A very Westie spider

5 FebExhibitions / Learning and Discovery

The Avondale spider is our only eight-legged guest in BUGS! Our Backyard Heroes. Wētā are easy to look after because you can just give them some veges – and cockroaches will eat any old garbage. But spiders aren’t known for being vegetarians, so they need a bit more energy from museum staff to look after. 

Avondale spiders, as suggested by the name, live only in Avondale, Auckland. In Australia they’re absolutely everywhere – another entry in the rich smorgasbord of terrifying wildlife with which Australians must daily contend – but after arriving here in the early 1920s the spiders never spread out. It’s thought that there’s no suitable habitat for them elsewhere in New Zealand; oddly you don’t see “uniquely suited for hunting spiders” on Avondale real estate listings. 

In Australia, people actually encourage the spiders to live in their houses, to control various insect populations. This might be to keep down the number of individual spiders a person might encounter at once; in their natural habitat underneath loose bark they can gather in colonies of up to 300. Nobody wants to run into that in their pyjamas. 

You might have noticed that the Avondale spider looks a bit squished (maybe it’s wishful thinking). This is an adaptation to their preferred environment: there’s not a lot of room on the inside of a tree between the bark and the rest of it, so the spider has to be quite thin to fit into the gap. Now imagine 300 of them in there and you can see how it might get a bit crowded! 

It’s very unusual for spiders to live together. Mostly you see them alone in their webs or on flowers or noodling around on the walls of your house. Avondale spiders have decided that the solitary life is for mugs and band together, even going so far as sharing food. 

Like other hunstman spiders, Avondales are capable of great bursts of speed, either when attacking prey with a quick rush and pounce, or legging it when disturbed by a nosy human. In these situations huntsmen can move at a mighty 1 metre per second, which for a creature whose body tops out at 32mm long is quite the dash. This is the equivalent of a tall human sprinter accelerating instantly to about 200 kilometres per hourHumans coming suddenly face to face with Avondale spiders have recorded similar speeds. 

Avondale spiders gained international fame in 1990 when they starred as the deadly villains of the Hollywood film “Arachnophobia”. All the spiders used in the film were from New Zealand, because although Australia has heaps to spare, their laws prohibit the export of native species. So the Kiwis got all the blockbuster glory! 

Despite racking up quite a body count on the big screen, Avondale spiders are not aggressive and their bites are not dangerous. Humans get chomped only rarely, and when they do it’s because they deserved it: the spider was cornered, scared and probably annoyed! The spiders would much rather run away from humans that attack them. 

There are lots and lots of other hunting spider species in New Zealand – some big, some small – and they’re in your backyard right now. Go and see if you can find them!