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Gentle Giants: Understanding the banana spider

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Any native of Mobile has encountered one- the giant, yellow monster that is the banana spider. With their large bodies and long webs, they are impossible not to notice, and even harder to avoid. But, according to Dr. John McCreadie, a general entomology professor at the University of South Alabama and curator of the USA Arthropod Depository, the banana spider is gentle and should not cause concern.

The banana spider, or Naphila cavipes, is a fascinating creature, McCreadie said.

“Their ideal habitat is any open or broken vegetation where they can spin their webs,” McCreadie said. “It is native to the Americas, from Canada to Southern Argentina. Their diet is anything that gets stuck in their webs and is small enough to kill.”

The larger spiders are females.

“The males are tiny, and I mean tiny,” McCreadie said. “The big ones are the size of a pea. They hang around the nest looking for love. I have seen females about five inches in diameter with their legs spread out, and I’ve seen webs that stretch to about thirty feet.”

The cause for the size difference is evolutionary, McCreadie said.

“One theory behind the size difference is that a larger female body is more advantageous to generating offspring,” McCreadie said. “The bigger the size, the more eggs and thus the chance of getting her genes into the next generation. Another reason is that spiders are predators and a smaller male would not alarm a female in her web.”

Most importantly to humans, the spider cannot cause any harm to them, McCreadie said.

“They are very gentle and will only bite if cornered,” McCreadie said. “They have venom, so that makes them poisonous. However, so do honey bees and fire ants. The question is, ‘how toxic is the venom?’ If they bite, it may hurt, it may not. But, it won’t ruin your weekend.”

The banana spider, despite its intimidating size, will not bite unless threatened, McCreadie said.

“How often have you heard of a banana spider bite, as opposed to a bee sting?” McCreadie said. “If you go up to their web and poke them gently, they will run away. The aggression they show is to their prey, or their dinner.”

Banana spiders are also beneficial to the ecosystem, McCreadie said.

“They are predators and as such act as a control mechanism on the populations of other terrestrial vertebrates,” McCreadie said.

Additionally, they are an asset to South America, according to McCreadie.

“Some native people use their webs as fishing nets,” McCreadie said. “Their silk might have medical values as well.”

McCreadie suggested that anyone that encounters a banana spider should observe them and leave them be.

“Watch it; they are really quite interesting,” McCreadie said. “But, beyond that, please do not disturb them. Do not be afraid of them. Just like us they are trying to make a living and stay one step ahead of the tax man.”

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Gentle Giants: Understanding the banana spider