Currently, more than 46,000 spider species stretch their eight legs in habitats across the world, in every country and continent except Antarctica. And those are only the ones scientists have been able to find and name so far—many more are likely still out there, lurking under leaves and rocks and, for Halloween’s sake, perhaps under a bed or two.
Although some people find these creatures terrifying—a spooky symbol of haunted houses and Halloween frights—we owe a lot to our arachnid friends. Not only have they been around for about 350 million years (trumping our puny 200,000-year modern human existence), spiders make it possible for us to eat and live a more comfortable life.
“If spiders disappeared, we would face famine,” Norman Platnick, a spider expert at New York’s American Museum of Natural History, told the Washington Post in 2014. “Spiders are primary controllers of insects. Without spiders, all of our crops would be consumed by those pests.”
For that matter, so would we. Because spiders munch on insects, they save us from bites.
“Without spiders’ existence and abundance on the planet, life on earth would probably be a less hospitable place for people because the biting flies and mosquitoes of the world would be so populous,” Cat Urban, manager of the invertebrate live animal programs at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, which hosted a Spider Pavilion for visitors in 2018, told Smithsonian.com.
This year, museum-goers can face their fears further north at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. Through January 6, 2019, over 400 live and preserved arachnids will be on display in the museum's Spiders: Fear & Fascination exhibition. Hands-on activities, live venom milking demonstrations, augmented reality experiences and a recreated spider cave bring visitors face-to-face with these fascinating and misunderstood creatures. The exhibit features two of the world's largest spiders, the goliath birdeater and the Brazilian wandering spider.
If you want to see these and other eight-legged giants in the wild, here are a few places to see the world's biggest:
Giant Huntsman – Heteropoda maxima (Laos)
This type of spider was discovered in Laos in 2001, hiding in a cave. Measuring by leg span, it’s the biggest in the world—the creepy crawlers can reach up to a foot wide. They’re crazy fast, can climb up smooth surfaces and walk sideways. Fortunately for arachnophobes, all huntsman spider species are as scared of us as we might be of them. They’ll run away fast once you see them, and they don’t like to bite (though they won’t kill you if they do, just cause some local swelling). The giant huntsman lives in caves in Laos and has only been seen on rare occassion. Other species of huntsman spiders, that average only about five inches in leg span, are common in Australia and Asia.