I once had a pet Huntsman spider called Freddy. Read all about him and his relatives here. HUNTSMAN SPIDER TALES
Most Australians are familiar with Huntsman spiders because they are relatively common in gardens as well as in the bush, and will venture indoors from time to time. They owe their name to actively hunting prey, rather than catching it in webs. Classified as the Sparassidae
, this spider family has over one thousand species spread through Australasia, Asia, the Mediterranean, Africa and the Americas. There are around 150 Huntsman species downunder, with 95 of these recorded only in Australia.(1) They belong to a big spread of genera and are quite diverse in appearance. Most Huntsman spiders are large, all of them are fast, and the ones in Western Australia are especially hairy. Huntsman spiders typically have leg spans up to 13 cm. The largest Huntsman in the world lives in Laos and reaches leg spans of 30 cm.(2)
The speed of various Australian Huntsman spiders was recently measured, and found to range from an impressive 40+ body lengths per second for a species from Queensland, to a respectable 15 body lengths per second for the slowest species tested.(1) Many of them can also jump very well. No wonder people feel their hearts in their throats when one of these big spiders suddenly appears at top speed.
Huntsman spiders are shy and prefer to hide under bark, logs, rocks and eaves when not out prowling. If you really annoy them, especially when the females are guarding their egg sacs, they can inflict a painful bite, but they’re not venomous to humans. As hunting spiders who ambush their prey, they have excellent eyesight, courtesy of eight eyes arranged in two rows of four. Mostly they catch and eat insects (beetles, cockroaches, moths, grasshoppers, etc), plus the odd gecko, skink or other small vertebrate. They typically live for 2.5 years, which is over double the life span of the average Australian spider. Most Huntsman species are solitary, while some live together in colonies. Hairy Meetings
I came to Australia from central Europe at age 11. There weren't any big hairy spiders like that where I was from. I had no idea of their existence in Australia either for a few months after arrival, but then... Well, my father had bought a largely uncleared 50 hectare farming block and had this brilliant idea that we were all going to clear the land using axes and elbow grease. He organised four axes for the family members and handed them out to us with various exhortations. This phase was an unpopular phase and didn't last long; our neighbours had a good laugh and before too long he bought a tractor.
It was during this early axe-clearing phase that I was chopping down some pric'kly undergrowth near a large eucalyptus tree with really gnarly bark - a favourite Huntsman habitat, as I was to find out. As I was chopping away, wearing shorts because of the summer heat, I suddenly felt something tickling my knee and looked down - and next thing I jumped about a mile high, because one of those saucer-sized hairy things was running rapidly upwards on my leg. On coming back to Earth, I launched myself straight into a hysterical sort of anti-spider dance, until I was rid of the beastie.
They're not dangerous, but they do tend to put the wind up people when making sudden appearances, especially on your bare legs. Many years later, a colleague at coffee-break recounted driving to work on the Perth-Bunbury Highway and having a similar experience, with the added spicy detail of travelling at 110 km/h: Dressed in shorts because of the summer heat, tickling sensation on leg, had a look and - eeeek!
She told us how almost in a trance she calmly and safely pulled over onto the verge, came to a stop, exited her car and then, and only then, rapidly jumped up and down yowling and flapping at herself until she was rid of the beastie. A Spider Called Freddy
As a university student I once had a pet Huntsman, because I felt the need to behave like a sensible biologist and see these creatures through a bigger lens than mere cultural arachnophobia. The spider just turned up in my room, and I didn't chuck it out. Far from it, I bid it welcome, named it Freddy and saw to it that it had plenty to eat despite being indoors. My laboratory dissection kit had a lovely long probe which was excellent for catching flies and presenting them live as sort of wiggly shishkebabs to dear Freddy. When I had one, I located Freddy and brought the wiggly fly within about an inch of the spider's head. I always had to hold my breath and get really mentally focused so I wouldn't drop the probe when Freddy did his sudden and very spectacular pounce upon the fly.
And so Freddy and I had a happy association lasting many months. I'm sure you're interested in how it ended. Well, one morning I woke up to the sight of Freddy on the ceiling right above my bed, and initially I just marvelled at the amazing ability spiders have to cling to the undersides of relatively smooth surfaces. Their legs have some helpful structures for these sorts of acrobatics and it's all terribly admirable. But then I asked myself the question: Do they ever make a mistake and fall off? And since none of us are infallible, spiders included, I caught Freddy by means of a carefully placed huge glass pickle jar and piece of cardboard to slide between the spider and the ceiling once I had him surrounded. I then carried him in his jar out to the garden to re-unite him with the great outdoors, in which he was free to find his own prey and perhaps a lady spider. With any luck, Freddy's descendants are still out there. Arachnophobia and Delicacies
Many people experience at least mild arachnophobia, which is why fake spiders remain effective novelty items for the young, and young at heart. Arachnophobia keeps people away from spiders, which is usually good for people and spiders alike – though many people unfortunately loathe spiders, and kill them on sight.
Spiders though, like sharks, are far more frequently harmed, and even eaten, by humans, than the other way around. There have been no confirmed deaths from spider bites in Australia since 1979.(3) Also, few of us personally know anyone who has been attacked by a shark, but virtually all of us have eaten shark in the form of fish and chips. Spiders were firmly on the edibles list of nomadic hunter-gatherers throughout the world, and in South America and Cambodia, deep-fried tarantulas are still eaten as a delicacy. And why not, considering that spiders are closely related to lobsters, and few Westerners would think twice about tucking into those. Deep-fried tarantula fans describe these beasties as wonderfully crunchy on the outside and delightfully chewy on the inside; a texture contrast us ordinary folk enjoy in potato croquettes or falafels.
While researching this topic, I came upon a delightful story from the 18th Century. French astronomer de Lalande used to visit the naturalist d'Isjonville each Saturday, and there, to eat such spiders and caterpillars as he could find in the garden. Eager to be a good host, Madame d'Isjonville began to collect them beforehand so she could serve them to him on his arrival. Monsieur de Lalande, like many other spider-eating enthusiasts, reported that spiders taste of hazelnuts.(4)
I used to have this amazingly realistic fake Huntsman spider to put in people's coffee cups, until a colleague I pranked stole it and said that was the tax on pranking him. (I also had a fake rubber snake that was ultra realistic. It was a loan for a year. The replacement I bought only fools people at a distance.) The spider came with a magnetic backing so you could hang it onto curtains - very handy. When putting it in a coffee cup, the best thing was to put it in so that the front legs just hung slightly over the rim of the cup.
Huntsmen are harmless, but they still provoke that primal arachnophobic response. I have no issues with them when I know they are there, and was indeed often the person called upon by others to please remove that Huntsman / goanna / other creepy crawly to the outdoors. But the big hairy Huntsman spiders can still get to me if they surprise me - when I didn't know they were there. And so I scared myself more often with my own fake spider than I scared other people with it - because I kept it in my stationery drawer and would forget it was in there... REFERENCES
1. www.businessinsider.com.au: Everything you need to know about Australian Huntsman spiders
, April 2017
2. Wikipedia: Huntsman spiders
3. www.abc.net.au: How your worst fears stack up against reality
, January 2018
4. Encyclopaedia of the Animal World
, Bay Books, Sydney, 1982; p1709