Spiders (and snakes) give people the heebie-jeebies. There’s something about having too many legs (or not enough legs) that really unnerves people. The fact that some are venomous further expounds our fears. And, the bigger they are, the worse we tend to feel about them. Let’s talk about one of the world’s largest spiders.
The United States and Canada are home to over 4,000 species of spiders – some might say that’s 4,000 too many. Fifty of those are tarantulas, and they occur in the central and southwestern part of the country. None of these fifty tarantula species are particularly noteworthy in terms of breaking any size or weight limits, but some people are unaware that we have tarantulas at all, here in the States.
The very largest tarantula in the world is dubbed the goliath bird-eating spider, or goliath birdeater. Physically, it has no dramatic patterning and is rather unimpressive with its light to dark brown coloration. It is the biggest spider by mass, weighing about as much as two decks of cards. By leg span, it is actually the second largest, but 11 inches is nothing to scoff at – it would take up most of a standard-sized dinner plate. It is not one of our fifty native tarantula species, if that makes you feel slightly better about living in the United States. This giant species is found in the upland rainforests of South America.
(If you’re wondering which spider is the largest by leg span, it’s the giant huntsman spider of Laos. It beats the goliath bird-eating spider by an extra inch of leg span.)
Despite its frightful name which conjures up images of enormous spiders taking birds out of the air, the goliath bird-eating spider does not eat many birds. Its massive size and opportunistic feeding behavior means it can (and will) eat just about anything it can subdue, but birds are rarely on the menu. While its diet is made up of rodents, lizards, frogs, insects, snakes, and the occasional bird, it subsists mainly on toads and earthworms. The “goliath earthworm-eating spider” or “goliath toadeater” doesn’t really inspire much awe.
Although freakishly large for a spider, its venom is not dangerous to humans and feels much like a sting from a bee or wasp. Some of that pain is probably from the 1 ½ inch-long fangs cutting through the skin. The fangs are long enough and stout enough to pierce through the skull of a mouse. So, venomous or not, I wouldn’t touch it.
When disturbed, the goliath bird-eating spider rears up on its back legs and shows off its impressive set of shiny black fangs. If that doesn’t deter the would-be predator, it rubs specialized hairs together to make a hissing sound, which sounds a lot like Velcro® being pulled apart. If for some reason that doesn’t work either, the spider will turn around and kick barbed hairs into the eyes, nose, mouth, and skin of its harasser. This cloud of urticating hairs causes extreme pain and itching for several days and is reported to be much, much worse than its venomous bite. Tarantulas often employ this barbed-hair tactic, but the goliath bird-eating spider is said to have the most pain-inducing urticating hairs of all.
Locals catch and eat this spider, which is said to have a shrimpy flavor. The tarantulas are cooked over a fire to singe off the irritating hairs and then roasted in banana leaves.
The goliath bird-eating spider, like most tarantulas, is very long-lived. The females live to be around 15 to 25 years old, while the males peter out at around 3 to 6 years. These behemoths are occasionally found in the pet trade, and the females can easily outlive a dog. I saw one 15 years ago in a pet store being sold for 150 US dollars. Assuming it was sold to someone who was dedicated to its care, that specimen is probably still alive today.