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An Introduction to:

(Tarantulas, Other Spiders and Scorpions)

By: Martin Overton
(Member of  the BTS (British Tarantula Society)

Where The Name Tarantula Came From

The European Wolf Spider
(Lycosa Tarantula)
(Click on  picture to enlarge)
The name tarantula comes from a real spider that is found in southern Italy, it lives mainly in an area around the town of Taranto. In fact the real tarantula (The European Wolf Spider, Lycosa Tarantula) is distantly related to the other spiders that share its name.

The real tarantula is a small slightly hairy spider (about 2 inches (5cm's) across). It is not dangerous to humans!

The people of the southern Italian town of Taranto, believed that if they were bitten by they spider that they called tarantula, if the bite was not treated quickly, that they would die.

The only way to survive its bite, they believed, was to do a dance called the Tarantella. This involved very fast spinning and jumping until they could dance no more and fell to the ground exhausted. This the locals believed was the only cure.

Interestingly, it appears that the spider that was probably responsible for illnesses and the occasional deaths was in fact a member of the Latrodectus (Black Widow) family of spiders. This is a small spider in comparison with the wolf spider that was getting the blame.

The real Tarantula of course is, like the other spiders wrongly named after it, are not really dangerous to most humans. You may feel a little sick if you have been bitten by a tarantula, but normally that is all.

Nowadays, all large hairy spiders have been given the name tarantula, even though many are only very distantly related to the real tarantula. Tarantulas are often called bird eating spiders, very few actually eat birds, those that do usually raid nests and take the young chicks, most however, like our native spiders only eat insects.

Other Pages About Tarantula Nomenclature:

Other Pages about the Tarantella and Taranto


The New Tarantulas

The name 'tarantula' nowadays refers to the media image of large hairy spiders, most of these are only distantly related to the real tarantula, they belong to a different family of spiders, this family is know as Theraphosids or Mygalomorphs. Spiders are members of the Arachnid family, they are not Insects!

These Theraphosids cover all the so called tarantulas, Baboon, and bird eating spiders, as they are also wrongly called.

There are over 35,000 recognized species of spiders in the world, of these so far 830 have been described as Tarantulas, and new species are still being found.

Tarantulas are shy creatures, if they are disturbed they will usually run away, either to their burrow or to the nearest cover. If an animal tries to attack a tarantula, it will defend itself in one of two ways: All American (New World) species will first kick urticating (irritating) hairs out of its abdomen at its attacker, this will usually drive the attacker off. The tarantula may possibly bite its attacker if the first step fails.

The Asian (Old World) species does not use urticating hairs, this type of tarantula tends to run away and only bite only if provoked.

There have been no substantiated deaths attributed to tarantula bites. Tarantulas are in fact very clean creatures, they are not known to carry any communicable diseases that can be picked up by humans or indeed any animal.

There are many different species of tarantulas, living in many parts of the world. Most female tarantulas rarely travel more than 9 inches from their burrows throughout their whole life. They usually sit close to the opening after dark, waiting for any prey that comes close to their burrow, and then pouncing on them and injecting venom to paralyse their prey. Male tarantulas during the breeding season are frequently seen, as they try and find a suitable, and approachable mate. The males may travel many miles in their search to perpetuate the species.

What are arachnids?

Arachnids are a group of creatures that include: Tarantulas and other spiders, Scorpions, Mites, Whipscorpions, Vinegaroons and Solifugids.

There are around 75,000 described (known) species of arachnids (half of then mites). More new species are frequently being found.

Aren't arachnids insects?

No. The main differences between arachnids and insects are:

1. Arachnids lack antennae and have four pairs of legs rather than the
three pairs found in insects.

2. Arachnids only have two body divisions (cephalothorax and abdomen).
Insects have three divisions (head, thorax and abdomen).

3. The legs of arachnids are attached to the cephalothorax.

4. The 'head' of arachnids may contain up to 12 simple eyes.

5. Arachnids may also have two other sets of appendages; fangs
(chelicarae) and the other look like a pair of small legs (pedipalps).

6. Size: From tiny mites to tarantulas with a 12 inch legspan.


Tarantula Tastes

Tarantulas do not eat food like we do, when a tarantula catches an insect, it injects venom in to it. This does two things, it first paralyses the prey and then the venom breaks down the insects body tissue, so that the tarantula can suck the liquid up. This usually leaves a hollow shell that was an insect.

Other Pages About Tarantula Foods:


Tarantula Hawks

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(Click on  picture to enlarge)

Tarantulas have very few natural enemies, other than humans. its only real natural enemy is an insect known as The Tarantula Hawk or Tarantula Killers (Pepsis wasps), it is a giant wasp.

