Everything You Wanted To Know About Huntsman Spiders (But Were Afraid To Ask)

You’re driving along and you open the sun visor. You’re cleaning at home and bump a painting hanging on the wall. Suddenly, out runs a huge, hairy spider. Australia’s huntsman spiders are the stuff of myths and nightmares. But these are also the most interesting of their family, and deserve their place in the pantheon of Australian wildlife.

I study the behavioural ecology of these remarkable spiders. Elsewhere in the world I don’t tell people that I study spiders for a living, but in Australia, I confess that I do brag a little about being a huntsman specialist.

First, let’s talk numbers: there are currently 1207 species of huntsman spider in the Family Sparassidae, out of the total 45,881 described spider species worldwide. It is estimated that there are 155 huntsman spider species found throughout Australia.

Of those, approximately 95 species are found only in Australia. All of these are probably descended from a single common ancestor that immigrated from Papua New Guinea or elsewhere in Southeast Asia.

A female Beregama aurea, Australia’s largest huntsman (Linda S. Rayor)

Big, and fast

Huntsmen are big spiders. There are a few relatively small Aussie species, such as the tiny (non-endemic) amazingly camouflaged lichen spider (Pandercetes gracilis). But many of the endemics are sizeable animals that can weigh 1-2 grams and may be as big as the palm of your hand.

The world’s second largest species, the massive Golden Huntsman (Beregama aurea) from tropical Queensland, weighs over 5.5 grams. An adult’s forelegs may stretch 15 cm, and they lay egg sacs the size of golf balls.

Anyone who has chased a leggy huntsman knows that they are exceptionally fast. We have been measuring the running speed of the endemic huntsman species.

The top speed demons are both sizeable animals from tropical Queensland, Holconia hirsuta and Beregama aurea, who run 42 or 31 body lengths per second, respectively. Compare this to the world-record-holding human, Usain Bolt, who runs at a sluggish 5.2 body lengths per second.

These are some of the fastest spiders recorded in the world. The slow pokes, the rotund but colorful Badge huntsman (Neosparassus species), only run 16 body lengths per second.

Perhaps it just wants a hug?

Huntsmen are long-lived for spiders, with most living for about 2.5 years. Although some other primitive spiders (such as tarantulas) can live up to 20 years, most other spiders live less than a year.

All huntsman spiders are active at night, emerging from their retreats to forage for insects and other invertebrates, and occasionally small vertebrates. They are ambush predators, generally sitting and waiting for prey to come close before running and leaping on it.

Huntsmen don’t use webs, but use a combination of vibrations and vision to locate their prey. Consider the huntsman a small workforce of natural insect exterminators in your house and garden.

During the day, most huntsman prefer to rest in retreats under bark, crevices, or other protected areas. This is why so many people encounter the spiders under the sun visors of their cars or behind curtains in their homes, because those are perfect tight spaces for a sleepy spider.

Depending on where you live, different huntsman species tend to wander inside. In Canberra, I have no idea where the medium-sized Isopedella pessleri actually live in the wild, because they are most often caught indoors.

The family that preys together, stays together

In order to mate with virgin females, male huntsman often search out females that are not quite mature and guard them for long periods. All huntsman females are attentive mothers who actively guard their egg sacs and new born offspring for around three weeks. But for most huntsman species, these are the only social interactions they experience in their entire lives.

But the social huntsman, Delena cancerides, lives in complex family groups up to 150 strong, led by a dominant matriarch. A single mum establishes a retreat under bark of a dead tree. Then her offspring from one to four clutches remain with her until they reach sexual maturity at almost a year old. Peeling off bark to find a family of these spiders can be quite a shock.

These social huntsman aren’t found in our homes, although I’ve heard of them establishing colonies under window shutters. One long-lived colony was in a backyard where the bark retreat had been affixed in place by a laundry line.

Our research shows that having older siblings in the group brings big payoffs to younger animals, as they can share prey with their more capable older siblings.

Conflict and cooperation in Australian huntsman spiders.

