Distinguished jumping spider – an arachnid that’s not just a pretty face | Environment

The eyes have it. If you’re a sucker for a charismatic gaze, an impressive name and great rarity, then the distinguished jumping spider should get your vote.

But this acrobatic, spectacular-looking tiny spider with two large black forward-facing eyes is not merely a pretty face. It is a powerful environmentalist and mighty representative of the value of often-derided, seemingly desolate post-industrial landscapes.

The spider was only discovered in Britain in 2003 and is today only found in two locations: West Thurrock marshes and Swanscombe peninsula. Both are “brownfield” sites in the Thames Gateway, the largest area designated for new development in Europe.

Politicians from both right and left are queueing up to build on brownfield because it seems – and sounds – so much better to place new buildings on the footprint of old rather than concrete over the luscious greenbelt.

Graphic details of the distinguished jumping spider

But life isn’t that simple, and most brownfield sites, particularly those in the warm, dry south-east, are far more biodiverse than farmers’ fields. Some are the most biodiverse sanctuaries in the land. The abandoned oil refinery at Canvey Wick, for instance, is home to nearly 2,000 invertebrate species. Many thrive because the old concrete and rubble create dry, sheltered and warm microclimates where species at the northern edge of their natural range can thrive.

The distinguished jumping spider is one such denizen of the rubble, liking old coal heaps and dry and salty terrain where relatively few plants survive.

Its name was given during a Victorian dispute over similar species. Like the other 37 jumping spider species found in Britain, it does not spin webs but uses its excellent eyesight (the best of any invertebrate except for cephalopods) and ability to leap 10 times its body length to catch prey. The male of the species also uses its keen eyes to assess the receptiveness of females during their mating dance, and making a quick exit to avoid getting eaten if his dance does not go down well.

The spider has been at the forefront of opposition to ambitious plans to build Britain’s “Disneyland” on Swanscombe peninsula and although plans have been withdrawn, the spider’s home and site of special scientific interest (SSSI) is still earmarked for development.

A critically endangered distinguished jumping spider which lives on Swanscombe peninsula in Kent. Photograph: Roman Willi/PA

So vote distinguished, vote for treasuring our smallest creatures, and vote for leaving some brownfield sites alone. The spider’s success shows that our restless abandonment of yesterday’s industries opens up niches that wild nature is always ready to rapidly exploit. Which is well worth celebrating.

  • Welcome to the Guardian’s UK invertebrate of the year competition. Every day between 2 April and 12 April we’ll be profiling one of the incredible invertebrates that live in and around the UK. Let us know which invertebrates you think we should be including here. And at midnight on Friday 12 April, voting will open to decide which is our favourite invertebrate – for now – with the winner to be announced on Monday 15 April.

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