Peacock spiders’ superblack spots reflect just 0.5 percent of light

New images reveal microscopic structures that manipulate light to create the dark patches

peacock spider

BLACK OUT  Microscopic bumps on male Maratus speciosus peacock spiders (shown) make some of their black patches appear even darker, which may help the arachnids attract a mate.

Jürgen C. Otto

Male peacock spiders know how to put on a show for potential mates, with dancing and a bit of optical trickery.

Microscopic bumps on the arachnids’ exoskeletons make velvety black areas look darker than a typical black by manipulating light. This architecture reflects less than 0.5 percent of light, researchers report May 15 in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

The ultradark spots, found near vivid colors on the spiders’ abdomens, create an “optical illusion that the colors are so bright … they’re practically glowing,” says Harvard University evolutionary biologist Dakota McCoy.

Male peacock spiders swing and shake their brilliantly colored abdomens during elaborate mating displays. Pigments produce the red and yellow hues, but blues and purples come from light interacting with hairlike scales (SN: 09/17/16, p. 32).

Black areas on the spiders contain pigment, too. But scanning electron microscopy also revealed a landscape of tiny bumps in superblack patches on Maratus speciosus and M. karrie peacock spiders. In contrast, all-black, closely related Cylistella spiders have a smooth texture.

Using simulations, McCoy and colleagues showed that the bumps make dark spots appear even darker in several ways. Curved surfaces bounce light around, so less is reflected, and diffract light in a way that it evades the field of view of an onlooking female. And the bumps are microlenses — angling entering light so that it takes a longer path and spends more time interacting with light-absorbing black melanin pigment than it would if the surface was flat.

The spiders’ luxe looks resemble that of birds of paradise, which also use tiny structures to create ultrablack feathers (SN: 2/3/18, p. 32). But the animals evolved their abilities separately, the researchers say. And the phenomenon may not be so rare. There is evidence for superblack shades in snakes, a type of beetle and a variety of other birds, McCoy says.

Carolyn Wilke is a freelance science journalist based in Chicago and former staff writer at Science News for Students. She has a Ph.D. in environmental engineering from Northwestern University.

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