We are entering the Yule season, the darkest time of year here in the northern world. Of course we have Christmas and Kwanza and Saturnalia to distract ourselves from the endless cold gloom, but it is still a bit early to write about those topics. I need something colorful and splendid…perhaps from the other hemisphere where everything is beautiful late spring majesty. Behold the stupendous color and masterful dance of the peacock…spider. I feel this jaunty little spider is a perfect spirit animal for artists.
The peacock spider (Maratus Volans) is a small jumping spider which lives in parts of Queensland, New South Wales, Australian Capital Territory, Western Australia and Tasmania. The spider lives like almost all spiders—by capturing and eating tiny invertebrates, while avoiding hungry predators long enough to mate. However unlike most spiders, the male peacock spider is a mélange of exquisite hues and glistening iridescent color. In the manner of the eponymous peacock, he has a blue, orange, and gold abdominal flap, which he can raise and lower at will. He looks like he fell out of a particularly weird corner of paradise…and, on top of that, he is a great dancer. The female is rather more drab in appearance, and, ominously, she is much larger….
Like the Irish elk, the male peacock spider has a sexual selection problem on his (many) hands. If one is a small animal living in the dust-colored scrubland of the outback it is not necessarily an advantage to look like Liberace’s underwear drawer (!). Yet male spiders who are not sufficiently brilliant and nimble at dancing are liable not to mate…and !
If the male spider is not colorful enough, or if he fails to dance with heart-stopping terpsichorean majesty, the female spider will become “perturbed” and she is likely to attack him and eat him. Unsurprisingly, this dynamic seems to have produced a feedback loop wherein spiders are in a kind of arms race to be as colorful and flamboyant as possible. If they are not vibrant and ridiculous enough, the female eats them. If they are too brilliant and noticable, everyone else does.
This jaunty little spider should be the mascot of artists everywhere, for, like him (or like poor Marsyas), we are slaves to the fickle whims of an ever-more jaded audience. At the same time there is stronger competition than ever from all other quarters to be more practical and more buttoned down. I don’t know what the solution is, but the peacock spider seems to have found it. Look at him go! (Hint: he really starts dancing at 1:46)