If you go down to the woods (in Sri Lanka), you’re sure of a big surprise

Tracked down in the forests of northern Sri Lanka, a new species of venomous tarantula has been found. Related to the Goliath bird-eater, it is one of the world’s largest spiders with legs like the goddess Kali.

TarantulaThe tarantula has been named Poecilotheria rajaei, of the genus Poecilotheria, from the Greek poikilos meaning spotted and therion meaning wild beast. Officially described in a 2012 publication of the British Tarantula Society, it was discovered three years earlier by a villager who brought the body of a dead tarantula to the Sri Lankan Biodiversity Education and Research organization.

The size of a human face with legs spanning up to 8 inches (20 centimetres), the spider has vivid yellow and gray piping on the first and fourth legs with a pink abdominal band. It prefers living in old-growth trees, but due to deforestation in its war-torn habitat it has taken to old buildings. Its venom is not lethal to humans, but it can kill small rodents, birds, lizards and snakes.

One of the best known film scenes involving a tarantula comes from the first James Bond film, Dr. No (1962) starring Sean Connery. The film is based on the 1958 novel of the same name by Ian Fleming (in which the tarantula is actually a poisonous centipede). The scene plays on the fearsome reputation of the tarantula, whose bite is apparently no more deadly than a bee sting. It was never the spider’s intention to harm Bond, who was obviously too big to eat. The creature’s tiny mind was on how to get back to its burrow.

Tarantula venom subdues small prey – mainly insects – and it takes considerable effort to get a tarantula to bite a human being. We know this because Dr. William J. Baerg, Professor of Entomology at the University of Arkansas in the 1940s, spent a lot of time persuading tarantulas to bite him. The first attack was unbidden and occurred when he tried to position a Trinidadian tarantula (“extremely pugnacious in attitude,” he wrote) to bite a white rat. The spider went for his finger instead. Contrary to prevailing wisdom, Baerg learned that the sting, although irritating, was basically harmless.

More deliberate attempts followed involving 26 less pugnacious species of tarantula. Baerg had to prod them repeatedly to get them to bite. For comparison’s sake, he also allowed himself to be bitten by the smaller and less scary-looking black widow spider – and got very sick. Baerg retired from teaching in 1951 and published his classic book The Tarantula in 1958. Somehow the screenwriters for Dr. No, at work a few years later, missed this crucial evidence.

Mark Twain is often spuriously quoted, but he did write about tarantulas. Roughing It (1872) follows the travels of the young Samuel Clemens through the Wild West during 1861-67. In Chapter XXI he reached Carson City in Nevada Territory where surveyors are mapping the land for a prospective railroad. They catch and bring back tarantulas: “Some of these spiders could straddle over a common saucer with their hairy, muscular legs, and when their feelings were hurt, or their dignity offended, they were the wickedest looking desperadoes the animal world can furnish.”

In the middle of the night, the shelf on which the jars of tarantulas were being kept is knocked down. Only Mark Twain could describe the chaos that ensued. When a lantern is finally produced, fourteen scant-clad men are discovered roosting gingerly on trunks and beds “too earnestly distressed and too genuinely miserable to see any fun about it.”

The chapter ends, “Not one of those escaped tarantulas was ever seen again. There were ten or twelve of them. We took candles and hunted the place high and low for them, but with no success. Did we go back to bed then? We did nothing of the kind. Money could not have persuaded us to do it. We sat up the rest of the night playing cribbage and keeping a sharp lookout for the enemy.”

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Philip Lee

Writer and musician who tries to join up the dots.

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