While many of Africa's spider species are harmless, there are a few particularly large and/or venomous species that are guaranteed to upset any arachnophobe. These range from spiders that are capable of killing a child with a single bite to spiders that simply look terrifying. Don't let this put you off traveling to Africa, though—like most animals, spiders are inherently afraid of humans and usually go out of their way to avoid them. Some spider species are actually quite beautiful, and all of them are essential to the environment's natural balance.
Baboon spiders are a sub-family of tarantula that includes more than 40 individual species in South Africa alone. All baboon spiders have a set of distinctive characteristics in common—they're large, hairy, and capable of inflicting a painful bite. Baboon tarantulas are venomous, however, they are unlikely to attack unless provoked. Symptoms of a baboon spider bite can include vomiting and dizziness. This sub-family comes in a variety of colors and sizes, and favors dry scrubland or savannah. They live in burrows which they line with silk and use to ambush insects and small reptiles, though some live in trees. Female baboon spiders can live as long as 30 years.
Black Button Spider
Known elsewhere as widow spiders, button spiders are amongst the most dangerous of all African spider species. All button spiders belong to the genus Latrodectus, and there are six different species found in Africa. Four of these are classified as black button or black widow spiders. The venom of these spiders is highly neurotoxic, and females have the potential to kill a child or an infirm adult. Immediate medical attention is required for any victim. Black button spiders are identified by their bulbous, pitch black bodies, marked with a red spot or stripe above the spinneret (or silk-spinning organ). They typically stay away from human residences and are most often encountered in rural areas.
Brown Button Spider
The venom of Africa's brown button spider species is approximately four times less toxic than that of a black button spider. However, symptoms can still be serious and include pain, sweating, nausea, and shortness of breath. Medical attention should be sought immediately. Brown button spiders are brown, with dark bands on the joints of each leg. They are easily identified by a red blotch in the shape of an hourglass on the underneath of the abdomen. Unlike their more reclusive relatives, brown button spiders are often found in garages and packing crates, generator housings and pump boxes. They are not aggressive, though, and bites usually only occur if the spider is trapped or squashed.
Ogre-faced spiders belong to the genus Deinopis, of which there are at least eight different species living in continental Africa. These incredible creatures are not venomous, but are nevertheless capable of inducing nightmares thanks to their monstrous looks. In fact, the Greek name Deinopis roughly translates as "fearful appearance"; a moniker earned by the spiders' elongated shape and oversized median posterior eyes. However, ogre-faced spiders only measure around 0.8 inches in length, and have a strange hunting technique that makes them fascinating to watch. They spin a net-like web between their front legs, which they then cast over unsuspecting prey.
Sac spiders belong to the family Clubionidae and are thought to be responsible for the majority of spider bites in Africa. Their venom is cytotoxic, which means that it kills cells and causes tissue breakdown and blistering at the bite site. Bites are considered painful and potentially scarring, but not life threatening. There are many different species of sac spider in Africa, the most common of which are straw-colored with distinctive bulbous bodies and long front legs. Sac spiders actively hunt at night and weave together a protective tube of silk to rest in during the day. They are vitally important to the agriculture industry for their role in controlling insectivorous pests.
The violin spider belongs to the family Loxosceles and is known in other parts of the world as the brown recluse spider. There are 12 species of violin spider in Africa, measuring between 1.2 and two inches in length. Despite their relatively small size, violin spiders are highly venomous. Their venom destroys tissue, causing a specific kind of skin necrosis known as loxoscelism in 66 percent of cases. The danger of secondary infection is high if left untreated. Fortunately, violin spiders are shy by nature, and rarely bite humans. They are nocturnal and nest under rocks and logs rather than weaving webs. They are usually brown, with a characteristic violin-shaped mark and six eyes.
Rain spider is the common name for spiders belonging to the genus Palystes. They are part of the huntsman spider family, and often inspire fear thanks to the fact that some species have a total leg span of up to 4.7 inches. Rain spiders are hairy, bulbous, and have visible fangs, and yet are some of the least dangerous species on this list. Although female rain spiders are known to aggressively defend their eggs, bites are rare. Even when they do occur, the rain spider's venom is weak, so that symptoms are no worse than a common bee sting. Bites usually heal by themselves in a matter of days. Rain spiders are named for their habit of entering houses just before the summer rains.
Six-Eyed Sand Spider
The six-eyed sand spider belongs to the genus Sicarius, a name that translates as 'murderer' in Latin. Indeed, this species' bite has been proven capable of killing a rabbit in under 12 hours. Its venom is both hemolytic and necrotoxic, causing leaking blood vessels and destroyed tissues. Fortunately, the six-eyed sand spider is an exceptionally shy species, and there are no proven cases of the species biting a human. Instead, the six-eyed sand spider lives in sparsely-habited deserts like the Kalahari and the Namib, burying itself in the sand to enhance its camouflage while awaiting unsuspecting prey. It is thought that this species can live for up to a year without eating.
Darwin's Bark Spider
Discovered in Madagascar in 2009, the Darwin's bark spider is an orb-weaver spider capable of weaving webs that measure up to 30 square feet. Often, it uses its extraordinary webs to cross rivers, a feat made possible by the fact that its silk is the strongest biological material known to man. Inch for inch, the silk of the Darwin's bark spider is ten times tougher than Kevlar, the material used to manufacture military body armor. Females of the species can reach 0.8 inches in length, while males only grow to around 0.2 inches. Darwin's bark spiders are not venomous, but those with a fear of walking into spider webs will no doubt feel that they deserve a place on this list.
Golden Silk Orb-Weaver Spider
Found in warm climates across the globe, golden silk orb-weaver spiders are a common sight in many parts of Africa. They are named for their impressive golden webs, which can reach several feet in diameter and often last for several years. In fact, the silk is so strong that it can even trap small birds. Amazingly, the spiders can also adjust the pigmentation of their silk to make the web more or less visible, according to the species of their intended victim. Despite their formidable aptitude for ensnaring smaller prey, golden silk orb-weavers are harmless to humans and pets, although their sheer size (up to four inches in length) makes them an intimidating sight for anyone with a fear of spiders.
This article was updated by Jessica Macdonald on December 6 2019.