Huntsman Spiders Are Great (No, Really)

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Huntsman Spiders Are Great (No, Really)
Image: Getty

Australia’s huntsman spiders are the stuff of myths and nightmares. But, they also hold a super interesting place in the pantheon of Australian wildlife. So, if one somehow catches your eye, or sneaks up on your shoe (brrr), try not to squish it to its death.

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.

It might be a hard one to do if you’re scared of creepy crawlies, but treasure your huntsman spiders if you can. They deserve a place alongside koalas and kangaroos as iconic Australian wildlife even if they aren’t as cute or cuddly.

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.

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

  • 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!

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • @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.

  • 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.

  • Have had a love and not so loved relationship with Huntsman’s
    As small child always told they were harmless. At aged 8 found one on back looking decidedly dead. Poked gently with index finger (stupid but hey 8 years of age and trusting) only to have all 8 legs firmly grasp said finger (very unpleasant sensation) and receive a sharp nip (a far more unpleasant sensation) which drew tiny spot of blood and slightly swollen finger for a couple days.
    As an adult seem to be a magnet for them.???? Im sure they aren’t deliberately seeking me out but feels like it.
    Sat down at dining table with freshly made roll on plate on lap only to have large Huntsman drop from underside of table onto top of roll, all roll contents and plate went flying as did me. Next encounter had shower washing hair, put on jeans and top sat down to blow dry long hair when I felt furry blob in jeans lower left leg. Grasped jeans round mid leg area to prevent spider running up and eventually it crawled out one long leg emerging after another dragging enlarged abdomen from lower end of jeans till whole body out then I stomped leg on floor and spider fell off me running one way and it another. A couple days later was vacuuming and I don’t know where the Huntsman came from, but ran up length of vacuum pole TOWARDS me, I did a runner (yes I chicken but vivid memory of spider nip as a child) A few nights later went to bed and awoke to activity of cats on bed, I looked up at ceiling and here’s a Huntsman abseiling down from ceiling on a single strand of web (I didn’t know these spiders had any capacity to make even a single thread) straight for my face. I launched horizontally to well out of reach of spider. Not a week later went to hop in shower and pulled aside shower curtain and out dropped Huntsman onto my bare foot, weirdly fuzzy and heavy but no bite thankfully. And why the heck do these Arachnids launch a jump straight at one when all I am trying to do is use the broom to guide them out of the open door to outside the house?????

  • we have a very odd huntsman in our house at the moment.
    she (?) hangs around in very intrusive places – eg, on the floor right in a doorway, on the bowl of the coffee grinder, on the breadboard, right next to the handle on doors, underneath the breakfast table, etc. she stays in each place for a couple of days, ignoring people coming and going, and then moves somewhere else. we’ve only had to chase her away once (had to have some coffee!) but we just keep an eye out for her and let everyone know where she is.

  • If it gets inside past the insect spray barriers it dies. We woke up to one crawling over us in bed once. It’s a completely natural human reaction to be repulsed by them.

  • When I was a toddler we had a huntsman living in our house which my mum named ‘Harry’, he was become a sort of pet and we became excited to see him. I think she did it so we wouldn’t be frightened and worked really well. Despite being a really fearful child I was never bothered by spiders in our home, if anything I was fascinated by them. They are very easy to catch using the glass and piece of paper trick. There’s no need to harm them, they mean us no harm.

  • As a lover of spiders and all insects I want everyone to know that `Wet and Forget’, a mould killer for outside, kills spiders. Personally I would like to see the end of all poisons used on our planet. I’d like everyone to get over their childish reactions and phobias. Articles like this help. I’m in Sydney and have noticed the spiders seem to have just disappeared. Anyone know what is going on?

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