When it comes to wooing aggressive females, spiders can really spin the charm… just ask David Attenborough and Jurgen Otto. Fatima Khan reports
Is that a paddle in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?
First published in the Sunday Tribune
When the British royal tots interviewed Sir David Attenborough in October last year, the conversation between Princess Charlotte and the knighted naturalist went something like this:
Charlotte: “Hello David Attenborough, I like spiders. Do you like spiders too?”
Attenborough: “I love spiders and I’m so glad you like them, I think they’re wonderful things. Why is it that people are so frightened of them? I think it’s actually because they’ve got eight legs which is much more than us and if you’ve got eight legs you can move in any direction, so you can never be quite sure which way that spider’s going to go. He could go this way… or that way. So people don’t like them and they don’t like their hairy legs either. But spiders are so clever. Have you ever watched one trying to build its web? That is extraordinary.”
Like most of the more than 128 000 people who have seen the video clip, Jurgen Otto found the interview between the Royal littlies and Attenborough ‘very charming’, more so because he has an intriguing link to Attenborough.
An avid spider enthusiast who lives in Sydney, Australia, Otto sent copies of some videos he made of peacock spiders to Attenborough and received the following note, “Dear Dr Otto, It is most kind of you to have sent me discs of your peacock spider film. It is a delight to watch and I congratulate you upon it. What a splendid little creature!”
Michael Ridley, a media consultant and agent, confirmed that Attenborough did indeed write to Otto after watching the videos and suggested he contact the BBC’s Natural History Unit.
Ridley said that, “Sir David has apparently used a clip of the spider in the occasional charity lecture he used to give.”
The clips represent just a few of the countless hours Otto has spent studying spiders, which began with a childhood fascination.
It might come as a surprise then to learn that his day job involves a completely different kind of creepy-crawly: The German-born biologist, specialises in mites.
Among Otto’s spare-time discoveries is the spid-a-boo spider, the males of which have developed a unique technique to charm their potential mates, who can be very aggressive to their suitors.
How boo’s woo
After months of observing spiders with “strange paddle-like structures on their third pair of legs”, Otto finally understood spid-a-boo spiders’ wooing technique.
“The male is obviously trying to find a female that does not attack him, that’s what all this is about… The aim is to find a female that is receptive, one that has not yet mated. Instead of chasing the male with his paddle, receptive females become calm and placid.”
“Spid-a-boo” spiders belong to the species Jotus remus, which Otto and his collaborator, David Hill, named.
Otto and Hill have a good working relationship. “When David Hill and I name these spiders and describe them scientifically I usually take many photographs and film them over a few weeks. I then send that material to David and he goes through them in detail and analyses their movements,” said Otto.
Attenborough narrated a documentary called ‘Mate or die trying!’ on Jotus remus, and Otto worked with the BBC on the production, providing the spiders which were released into the wild after filming had wrapped. However, the two men have yet to meet in person.
Otto’s interest in peacock spiders was sparked serendipitously as a researcher in 2005. During a nature walk he noticed “something hopping on a small rock in front of me’. “I almost stepped on it, a small jumping spider,” he recalls.
Like peacocks of the avian world, the male peacock spiders display an array of colours to attract females. They deploy some nifty dance moves too when they give lady spiders the glad eye.
Peacock spiders are surprisingly small – smaller than a man’s thumbnail. So finding them takes some doing, but Otto clearly has it licked. He has discovered several species of peacock spider and with his collaborator Hill named most of the known 87 species, including Maratus tiddalik, named in October 2020.
Spiders are fascinating, aren’t they? If only more people could get over their instinctive alarm. Otto managed this many years ago. He remembers, “being somewhat scared of spiders when I was young. But I overcame my fear by keeping some in glass jars and getting closer and closer to them.”
We can thank Otto’s dad for understanding his son’s childhood fascination with spiders and encouraging him.“I was often outside and my father joked that if a spider got missing in the garden or moved to another place I would have noticed. But not if the house burnt down.” – Roving Reporters
- Fatima Khan is an affiliate member of the Royal Society of Chemistry and a freelance writer.