All About Tarantulas: Exploring The Large & Hairy Spiders

Leave a comment / / Updated on: 11th November 2023

Scientific nameTheraphosidaeWeight>85 g (3 oz)
Pronunciationta-ran-tew-lahLength3-12 inches (7.62-30.48 cm)
ClassificationAraneae,‭ Mygalomorphae,‭ & TheraphosidaeLocationAll continents except Antarctica

The Tarantula

Brown Tarantula | dlinca via iStock

When we think of insects, spiders are among the first options to pop into our minds, right after ants. 

However, this is a general misconception, as spiders are not insects but instead classified as arachnids. 

Insects typically have six legs, while spiders have eight, and spiders are no exception. 

While their multi-legged nature adds to their popularity, many argue that spiders would still be considered popular even without their eight legs. 

There are over 48,000 known species of spiders, each with unique characteristics and behaviors. 

There is also the fascination and fear associated with these creatures, and this duality makes them very compelling and intriguing creatures. 

Also, different cultures and folktales feature spiders in their stories, further making them popular. 

There are so many species of tarantulas everywhere | Ace_Create via iStock

As mentioned, almost 50,000 identified and recognized spider species exist, but this article focuses on one particular group: tarantulas. 

Tarantulas are considered some of the most feared spiders in the world, and for good reason. 

Like every spider, this species also has eight legs and a large, hairy, distinctive body. 

While most tarantula species possess venom, it is generally not harmful to humans. 

However, the idea of being bitten by a spider that looks like something straight out of the movies can be frightening. 

Despite this widespread fear, there are many more intriguing aspects of tarantulas’ lives, some of which will be discussed in the subsequent parts of this article.

Gage Beasley's In-Demand Plush Toys
Gage Beasley’s In-Demand Plush Toys

Taxonomy and Classification

Taxonomy is the science of classifying and naming living organisms based on shared characteristics and evolutionary relationships. 

It helps scientists categorize and organize species into a hierarchical system, making studying and understanding the diversity of life on Earth easier. 

Tarantulas belong to the order Araneae, which encompasses all spiders. 

They share this classification with over 45,000 other spider species. 

The order Araneae is characterized by spiders’ distinct anatomy, which includes two main body parts: the cephalothorax (fused head and thorax) and the abdomen. 

Fangs of a tarantula | Iztok Avsec via iStock

Tarantulas display these traits along with their signature venomous fangs.

Within the order Araneae, tarantulas are classified under the family Theraphosidae. 

This family is known as the “tarantula family” and includes over 1,000 species spread across various regions worldwide. 

Theraphosids are often recognized by their large size, robust bodies, and, in some cases, the dense hair covering them. 

They are distributed widely, from South America’s rainforests to North America’s deserts. 

Tarantulas have incredible species diversity, with distinct characteristics, behaviors, and habitats. 

They can range from tiny, less than an inch in size, to giants with leg spans of over 10 inches. 

The brilliant colors and patterns of some tarantulas, such as the Cobalt Blue (Haplopelma lividum), have earned them a special place in the hearts of enthusiasts. 

Gage Beasley's Tarantula Stuffed Plush Toy
Gage Beasley’s Tarantula Stuffed Plush Toy

Physical Characteristics 

Trapdoor spider in mud burrow | zstockphotos via iStock

Various species of the order Mygalomorphae might be mistaken for tarantulas, including trapdoor spiders, funnel-web spiders, and purseweb spiders. 

There are also several members of the order Araneomorphae, including the Lycosidae family, that can be mistaken for them. 

Regardless of these “look-alike” situations, numerous methods exist to recognize a tarantula. 

Tarantulas come in various sizes, with some species having a leg span as small as a few inches, while others can reach up to a foot or more. 

Their size largely depends on the species and their geographic location. 

Tarantula in hands | Freder via iStock

Interestingly, tarantulas exhibit sexual dimorphism, meaning that males and females of the same species often differ in size. 

Females tend to be larger and heavier than males. 

The front legs of mature male tarantulas may also contain tibial hooks that are used to restrict the female’s teeth during mating. 

Leg length is also often greater in males than females. 

Another way to differentiate tarantulas from other species is their fangs. 

Close-up image of a Tarantula’s fangs | 0802290022 via iStock

Instead of facing each other as true spiders, tarantula fangs point downward, allowing them to move in pincer-like motions. 

In addition, they have two book lungs, as opposed to the single one found in true spiders. 

Moreover, they live longer than other spiders do.

Like all arachnids, Tarantulas have an exoskeleton, a hard, protective outer covering made of chitin. 

This exoskeleton provides structural support and protection to the tarantula’s body. 

