Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
SAF Archives  search ask the scientists in the classroom cool science
scientists from previous shows
cool careers in science
ask the scientists

Photo of Rick West Rick West as seen on Spiders!: Amazon Tales

Click on Rick's photo to read a brief bio.

q Why do tarantulas scrape off hairs from their bodies? What's in the tiny hairs that irritates your skin? How do you protect yourself from these hairs when working with the spiders? (asked by many viewers)

A Not all tarantulas scrape hairs (setae) from their body. Most of the New World tarantula species have evolved specialized barbed or "urticating" hairs on the top of their abdomen. When these tarantulas are disturbed, they scrape their rear leg over their abdomen to dislodge the very small hairs into the air. Urticating hairs will penetrate skin and eyes and can cause a severe itching/burning sensation in humans. It is believed that most of the New World tarantulas evolved these hairs as a secondary defense from predators such as small mammals and birds. Unfortunately, these hairs do not protect the tarantula from being preyed upon by spider wasps, other spiders, toads, lizards, etc., which aren't bothered by the urticating hairs. While working in the field or on a film set, I sometimes wear gloves or try to handle tarantulas in such a manner so as to not disturb them too much. Additionally, I make sure I don't rub my eyes with my hands after handling tarantulas.

q How many species of tarantulas are there? Which is your favorite? Your least favorite? (asked by many viewers)

A There are an estimated 800 species of tarantula (Theraphosidae) found throughout most of the tropical, semi-tropical and desert regions of the world. Some of my favorite tarantulas are the very colourful and docile Brachypelma species, such as the "Mexican redknee tarantula," which range from Mexico to Panama. Fortunately, I have no "least favorite" tarantula...I find them all interesting.

q What type of tarantula makes the best pet? (asked by many viewers)

A None of them. I don't believe tarantulas make good pets, nor should they be taken from their natural environment to become pets. These are large spiders and cannot be equaled to the interaction and affection we get from a pet dog or cat.

q What type of classes would be good to take in high school if you are interested in spiders? Also, what are good ways to study spiders in your own neighborhood? Elisa

A If you're interested in studying spiders and their relatives in high school then the best classes to take are biology or invertebrate biology classes. To study spiders in your neighborhood, you could begin by asking your local book store if the have any field guides which include spiders; there are several good books on the market for all age groups. Try to identify and study the lives of the spiders in your area. Try to make a list of how many you find. If you have one in your area, visit the museum or nature center and ask questions...take spiders to the staff for identification. By learning more about the creatures around you may give you a better sense of why they might even find you "like" spiders!

q I enjoyed watching those spiders crawl all over you. Why have you never gotten bitten?(asked by many viewers)

A Over the years, through observing many tarantula species, I've learned which ones can and cannot be handled. Additionally, if a tarantula rears up on its hind legs and bares its fangs...I'm not going to try and pick it up!

q Can you suggest online resources to learn more about tarantulas, and also a good book about tarantulas?(asked by many viewers)


A: One good tarantula online resource is and a good book about tarantulas would be "Tarantulas and Other Arachnids" by Dr. Samuel D. Marshall, Barron's Educational Series, 1996.

q I am a little confused about the Tarantula species. Are they poisonous? Your program on television leads me to believe that they only bite. And that their bite is only a physical bite, not a poisonous bite. Am I correct in my assumption? Larry

A All tarantula species are venomous; however, I have found none to be fatally poisonous to humans in any medical literature. Regardless, tarantula spiders should be treated with respect for what they are and as "potentially" dangerous.

q I was really excited to see tarantulas on PBS! I was just flipping through the channels to see what's on, when I saw a large had to stop and watch! WOW, what a great program on spiders! I love tarantulas. I have 7 now and have been collecting them for years! The first tarantula I had was a Rose Hair. I bought her for ten dollars, and that was eight years ago. Since then I have slowly bought more and more! My favorite species is the Theraphosa blondi! My question is: Is this the world's largest, and is this species from Venezuela (like the one on the program)?Eric

A Theraphosa blondi is the world's largest spider AND tarantula at this time. The giant tarantula displayed on the "Spiders! " program was a close relative from S. Venezuela which is equally as large - Pseudotheraphosa apophysis Tinter, 1991.


Scientific American Frontiers
Fall 1990 to Spring 2000
Sponsored by GTE Corporation,
now a part of Verizon Communications Inc.