Palystes (rain spiders, lizard-eating spiders)

reënspinnekop, akkedisvretendespinnekop [Afrikaans]

Life > Eukaryotes > Opisthokonta > Metazoa (animals) > Bilateria > Ecdysozoa > Panarthropoda > Tritocerebra > Arthropoda > Arachnomorpha > Cheliceriformes > Chelicerata > Euchelicerata > Arachnida > Araneae > Araneomorpha > Family: Sparassidae (huntsman spiders)

Palystes castaneus Palystes castaneus underside
Palystes castaneus on nest. [image N. Larsen ©] Palystes castaneus in threat posture, showing banding beneath the legs. [image N. Larsen ©]

Palystes is derived from either the Latin "palaestes" or Greek "palaistes" meaning wrestler. These are the large spiders, often referred to as "tarantulas", that cause havoc by entering buildings during summer or before rain.

These spiders were previously listed as potentially dangerous. After tests where they were induced into biting guinea-pigs it was established that although the guinea-pigs had died within 3 minutes, it had been from shock and not the effects of any venom. For humans, the venom is in fact no worse than a bee sting although the spider's aggressive display, with its 2 front pairs of banded legs raised in warning, is enough to shrink the stoutest of hearts. They occur usually in vegetation but sometimes occur in the home.

Palystes occurs mainly on plants where it hunts various insects but is also regularly found in the home where they are fond of hunting geckos (usually the Marbled leaf-toed gecko, Afrogecko porphyreus in the Western Cape or the Cape dwarf gecko, Lygodactylus capensis in the eastern parts of southern Africa) and are sometimes called lizard-eating spiders. They usually appear in the home just before the onset of rain and the males are regularly seen in August to December, probably looking for females and also females busy foraging.

Palystes is also regularly seen in more unfortunate circumstances where it is being dragged around by a wasp or often the wasp is missing and all one finds is what seems to be a dead spider on the pathway. What has in fact happened is that the spider has been stung and immobilized by a female wasp of the family Pompilidae. These wasps hunt only spiders that they sting and paralyse and then stock each of their nests with a paralyzed spider, lay an egg on it and then seal the nest. The wasp eggs then hatch and the larvae have live fresh food on which to feed. All peripheral tissue is eaten first and lastly the vital parts so the meal stays fresh long enough for the larva to mature and then pupate.


Pompilid wasp, Tachypompilus ignites, dragging a paralysed Palystes superciliosus spider to her nest. [image H. Robertson, Iziko ©].



Twenty eight Palystes species occur in central, eastern and southern Africa with 13 resident in South Africa.


Palystes body length is 15-36 mm with a leg span of up to 110 mm. Dorsally (top) it is covered in tan to dark tan velvety covering of setae (hairs). The abdomen and legs might be interspersed with slightly longer setae (hairs).

The diagnostic features are a white moustachial stripe below the anterior (front) eyes and extending down the chelicerae (fangs) as well as banding on the ventral (underside) of the legs.

Another identifying feature of Palystes castaneus and P. superciliosus, is the egg sac made by the female. It is a roundish bag made of silk with leaves and twigs woven into it and is about 60-100mm in size. The construction of this nursery and the laying of eggs takes about 3-5 hours. The eggs hatch inside and are protected within the bag of silk and leaves. During this time the female guards her brood aggressively. Many a gardener has been bitten by a protective Palystes mother. After about 21 days, the spiderlings chew their way out of the sac to join the world. These egg sacs are a common sight from about November to April. Mating takes place in early summer and the spider will produce about 3 egg cases in her 2 year life.

Species native to southern Africa

Palystes ansiedippenaarae

Croeser, 1996

Palystes ansiedippenaarae is  known from Modimolle (formerly Nylstroom in Limpopo), Warburton (Mpumalanga) to Ndumo (Kwazulu-Natal).


Palystes castaneus

(Latreille, 1819)

Palystes castaneus is common from Cape Town to Heidelberg in the Western Cape. It appears to be more common in forested areas and during November its egg cocoon is very common in low vegetation and hedges. It is replaced by Palystes superciliosus in scrub outside forested areas. 17-22 mm.

