Environment

How amateurs discovered Namadgi's tiny dancer

A fleck-sized jumping spider resting on a yellow leaf caught the eye of Stuart Harris while on a bushwalk to Boroomba Rocks in Namadgi National Park.

A keen amateur photographer, Mr Harris was experimenting with a new macro lens and liked the contrast between the foliage and the spider's markings. And, as millions of photographers do in these digital days, he posted the photograph on his Flickr site.

"I though it was an interesting photograph of an unusual spider, and hoped a spider expert might be able to identify it," he says.

What happened next defied the odds of statistical probability. Mid-way through a stream of chatty online comments – "never seen anything like it", "very nice!", "amazing colours" – a spider expert in the United States chimed in with a comment. "Probably an unnamed species of Maratus new to science. Any more photographs?" asked a post signed Platycryptus.

"Wow, new to science, find that hard to believe – considering how many scientists live nearby in my home town of Canberra," Mr Harris replied.

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The expert was David Hill, a retired businessman with a keen interest in jumping spiders (platycryptus is a genus of North American jumping spider) who, coincidentally, was writing a scientific paper on Australian peacock spiders (Maratus) with Sydney researcher Jurgen Otto. They confirmed the Namadgi spider was new species, and named it Maratus harrisi to acknowledge Mr Harris's efforts in spending more than 100 hours searching for a live specimen to describe.

"Stuart did the hard work, and this discovery is thanks to his dedication and persistence," Dr Otto says.

Peacock spiders are unique to Australia and were first described in 1874, but little was known about the genus until recently. Dr Otto has spent five years photographing the markings of 11 species currently known to science, and filming the spider's dazzling courtship dance.

"Only the males have the bright colours, and they're used to spectacular effect," he says.

The male spider has two skin-flaps on either side of the abdomen that fold down against the sides of the body. When a female spider approaches, the male raises his abdomen vertically, the side-flaps pop out and are displayed like a peacock's tail. The spider also raises his third legs – on both sides – and begins dancing.

Dr Otto says the Namadgi spider discovery shows "citizen scientists" have an important role to play in documenting new species.

"All three of us involved in this discovery are amateurs," he says.

Although Dr Otto is a biologist, his speciality is mites. "When it comes to spiders, I'm just an enthusiast."

Mr Harris, a Mt Majura vineyard worker, is delighted the new species is named after him, and is contemplating having the Latin nomenclature tattooed on his arm. He's also amazed at the cyber-reach of that first photo.

"If I hadn't put the photo up there, none of this might have happened. I think it's incredible someone on the other side of the world saw it," he says.

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