Pink-toe tarantula Avicularia avicularia, from here.

Belongs within: Avicularoidea.
Contains: Oligoxystre, Avicularia, Chilobrachys, Selenocosmia.

The Theraphosidae, tarantulas, are a pantropical group of sometimes very large mygalomorph spiders that inhabit silken burrows or retreats. In members of the South American subfamilies Theraphosinae and Aviculariinae, the abdomen bears urticating hairs that are used in defense (Jocqué & Dippenaar-Schoeman 2007). The Indo-Australian Selenocosmiinae possess stridulatory structures on the chelicerae and maxillae that allow them to make a hissing sound when threatened.

Tarantulas sans tarantella
Published 18 February 2008
Selenocosmia, an Australian tarantula, from here.

It’s interesting how different people perceive levels of risk. Someone once asked how I could be completely unafraid of spiders, but be extremely nervous around cars (I am—a friend of mine once banned me from riding in the passenger seat when she was driving, because the sight of my knuckles turning white as I gripped onto the handlebar would make her nervous). I asked him in return how I could possibly be otherwise—hardly anyone is ever seriously hurt by a spider, but cars kill large numbers of people on a regular basis. The point of that little anecdote, in case you were wondering, is to introduce a family of spiders that have provided stock horror film fodder for years, but are widely known to be fairly harmless—the Theraphosidae.

Theraphosidae are a family of large spiders found mostly in ex-Gondwanan landmasses – South America, Africa, India and Australia, as well as in south-east Asia. These are the spiders best known as bird-eating spiders or tarantulas, though the name “tarantula” originally applied to a member of a quite different family of spiders, the European wolf spider Lycosa tarantula. The photo just above (from Tarantulas from Uruguay*) of Theraphosa leblondi gives a good idea of the size some theraphosids reach. Theraphosidae include the largest living spiders—indeed, since the Carboniferous Megarachne was reidentified as an eurypterid, modern Theraphosidae include the largest spiders known to have existed ever.

*I rather enjoyed the Tarantulas from Uruguay page, but if you’re at work you might want to be forewarned that the page does play music at you.

Theraphosidae belong to the group of spiders known as mygalomorphs. Spiders can be divided into three major groups—liphistiomorphs, mygalomorphs and araneomorphs. Liphistiomorphs are a small group found in eastern Asia that represent the sister group of all other spiders, and can be distinguished from other spiders by their retaining an obviously segmented abdomen. The other two groups of spiders can most easily be distinguished by their chelicerae (fangs). Mygalomorphs retain the more primitive condition of having the fangs directed straight up and down, and so are only able to stab down with them. Araneomorphs, by far the larger and more diverse of the three groups, have the fangs directed towards each other and are able to pinch prey or attackers between the chelicerae (the Wikipedia page for Araneomorphae has a good pair of photos showing the difference). Mygalomorphs are mostly relatively large spiders (there are a few exceptions). They also tend to be far less sexually dimorphic than many araneomorphs, with relatively little difference between males and females.

While the bites of Theraphosidae are apparently not particularly notable as far as humans are concerned, of more concern for people handling tarantulas is the presence on the abdomen of many South American species of urticating hairs—specialised hairs with minute barbs that can break off and irritate the skin of any threatening predators. Members of the subfamily Theraphosinae can even propel the hairs directly at a threat by rubbing the legs against the abdomen. Members of two genera of theraphosids have also been recorded to incorporate shed urticating hairs into the silk of egg-sacs, which was demonstrated to increase the defense offered by the egg-sac against insect egg predators (Marshall & Uetz 1990).

The South American Avicularia metallica (image from here).

Many species of Theraphosidae are popular as pets, and females may live for up to thirty years in captivity (males, in contrast, do not survive long after mating). Unfortunately, while pet individuals of the more popular species such as the red-kneed tarantula Brachypelma smithi are generally captive-bred, a substantial market (in many places, such as Australia, a largely illegal market) exists in wild-caught specimens, especially of rare and unusual species. Many theraphosid species have very limited ranges, and are severely threatened by collection for the pet trade, and I have been informed that at least some Australian species have actually become extinct due to over-collection. This is especially tragic as a large proportion of the Australian theraphosid population remains undescribed, necessitating a race against time to recognise their diversity before the opportunity to protect it is lost forever.

