Tarantula Facts

Published Categorized as Tarantulas
Tarantula facts

Tarantula Facts and Myths

I decided to compile a list frequently asked questions that we get from kids and adults alike. Many of these questions center around some of the big misconceptions that are out there regarding tarantulas. Hopefully these will help dispel some things that you may be unsure of.

Tarantulas are large, hairy spiders that have been often been vilified by stories in books, movies, and urban legends. Let’s take a look at these animals through the lens of truth, rather than fiction, as see if we can’t help improve their image.

First, what makes a spider a tarantula? The descriptors “large” and “hairy” don’t quite cover it, as their are many spiders in the world that fit this description that are not tarantulas. (Some people find a wolf spider in their house and think they have found a young tarantula!) For one, all tarantulas have eight eyes, while some other spiders can have six. Tarantulas have two retractable claws at the end of their legs, like a cat. The fangs of the tarantula are “hinged” to move vertically (up and down), while the fangs of other spiders move horizontally. Take these characteristics, and cover them in hair, and you have the basic qualifications of a tarantula.

Let’s take a look at the parts of the tarantula. That big, round, hair covered back-side (sometimes resembling a kiwi) is the abdomen. Some tarantulas, like those living in the Americas, will flick their hairs when they become agitated or threatened. This can cause some tarantulas to have bald patches on their abdomen. (The hair does grow back with the next shedding of their exoskeleton.)

Aphonopelma chalcodes (Mexican Blond)Wild-caught Aphonopelma chalcodes (Mexican Blond).

Tarantulas, like all spiders, have eight legs. Often, people will claim to see ten legs, but they are mistakenly counting the tarantulas pedipalps. The pedipalps look a lot like two miniature versions of the spiders other legs. The spider uses these to help capture and hold prey. If you wanted to, you could call them the tarantula’s hands. (If you want to, though. Nobody is forcing you into anything!)

The “body” of the tarantula, above the abdomen, is known as the cephalothorax. The round portion on top of the tarantula, where the eyes are located, is known as the carapace. On the picture below, you can see the tarantula’s carapace outlined with orange hairs. The cluster of eyes can be seen towards the bottom-right of the carapace (in this photo), almost the very center of the photo. Despite having eight eyes, the tarantula has poor vision!

Brachypelma smithi (Mexican Redknee)

Here is a close-up of a Brachypelma smithi (Mexican Redknee).

On the front of the tarantula, below the eyes, are the spider’s chelicerae. I have heard the chelicerae as looking like a large mustache on the spider. The real action, however, is what is hinged on the bottom/underside of the chelicerae – the tarantula’s fangs. Each fang acts like a syringe, injecting the spider’s prey with venom and allowing the tarantula to consume it.

Grammostola aureostriata (Chaco Goldenknee)

The fangs of a Grammostola aureostriata (Chaco Goldenknee).

Tarantulas grow by casting off their exoskeleton in a process called molting. While this is a vital part of life for the tarantula, it is also one that can hold unforseen problems. First and foremost, for tarantulas in the wild, they are extremely vulnerable during this process. If the spider is not able to completely free itself from the exoskeleton, the spider may lose a limb…or even die. Young spiders molt more often than adults do, as adults average approximately one molt per year.

Grammostola rosea (Chilean Rose Hair) molting

A Grammostola rosea (Chilean Rose Hair) molting.

Are Tarantulas Poisonous or Dangerous?

The great thing about this question is that I am often asked this while I have a tarantula crawling on my hand. Now, I like some excitement in my life, but putting myself at risk is not my idea of fun. If tarantulas were dangerous, I would definitely not be impressing anyone by holding one.

First of all, if you were bitten by a tarantula (unprovoked), then congratulations – you are now a member in a very elite club. If you were bitten by a tarantula, there is a good chance that very little venom (if any) was injected. As far as being “poisonous,” all spiders, including tarantulas, have venom. While some tarantulas can possess more powerful venom than others, the reaction from a “full bite” would probably result in pain, swelling, cramping, etc., but not death.

How Big Do Tarantulas Get?

There are a few species of tarantula that will grow to be 9 or 10 inches, but the largest on record is the Theraphosa blondi (Goliath Birdeater), which can reach approximately one foot (12 inches) in length.

