Joseph Schubert spends hours at a time lying in the dirt of the
Australian outback watching for tiny flickers in the sparse, ground-hugging foliage.
The 22-year-old arachnologist is searching for flea-sized peacock spiders, and
he admits, he’s a little obsessed.
But it wasn’t always so. Schubert grew up fearing spiders, with parents
who were “absolutely terrified” of the eight-legged crawlers. “I was taught
that every single spider in the house was going to kill me, and we should
squish it and get rid of it,” he says.
Then Schubert stumbled across some photographs of Australia’s endemic
peacock spiders, a group named for the adult males’ vivid
coloring and flamboyant
dance moves aimed at wooing a mate (SN: 9/9/16; SN: 12/8/15). And he was hooked.
“They raise their third pair of legs and dance around and show off like
they are the most amazing animals on the planet, which in my eyes they are.” He
decided to pursue a career in arachnology. And despite not quite having
completed his undergraduate degree in biology, he’s begun working part time at Museums
Victoria in Melbourne, and has already made a mark.
Of the 86 known peacock spider species — each just 2.5 to 6 millimeters in
length — 12 have been described by Schubert, including seven named in the March 27 Zootaxa.
Those seven were found at a range of sites across Australia, including the
barren dunes and shrublands of Victoria state’s Little Desert and the red rocks
and arid outback gorges of Kalbarri National Park, north of Perth.
“It’s a fantastic feeling
to be able to document these species and empower them with names” that offer
scientific recognition as well as a chance for legislated protections if
needed, Schubert says. “I am very lucky to work in this field. I get to pull
out my microscope and observe things that nobody has ever documented before.”
Sometimes, Schubert finds a peacock spider by looking for draglines of
silk glimmering in the sunlight. As these tiny spiders from the genus Maratus
leap from leaf to leaf in search of insect prey, they extend these safety lines
behind them to catch them in case they fall.
If he’s really lucky, Schubert will catch a male spider mid-boogie,
lifting its iridescent abdomen and vigorously waggling
its legs in the air as it jerks back and forth in an arachnid tribute to the
moonwalk. That usually happens during the Australian springtime in about September
and October, as the males become sexually mature towards the end of their lives
and take on brightly colored forms.
Those wild colors inspired some interesting names. Schubert’s dubbed one
bright blue species with yellow spots Maratus constellatus, because it reminded
him of Vincent Van Gogh’s painting The Starry Night. And last year, he called a
jumping spider that is a relative of peacock spiders Jotus
karllagerfeldi for the late fashion icon Karl Lagerfeld.
Schubert admits he’s had a lot of help from many Australian
photographers, amateur enthusiasts and citizen scientists who send pictures of
these miniature spiders to Schubert or share them on social
media. Without that vital help, “just a handful of us scientists would be
looking … as opposed to thousands [of enthusiasts] uploading via Facebook,”
He still hasn’t entirely gotten over his arachnophobia, though he’s
grateful that peacock spiders, while venomous to their tiny insect prey, are
harmless to humans. He’s handled hundreds of the spiders and suspects their
mouthparts are too small to puncture human skin, even if they wanted to take a
Less charismatic spiders are sometimes still a challenge for Schubert’s
nerves, though. In the Little Desert last year, while putting a 5-centimeter-long
wolf spider into a container, the spider pushed the lid aside and crawled up Schubert’s
arm. “I screamed,” he says, laughing. “But if I can prepare and mentally tell
myself that a spider is not looking to hurt me, and even if it does bite me,
it’s not going to do anything, then I can put myself in the mental position to
that swept vast areas of Australia between September and February (SN: 1/13/20) could potentially have
burned through the tiny ranges of several peacock spider species found in
Victoria’s alpine regions. Nobody has yet been able to check, and future field
work is currently on hold amid the ongoing COVID-19
As soon as Schubert can get out again, he will — whether on a research
trip or on his next holiday. The only problem, he says, is that “it’s sometimes
difficult to find other people who want to spend personal time looking for