Piotr Naskrecki was walking in a rainforest at night in Guyana when he accidentally stumbled across the biggest spider in the world. Dubbed the Goliath “birdeater,” the giant tarantula is about the size of a puppy and is extremely good at staying hidden in the wild.
Naskrecki, an entomologist at Harvard University’s Museum of Zoology, turned on his flashlight and made the astonishing discovery. “When I turned on the light, I couldn’t quite understand what I was seeing,” he recalled, according to CBS News.
“I’ve been working in the tropics in South America for many, many years, and in the last 10 to 15 years, I only ran across the spider three times,” he said. Naskrecki captured the specimen and took it to a lab for a closer look, after which he brought it to the museum.
The colossal species of spider has a leg span of up to 30 inches, about the length of a child’s forearm, and a body about the size of a large fist, Live Science reported. And according to Guinness World Records, Goliath is the largest spider in the world. Naskrecki compared the Goliath birdeater to a puppy in terms of size.
The species of giant spider also has numerous other peculiar characteristics.
“Its feet have hardened tips and claws that produce a very distinct, clicking sound, not unlike that of a horse’s hooves hitting the ground,” Naskrecki explained.
He also noted that when he approached the colossal tarantula, it began rubbing its abdomen with its hind legs. Initially, he thought this was just some kind of “cute” behavior until he saw what the spider was actually doing: this was actually a defense mechanism.
Richard Gallon from the British Arachnological Society explained how this scratching motion unleashes a deterrent for potential predators. “These tiny irritant hairs waft in the air and settle on the mucus membranes—eyes, nose—of would-be attackers and discourage them,” he told BBC Earth.
The irritant hairs serve a double purpose for the Goliath birdeater; females also use them to cover their eggs and protect their young. And that’s a lot of babies to protect, as according to National Geographic, females can lay between 50 and 150 eggs at one time. The little ones stay close to the mother until fully matured, and that can take up to three years.
Despite its name, the arachnid’s main diet doesn’t primarily include birds. It feeds mostly on worms and insects, but also on larger prey, such as frogs or even small mammals. The name “birdeater” was given to it after an 18th-century engraving showing another type of spider eating a hummingbird, while its scientific name is Theraphosa blondi.
Unlike other arachnids, the Goliath uses its web-making capacity not to trap food but to construct its underground lair.
Thankfully, Goliaths are not lethal to humans; though getting bitten would surely be a very painful experience. Naskrecki described it “like driving a nail through your hand.”
According to National Geographic, females can live for up to 20 years, while their male counterparts have a much shorter lifespan of two to three years.
A rainforest native, the Goliath birdeater’s natural habitat is in northern South American rainforests of Brazil, Guyana, and Venezuela. Specimens can also be admired at the Smithsonian National Zoo‘s Amazonia exhibit, though it is currently closed due to COVID-19.