Big Spiders

by Bill Amos, Vermont, US


Knots in the beautiful mountain pine ("saling") that paneled my boyhood bedroom in the Philippine highlands were so numerous I could never remember how many there were, or where they were located. They were seen dimly through my bed's mosquito netting, so it was difficult to tell what each dark spot was. If it remained still, it was a knot. If it moved, it was a great dark tarantula-like spider that emerged at dusk to hunt insects all night long before retreating to wherever it hid at dawn. They were wonderful spiders and gave me a lifelong fascination for their kind. My professional library includes shelf space devoted to books on spider communication, spider behavior, their reproduction, anatomy and physiology, the chemistry and engineering of their webs, spider evolution, their distribution throughout the world, and more. Perhaps this enthusiasm has been contagious, because one of my sons, curator at a New England science museum, now offers a class on spiders to school-age youngsters.

Although I would like to write about many of my favorite spiders around the world, here I need to clear up a few misconceptions about tarantulas.

First the name. It originated in the city of Taranto—the ancient Roman port of Tarentum in the heel of the boot of southern Italy. That's the easy part, but after that the story gets thoroughly confused. Arachnologists (spider biologists) know Taranto's tarantula is actually a wolf spider, or lycosid. What we call a "tarantula" lives in North and South America, where some of them are known as bird spiders, a totally different group.

Many years ago somebody switched names, because the wolf spider-tarantula lived in Italy long before the New World was discovered, or even before there were humans on the face of the earth. In any event, the original tarantula's bite is no different than the bite of almost any common wolf spider—it stings sharply like a needle jab, then immediately subsides with no after-effect. The one wolf spider in the world to have a dangerous bite lives in Brazil, and only because the wound tends to become infected by bacteria later on. As for New World bird spider-tarantulas, their venom glands are small and the poison itself is no worse than that of a wasp sting. The terror of Sean Connery's James Bond notwithstanding, there is no need to fear these gentle monsters.

Now the story. The earliest recorded case of tarentism occurred in 1370. Today we would call it an attack of acute hysteria, but down through the centuries it was seen as uncontrollable behavior resulting from the bite of a tarantula (wolf spider). The idea was that a frenzied dance, the tarentella, would produce enough perspiration to drive out the spider's poison. After hours of leaping around to the tune of exhausted musicians, the victim would collapse in a heap and wake up cured. Some years ago a writer explained the phenomenon by describing the dancers as "exact copies of the ancient priestesses of Bacchus. When the introduction of Christianity put a stop to the public exhibition of heathen rites, the Bacchantes continued their profitable profession but were obliged to offer some irrelevant explanation. The local spider best supplied their need." The unfortunate Italian wolf spider got an undeserved evil reputation a long time ago.

Tarentism, like Salem witchcraft, was psychologically contagious and spread throughout Italy for 300 years, then leaped over to Spain for a couple hundred more years, vanishing only after onlookers became suspicious that the "victims" were charlatans. Books were written about the supposed affliction, the bite itself, efficacious drugs (there weren't any), the curative nature of the dance, what happened to the spider afterward, and so on. After being bitten, it was said, one couldn't get drunk, no matter how much alcohol was imbibed. A major book on the subject, published in Paris in 1866, told it all. One description reads:

"When one is bitten.he is seized with a sort of insanity. He weeps, he dances, he trembles, cries, skips about, breaks forth into grotesque and unnatural gestures, assumes the most extravagant postures, and if he is not duly assisted and relieved after a few days of torment, will sometimes expire. If he survives, at the return of the season in which he was bitten, his madness returns."

Happily for harmless European tarantulas and their presumed victims, tarentism is a thing of the past.

Any large hairy spider in the world is now called a tarantula, as were my childhood housemates in the Philippines. Probably they too were lycosids, or wolf spiders, or at least related to them. Once you get to know either a tarantula or a wolf spider, it turns out to be a pretty nice creature, shyly minding its own business until it comes time for dinner. The huge bird spiders I have come across in South American rain forests are as mild-mannered and benign as any animal can possibly be.

Although Amazonian bird spiders are large enough to pounce upon and kill small birds, their food consists mainly of insects and lesser spiders. Our own tarantulas from the southern United States can kill unwary mice. The rest of the time, the enormous New World tarantulas seem sleepy, deliberately moving from one sheltered spot to another, which is what you might expect of an animal with a pulse rate of only 30 beats a minute. (The heartbeat of most spiders is 100 times a minute—wolf spiders included.) When this hemisphere's big, hairy tarantulas hurry, they do so in slow motion. When they leap, however, it is so sudden and startling, you'll leap too.

The first South American bird spider I had came from a friend on the faculty of Tufts Medical School. He was an expert in tropical medicine and blessed with a wide interest. Whenever a United Fruit ship arrived in Boston with a load of bananas, inspectors on the wharf would call him if they found a large spider among the fruit. He kept quite a menagerie and to maintain students' attention, used to lecture with an immense spider on his white lab coat. I tried the same device and discovered it worked extremely well. No one fell asleep. Next a student brought me a rare species from Haiti, tucked away in her luggage, unknown to customs officials. More arrived from one place or another, all different kinds, all huge, impressive, and very well behaved. They ate crickets and periodically shed their skins (outer skeletons), crawling out of them so carefully it looked as though you had two spiders rather than one.

This should be a serious discourse on spiders, but I must tell a use I found for tarantulas many years ago when security of my office was in doubt. I kept my spiders there and had numerous complete cast skins as well. When leaving the office for a protracted period, I posted a sign on the door to discourage unwanted visitors . It was addressed to a son who at the time was at college far away. It read:

"Steve, be very careful when you come in. Some of the tarantulas have escaped. If you are bitten, phone Dr. Smith at once; he has the antivenom and will call the ambulance."

Anyone opening the door would see several glass containers with live tarantulas in them, and numerous lifelike hairy spider skins scattered around my desk and shelves. The office was never entered.

Large spiders have always figured prominently in my life and the life of my family. When we lived in Hawaii, an oversize wolf spider shared the bathroom shower with us. Preparatory to bathing, my wife would gently and solicitously usher it into its corner before turning on the water. Now there is an educated and compassionate woman.

Comments to the author Bill Amos welcomed.

William H. Amos 1998

Read Bill Amos' earlier Micscape article 'The Leaping Dancer' (the jumping spider).


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Published in October 1998 Micscape Magazine.

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