It’s hard not to get excited when German-born biologist Jürgen Otto talks about his unorthodox passion, peacock spiders.
These creatures measure just a few millimetres in size but have taken the internet by storm with their lively, colourful displays of courtship and non-threatening appearance.
And they have Otto to thank.
While English clergyman and zoologist Octavius Pickard-Cambridge first discovered these tiny animals in 1874, Otto rejuvenated study of these creatures and engrossed millions with photographs and videos of their behaviour.
So what is it that has driven Otto in his obsession for so many years?
His enthusiasm for spiders began not as a research interest – but as a snack for pet lizards.
“For as long as I can remember I was interested in animals like lizards, snakes, other reptiles. I spent time catching food for them, I had lizards at home,” he says.
“I got interested in spiders as a food for them.”
Had there been more opportunities regarding spiders at the University of Bremen where he studied biology, Otto says he probably would have ended up as an arachnologist. Instead, he ended up studying mites (and he now works with them as part of his day job for the Department of Agriculture in Sydney).
After visiting Australia a few times, he made his move down under in 1996 to Townsville, where he says he developed a passion for wildlife photography.
But it wasn’t until a bushwalk near Sydney in 2005 that he stumbled across his first peacock spider.
Otto says he almost stepped on the creature. Luckily – for him and the spider – he didn’t. Instead, he snapped a photo of it, and so began his fascination with the little critters.
His enthusiasm moved into the academic realm when David Hill, a founder of a journal on jumping spiders Peckhamia, encouraged Otto to branch out into peacock spider research.
Otto says Hill first approached him to ask if he could use some of Otto’s photos in a paper he was writing. They’ve since teamed up on numerous papers.
“Without David Hill, I wouldn’t have been doing any of this, in terms of publication at least,” Otto says.
“We’ve now published over 20 papers together and we’ve done it very efficiently.”
Otto claims his primary research focus is to document the different species of the Maratus genus, of which 70 have now been identified and 54 confirmed as peacock spiders.
And not only does he describe how new species looks, but he tracks their bizarre habits and rituals too.
“You never know what sort of behaviours you’ll discover,” he says.
One of his proudest discoveries is his observation of the bat peacock spider’s (Maratus vespertilio) hopping contests.
Otto describes this behaviour as a sort of tournament between rival males who signal to each other before coming together and proceeding to hit each other with their front legs over the course of several minutes.
He’s never seen a male injured during one of these contests and suggests that they are a way for males to defend territory.
Despite the significant progress that he’s made in his study of peacock spiders, Otto notes that entomology is still a severely under-studied area of biology.
“Most of the stuff that you see jumping around still has no name and that remains the case for the foreseeable future,” he explains.
Otto says that due to the lack of funding in this area of research, more people will need to take it upon themselves to independently pursue it. While he admits the work can be tough, it’s very rewarding.