Giant Spiders

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Giant Spiders

‘Burke’s Backyard’ has a message for all ‘arachnophobes’ (those who fear spiders): steer clear of the Australian Museum at College Street in Sydney this summer. Those who love spiders however will enjoy a new display at the museum. Entitled ‘Spiders’, it features some of the largest spiders in the world.

The exhibition, which opens on 22 November, tells you everything you ever wanted to know about these creepy crawlies and features live tarantulas, imported especially from South America and Africa for the exhibition. It is the first time these overseas spiders have been seen in Australia.

‘Burke’s Backyard’ had a sneak preview of the giant spiders while they were waiting in quarantine.


More than 800 species of spiders make up the Tarantula family, Theraphosidae. These include the Mexican Red-leg, Asian Black Velvet, Chilean Flame, Starburst Baboon Spider and Goliath Bird-eater Tarantula. Tarantulas have eight legs and two short claws called pedipalps in front. They also have fangs to kill their prey and extensions at the end of their bodies called spinnerets which produce thread to spin their webs.

The following spiders will be found in the exhibition:

  • Peruvian Pinktoed Tarantula (Avicularia avicularia) – This is a brilliantly coloured spider which builds thick tube webs in trees and other vegetation in its habitat on the Martinique and Guadaloupe Islands in the Caribbean Sea. It is a tree or plant dwelling spider which clings to surfaces without difficulty. As well as hundreds of hairs on each foot, it also has many hairlets, tiny hairs, on each hair. This branch-like arrangement gives tarantulas as many as a million points of contact with a surface, increasing its ability to cling.
  • Goliath Bird-eating Spider (Theraphosa le blondi) – The world’s largest spider species can reach the width of a dinner plate when mature. It is indigenous to the rainforests of northern South America and feeds on birds, mice, lizards, insects and other spiders. These tarantulas defend themselves by exposing their backsides to a predator and lifting their back leg over their abdomen to flick irritant hairs onto the predator. These hairs can work their way into the eyes, tongue or flesh of the predator and cause a rash or itching which stops the predator and allows the tarantula to escape. They are aggressive spiders which bite readily. The bites are painful to humans due to the size of fangs but the venom is mild in toxicity.
  • Whistling Spider (Selenocosmia crassipes) – This is a native Australian tarantula which burrows down to 60cm (2′) deep and is found in North Queensland. It is so named for the hissing or barking noise it makes when disturbed. Whistling spiders are long-lived, surviving for more than 25 years. They feed on large insects and small vertebrates. These spiders bite readily but there is no records of serious illness from bites to humans.
  • Mexican Red-leg Tarantula (Brachypelma smithi) – Also known as Orange Knee Tarantula, this native of the Pacific coastal region of Mexico has been threatened with extinction in the wild because of over collection. It uses similar defence tactics to those of the Goliath Birdeating spider and has appeared in films such as ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ and ‘Fierce Creatures’. These are docile spiders, rarely biting humans with a very mild venom.
  • King Baboon Spider (Citharischius crawshayi) – The second largest tarantula on the African continent adult females can reach up to 20cm (8″) in width while males only reach about 12.5cm (5″). It feeds on crickets, superworms and other large insects but will thrive better on mice and lizards. They are known to be very aggressive and will bite readily which would be painful to humans because of the size of their fangs but the venom is not dangerous.
  • Campina Grande Salmon Pink Spider (Lasiodora parahybana) – Is native to the rainforests of the Campina Grande region of Brazil, where it makes its nest in abandoned rodent burrows. These spiders, like other tarantulas, also throw barbed hairs in defence and prefer to feed on mice, lizards and frogs. They are known to be very aggressive and will bite readily which would be painful to humans because of the size of their fangs but the venom is not dangerous.

Other spiders

Golden Orb-weaving Spider (Nephila pilipes) – This spider is so named because of the golden wheel-web which it spins to snare its prey. The web is so strong it can catch birds mid-flight. These spiders are generally not dangerous to humans, but should not be handled unless you are well trained. It is only the female spiders that build the web, the males sit on the edge waiting for the prey to be caught.

Spider bites

There are thousands of spiders in Australia but only the Funnel-web and Redback spiders are known to have caused deaths. In fact, only 30 people have died in Australia because of spider bites. The last recorded death was in 1980 from a Funnel-web. There are now excellent antivenoms against spider bites in Australia.

‘Spiders’ exhibition

The Australian Museum’s exhibition looks at spiders from Australia and the world, uncovering many of their unusual habits such as the defence tactics of the Australian tarantula, who whistles when attacked. Other features include:

an interactive spider lab that allows visitors to examine spiders under microscopes, to observe their feeding habits;
visitors are encouraged to bring in spiders for identification;
information on the role spiders play in the food chain and their contribution to modern society; and
the uses of both spider venom and silk for medicine and other technology.

Further information

Details: The ‘Spiders’ exhibition will be on show at the Australian Museum from 22 November 1997 to 3 May 1998. The exhibition will also tour to Scienceworks* in Melbourne, opening in June 1998 and running until October. (*Provisional dates only.)

Australian Museum, corner William and College Streets, Sydney, NSW, 2000. Phone: (02) 9320 6233.

Science Works, 2 Booker Street, Spotswood, Vic, 3015. Phone: (03) 9382 4800.

Admission (Australian Museum): Combined entry to the ‘Spiders’ exhibition and the Australian Museum is: adults – $10; children – $5; concession – $6; family of four – $20.

Phone: For more information contact the Australian Museum on (02) 9320 6233.