When the British royal tots interviewed Sir David Attenborough in October 2020, the conversation between Princess Charlotte and the knighted naturalist went something like this:
Charlotte: “Hello David Attenborough, I like spiders. Do you like spiders too?”
Attenborough: “I love spiders and I’m so glad you like them, I think they’re wonderful things. Why is it that people are so frightened of them? I think it’s actually because they’ve got eight legs which is much more than us and if you’ve got eight legs you can move in any direction, so you can never be quite sure which way that spider’s going to go. He could go this way… or that way. So people don’t like them and they don’t like their hairy legs either. But spiders are so clever. Have you ever watched one trying to build its web? That is extraordinary.”
Jurgen Otto was charmed by the video
Like most of the more than 126 000 people who have seen the video clip, Jurgen Otto found the interview between the Royal littlies and Attenborough ‘very charming’, more so because he has an intriguing link to Attenborough.
Otto – the avid Ozzie spider enthusiast
An avid spider enthusiast who lives in Sydney, Australia, Otto, sent copies of some videos he made of peacock spiders to Sir David and received the following note, “Dear Dr Otto, It is most kind of you to have sent me discs of your peacock spider film. It is a delight to watch and I congratulate you upon it. What a splendid little creature!”
Michael Ridley, consultant with “30 years’ experience in all aspects of television-related work”, at DLA Piper, a global law firm, acknowledged that Sir David “did write to Jurgen Otto after seeing the video of the peacock spider and he suggested that Jurgen contact the BBC’s Natural History Unit.”
Attenborough “used the peacock spiders in teaching,” according to Otto’s wife who met him in 2016 , but Otto is still hoping to meet the veteran broadcaster himself. Michael Ridley explained that, “Although he doesn’t teach as such, Sir David has apparently used a clip of the spider in the occasional charity lecture he used to give.”
Countless hours of spider viewing
The clips Otto sent to Attenborough represent just a few of the countless hours he has spent studying spiders, dating back to a childhood fascination and abiding love for arachnids . So it might come as a bit of a surprise to learn that Otto’s day job involves a completely different creepy-crawly. The German-born biologist, specialises in mites.
Among Otto’s discoveries are Spid-a-boo spiders (Jotus remus) who have developed a wooing technique to charm their potential mates who can be very aggressive to their suitors.
How boo’s woo
After months of observing spiders with “strange paddle-like structures on their third pair of legs”, Otto finally understood Spid-a-boo spiders’ wooing technique.
“The male is obviously trying to find a female that does not attack him, that’s what all this is about… The aim is to find a female that is receptive, one that has not yet mated. Instead of chasing the male with his paddle, receptive females become calm and placid.”
“Spid-a-boo” spiders belong to the species Jotus remus, named together with Otto’s collaborator David Hill. Otto and Hill have a good working relationship. “When David Hill and I name these spiders and describe them scientifically I usually take many photographs and film them over a few weeks. I then send that material to David and he goes through them in detail and analyses their movements,” said Otto.
David Attenborough has narrated a documentary called ‘Mate or die trying!’ on Jotus remus, discovered by Otto, who worked with the BBC and provided the spiders which were released into the wild after filming had wrapped.
Peacock Spiders have an array of colours
Otto’s interest in peacock spiders was sparked serendipitously as a researcher in 2005. While out on a nature walk Otto noticed “something hopping on a small rock in front of me, I almost stepped on it, a small jumping spider”. Like the more commonly known peacocks, the male peacock spiders display an array of colours to attract their female counterparts and they have some good dance moves too.
They are surprisingly small (smaller than Otto’s thumbnail). He has discovered several species of peacock spider and with his collaborator Hill named most of the known 87 species, including Maratus tiddalik, named in October 2020.
Spiders are fascinating, aren’t they? If only people could get over their instinctive alarm. This was true of Otto too. He remembers, “being somewhat scared of spiders when I was young, but I overcame my fear by keeping some in glass jars and getting closer and closer to them.”
We can thank Otto’s dad for understanding his son’s childhood fascination with spiders and encouraging him. “I was often outside and my father joked that if a spider got missing in the garden or moved to another place I would have noticed, but not if the house burnt down.”
This piece first appeared in the Weekend Witness and The Sunday Independent.
Fatima Khan is an affiliate member of the Royal Society of Chemistry, freelance writer and associate editor of www.rovingreporters.co.za