Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Tarantupedia, an online encyclopaedia for the biggest spiders in the world

Tarantulas are amazing. Not only do they include the largest of all spiders, with some species reaching a legspan the size of a dinner plate, but they are arguably some of the most beautiful too. While famous for giants that inhabit the jungles of South America, some species barely grow larger than your thumb nail. Some species live on trees in damp forests while others live in self-constructed tubular burrows in the ground in some of the most inhospitable deserts. Some have special protective hairs on their bodies which cause extreme itching when they come into contact with the mucous membranes of potential predators, while others produce a hissing sound in self-defence. While they are the stuff of nightmares for some people, they are the source of absolute fascination for others.

The Tarantupedia is relatively new venture started about three years ago by a tarantula enthusiast in South Africa, Dimitri Kambas. His goal is to produce the authoritative online resource for information on tarantulas. Importantly, his focus is on scientific information, something that stands in stark contrast with the majority of tarantula websites which are centered on keeping tarantulas in captivity. The Tarantupedia is different. You won’t find captive care sheets or guidelines on how to breed a particular species. Instead you will find the kind of the information reminiscent of a detailed scientific publication, but presented in an easy-on-eye, comfortable-to-work-with format intended for scientists and interested members of the general public alike.

Dimitri Kambas, Co-Founder and Editor, The Tarantupedia.

The project began with the construction of a digital taxonomic catalogue, a presentation of tarantula classification linked to information on taxonomic authors and their publications. The Tarantupedia uses modern web technologies, so the data are presented in a dynamic format where the user can view the same information from multiple different perspectives. You may want to know who described a particular species, or how many species a particular author has described. You can get lists of species mentioned in a particular publication, or if you’re interested, you can get a short biography for some of the better known tarantula experts. You can even see where the original type specimen for a particular species was collected, presented neatly on Google Maps.

Tarantula taxonomy had early beginnings, with Linnaeus himself even responsible for the descriptions of one or two species. Developing the Tarantupedia has required investigation of some of the earliest literature, and this is where the Biodiversity Heritage Library has been invaluable. Through the efforts of the BHL, many obscure and largely forgotten taxonomic articles were available for consultation where they were needed. The Tarantupedia links directly to the BHL so users can examine relative literature for themselves at the click of a mouse. Using the BHL API, Tarantupedia finds instances of species names in the articles stored on BHL and creates hyperlinks directly to those article pages where the species names are mentioned. Anyone who has worked with old literature knows how daunting it can be trying to track down old but important works. Thanks to the BHL, not only do you get the relevant literature, but you can go right to the parts of the literature that are of interest to you! This creates a resource that taxonomists can use to find the information they need fast, lowering the barrier to further taxonomic research which is sorely needed for many tarantula taxa.

Tarantupedia record showing links to BHL literature.

If you’re interested to learn more please visit the Tarantupedia at This is an on-going project with a growing base of contributors from around the world and new information is added almost daily. Suggestions for improvements are welcome, as are contributions in the way of photographs, sighting records, and missing literature. With continued support, particularly from other projects like the BHL, the Tarantupedia will become an invaluable resource for anyone interested in these amazing animals.

Enjoy a selection of historic tarantula illustrations from books in the BHL collection on Flickr:

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