Tarantula or Whistling Spiders

Family Theraphosidae

Western Featherleg Tarantula, Theraphosidae, Selenotypus plumipes, female Female Phlogius crassipes, showing first legs thicker than the back legs. North Queensland Tarantula, Theraphosidae, Phlogius crassipes, adult female Female Selenotypus plumipes, showing first legs thinner than the back legs. North Queensland Tarantula, Theraphosidae, Phlogius crassipes,  silked up burrow entrance North Queensland Tarantula, Theraphosidae, Phlogius crassipes, silked up burrow entrance.

Australia’s tarantulas make a fine hissing sound, hence their other name, Whistling Spiders. They have been called name Bird-eating spider but that is incorrectly modified from "Bird Spider" which was given because the giant South American spiders resemble a fluffy bird chick. These spiders rarely eat birds. Equally, the term Barking Spider is incorrect as our spiders whistle but don't bark.

Many are taken from the wild and sold as pets, greatly depleting their numbers.

Identification

They are large to very large grey or brown spiders that are very hairy with two finger-like spinnerets at the end of the body. Thick hair pads on their legs and "feet" allow these spiders to easily climb glass or smooth plastic walls.

Unlike the tarantulas of other countries, they are rather drab coloured.

Diversity & distribution

Two groups occur in Australia and the relationships between the groups remain unclear. They occur through warmer Australia and are naturally absent from the south-east (from Gladstone south, only west of the Great Divide). Australia has seven described species but a number remain to be named.

Spiders with a thick first leg occur in east coastal Queensland and near Darwin belong to the genera Phlogius (originally called Selenocosmia but that genus occur only from New Guinea to the north and east) and Coremiocnemis. These are fast-growing tarantulas and probably the most rewarding as pets. These spiders are found in rainforests and gullies or other sheltered cooler spots in open forests. Some to make "nests" by silk-lining existing holes and expanding them slightly.

The second group (Selenotholus) have the first legs only as thick as the back legs or thinner, as in Selenotypus plumipes. These spiders have not been found in rainforest but flourish in the dry open forests and deserts. They are very slow-growing and hence not as satisfying as pets.

Burrow

The spiders make open burrows up to 2 metres long but about 1 metre deep.

Bite

Tarantulas can be quite aggressive if mishandled. Their bite is quickly fatal to dogs and cats, but only one report of serious illness from a bite to a human has occurred.

Conservation

Up to 10,000 tarantulas are estimated to be taken from the wild each year (presumably both legally and illegally) and mostly from Queensland. Clearly, this rate of "harvest" is unsustainable and alternatives need to be sought to preserve these spiders in their natural habitats. In some cases, collectors are using their spiders for "captive breeding" and at least for the fast-growing bigger species, Phlogius crassipes, that is the best solution.

Further studies on Australian tarantula species continue but are crippled by limited interest in supporting that kind of research which when published may in fact endanger them.

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