When I was a little girl, my parents and I lived in southern California. Once, while driving along a deserted stretch of highway, my dad saw something that made him slam on the brakes. A giant spider stood in the middle of the road. It was so big that my mom and dad just sat there in shock until it crossed to the other side.
Tarantulas, the giants of the spider world, are striking. The biggest is the South American Goliath tarantula. It can grow to be over eleven inches in diameter. This spider is so large that it preys on birds! Check out this great video about Goliath tarantulas from National Geographic.
Wade Harrell, President of the American Tarantula Society, was kind enough to answer my questions about these mammoth spiders. He describes the tarantula's dietary habits like this:
"Tarantulas, like almost all spiders, are carnivores. Tarantulas inject venom to kill their prey, chew it up with their chelicerae, and then regurgitate digestive [throw up] onto it. As with all spiders, they can only eat liquids, so after the soft parts have been liquefied, the spider sucks the bug soup out and leaves a crumpled ball of bug exoskeleton."There are around 800 different species of tarantula, mostly living in the world's warmest climates.
"The majority of tarantula species live in the tropics and subtropics, although their are some in the temperate zones," says Harrell. "They are pretty shy for the most part; most will retreat into their burrows (or arboreal retreats in the case of tree-living species) at the first sign of trouble! In many cases, humans who live within tarantula habitats are totally unaware of their presence."Please keep in mind that people don’t die from tarantula bites. I've read in numerous (credible) places that tarantula bites are no worse than bee stings.
"In the US," says Harrell, "tarantulas are most often seen when males leave their burrows to search for mates, a one-way journey for them!"Girl tarantulas tend to be longer lived than the boys. In the wild, some female tarantulas can live up to thirty years!
Want to learn more about tarantulas or keep one as a pet? Be sure to drop by the American Tarantula Society. There's an active discussion board where you can ask questions. ATS President Wade Harrell offers this advice to potential new tarantula owners:
"My advice to the would-be tarantula enthusiast would be to research them before purchasing. There are many species available. Some are good for the beginner, some not. Our website and discussion forums are a good starting point, and there's even a free download-able care sheet. Tarantulas are easy to keep for the most part, but you still want to know what you're getting into! Also, pet store employees usually don't know much about them, so it's best to not rely on them for information, plus they may try to sell you expensive stuff you don't need. The ease of care is one of the great things about them ... they usually don't need heat, special lights, or very much space. They also don't eat much; most keepers feed once or twice a week, and they can go months without food."Thanks for the advice, Wade! I may not want to personally own a tarantula, but I'm a little less afraid of them now.
(Note to self: The tarantula is an arachnid, not an insect.)
Photo credit: snakecollector (John) through a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License via Flickr.
[Update: 12/3/09 -- Corrected the number of tarantula species to "around 800", instead of "over 100", thanks to Wade Harrell]