Despite their fearsome reputation among the general public, tarantulas are actually quite shy and retiring creatures. Most would far prefer to run away and hide. Only when they are cornered and feel threatened will a tarantula potentially use a range of defensive mechanisms to protect itself.
Some examples of what tarantulas do when scared include:
- Running away
- Kicking off urticating hairs
- Producing a hissing noise
- Displaying a threat posture
- Attempting to bite
Let’s examine each of these possibilities in turn and in greater depth…
The most common response when a tarantula is scared is for it to run away.
A tarantula that has been spooked can run surprisingly quickly. However the tarantula soon calms down once it has found somewhere it feels safe. Tarantulas feel particularly safe in dark areas, so they may try to run into the hide in their cage, or under a piece of furniture if they are in your home.
Tarantulas generally have poor eyesight, so a spider that has been scared will often just run – almost without direction. They may run away from you, but they could accidentally run towards you. This is rarely a sign of aggression – more a symptom of bad eyesight.
Remember that not only are some tarantulas quite fast-moving, but some can also easily walk up glass, vertical walls and so on. Therefore while most ground-dwelling tarantulas are likely to just scuttle across your floor, a number of arboreal tarantulas may be able to dash up your walls, and some have even been reported running across ceilings.
For these reasons you should always take care when your tarantula is out of their cage. Move slowly and calmly, and be prepared to recapture any tarantula that makes a dash for freedom.
Kicking Off Urticating Hairs
Many New World tarantulas (those from the Americas) possess specialised hairs known as urticating hairs. They are most commonly present on the abdomen of the spider. If the tarantula feels threatened or scared they are able to kick off the hairs, creating a cloud of irritating hairs in the air.
In the wild, such a defense strategy can be enough to scare off many potential predators. A mammal such as a coati mundi, sniffing around a live tarantula trying to decide whether to eat it, will suddenly find it’s eyes and nose become unbearably uncomfortable, swollen and itchy. Most will turn and run at the experience. They’ll also likely give tarantulas a wide berth in the future.
In captivity some thought should be given to these hairs. Try to keep your face away from your tarantula, and take care when carrying out routine tank maintenance. A sure sign that a tarantula has been kicking off these urticating hairs is that it develops a bald patch on its abdomen.
Producing a Hissing Noise
A small number of tarantulas are able to produce a hissing noise. The process is properly known as “stridulating”. The hissing noise is produced by rubbing together specialised hairs. And rest assured – it’s a pretty scary and surprising experience!
While stridulation is not common in tarantulas, it is just one more way that a scared tarantula may react. The sudden, unexpected noise can be enough to scare off any potential predator, giving time for the tarantula to beat a hasty retreat.
Displaying a Threat Posture
If they feel scared tarantulas may adopt a characteristic pose often known as a “threat posture”. They stand up tall, raising the first two pairs of legs off the ground, holding them high in the air. In this posture the fangs are clearly visible and are now ready for action.
Some tarantulas are far more likely to adopt this posture than others. Typically Asian tarantulas are more likely to throw up a threat posture, in comparison to tarantulas from the Americas. Interestingly, it is these tarantulas which lack urticating hairs, so can be thought of as an alternative to the defense they offer.
A tarantula showing a threat posture is just one step away from trying to bite. If your pet tarantula shows such a posture it is generally best to back away calmly. Leave the tarantula to calm down before you go near it again. If you don’t then you could be at increased risk of receiving a bite.
Attempting to Bite
One final sign of a scared tarantula is that they may try to bite. This is generally a last resort, when the tarantula has tried other options on the above list without success. The tarantula may lunge at any noses or fingers that come near it, attempting to impale the perpetrator.
A defensive bite has nothing to do with eating. The tarantula will not attempt to consume you after biting – instead it just wants to scare you off so that you leave it alone.