Jumping spiders are to be imported into NZ for world-leading University of Canterbury research

A male jumping spider, the Kenyan Evarcha culicivora, eating a female Anopheles mosquito. Photo / Robert Jackson, University of Canterbury
A male jumping spider, the Kenyan Evarcha culicivora, eating a female Anopheles mosquito. Photo / Robert Jackson, University of Canterbury

Tiny jumping spiders are being imported into New Zealand to further develop world-leading research into their remarkable intellect and 360-degree field of view.

The University of Canterbury has been importing spiders into a containment facility at its Spider Laboratory for more than 40 years.

Recent international research has identified hundreds of new species within the jumping spiders family Salticidae, and the university applied to the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) to have them added to the list of approved species it may import for research purposes.

Most species of interest come from tropical and sub-tropical regions, including Australia, Kenya and the Philippines.

Now, the EPA has granted approval which will also allow any future species of jumping spiders discovered to be added, reducing the compliance burden on scientists, who will not need to submit continual new applications.

"Jumping spiders are one of the smartest animals on the planet for their size, given that typically they measure less than one centimetre," says EPA scientist Dr Clark Ehlers.

"They have exceptional visual and spatial abilities, and researchers will investigate how they are able to forward map and execute decisions using these skills."

The spiders have an almost 360-degree field of view. Four or six secondary eyes act as motion detectors, and when something of interest is detected the spider spins around to bring its two large, forward-facing primary eyes to bear.

"This sophisticated visual system is vastly superior to their closest insect rivals, and approaches that of primates," said University of Canterbury Associate Professor of Biological Sciences, Dr Ximena Nelson.

"This is a stunning demonstration of evolutionary design and miniaturisation that, were it understood, would make our best robotics engineers weep."

The University of Canterbury research is at the forefront of work being done worldwide on jumping spiders, which are among the smartest on the planet for their size.

The spiders are renowned for their remarkable visual ability, which rivals that of primates, and for behaviour that is also as complex as that of many mammals. They have forward planning ability and the capacity to develop "mental maps".

"Jumping spiders provide a model to understand how animals can process information with very small brains, and is of great interest in the fields of biology and biorobotics," Dr Nelson added.

- NZ Herald

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