It’s all about the genitals. Don’t clap your hands over them, I didn’t mean yours. And anyway, if you’re a chap, that wouldn’t always work. And not for the reason you think.
As you can probably guess from the name, these spiders don’t spin webs and instead hunt by toddling across the forest floor at night. There are about 440 different species in the tropics worldwide, and they live for about 2 years. Probably less if it’s a small male hoping to impress a large female with his moves, and that’s after battling all the other boys for her hand (leg(s)?). Even then it’s not a sure thing, but if she likes him, she can store his sperm for later and eventually lay up to 1,000 eggs in a silk sac. Speaking of which, if you live in the UK you may have heard horror stories about stowaways in banana crates, and it’s a bit of a toss-up as to how dangerous that can be.
The genera Cupiennius and Phoneutria, from Central and South America respectively, are known for their international travel club, and even experts have a hard time telling these “banana spiders” apart. Unless you can examine their private parts – which is always recommended for a creature you’ve cornered – they look identical, and while Cupiennius is at most bee-sting irritating, Phoneutria means “murderess” in Greek.
When threatened it will raise its front four legs, so if it looks like it’s double high-fiving you or suddenly riding an invisible rollercoaster, run. Phoneutria fera is considered the most toxic, but while its venom could kill you in an hour, like with our friend the inland taipan, there’s enough anti-venom on hand that deaths are very rare. If you’re a bug-liking badass, you can see an image of one here.
What’s more, it’s a bit lazier in injecting venom, because it’s saving it for its actual prey of insects, mice and other small mammals. A study in 2000, involving 422 Brazilian victims over 13 years, found that 90% of bites were only mildly venomous, and only 0.5% had a very high toxicity. Effects can include severe pain, swelling, difficulty breathing, hypothermia and convulsions, and for the gents, you can be “standing painfully” for up to four hours. On the other hand, the venom is being studied as a treatment for erectile dysfunction, so again, it’s all about the genitals.
Fortunately for the rest of the world, Brazil tends to consume rather than export its own bananas (stop it), so if shipped from Central America, the most likely passengers would be the more harmless Cupiennius, and if from western South America, Phoneutria bolivensis. The latter’s bite is toxic but not deadly, although 24 hours of pain is of small comfort. Even less so are the consequences of misidentifying the spider: if it’s the venomous one it could be life-threatening, but vigorously treating a non-venomous bite can be just as dangerous. Is it enough to put you off bananas? I’ll let you answer that, but just avoid the low-hanging fruit.
Latin: Ctenidae (family)
What? Large, usually ground-dwelling, tropical/sub-tropical spiders
Where? In foliage or on the ground in tropical and sub-tropical regions
How big? They have a leg span of up to 15 cm / 6 ” and body length of 5 cm / 2 “.
Endangered? Only one species from the Seychelles, Apolania segmentata, due to a small range and an invasion of cinnamon trees.
Probable motto: I already have to walk to get my food, don’t make me waste my venom on you.
ARGH get those things away from me. Why on earth would you want to help them?
Hey, every animal has its place in the eco-system. And even if you’re not a fan, their jungle home is vitally important:
Just to prove I’m not fibbing
“Apolania segmentata“. No date. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. No date. “Wandering spider“. Britannica.com.
Eleftheriou-Smith, Loulla Mae, and Lizzie Dearden. 2016. “Brazilian wandering spider: how deadly are the spiders allegedly found on Asda bananas?” The Independent.
Szalay, Jessie. 2014. “Brazilian wandering spiders: bites & other facts“. LiveScience.com.
Vetter, Richard S., and Hillebrecht, Stefan. 2008. “Distinguishing two often-misidentified genera (Cupiennius, Phoneutria) (Araneae: Ctenidae) of large spiders found in Central and South American shipments“. American Entomologist, 54(2):88-93.