Systematics of Theraphosidae

Characters (from Jocqué & Dippenaar-Schoeman 2007): Medium-sized to very large; eight eyes present in two rows; rastellum absent; labium and endites with numerous cuspules, anterior lobe on endite developed; legs with well-developed scopulae and iridescent claw tufts on leg tarsi and female palpal tarsi, leg tarsi with clavate trichobothria along their length, two or rarely three tarsal claws; four spinnerets present, distal segment of posterior spinnerets digitiform.

<==Theraphosidae [Theraphosoidae]
|--Thrigmopoeus Pocock 1899T72 [ThrigmopoeinaeJD-S07]
| |--T. insignis Pocock 1899T72
| `--T. truculentus Pocock 1899T72
| |--HarpactirellaJD-S07
| |--BrachionopusJD-S07
| `--Harpactira pulchripes Pocock 1901P01
|--Ischnocolinae [Ischnocoli]BFSJ08
| |--Sickius longibulbi Soares & Camargo 1948BFSJ08
| |--Ischnocolus Ausserer 1871T94
| | |--I. hirsutusB06
| | |--I. inermis Ausserer 1871 [incl. I. subarmatus Thorell 1891]T94
| | `--I. linteatus Simon 1891T72
| `--DryptopelmaS89
| |--Ornithoctonus Pocock 1892ZZ08
| |--Citharognathus Pocock 1895ZZ08
| | |--*C. hosei Pocock 1895ZZ08
| | `--C. tongmianensis Zhu, Li & Song 2002ZZ08
| `--Haplopelma Simon 1892ZZ08
| |--*H. doriae (Thorell 1890) [=Selenocosmia doriae]ZZ08
| |--H. hainanum (Liang et al. 1999) [=Selenocosmia hainana, Ornithoctonus hainana]ZZ08
| `--H. schmidti von Wirth 1991 [incl. Selenocosmia huwena Wang et al. 1993, H. huwenum, Ornithoctonus huwena]ZZ08
| |--Aviculariae [Eurypelmata]S89
| | |--AviculariaFNB08
| | |--Sericopelma Ausserer 1875S89, MF17
| | |--LasiocnemusS89
| | |--MygalarachneS89
| | |--SpharobothriaS89
| | |--Phryxotrichus [incl. Orthotrichus]S89
| | |--Tapinauchenius latipes Ausserer 1875S89
| | `--ScodraS89
| |--ChaetopelmataS89
| | |--Chaetorrhombus kochi Auss. 1871S89
| | |--Adranochelia Simon 1889S89
| | | `--*A. rufohirta Simon 1889S89
| | |--Chaetopelma longipes Auss. 1875S89
| | |--Stichoplastus Simon 1889S89
| | | `--*S. ravidus Simon 1889S89
| | `--Cyclosternum elegansS89, P-C06
| |--CrypsidromiS89
| | |--Harpaxibius Auss. 1871S89
| | | `--H. striatusS89
| | |--Ozopactus Simon 1889S89
| | | `--*O. ernsti Simon 1889S89
| | |--CyrtosternumS89
| | |--CallyntropusS89
| | `--CrypsidromusS89
| | |--C. familiaris Simon 1889S89
| | `--C. tetricus Simon 1889S89
| `--Poecilotheria Simon 1885K92 [incl. Scurria Koch 1850 non Gray 1847K92; PaecilotheriaeS89]
| |--*P. fasciata Latreille 1803S89, T72 [=Mygale fasciataK92]
| |--P. formosa Pocock 1899T72
| |--P. metallica Pocock 1899T72
| |--P. miranda Pocock 1900T72
| |--P. regalis Pocock 1895T72
| |--P. rufilata Pocock 1899T72
| |--P. striata Pocock 1895T72
| `--P. vittata Pocock 1895T72
|--Selenocosmiinae [Selenocosmiae]ZZ08
| |--Phlogiellus Pocock 1897ZZ08
| | `--P. subarmatus Thorell 1891T72
| |--Yamia Kishida 1920 [incl. Baccallbrapo Barrion & Litsinger 1995]ZZ08
| | |--*Y. watasei Kishida 1920ZZ08
| | `--Y. bundokalbo (Barrion & Litsinger 1995)JD-S07, ZZ08 [=Baccallbrapo bundokalboZZ08]
| |--ChilobrachysZZ08
| |--SelenocosmiaZZ08
| |--PhoneiusaS89
| |--PelinobiusS89
| |--LoxomphaliaS89
| `--HarpoxotheriaS89
`--Theraphosinae [Theraphosae]P-M02
| i. s.: Iracema cabocla Pérez-Miles 2000P-M02
| EupalaestrusP-M02
| |--E. campestratus (Simon 1891)MF17
| `--E. weijenberghi (Thorell 1894)P-M02
| Acanthoscurria Auss. 1871P-M02, T94
| |--A. cordubensis Thorell 1894T94
| |--A. geniculataBSL19
| |--A. gomesianaJ-GP07
| |--A. sternalis Pocock 1903P-M02
| `--A. suina Pocock 1903P-M02
| Theraphosa Thorell 1870JD-S07
| `--T. leblondi Latreille 1804MU90
| AcanthopalpusS89
|--Paraphysa Simon 1892FNB08
| `--P. scrofa Molina 1788FNB08
|--Euathlus Ausserer 1875FNB08
| |--E. vagans [=Eurypelma vagans]R95
| `--E. vulpinus (Karsch 1880)FNB08
`--+--Maraca Pérez-Miles 2006FNB08
| `--M. horrida (Schmidt 1994)FNB08
|--Kochiana Fukushima & Nagahama 2008FNB08
| `--*K. brunnipes (Koch 1842) (see below for synonymy)FNB08
|--Plesiopelma Pocock 1901FNB08
| |--P. insulare (Mello-Leitão 1923)FNB08
| `--P. longisternale (Schiapelli & Gerschman 1942)FNB08
|--Homoeomma Ausserer 1871FNB08
| |--H. montanum (Mello-Leitão 1923)FNB08
| |--H. stradlingi Pickard-Cambridge 1881FNB08
| `--H. uruguayense (Mello-Leitão 1946)P-M02
|--+--Melloleitaoina Gerschman & Schiapelli 1960FNB08
| | `--M. crassifemur Gerschman & Schiapelli 1960FNB08
| `--Tmesiphantes Simon 1892FNB08
| `--T. nubilus Simon 1892FNB08
|--Grammostola Simon 1892FNB08
| |--G. actaeon (Pocock 1903)FNB08
| |--G. iheringi (Keyserling 1891)FF08
| |--G. mollicoma (Ausserer 1875)P-M02
| |--G. pulchripes (Simon 1891)P-M02
| `--G. schulzei (Schmidt 1994)FF08
`--+--Cyriocosmus Simon 1903FNB08
| |--C. elegans Simon 1889FNB08
| |--C. nogueiranetoi Fukushima et al. 2005FNB08
| `--C. sellatus (Simon 1889)FNB08
`--+--Chromatopelma Schmidt 1995FNB08
| `--C. cyaneopubescens (Strand 1907)FNB08
`--Hapalopus Ausserer 1875FNB08
|--H. cervinus Simon 1889S89
|--H. elegans Simon 1889S89
|--H. flavohirtus Simon 1889S89
|--H. formosus Ausserer 1875FNB08
|--H. inflatus Simon 1889S89
|--H. modestus Simon 1889S89
|--H. pentaloris (Simon 1888)R95
`--H. sellatus Simon 1889S89

