The Goliath Bird-Eating Spider
Although perhaps named by a bunch of theatrical pagans, the Goliath bird-eating spider is genuinely pretty terrifying. It is the largest spider by mass in the world, surpassed only by the huntsman which still holds the title for the longest pins. They dwell in northern South America, inhabiting deep burrows in marshy rainforests. These magnificent arachnids have been known to grow to the size of a young puppy, with the largest recently measuring in at a foot long. That’s nearly the size of your computer screen (..if you have a computer screen that’s just over a foot long). This big mama was discovered by scientist Piotr Naskrecki, who was mildly surprised when what he thought might be a possum bustling through the undergrowth turned into a scene from Arachnophobia. It is well worth checking out his account and photos of the beast here, as I haven’t got permission to re-post his photos (sad face). To make things even more harrowing, Theraposa blondi is the only species known to have hardened tips at the ends its legs, along with small claws which together create a distinct clicking sound to let you know when its coming.
Despite their size they also have some handy defense mechanisms, as larger mammals don’t seem to have a problem chomping down these bristly fanged creatures. Their first display is to rear up and extend their forelegs in the air to reveal their inch long fangs. That would probably be enough to send me politely backing away (accompanied by ‘sorry, terribly sorry’ as is the British way). However, for the more dedicated hunter the tarantula will proceed to swiftly rub their two rear legs over the top of their abdomen. Don’t be deceived by this display. This is not like when a dog rubs its paws over its face and it’s so adorable that women start fainting. This rubbing action causes irritating hairs known as urticating bristles to be ejected toward the attacker, which embed themselves in the skin and eyes. If you are still daft enough to venture closer, the spider will emit a surprisingly sharp hissing noise. Although one scientist initially tried to suggest that this was produced through the spider’s mouth (quickly discredited when everyone remembered spiders don’t have tongues), it is actually caused by hooked setae on the legs. Hooked setae form some of the hairs that give the spider that fluffy look- they had to find an alternative use for them when they realized being cute just wasn’t on their cards. These setae scrape against each other in a process known as ‘setal entanglement’, which causes the distinct hissing sound and can be heard up to 15 feet away.
However, despite all this theatrical preample, they are not as deadly as they appear. Observations of this species actually hunting birds are very rare, and it remains an opportunistic behaviour. Their common prey is insects and small rodents, i.e mice. This is not to say they are not capable of murdering tweety pie – the neurotoxins in their venom can paralyse prey almost immediately. The tortuous fangs can quite easily sink through a mouse’s skull, and as the venom is injected so are a host of digestive enzymes. These enzymes breakdown the victim’s inner tissues, liquefying them into a nice warm slushy. This is then slurped up like a regular protein shake, with hairs on their mouth filtering out any fleshy chunks. This process is aided by its stomach, which contains strong muscles acting like a pump to provide the sucking action needed.
If you got through that delightfully detailed account of their feeding habits, you’re probably not salivating at the thought of cooking up a mouse gut-filled birdeater for tea. However, locals of northeastern South America do just that, even considering it a rare delicacy. One non-local reporter, who may now be questioning his career choice, served as a guinea pig. He claimed (through gritted teeth) that it was delicious and tasted like ‘smoky prawns’….before undoubtedly running out of sight to chunder in a nearby bush. You don’t generally consider a treat as one where the fang of said treat is used as a toothpick to extract the exocuticle that gets caught in your teeth. But each to their own. The gooey innards are not discarded, like they normally would (and should) be, but hard boiled and made more appetising by hiding them in a tasty rolled leaf. The breakfast of champions.
If any of this has put you at unease then simply watch this completely dramatic and unnecessary video on how to not die if you meet a tarantula – alternatively you can just stay away from tarantulas.