An Old Friend

Fencepost jumping spider (Marpissa muscosa)

Dear Readers, I was talking to my friend J about tattoos at lunch today. At the age of 60 she is planning on getting one in the shape of a swift, and so the conversation turned to what I would have, in the event that I decide to be artistically punctured with lots of small needles.

“A jumping spider”, I said, without any hesitation. And therein hangs a tale.

When I was six or seven, I was out in our tiny garden as usual. I had spotted a tiny creature on the concrete slab that housed the giant post for our washing line, and I had noticed that it was acting very strangely, so I lay on my stomach (in my best party dress as we were supposed to be going out) and realised that the animal was a spider about the size of my fingernail. A few inches away on the slab, a house fly was cleaning its eyes with its hairy front legs, rotating its whole head by about 240 degrees like they do. The spider was prowling ever closer, using the lumps and bumps in the surface of the concrete as cover. Then, it paddled its legs, tensed itself and leapt through the air onto the back of the fly.

And in that moment was Bugwoman born. Because I don’t think I had ever seen anything quite so thrilling or so unexpected, and it opened my eyes to a whole world of astonishment and good old-fashioned awe.

Back to the present day, and I was getting some cushions for the chairs in the garden out of the cupboard when I noticed this little chap. And I am quite sure he was a chap because those ‘boxing gloves’ are pedipalps, which he uses to insert his sperm into a female spider if she is willing to accept him, though my lovely friends at the British Spiders Facebook Page tell me that this is just a young male, as in adults those pedipalps would be more formed, and his stripes would be more defined.

Jumping spiders don’t use webs or any of that namby-pamby stuff – though they will anchor themselves to the ground with a silk line before they spring, just in case the jump fails. They are hunters through and through, and so they have those astonishingly large eyes at the front of their faces which help them to judge distance. The slightly smaller eyes which are further back are used to detect motion.

Most invertebrates, including most spiders, seem broadly oblivious to human presence, moving away when they sense a shadow or hear the vibration of footsteps, but jumping spiders actually look at you. They may even cock their heads like attentive dogs. To me, they are utterly adorable, and much easier to love than some of the bigger, hairier, danglier spiders that you might encounter in a shed. You are not supposed to have favourites, but I confess that these creatures fill me with a warm glow. Here’s a short film of this little chap.

Jumping spiders will also chase a laser pointer in much the same way as cats do. They probably have tetrachromic colour vision (which is better than our colour vision) and they also have high-sensitivity to ultraviolet light. They live in a colourful world, for sure, and in experiments they’ve been shown to be able to learn, remember and recognise particular colours.

Jumping spider chases laser pointer

Although this particular jumping spider is not very brightly coloured, the family to which he belongs (the Salticidae) are extremely varied, with over 6000 species, including the peacock spiders. You may well have come across them before, but if not, have a look at this extraordinary BBC film . Such tiny creatures, with such complex lives! It just reminds me of how little we actually know about the animals and plants that we share the planet with.

And so, I persuaded the jumping spider onto the fencepost for which he is named. Hopefully he’ll find a female jumping spider. At the very least, he’ll be able to find some insects to munch on. Good luck, little chap.

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