Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad Tarantula?

Some tarantulas are downright beautiful, like this fella by @julian_goebel on Unsplash! Just ignore that cricket stuck in its chelicerae.

As mentioned in the 50th ArthroBlogger post, I shall henceforth be referring to tarantulas as porcupine spiders. I thought the name would be a nice little nod to one of their more interesting and often forgotten defense mechanisms: when tarantulas are scared, they can launch tiny, chitinous hairs at their attackers. In other words, it’s a good idea to wear safety goggles or cover your pet tarantula with something when cleaning their cage.

…As a biology student, I feel compelled to add a disclaimer here that real porcupines do not actually shoot their spines. The spines are sharp and pull off easily, but they are not projectiles. Nevertheless, I think “porcupine spider” sounds cute so we’re just going to roll with it.

It seems like porcupine spiders get a bad rap just for being big. Actually, I think a lot of animals get a bad rap for body traits that have nothing to do with their personalities: people don’t like mice because of their tails, or frogs because they’re slimy… Golly, now I need to become the ChordataBlogger too just to clear up all these dumb misconceptions about innocent vertebrates.

Hmm… maybe someday. But not today, there are way too many arthropods to cover first.

Although capable of biting, porcupine spider venom has never killed anyone. These large arachnids are venomous just like every other spider, but their toxicity won’t send you to the hospital or anything unless you’re allergic. In fact, they’re much more likely to run away or shed ballistically at you than give your finger a chomp, and if they do bite you they might not even inject any venom. If you are ever bitten by one of these fluffy fellows, just wash the bite with soap and put an ice pack on it. It’ll probably get red and swell a little like a bee sting, but it’s nothing to worry about unless you start having an allergic reaction. In that case, you should probably see a doctor.

One of the most famous porcupine spiders has got to be the Goliath Birdeater – aka the largest spider in the world. These whoppers can grow to almost one foot in length and are known for (you’ll never guess) eating birds.

ArthroBlogger: Wow, so you eat birds, that a pretty big feat for a spider!

Goliath Birdeater: Um, yes, bird-eating! That is definitely a thing that I have done… at least once… maybe.

ArthroBlogger: Wait, so you don’t eat birds?

Goliath Birdeater: I mean I could if I got the opportunity, but birds fly and I live underground. We really don’t come in contact that often.

ArthroBlogger: But it’s in your name, seems like you’d eat birds all the time.

Goliath Birdeater: Oh come on, there’s plenty of nonsense animal names out there. I mean, camel spiders don’t eat camels!

ArthroBlogger: Yeah, so we started calling them Kalahari Ferraris instead. Because they’re fast and they live in the desert.

Goliath Birdeater: …Oh.

ArthroBlogger: …Would you… would you want to change your na-

Goliath Birdeater: I’d like to go by Hank.

A Goliath birdeater by John on Flickr, whom I have since renamed Hank (the spider, not John)

So no, Goliath Birdeaters don’t eat birds all that often and actually prefer to dine on insects, but I applaud whoever named this guy for highlighting its more unusual habits over the mundane. Goliath Birdeaters are also known to eat lizards and small rodents from time to time, and occasionally serve as a savory dish themselves for humans in parts of South America… I guess that explains why Hank didn’t want to hang out for very long after our interview.

Porcupine spiders in general have a lot of predators to watch out for. They’re commonly preyed on by snakes, birds (ironically), opossums, and many other animals, but the one they’d least like to run into would probably be the tarantula hawk. Actually a wasp rather than a tarantula-obsessed raptor, the tarantula hawk paralyzes porcupine spiders with its infamously painful sting. Then, much like how mud daubers treat orb weavers and black widows, the tarantula hawk drags its immobile victim into its nest and lays an egg on it. I think you can guess what happens next.

If they do manage to avoid the crazy wasps and other hungry arachnid-eaters, porcupine spiders can actually live for a pretty long time. The males don’t typically survive long after reproduction, but female porcupine spiders can live up to 30 years! By comparison, most other spiders only live for around two years. That’s like a person living to be 1200 if everyone else typically lived to be 80.

Porcupine spiders have enough to worry about without us acting like they’re monsters. Like all animals, porcupine spiders should be treated gently and with care, but they’re no more dangerous than your pet cat – although I’ll admit, they’re much less fond of being pet or handled. Porcupine spiders eat garden pests, and their venom is being studied to potentially cure diseases such as Parkinson’s and sickle cell anemia. Plus, they frequently have adorable species names like the Chilean Rose, Honduran Curly Hair and Pink Zebra Beauty! What’s not to love about them? Just be sure to avoid those urticating hairs, and tarantulas are nothing to fear.

Tarantula hawks, on the other hand, I’d rather stay far, far away from.

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