Thursday 7 May 2015

Is this the cutest spider?

There are lots of special things at Dungeness.  The biggest bit of coastal shingle in Britain is a strange place: flat, treeless, windswept, and wild if you can manage to ignore the huge nuclear power stations in the background.  Yet somehow it manages not to feel bleak, and every time I visit I get excited at the possibilities offered by a day here.  You see, whatever branch of natural history has taken my mood I know that there is a chance of finding a great rarity at Dungeness.  If I am feeling botanical there will be an abundance of Nottingham Catchfly Silene nutans and the tantalising prospect of discovering Stinking Hawk's-beard Crepis foetida in a new spot.  If my mind is on beetles I will go to the quicksand shores and search for Omophron limbatum, or venture out at night and look for new weevils.  And there is always the possibility of vagrant birds to liven up the day.  But today we were focussing on spiders, not on a whim, but because we wanted to check on two of the Dungeness rarities: Three-spotted Jumper Pellenes tripunctatus and Banded Jumper Phlegra fasciata.

Both these spiders have the distinction of being rare and easy to identify (an unusual but much appreciated quality).  We arrived late morning on a windy but sunny day and started crawling over the shingle.  There were plenty of jumping spiders out and about around the car park: Common Zebra-spider Salticus scenicus was the most noticeable, but there were plenty of sun-jumpers Heliophanus around too.  This boded well for our search, so we headed out hopefully onto some of the vegetated shingle near the pits, where Steph, one of the wardens who had joined us for the hunt, found our first Phlegra fasciata.

It was a female, which was a relief for us all.  The males are black and not so distinctive, but our girl had the pattern of broad velvet stripes down the abdomen that made her at once identifiable as a Banded Jumper.  Chloe found another, smaller one a few minutes later.  Things were looking promising, but these turned out to be the only ones we saw all day. At least we were able to confirm that it is still here.  In Britain, Phlegra fasciata occurs at a few places along the south coast and in south Wales.  It seems to have always been uncommon at Dungeness, or at least hard to find, so we were not too discouraged by our meagre total.

Our first Pellenes tripunctatus appeared soon after.  At Dungeness, people have found this spider more commonly than Phlegra fasciata, but nationally their statuses are reversed and Pellenes is much the rarer of the two.  It has an interesting history, which begins with Octavius Pickard-Cambridge telling of its discovery:

'Adults of both sexes of this fine addition to our British spiders were sent to me in June, 1888, by Colonel Le Grice, by whom they were found at Folkestone in that month.'

However, the excitement of the initial discovery did not live up to its promise, and by the 1950s British arachnologists seemed to have given up on it.  In British Spiders Vol I, we are told almost dismissively that it 'has been found but once, at Folkestone (Kent) in 1888, when both sexes were taken.  It has never been re-discovered and may have been the result of a chance importation of a cocoon.' Hope was restored in Vol III in 1974, with the recent finding of an immature male at Dungeness.  This was enough to inspire Dick Jones to try his luck with the spider in April 1981.  He found it, and it has remained a firmly established member of our spider fauna ever since.  Dungeness and Rye remained the only known localities for it until 1994 when Pickard-Cambridge's prophecy that it ought to be found in Dorset was fulfilled with the discovery of populations at Chesil Beach.

Pickard-Cambridge does a good job of describing it, so I will leave it to him again to tell you more:

'It appears to be an exceedingly active spider, and the extent of its leaps is wonderful. It lives among stones and rubbly chalk near the shore, and comes out during the hot sunshine. The very striking pattern on the abdomen will serve to distinguish it a glance from all our other British salticids.'

It certainly will, and it was this pattern that first caught my eye as I was crouched over a patch of shingle hoping to find another Phlegra. Pellenes tripunctatus is a large jumping spider, and the females are adorably cute with two large sad-looking eyes looking out at you from their fluffy cream palps and face mask.

The males are not quite as cute, but they are very striking in their red bandit masks and chalky white stripes.

Over the next few hours we found 36 Pellenes out on the vegetated shingle; a good count for the day, and confirmation that it was still here and thriving.  I wonder, how did this spider, described by Pickard-Cambridge as 'a conspicuous object' go missing for so long?


  1. Great post and great images. What do you use to take these?

  2. Thank you, Martin. I use something similar to Nikola Rahmé's setup here: