For some, this story will be the most horrific thing they could read. A large, fast-moving, hairy arachnid that has decided the best way to hunt for prey is to team up with other large, fast-moving spiders. A spider that doesn't just abandon its young after birth but rather encourages them to stay around in a colony and move in a pack numbering in the hundreds. A spider that is among the most common, not only in Bendigo, but across southern Australia. That has successfully migrated to New Zealand. That’s more intelligent than average. That has starred in its own Hollywood blockbuster (Arachnophobia. Look it up.)
That unashamed horror story introduction does very little justice to the amazing creature that is the social huntsman spider, known to scientists and naturalists by its elegant Latin binomen Delena cancerides. Yes, it’s the largest spider in Victoria, and it has a tendency to appear indoors and move at a startling, erratic speed. But it’s also quite timid (in the scale of spider timidity) and a major consumer of insect pests including mosquitoes and moths.
David Bock of the Australian Museum says the conditions this year in the region have allowed for the survival of greater numbers of Delena offspring. There’s no ‘plague’, he says, just a lot more insects in the hot conditions. Ergo, more spiders. More smart spiders.
“Their strategies for hunting require, in a sense, more ‘thinking’ skills. They’re not instinctually building a web and just waiting for prey; they have multiple prey and so they require different approaches.”
One of those approaches is to live and hunt in vast packs, led by a large female who is aided by smaller males and females and hundreds of juveniles (whose sexuality isn’t determined until they grow older. Ah youth.) And if two spiders happen across the same prey, they’re happy enough to share it – unheard in most of the animal world, let alone the highly aggressive, cannibalistic universe of the spider.
That isn’t to say all is joy and friendship in the huntsman world. If a spider from a foreign colony wanders into the wrong family, it is torn to pieces and devoured rapidly. And if two equally-matched in size individuals meet, they thump their abdomens on the ground until one retreats – or is eaten. So don’t just squash the next huntsman you see. It may have a family to provide for.