The date was Monday 9th July, 1990 and Heather and I were at Oak Beach north of Cairns, far north Queensland on an insect collecting excursion. I was that afternoon particularly interested in collecting variations of the Evening Brown butterfly, a species mostly active in the early morning and late afternoon, fluttering among the undergrowth of rainforest and scrubland of the coastal districts. It is common as far south as Port Macquarie in NSW, less common in the Newcastle area and rare in Sydney.
During the hours it is inactive, hiding in the grass and foliage, specimens can be disturbed by beating the foliage with the butterfly net pole. Even so, one has to be quick to catch one of these elusive butterflies, and once they settle, their underside wing markings blend in with the leafmould, making it virtually impossible to detect the creatures. As I moved cautiously along a jungle track I realised the sun was going down rapidly and light would soon be gone, which was just the right time to collect this species.
It was then that I spotted one springing up from the path ahead of me, fluttering off down the track as I gave chase, the net in my right hand, the left holding onto my bag containing my killing jars and other equipment slung over my left shoulder. Then, as I dashed along the track trying to keep an eye on the butterfly’s movements, I ran straight into a large, sticky spider web strung across the track, with what appeared to be a large amount of dead insects stuck to the centre of the thick webbing. In the dim light I had hardly noticed the web before I ran into it, covering my whole face and hair.
The Evening Brown escaped, while I began clearing the sticky webbing and dead bugs off my face. I knew from experience that this was the web of a Nephilla Spider, which are commonplace around Sydney and elsewhere.
However, the section containing the dead ‘food’ seemed to cling to my face and my fingers seemed unable to get it off.
Then suddenly the sticky mess gave way and I clawed it off only to discover that I was holding an extremely large Nephilla!
It was a Female specimen of the Giant Nephilla Spider, with black prothorax and legs and a dark brown abdomen with a body 42mm in length, by 10mm width at the prothorax and abdomen, the front pair of legs being 110mm in length. The second pair of legs measured 80mm, the third pair being 52mm and the back pair 85mm in length. I kept this specimen, the largest in my spider collection up to that time.
Later, in 1994 I discovered these spiders as far south as Murwillumbah in far north-coastal NSW close to the Queensland border. Although not dangerous spiders, they are certainly guaranteed to give anyone a fright at first glance.
Another well-known giant of the Australian bush is the Giant Huntsman, whose first and second pair of legs are up to 70mm in length with the body up to 40mm in length, with a prothorax and abdomen both about 17mm in width.
The male and female of this species differs in body and leg colour markings. Males are generally all brown spiders, while females possess grey bodies, the legs being grey and white striped.
Huntsmen are not poisonous, although their bite can cause local pain and perhaps swelling around the bite area, these effects are short-lived. There is also a possibility of bacterial infection from some bites.Huntsmen belong to the Family Sparassidae, which contains many species Australia-wide.
The Giant Huntsman, Isopeda immanus [L. Koch] may even, if some bushman’s tales are correct, reach larger proportions, at least 165mm in leg expanse.
Huntsmen are commonly met with in bushland, where their favourite hiding places are beneath the loose bark of trees. This is an environment to which their flat bodies are well suited. They are also known to enter houses, particularly on rainy nights, making themselves at home among blinds and curtains.
It is not at all impossible that larger forms of the Huntsman Spider have yet to be identified by science.
During January 1983 I received several reports from people living in the Colo district, north-west of Sydney, of a giant size flat-bodied grey-coloured apparent Huntsman, measuring from 180 to 200mm in leg expanse. These spiders had more than once frightened campers at night on the Colo River.
From Gippsland, Victoria, I have received stories over the years of similar giant creatures. For example, in 1978 a Mr Ted Watts was pulling slabs of old bark off the trunk of a dead tree, when a tall slab gave away. As it fell, “a massive spider”, as he described it, fell to the ground at his feet. “It had a body about 4 inches long [100mm] and at least 1 ½ inches [40mm] width, and the legs were at least 16inches [405mm] in length. It looked like a huge Huntsman Spider, but I’d never seen one that size before”, he told me in 1981.
The shock of that moment got the better of Ted, and he ran for some yards before stopping to see the spider disappearing into nearby bushes.
While the Giant Nephilla and Giant Huntsman may seem large, and that there might yet exist one or more unknown, even larger Giant Huntsman species, we now turn to other, even larger examples of the spider world which conservative university-based entomologists choose to ignore. The reason for their disbelief is that, not only do they believe that every important Australian spider species has been identified by scientists, but that creatures of the size about to be discussed belong only to the fossil record.
In brief, spiders are classed within the Phylum arthropoda, under the Class Arachnida, along with the Classes Crustacea [slaters]; Diplopoda [millipedes]; Chilopoda [centipedes] and Insecta [insects]. Insects of course posses 6 legs whilst spiders and their relatives, scorpions [Order Scorpionida] have eight. Fossil remains of ancestors of modern spiders include fragmentary remains of creatures with bodies approaching the size of a football. These fossils date back to Ordovician period times some 450 million years ago.
One Australian fossil, preserved in slate, contains only the prothorax and abdomen, with only the first segments of each of its eight legs remaining. The prothorax measures 8.5cm length by 6.5cm width, the abdomen being 9.5cm length by 6.5cm width. The leg segments are at least 15cm thick by about 4.5cm length and if the mandibles [missing in this fossil] were present along with the spinnerettes, the creature’s body length might have been up to about 23cm; and had the legs been intact, they might have reached a length of up to 35cm, even 40cm, making the entire specimen a monster of the spider world.
This fossil, from central Victoria, is similar to others found worldwide. What is interesting about this Australian fossil is its similarity to giant spiders of this size claimed seen in various parts of Australia today.
A massive black-bodied spider of this incredible size was claimed seen by Mr Dave Bennett in scrubland near Morwell, Victoria in October 1980. He told me later that he was frightened to approach it too closely.
He had been hiking through scrubland when he spotted the huge arachnid clambering over fallen tree trunks coming in his direction. “I just moved off out of its way and observed it from some yards away, until it moved away into the scrub and I lost sight of it”, he said.