Why should large spiders remain at home with mum and siblings, when they can clearly fend for themselves? It turns out that there simply aren’t enough suitable under bark retreats for D. cancerides to occupy. We find that in most habitats, sufficiently large retreats are rare.

As a result, there is strong competition among D. cancerides for each retreat, and larger females can displace smaller females. We believe that by remaining in the protected shelter of home until they are young adults, the spiders are larger and more competitive in the battle over bark retreats which are an absolute necessity for raising their own young.

The social huntsman spiders, Delena cancerides, are found under the bark of dead trees. The mother (on the left) may have four clutches of young who remain with her until they reach sexual maturity. This means that spiders of all sizes interact with each other through their development.

Don’t throw a wobbly and hurt a huntsman

What should you do if you do find a big spider in your car or living room? First, get a grip! She isn’t going to hurt you.

Second, find a take-away container, scoop the spider into the container and release it outside. Huntsman spiders almost never bite humans since they rely on speed to escape most predators. When they do bite, most bites are quick defensive nips without injecting venom.

In 14 years of studying Aussie huntsman spiders, I’ve handled many thousands of individuals and been bitten only 11 times when I (mostly) deserved it. Their fangs are big enough to break skin, but the venom rarely has much effect.

An exception is the Badge huntsman which is reputed to have a more potent venom, so simply use a container to move them.

Treasure your huntsman spiders. They deserve a place alongside koalas and kangaroos as iconic Australian wildlife.

Linda S. Rayor, Senior Lecturer and Senior Research Associate, Cornell University

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

This article has been updated since its original publication.

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Comments

    Thanks for taking the time to write a very informative article.

    But...
    In 1977 I was forced to sit thru the excremental Kingdom of the Spiders starring William Shatner.

    After that I decided the only good spider is a dead spider.

    My five point Spider Survival Guide... in ascending order of effectiveness,

    1. Pea Beu
    2. Mortein
    3. Black Flag
    4. Raid
    5. Large Hammer

    ps: here in SA there are more Redbacks than people

      That's because redbacks don't care how boring the place they're living is.

        And also because most sane humans don't want to live in SA.

          sorry, tell me about the cost of living compared to other states again?

            Cost shmost, I'd pay to live in a better place than Adelaide.

              oh, you're one of those. carry on.

                Glad you could recognise your superior.

                  actually, it was a nod to your narrow mindedness and unreasoning. and any further attempts to get a decent answer out of you would be pointless as your 'type' cant be reasoned with, thus me telling you to carry on while i give up due to it being like talking to a brick wall.

      I know it is a couple of months late, but where is your sense of tradition..Number 1 should always be and is the great aussie "thong" (the one for the foot..not the other one..)

    I don't even bother putting them outside. If they want to get up during the night and chase down silverfish and other bugs around my house they're welcome to as many as they can catch.

    Ok, I get that they're great for killing nuisance insects and such around the house, but that still doesn't make me want them around.

    I HATE them. They scare the shit outta me. I had an incident not long ago where I had three different ones three nights in a row in my house. I know because I vacuumed up each one and threw it in the trash outside. Yes I vacuumed them. I need a olongapo pole because I'm too scared to go near them.

    Turns out there must have been a nest in my garage and they were waltzing into my house during the night because I left the garage door open for my cat to access her newly moved kitty litter tray.

    Anyway. Kill them with fire!

      Are those poles made in Olongapo? Are there many huntsman spider in Olongapo? Seems like a very specific market they're trying to fill.

    Usually the bigger the spider the less dangerous it is to humans. it is the smaller White Tails, red backs and funnel web spiders that are far more dangerous than the nearly harmless Huntsman. I find one, pick it up and take it outside.

      Funnelwebs small? Mate, you have obviously never lived in Sydney and had one of these small dog sized terrors walking up your curtains. Easily comparable to a hunstman in leg spread size, but with a much, much larger body.

        Funnel webs aren't that big dude, you're mistaking it for another spider. Funnel webs are only about 4-5cm long.

          Their bodies are about that long. With the legs on them as well, they can be quite similar in size to a decent huntsman.

            https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iPc8H_JiVRM

            They really aren't comparable in size to a huntsman. Still an above average size for a spider mind you, but not huntsman size.