Theraphosidae incertae sedis:
|--A. chalcodes Chamberlin 1940BFSJ08
|--A. hageni (Strand 1906) [=Eurypelma hageni, Avicularia hageni]J98
|--A. hentzi (Girard 1852) [=Dugesiella hentzi]BFSJ08
`--A. reversumM72
Selenotypus plumipesB96
Hysterocrates [incl. Hysterocratella Strand 1906]J98
|--H. greeffi (Karsch 1884) [incl. H. maximus Strand 1906]J98
|--H. robustus Pocock 1899 [incl. H. robustus var. sulcifera Strand 1908, H. robustus sulcifer]J98
`--H. weileri Strand 1906 [=H. (*Hysterocratella) weileri]J98
Phormictopus Pocock 1901MF17
`--P. cancerides (Latreille 1806) [incl. P. cancerides tenuispina Strand 1906]J98
Phormingochilus fuchsi Strand 1906J98
Lyroscelus Cambridge 1901B06
`--*L. bonhotei Cambridge 1901B06
|--A. maculata Banks 1906B06
`--A. rufescensB06
Cyrtopholis Sim. 1892T94
`--C. antillana Thorell 1894T94
Lasiodora Koch 1850T94
`--L. weijenberghii Thorell 1894T94
Lycinus Thorell 1894T94
`--*L. longipes Thorell 1894T94
Brachypelma Simon 1891MF17
| i. s.: *B. emilia (White 1856) [=Mygale emilia]MF17
|--B. klaasi (Schmidt & Krause 1994)MF17, FF08
`--+--B. albiceps Pocock 1903MF17
`--+--B. hamorii Tesmoingt, Cleton & Verdez 1997MF17
`--+--B. smithi (Pickard-Cambridge 1897) (see below for synonymy)MF17
`--+--B. auratum Schmidt 1992MF17
|--B. baumgarteni Smith 1993MF17
`--B. boehmei Schmidt & Klaas 1993MF17
Catumiri uruguayense Guadanucci 2004BFSJ08
Encyocratella olivacea Strand 1907 [incl. Xenodendrophila gabrielli Gallon 2003]BFSJ08
|--*H. rectaS89
`--H. rondoni (Lucas & Bücherl 1972)G11
Guyruita cerrado Guadanucci et al. 2007G11
Cyclosterorum elegansV09
Ceratogyrus bechuanicus Purcell 1902JD-S07, WS02
`--‘Eurypelma’ rusticum Simon 1890R95
Psalmopoeus cambridgei Pocock 1895MF17
Bonnetina Vol 2000MF17
Ischnocolinopsis acutus Wunderlich 1988S93
Haploclastus Simon 1892T72
|--H. cervinus Simon 1892T72
`--H. nilgirinus Pocock 1889T72
Heterophrictus Pocock 1900T72
`--H. milleti Pocock 1900T72
Lyrognathus Pocock 1895T72
|--L. crotalus Pocock 1895T72
|--L. pugnax Pocock 1900T72
`--L. saltator Pocock 1900T72
Phlogiodes Pocock 1899T72
|--P. robustus Pocock 1899T72
`--P. validus Pocock 1899T72
Plesiophrictus Pocock 1899T72
|--P. collinus Pocock 1899T72
|--P. fabrei Simon 1892T72
|--P. millardi Pocock 1899T72
`--P. sericeus Pocock 1900T72