Unlike mammals, tarantulas do not have an internal skeleton, so their exoskeleton plays a critical role in maintaining their shape and protecting them from harm. 

Tarantula shedding | ConstantinCornel via iStock

As tarantulas grow, they periodically shed their exoskeleton in a process called molting. 

The tarantula’s old exoskeleton is shed during molting, revealing a soft, pliable new one underneath. 

This new exoskeleton hardens over time, and the tarantula continues to grow until its next molt. 

Tarantulas are known for their long, hairy legs, which help them navigate their environment and capture prey. 

Each leg is equipped with specialized sensory hairs that allow them to detect vibrations and movements, making them highly efficient hunters.

Habitat and Distribution

Chilean rose tarantula on the soil of a forest | Alexis Gonzalez via iStock

Tarantulas are an incredibly diverse group of arachnids, occupying a wide range of habitats worldwide. 

Many tarantula species are terrestrial, meaning they dwell on the ground. 

They are often found in various ecosystems, including deserts, grasslands, and forests. 

Some tarantulas are adapted to life in trees and bushes. 

These arboreal species are skilled climbers, using their specialized leg structures to navigate the foliage. 

Also, many tarantulas are proficient burrowers. 

Tarantula burrow | Nikolay Ponomarenko via iStock

They create underground retreats, which they use to shelter and ambush prey. 

Because of their unique adaptability, tarantulas are found on every continent except Antarctica. 

The world’s greatest variety of tarantulas can be found in South America. 

On this continent, tropical, subtropical, and desert areas are home to hundreds of these spiders. 

These spiders are also abundant in the southwestern United States and Mexico, with over 57 species in the United States alone. 

Because they are ground dwellers, North American tarantulas are typically found below the earth’s surface. 

Desert tarantula | AndrewHelwich via iStock

Certain species, like the desert tarantulas, frequently conceal themselves in burrows.

Tarantulas are typically divided into Old World and New World tarantulas

The natural geographic location of their native habitats serves as the basis for this classification. 

The eastern hemisphere is where Old World tarantulas originate. 

Asia, Africa, Europe, and Australia are all included in this. 

Tarantulas from the New World originate in Central and South America. 

Central, eastern, and southern Africa are home to many Old World tarantulas. 

Old World and New World spiders differ in how they have developed to adapt to their environments as a result of the various ecosystems in each region. 

Most spiders from the Old and New Worlds are more agile and hostile than one another. 

Tarantulas’ adaptability allows them to thrive in their specific habitats. 

These adaptations include coloration, size, behavior, and venom potency variations. 

For instance, desert-dwelling tarantulas may have lighter coloration to blend in with the sandy environment, while arboreal species have developed strong grips to navigate trees effectively.

Behavior and Social Structure

A solitary Mexican Blood Leg Tarantula | tbradford via iStock

Most tarantula species are solitary creatures. 

They prefer to live alone and occupy their burrows or hide in crevices. 

This solitary behavior is especially evident among mature individuals. 

Some tarantulas are believed to be primarily nocturnal, meaning they are most active during the night. 

They use their keen sense of touch, vibration, and specialized hairs on their legs to locate prey, typically insects and other small invertebrates. 

While many tarantulas are not known for building intricate webs like other spider species, some construct silk burrows or webbed retreats. 

These silk structures provide protection from predators and help maintain humidity levels. 

Silk burrows | Image via Quora

These spiders do not use their webs to hunt but as building materials or tripwires. 

In general, tarantulas, especially North American tarantulas, are not aggressive and would rather conceal, assume a threat pose, and flee from a person than confront them. 

They spend the majority of the year in hiding. 

They will utilize logs or other objects to conceal themselves, or they will dig subterranean tunnels. 

Some species of tarantulas may share the same tree or area but do not form colonies or engage in cooperative behaviors like hunting together. 

Instances where multiple tarantulas can coexist in one habitat occur mainly during the mating season. 

Males seek out females for mating, and after the encounter, they quickly part ways, as the female may consider the male as potential prey.

Diet and Feeding

Tarantula (Ceratogyrus darlingi) eating Zophobas morio, an ambush predator | skydie via iStock

Tarantulas are carnivorous creatures whose diet primarily consists of live prey. 

However, their dietary preferences can vary depending on the species. 

Most tarantulas in captivity are fed live insects, such as crickets, mealworms, and roaches. 

These insects provide the necessary nutrients and proteins that tarantulas need to thrive. 

Larger species of tarantulas have been observed preying on small vertebrates like mice, birds, or frogs. 

However, this is rare in captivity. 

These spiders typically hunt during the night. 

