Introducing Questacon’s own Spiderman

A Maratus Harrisi peacock spider

Meet Stuart Harris, Team Leader of the Questacon Live Exhibit Officers (LEO’s), who on a leisurely bushwalk along the Booroomba Rock trail at Namadgi National Park in 2008, accidently discovered a new species of the Peacock Spider.

The Peacock Spider is known for its beautiful colours and unique mating dance, and also features as the ‘poster spider’ for Questacon’s blockbuster exhibition Spiders.

Mr Harris’s discovery came about when, amongst other small, beautiful creatures; a flecksized, red and blue jumping spider resting on a yellow leaf caught his eye.

“As a keen amateur photographer, I was experimenting with a new macro lens and liked the contrast between the foliage and the spider’s markings. The photographs turned out really well so, as millions of photographers do in these digital days, I posted the photograph on my Flickr site”.

“I thought it was an interesting photograph of an unusual spider, and hoped a spider expert might be able to identify it,” he says. “I knew very little about spiders then, other than the basic stuff”.

Fortunately, through a stream of online comments appeared David Hill, a retired businessman with a keen interest in jumping spiders who, coincidentally, was writing a scientific paper on Australian peacock spiders (Maratus) with Sydney biologist Dr Jürgen Otto.

Dr Otto, a German entomologist who specialises in mites (also arachnids) thought the spider may be a new species, so he helped Mr Harris get a permit to find the spider again. It would take 150 hours over two and a half years to find another Peacock Spider. Finally in 2011, Harris had his eureka moment at Booroomba Rocks.

Once confirmed, the new species was peered reviewed, then published in the journal ‘Peckhamia’ and named Maratus Harrisi to acknowledge Mr Harris’s efforts in searching for a live specimen to describe.

“If I hadn’t put the photo up there, none of this would have happened. I think it’s incredible someone on the other side of the world saw it,” Mr Harris says. “My collaboration with Dr Otto continues and he and David Hill have described another two species I have discovered; Maratus Calcitrans (on Black Mountain) and Maratus elephans (from near Tamworth). A fourth, discovered in a local vineyard, is still awaiting description”.

Mr Harris now supervises Questacon’s LEOs to ensure all of the live spiders in the Spiders exhibition are cared for, and is fondly known amongst staff as ‘Spiderman’.

The Spiders exhibition is on display at Questacon until 9 October 2016.