To some, the differences and similarities between spiders and tarantulas are of little consequence. The only bit of information they cling to is the fear they feel when they see either. But as an avid tarantula lover and owner of four, I needed to know more.
So, what is the difference between a spider and a tarantula? All tarantulas are spiders, but not all spiders are tarantulas. Tarantulas are usually large, always covered in hairs, and they are hunters that pounce on their prey, unlike spiders that spin webs.
Being the largest spider in the world, the Goliath birdeater tarantula is the leader of the family and is only beaten for the record by the giant Huntsman spider due to its elongated legs.
If I imagine a fight between these two colossal spiders, my money would be on the Goliath birdeater as it has a weight advantage, weighing in at 170g.
Another fascinating defense mechanism tarantulas have is flicking the sharp hairs on their abdomen or legs at their enemy. Ouch! If you want to know more about the fascinating characteristics of tarantulas and true spiders, read on.
Seven Differences between True Spiders and Tarantulas
Before we have a look at the differences between spiders and tarantulas, let’s first see what they have in common.
Below is a list of the similarities between mygalomorphs – an infraorder of spiders to which tarantulas belong – and araneomorphae (true spiders).
- Eight legs
- Venom glands (although not all)
- Silk spinning
- Two body regions
- Male palpi
1. Tarantulas are older
Tarantulas are old-timer arachnids and have been around longer than true spiders.
Tarantulas are larger than most other spiders. The average leg span, measured from the front leg to the rear left leg, is between 4.5 to 11 inches. They can weigh anything from 28.3 to 85 grams.
3. Temperature needs
True spiders can tolerate colder temperatures than tarantulas, which prefer warmer climates. Since they contain a type of antifreeze in their bodies, true spiders can withstand temperatures of 41° Fahrenheit; they go dormant until the weather warms up again.
- Debunking a Myth: Spiders do not go indoors when it gets cold; they are perfectly fine to stay outside all year round.
4. Their hair and what they use it for
Certain spiders will have hair, but tarantulas are always hairy. Some of these hairs, also called setae, have evolved to be used to defend themselves.
Termed urticating hairs, tarantulas kick these ‘barbed’ hairs off of their abdomen or legs, irritating the victim, and in some instances, even killing small animals.
True spiders don’t possess this defense mechanism, which is okay, they are petrifying enough without it for most people, don’t you agree?
5. Hunting style
Tarantulas don’t spin a web to catch their prey as true spiders do, but they do spin silk. Where other spiders have six spinnerets, tarantulas only have two, and one is barely visible.
But to make up for having less of these silk-exuding tubes, some tarantulas have silk-producing glands in their feet.
Tarantulas will use silk to line the walls of their burrows, spin a ‘door’ to the burrow to keep predators out or use it as a tripwire that will either alert them to unwanted visitors or that dinner has arrived.
- Interesting fact: Web-building spiders have very poor eyesight.
6. Claws and grip
Tarantulas and true spiders have two claws at the tip of each leg – except in the case of Orb Weaver members, they have three and use one as a type of thumb.
Spiders use these claws to grip surfaces and to climb their web – but tarantulas have an advantage; they have densely hairy feet that give them extra grip, something they badly need considering their size.
If you look at a tarantula foot under an electron microscope, you will see a footpad with bristles covered in hundreds of thousands of small hairs called setules.
If that is not cool enough, to scale up slippery surfaces, tarantulas will retract their claws, just like a cat, and use only these hairy feet to ascent.
7. Their fangs are different
Tarantulas have strong jaws and fangs. Their fangs are parallel and face downward – think of Dracula – meaning they can only bite top down. When not in use, tarantulas tuck their fangs under their bodies.
True spiders, on the other hand, have fangs that face each other and will swing to the side and open up when they are ready to strike. A true spider’s fangs are much more flexible.
Spiders only have one book lung; tarantulas have two lungs.
9. Some spiders are vegan?!
Tarantulas are meat-eaters through and through, but some spiders prefer a plant-based diet. Shocking, I know.
10. Venom and deadliness
While most true spiders are harmless, some do have deadly bites. There are 30 spiders of the non-tarantula variety that are deadly to humans. This includes the notorious Australia’s Funnel Web spider, Brazilian Wandering spider, Widow spider, and Brown Recluse spider.
Their venom is a cocktail of peptides, proteins, sugars, and other substances and maybe a neurotoxic or cytotoxic.
