Australian huntsman spiders: your friendly neighbourhood insect control

By Clare Woolston 22 July 2021
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From their habitat and ecology to their unique social behaviour, this is everything you need to know about Australia’s huntsman spiders.

When you think of huntsman spiders, you may think ‘huge, hairy, fast and scary’. It’s unlikely you are thinking ‘beautiful, family-orientated, and friendly neighbourhood insect control’ due to the myths that are out there. We give the low down on Huntsman spiders and peek into their fascinating lives.

Where do huntsman spiders live?

Contrary to popular belief, a huntsman’s aim in life is not to lurk behind curtains, toilet seats and sun visors in your car to drop down on your face and scare the living daylights out of you. When they are found in these situations, they are trying to mimic their natural retreats. Huntsman spiders hideout under the bark of trees and under rocks during the day. Why? The hunter is also the hunted. Huntsmans are on the menu for geckos, spider wasps and birds. They need a safe place to hideout. It’s a bird-eat-spider world.

Do huntsman spiders bite?

Very rarely. Even if they do, huntsmans are not dangerous unlike funnel-web spiders. Dr Linda Rayor, a behavioural ecologist from the Department of Entomology at Cornell University, has been researching Australian huntsman spiders for many years. She scoops them out of their homes in the wild and has handled thousands of them. She’s only been bitten 12 times because they were defending themselves. So, the huntsman that is in your home, garage or car won’t hurt you. An exception to this is the badge huntsman spider (Neosparassus sp). It is more venomous, so it can deliver a bite that causes you to feel unwell. If you aren’t sure if the big spider in your home is a harmless huntsman, you can always turn to Spidentify. This app will help you identify any house guests.

Aren’t all huntsmans the same?

Huntsman spiders actually come in a dizzying array of sizes and colours – around 155 species in Australia! Peacock spiders step aside with your eight legs. Sadly, a huntsman named after David Bowie Heteropoda davidbowie isn’t found in Australia.

Do huntsman spiders intentionally chase you?

No. If you try to catch a huntsman and it runs towards you, it isn’t attacking. It is trying to get to a safe place, away from the giant human thing looming over it. Given they have poor eyesight, sometimes they get it a little wrong and head towards us instead of away from us.

Fascinatingly, huntsman spiders ‘see’ their prey through a combination of their eyesight and vibrations they pick up with their legs. They don’t use webs for hunting; instead, they ambush and speedily chase down their prey. The cheetahs of the huntsman spider world, are the golden huntsman and (Holconia hirsuta). Dr Rayor has recorded both these species hitting astonishing speeds of 110 centimetres per second.

Some huntsman spiders are surprisingly social

Linda has documented there are four species that defy the primarily solitary existence of their kind. They are social. Delena Cancerides gives a good demonstration of what this means as they live in large family groups.

There is mum, the largest breeding female, who has found a cosy bark retreat, usually on a black wattle tree. She has defended it against others who want the retreat for themselves. With her, there are three to four clutches of siblings, all of different ages. During the day, they hide out in the retreat. Of an evening, individuals head out to ambush and bring back their prey. Surprisingly, the siblings share their prey with each other.

“If you’ve got 30, 60 animals, a hundred animals staying together for a year, you’ve got social animals,” says Linda. “They are staying together until they reach sexual maturity.”

Family members of Delena cancerides also defend each other. Linda explains brothers and sisters protect themselves and their siblings against predators. This family dynamic means the next generations have “a greater chance of surviving to the age where you will have the ability to reproduce yourself or to try and go out and find a retreat and establish your own colony,” says Linda.

Huntsman spiders are your friendly neighbourhood insect control

Spiders, including huntsmans, are ecologically important. They do us a great service by controlling the numbers of insects around our homes and gardens like cockroaches and disease-carrying mosquitoes. Huntsmans help manage insects that destroy plants in the wild. Plants that makeup forests that we recreate in and clean our air for us.

So, if a huntsman spider surprises you in your home or car, think about what Linda has to say. It may help that fearful side that is within many of us. In Linda’s eyes, “they’re beautiful. They’re good moms. They are really good hunters. And if they’re in your home, it’s because we have insects that they can eat.