puppies and kittens."

"They're curious, they get excited, they push themselves up on their legs to see better, they crouch down and hide.

"They're not like a grasshopper or something that just doesn't show any [emotion], they're more like us than other invertebrates."

What it's all about
'Ah thankyou very much': The Hokey Pokey spider
(Flickr: Jurgen Otto)

Some 23 years ago, Mr Knowles found a peacock spider that danced with more energy and style than he'd seen before.

He nicknamed it the Hokey Pokey spider, and jotted down roughly where he found it near Walpole in southern Western Australia.

But he didn't collect a specimen — a prerequisite for scientific classification.

YOUTUBE: Peacock spider dancing for its mate

When Dr Otto and Mr Knowles went to look for it in 2015, Mr Knowles wasn't sure they were even searching in the right place, and there was no sign of the Hokey Pokey.

The same thing happened when they went out in 2016, Dr Otto says.

"The habitat seemed to have changed in that time.

"I got to the point where I said no, I don't think we'll find this spider anymore."

With hope fading, in 2017 Dr Otto took one last solo journey out to where he roughly thought Mr Knowles had once seen the dancing spider.

On the way, his rental car broke down, delaying his arrival and eating up precious time. When he did finally get there, the weather was overcast and still.
Maratus tortus had the most interesting display Dr Otto had ever seen.

(Flickr: Jurgen Otto)

"In the end it was lucky I was delayed [because] I arrived at the destination in the perfect weather," he says.

"When I first saw the display I really thought this, for me was the most interesting of the peacock spider displays I had seen, and I'd seen quite a few now."

In a paper published this week in the journal Pekhamia, Dr Otto and his colleague David Hill officially gave a name to the Hokey Pokey: Maratus tortus, with "tortus" being Latin for "twisted".

Colour blindness disguised stunning discovery
YOUTUBE: Dancing peacock spider M. unicup

But Maratus tortus isn't the only spider Dr Otto has naming rights to this week.

On his quest to find the Hokey Pokey, he discovered another species which, because of his partial colour blindness, he wasn't initially too excited about.

"To me it looked very similar to ones I'd previously found," he says.

"But when I photographed it and posted some pictures online people absolutely raved about it, so I knew I'd found something quite exciting."
Dr Otto couldn't recognise the unique colours of Maratus unicup at first.

(Flickr: Jurgen Otto)

Similar to Maratus tortus, the newly named Maratus unicup male raises his arms and moves his colourful torso in a complex dance when trying to convince a female to mate.

Unlike with some other spiders, Dr Otto says he's never seen a female eat the male, and the dances are usually successful.

And it's this complex behaviour that holds the most interest for him.

"It's more than just colours for me, it's the way they behave, the dances."

'Very affectionate' head patting common in peacock spiders

You'd dance too if you looked this good. Maratus unicup in full flight.
(Flickr: Jurgen Otto)

Dr Otto believes that nearly all the species of peacock spider have now been discovered, but for now his love of discovery motivates him to keep searching.

"I have another trip this year. On my return from Europe I'll stop over and have another look for 10 days," he says.

website in his spare time with photos documenting each of the species.

And although many of the spiders' moves are still a mystery, he says there's one thing they all have in common.

"Once the male … is convinced that the female is interested in mating with him … he just approaches her, he reaches over her head with his front legs and touches her gently.

"That's always quite interesting to me. It seems very affectionate."

How could she resist? This 'head pat' happens in most peacock spider dances right before they mate.

(Flickr: Jurgen Otto)
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