Spiders! You love ’em. Or perhaps you don’t. Either way, they are the most searched for subject on Collections Online. Identification is the most common reason for looking them up, according to feedback, so for putting you all at ease: You’re welcome, Aotearoa.
The spiders below aren’t all native, and they certainly aren’t all common – but do keep an eye out for them the next time you’re at the beach or on a bush walk or in your bathroom.
Spider expert Phil Sirvid gives Senior Digital Editor Daniel Crichton-Rouse the low-down on the most popular spiders of the 2010s, as searched for by our online audiences (maybe even you). Read on – or if you’re an arachnophobe, maybe don’t.
1. Black tunnelweb spider (Porrhothele antipodiana)
You might’ve seen one in: your shower
Size: large females can have a legspan approaching 6 cm and are reportedly our heaviest spiders
Famous for: being used as nightmare fuel in The Lord of the Rings
The black tunnelweb spider came out on top by some distance: twice as many searches as the spider in 10th spot, and a fair way ahead of second-placed slater spider. Based on the photo above… unsurprising.
“A harmless relative of the tarantula and the funnel-web (possibly the reason for all those searches), black tunnelwebs are often found under logs and rocks,” says Phil. “They build a silken tunnel with a broad area at the entrance that alerts the spider to the presence of potential prey. Typical prey includes beetles and other ground-living insects. There are also accounts of these spiders capturing snails and mice.
“In the spring and summer, male tunnelwebs cause alarm when they stray indoors, seeking out females for mating. These spiders dry out and die rather easily, and so they may seek out a source of moisture when trapped inside. Often all that’s found in bathrooms and laundries are their shrivelled corpses.
“Another fun fact: The black tunnelweb belongs to an endemic family called Porrhothelidae. While we have a lot of endemic (i.e. only found in Aotearoa New Zealand) spider species, most of them belong to families that can be found in a lot of places. Endemic families are very uncommon.
“Also, how can we forget this was the spider that inspired Peter Jackson’s version of Shelob in The Return of The King?”
2. Slater spider (Dysdera crocata)
You might’ve seen one in: your garden
Size: legspan is around 20-25 mm
Famous for: pocket knives
“These spiders originate in Europe but are now common throughout much of the world,” says Phil. “They may be found throughout New Zealand and are common in suburban gardens.
“While this spider is capable of capturing other prey, it has earned its common name because of accounts documenting its feeding on the common slater, also known as the common woodlouse, Porcellio scaber.
“It doesn’t build a web to capture its prey. Rather, it seizes its victim in its very large chelicerae.
“What are chelicerae? Chelicerae are one of the defining features of arachnids, and spider chelicerae are like pocket knives. Imagine the fang is like the blade part and the basal segment is like the handle it folds back against.”
3. Sheetweb spiders (Cambridgea spp.)
You might’ve seen one in: the forest
Size: depends on species, ranging from thumbnail size to near palm sized legspans for large Cambridgea foliata specimens
Famous for: metre-wide webs
“Sheetwebs occur throughout New Zealand, and are particularly abundant in native forest. Several species are also at home in suburban gardens,” says Phil.
“Anyone tramping through areas of native bush will almost certainly have come across the sheetwebs of these spiders, but rarely will they have seen the spiders themselves.
“By day, they will hide out of sight in a tubular retreat, only emerging once darkness falls. At night, the spider will hang from the underside of the sheetweb, waiting for insects to fall in.
“The size of the web is related to the size of the spider, with our largest species Cambridgea foliata known to produce a snare that is almost a metre across.
“Occasionally, male Cambridgea spiders wander into homes, much as the black tunnelweb spider does.”
4. Nurseryweb spiders and water spiders (Dolomedes spp.)
You might’ve seen one in: gorse
Size: female nursery web spiders can have a legspan of around 6 cm, but the Rangatira spider (their Chatham Islands cousin) can be double that
Famous for: nursing their young spiderlings in protective webs
“Nursery web spiders are known for their webs, yet they do not use them to catch prey,” says Phil. “The webs of these spiders are a common sight on gorse and other shrubs and are, as the name suggests, literally nurseries for young spiderlings.
“During summer, the female nursery web spider can be seen roaming about carrying a large white ball underneath her. This is her egg sac and she carries it everywhere in her fangs until her young are ready to emerge.
“When this time comes, she takes the egg sac to the top of a tree or shrub and constructs the nurseryweb. The mother stays close, and during the day can often be found near the base of the plant where she has deposited her young.
“Water spiders are remarkable for another reason. Instead of hunting on land, they catch their prey in rivers and streams, and are able to move about freely on the water’s surface. They are also more than capable of going underwater. The hairs on the abdomen trap air, allowing the water spider to carry its own oxygen supply when it submerges.
“An Australian species of water spider (Dolomedes facetus) may now be making a new home in New Zealand, as it has been seen recently in several northern North Island waterways.”
5. Jumping spiders (Family Salticidae)
You might’ve seen one in: your home
Size: between 10 to 30 mm legspan depending on the species
Famous for: being the spider on this list that is highly likely to be in your home right now, and (unsurprisingly) for jumping
“Jumping spiders occur all over the world, and in New Zealand they can be found from the seashore to the mountains,” says Phil. “The black-headed jumping spider is a widely distributed native species quite at home in our houses and gardens.
“Jumping spiders certainly live up to their name, literally jumping on their prey to catch it. The black-headed jumping spider can jump about half a metre. The large front legs of species like Trite planiceps are actually used to grab prey, rather than for jumping. The hind legs give the spider its ability to leap.
