Photo by Jürgen Otto
With its doll eyes and fuzzy mouthparts, the Australian peacock spider could endear itself to even the most skittish arachnophobe. Only one-fifth of an inch long, this wee wonder is found in a broad range of habitats Down Under, from coastal sand dunes to suburban gardens. It is most noted for the male's lurid abdominal fan. (Until recently, scientists believed the surrounding flaps enabled the spider to fly.) Its brilliant markings, much like the peacock's plumage, are flaunted in an elaborate courtship dance for the benefit of the dun-colored female. Males are notably persistent, making moves on females who are aloof, pregnant, or of another species entirely. (Guys that push their luck too far can end up as dinner.)
Although unable to fly, peacock spiders can leap up to 40 times their body length, which comes in handy for pouncing on baby crickets and other prey. Their envelope-shaped webs serve as shelters rather than snares. Females stay tucked inside with their eggs, barely eating or drinking until their young grow old enough to feed.
The primary threat to these tiny arachnids, says arachnologist Jürgen Otto, is habitat destruction, especially via the controlled burns that Australia employs to reduce the threat of runaway wildfires. "Invertebrates are not taken into account when deciding to burn," Otto says. "It's not on the radar of environment managers." Bright as they may be, peacock spiders' colors are not enough to get everyone's attention.