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Baboon spider! The name conjures up images of giant, hairy, eight legged creatures that could be the stuff of nightmares or cheesy Hollywood horror movies. But to the contrary, baboon spiders are placid, enigmatic animals that would rather keep to themselves than risk an encounter with human beings. And believe it or not, there are people who are fascinated by them…

© Taki Tsonis

Baboon spiders are African tarantulas. They belong to a primitive group of spiders called the mygalomorphs, which also includes trapdoor spiders and several other families. The group is characterised by possessing downward striking fangs and two pairs of lungs. The spiders that most of us are familiar with; rain spiders, wolf spiders, jumping spiders, and crab spiders belong to the more advanced group, the araneomorphs, which have opposing, pincer like fangs and one pair of book lungs.

The distinguishing characteristic of baboon spiders is their size. They can reach a leg-span of 12-15cm. Some other spiders, such as rain spiders or tropical wolf spiders, can rival this but baboon spiders are much stockier, heavier animals. It is not certain how they got their name, but it probably relates to their large, hairy appearance. The other theory is that the soft, sticky pads they have on their legs, which they use to climb smooth surfaces and grip prey, resembles the pads on a baboons’ fingers.

Baboon spiders will feed on anything they can kill. This includes a range of insects and other invertebrates, such as beetles, grasshoppers and crickets, millipedes, and even scorpions. They will also occasionally take small vertebrates like geckos or even rodents. They are the prey for a range of animals too, including birds, lizards and mongooses. They have developed several interesting defense mechanisms to protect themselves. When threatened they will raise up their front legs and body and strike aggressively at an antagonist. Many species possess special feathery structures on their mouthparts, called scopulae, which they rub together to produce a hissing sound. A hissing, striking spider can be a formidable sight.

© Taki Tsonis

In spite of their posturing though, baboon spiders are harmless to humans. They have long fangs, and they do possess large venom glands, but the bite is only painful; it causes no systemic symptoms. Furthermore, encounters with baboon spiders are rare. They prefer to live in natural habitats and rarely come into people’s gardens and houses.

So why a blog post about baboon spiders? The answer is simple, we want you, the reader, to help with baboon spider research and conservation. Last year the Animal Demography Unit launched SpiderMAP; a new Virtual Museum project with the goal of gathering photographic records of African spiders, and baboon spiders in particular. Knowing the geographic distribution range of a species is critical to understanding its conservation status, habitat requirements, and impacts by humans and climate change. But for many animals, and particularly invertebrates like insects and spiders, we often only have a vague idea of the species geographic range. The Virtual Museum allows members of the general public to contribute to discovering species geographic ranges by submitting photographs of animals they see in the wild, along with precise GPS coordinates of where the animal was seen, to an online database. These records accumulate over time and gradually build a picture of the geographic range. The Animal Demography Unit has had great success with initiatives in the past, producing authoritative publications on distributions for birds, reptiles, frogs, butterflies, and others. We hope to do the same for baboon spiders.

Baboon spiders are long lived animals, with females living for as long as 15 years in the wild. They are threatened by habitat destruction, and over-collecting for the pet trade. If you see a baboon spider in the wild, take a photo and submit it to the Virtual Museum. You can visit the Virtual Museum here or click here to learn more about baboon spiders.

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The Animal Demography Unit at the University of Cape Town believes that the best way to achieve biodiversity conservation is through enabling conservation decisions to be based on solid quantitative evidence. The mission of the Animal Demography Unit is to contribute to the understanding of animal populations, especially population dynamics, and thus provide input to their conservation. We achieve this through mass citizen science participation projects, long-term monitoring, innovative statistical modelling and population-level interpretation of results. Visit our Facebook page to keep up to date with all the latest news.

Africa Geographic Travel