Dr. Chris A. Hamilton
An adult male Johnny Cash tarantula, Aphonopelma johnnycashi, from California.
Wikimedia Commons/João P. Burini
You almost feel for them, spiders. They can't help being what they are, and yet almost no one is happy to see them. Especially true when they have exceedingly long legs, thick bodies and a general mien that makes you turn quickly in some other direction. Photos don't bite, though, so let's take a look at some honking-big spiders -- with Halloween on the way, we may as well get started freaking ourselves out. Shown here is the Brazilian wandering spider (a.k.a.
), a feisty and venomous crawler from South America. Just four years ago it took home an award from the Guinness World Record people for the title of "most venomous" spider. This spidey's legs can span nearly 6 inches, its body just shy of 2 inches. It gets its name thanks to its preference for strolling along the tropic floor at night seeking out prey, rather than building webs or hiding out someplace waiting to strike. During the day, it lays low wherever it's convenient -- even inside banana plants, which is how it get its nickname "banana spider."NEWS: Puppy-Sized Spider Romps In Rainforest
Not to be outdone is a spider that's been making a big splash of late, with an entomologist'sblog about his encounter with one
. It's called the Goliath bird-eater (a.k.a.,
). It can weigh in at almost 6 ounces and it's been known to reach nearly a foot in leg-span. The "bird eater" moniker must be there to warn birds away, though, because this spider doesn't typically eat birds as a matter of, er, course. It will regularly eat small land animals such as frogs, lizards, and snakes, however.Spiders Have Personality Too
Wikimedia Commons/Joselito de Guzman
Meet the golden-silk orb weaver spider. Step into its parlor, if you must. Don't be fooled by its deceptively gentle-sounding name. The female golden-silk orb weaver's body alone can reach 2 inches, its legs can stretch to more than 5 inches, and it's even been observed killing and eating tree snakes. What's more, a study published earlier this year found that these spiders, when living in urban areas,are growing even bigger
than usual. Interesting side-note: The golden-silk orb weaver also belongs to the oldest surviving genus of spiders,
, which has a fossil in the record that dates to 165 million years ago.Look If You Dare: Ancient Spider Family Album
Wikimedia Commons/George Chernilevsky
The Brazilian salmon pink bird-eating tarantula has a leg-span that can reach 11 inches and weight that can tip the scales (well, for a spider) at about 3.5 ounces. Despite its name, it's not confirmed that they actually eat birds any more than do the Goliath bird-eaters. Instead, they dine on insects or the random small amphibian or reptile. Instead of making a web, it takes its prey by quick-strike ambush in the open.Bat-Eating Spiders Are Everywhere
The giant huntsman spider is so big it even took the trouble to have a size descriptor built into its name (given that Goliath was taken). The huntsman is neck and neck, or leg and leg, with the Goliath bird-eater for the title of biggest spider, by leg-span (in sheer body mass, though, the Goliath is more like an offensive lineman, while this spider is a lanky cornerback). A giant huntsman's legs can stretch out to 12 inches, and its speedy, crab-like gait makes it a fast hunter that excels at chasing down its meals. It hails from caves in Laos.PHOTOS: Fish-Eating Spiders Found Around the World
The newfound spiders double the number of known tarantula species from the region, according to a study published in the journal ZooKeys.
“We often hear about how new species are being discovered from remote corners of the earth, but what is remarkable is that these spiders are in our own backyard,” Chris Hamilton, lead author of the study, said in a press release. “With the earth in the midst of a sixth mass extinction, it is astonishing how little we know about our planet’s biodiversity, even for charismatic groups such as tarantulas.”
Hamilton, a researcher at the Florida Museum of Natural History, and his team spent more than a decade searching for tarantulas throughout scorching deserts, frigid mountains, and other locations in the American Southwest, sometimes literally in the backyards of homeowners. The scientists also looked at specimens in museums.
Overall, the researchers studied nearly 3,000 specimens, undertaking what they say is the most comprehensive taxonomic study ever performed on a group of tarantulas.
Many of the leggy spiders look alike, so the researchers had to employ a combination of anatomical, behavioral, distributional, and genetic data to tell the different species apart from one another.
The results indicate there are 29 tarantula species in the United States, 14 of which are new to science. All belong to the genus Aphonopelma, but sizes can widely vary. Some reach 6 inches or more in leg span, while others are about the size of a quarter.
Johnny Cash the tarantula (Aphonopelma johnnycashi) was found near Folsom Prison, the subject of singer Cash’s song “Folsom Prison Blues.” The music star’s nickname, based on his distinctive dressing style, was the “man in black,” which led to another connection with his namesake spider. Mature males of the species are generally solid black in coloration.
Most of the newly discovered species are abundant and have relatively large distributions, but others have highly restricted distributions and could require conservation efforts to save them.
“Two of the new species are confined to single mountain ranges in southeastern Arizona, one of the United States’ biodiversity hotspots,” explained co-author Brent Hendrixson. “These fragile habitats are threatened by increased urbanization, recreation, and climate change. There is also some concern that these spiders will become popular in the pet trade due to their rarity, so we need to consider the impact that collectors may have on populations as well.”
Tarantulas can bite when they feel threatened, with the bites feeling like a bee sting. Their imposing appearance has not helped their reputation much either, making images of them creepy favorites around Halloween time.
Hamilton, however, notes that tarantulas are usually easy going, do not readily bite and pose little danger to humans. He prefers to describe them as being “teddy bears with eight legs.”