8 Superlative Spiders

An arachnid pageant

Photo: Professional Fine Art/Shutterstock

Autumn brings changing leaves, Halloween ghouls and a burst of activity from one member of the natural world that leaves many people cringing: spiders.

Many people don't bother to learn more about these fascinating creatures because, well, they're terrified of them.

But we felt it was appropriate during this season of heightened spider fear to give arachnids a little PR boost with a pageant — we won't go so far to call it a beauty pageant — that recognizes some of the most remarkable spiders on Earth. We've picked a spider to represent each of eight different categories — from best legs to most industrious. And, yes, some of these superlative spiders are rather large and all are venomous, so if this is a sensitive topic, please proceed with caution.

Best hair

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Chilean rose tarantula (Grammostola rosea)

The particularly furry and docile species known as the Chilean rose tarantula is the most popular type of tarantula to keep as a pet. Native to the desert regions of Chile, Bolivia and Argentina, this cricket-munching hairball harnesses barbed hair on its abdomen — urticating bristles, to be exact — as a defense mechanism. When under threat, the Chilean rose tarantula rubs the tiny pointed bristles off with its hind legs and "kicks" it in the direction of its intended target, a target that has the distinct misfortune of being assaulted by an irritating cloud of hair-harpoons. While the spider may suffer from a temporary bald spot after employing its weapon, it's nothing like the excruciating pain experienced by whatever critter — or human — comes in contact with them.

Best dental work

Photo: Heftrdevistating/Wikimedia Commons

Goliath birdeater (Theraphosa blondi)

Like the Chilean rose tarantula and other hairy New World members of the Theraphosidae family, the Goliath birdeater tarantula also employs "flying attack hair" when threatened. But as one of the biggest spiders in existence, the Goaliath birdeater also boasts a remarkable set of fangs. Measuring up to 1.5 inches long, it uses these fangs as a means of defense, often making a hissing noise by rubbing together its back legs before doing so. Mercifully for humans, the venom released by this super-aggressive critter is relatively mild. Residing within the swamps and marshes of South American rainforests, the Goalith birdeater's diet does not normally consist of warm-blooded feathered vertebrates as its name would suggest; these massive arachnids prefer to munch on insects and the occasional rodent, snake or lizard (although early 20th century explorers reputedly witnessed one munching on a scrumptious hummingbird).

Best legs

Photo: Petra & Wilfried/Wikimedia Commons

Giant huntsman spider (Heteropoda maxima)

The Goliath birdeater may be the world's largest spider by mass, but the giant huntsman spider is the world's largest when measured by leg-span: an adult male's leg-span can measure up to a staggering 10-12 inches long. This eight-eyed cave-dweller lives (thankfully) far, far away in Laos, but other fast-moving members of the family Sparassidae, which sport crab-like walking appendages, live in numerous parts of the world. And for those of you who voted for the daddy longlegs, we've got news for you: the insect commonly ID'd as a daddy longlegs is not, in fact, a spider at all but an order of distant arthropod relatives known as harvestmen (Opiliones). However, to further confuse things, cellar spiders (Pholcus phalangioides) are also frequently referred to as daddy longlegs as well.

Most athletic

Photo: Nikita/Flickr

Bold jumping spider (Phidippus audax)

The jumping spider family (Salticidae) is a massive group composed of around 5,000 individual species of agile hunters that excel at leaping from branch to branch, tree to tree — or web to unsuspecting victim's hair. And with their bulging (anterior median) eyes and curious expressions, some types of jumping spiders are — dare we say? — kind of cute. One of our favorites is the bold jumping spider, also known as the daring jumping spider, not only because it is a fearless and super-athletic arachnid found throughout most of North America, but because of its most distinctive flair: bright, beaming eyes and iridescent green mouthparts set against a hairy black body with white stripes and spots. Bold jumping spiders are capable of leaping anywhere from 10 to 50 times their body length thanks to hind legs that function like springboards. Though they prefer to actively stalk their prey by foot, these arachnids weave webs strictly for egg-laying or hiding purposes.

Best-dressed

Photo: Jürgen Otto/Wikimedia Commons

Peacock spider (Maratus volans)

While we gave props to the bold jumping spider for its remarkable leaping abilities, another species of jumping spider wins top honors in the best-dressed (and sexy moves) department: the peacock spider. It's actually the male peacock spider that's dramatically gussied up with vividly colored, tail-like flaps that extend from his abdomen. Naturally, this burst of brilliant color is employed by the male when trying to impress an eligible lady-spider — he shakes his dazzling flaps, vibrates his abdomen, waves his legs and does a little shimmy from side to side. Entomologist Jürgen Otto explains what drew him to study this rare (they only live in parts of southern Australia) and tiny (most are around an eighth of an inch long) booty-shaking flash dancer: "I realize that they are colorful, but to me, that is not the most important aspect, since I am partially colorblind. It is the fact that they perform some complex rituals on a scale at which it appears almost surreal, to the point where it is hard to believe."

Most likely to succeed

Photo: Pavel Kirillov/Flickr

Brazilian wandering spider (Phoneutria nigriventer)

Receiving a bite from the highly aggressive Brazilian wandering spider, also known as the banana spider, will result in ER-worthy inflammation and paralysis and, if not treated properly, death. And, oh yeah, a most noticeable symptom for males who endure a Brazilian wandering spider bite is a wildly uncomfortable erection lasting four hours or more. Yessiree, the venom of the Brazilian wandering spider, widely regarded to be the deadliest and most venomous spider on Earth, contains Tx2-6. This toxin is known to stimulate priapism (that aforementioned painful and persistent erection), a disorder that can lead to impotence and permanent damage. But thanks to modern science, the deadly venom of meandering Brazilian wandering spiders may one day serve as a marital aid — nature's Viagra? — as researchers study its potential blood-boosting usefulness in erectile dysfunction treatments.

Best camouflage

Photo: Jean and Fred/Flickr

Bird dropping spider (Celaenia excavata)

While numerous types of spiders (long-spinnered bark spiders, six-eyed sand spiders and goldenrod crab spiders) are able to ingeniously blend into their natural surroundings, you gotta hand it to Celaenia excavata for taking the camouflage concept up a notch: this beneficial moth-munching spider has evolved to resemble a big heaping mass of bird dung. Found in gardens and orchards across (where else but) Australia, its guise enables it to remain hidden from its most formidable predator: birds. Because really, what self-respecting bird would want to dine on its own poo? The female bird dropping spider also produces some gnarly-looking egg sacks that resemble the world’s most unappetizing cluster of grapes.

Most industrious

Photo: Evaldo Resende [CC by 4.0]/Wikimedia Commons

Golden silk orb-weaver (Nephila clavipes)

What she lacks in particularly nightmarish looks or excessive hairiness, the golden silk orb-weaver makes up for in industrious domestic activities. (Still, you wouldn't want to wake up to one sitting next to you on your pillow.) One of the oldest known surviving genus of spiders, Nephila are renowned for their large and intricate wheel-shaped orb webs and their ability to trap all sorts of delicious snacks in the semi-permanent silken structures that can span as much as 6 feet wide. The incredibly strong — the silk is stronger than steel — and sticky webs posses a distinct golden sheen and are robust enough to snare non-arthropods such as bats, small birds and even snakes. For some male golden orb-weavers, treating their mate to a relaxing back massage when getting busy can go a long way — because when a female isn't calm, she will often make a meal of the male by devouring him immediately or wrapping him up for a late-night snack.