Tarantula active at night | Juhku via iStock

Because they hunt at night, tarantulas rely on their extraordinary sensitivity to ground vibrations to guide them to their targets. 

With the help of their razor-sharp teeth, known as chelicerae, tarantulas frequently ambush their victims before biting them and paralyzing them with venom. 

The venom or digestive enzyme produced by this bite can disintegrate the meat of the prey. 

By helping to liquefy the victim’s skin, this chemical enables the tarantula to suck liquid up with its straw-shaped mouth hidden beneath its fangs. 

Moreover, tarantulas have strong jaws that can pulverize their prey. 

Tarantula on the ground | marrio31 via iStock

Tarantulas spend most of their time on the ground, digging beneath dry earth, in contrast to most spider species that build webs to trap their food. 

They frequently coat the burrow hole’s walls with silk, which may act as an alarm whenever a victim is nearby. 

The digestive mechanism of tarantulas is distinctive and includes a sucking stomach. 

Tarantulas can ingest and digest liquids thanks to their sucking stomachs. 

Tarantulas use their digestive enzyme to turn their prey’s flesh into liquid. 

By contracting the stomach’s powerful muscles, they drain the liquefied prey through their mouths and into their digestive systems. 

The tarantula’s stomach contains intestinal walls that break down large food particles into smaller pieces, which are absorbed into the bloodstream. 

This mechanism allows the nutrients to be distributed and metabolized throughout the tarantula’s body.

Reproduction and Life Cycle

A tarantula’s journey | iudmila Chernetska via iStock

Like all living creatures, tarantulas undergo developmental stages throughout their lives. 

The journey of a tarantula begins when a female lays her eggs. 

Tarantula eggs are encased in a silk sac, which provides protection and a suitable microenvironment for development. 

Depending on the species, these sacs can contain anywhere from a few dozen to several hundred eggs. 

Once the eggs hatch, tiny tarantula spiderlings emerge. 

They are highly vulnerable and depend on their mother’s care at this stage. 

As spiderlings grow, they enter the juvenile stage. 

A juvenile Pinktoe Tarantula | PeteMuller via iStock

During this phase, they molt periodically to accommodate their increasing size. 

Juvenile tarantulas are often more vibrant in coloration compared to adults, and their patterns may change as they molt. 

The distinction between male and female tarantulas becomes more pronounced at the adult stage. 

Males are often smaller and have longer, thinner legs, while females are typically larger and stockier.

When a male tarantula is mature and ready to mate, he embarks on a journey in search of a receptive female. 

Male tarantulas are the ones that search for mates. 

Females typically wait for a partner to locate them by staying in their burrows. 

Two Tarantula’s mating | Image via mikebasictarantula

Courtship rituals vary between species but generally involve a series of movements and vibrations to signal his intentions. 

Once the male gains the female’s acceptance, he transfers sperm to her using specialized structures called pedipalps, modified appendages near the mouth

Males produce a ball of webbing, which they then fill with a small quantity of sperm. 

They then look for a female while carrying this ball in their pedipalps. 

When they come to a female’s burrow, they tap on the silk lining to attract her attention. 

It is known that the male engages in intricate mating rituals and displays (a dance, if you will). 

The sperm will be deposited if the female is receptive, and the male will try to leave as soon as possible.

Ecological Role and Interactions

Close-up female of Spider Tarantula | tenra via iStock

Tarantulas are carnivorous creatures that primarily prey on insects, other arachnids, and occasionally small vertebrates such as frogs, lizards, and birds. 

Their role as predators is crucial in controlling these smaller creatures’ populations, helping maintain the balance within their ecosystems. 

By consuming insects and other invertebrates, tarantulas help regulate the numbers of these species, preventing overpopulation and potential damage to plants and crops. 

While tarantulas are skilled hunters, they also serve as scavengers in their ecosystems. 

They often feed on carrion and the remains of dead animals, contributing to the decomposition process. 

A tarantula eating a dead bird | Paula Cárdenas via MDPI

This role as scavengers aids in recycling nutrients back into the ecosystem, as tarantulas help break down organic matter and return essential nutrients to the soil. 

In this way, they play a part in nutrient cycling, which is crucial for the ecosystem’s health. 

Tarantulas are not only predators but also prey for a variety of other animals. 

Many birds, reptiles, and mammals feed on tarantulas. 

By serving as a food source for these species, tarantulas play a role in their ecosystem’’ intricate web of life. 

Their presence supports the survival and reproduction of other wildlife.

Conservation Status and Threats

Tarantula living in the forest floor | nikpal via iStock

Tarantulas primarily inhabit forests and grasslands, which are being rapidly destroyed due to deforestation and urbanization. 

