There is something just so fascinating about a giant, hairy spider.
Whether you love them or hate them, tarantulas have the uncanny ability to capture our imaginations, pique our curiosity, and illicit powerful emotions. For those who love and keep them, these furry bugs conjure feelings of wonderment and awe. Unfortunately, to those who suffer from arachnophobia, they can be the stuff of nightmares, creatures seemingly too frightening to exist. One way or another, these animals get a reaction.
Of course, it doesn’t help that these animals have traditionally been utilized in horror movies and television as cheap scares. In the 50s alone, the advent of the drive-in theater ushered in several tarantula and spider-centric horror flicks like Tarantula (1954), The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), and Earth vs. the Spider (1958). Over the years, they have been featured in dozens of other movies and TV shows, including a memorable turn by an A. seemani in Home Alone (1990). Media has taught us from day one that spiders are something to be feared … bloodthirsty monsters existing only to sink their venomous fangs into our flesh.
Therefore, it’s no wonder that these fearsome, but misunderstood predators are the subject of some pretty incredible, often entertaining myths. With more folks socializing via social media than ever, some of these decades-old rumors are finally getting dispelled. As more people gravitate toward arachnoculture and the tarantula-keeping hobby, they are becoming more informed about these marvelous animals. Little by little, the “good word” is being spread, and these nasty fallacies are being corrected.
Unfortunately, it’s not all good.
Many of these misconceptions have been afforded new life as one inaccurate post can now reach hundreds of folks as it is passed around and reblogged as fact. Since joining sites like Tumblr and Twitter, I’ve personally encountered many of these arachnid urban legends, and although I try to dispel them, the fantasy often proves more compelling and entertaining than the facts for some people.
Some of these misconceptions are spread by folks who are just uneducated about how these animals behave and what they are physically capable of. Others, unfortunately, are more hobby-centric, and spread to others by over-cautious or misinformed keepers. And, as with most myths or legends, some seem to act as some type of warning to those who might encounter or keep them.
So, in an effort to finally put many of these myths to rest and to have fun with some of the sillier ones, I present a list of the most common, and sometimes ridiculous, tarantula myths. Some of these are more general misconceptions, and others are more hobby-centric. but I think that they all merit a mention.
And now … the myths!
“Tarantulas are aggressive and will chase you when they attack.”
I hear this one all the time, and it’s obviously a rumor based on fear. Tarantulas are not vicious creatures that will chase you across a room in order to inflict harm. Are there species that are quicker to bite? Sure. Some Old World species, P. murinus and H. lividium come to mind, are very defensive and will charge short distances if they feel threatened. However, this is defensive behavior. They are not attacking because they want to kill you; they are scared. They see you as a large, potentially dangerous predator infringing on their territory, so they will use the weapons nature gave them to defend themselves. For them, it’s nothing personal … it’s a matter of survival. Get you before you get them.
Honestly, the idea of a tarantula chasing someone across the room is just silly. First off, most will want to get back to the burrow they are defending. Chasing an enemy long distances would leave them dangerously exposed. Also, anyone who has worked with them knows that they generally move in shorter, potentially very fast, bursts. However, tarantulas will usually pause to rest and recharge after a relatively short distance. As far as animals go, they are sprinters, not marathon runners. Generally, if they do take off running, it is going to be away from you.
“Tarantulas can jump up 5 … 6 … (fill in the blank) feet into the air!”
This is one of my favorites, and one I’ve been I’ve heard personally twice. Many folks believe that tarantulas are capable of amazing feats of arachnid athleticism, which they usually display in a frenzied attempt to attack an unsuspecting human. I was once told that I should be very careful with my tarantulas because they can jump up 10 feet in the air to attack. This, of course, is nonsense. Although arboreal species can jump for shorter distances from tree branch to tree branch (or from your hand to your chest), they don’t get anywhere near 5-10 feet. Also, they don’t pop into the air; these jumps are made vertically. And terrestrial Ts will “pounce” a couple inches onto prey, but a drop of over a few inches could kill them. A jump of several feet would lead to a splattered T upon landing. Rest assured, they are definitely not fanged jack-in-the-boxes
“Tarantulas catch their prey with webs.”
