Dear Readers, in this time of lockdown it is usually delightful when someone from the outside world comes to visit me (though not if the visitor is a mosquito) and so I was very pleased to see this jumping spider advancing along the edge of my desk. Jumping spiders are able to see the outside world in a way that other spiders don’t and so, although I did my best to get a decent photo of this spider, s/he kept edging away to the other side of the desk if I got too close. At one point s/he peered over the edge with just two enormous eyes showing. I can see why some arachnologists consider them their favourite spiders.
Jumping spiders and I go a long way back. Imagine, if you will, a pocket-hanky sized garden at the back of a tiny house in Stratford, East London. A six-year old girl is laying on her stomach in her best party dress, for which she will get ‘a right old telling-off’ in a few minutes, but she doesn’t care, because all her attention is focused on a jumping spider a few inches in front of her nose. The spider is crouching behind a tiny crenelation in the concrete slab that holds up the fence, and it is paddling its legs just like her cat does before she pounces. A fly is washing her hands a few inches away, and then starts to ‘clean behind her ears’, rotating her head a good 180 degrees on the string-like neck.
And then, the spider springs into the air and lands on the fly.
Truly, I (for it was me) had never seen anything so thrilling in my entire life. You could keep the lions of the Serengeti – who knew that such life and death struggles were going on in a city back garden? I watched as the fly struggled, and then leapt up to go indoors to tell my parents what I’d seen. Sadly, they were less impressed with the spider, and more horrified that I’d now have to be positively hosed-down before I was fit to be presented to my grandmother.
And yet, that one incident opened my eyes to the sheer abundance of fascinating events and creatures that were right there, waiting to be experienced. I honestly believe that my love of nature and the natural world became turbo-charged in that moment – I had always preferred books about animals to books about people, but now my whole focus turned to the garden and what was living in it. No wonder that in these times of lockdown, I am finding my focus both narrowing and deepening, and I suspect that that’s the case for others, too.
One thing that makes the faces of jumping spiders so much more appealing to humans that those of other arachnids are those huge front-facing eyes. To the side and just above are two smaller eyes – these give the spider its peripheral vision, and enable it to detect its prey. Those enormous front-facing eyes enable it to lock on target, but also mean that it can see the movement of, say, a large late-middle aged female wafting a camera about. No wonder they seem to interact with us much more than most invertebrates.
It is also the case that jumping spiders appear to capable of learning: an experiment taught the spiders to associate a food reward with colour or location, and they quickly picked up where the tastiest titbits could be found. When the placements and colours were reversed, they soon unlearned their previous associations and formed new ones. Furthermore, the spiders, in the words of the scientists,
In other words, these tiny creatures, with brains smaller than a poppy seed and a life span of only 1-3 years, have intelligence and personality.
Experiments have also showed that jumping spiders are very interested in one another: in one test, they were more fascinated by one another than by a delicious food item being dragged past on a tiny cart. I shall hold that image in my head for quite some time, I must say. There is even some evidence that they can learn from watching the behaviour of other spiders. If we really paid attention to the little creatures around us, we would probably learn some extraordinary things.
I love how alert these creatures always seem to be, as if they are spring-loaded. Their Latin species name means ‘theatrical dancer’. They can jump at a speed of up to 2.6 feet per second, not bad when you consider that they are about the size of my little fingernail. The power to jump comes from a change in their body pressure, which results in the fourth legs suddenly straightening, sending them flying into the air.
The love life of a jumping spider involves the male doing an energetic courtship dance, involving waving the front legs and waggling the abdomen up and down. If you want to see the courtship display and mating of two North American jumping spiders, there is a rather nice video here. I listened with the sound down to avoid the usual silly music and cliched voice-over, but you may have a higher tolerance than I do.
These tiny tigers can be found all over the place at the moment: in East Finchley, they seem to like warm, south-facing walls, and I often greet one who lives beside my front door. If you want to meet a spider who truly ‘looks you in the eye’, this is definitely the one. And finally, for those of you with a very, very high tolerance for cuteness, have a look at this animation of ‘Lucas the spider’. You’re welcome.
Photo One by By Fotonfänger – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11135039
Photo Two by Alexander Wild at www.alexanderwild.com