Magazine article International Wildlife

Why I like Jumping Spiders

Magazine article International Wildlife

Why I like Jumping Spiders

Article excerpt

Their big eyes and engaging behavior make them the teddy bears of the spider world. They can ever watch TV.

Putting in a good word for the Earth's maligned creatures is, it seems, one of the duties of biologists like myself. So when marine photographer David Doubilet asked me what's special about jumping spiders. I quickly reeled out my favorite astonishing facts. Seeing his eyes grow wide, I added, "And, boy, can they ever jump!"

"Wow," he said. "And what kind of distances are we talking about?"

I spread my hands to show him but was nonplussed by David's response: a burst of uncontrollable laughter.

When realization hit, I may have turned crimson. My hands had been a "mere" 10 centimeters (4 in.) apart. After a life of bug-watching, the world of Lilliputians has grown to such epic proportions in my mind that 10-centimeter leaps by a half-centimeter-long creature seem near miraculous. David, for whom whales are commonplace, has another point of view.

Yet our planet is filled with high drama in small places, and jumping spiders - salticids or "jumpers" to spider experts - can dazzle and charm even hardened arachnophobes. Whereas the great majority of animals experience a world largely alien to us - elusive patterns of smells and tastes - sharp eyesight dominates the jumper's sensory universe as it does ours.

Most other spiders are virtually blind, and their eight tiny eyes add to an already horrific demeanor. Perhaps we humans find jumpers pleasing to look at, then, because they have two big eyes up front. In combination with their hairy bodies, such eyes tend to endow jumpers with a certain teddy-bearish charm.

Look closely at a jumper, and it will probably look back, scanning your face (if only to find a spot to hop on). Jumper vision is so similar to our own that these species even understand television - many animals just see a jumble of moving dots. Researchers have even observed jumping spiders reacting to the TV images of other spiders or flies.

In birds, visual acuity is of similar importance, and to me, jumpers are tiny birds. Jumpers hunt by sight, foregoing the common spider practice of catching prey in a sticky web - most jumper species build silk nets only for sleeping or cradling eggs. These spiders follow prey with the agility of a hawk after a rabbit, laying down silk thread as a safety line for long leaps. Because jumpers see in color, they rival birds in gaudiness, with odd flanges, crests and tufts in showy neons or pastels. With these ornaments, the spiders signal to each other in elaborate warning displays or courtship dances that would do a bird-of-paradise proud. Incidentally, this is no minor animal group. There are at least 4,000 species of jumpers around the globe.

Lots of Looks

I grew up a jumping spider enthusiast, watching zebra-striped Salticus jumpers prowl for mosquitoes and gnats on the brick walls of our North American home. I admired other backyard jumpers, with their delicate red, yellow or brown markings. But upon first traveling into the tropics. I was as overwhelmed by the jumping spiders there as any temperate birder is by tropical birds. Even today, say, in an Indian jungle, I'm dumbstruck each time I catch sight of a red-and-blue Chrysilla as it bounces through a patch of sunlit leaf litter, sizzling like some animated spark.

Not all tropical jumpers are so ostentatious: In Indian forests one can turn up Portia jumpers, which look (and move) exactly like crumpled, gray debris blown in the wind, and Myrmarachne jumpers that precisely resemble ants, down to the incessant waving of forelegs to mimic antennae. Along Australian riverbanks, a glimpse of a grass-green Mopsus mormon still makes me nervous; this is the only jumping spider to have bitten me. It is one of very few jumpers capable of biting a human. Even so, the effect was no stronger than a honeybee's sting.

Big Little Hunters

Mopsus are formidable predators. …

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