Tarantulas make webs, but they do not used them in the way true spiders do. They can utilize their silk to line their burrows, provide a “prey detection system” at the mouths of their dens, or to create a safe, comfortable mat on which to molt. When they explore,they can also leave a thin “guide” thread to help them keep track of where they’ve been. I’ve even seen a G. porteri use webbing to roll up three crickets into a more convenient “burrito”. They do not, however, fashion webs to ensnare their prey.
“Tarantulas are ‘poisonous’.”
Well, I’ve never eaten one, but if I did, I don’t think it would kill me. Animals that are poisonous, like the Poison dart frog, must be touched or ingested to do you harm. Venomous animals, like tarantulas and snakes, deliver their venom through bites. Although these terms are often used interchangeably, they are not the same. Next time someone tells you that your spider is poisonous, politely correct them.
“Bird-eaters eat birds.”
When early European explorers saw a large spider, likely one of the Avicularia genus, dining on a small bird, they returned to the western world with stories and lurid drawings depicting giant, bird-eating tarantulas. The moniker stuck and has been used in the common names of a lot of the larger terrestrial species. Unfortunately, this nickname is a bit misleading. Although these spiders are certainly large enough to eat birds, and it probably happens on occasion, birds do not make up a significant part of their diet. These large-bodied terrestrials spend their time on the jungle floor eating insects and small vertebrates. Ironically, its the arboreal tarantulas that likely feast on the occasional bird.
“This species reaches 10-12 inches.”
Okay, it is true that the largest tarantula ever measured, a T. blondi, was 12″ in diagonal leg span, and it’s possible that there are other species that can reach this monstrous dimension. However, spiders this size are the exception and not the rule. You’ll often hear vendors talking about species genera like Theraphosa, Lasiodora, Phormictopus, and Pamphobeteus reaching lengths of 10-12″ dls like it’s commonplace. Likewise, keepers are notorious for talking about their 12″ stirmis and 10″ LPs, but never seem to produce photographic proof of the specimens next to a ruler. The truth is, although these genera can get large, max sizes of 8-9″ is more the norm. Those picking up one of these species expecting a “dinner plate-sized” tarantula are very likely to be disappointed.
“Tarantulas have to be held or they’ll get mean.”
I’m going to go ahead and add “tarantulas enjoy being handled” to this one as well. Here’s the deal: can tarantulas be held? Obviously, many keepers make the decision to handle their animals, and most do so without incident. And, there are indications that some species will seemingly become tolerant after repeated handling (although, they can switch dispositions without warning). However, do they enjoy handling? No.
As much as we would love for our furry little spiders to return our affection, it’s just not going to happen. It’s just not how they are biologically hardwired. As for “having to be handled” or else they get mean? Well, that’s just a bit ridiculous. Many keepers, especially ones that keep Old World species, never handle their animals. Handling is definitely not a requisite for the hobby. If you don’t handle your tarantulas, they aren’t going to suddenly turn into blood-crazed, vicious monsters.
“Tarantulas can’t bite.”
Ummmm … yes, they sure can. And it hurts, too.
I’m not sure how this one got started, but I’ve read it more than once. In one case, someone even tried to convince a friend that they had a certain species that couldn’t bite. I don’t like for Ts to get a bad rap, but all tarantulas have fangs, and many species aren’t shy about using them. Will all of them bite? No. Some are quite docile. However, the potential is always there.
“All tarantulas sold in pet stores legally have to be de-venomed.”
Unfortunately, this one pops up a lot. I’ve had folks ask me if my Ts are de-venomed, and I’ve actually had others tell me that they know someone with a de-venomed T. The sad fact is, some pet stores have really told customers this lie as part of a scheme to bilk unsuspecting folks out of money when they have to pay a “de-venomation” fee. Rest assured that this procedure does not exist, and if you hear of a store offering this nonsensical service, be sure to let other keepers know.
“Tarantulas can be “de-fanged with a surgical procedure.”
Again, another disturbing myth seemingly invented by disingenuous or misinformed pet store employees. In order to convince customers that their tarantulas pose no threat, they tell them that all of their spiders are de-fanged to prevent them from biting. In some instances, it’s merely a lie. In other more horrifying cases, the pet store actually performs the “surgery” themselves using nail clippers or scissors.
