Arthur C. Clarke once wrote “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. There is an implicit shift of observer here, from those who make the technology (to whom it isn’t magic) to those who see the technology for the first time (to whom it looks exactly like magic). As an evolutionary biologist, I would suggest a generalization of this: “Any sufficiently advanced creative process generates products that are indistinguishable from magic.” Natural selection is one such creative process, and its products often seem as magic before we get a chance to study them.
As a 25 year old biologist I went on a grand expedition to Mexico with Stewart Peck, Jarmila Kukalova-Peck, Bob Anderson, and Mike Kaulbars. We drove from Ottawa to Chiapas and back to Canada. The trip was full of new experiences for me, but there was a singular moment I’ll always remember — the capture of a jumping spider on the road from Valle Nacional to Oaxaca City. Along a path in the cloud forest at about 1250 metres elevation, I found a handsome male spider with black, white and red markings, and a little brush of black hairs on the tip of the first leg that made it look like he was carrying a semaphore flag. When I put it in a vial to look at it, I saw a glow of delicate sky blue metallic hairs shimmering on the femora of his first legs. A sense of magic overcame me, the first time I’d experienced it. How could something like that exist without magic? The glow of blue was otherworldly. Of course, evolutionary biology has found that sexual selection can make such things exist, but when first encountering a marvel like this, magic springs to mind.
Thirty four years later I find myself in Mexico again, retracing some of the same paths. With considerable excitement we arrived to the same site to look for this blue-legged marvel. The team spread out in search of magic. In the first few minutes I found what I’m pretty sure are juveniles of the species, but no males. It was morning, and the ground and plants were still warming up, so we expected the males would take a bit of time to bother to wake themselves up and present themselves to the world. After perhaps an hour, Ricardo Paredes reported through our walkie talkies that he’d found a jumping spider with blue legs. I wasted no time in traversing the 100 m or so to Ricardo. In the vial he handed me, there it was, the mythical creature.
Here it is:
This is what he looks like from above.
Here is Ricardo at the site where he found the male hopping through small plants — right along the highway!
And I have to put in another, gratuitous, picture of his blue legs. Note that both the first and second pairs of legs have blue femora.
We didn’t find another adult male, but we did find some juveniles, including a young male (with one moult to go), which we will try to raise.
Magic still exists.