The wasp stings the tarantula, which paralyses it, the wasp then lays an egg on its abdomen and then buries it in the tarantulas burrow. When the egg hatches the tarantula is used as a living food source by the wasp grub.


Keeping Tarantulas

Tarantulas are very easy to keep, providing you keep them at the correct temperature and humidity. If possible make their tanks as near as possible to their native habitat.

Most tarantulas require a temperature between 70 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit, with a humidity (moisture) range between 55 and 80 per cent.

As you can see from those figures there is no way a tarantula could survive if it escaped into our countryside (UK), one sharp frost would kill it.


Arboreal Species

There are many species that come under the heading of Arboreal tarantulas, these are a very specialised group of tarantulas that live in trees, under roofs and any other suitable high positions. They spin long hollow silk tubes, in which they live.

Their diet in the wild, consists of mainly flying insects, moths, cicadas and occasional young or injured small birds and well as frogs and small reptiles. Hence the often misused name Bird Eating Spiders.

The arboreal tarantula rarely set foot upon the ground, eating and drinking high in the tree where it has made its home. They drink water droplets from early morning dew or rain that form on their silken homes.

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A Selection of Arboreal Tarantulas
(Click on each picture to enlarge)

These arboreal species live predominantly in rainforests. The humidity that they live in is usually between 80 and 100 percent, with temperatures of 80-120 degrees Fahrenheit or more.

Most of these tarantulas are found throughout the rainforest belt of Asia and South America

Burrower (Terrestrial) Habitat Species

The burrowing species of tarantulas seem to cover most of the equatorial areas of the world, from the tropic of Capricorn to the tropic of cancer and beyond. Most of this group of tarantulas can tolerate widely fluctuating climatic conditions. They use there burrows as we do houses, to protect them from the elements. The burrows made by this group of tarantulas can be up to three and a half feet deep. This allows some species to live in near desert conditions. At that depth, even though the temperature may be over one hundred and twenty degrees Fahrenheit and the humidity may be less than 30 per cent, at the bottom of its burrow the tarantula will be at a temperature around eighty degrees Fahrenheit and at a humidity level in excess of sixty per cent.

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A Selection of Terrestrial Tarantulas
(Click on each picture to enlarge)

This group of tarantulas feed mainly at night, when they sit at the entrance to their burrow waiting for any passing insects.

Water is gleaned from early morning dew that formed overnight on rocks or plants.


Scrubland (Terrestrial) Habitat Species

Scrubland is similar to what we in this country (UK) would call meadow land, wide expanses of grasses and cultivated land.

The scrubland species tend to make shallow scrapes under rocks, tree roots or man made shelters.

These types of tarantulas are predominantly new world species (American). Like the burrowing species they feed mainly at night, waiting at the entrance to their home. Water is more widely available for this group of tarantulas.

Other Pages About Keeping Tarantulas:


Moulting And Regeneration

Scorpions and most insects do not have skeletons like ours. We have our skeletons inside our bodies, like all animals.

Insects have external skeletons, which is their skin or shell. Now because insects have external skeletons, to allow them to grow they must grow a new soft skeleton underneath their existing one

When an insect moults it splits open its old skeleton and wriggles out of it, the new skeleton that was growing underneath is soft and pliable, for a short while. The insect once it is free stretches the new skeleton to allow some room for new growth, the new skeleton then hardens.

If a tarantula loses a leg or other appendage before a moult, after the tarantula has moulted it may have partially or fully re-grown the missing limb, this is called regeneration. Many reptiles can also do this.

When a tarantula moults it lies on its back with its legs in the air, at this time the tarantula is very vulnerable and can be attacked and killed by the insects that it usually feeds on.

Example of an Internal Skeleton

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Tarantula Moulting
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Tarantula Moults
(Click on each picture to enlarge)

The tarantula takes between two and twelve hours on average to complete the sheding of its old exoskeleton (its skin). Once this has been accomplished, the tarantula will not eat for two or more days, as its fangs are still soft: the fangs are also part of the exoskeleton and are shed with the rest of the skin.

The tarantula is usually very weak and dehydrated after moulting. Most tarantulas, once they reach maturity only moult once a year or once every two years, depending on species. Spiderlings (baby tarantulas), moult up to eight times in their first year of life, each moult becoming progressively further apart.

Other Pages on Tarantula Biology:


The Mating Game

Mating is a very hazardous thing for a male tarantula to attempt.

Male tarantulas, during the breeding season may roam many tens of miles searching for a suitable (approachable) mate. The male tarantula  (of most species) can easily be sexed, because of a set of mating hooks on the first pair of legs.

These mating hooks are used to restrain the female tarantulas fangs, while the male tries to mate with her. If he is successful, his troubles are far from over, he still has to make a quick and skilful getaway. brachypelma_auratum_mating.jpg (2170 bytes)
(Click on each picture to enlarge)

It is often said, mistakenly so, that a female tarantula kills and eats her mate, in fact about 60 percent of males manage a getaway without being killed, many though, do sustain wounds.



