Do you know what the world's largest spider is? How about the smallest? Most venomous? What about the tastiest?

All of these eight-legged achievers are included in the "Spider World Records" published last week in the journal PeerJ by an international team of scientists and educators. The list contains a total of 99 record-breaking arachnid accomplishments that will help you to get to know your spiders: from big to small and from Abacoproeces to Zyuizicosa.

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Pisaura mirabilis, the nursery web spider, takes the prize for "best date" for its habit of bestowing "nuptial gifts" to mates. Image: nutmeg66/Flickr

"Despite being often feared, spiders are mysterious and intriguing, offering a useful foundation for the effective teaching and learning of scientific concepts and processes," the authors say in their paper. Their hope is that this list will offer learners of all ages – from teachers to students to scientists – an attention-grabbing window into the world of nature and science.

There are around 47,000 species of spiders in our world, and they harbour a mind-blowing diversity of features and abilities. The scientists dug through years and years of verifiable records of spider activities to find the best of the best.

Here are some of the highlights:

Spiders big and small

The smallest living spiders belong to the Patu genus of South America and Pacific islands. Adult males can have body lengths of less than 0.4mm!

In contrast, the category of largest living spiders features two potential winners: the giant huntsman spider (Heteropoda maxima) from Laos, which has a leg span of up to 30cm (12 in) across, and the goliath bird-eater (Theraphosa blondi), of which the largest on record had a slightly smaller leg-span (28cm or 11 in) but a scale-tilting weight of 170g.

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The goliath bird-eater can tip the scales at 170g. Image: John/Flickr

The goliath bird-eater actually shows up a few times on the list. A captive life expectancy of more than 30 years earns it a mention under longest life span, and a habit of eating one-metre (3ft) earthworms makes it the spider with the largest invertebrate prey.

Goliath bird-eaters are also featured under the "most delicious" category, since they are a common food item in the Venezuelan Piaroa tribe. (However, the authors also note that, "In many countries, the legal limits governing the presence of arthropods in processed foods are indeed large enough so that over time a large amount of spider parts is ingested." Bon appétit!)

Best date

Yes, there's a "best date" category! And it goes to Pisaura mirabilis, the nursery web spider. In this species, males present silk-wrapped prey as "nuptial gifts" to females, then mate with the lovely lady-spider while she's busy eating her meal. (Some males are cheaters, however, and present empty gifts.)

Of course, a "spider world records" list would be incomplete without the kings of courtship: male peacock spiders. Their adorable, eye-catching and most elaborate courtship has earned them a spot on the list (and in internet infamy).

Impressive webs

Darwin's bark spider, Caerostris darwini, which lives in Madagascar, holds several web-related records on the list. With wispy constructions that can cover nearly three square metres (10 sq ft), attached to anchor lines up to 25m (82 ft) long, the arachnids take the prize for largest web area and largest web length.

The same species also wins for strongest silk: studies have shown that the threads of this orb-weaver species can be over ten times tougher than Kevlar!

Ancient arachnids

Even fossils make it onto the list!

The oldest fossil spider – called Palaeothele montceauensis – was found in France in rocks around 300 million years old. The largest fossil spider, meanwhile, is Mongolarachne jurassica, a Chinese dinosaur-neighbour from 165 million years ago, with a body length of 2.5 cm (1 in).

Also featured is the oldest recorded predatory event, an amber-encased scene of a spider (Geratonephila burmanica) in the process of dispatching its ensnared prey, a parasitic wasp (Cascoscelio incassa)!

The oldest known spider attack! A 100-million-year-old spider attacking a wasp in its web, trapped in Burmese amber. Image: Oregon State University.

And more!

The world's most endangered spiders are the 36 species worldwide identified as Critically Endangered by the IUCN, including the Gooty sapphire tarantula (Poecilotheria metallica), which is also the most wanted as a pet.

The most venomous to humans are the Australian funnel-web spiders, whose venom is lethal at super-tiny doses (although no fatalities have been recorded since antidotes were invented a few decades ago).

The list goes on and on, including the spiders with the strangest habitat (diving bell spiders live their whole lives underwater!), the largest colonies (Amazonian rainforest spiders have been reported in colonies 50,000 strong!), and the longest sperm (0.65mm – longer than yours, fellas).

For more, you'll have to go read through the list! And when you do, share it with others ... that's what the point of it all really is: to explore the fascinating diversity of these eight-legged wonders, and along the way, to learn some things about nature, evolution, technology, history, culture and more!

"We hope that our compilation will inspire science educators," the authors say, "to embrace the biology of spiders as a resource that engages students in science learning."


Top header image: janofonsagrada/Flickr