Hunting the Giant Hunstman — Heteropoda maxima

I first met Dr. Peter Jäger in July 2016.

I had been following his work for several years: he had described several new species of spiders from Laos, and I love spiders and Laos alike. I had even mustered enough courage to send him an email in 2013, asking if we could meet when he visited Laos next.

Some time in 2015, we became acquainted on Facebook. In July 2016, on a Tuesday, he told me that he was headed back to Laos for a visit. We made plans to have breakfast together the following morning, as he was planning to head out of Vientiane later that day.

We hit it off quite well over breakfast. He was warm, easy to talk with, and had a simple, no-fuss appearance. This was a spider-collecting trip, he said. He was going to visit several caves in the beautiful karst mountains in Bolikhamxay and Khammouane, collecting specimens for his research.

I offered to drive him. To go spider hunting with an expert of his caliber was a dream I had had for years, and this was the perfect opportunity. Dr. Jäger —or Peter, as I addressed him — agreed, and in a few hours we began our 5-day journey that would prove to be one of the most memorable experiences in my life.

Dr. Jäger and I at the start of our trip.

We spent most of our days and nights in and around caves and karst formations; Dr. Jäger with his specimen bottles, and I with my camera gear. In an attempt to reach a cave that Peter had been to before, we rode motorbikes from through a swamp. About an hour and a half later, our engines had already stalled several times due to water having entered the tailpipes, and we decided that it was time to turn around and go back to Thakhek. It was disappointing, of course, but Peter did not mind, and neither did I. It was fun and exhausting, and we enjoyed it. Another failed attempt to reach a cave involved a long, hot and sweaty trek through thick secondary forest, along with Jonas Ewert, a biologist working in Thakhek. We lost our bearings and gave up, but we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.

Taking a much-needed break after a long, hot day of riding cheap Chinese motorbikes through a swamp in an attempt to get to a cave (which did not work out, and exploring several small caves to collect spider specimens.

A lot of spiders are nocturnal, including the one I was hoping to see: Heteropoda maxima, commonly known as the Giant Hunstman Spider. This was one of Dr. Jäger’s more interesting finds in Laos; he had described it in 2001. Heteropoda maxima is a cave-dwelling species of spider with the largest leg span in the world — up to 30cm in length. We saw and collected many species of spiders, but did not see Heteropoda maxima until our last night expedition.

Heteropoda maxima, the spider with the largest legspan ever recorded. Decribed by Peter Jäger, this species has only been recorded in limestone caves in Laos. This individual had a legspan of about 22cm, but they grow to 30 cm.

I shall not mention where we found Heteropoda maxima, because it has gained unwanted attention from collectors for the pet trade. But find it we did, and it was magnificent. The individuals we saw had not reached their maximum size yet, but were still very impressive, with leg spans of 23 to 25cm. Heteropoda maxima is easily identified by its size and rather unique striped pattern.

Here is a fascinating display of regeneration: this individual had lost two of its legs and grew them back when it molted. This is probably after the first molt, because the regenerated legs do not yet display the iridescence and pattern typical of this species.

Of course, we saw several other interesting animals on this trip, including scorpions, frogs, and a couple of very interesting snakes. For me, however, the highlight was having seen the Giant Huntsman in its habitat, although this was topped by the fact that Dr. Jäger and I had become fast friends by the end of the trip.

A close-up portrait of one of the Heteropoda maxima individuals we spotted that final night. This photograph shows some of the iridescence typical of this species.

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