Nicole Kidman is no stranger to playing a heroine on the silver screen, but she recently did a heroic deed in real life when she rescued a lovelorn tarantula from drowning in a swimming pool, according to a video the Australian actress posted on Instagram.
The black tarantula (definitely a male) "was probably just wandering around looking for a female to mate with, since it's mating season," said Chris Hamilton, a National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellow at the Florida Museum of Natural History and the University of Florida. "It was probably not aware of the pool at all." [Photos: That's a Lot of Legs! Wolf Spiders Caught Having Threesomes]
The video shot by Kidman shows the lovesick tarantula scuttling dangerously close to the pool's edge. Then, as children scream in the background, she traps it in a jar, later posting on Instagram, "House guest! Catch and release…spider released unharmed and healthy."
So, how did Kidman do? And did she put herself in danger by getting so close to the tarantula?
"She did great!" Lorenzo Prendini, curator of Arachnida and Myriapoda at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, told Live Science. "I couldn't improve on how elegantly she captured it."
Despite their fierce reputation, the 29 species of tarantula that are native to the United States are largely harmless. "They have big fangs and a bite would certainly hurt, due to the size of the fangs, but the venom is incredibly mild," and usually does not cause a reaction in people, Hamilton told Live Science in an email.
Kidman appeared to exit from the rescue unscathed. But if you get bitten by a tarantula, you'd most likely need to only wash the bite with soap and water, Hamilton said.
"I personally wouldn't be worried," Hamilton said. "I would just watch the wound site [to] make sure no infection occurs. Though if you feel sick or the site is hot and 'burns' days after the bite, I would certainly see a physician."
That said, "I've handled tarantulas from across the United States thousands of times and have NEVER been bitten," said Hamilton, who has even named a new species of tarantula: the Aphonopelma johnnycashi, in honor of singer Johnny Cash.
The tarantula in Kidman's video is likely Aphonopelma steindachneri, Hamilton said. The actress reportedly has homes in Los Angeles; Nashville, Tennessee (although this house is apparently for sale); and Sydney. It's hard to tell where the video was filmed, but given that there aren't any tarantulas native to Tennessee, and it's winter in Australia right now, the rendezvous with the tarantula probably happened in Los Angeles, where it happens to be A. steindachneri mating season, Hamilton said.
Old World tarantulas that are native to Australia, Africa and Asia do produce venom that can be more painful to people than the venom from New World tarantulas in the Americas; "but still, it wouldn't really harm a human beyond the pain and maybe some other side effects, like muscular contractions," Hamilton said. In contrast, most New World tarantulas have "urticating" hairs (barbed hairs they can kick at predators and prey), while Old World tarantulas do not, he noted. [Creepy, Crawly & Incredible: Photos of Spiders]
Despite these defenses, there are no known cases of anyone dying from tarantula venom, Hamilton said. "One evolutionary reason for this is that tarantulas are quite large and powerful [at least to smaller prey]. They use their strength to overpower prey and hold onto it while the venom works to kill and digest."
Speaking of which, tarantulas play a key role in the ecosystem. Spiders eat between 400 million and 800 million tons of insects a year worldwide, said Alireza Zamani, who has a Master of Science in animal biosystematics at the University of Tehran in Iran. What's more, the venom of some tarantulas has medical uses: It may prevent atrial fibrillation (irregular heartbeat) and may even help people who are at risk of having a stroke, Zamani said.
If we are to learn anything from Kidman's encounter, it's this: "Nicole has done the right thing, first not to kill the poor, harmless spider, and second, to transfer it safely in a container," Zamani told Live Science. "I hope that he is safe and has already found a mate!"
Original article on Live Science.
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Laura is the archaeology and Life's Little Mysteries editor at Live Science. She also reports on general science, including paleontology. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Scholastic, Popular Science and Spectrum, a site on autism research. She has won multiple awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association for her reporting at a weekly newspaper near Seattle. Laura holds a bachelor's degree in English literature and psychology from Washington University in St. Louis and a master's degree in science writing from NYU.