Brachypelma smithi (Pickard-Cambridge 1897) [=Eurypelma smithi, Euathlus smithi; incl. B. annitha Tesmoingt, Cleton & Verdez 1997]MF17

*Kochiana brunnipes (Koch 1842) [=Mygale brunnipes, Avicularia brunnipes, Eurypelma brunnipes, Mygale brunneipes]FNB08

*Type species of generic name indicated


[BSL19] Ballesteros, J. A., C. E. Santibáñez López, Ľ. Kováč, E. Gavish-Regev & P. P. Sharma. 2019. Ordered phylogenomic subsampling enables diagnosis of systematic errors in the placement of the enigmatic arachnid order Palpigradi. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London Series B—Biological Sciences 286: 20192426.

[B06] Banks, N. 1906. Arachnida from the Bahamas. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History 22: 185–189.

[BFSJ08] Bertani, R., C. S. Fukushima & P. I. da Silva Júnior. 2008. Mating behavior of Sickius longibulbi (Araneae, Theraphosidae, Ischnocolinae), a spider that lacks spermathecae. Journal of Arachnology 36 (2): 331–335.

[B96] Brunet, B. 1996. Spiderwatch: A Guide to Australian Spiders. Reed New Holland: Sydney.

[C01] Cambridge, F. O. P. 1901. On a collection of spiders from the Bahama Islands, made by J. L. Bonhote, Esq.; with characters of a new genus and species of Mygalomorphae. Annals and Magazine of Natural History, series 7, 7: 322–332.

[FF08] Ferretti, N. E., & A. A. Ferrero. 2008. Courtship and mating behavior of Grammostola schulzei (Schmidt 1994) (Araneae, Theraphosidae), a burrowing tarantula from Argentina. Journal of Arachnology 36 (2): 480–483.

[FNB08] Fukushima, C. S., R. H. Nagahama & R. Bertani. 2008. The identity of Mygale brunnipes C. L. Koch 1842 (Araneae, Theraphosidae), with a redescription of the species and the description of a new genus. Journal of Arachnology 36 (2): 402–410.

