Urticating hair

Urticating hair

Urticating hairs are one of the primary defense mechanisms used by some New World tarantulas and lepidopteran caterpillars. This term refers to the barbed hairs that cover the dorsal and posterior surface of the tarantula's abdomen or caterpillar. Many tarantula species will frequently kick hairs off their abdomens, directing them toward potential attackers. These hairs can embed themselves in the other animal's skin or eyes, thus inducing physical irritation. "Urtica" is Latin for "nettle".


Urticating hairs do not appear at birth but form with each consecutive molt, outwardly presenting themselves around areas of more dark hairs on the upper back part of the abdomen of juveniles, widening from molt to molt, but in elder ages – merging with the main tone of abdominal coloration. Urticating hairs do not cover the entire opisthosoma and are distinct from abdominal hairs.


There are six different types of urticating hair known in tarantulas (M. Overton, 2002). They are all different in shape and size.

* Type I (0.2–0.6 mm)
* Type II (0.5–1.5 mm)
* Type III (0.3–1.2 mm)
* Type IV (0.06–0.2 mm)
* Type V
* Type VI

Each type of urticating hair is believed to target different enemies. Defined targets for some hair types are unknown.

Type II is not kicked off by the tarantula. Direct contact is necessary to penetrate an attacker. Tarantulas from the genera "Avicularia", "Pachistopelma" and "Iridopelma" possess Type II hairs. (Toni Hoover, 1997)

Type III urticating hairs are most efficient for defence against vertebrates and invertebrates.

Types III and IV are the most irritant to mammalian predators.

Types particular to species

Not all urticating hair types are exhibited by each species of tarantula.

Types I, II, III and IV urticating hairs can be found in the subfamilies Avicularinae and Theraphosinae.

Type I and III urticating hairs are representative on "Lasiodora" and "Acanthoscurria", excluding "Grammostola" (exhibits types III and IV).

Type III urticating hair is typically found on the species of "Theraphosa spp.", "Nhandu spp.", "Megaphoboema spp.", "Sericopelma spp.", "Eupalaestrus spp.", "Proshapalopus spp.", "Brachypelma spp.", "Cyrtopholis spp.", "Iracema spp." and other genera of subfamily Theraphosinae (Rick West, 2002).

Type V urticating hair is typical of the species of genus "Ephebopus". As mentioned earlier they are located on the pedipalps. They are much shorter and lighter in contrast with other types of urticating hair. These are easily thrown by the spider into the air (Marshal and Uetz, 1990).

Type VI urticating hair is found in the genus "Hemirrhagus" (F. Perez-Miles, 1998).

According to Vellard (1936) and Buecherl (1951), genera with the most urticating hairs are "Lasiodora", "Grammostola" and "Acanthoscurria".

Defensive behavior utilizing urticating hairs

New World tarantulas will at the moment of danger, turn toward the attacker and briskly rub their hind legs against the opisthosoma throwing the urticating hairs in the direction of the enemy.

The latest studies suggest urticating hairs from tarantulas present not just a mechanical but a chemical influence on the skin and mucous membranes.

The cloud of small hairs will get into the mucous membrane of small mammals and cause edema, which can be fatal.

Reaction and the degree of irritation to a defensive urticating hair barrage can vary tremendously, based on the species in question.

Some, such as those of the Chilean rose hair ("Grammastola rosea") and the pinktoe tarantula ("Avicularia avicularia"), are fairly mild and innocuous to humans.

Others, such as those of the Brazilian giant white knee tarantula ("Acanthoscurria geniculata"), are moderately irritating.

Still others, such as the Goliath Birdeater ("Theraphosa blondi"), are far more severe. These hairs can result in painful rashes, and have been likened to sharp shards of fiberglass.

After a defensive maneuver, an urticating hair lobbing tarantula will have a bald spot on its abdominal region.

Families of Lepidoptera with urticating hairs

There are species with urticating hairs in at least eleven Lepidopteran families: the Arctiidae (tiger moths), Anthelidae (lappet moths), Bombycidae, Eupterotidae (bag shelter moths), Lasiocampidae, Limacodidae, Lymantriidae (tussock moths), Megalopygidae, Noctuidae, Notodontidae (processionary caterpillars), Nymphalidae, and Saturniidae (Matheson 1950, Riley and Johannsen 1938, Roth and Eisner 1962, Wirtz 1984). Some adults may also have urticating scales.

Human reactions to urticating hair contact

In humans a defensive cloud of urticating hairs can cause allergic skin reactions which can manifest itself as inflammation, rash and itching. The reactions can last for several hours or days. A chemical influence upon the skin and mucous membranes explains the different reactions of people to urticating hairs (Rick West, 2002).

It seems likely the hairs cause an accumulative reaction in people.

A solution of 2–2.5% hydrocortisone cream applied to the affected area may help relieve the symptoms.

A more serious consequence is urticating hair in the eyes. In this case it is necessary to immediately wash the eye thoroughly with copious amounts of cold water and see an ophthalmologist.

Urticating hair as territorial markings

Urticating hair is not just thrown at an enemy as a first line defence. It is also used as an indication of territory. It can be found on and around the burrow entrance and in webbing for protection (for example, some of Theraphosinae subfamily species include these hairs in cocoon silk).

Urticating hair can also be found protecting tarantula egg sacs ("Avicularia" spp. and "Theraphosa blondi" respectively). This is thought to discourage fly larvae from consuming their eggs and young.


* Matheson R. 1950. Medical Entomology. (2nd ed.). Comstock Publications, Ithaca, New York. 612 p.
* Riley WA, Johannsen OA. 1938. Medical Entomology; a Survey of Insects and Allied Forms Which Affect the Health of Man and Animals. McGraw-Hill, New York. 483 p.
* Roth LM, Eisner T. 1962. Chemical defenses of arthropods. Annual Review of Entomology 7: 107-136.
* Wirtz RA. 1984. Allergic and toxic reactions to non-stinging arthropods. Annual Review of Entomology 29: 47-69.

External Links

* [http://vector.ifas.ufl.edu/chapter_07.htm#four Urticating Caterpillars] chapter in EPA and UF / IFAS National Public Health Pesticide Applicator Training Manual

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