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Planet Earth

Everything You Need to Know About the Creepy Tarantula

Hollywood’s go-to spiders are not as formidable to humans as you might think. Learn the truth about tarantula characteristics, behaviors, and more.

By Katie LiuFeb 29, 2024 1:00 PM
man terrified of tarantula
(Credit: UfaBizPhoto/Shutterstock)

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Think of a typical creepy crawler, and you’ll probably conjure up the image of a hairy, eight-legged tarantula: the go-to spider in horror, and for those unaware, also a favorite pet among spider lovers.

About 900 different species of tarantulas populate virtually every continent of our globe, save for Antarctica. They range from the tiny to the titanic, the colorful to the plain. Here are some things to know about tarantulas, who are not as scary as you’d think – as long as you don’t bother them.

Tarantula Facts

Greenbottle Blue Tarantula, chromatopelma cyaneopubescens(Credit: davemhuntphotography/Shutterstock)

With their distinct physical characteristics and behaviors, tarantulas have captivated and sometimes unnerved humans for ages. But as we peel back the layers of their mysterious world, we begin to appreciate their unique traits.

Tarantula Habitat: Where Do Tarantulas Live?

How tarantulas look and act depends on where they reside, but the hundreds of species that have been logged so far are scattered across various warm regions around the world, from tropical rainforests to arid desert stretches. In the US, wild tarantulas are typically found in the southwest, though they’re more commonly found in Mexico and Central and South America.

Luckily, you don’t have to worry about accidentally walking through a tarantula web and getting a faceful of spider silk. Rather than hanging out mid-air between tree trunks or branches, tarantulas are burrowing species. Some live underground, while others spin homes beneath rocks, fallen pieces of tree bark, or within trees themselves.

Tarantula Diet: What Do Tarantulas Eat?

A tarantula eating a cicada in the Peruvian Amazon (Credit: Ryan M. Bolton/Shutterstock)

Tarantulas are skilled hunters who operate at night. As carnivorous creatures, they typically enjoy a diet of insects, on top of smaller animals including frogs, mice, and in some cases, even birds – as is the namesake of the Goliath bird-eating tarantula, the biggest tarantula in the world. (Despite its moniker, though, don’t be mistaken: While this tarantula is capable of consuming birds, they’re not its go-to meal.)

In captivity, pet tarantulas also need live food sources. According to the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign’s College of Veterinary Medicine, if you do find yourself caring for a tarantula, supply them with insects such as crickets, mealworms, or silkworms.

When a tarantula closes in on its prey, it sinks its fangs into its body and injects it with a paralyzing venom. Digestive enzymes within the chemical mix liquify the unmoving prey, forming a delicious, spider-friendly smoothie that the tarantula then slurps up.

Tarantula Size: How Big Is a Tarantula?

The sheer size of tarantulas can stir a sense of awe. These spiders can range from a modest few inches in leg span to the colossal Goliath bird-eating tarantula, which can stretch up to 11 inches across. That’s just a few inches shorter than your average bowling pin.

Tarantula Lifespan: How Long Do Tarantulas Live?

There are many ways a tarantula might die in the wild: an early death by car collision, or snatching by snake, or paralysis by the parasitic wasp known as a tarantula hawk (which paralyzes said spiders with a sting and lays eggs on their bodies, which eventually hatch and consume the tarantula alive).

Be lucky enough to avoid those early demises, though, and a tarantula can live quite the long life in the wild. Female tarantulas may live up to 30 years, while males typically mature at 10 years-old, the point of their lives where they may die a noble death attempting to secure a mate.

This means that for tarantula owners, when they take on a new “furry” friend, they’re in it for the long haul.

But habitat destruction and encroachment by humans, on top of over-collection for pet trade, both legal and illegal, can all pose threats on tarantula populations. Several species have been assessed under the International Union of Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List to better inform conservation efforts.


Read More: Meet 5 of the Biggest Spiders in the World


Tarantula Behavior

Greenbottle blue tarantula on its web(Credit: skydie/Shutterstock)

The behavior of tarantulas is a complex tapestry of instinctual actions that reveal the sophistication of these solitary hunters.

Do Tarantulas Make Webs?

Spiders are spinners, but tarantulas don’t churn out webs to catch prey. Rather, as burrowing species who establish their single-spider homes underground, tarantulas sling webs to act as molting mats or as alert systems signaling whenever someone – an unwitting prey or a prospective mate – approaches their doorsteps.

Do Tarantulas Growl?

Some tarantulas, like the Goliath bird-eating tarantula, might rub their hairs together to defend themselves. This creates a hissing effect which can be heard from several feet away.

Are Tarantulas Friendly?

Despite their appearances and commonplaceness in horror flicks, tarantulas are relatively docile and chill creatures. They operate on the golden philosophy that unless you bother them, they won’t bother you. This is why they’re so popular as pets in the first place, after all.