Do Tarantulas Bite?

This, of course, is asked in relation to a tarantula biting a person. I don’t like to mislead people and say that tarantulas do not, or can not bite. We know that crickets and roaches would tell you that yes, they do bite! I try to break tarantulas down into certain categories to try and help people understand.

Since there are close to 800 species of tarantulas in the world, and they come from almost every part of the planet, there are differences seen throughout them. Most tarantulas, as a general rule, will try other methods of defense prior to biting (such as running away or flicking hairs). Many tarantulas just seem to have such a docile temperament that bites are a rare occurance. Then there are other tarantulas that are more aggressive and should never be handled, as they may have a tendancy to use their fangs first and ask questions later.

Have You Ever Been Bitten?

No, I haven’t. (Nor was I ever stung when I kept scorpions.) There are two reasons for this. First of all, as mentioned above, there are some species that are notoriously docile, and some that are aggressive. Guess which ones I handle and which ones I don’t? The other reason is that I take the time to read the body language of the spider. I use the analogy of a dog. If you came across a dog that was growling and snarling at you, would you reach out and give it a pat on the head? Probably not. Likewise, spiders have ways of telling you that it would be best for you to keep your distance. I will say that the tarantula keepers that I have talked to that have been bitten will readily admit that it was their fault – that they were careless about something they did.

Tarantula Facts

This does not mean, “Give me a hug!”

Can Tarantulas Jump?

Ahhh, you’ve been watching “Arachnophobia,” haven’t you? Granted, I’ve heard the rumors that tarantulas can jump a few feet in the air long before that movie came out. The biggest problem is that tarantulas are very fragile, and a fall from even a few inches could injure or kill the spider. So why would a tarantula take such a dangerous leap? That is assuming that they physically CAN leap that far. Most tarantulas will “pounce” on their prey, moving a half-inch to a couple of inches forward.

With that said, there are arboreal species (tree dwellers) that can and will jump from branch to branch if necessary. If they live in trees over water, such as a brook or stream, they have been known to jump out of the tree and into the water to avoid an approaching predator. People that keep some of these arboreal species, such as the common pink toe tarantula (Avicularia avicularia), report that they will take a leap from your hand onto your chest or face – or unfortunately, the floor. (That is why you need to be careful when handling these guys!)

Do Tarantulas Make Webs?

Tarantulas do not make the “typical” spider web that other spiders do. Tarantulas do produce silk, however, and they will use this silk for many different things. Some will put a layer of silk on the floor of their burrow to keep it clean, and free from ants. (Like wall to wall carpeting!) Many tarantulas will also have the entrance of their burrow lined with fine silk to notify them of visiting prey items. Others will actually built a hammock-like “fort” out of thick silk, which they will lay in during the day.

Tarantula web

The Birthing of P. subfusca Spiderlings

The “miracle of birth” is no less miraculous when referring to our eight legged friends. I came across these photographs online and wanted very much to share them with you here. They are posted here with permission from the photographer, Pascal Lesellier (FRANCE).

The female tarantula will create an eggsac containing hundreds of tiny eggs, and guard the sac until the little ones hatch. Here we see mama Poecilotheria subfusca guarding her sac, which appears as a white ball between her front legs, and underneath her pedipalps.

Spiderlings

Next we see that the spiders have hatched. They still look like the eggs they came from, with the exception of little legs sticking out. (Eggs with legs, their often called.)

Spiderlings 2

The spiderlings begin to grow…

Spiderlings 3

…molt and grow…

Spiderlings 4

On the front of the tarantula, below the eyes, are the spider’s chelicerae. I have heard the chelicerae as looking like a large mustache on the spider. The real action, however, is what is hinged on the bottom/underside of the chelicerae – the tarantula’s fangs. Each fang acts like a syringe, injecting the spider’s prey with venom and allowing the tarantula to consume it.

Tarantulas grow by casting off their exoskeleton in a process called molting. While this is a vital part of life for the tarantula, it is also one that can hold unforseen problems. First and foremost, for tarantulas in the wild, they are extremely vulnerable during this process. If the spider is not able to completely free itself from the exoskeleton, the spider may lose a limb…or even die. Young spiders molt more often than adults do, as adults average approximately one molt per year.

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