              I guess it depends on the size of huntsman you're used to.

    I love a good huntsman. We had a rather small huntsman that lived behind our bathroom mirror with only three legs. We named it Jake (the peg, long before Rolf Harris was revealed to have done some pretty awful things he was well liked in our household). After a few weeks of eating our mosquitoes it eventually wandered into the web of a particularly large daddy-long-legs and was itself eaten which was a surprisingly sad occurrence to come home to.

    I've never hurt a huntsman and never will, they are bloody beautiful animals, cool to read an article about them from the perspective of someone that knows a thing or two about them, I never knew they lived so long.

      I had one living in my room years ago. One night it was doing laps running around on the old 34cm TV I had - up and down the aerial end to end.
      Arachnaphobes may want to avoid these.
      http://www.users.on.net/~skrybe/spider1.jpg
      http://www.users.on.net/~skrybe/spider2.jpg
      http://www.users.on.net/~skrybe/spider3.jpg
      http://www.users.on.net/~skrybe/spider4.jpg
      http://www.users.on.net/~skrybe/spider5.jpg
      http://www.users.on.net/~skrybe/spider6.jpg

      I don't mind them much now, but hated them as a kid. Had a big one go up the *inside* of my trouser leg. Fastest I've ever got a pair of pants off let me tell you. Used to have tons of them on our property at Nanango. I remember when Dad was clearing the property of the old dead trees he'd push a tree over and the bark would fly off and out would scurry literally a dozen big spiders. The magpies and butcher birds had a field day.

    White tails are harmless. Funnel webs are large spiders as well. Check your facts.

    Hunstman are the spawn of Satan and must die, preferably via tactical nuclear weapon.

    Their fangs are big enough to break skin, but the venom rarely has much effect.
    That's unaustralian. most australian fauna will kill with extreme prejudice...

    Typical of the totally pathetic ignorance, selfishness and stupidity of the majority of people who INCORRECTLY think they have a right to kill creatures which are HARMLESS to humans.
    Those humans should be squished, poisoned and splattered in defence of the spiders they kill.
    Spiders only attack when provoked, and the human race would be eliminated completely within 5 years if it wasn't for spiders killing bugs which are HARMFUL to humans.

    Great article. Good on all those who think they're awesome because they justify killing them cause "they scary!"

    Like others here, if you kill a huntsman shame on you.

    As a kid, I would catch a Huntsman, ball it up into my mouth, then tap other kids on the shoulder, open my mouth and enjoy their screams as it ran out and across my face.

    I was probably lucky I was never bitten.

    loving all the softcocks that are so scared of spiders they have to play it off with 'only good spider is a dead spider'. bravo ladies, bravo.

    @skinja:

    thus me telling you to carry on while i give up due to it being like talking to a brick wall.
    And yet here you are still blabbing on like someone gives a shit about your two cents. Lol.

    We just had one hot day amidst a week of rain and on that one day a giant female decided to make a run for it into our garage. I've been scared of spiders since I was little but over the years have grown out of my fears - especially for Huntsmen. Anyway I was trying to get her onto a broom so I could take her back outside to an insect riddden bush and noticed she was very sluggish - like she was drunk or couldnt be bothered defending herself. Would like to know why. She had no interest at all in aggression or defense. Was a bit worried about her so we've been keeping an eye on her bush ever since lol. A few years ago I would have just nuked the house.

    We have a huntsman guarding a nest in the cupboard I'd love to relocate outdoors, is there a way I can safely move her and her babies?

    I never kill huntsmen. I catch them and put them outside.

    Only white tip spiders, and red backs get the killing treatment.

    flames are incredibly efficient and non toxic at offing an arachnid. it only takes a split second pass of a naked flame and they instantly curl up.

    You're right about the natural insect repellent thing. We were chasing Gerald at work for 3 days and I finally caught him one morning while he was chilling on my monitor. He didn't put up a fight while I shoved him in the container and released him at the Neighbour's. The joke was on us eventually. Not a week had past since Gerlad moved in next door, and we got all of their cockroaches.

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