a tarantula the size of a puppy

Male goliath bird eater. Credit: Flickr, John.

Arachnophobia is one of the most common fears people have. Even the smallest, harmless house spiders can evoke a cry of fear. If that’s the case for you, you might as well close this page now, because I’d like to introduce you to Theraphosa blondealso known as the goliath bird eater, officially recognized as the world’s largest spider.

Okay, kidding about leaving. This is a safe space, I promise. By the way, despite its menacing size and huge fangs, the goliath birdeater is quite harmless to humans unless you are allergic. Although his fangs contain venom, as most spiders do, it hurts no more than a wasp sting.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s dive deep into the fascinating world of this South American tarantula.

A tarantula the size of a plate that a possum can eat

Let’s start with the most notable item on the menu: size. T. blondieIts body length can be up to 12 centimeters (about 5 inches), and if you count the leg width, it measures up to 28 centimeters (11 inches). It weighs up to 170 grams (6 ounces). If you had a tarantula dinner, it would take up the entire plate.

Speaking of which, Rick West, one of the world’s foremost tarantula experts, even ate one while in the Amazon. This particular dinner was prepared by the local Piaroa people using a special cooking technique and recipe. According to West, the spider’s muscles taste like shrimp, while the belly contents, which are hard-boiled in a rolled leaf, taste grainy and bitter. As a good way to finish this gruesome meal, it’s traditional to use the spider’s two-inch fangs as toothpicks.

Going down the food web, as for what the goliath birdeater likes to eat, birds are surprisingly rare on the menu. The “birdeater” nickname is a misnomer that can be traced to an 18th-century engraving depicting another tarantula of a different species eating a hummingbird.

Instead of birds, which are very difficult to catch, T. blondie prefers to devour insects and worms. But if the opportunity arises, this tarantula will not shy away from eating relatively large animals such as frogs, lizards and other amphibians. Some individuals are quite cheeky and may go for even bigger prey. During a night in the Peruvian jungle, Michael Grundler of the University of Michigan witnessed firsthand how a goliath bird-eater killed a mouse opossum and started eating (marmosa murina).

“The possum had already been grabbed by the tarantula and was still struggling weakly at the time, but after about 30 seconds it stopped kicking,” Grundler said. “We were quite ecstatic and shocked, and we couldn’t really believe what we were seeing.”

The spider did not catch the possum in a web. That would have been quite a sight. Instead, like all tarantulas, T. blondie jumps on unsuspecting prey and uses its large canine teeth to bite and kill.

That does not mean that T. blondie does not produce or use silk. The tarantula lives in shallow burrows under the forest floor, which it lines with ultra-strong silk to improve the stability of the structure.

Tiny hairs like a shower of arrows

Credit: Piotr Naskreck.

This shelter is important for both hunting and escaping its own predators. After all, there are many dangers lurking in the Amazon jungle. When a predator tries to attack T. blondie, it has its trusty fangs to help it fight back. But first, the tarantula uses its first line of defense, consisting of stinging hairs running down its abdomen.

These tiny harpoon-shaped hairs are very irritating and itchy, and can be fatal to smaller mammals such as mice that inhale them. T. blondie just need to rub their stomachs with their legs to send a hail of these sharp hairs flying into the air, causing massive damage. When the giant tarantula rubs its hair together, it also produces a loud, hissing sound that can be heard 4-5 meters away. The noise can sometimes scare and deter predators.

Goliath bird eaters also have an intriguing reproductive pattern. After breeding, females lay anywhere from 50 to 200 eggs in a giant sack spun from silk. For the record, the tennis ball-sized bag is covered in itchy hairs to keep predators away. The mother goliath will carry her sack everywhere to ensure her offspring are protected, a unique feature among tarantulas. Rather than being fertilized internally, these eggs are fertilized by sperm collected at mating after they have left her body.

The fry hatch 6 to 8 weeks after the eggs are laid, but it takes another two to three years for them to reach sexual maturity, a very long time for a spider. During this time, the arachnids can be expected to molt five or six times, shedding their old exoskeletons in the process and appearing in a new, larger one each time.

Females can live as long as twenty years, but males usually don’t make it to three years of age and often die shortly after mating. That is not a tragedy for the woman. Goliath bird eaters are nocturnal solitary creatures that only come together once to do the deed in a blue moon.

Some claim that the giant hunter spider (Heteropoda maxima) is in fact the largest spider in the world. This is indeed a formidable arachnid, whose twisted legs can extend to a wingspan of 30 centimeters (almost 12 inches). Perhaps there are individuals of this strange spider, which walks like a crab and can only be found in a cave in Laos, which may be larger than the goliath bird-eater. For now, however, it recognizes Guinness World Records T. bondi as the biggest spider. By the way, the goliath is still much more massive than the fighter. It’s like “comparing a giraffe to an elephant,” Piotr Naskrecki, an entomologist and photographer at Harvard University’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, told me. Live Science.

The goliath bird-eater is considered fairly common and not endangered. However, it is very shy.

“I’ve been working in the tropics in South America for many, many years, and in the past 10 to 15 years, I’ve only encountered the spider three times,” Naskrecki said.

So I guess that’s good news for you nerdy arachnophobes.

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