Tarantulas are not poisonous, they are venomous, as are bees, wasps and snakes (amongst others).

Tarantulas are shy creatures, if they are disturbed they will usually run away, either to their burrow or to the nearest cover. If an animal tries to attack a tarantula, it will defend itself in one of two ways: All American ( New World ) species will first kick urticating (irritating) hairs out of its abdomen at its attacker, this will usually drive the attacker off, the tarantula will only bite its attacker if the first step fails. The Asian (Old World) species does not use urticating hairs, this type of tarantula tends to run away and only bite if provoked.

The bottom line is that tarantulas are not a medically significant problem anywhere in the world. Minor and occasionally more severe problems do occur with some of them include sensitivity to the urticating hair, and sometimes allergies to venom, known as Anaphylactic Shock.

There have been no substantiated deaths attributed to tarantula bites. Indeed more people have died from bee stings and snake bites than by any type of spider.

Statistically you are more likely to win the Lottery than die from a spider bite.

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Old World Tarantulas in Defensive Stances
(Click on each picture to enlarge)

Other Pages About Tarantula Defenses:


The Worlds Biggest Spider?

The worlds biggest known tarantula is called the Goliath Tarantula, and boy is it a whopper!

This tarantula when fully grown is known to reach a leg span of 12 inches across! If you put it on a large dinner plate its legs would probably not touch the sides.

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Goliath Tarantula
(Click on  picture to enlarge)

Originally there were around 20 imported into this country  (UK) for collectors to purchase. Now, this spider is more widely available, due to captive breeding programs.  But don't panic, if ever they escaped into the wild they would perish in the first cold night, as they require temperatures above70f.

The bite of this spider, although painful is not deadly, unless you are allergic to bee & wasp stings.

Other Pages About The Goliath Tarantula:


The Worlds Most Travelled Spiders

Quite a volume of tarantulas arrive here (UK) in shipments of fruit and vegetables, they are quite often referred to as banana spiders, as many are found in banana shipments.

The bananas go through a very rigorous cleaning cycle. This includes being washed in large tanks, the hands of bananas may be submerged in water for ten minutes or more, sprayed with a fungicide, then hand inspected and crated. When they get to this country, they are usually found by greengrocers and fruit wholesalers, before they arrive at the supermarket. Yet all of the tarantula's that get into this country this way are harmless.


The Worlds Most Dangerous Spiders

In Australia this spider is known as the Red Back (Latrodectus hasselti). This spider is very venomous and is known by most people as the Black Widow (Lactrodectus mactans). It is also known in New Zealand as the Katipo (Lactrodectus katipo) Spider. These are all members of the same family (Latrodectus) but are slightly different.

The Black Widow is a very small spider, about the same size as our larger native spiders (about an inch (2.5cm) across).

Occasionally these spiders do arrive in this country (UK) with vegetables and fruit, most die on route in refrigerated trucks, some do arrive alive and are usually reported to the police or the RSPCA, these are the passed onto experts at a zoo or other organisations that have the ability to safely look after them.

If you were bitten by a Redback, Katipo, Black Widow, you should seek medical attention right away, the venom injected by the spider can be neutralised by an antivenin within eighty hours (three days) of being bitten.

Black Widow Spider
(Click on  picture to enlarge)

Most people are not aware that it is only the female Black Widow that is actually able to bite through human skin, the male is not strong enough.

Over many years, only twelve deaths have been caused by this spider. The Black Widow (in its various forms) are mainly found throughout Australia, New Zealand and America.

Another infamous venomous spider is known as the Funnel Web spider (Atrax Robustus).

Unlike the Black Widow, the male Funnel Web is the venomous one, the female is unlikely to be encountered. The reason for this is due to the fact that the males, during the breeding season are extremely easily startled and aggressive, due to fighting other males and are frequently on 'walkabout' ( the move) searching for a mate.

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Sydney Funnel Web Spider
(Click on  picture to enlarge)

Hence more people come into contact with this spider at this time of the year than any other. In the many years of recording spider bites, about thirteen deaths have been caused by the Funnel Web. This spider seems to mainly be found in the Sydney basin, although a close relative of it, which is not so venomous is more widespread in Australia. In fact most people who die from spider bites are often bitten by the Funnel Web or the Black Widow. An antivenin is available (this counteracts the venom injected by the spider.)

The final extremely venomous spider that has caused deaths is the Brazilian Wandering Spider (Phoneutria sp.) This species of spider is feared in and around Brazil and there are reported cases of young children being killed by it. Little other information appears to be available about its range and the effects of its venom.