The fact is, a tarantula needs its fangs to hunt and eat. If it loses its these important tools, it could starve to death. The reason I say could is because tarantulas can regenerate their fangs with a molt, and it’s possible that an injury as potentially life-threatening as this would force an emergency shed. Removing a T’s fangs would leave you with either a dead or temporarily disabled spider.
“Tarantulas can drown in water bowls.”
Another myth likely started by well-meaning but overly cautious keepers. When I first got into the hobby, I searched the web to try to find any instances of tarantulas drowning in their water bowls. I found one possible instance where the T was found in a death curl in its dish, but the keeper seemed to think that the spider died of natural causes during a molt. There just seems to be no evidence to support this claim. Is it possible? Sure. A weak specimen could find itself in an overlarge dish and not be able to climb out.
However, you have to figure that an animal that has been around million of years, with some species living in areas with huge amounts or rainfall, would figure out how to avoid or negotiate water hazards.
Furthermore, the “rule” that slings shouldn’t be offered water dishes until they are 1.5″ or more also appears to be based on a fallacy. Many folks provide slings as small as .5″ with small bottle caps for dishes, and the slings have no issues with them. There is even video of slings effortlessly floating on water before climbing off to safety. I would, in this instance, use a smaller dish just in case (no use putting a 3″ water bowl in with your 1″ sling). In this instance, the pros of offering your small, vulnerable sling a water dish far outweigh the imaginary cons.
“Tarantulas can’t use water bowls and and need sponges to suck water from.”
Wrong, wrong, wrong. Tarantulas can drink perfectly fine from water dishes; I’ve seen mine do it plenty of times. I believe this idea stems from folks who think that tarantulas use their fangs like “straws” to suck up water. Nope. The fangs deliver venom; they use their mouths to eat and drink. Sponges become infested with bacteria and essentially turn your pet’s water bowl into a petri dish over time. If your local pet store tries to tell you that you need a sponge, kindly inform them that you prefer to give your animals fresh water.
“G. roseas have the strongest/most dangerous venom.”
This one is a bit misleading, as it is somewhat true … if you’re a mouse. You see, in 2004, some French scientists decided to test the potency of tarantula venom by injecting mice with a controlled amount of venom from several dozen different species. They then recorded the amount of time it took these poor rodents to die. The faster the venom killed the mouse, the more “potent” the venom was said to be. When all was said and done, the G. rosea showed up 6th on the list, ahead of species like P. murinus and P. fasciata (Escoubas, Pierre & Lachlan Rash. “Tarantulas: eight legged pharmacists and combinatorial chemists.”) Folks immediately buzzed about this “shocking” discovery, and some questioned whether or not the good ol’ “rosie” should be on beginner T lists.
The problem with this experiment is the effects of venom differ between organisms, which makes this experiment pretty irrelevant when talking about venom effects on humans. For many New World species, rodents, like mice, are a part of their diet. Therefore, they have evolved their venom to be particular effective against this type of prey, and it makes sense that it would kill a mouse quickly. On the other hand, Old World species like the P. murinus use their venom as protection against predators like primates, so the venom affects a human much more. A bite from this species can cause excruciating, sometime debilitating pain and cramping and is much more painful than that of a G. rosea (just check the bite reports!)
So, yes … mice should live in fear of G. rosea bites. However, read the bite reports for this species, and you’ll find that they hurt little more than a bad bee sting. Speaking of bee stings …
“Tarantula bites are about as painful as bee stings.”
I honestly thought that this myth had finally been laid to rest, but I saw it pop up again on one of the social networking sites recently. For years, folks were told that tarantula bites were no worse than a bee sting. I’m sure this myth began back in the ’70s and ’80s when most folks were keeping only New World specimens whose bites are not that bad. As far as these species are concerned, the myth is somewhat true.
Unfortunately, it fails to account for Old World bites, which can cause symptoms like excruciating pain, full-body cramping, nausea, heart palpitations, and difficulty breathing. That’s a heck of a lot worse than a bee sting. And, let’s keep in mind that some Ts, especially the giant New Worlds, can have fangs up to 1″ long. I don’t care how mild the venom is, fangs that size will put a hurting on you.
“If you feed your tarantula vertebrate prey, the calcium in the bones will cause bad molts.”
