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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.

Male Peacock Spider (Maratus volans) via Jurgen Otto / Flickr

Male Peacock Spider (Maratus volans) via Jurgen Otto / Flickr

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….

Big bold color...in a small package

Big bold color…in a small package

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 !

peacock-spider-11[5]

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.

Male Peacock Spider (Maratus volns) illustration by KDS444

Male Peacock Spider (Maratus volns) illustration by KDS444

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)

The Gobi Desert

When I think of China, I tend to imagine coastal China or the Yangtze River valley—which is to say areas of tremendous human population density where neighbor lives smashed up against neighbor and black smokestacks belch poison smoke onto the churning masses.  Yet China is truly vast and parts of the nation are among the least densely populated places on Earth.  The great northwest deserts of China are a land of shifting sands, xeric scrubland, and nothingness. Yet the dry wasteland is home to one of the world’s rarest and fanciest leaping rodents.

The Long-eared Jerboa, Euchoreutes naso, is an insect-eating, long-jumping, mouse-like creature which lives in the deserts of China and Mongolia.  The animal’s habits are largely unknown–since it is a master of stealth and also since it lives in such an unforgiving and desolate regions where biologists are infrequent guests. The long-eared jerboa is sufficiently distinct that it is classified in its own genus and its own subfamily.  It is (self-evidently) notable for its long ears which it uses to hunt insects in the desert nights and to avoid predators.

The Long-eared Jerboa, (Euchoreutes naso)

The animal is lightweight with a mass of only 24 g (0.85 oz) to 38 g (1.3 oz) and its body is small, measuring from 70 mm (2.8 in) to 90 mm (3.5 in)—although its tail is just as long as its body so the whole creature measures up to 180 mm long (7 inches) if you count the tail.  Like other jerboas, this species probably excavate burrows where they rest during the day.  Because they are so enigmatic and poorly understood (and also so endearing), the long-eared jerboas are a kind of symbol of truly wild creatures and the little rodent was identified as one of the top-10 “focal species” in 2007 by the Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered (EDGE) project.

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