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Tarantulas are the movie stars of the spider world. 

They are cast in films when things hairy, scary and deadly are needed. But despite their appearance and reputation, bites from these spiders usually cause little harm.

So how did they get such a bad reputation?

The myth

The Tarantula story starts way back.

In 1370, in a small town called Taranto in southern Italy a strange and mysterious epidemic broke out for which the only cure seemed to be wild dancing and music. Occurring every summer for three hundred years, this disease was thought to be caused by the bite of a large, hairy Wolf Spider (Lycosa tarantula), which became known as a Tarantula.

In the 1600s, people discovered that these spiders were virtually harmless. Many then concluded that the whole phenomenon of Tarantism was simply an excuse far a wild party. However, it is now suspected that a spider was involved and the real culprit was a European relative of the Redback or Widow Spider.

The reality

As Europeans colonised the world, they saw even bigger and hairier spiders, and called them Tarantulas too. As a result, many large and hairy spiders are now commonly, but incorrectly, called Tarantulas. The only true Tarantulas are the large spiders of the family Theraphosidae. Some examples of spiders from this family include:

  • Brazilian Salmon Tarantula (Lasiodora parahybana)
  • King Baboon Spider (Citharischius crawshayi)
  • Goliath Birdeater Tarantula (Theraphosa blondi)
  • Pinktoe Tarantula (Avicularia avicularia)
  • Mexican Redknee Tarantula (Euathlus (Brachypelma) smithi)
  • Whistling Spider (Selenocosmia crassipes)

More about true tarantulas

Brazilian Salmon Tarantula (Lasiodora parahybana)

  • Where they live: wandering around and in burrows on the ground in the tropical rainforests of Brazil
  • Favourite foods: insects and frogs
  • Special features: one of the largest Tarantulas known
  • Temperament: aggressive; will bite and throw off barbed hairs from their abdomen when annoyed.

King Baboon Spider (Citharischius crawshayi)

  • Where they live: in burrows arround the roots of Acacia trees in the scrubby grasslands of Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda
  • Favourite foods: insects and small vertebrates like lizards
  • Special features: large with thick legs; may use their strong back legs for digging.
  • Temperament: aggressive; defend themselves by making a hissing sound and by biting.

Goliath Birdeater Tarantula (Theraphosa blondi)

  • Where they live: in burrows in the rainforests of north-eastern South America, one of the wettest places in the world
  • Favourite foods: small vertebrates like frogs and mice, as well as insects. Despite their name, they are not known to eat birds.
  • Special features: the largest spiders in the world
  • Temperament: aggressive; throw off barbed hairs and make a hissing noise when annoyed.

Pinktoe Tarantula (Avicularia avicularia)

  • Where they live: on trees and shrubs in rainforests and roof eaves of houses in South America
  • Favourite foods: mostly insects
  • Special features: very hairy and fuzzy looking with pink-orange toes
  • Temperament: quiet and fairly tolerant; will live in groups if there is enough space.

Mexican Redknee Tarantula (Euathlus (Brachypelma) smithi)

  • Where they live: in burrows and under rocks in the dry Pacific coastal region of Mexico
  • Favourite foods: large insects
  • Special features: colourful, live for more than 20 years and are easy to keep, so they are popular as pets and movie stars.
  • Temperament:very docile spiders but throw off barbed hairs from the abdomen when annoyed
  • Over-collecting has endangered these spiders. Their collection and trade is now regulated under international agreements.

Whistling Spider (Selenocosmia crassipes)

  • Where they live: in burrows in a variety of habitats in tropical north-eastern Australia and Papua New Guinea
  • Favourite foods: mostly insects and small vertebrates like frogs
  • Special features: like all of Australia's Tarantulas, they rub their mouthparts together to make a hissing or 'whistling' noise.
  • Temperament: quite aggressive; defend themselves by making a hissing noise and by biting. Although bites are rare, effects of the venom on humans may be quite severe.