Jumping spiders make up the largest family (Salticidae) in the order Araneae and have well-developed visual systems that are central to intersexual communication. While male salticids often have elaborate displays, Australian endemic peacock spiders are exceptional examples within this group. During courtship, a male extends intricately ornamented abdominal flaps, which he waves at a female in synchrony with his 3rd pair of legs. The structure bears a striking resemblance to the fan of a peacock, a classic system in the study of sexual selection.
Across taxa, sexual communication is fundamental to an organism's reproductive fitness, and ultimately, evolutionary success. Consequently, strong selection pressures often lead to extreme adaptations in physiology, morphology, and behavior to increase the efficacy of information transfer in the form of signals. Similarly, selection is predicted to act on neural mechanisms to detect, process, and respond to signal information. Males of many species produce elaborate multi-component signals spanning more than one sensory modality (multi-modal signals e.g. combinations of tactile, visual, acoustic, etc. signals). However, the adaptive significance of multi-modal signal structure remains poorly understood, as does the way in which female choice operates on these types of signals. I am using peacock spiders to examine links between decision-making, sexual selection, and complex signal evolution.
Laser vibrometry, microspectrophotometry, and optic flow analysis are tecniques I use to record and analyze male spiders during courtship in order to characterize and quantify display traits. My aim is to establish if variation in male quality or condition is correlated with variation of distinct signal elements or combinations of signal elements. I have conducted a series of mating trials to ascertain which male traits or trait combinations predict mating success to gain insights into female mating preferences. The goal of my current research is to test the hypothesis that in species where males emit complex signals, females base mating decisions on combinatorial suites of traits that provide more information than any one signal element alone. Virtually no work has been conducted on these extraordinary spiders, thus, my research offers a great opportunity to establish a new model system in behavioral ecology.