Tarantulas: What to Know

Medically Reviewed by Jabeen Begum, MD on January 20, 2023
4 min read

Tarantulas are one of the most well-known types of spiders. Some people think they’re creepy — there’s a reason fake tarantulas are sold at Halloween — while others like them and keep them as pets. Regardless of what side you fall on, you likely don’t want to see an unexpected tarantula in your home.

Tarantulas are large, hairy spiders from the family Theraphosidae. While they’re big and can look intimidating, most of them won’t harm you.

What do tarantulas look like? There are hundreds of species of tarantula, but they generally share features such as:

  • Bodies averaging 5 inches long, and legspan ranging from 4.5 to 11 inches
  • Weight ranging from 0.9 ounces to 6 ounces
  • Two body segments, the cephalothorax with the head and most legs, and the abdomen
  • Eight legs covered in hair
  • Fangs with venom

Some tarantulas have urticating hairs on their legs. These hairs are covered in barbs, and the tarantula can flick them at predators as a form of self-defense.

Tarantulas can come in a range of colors. Some tarantulas are basic shades of brown and black, but others are vibrant shades of blue, green, or orange.

Tarantula life cycle. Unlike many species of spider, tarantulas don’t spin webs to catch prey. Instead, males usually spin their webs to attract females. In some species, the male will deposit semen onto the web, which the female will use to make a cocoon for her eggs. Some species do a courtship dance before mating, which inspired the tarantella dance style.

Female tarantulas can lay anywhere from 75 to 1,000 eggs at a time. They guard their eggs until they hatch, which typically takes six to nine weeks depending on the species. 

A few weeks after the baby spiders are born, they go off on their own. As tarantulas grow, they molt, or shed their old exoskeleton. To do this, they have to expand and contract their bodies to push off the old exoskeleton.

Male tarantulas die a few months after mating and have a typical lifespan of five to seven years. Females live much longer, sometimes up to 25 years in captivity. 

What do tarantulas eat? Tarantulas are nocturnal and typically hunt at night. They mainly eat insects, but some species have also been known to eat small birds, frogs, lizards, snakes, and mammals. They grab their prey and bite it, injecting it with venom to immobilize them. They also inject their prey with digestive enzymes, allowing them to drink their meal.

There are 1,010 species of tarantula that have been identified across the world so far. Over 50 of those are in North America.

Some of the more common tarantulas in the U.S. include two species nicknamed the “desert tarantula” (Aphonopelma chalcodes and Aphonopelma iodius) and the Texas brown tarantula (Aphonopelma hentzi). 

The largest tarantula in the world is the Goliath bird-eating spider (Theraphosa blondi). It lives in South America and rubs its legs together to make a hissing noise.

Tarantulas live on all continents except Antarctica. In the U.S., tarantulas are mostly found in southwestern states but can range as far north as Utah. They prefer warm climates, so they’ll usually live in deserts, rainforests, and scrubland.

In North America, all species of tarantula live in the ground. They dig burrows, lining them with webbing to keep dirt and water from getting in. For this reason, they generally prefer dry or well-drained soil. Some species may also live in logs or other rocks. In other areas of the world, some species make their homes in places like:

  • Caves
  • Cliffs
  • Crops, such as bananas and pineapples
  • Trees

Tarantulas generally do not enter homes, though they may slip inside by accident.

Tarantulas have venom, but they don’t like to use it on humans. Their first line of defense is to run and hide. They bite when they feel threatened, not to drink blood.

Some tarantulas may “dry bite,” that is, they bite without releasing their poison. If a spider does decide to use venom, the health risk depends on the species. Spiders native to the U.S. do not have venom that is toxic to humans, though the bite still causes pain similar to a bee sting.

Tarantulas that are more toxic may deliver bites that cause fever, nausea, and vomiting. Typically, these bites only cause severe symptoms if you’re allergic.

A greater health risk to humans is the urticating hairs that some tarantulas have. Contact with these hairs may cause itching, pain, redness, and swelling that lasts for weeks. The hairs can be very dangerous if they get into your eye.

Before a tarantula bites or flicks its hairs, it will rear up on its back legs and expose its fangs as a warning.

Tarantula bites and the stings from their hairs need to be treated differently. In the case of a tarantula bite, wash the area thoroughly with soap and water. Apply a cold compress to help with pain and swelling and take an over-the-counter pain reliever as needed.

For hairs, it’s important to remove as many of the hairs as possible. Use sticky tape to pull them out. To reduce inflammation and itching, over-the-counter topical corticosteroids, such as hydrocortisone cream, and antihistamines, like diphenhydramine, are usually sufficient.

If you discover a tarantula in your home, try using a spider catcher tool to safely remove it. In cases where you find multiple, contact a local pest control specialist.