The first tarantula I ever saw was on one of my early trips, when I just started out exploring our forests here in Singapore. I was with a couple of friends and one of them suddenly pointed to a tree trunk. It was a scrawny, malnourished tarantula with a mite-infested mouth and an abdomen half the size of its carapace, hugging the tree trunk and keeping very still to avoid drawing attention to itself. I was thrilled; when the word tarantula is mentioned, the image that often comes to mind is of exotic spiders in foreign countries large and ferocious enough to eat birds, but here we had a specimen right in front of us, in Singapore!
When I next chanced upon a tarantula burrow in a log somewhere in MacRitchie a couple of weeks later, I excitedly messaged my friends about this special find and arranged to bring them to see it the next trip. Less than a minute later, I saw another burrow in the same log. I leaned in for a closer look and there was a third burrow.
“Wait a minute, what’s going on?” I wondered. “Is this a special log?”
I scoured the log and found at least 5 silk-lined burrows, many with the spiders visible inside. I couldn’t wait to show this log to my friends.
In truth, I was actually naive to think tarantulas were rare in Singapore; they can actually be found everywhere in our forests, we just need to know where and how to look for them.
In most of our subsequent trips, we encountered tarantulas hanging out on tree trunks, lurking among fallen logs, wandering about in leaf litter, or even nestled in burrows between boardwalk planks.
Throughout my journeys in Singapore’s rainforests, I’ve encountered perhaps 3 or 4 species of tarantula. Singapore has a common variety, small and brown with a leg span of around 7 cm. This was the first tarantula I saw in Singapore. Also, there is a larger black species with a leg span of about 12 cm. A third species lives high up in trees (arboreal). All three species are usually found in silk-lined burrows, either in tree trunks, fallen logs, or soil and grassy slopes.
The arboreal species we have is currently the largest, and arguably most beautiful spider in Singapore. Seeing it for the first time, in the flesh, is an unforgettable experience. It happened on one of our regular trips to the forest. One of my friends saw a spider on a young tree at about waist level. It looked unusual so he whispered to us to come over, keeping his voice low so as not to spook it. The gentleness of his voice belied what he spotted.
The individual in question was a juvenile Singapore Blue, yet already with a leg spread of about 5 cm. It began to feel uncomfortable with the close proximity of strange two-legged giants peering at it and huddled up into a passive defensive posture. It took all of our patience to wait for it to slowly feel comfortable enough to adopt a more relaxed position, upon which we proceeded to, with extreme care, take as many photos without scaring it into huddling up again. Unfortunately for me, this sighting was the only time I saw an individual of the Singapore Blue, or officially known in the scientific world as Lampropelma violaceopes.
Lampropelma violaceopes, what an unpronounceable mouthful. Have you ever wondered about how names like this came about? It was a mystery to me how scientists can look at an animal and just spout off some mysterious name. Where do these names come from? Who named all these creatures? How do we identify the creatures we see? My curiosity led me to a new journey, one that delved into the naming of living things – taxonomy. If you are also curious as to how organisms get their names, join me on my next journey into spider sleuthing: The Naming and Identification of Spiders.
If you would like to read more about arachnids in general in Singapore, James has written another article about this exact topic!
Photos and text by James Koh
Illustration by Toh Bee Suan