As their natural habitats disappear, tarantulas risk losing their homes and prey sources. 

Climate change also affects tarantulas in various ways. 

Rising temperatures can disrupt their reproductive cycles, alter distribution patterns, and reduce prey availability. 

Additionally, extreme weather events can directly impact tarantula populations. 

Establishing and maintaining protected areas, such as national parks and reserves, is crucial for preserving tarantula habitats. 

These areas help prevent habitat destruction and provide safe spaces for these spiders to thrive.

Also, research into tarantula biology, behavior, and ecology is vital for implementing effective conservation strategies.

Unique Adaptations and Survival Strategies

Yep! I am big! | waldru via iStock

One of the most distinctive features of tarantulas is their size. 

They are among the largest spiders on Earth. 

This size acts as a deterrent to potential predators. 

Many animals think twice before attempting to make a meal from a tarantula, which can deliver a painful bite or release irritating hairs from its abdomen as a defense mechanism. 

Tarantulas possess venomous fangs, which they use primarily for subduing their prey. 

A tarantula incapacitating a small snake | Image via Yahoo News Singapore

While their venom is not typically dangerous to humans, it is highly effective at incapacitating insects and other small creatures. 

Interestingly, some tarantulas have evolved specialized venom cocktails tailored to their preferred prey. 

For example, some species have venom that is particularly effective against ants, while others have venom that works best on larger insects or even small vertebrates like frogs or lizards. 

Additionally, tarantulas are patient hunters. 

They can wait for extended periods in their burrows for prey to come within striking distance. 

This patience helps them conserve energy in their often harsh and arid habitats.

Cultural Significance and Human Interactions

Tarantula as a pet | sassy1902 via iStock

Tarantulas have found their way into the mythologies and folklore of several cultures. 

In ancient Greece, the word tarantism was coined to describe a supposed illness caused by the tarantula bite, leading to frenzied dancing. 

Tarantulas have inspired artists and writers throughout history. 

Salvador Dalí incorporated the image of the tarantula in his surrealistic works, while authors like Edgar Allan Poe used tarantulas as symbols of terror in their stories. 

Beyond folklore and symbolism, tarantulas are essential to scientific research. 

They are a vital part of ecosystems, helping control insect populations. 

Scientists study tarantulas to understand their behavior, physiology, and ecological roles.

Conservation efforts aim to protect these creatures and their habitats, as many tarantula species face threats from habitat destruction and the illegal pet trade.

Future Prospects and Research

The Brazilian Blue Tarantula | Moonstone Images via iStock

One area of tarantula research that has gained momentum in recent years is the study of their behavior. 

These spiders display intriguing behaviors, such as courtship rituals, burrow construction, and predation techniques. 

Researchers have sought to understand the mechanisms behind these behaviors, shedding light on how tarantulas communicate, mate, and adapt to their environments. 

Tarantulas are equipped with venomous fangs, which they use primarily to immobilize their prey. 

However, tarantula venom has also attracted the attention of researchers in the medical field. 

Some components of tarantula venom have shown promise in various applications, including pain management and neuroscience. 

One notable example is the peptide found in the venom of the Indian ornamental tarantula. 

This peptide, known as Psalmotoxin, has the potential to be used as a painkiller that is more potent than morphine but with fewer side effects.


Though often feared, Tarantulas are remarkable creatures with a rich tapestry of features and behaviors. 

As a diverse group of arachnids, they have adapted to various habitats and play essential roles in their ecosystems as predators and scavengers. 

Their unique adaptations, such as their size, venomous fangs, and patient hunting strategies, make them intriguing subjects of scientific study. 

Beyond science, tarantulas have left their mark on human culture, inspiring art, literature, and medical research. 

Their future prospects involve continued research into their behavior and the potential applications of their venom compounds. 

Preserving their habitats and ensuring their conservation remains vital in the face of threats like habitat destruction and the illegal pet trade. 

Tarantulas serve as a testament to the complex and interconnected web of life on our planet, reminding us of the importance of understanding and protecting even the most misunderstood creatures.


Q: Can tarantulas communicate with each other, and if so, how do they do it?

Tarantulas communicate primarily through vibrations and touch.

During courtship, males use specific movements and vibrations to signal their intentions to females.

These vibrations convey information about their suitability as mates.

Q: Can tarantulas swim, or are they strictly terrestrial creatures?

While not known as avid swimmers, some tarantulas can float on water and may use this ability to cross streams or escape predators.

Their hydrophobic hairs help them stay afloat.


About The Author

Leave a Reply

Discover more from Gage Beasley Wildlife | The Animal Kingdom Compendium

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading

Scroll to Top