[G11] Guadanucci, J. P. L. 2011. Cladistic analysis and biogeography of the genus Oligoxystre Vellard 1924 (Araneae: Mygalomorphae: Theraphosidae). Journal of Arachnology 39 (2): 320–326.

[J98] Jäger, P. 1998. Das Typenmaterial der Spinnentiere (Arachnida: Acari, Amblypygi, Araneae, Opiliones, Pseudoscorpiones, Scorpiones, Uropygi) aus dem Museum Wiesbaden. Jahrbuecher des Nassauischen Vereins fuer Naturkunde 119: 81–91.

[J-GP07] Jiménez-Guri, E., H. Philippe, B. Okamura & P. W. H. Holland. 2007. Buddenbrockia is a cnidarian worm. Science 317: 116–118.

[JD-S07] Jocqué, R., & A. S. Dippenaar-Schoeman. 2007. Spider Families of the World. Royal Museum for Central Africa: Tervuren (Belgium).

[K92] Karsch, F. 1892. Arachniden von Ceylon und von Minikoy gesammelt von den Herren Doctoren P. und F. Sarasin. Berliner Entomologische Zeitschrift 36 (2): 267–310.

[M72] Marer, P. J. 1972. An eye deformity in a tarantula spider, Aphonopelma reversum (Araneae: Theraphosidae). Pan-Pacific Entomologist 48 (4): 221–225.

[MU90] Marshall, S. D., & G. W. Uetz. 1990. Incorporation of urticating hairs into silk: a novel defense mechanism in two Neotropical tarantulas (Araneae, Theraphosidae). Journal of Arachnology 18: 143–150.

[MF17] Mendoza, J., & O. Francke. 2017. Systematic revision of Brachypelma red-kneed tarantulas (Araneae: Theraphosidae), and the use of DNA barcodes to assist in the identification and conservation of CITES-listed species. Invertebrate Systematics 31: 157–179.

[P-M02] Pérez-Miles, F. 2002. The occurrence of abdominal urticating hairs during development in Theraphosinae (Araneae, Theraphosidae): phylogenetic implications. Journal of Arachnology 30 (2): 316–320.

[P-C06] Pickard-Cambridge, O. 1906. The wild fauna and flora of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Arachnida. Bulletin of Miscellaneous Information, Additional Series 5: 53–65.

[P01] Pocock, R. I. 1901. Descriptions of some new African Arachnida. Annals and Magazine of Natural History, series 7, 7: 284–288.

[R95] Raven, R. J. 1995. Coxal glands of spiders of the genera Bymainiella, Atrax and Namea (Hexathelidae, Dipluridae, Mygalomorphae). Records of the Western Australian Museum Supplement 52: 67–71.

[S93] Selden, P. A. 1993. Arthropoda (Aglaspidida, Pycnogonida and Chelicerata). In: Benton, M. J. (ed.) The Fossil Record 2 pp. 297–320. Chapman & Hall: London.

[S89] Simon, E. 1889. Voyage de M. E. Simon au Venezuela (Décembre 1887–Avril 1888). 4e mémoire. Arachnides. Annales de la Société Entomologique de France, 6e série 9: 169–220, pls 1–3.

[T94] Thorell, T. 1894. Förteckning öfver Arachnider från Java och närgränsande öar, insamlade af docenten D:r Carl Aurivillius; jemte beskrifingar å några sydasiatiska och sydamerikanska Spindlar. Bihang till K. Svenska Vetenskaps-Akademiens Handlingar 20 pt 4 (4): 1–63.

[T72] Tikader, B. K. 1972. Spider fauna of India: catalogue and bibliography. Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society 69 (1): 91–101.

[V09] Verdcourt, B. (ed.) 2009. Additions to the wild fauna and flora of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. XXVI. Miscellaneous records. Kew Bulletin 64 (1): 183–194.

[WS02] Whitmore, C., R. Slotov, T. E. Crouch & A. S. Dippenaar-Schoeman. 2002. Diversity of spiders (Araneae) in a savanna reserve, Northern Province, South Africa. Journal of Arachnology 30 (2): 344–356.

[ZZ08] Zhu, M.-S., & R. Zhang. 2008. Revision of the theraphosid spiders from China (Araneae: Mygalomorphae). Journal of Arachnology 36 (2): 425–447.


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