However, tarantulas can hurt you. Even though they won’t necessarily kill you, as with all wildlife, approach them with caution and care – if at all.


Read More: 20 Things You Didn't Know About... Spiders


How Do Tarantulas Mate?

(Credit: wawritto/Shutterstock)

To love is to die (or risk death), for the male tarantula.

Once mature, males venture from their burrows to seek a partner, tracking prospective females by scent. In the actual mating process, after the female finds her suitor acceptable, the two spiders lock limbs. In some cases, males use hooks on their legs to keep the female’s fangs away from him, lest he get bitten or attacked. The male deposits a package of sperm into the female’s abdominal cavity before scuttling off. It’s a done deal, and there’s no returning after that – if he isn’t eaten first, the male dies soon after mating.

Do Tarantulas Lay Eggs?

Femle tarantula protectig her cacoon (Credit: EZahro/Shutterstock)

Female tarantulas, after laying their eggs and encasing them in a protective silk cocoon, guard them for 6-9 weeks, after which up to a thousand baby tarantulas might hatch.

As solitary creatures, mating season is typically when tarantulas meet in the first place – the times we catch a glimpse of one in the wild probably are because we spotted a male, in search of a mate.

Compared to their female partners, males live a mere blip of a life – but if they manage to brave the oft treacherous waters that are courtship and to foster another generation, one can consider it a successful speck of time.


Read More: 5 Fascinating Uses of Spider Silk


Are Tarantulas Poisonous?

(Credit: Leena Robinson/Shutterstock)

Tarantula venom is fatal to smaller creatures like mice and bugs, but it’d probably only register as a painful thorn (or bite) in the side for humans. For us, tarantula venom is akin to that of a typical bee sting.

Do Tarantulas Bite?

If they feel threatened, tarantulas might resort to biting as self-defense. Those fangs aren’t just there for decoration, after all. But, according to the San Diego Zoo, most tarantulas would rather hide from you than bite you.

Are Tarantulas Dangerous?

To humans, tarantulas don’t pose a lethal threat. But when they do feel threatened, on top of biting back, tarantulas might rear up on their legs to appear more threatening and aggressive. Another common defense tactic is to shoot or flick a cloud of barbed hairs – right off their own abdomens – at their attackers.

These barbs, called urticating hairs, won’t kill humans either, but aren’t a pleasant experience if they get stuck in your skin or eyes, or even inhaled. Symptoms and their subsequent treatments differ based on the site the hairs made contact, but urticating hairs can lead to moderate to severe pain, itching, swelling, and redness that may last weeks.

In the eyes, hairs can feel like bits of fiberglass, also causing pain, redness, and light sensitivity. If inhaled, they may lead to coughing, wheezing, or rhinitis.

As opposed to bites, injuries from urticating hairs are actually the more common kinds of tarantula-induced injuries.

Can a Tarantula Kill You?

While tarantula-related injuries like these are already quite rare, a fatal reaction to one is even more rare. There have been no reported human fatalities, thus far, as a result of tarantula venom. However, in rare cases, injuries – whether by bite or urticating hairs – may lead to severe allergic reactions like anaphylaxis. In these cases, seek medical attention as soon as possible.


Read More: 8 Facts You Didn’t Know About Venom and Toxic Animals


What Happens if a Tarantula Bites You?

(Credit: Caleb Foster/Shutterstock)

Tarantula venom is a chemical concoction of enzymes and nucleotides which, if circulating in a human body, can cause throbbing pain at the bite site. In some cases, the symptoms arrive delayed. Typically, according to the Poison Control, this pain is isolated to the location of the bite – though in some rare cases, you might also experience muscle cramps. Contact with urticating hairs is the more common and painful risk.

How To Treat a Tarantula Bite

Fortunately, though uncomfortable, contact with urticating hairs is unlikely to cause any significant harm. Treatments are focused on alleviating symptoms and managing pain, such as through using over-the-counter treatments or icing the affected area. Sticky tape, like duct tape, can remove any hairs that get stuck in the skin. Meanwhile, corticosteroids and systemic antihistamines can be used to treat respiratory symptoms.

If you get hairs in your eyes, those reactions can be managed with corticosteroid eye drops – though the earlier the treatment the better, as in some cases, surgery might be required to remove the hairs.

This is why the prevailing wisdom, when it comes to handling tarantulas, is to keep them away from your face, avoid touching your eyes or face during and after handling one, employing eye protection and gloves if possible, and washing your hands thoroughly after.

What To Do if a Tarantula Bites You

If bitten, wash the injury well in soap and water, and take pain relievers if necessary. You may also ice the wound to further reduce pain and swelling. In some cases, elevating the limb can also help. Keep an eye out for any further symptoms that develop, as well as potential signs of allergic reactions.


Read More: How Deadly Are Black Widows?

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