I’m kind of amazed that this myth is still circulating, often being spread by folks who should know better. No, feeding tarantulas invertebrate prey like mice or lizards does not cause bad molts. If these keepers were feeding their tarantulas mice, they were likely keeping some of the larger species like T. blondi. Larger Ts can have molting problems, and the blondi in particular is notorious for bad molts, likely due to the high moisture requirements and difficult husbandry. It’s likely that keepers attributed the bad sheds to the rodent diet instead of the more likely husbandry and moisture issues. There has been no evidence to prove this theory, and considering that these spiders eat vertebrates all the time in the wild, there is much more evidence disproving it. If you feed your tarantulas mice or lizards, you will not be putting them at risk for a bad molt. You will, however, have one nasty bolus to deal with in the morning … one that if not removed quickly, could lead to other issues.
“If you feed a tarantula too much, its abdomen can burst.”
This myth is usually mentioned when the subject of “power feeding” comes up. Although it’s believed that over-feeding a tarantula can lead to health issues, there are no documented cases of a tarantula eating until it bursts. In most cases, a tarantula knows when it’s time to stop eating and prepare for a molt.
What likely happens in these situations is that the overindulgent spider’s abdomen swells so much that it stretches the fragile flesh to dangerous levels. A slight bump or fall at this point could easily rupture the abdomen, leading to a catastrophic injury. When the keeper inevitably finds his portly pet dead, he assumes the abdomen burst on its own. So, no … your tarantula won’t explode from overeating. However, if your tarantula’s booty is so large that the poor animal is dragging it, it’s time to lay off the crickets for a bit.
“Tarantula bites can kill you.”
This rumor is like the evil twin of “Tarantula bites are about as painful as bee stings.” Here’s the skinny; there has never been a report of a human being dying directly from a bite. Although Old World venom is able to cause tremendous amounts of pain and other scary symptoms, it is not able to kill. There have been two cases of individuals dying as a result secondary complications attributed to the bites, one involving blood poisoning and the other gangrene. However, both of these incidences took place over 100 years ago, before modern medicine and even the use of antibiotics. Today, both of these folks would have survived with proper medical treatment.
Now, if you consider how many people live in areas where tarantulas are indigenous, and how many folks around the world now keep them as pets, you would think that someone would have died by now if their bites were deadly. Fact is, there are probably higher odds that you get struck by lightening than dying from a tarantula bite.
“G. rosea is the best beginner species.”
For decades, if you asked anyone what the best beginner tarantula was, the majority would point to the G. rosea, better known as the “rose hair tarantula” or “rosie”. This species was lauded for its ease of care and a calm temperament that made it ideal for handling. When I set out to acquire my first T back in the late 90s, I immediately set out to find this amazing species.
Although I still consider the G. rosea/porteri one of the better candidates for the best beginner tarantula, it is by no means the best species. The reason this species became the king of beginners came down to a few factors; they were cheap for pet shops to procure, readily available, and quite hardy in captivity. Wild caught specimens were easily harvested from Chili and sold in the pet market for a pittance . This meant they were a low-risk for pet stores who could keep one or two on hand to draw in customers by offering this fascinating giant spider. Even as more appropriate beginner species found their way into the market, the G. rosea continued its reign as the ultimate entry-level spider.
Although their hardiness and pet-rock lifestyle do make them good for a keeper who wants an almost indestructable spider that will always be visible, their unpredictable temperaments and penchant for long fasts have confounded many a new hobbyist. For every calm, tractable specimen, there seems to be a “psycho rosie” that will attack anything that enters its cage. And nothing causes more stress to a new keeper than a tarantula that wont eat for months at a time. Then there’s the fact that when you see an adult for sale, it has likely been wild-caught from a population that has been decimated by the pet trade.
And the list goes on…
Although this is a pretty lengthy list, I’m sure that there are many other myths out there. After all, it seems like the more popular tarantula keeping gets, the more odd and misinformed things people will say about them. Still, as fun as these are to read, it’s ultimately the keeper’s responsibility to dispel false information and to educate other keepers and the public at large when these fallacies appear. So, the next time someone tells you about a friend’s vicious tarantula that jumps ten feet and chases you across a room, kindly and calmly set them right.
Did I miss something? I would love to hear some of the myths and misconceptions others have heard…