Citizen scientist discovers three new species of peacock spiders

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One of the 73 known species of Maratus, or peacock spiders. Picture: Adam Fletcher media_cameraOne of the 73 known species of Maratus, or peacock spiders. Picture: Adam Fletcher

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Three new disco-dancing peacock spider species have been discovered in Western Australia.

The males of these previously unknown species are flamboyant* showmen. Though they’re only as large as a grain of rice, the males have the bright colours of peacocks and do an elaborate funky disco dance to attract female mates.

They were found by citizen scientists, a dedicated group of volunteers that drives thousands of kilometres around Australia trying to find these beautiful creatures.

Scientist Joseph Schubert identified them after they were collected at Lake Jasper and Mount Romance in Australia’s southwest.

He posted an image on social media platform Twitter announcing the spiders had been officially named.

“Meet Australia’s three newest species,” Mr Schubert wrote. “As of today they are officially named: Maratus aquilus, Maratus felinus, and Maratus combustus.”

Maratus aquilus. Picture: Joseph SchubertSource:Twitter media_cameraMaratus aquilus. Picture: Joseph Schubert Maratus felinus. Picture: Joseph Schubert media_cameraMaratus felinus. Picture: Joseph Schubert

Mr Schubert, who helped discover the spiders while volunteering with Project Maratus, said the spiders were distinctive with brightly coloured markings. He explained on Twitter that he had given some of his spiders their names to correlate* with patterns on their abdomens.

Maratus combustus. Picture: Joseph Schubert media_cameraMaratus combustus. Picture: Joseph Schubert

Mr Schubert said 73 of the Maratus — peacock — spider species have now been named.

The male spiders are brightly coloured, while the females are drab* and difficult to identify. The spiders are of interest for their elaborate courtship behaviour, which includes the males doing a dance to impress the females.

VIDEO: Male peacock spiders dance to impress the females 

“They’re incredibly small but so charismatic and so colourful,” Mr Schubert told news site 10 Daily.

He said peacock spiders were unique from other spiders, by being identifiable by their colourful markings on their abdomen. Other spiders are identified by their fangs, or spider hair.

Five new peacock spiders from Western Australia media_cameraMaratus gemmifer, a species of peacock spider discovered in Western Australia in 2017. Picture: Jurgen Otto media_cameraThe distinct markings of peacock spiders are how they are identified as different species within the group. Picture: Jurgen Otto

Mr Schubert said the area where they were found, at Lake Jasper and Mount Romance in Western Australia was a “biodiversity* hotspot”, meaning there was an important number and range of animal and plant species there.

Mr Schubert is a biologist at Monash University, Victoria, whose paid job is researching a group of invertebrates* known as Collembola, which are six-legged relatives of insects.

He told Forbes magazine in an interview that he was once an arachnophobe*, but that peacock spiders aren’t at all scary.

“They’re a great group to expose arachnophobes to, as they’re quite cute compared to the scary, hairy spiders we’re used to seeing.”

media_cameraLook how tiny peacock spiders are compared to this person’s finger. This one is Maratus tasmanicus in the coastal scrub at Jan Juc, Victoria. Picture: Shaun Viljoen

GLOSSARY

flamboyant: attracting attention because of its confidence and style correlate: connect, relate drab: dull and colourless biodiversity: the variety or range of different species of plants and animals in a habitat invertebrates: creatures without a backbone arachnophobe: person with an extreme fear of spiders

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More information and photographs at: peacockspider.org 

QUICK QUIZ

    How big are these spiders? How many peacock spiders do we know about? How are different peacock spiders identified? How is that different to other spiders? Where is the biodiversity hotspot? What does that mean? What or who is an arachnophobe?

LISTEN TO THIS STORY

CLASSROOM ACTIVITIES
1. Puppet Show
Work in groups of three to write and create a small puppet show to perform to some younger students in your school. You should write the script to incorporate the information about the peacock spider contained in the Kids News article.

Create puppets by drawing or printing images of the new peacock spider species and sticking them to a craft/icy-pole sticks.

Perform your puppet show to a younger class at a time to suit both classes.

Time: allow 45 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Drama

2. Extension
What do you think is meant by the term “biodiversity hotspot?” Research this area in Western Australia to see if you can find out why this might be the case.

Time: allow 25 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Geography, Science

VCOP ACTIVITY
The glossary of terms helps you to understand and learn the ambitious vocabulary being used in the article. Can you use the words outlined in the glossary to create new sentences? Challenge yourself to include other VCOP (vocabulary, connectives, openers and punctuation) elements in your sentence/s. Have another look through the article, can you find any other Wow Words not outlined in the glossary?

HAVE YOUR SAY: What sort of new species would you like to discover? Why? What would you name it?
No one-word answers. Use full sentences to explain your thinking. Comments will not show until approved by editors.

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