The clock spider is perhaps one of the fascinating things the internet has bestowed upon us in recent years. The story goes something like this. Some time ago, while visiting a relative at their house, someone noticed spider legs crawling out under a wall clock. Presumably, after mustering the courage, they removed the clock from the wall and were shocked to find a giant spider.
Before anything, the person was able to take pictures of that giant spider and later uploaded it to the online message boards. The images soon became viral as the ‘clock spider’ and were enshrined into the internet meme culture.
The legends say that the clock spider used to have nine legs but lost one during its epic battle with the limecat. After winning the battle, the clock spider became the ‘god to all.’ The term ‘clock spider’ is now used in reference to any spider, large or small, found behind wall clocks.
In the scientific world, in which every known animal species is named, the original clock spider is named as Sparassidae, or more popularly, the huntsman spider. The huntsman is certainly one of the most spectacular spider species in the world.
However, their enormous size strikes fear and horror in the heart of people. Below, we will explore the basic characteristics and behavior of the huntsman spiders and why we fear them.
The Fear of Spiders
The clock spider
Spiders are a universally feared animal species, even though only a few pose any real threat to humans. Arachnophobia, the fear of spiders or anything associated with them, is one of the most common phobias globally as it affects as much as 6 percent of the total global population. A person who has arachnophobia may cry, experience breathing problems, and even undergo a panic attack at the sight of a spider.
Over the years, psychologists have come up with various theories on why people might be afraid of spiders. These theories range from spider trauma, a genetic factor, to some sort of preconditioning that makes us fear spiders from the get going.
The Huntsman Spiders
The huntsman spiders are members of the family (taxonomic classification) Sparassidae, of which about 1363 species (over 88 genera) have been recognized so far. These spiders are usually large and known for their quickness. A typical huntsman spider can move up to one-meter distance in one second.
But the one characteristic that stands out the most is that huntsman spiders don’t build webs to catch prey. Instead, they hunt for food, which includes insects, other spiders, and small lizards. In households, the huntsman spiders often act as natural pest controllers.
A female Heteropoda venatoria (cave huntsman spider) | Wikimedia Commons
Geographically, these spiders are found in tropical and warm temperate regions of the world, including most of the United States, Europe, and Asia (excluding the Arabian Peninsula). However, many species have established themselves in colder climates. One example of such species is Heteropoda venatoria (cane huntsman), who are introduced to subtropical regions from the tropics.
Huntsman spiders are typically found under rocks, inside wall crevices, and loose barks on trees, from where they ambush their prey. These spiders often make their way into households, vehicles, and other enclosed spaces as they are not adapt to cold temperatures.
Their Size and Appearance
The huntsman spiders are among the largest spiders in the world by leg span. The body of most huntsman spiders, without considering the size of their legs, measure between 1.8 cm to 2.5 cm in length. With a leg span of as much as 12.7 cm, most huntsman spiders extend up to 15 centimeters in diameter.
However, the longest leg span among members of the family Sparassidae is attributed to Heteropoda maxima (up to 30 cm), commonly known as the giant huntsman spider. They are native to Laos, Southeast Asia.
The underside of Palystes superciliosus | Image Courtesy: Jon Richfield/Wikimedia Commons
Due to their size, huntsman spiders are often misidentified as tarantulas by untrained eyes. The most effective way to distinguish a huntsman spider is by the structure of its legs, which are twisted forward identical to that of a crab. Furthermore, these spiders can also move side-to-side like crabs. In fact, in many world regions, the huntsman spiders are known as giant crab spiders.
Most huntsman species have a flattened appearance, which allows them to slide inside narrow gaps and crevices more easily. Apart from the bare legs, their entire body is covered with fur. The top or overside of huntsman spiders is either brownish or greyish, while a small portion of their underside features a combination of black and white colors. Many species have faint red spots near their mouths and black bands on legs.
Huntsman spiders have eight eyes in two forward-facing rows of four. While their vision is not a powerful as that of jumping spiders (Salticidae), it is effective enough to catch sight of large animals and humans from quite a distance.
A closeup of a jumping spider | Image Courtesy: JJ Harrison
Out of more than thirteen hundred species, one of the most well-known huntsman spiders is the brown huntsman spider, which includes an entire genus (Heteropoda) and about 197 different species. They are large, hairy, and, as the name suggests, brown. The giant huntsman spider species (Heteropoda maxima) belongs to this genera.
Another noted species in Heteropoda genus is the cane spider (Heteropoda venatoria). While this species is native to tropical regions of the world, it has found its way to many subtropical areas.
Huntsman Spiders Are Not Dangerous To Humans
Despite their large and scary appearance, huntsman spiders do not pose any serious danger to humans. Like many spider species (from other families and genera), Sparassidae produces venom they use to paralyze the prey. Almost all huntsman spiders’ venom contains toxin HPTX2, a peptide toxin that blocks the Kv4.2 potassium channel.
Huntsman spiders do bite humans, which can have adverse health effects. Bites involving the huntsman spiders, particularly certain species found in Asia and Australia, are reported throughout the year. Their bites can instigate localized pain and swelling.
More severe effects include irregular heartbeats and some neurological effects caused by toxins when a person is subjected to repeated bites. But this is it. Most huntsman spider bites don’t require any medical treatment and pose no significant or long term health effects.
Moreover, Sparassidae species are usually considered non-aggressive and are likely to run away instead of attacking larger animals. Researchers believe that most huntsman attacks against humans are caused by the family’s female population as they become hostile against any perceived threat to their infants and egg sacs.
The misconception that all large spiders are dangerous and frightening is caused by their false portrayal in popular media and urban legends. Another widespread misbelief is that huntsman spiders are the same as tarantulas. However, they are not related (though both belong to the order Araneae).
Some Interesting Facts About Clock Spiders
1. Apart from giant crab spiders, Sparassidae are known by other names as well. It includes wood spiders, rain or lizard-eating spiders, cane spiders, and wheel spiders.
2. A few huntsman spider species have unorthodox movement ability. For instance, Carparachne aureoflava, also known as wheel spider, can move in cartwheeling motion to shrug off parasitic wasps from its back (in most cases). While another huntsman species, Cebrennus rechenbergi, uses an identical handspring motion.
3. A female huntsman spider (genus Isopeda) can lay up to 200 eggs at once. The lifespan of most huntsman species is two years or more.
Australian huntsman spider with egg sac hatching | Wikimedia Commons
4. The male population of Heteropoda venatoria is known to produce substrate-borne sounds (vibrations carried by a medium or surface) as part of their mating behavior to attract nearby females. Humans can sometimes hear this sound as a faint ‘buzz’ in a quiet environment.