Brown recluse spiders and black widows are some of the deadliest types of spiders in North America. They are the spiders that we should all fear. But to an arachnophobe, there’s nothing more terror-inducing than a tarantula.
But are tarantulas poisonous and how do they compare to the world’s most venomous spiders?
What Are Tarantulas?
The name “tarantula” refers to a group of hairy spiders in the family Theraphosidae, of which there are more than 1,000 species. These creatures can be found throughout North, South, and Central America, and there are also species in Asia, Africa, and parts of Europe.
Tarantulas can weigh up to 3 ounces and have a leg span of up to 11 inches. Most tarantula species, including all of those in the Americas, have urticating hairs. These bristling, prickly hairs come in varying sizes and types and are believed to provide protection against different predators and prey.
Are Tarantulas Poisonous?
Tarantula bites can be very painful, but their venom is weak and relatively harmless. Some species of tarantula living in Asia and Africa are known to produce stronger reactions and are more dangerous as a result, but the same can’t be said for North American tarantulas.
The myth of deadly tarantula bites likely stems from Hollywood. These big, slow, and hairy creatures are the stuff of nightmares for millions of moviegoers, so they are the obvious choice for directors seeking a scare. In reality, while they do have fangs and venom, tarantulas are nowhere near as deadly as their smaller and more insidious brethren.
It’s for this reason that tarantula species are often kept as pets.
What Does a Tarantula Bite Feel Like?
A tarantula bite is often compared to a bee sting or wasp sting. The bite is more of an annoyance than a serious concern, and most people who have been bitten by these spiders don’t feel anything more than a little prick followed by mild cramping.
The spider’s hairs can actually cause more problems. These irritating urticating bristles can cause rashes and inflammation. If you go near a tarantula, whether in the wild or being kept as a pet, keep it away from your face and wash your hands after handling it.
New World Species vs Old World Species
Tarantulas exist across the Americas and the Eastern Hemisphere. These species are known as “New World tarantulas” and “Old World tarantulas” respectively.
Although these spiders share many similarities, they have evolved very different traits.
In the New World, a tarantula’s bite is harmless and comparable to a bee sting. They are slow, methodical creatures that often rely on their particularly irritating urticating bristles for self-defense.
Old World tarantulas are not as hairy and move with more haste. An Old World tarantula’s bite is also more venomous and can be very painful.
What Do Tarantulas Eat?
Tarantulas feed on insects, as well as mice, toads, and frogs. There are also species of tarantula that feed on small birds.
Tarantulas move slowly and deliberately. They weave webs, but these are used to warn them when a creature is approaching and not to ensnare their prey. Tarantulas catch and kill with their legs before injecting venom to paralyze and digestive enzymes to liquify.
Are There Deadly Tarantulas?
According to an urban legend, there is a deadly species of tarantula living somewhere in South America. It’s often called the “banana tarantula” and it’s claimed that it lives in banana crops, waiting to bite unsuspecting consumers.
But these “banana spiders” are actually Brazilian wandering spiders and are technically not tarantulas. They are big, though, and they are also venomous, so that won’t come as much consolation.
Other species commonly confused with tarantulas include Australian funnel-web spiders (such as the Sydney funnel-web spider) and huntsman spiders. Unlike tarantulas, many of these spiders are venomous.
What is Tarantula Venom?
Tarantula venom contains a mix of proteins, enzymes, and neurotoxins. It’s a mixture that incapacitates small prey and can also cause tissue damage.
Can Venomous Tarantulas Kill You?
There are no known deaths resulting from tarantula bites. These creatures do have venom glands and they inject venom through sizeable fangs, but it’s not strong enough to cause serious harm to humans.
What Happens if a Tarantula Bites You?
If you are bitten by a tarantula, you may feel pain (similar to a bee sting) at the site of the bite. The wound may look red and feel warm to the touch, but it likely won’t cause any further issues.
Look out for the following symptoms, all of which indicate an allergic reaction:
- Breathing difficulty
- Low blood pressure
- Skin rash
- Interrupted blood flow to major organs
- Swelling of the bite wound
- Swelling of the throat and lips
Allergic reactions from tarantula bites are rare, but they do occur and you should be on the lookout for these symptoms.
What are the Signs of a Tarantula Attack?
Tarantulas attack when they feel threatened, but it’s not always their first form of defense.
If a tarantula feels threatened, it will flick urticating hairs from its abdomen using its hind legs. These irritating hairs are essentially thrown at the attacker and can cause more damage than the tarantula’s fangs.
If you get too close to the spider, it might bite, but tarantulas are generally not aggressive creatures.
What Are the Best Pet Tarantulas?
The slow and docile nature of tarantulas, in combination with their mild bites, has made them popular pets. They can also live for between 10 and 30 years in captivity and while they are not the cuddliest or most playful pets, they are fascinating and curious animals.
Some of the best tarantula spider species to keep as pets include:
The Mexican Red Knee
The Mexican Red Knee is about 5 inches in length and weighs half an ounce on average. Females can live for up to 30 years and they are very docile creatures.
The Pink Zebra Beauty
A South American tarantula species that has a very placid personality and can live for up to 25 years, with males living for up to 10 years on average.
Chilean Fire Tarantula
The “Chilean Rose” as it is often known, is a calm and docile species. Male tarantulas in this species usually only live for 5 years or so but females can live for up to 20 years.
The Common Pink Toe
The pink toe is so named because of the unusual pinky-orange markings on the end of its legs. It lives in trees and is one of the best tree-dwelling tarantula species to keep as pets.
Honduran Curly Hair
Also known as a “wooly tarantula”, the Honduran curly hair doesn’t live very long (around 4 years for males and 10 for females) but is a very fast-growing and slow-moving spider.
Summary: Are Tarantulas Venomous?
New World species of tarantula are relatively harmless. They might look scary, and they definitely possess fangs and venom, but they are not as fearsome as they look and usually cause only minor irritations.
Old World species of tarantula are more problematic. They don’t have urticating hairs and so they rely more on their fangs and venom, giving them a more painful bite and potentially causing more problems.