A spider bite(arachnidism) that is neurotoxic affects the nervous system of prey animals and humans; cytotoxin is used to liquefy their meals, but in humans, it may cause blisters and lesions.
Lucky for us, we’re not living in the old ages anymore, and antivenin and effective medical care has reduced the number of deaths from spider bites significantly.
- Interesting fact: Neurotoxic venom kills quicker than cytotoxic venom. Black Widows and Redback Spiders are known for neurotoxic venom, and Recluse spiders have necrotizing cytotoxic venom.
Tarantulas are harmless when it comes to venom; the bite of a new world tarantula has been said to be similar to a bee sting. Old world tarantulas, however, do pack more punch, and their bites can involve swelling, pain, and even nausea.
Although there aren’t a lot of studies on the potency of tarantula venom, research is currently being done on its pharmaceutical use to treat pain and epilepsy.
- Interesting fact: Mature male tarantulas may have more potent venom since they have to travel far and wide to find females and will inevitably face large predators along the way.
Of course, it doesn’t matter how mild a true spider or tarantula’s venom is, there is always the chance of an infection or allergic reaction, so best to avoid it altogether!
11. Eyes and vision
True spiders usually have eight eyes, some can have six or less, and others may be completely blind! Tarantulas always have eight eyes, and studies have shown that arboreal tarantulas have better vision than terrestrial or fossorial tarantulas.
However, what we know about their vision is limited to light, shadows, and motion.
Of all spiders, jumping spiders have remarkable vision and are said to be able to see the craters on the moon? Say what? How is that even possible?
Well, the two large eyes in the center of their forehead pick up details and color, and thanks to specific filters, these spiders can see more colors than we can.
The second pair of eyes perceive motion, and this indicates to the spider where it should look, and the function of the third pair is yet unknown!
- Fun fact: Jumping spiders can chase a laser like cats.
12. The lifespan of Tarantulas vs The lifespan or True Spiders
If cared for properly, pet tarantulas will easily outlive your cat or dog. Female tarantulas have a longer lifespan, with some growing to be 30 years old. Sadly, most males only live for seven years.
Even though tarantulas have longer lives compared to true spiders, the oldest spider in the world was not a tarantula but a female Armored Trapdoor spider. She was 43 years old when she died in 2016. (Source)
This, however, was a particular case as spiders other than tarantulas aren’t usually kept as pets, leaving them to fend for themselves in nature and face predators of various sizes.
In general, the life expectancy of most true spiders is between two and three years, but some true spiders, like the Australian Funnel Web spider, for example, can live up to 25 years.
Females tend to live longer because they don’t have to travel around to find a mate, lessening their encounters with predators.
It’s a hard life if you’re a male spider; you search far and wide for your spidermate, face threatening situations, and after seeing your companion, there’s a high possibility you will get cannibalized. Shame man.
Best Tarantulas to Keep as Pets
With over more than 800 tarantula species, you’re spoilt for choice. But before you get yourself the most aggressive tarantula possible, for example, the ill-tempered Cobalt Blue, start with the more docile ground dwellers and burrowers mentioned below.
- Mexican Red Knee
- Chilean Rose
- Costa Rican Zebra
- Mexican Redleg
- Honduran Curly Hair
- Pink Zebra Beauty
- Pink Toe
- Brazilian Black
- Mexican Red Rump
- Desert Blonde
Best True Spiders to Keep as Pets
If you’re not a fan of owning a big hairy tarantula but still want a spider as a pet, you’re in for a journey of trial and error.
Although there are some basic care needs to keep spiders alive, there are subtle differences in the requirements that must be met to keep your spider happy and not just breathing.
And considering that owning spiders other than tarantulas are not common, there isn’t a lot of information on keeping such pets.
That being said, the two most common true spiders that are kept as pets are wolf spiders and jumping spiders.
Now, after reading just how remarkable jumping spiders are, I am keen to get one myself. But good grief, caring for such a small creature, must be even more nerve-wracking than looking after a Goliath birdeater.
What if Spinderella escapes from her tiniest of enclosures, I would be heartbroken!
When it comes to wolf spiders, you might be confused in thinking that this is a type of tarantula, and yes, some of the species do look a lot like tarantulas.
However, they’re from the araneomorphae infraorder, making them true spiders.
Wolf spiders are very unassuming; it will take a lot, and I mean really threatening a wolf spider for them to strike.
That makes them the ideal true spider pet, and since they are much bigger than the tiny jumping spider, you’ll have an easier time enjoying your pet, as you will actually be able to see it!