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On the hunt for 'The Biggest Spider in the World'!

Tuesday 11.00-11.30am 22 July 2003

By day Martin Nicholas is an ordinary guy. But by night he becomes the Spider Man, a nickname he's earned because of the hundreds of spiders which share his tiny flat in Bracknell. Martin has circled the world seeking out the most enigmatic individuals of the 35,000 spiders known to exist...the tarantulas.
Martin Nicholas - Spiderman
Martin Nicholas - the Spider Man

Now he is in Peru searching for a contender for the title of Biggest Spider in the World, currently held by the 11 inch Venezuelan Goliath Birdeater. Martin's quarry is an un-catalogued species. It is called the Chicken Eating spider because eye witnesses claim to have seen it dragging chickens into its burrow on the edge of jungle clearings. Estimates put it at around 10 inches from one hairy foot to another. This is wild country he's entering, where some trees can walk and where the Wandering Spider lives, whose venom is 18 times more deadly than America's Black Widow.

Martin tells the story behind his search:

There are around 800 species of Tarantula spider in the world - at least those are the ones that have been discovered.

It is estimated that there could be just as many unknown species in the rainforests, tropical scrublands and savannas around the world.

The Chicken Spider has been confirmed as one of these new species. Identified as being within the genus Pamphobeteus.

As well as being new to science, the Chicken Spider has thrown into doubt many of the accepted truths about tarantulas that have been held for almost a century.

For instance, tarantulas are supposed to be strictly solitary creatures. Usually baby spiders - or spiderlings - quickly disperse once they emerge from the nest. This is because a mother tarantula's maternal instincts don't last long once the spiderlings have hatched. She starts looking for food, having fasted during the incubation period. Any spiderlings remaining in the nest find themselves on the menu!
Tarantula with spiderlings
Tarantula with spiderlings

This solitary behaviour also minimises competition for food. Tarantulas are ambush predators and stay very close to their burrows at all times, waiting for their prey to pass close by. With more than one spider in the same burrow there is less food to go around and one would expect smaller spiders and compromised populations.

The Chicken Spider, not only tolerates its offspring shortly after they have hatched, it shares its burrow with several generations of its progeny. Up to 50 spiders in one burrow and a thriving, healthy population in the surrounding forest. Here is evidence that this remarkable spider subdues any aggressive responses to its fellow burrow inhabitants and has actually learned to cooperate in prey capture, allowing for the predation of larger animals than would be possible if it were alone.

This unique tarantula has undoubtedly evolved out of its unique environment. The Tambopata Reserve is one of the wildest and most remote areas of rainforest on earth. It is situated at the very edge of the Amazon Basin in South Eastern Peru, where the headwaters of the Tambopata River run out of the Andes. The forest is a strange transitional area where the flora and fauna of Mountain and Tropical Rainforest mix and create a bio-diversity unequalled anywhere else on earth.

In amongst this melting pot of natural habitats, the Chicken Spider has grown to giant proportions. The largest specimen observed during the making of the programme had a body length of 95mm and a leg-span of 250mm - the size of a dinner plate. Does the true giant of the spider world live in the Tambopata forest? It's a strong possibility.

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