Appreciating Amazing Aussie Arachnids
Fear of spiders is learned, but the good news is that fear can also be unlearned, write Robert Whyte and Greg Anderson in their book, A Field Guide to Spiders of Australia. Many of us have felt it: we’ve jerked backwards at the sight of a White Tail in our home, or stopped in our tracks when face-to-face with a Huntsman on the wall. But there is also much to love about our eight-legged friends, and not just because they help keep pests like flies away.
Inspired by A Field Guide to Spiders of Australia, we have compiled a few reasons to make friends with spiders, rather than fear them, following this advice from the book’s authors: “When beginning to cure your arachnophobia and desensitising yourself to reduce fear of spiders, it’s probably best not to start with a big, hairy Huntsman. Why not try this adorable Jumping Spider…”
The world’s cutest spider is also an incredible dancer
Big-eyed, fluffy and like something straight out of a Pixar movie, Maratus personatus, the Masked Peacock Spider and a type of Jumping Spider, was dubbed the world’s cutest spider by online magazine The Verge in 2015. In the video below, shot by Jürgen Otto, a photographic contributor to A Field Guide to Spiders of Australia, a male dances feverishly to impress his potential female mate.
Jumping Spiders are inquisitive and cheeky, with unusual mobility, allowing their abdomen to move in elaborate courtship displays, featuring leg waving, toe-tapping, and twerking, while showcasing brilliantly coloured bodies.
Plucky spiders play strings for food
One Jumping Spider, Portia fimbriata, which preys on other spiders, has an extraordinary suite of tricks to catch prey. It plucks the web of its intended meal to mimic the vibrations made during courtship, tricking its victim into coming closer. If a particular pattern of plucking doesn’t work, it can invent and remember new patterns. Their prey-catching techniques are among the most studied of all animals.
Spiders pretend to be bird poo and lichen
Some spiders use mimicry to resemble unpalatable animals to deter predators, while others might use it as a disguise when hunting.
The below-pictured Pandercetes gracilis, colloquially known as the Australian Lichen Spider, was only spotted at night because of eye shine. Many groups of spiders in moist places with moss and lichen become adept mimics of the surfaces on which they live and hunt.
Arkys curtulus, the Bird-dropping Arkys, masquerade as poop to escape detection during the day, hiding in plain sight. Their camouflage is so effective, they go unnoticed even when you are specifically looking for them.
Other spiders camouflage themselves as entirely different animals. Myrmarachne smaragdina, the Northern Green Tree Ant Mimic, is an uncannily accurate mimic of the widespread and abundant Northern Green Tree Ant.
Spider sisters are doin’ it for themselves
At least one spider species in Australia does not need males to produce offspring. Theotima minutissima reproduces by generating embryos from eggs – no male required! Over 1,000 specimens have been examined but a male has never been found.
Some of the best nicknames in nature: Sparklemuffin, Alien Butt and Ogre-face
Odd names can help us remember spiders. Sparklemuffin is a beautiful Peacock Spider, Maratus jactatus, with a lovely blue and orange body. Another Peacock Spider, Maratus sceletus, was nicknamed Skeletorus for the black and white pattern on its body; it looks exactly like it is wearing a skeleton costume.
The Outstanding Orb-weaver (Araneus praesignis) has the nickname Alien Butt Spider. This widespread, common species in well-vegetated areas has very bold black blobs on its rear, perhaps mimicking eyes, making it appear larger and more threatening than it really is.
Netcasters are also called Ogre-face Spiders, and it’s easy to see how they earned that name – just take a glance at the cover of A Field Guide to Spiders of Australia (pictured below), featuring a large photo of Deinopis subrufa with huge eyes and a craggy face. Rounding out the list of excellent nicknames is the Dew-drop Spider (Argyrodes antipodianus) which lives in the webs of Golden Orb-weavers and looks like a dew drop sparkling in the sun, as well as the glittering Thwaitesia, which have colourful reflective pigment on their abdomen, leading to their nickname of Mirror-ball Spiders.
Spiders are an important part of our ecosystem
At the time of publication of A Field Guide to Spiders of Australia, the authors commented that researchers had only just scratched the surface of the miniature world of spiders and other invertebrates, which make up over 90 per cent of our animal biodiversity.
“It astonishes us how many Australian spiders are yet to be described. We know about 4,000 from scientific descriptions, but based on predictions from recently revised groups, the number of actual species could be as much as 20,000.
“Spiders are an important group, being a mid-level predator, and an indicator of ecosystem health. Without healthy ecosystems there would not be enough food to support them.
“The great lesson to be learned is: treasure the natural environment, and when you are out there, look more closely. You never know what you might find.”
A Field Guide to Spiders of Australia is the most comprehensive account of Australian spiders ever published.
Authored by Robert Whyte and Greg Anderson, the book features over 1300 colour photographs, that will help people identify many of the spiders they encounter. The stunning macro-photography also reveals fascinating details not discernible to the naked eye.
It is available from our website or your favourite local bookstore.