Black headed flax jumping spider. Photographed by Norm Heke. 2003, Te Papa

Jumping spiders 

Family Salticidae

What do they look like?

More than 150 species of jumping spiders are thought to live in New Zealand, with most of them yet to be described and classified by scientists. These spiders are small to medium-sized, with most having bodies less than a centimetre long. With so many species, this family includes quite a range of colour schemes.

Jumping spiders are readily identified by the presence of a very large pair of eyes right at the front of the cephalothorax (the combined head and thorax).

At Te Papa we’re most often asked about the black-headed jumping spider (Trite planiceps) – see its image above. The front half of the body and first pair of legs are predominantly jet-black. The abdomen is brownish-grey with a yellow-green stripe running along the upper side. The rest of the legs are light brown. The body is around a centimetre long, but the powerful front legs make the spider look longer.

Where are they found?

Jumping spiders occur all over the world, and in New Zealand they can be found from the seashore to the mountains. The black-headed jumping spider is a widely distributed native species quite at home in our houses and gardens.

What are their habits?

Jumping spiders certainly live up to their name, literally jumping on their prey to catch it. The black-headed jumping spider can jump about half a metre. The large front legs of species like Trite planiceps are actually used to grab prey, rather than for jumping. The hind legs give the spider its ability to leap.

Most spiders don't need good eyesight, relying instead on other cues such as vibration to locate prey. However, the jumping spiders is an exception. It has two big central eyes to help it identify targets and estimate distance - important abilities for an animal that pounces on its prey. With its other eyes, it can detect movement virtually all around itself.

Work by scientists at Canterbury University shows jumping spiders put their superior eyesight to good use and are capable of quite complex behaviour for such tiny creatures. These spiders can be readily observed carefully stalking flies before leaping on them. Interactions between jumping spiders are also highly visual, with lots of leg waving not unlike semaphore signals.

What is their bite like?

Accounts of serious bites are unknown. While we don’t currently know a lot about this family in New Zealand, overseas species are generally regarded as harmless and bite effects (if any) are likely to be minor.