One of the most common fears people have is of spiders. Regardless of your take on that, creepy crawlies manage to send a tiny shiver down the spine of even some of the bravest souls. What if there was a spider that genuinely lived up to the hype of arachnophobia (the fear of spiders)? The huntsman spider is indeed a marvel of nature, but before we get into the different nitty-gritty aspects of the spider itself, let’s take a quick look (more so a fun take) on the urban legend surrounding it.
The famous urban legend
Most of us might believe that an urban legend must be somewhat scary or chilling, but this urban legend was born through meme culture (yes, you read that right). The story goes that a huge huntsman spider was found by someone in their relative’s house. The place they found the spider was under a wall clock (hence the infamous nickname “clock spider”). The person ended up taking three photographs of the spider, as shown below.
The first photo shows the legs of the spider sticking out slightly from the sides of the clock. The second photo is of the spider without the clock covering. And the third photo is a clear photo of the spider showing us a view of its physical structure. Now the legend – or what may be more of a joke – is that the spider had a ninth leg. The reason it lost it is that it had a battle with a limecat (I was also expecting something more intriguing). The legend goes on to how this spider became a god and other nonsense about how to worship it (which is purely a joke, I hope). Now, we won’t be getting into any more modern mumbo jumbo, but will instead jump into the scientific aspects of this fascinating spider.
The huntsman spider is from the family Sparassidae. The Sparassidae family of spiders all have eight eyes, which face forward in two rows of four. This particular species of spiders can grow to incredibly large sizes. In Laos, the male huntsman spider can achieve a leg span of 25 to 30 cm. These spiders are often confused with tarantulas, but the distinguishing factor is that their legs are angular and extend forward, like a crab.
The upper surface of the huntsman spider boasts inconspicuous shades of grey and brown. The bottom surface of the spider is aposematically colored black and white. The word aposematically means that the color display is a sign of warning to potential predators. These spiders tend to dwell under rocks, tree bark, and similar natural structures. In terms of where they may encroach upon human habitation, the clock spider can be found in common sheds, garages and distributed spaces (less frequently). Their vision is very good, allowing them to detect approaching humans and other large animals from some distance.
Like most spiders, the Sparassidae family of spiders use venom to immobilize prey. Their venom is not only used for hunting, but also comes in handy as a defensive bite tactic. The pain of their defensive bites can be very severe.
The effect of the bite on a human would include local swelling, pain, nausea, headache, vomiting, irregular pulse rate and heart palpitations. In some cases, there has been some indication of systematic neurological toxin effect, especially when the bites are severe or multiple bites have been inflicted. It is not exactly clear what provokes the huntsman to attack humans or animals. However, the females of the species are quite aggressive in protecting their egg sacs and young from what they perceive to be a threat. Bites from a huntsman spider usually do not require any hospital treatment.
The male Heteropoda venatoria is a huntsman spider species that can be found all around the world. It has recently been observed to deliberately make a substrate-borne sound when it detects a chemical (pheromone) left by a female of the same species. The males try to then find the trail of pheromones left by the females. Once found, they lower themselves to the ground and anchor themselves firmly, after which they use their legs to transmit vibrations from their bodies to the surface with which they are in contact.
Most of the emitted sound is produced by strong vibrations from their abdomen. Each male emits vibrations of a characteristic frequency, which helps females distinguish between different males competing for their attention. The usual pattern of these vibrations consists of short bursts of intense vibrations. If the female is interested in mating, she will follow the vibration to the source, where the male will be awaiting to copulate with her. For humans, these sounds can often be heard as a rhythmic ticking, like a quartz clock that fades in and out. However, it can only be heard in a relatively quiet environment.
So, next time you hear the legend of the clock spider, perhaps you will be able to shed a bit of truthful light, rather than perpetuate the myth!