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Skeletorus! Amazing New Species of Peacock Spider Discovered

Saturday 18 April 2015

It is, of course, just a nickname.  In September 2013, American PhD student Madeline (Maddie) Girard from Berkeley in California and her Sydney friend Eddie Aloise King alighted upon five males of a hitherto unknown species of peacock spider in Wondul Range National Park in Queensland, Australia. They were not able to resist a nod to He-Man’s primary adversary in the Masters of the Universe franchise, Skeletor (left). The bold, skeleton-like aspect of the male spider demanded a designation both apposite and memorable.

Girard took one of the spiders to Dr Jürgen Otto, handing it over with the words approximating to “This is what I call Skeletorus. When you look at him you will know why.”  Although professionally an acarologist (he studies mites and ticks), Otto is fascinated by the peacock spider and is considered one of the world’s foremost authorities on the genus.  He and David Hill, the American editor of the journal Peckhamia that specialises in the publication of articles on the jumping spider family, began studying this species in preparation for a scientific description.

The scientific name arrived at – its binomial nomenclature – is a little different to Girard’s creative nickname. This incredible new discovery has been named Maratus sceletus by Otto and Hill. Maratus is a genus of Salticidae which means that this is a peacock spider, one of the jumping spider family. Sceletus is Latin for (you probably know or have guessed this already) skeleton, which Otto and Hill thought it resembled more than the fictional character. Although Skeletorus was a strictly working name, it may, however, be the name that’s going to stick.

So recent a discovery of such a striking spider could be considered unusual, surely?  Why was this amazing creature not found long ago? Size is certainly a factor, as is geography and habitat. Peacock spiders are tiny. The male Skeletorus is often only 4mm in length, not counting the spinnerets (its silk-spinning organs).

Then there is the fact that peacock spiders are only found in certain parts of Australia, a country of a size which is just the opposite of tiny.  It’s a lot of ground for even the keenest of entomologists to cover. Finally, peacock spiders live on the ground or in low bushes.  To paraphrase the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham “Stretching his hand up to reach the stars, too often man forgets the peacock spider at his feet” So, little wonder that Skeletorus remained hidden from our sight for so long. 

One method of establishing whether or not Skeletorus was indeed a peacock spider at all was to introduce it to the female of other maratus spiders. Male peacock spiders are not too choosy when it comes to romance and they will often make their moves on females of other related species.  They are keen to start their famous fan dance, when the male spider will wave and finally raise his abdominal flaps, much in the same way that a peacock raises his dazzling feathers in an altogether quite overt come hither action.  You can see other peacock spiders in our related feature here.

Yet Skeletorus #1 was unmoved by any of the female company Otto and Girard offered it. It made Otto wonder whether, indeed, this was a peacock spider at all.  Certainly, he resembled other members of the group in terms of his patterns but he was mostly black and white, something of a departure considering the iridescent resplendence of other peacock spiders.

Not only that, Skeletorus has a ‘nose’.  It has a distinct tuft of long, white setae (hair-like structures) extending toward the front between its anterior median eyes (the two big ones in the middle). It simply adds to its overall visual appeal and skeletal appearance. So, there was only one thing for it.  If Skeletorus #1 was disinclined to perform then then females of the species, preferably virgins, would have to be collected. Otto travelled to where Skeletorus had been found in an attempt to find other individuals. 

Fortunately he succeeded – he found lots - and was then ultimately able to establish that this was indeed a Maratus. The decision was taken to remove some from their habitat.  Otto explains: “I could have experimented in the field with them but it is hard to enough to find them and you don’t want to lose them again by playing with them once you found some. So I ended up collecting a few females and a few males and exposed them to each other at my home, with my camera ready to capture the action”.

The decision was not only taken to get them to display to each other without losing them, but because these individuals would be valuable in the species description that Otto and Hill went on to produce. It is possible to name and describe a new species based on a single individual, but it is preferable to have several individuals (specimens) to see what their variation is. Also, one needs to lodge at least one individual as the holotype in a museum, but preferably also some paratypes (additional individuals). All the individuals Otto collected will end up in the Australian Museum in Sydney and serve as reference specimens.

Once Otto was able to see the new males and females together (by now, sadly, Skeletorus #1 had shuffled off his mortal coil) he could watch the courtship dance of up close – you can see the results pictured here.  The dance was what was expected or at least hoped for: the male extended his spinnerets in a similar way to two other Maratus species during his dance. Otto and Hill were even able to assign Skeletorus to a clade (which represents a single "branch" on the "tree of life") of five distinct species contained within the genus Maratus - the calcitrans group.

Since then Otto and Hill have written a paper for Peckhamia (the international alliance of amateur and professional jumping spider researchers) describing Maratus sceletus which was published in January 2015.  The paper also describes another new discovery Maratus jactatus and you can read this fascinating paper here.

So, the world welcomes Maratus sceletus aka Skeletorus. When it comes to nicknames, Skeletorus undoubtedly won out.  The designated sobriquet for the other new species is – wait for it - Sparklemuffin.

Ark in Space would like to thank Dr Jürgen Otto for his assistance in ensuring this feature is as accurate as it is.  Please visit his various pages on the internet to learn more about peacock spiders.

Flickr - a multitude of images, of Maratus sceletus and a host of other fascinating peacock spiders.
Facebook - Join thousands of others in your appreciation of peacock spiders on their very own community page.
YouTube - Lots of peacock spider videos made by Dr Otto

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