There are a few other highly venomous spiders, details on many of these can be found in the articles below:

Other pages on venomous spiders:



Scorpions are related to tarantulas, they are part of the same family of insects, Arachnids. The Arachnid family consists entirely of insects with eight legs. Really tarantulas and scorpions cannot be called insects, as insects are six legged invertebrates (creatures without a backbone).

Most people wrongly believe that all scorpions are very dangerous and that if you are stung by one then you will die. This is completely untrue, many scorpions are no more dangerous to humans than bees or wasps. Some, though are very venomous, this type of Scorpion can only be kept with a special license.

Scorpions range greatly in size, from 40 to 127mm in length, there are between 1,500 and 2,000 species of scorpions.

Scorpions live in many parts of the world, one has even colonised this country (UK), coming across on ships from the European mainland.

It is called the European Scorpion (Euscorpios Flavicaudus).

This scorpion is very small and has a very weak venom. It is mainly found around coastal ports where it seems to thrive. It originally comes from southern France and Spain.

All scorpions are nocturnal (only moving at night), when they hunt for other insects, including other scorpions.

They have two forward facing eyes and between two and five side facing eyes, each side.

When they catch an insect in their claws they will inject venom into their prey, this paralyses the insect so they can eat it at their leisure.

Scorpions, like many mammals are viviparous (give birth to live young), the young scorpions ride on the females back and are white until after their first moult. They then take on the patterns and/or colours of their parents.

All scorpions and tarantulas moult, moulting is a process of growing. They are slow growing creatures taking around five years to mature into adults.


Keeping Scorpions

Keeping scorpions is fairly similar to keeping tarantulas. The tanks that the scorpion will be kept in should be escape proof, as with tarantulas, scorpions are very accomplished escapologists.

Scorpions tend in live in three distinctive types of environments, these are, Desert, Tropical, and Temperate.

Most scorpions are burrowers, living in dark humid holes until the sun sets. They then come out and hunt.

There are some scorpions that will live relatively peacefully together, the majority of the species, like tarantulas, spend much of their lives alone, shunning contact except during the breeding season.

Scorpions feed on similar prey as tarantulas, eating mainly insects, though some of the larger scorpions will take mice and small reptiles. Scorpions will eat each other if there is no other food.

Scorpions are born survivors, adapting to whatever nature can throw at them.

Scorpions, like tarantulas are of a very old family of creatures, they have altered very little in the last two million years, as they are specialist hunters having little or no competition, and therefore, little need to adapt themselves.


What To Do If Stung

The first thing to do if stung by a scorpion is not to panic, very few deaths actually occur from such stings. Do not cut the area that was stung, do not try to make it bleed, both of these actions will only make things worse. Do not drink anything, especially alcohol. Wrap a bandage firmly over the area of the sting, and restrict the movement of the area that was stung. This will keep the venom localised for many hours. Seek medical attention as soon as possible.


Suggested Reading For Projects Etc.


  • The Tarantula Identification and Classification Guide by Andrew M. Smith
  • How To Keep Tarantulas by Andrew M. Smith
  • A Complete Guide To Tarantulas by Al David
  • Wall To Wall Spiders by Ann Web
  • Spider by Dick Jones
  • All About Tarantulas by Dale Lund
  • Tarantulas by John G. Browning
  • The Book of the Spider by Paul Hillyard


  • How To Keep Scorpions by Vince Hull-Williams

Other Pages About Tarantula and Scorpion Books:


The British Tarantula Society

Many a myth is at large in the world today, about tarantulas and spiders in general. The society aims to dispel all fears about these very attractive creatures whilst also providing an information service for all interested in arachnology (The study of Spiders and Scorpions).

In the society's constitution, we aim to further the study and keeping of arachnids (tarantulas and scorpions) and the breeding thereof; to produce a quarterly journal which will enable the society to fulfil its role as a platform for debate amongst amateur arachnologists and enthusiasts; to encourage and participate in a long-term captive breeding programmes which will both relieve the pressure on the indigenous habitats and create a supply of reasonably priced specimens for the amateur arachnologists; to share and pool knowledge amongst the members which will assist in keeping tropical arachnids. Care sheets will be supplied to new members.

Our international membership gives rise to exchange information on a world-wide basis. Our journals are very comprehensive and cover our subject in great detail. We hold annual shows for members where views can be aired and general discussion can take place.

There is so much the society wants to do, making everyone aware of the beauty of arachnids, but we need help in publicising our cause. For further information please contact us at the address shown below - please enclose a stamped, addressed envelope.


3 Shepham Lane,
East Sussex.
BN26 6LZ. England

SECRETARY: Angela Hale
E-MAIL: [email protected]

LOCAL CONTACT (UK): Martin Overton  (Biography) (Contact Details)
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Last Updated: April 04, 2007