“Most spiders don’t need good eyesight, relying instead on other cues such as vibration to locate prey. However, the jumping spider is an exception. It has two big central eyes to help it identify targets and estimate distance – important abilities for an animal that pounces on its prey.
“With its other eyes, it can detect movement virtually all around itself.”
6. Avondale spider (Delena cancerides)
You might’ve seen one in: Arachnophobia
Size: can have a legspan approaching 15 cm in larger individuals
Famous for: starring in a great ’90s movie
“I’m surprised to see the the Avondale, a kind of huntsman spider, and the Christchurch huntsman (see #9) in the top spider pages,” says Phil. “They might be quite large by New Zealand standards, but they’re not commonly seen.
“An Australian immigrant, the Avondale spider gets its name from the Auckland suburb where it first became established. They have not spread widely, possibly because of a lack of suitable habitat.
“They do not use a web to catch prey. Instead, they wait for a potential victim to come close enough to capture with their front pair of legs and pull into their fangs.
“Fun fact: These spiders featured in the movie Arachnophobia. Australian regulations prohibited their export from there as they are native wildlife, but the New Zealand population has no such protection and staff at Landcare Research in Auckland were able to provide enough spiders for the movie.”
7. Vagrant spiders (Uliodon spp.)
You might’ve seen one in: your garden, but more likely in the forest
Size: legspan can reach approximately 6 cm
Famous for: being quite common, really
Another surprise result according to Phil, as vagrants are a frequent sight over much of the country and as such expected them to poll higher.
“Vagrant spiders are found throughout New Zealand, particularly in native forest,” he says. “Some species are rather common in suburban gardens.
“These spiders seek shelter by day and hunt at night. They are capable of moving very rapidly in pursuit of their prey.
“Like tunnelweb spiders, vagrant spiders are attacked by spider-hunting wasps. Male vagrant spiders may also wander indoors when seeking females to mate with. In Wellington, this typically happens around autumn.”
8. Black cobweb or false katipō spider (Steatoda capensis)
You might’ve seen one at: the beach, or in your home
Size: females have a pea-sized body and a legspan around 25 mm or so
Famous for: not being a katipō
Based on the katipō’s reputation, it was a surprise to the author that the black cobweb, or false katipō, wasn’t higher up the list.
“The black cobweb spider is common around homes but may also be found in similar habitats to those occupied by katipō,” says Phil.
“It’s shiny black or dark brown, similar in size and shape to katipō spider, and some individuals may have a faint red stripe. This combination of characteristics may lead to their misidentification as katipō.
“However, they can be distinguished by the arrangement of white markings on the abdomen, the faintness and smaller size of any red stripe, and the absence of the red hourglass marking on the underside of the abdomen.
“Steatoda produces egg sacs all year round and while it will colonise beach habitats like katipō, it is certainly not confined to them. It is common in human-modifed environments, including inside houses.”
9. Christchurch huntsman (Isopedella victorialis)
You might’ve seen one: around buildings, but huntsman are not seen very often in New Zealand
Size: about 50 mm across
Famous for: being elusive
“Previously known only from around Melbourne, Australia, several specimens of this spider were found in the Christchurch suburbs of Hillmorton and Hoon Hay in December 2005 and January 2006,” says Phil.
“Aside from the Avondale spider (see #6), it is not certain if any other species of huntsman spider, including the Christchurch huntsman, have become established in New Zealand. However, Isopeda villosa, another Australian species of huntsman, is sometimes seen in Victoria Park, Auckland and occasionally in other parts of the country. The banana spider, Heteropoda venatoria, is also occasionally intercepted by border quarantine agencies or found in fruit shops!
“Like most huntsman spiders, this species is an active, nocturnal hunter. These spiders are most active around 3am so may be present in an area but go unnoticed.
“Typically they prefer living under the bark of loose-barked trees, but may also be found in tree stumps, fallen logs, and hollows. Human dwellings can potentially provide them with conditions similar to those they would normally seek in the wild.”
10. White-tailed spiders (Lampona cylindrata and L. murina)
You might’ve seen one in: your home
Size: females can approach a 3 cm legspan
Famous for: its bite
A genuine surprise to find white-tailed spiders in 10th place – Phil was expecting them to be slugging it out for top spot with the black tunnelweb.
This is probably because two recent blogs written by Phil about white-tail spider bites (links below) have been wildly popular and have likely split the traffic. If you search for “white tailed spider” in Google – our main source of traffic – one of the blogs ranks higher than the Collections Online topic. Maybe we should write more spider blogs.
“Both species (Lampona murina and Lampona cylindrata) originate from Australia. Lampona murina has been known in the North Island for well over a hundred years and has also been introduced into the Kermadec Islands,” says Phil.
“Previously known from only a handful of records from Nelson, a second species of white-tailed spider, Lampona cylindrata, has become widespread throughout the South Island since about 1980.
“Like some of the other spiders on this list, white-tails do not build a web to catch their prey as they are active hunters. They are rather unusual in that they specialise in catching other spiders, particularly the common and well established Australian species, the grey house spider (Badumna longinqua).
“The white-tailed spider will cautiously enter the web of its intended victim and mimic the struggles of a trapped insect by plucking at the web. This may trick the resident spider into investigating the disturbance and so instead of gaining a meal, it becomes one when the white-tail strikes.
“White-tails have something of an undeserved reputation as bad biters. While their bite is known to be painful, Australian research indicates their venom is not medically significant.”
Need help identifying the arachnid in your life? Try ‘What spider is that?’.
Want to explore all the wonderful spiders in Aotearoa? Head to ‘Spiders of New Zealand’, where you’ll also learn about a four-year-old Phil Sirvid’s encounter with a black tunnelweb.