Palystes crawshayi

Pocock, 1902

Palystes crawshayi is only known from Lesotho. 17-26 mm.


Palystes johnstoni

Pocock, 1896

Palystes johnstoni is the common species in Zimbabwe and Limpopo Province reaching into Malaŵi, Botswana (Okavango) and Mozambique. It occurs in savannah woodland.


Palystes karooensis

Croeser, 1996

Palystes karooensis occurs mainly in the mountainous areas of the Karoo. It occurs from Beaufort West (Western Cape) to Graaf-Reinet to the Kleinwinterhoekberge and Kokstad district (Eastern Cape). 14-22mm.


Palystes kreutzmanni

Jäger & Kunz, 2010

Collected from near Kleinmond in the Western Cape, in fynbos.

Palystes leppanae

Pocock, 1902

Palystes leppanae occurs in the Grahamstown to Alicedale areas of the Eastern Cape. 16-25mm.


Palystes leroyorum

Croeser, 1996

Palystes  leroyorum is found in the Bloemfontein area (Free State) to Modimolle (formerly Nystroom in Limpopo).


Palystes lunatus

Pocock, 1896

Palystes lunatus is only known from the type specimen. no locality is given only that it was collected in South Africa. Croeser believes it may be a montane species from the Eastern Cape. 29mm.


Palystes martinfilmeri

Croeser, 1996

Palystes martinfilmeri is less common, occurring in the Cedarberg-Piketberg area (Northern and Western Cape). This is the largest species with a body length of 19-36 mm.

Palystes perornatus

Pocock, 1900

Palystes perornatus is known from the Amatola and Hogsbach Mountains (Eastern Cape) to Port Edward (Kwazulu-Natal). 23 mm.


Palystes stilleri

Croeser, 1996

Palystes stilleri occurs from the Hottentots Holland Mountains, Stellenbosch district, to the Langerberg, Grootvadersbosch Heidelberg district, (Western Cape). Possibly a forest species that often occurs in the same area as Palystes castaneus to which it is very similar. It can be separated from P. castaneus in that its egg cocoon is similar to a white ping-pong ball. The female retreats into this with her eggs and cuts it open when she wants to leave. 26 mm.


Palystes stuarti

Croeser, 1996

Palystes stuarti only known from Nieuwoudtville (Northern Cape). 24-34 mm.


Palystes superciliosus

L. Koch, 1875

Palystes superciliosus is the most common and widespread species of the genus and ranges from Kwazulu-Natal westwards to Mpumalanga, North West, Limpopo, Eastern and Western Cape.

Publications (by date)

  • Cayton-Boxall, P. 1988. The mating of two Palystes. Spider Club News. 3 (1): 8.
  • Croeser, P. M. C. 1979. Just a bag of old leaves? Eastern Cape Naturalist 66: 8–10.
  • Croeser, P. M. C. 1996. A revision of the African Huntsman spider genus Palystes l. Kock, 1875 (Araneae:Heteropodidae). Annals of the Natal Museum 37: 1-122.
  • Dippenaar-Schoeman, A. S. & R. Jocqué. 1997. African Spiders: An Identification Manual. Plant Protection Res. Inst. Handbook, no. 9, Pretoria, 392 pp.
  • Filmer, M. R., Revised Larsen, N. 2010. Filmer’s Spiders: An Identification Guide for Southern Africa, Struik, Cape Town. 128pg
    Jäger, Peter.1999. Sparassidae – the valid scientific name for the huntsman spider (Arachnida: Araneae). Arachnol. Mitt. 17: 1-10.
  • Jäger, P. 2000. Heteropoda parva n. sp. and H. martusa n. sp. primitive or derived Heteropoda species? (Araneae: Sparassidae: Heteropodinae). Mitt. internat. entomol. Ver. 25: 195-205.
  • Jäger P, Kunz D. 2005: An illustrated key to genera of African huntsman spiders (Araneae: Sparassidae). – Senckenbergiana biologica 85 (2): 163–213.  Download from here
  • Jäger, P. & D. Kunz. Palystes kreutzmanni sp.n. - a new huntsman spider species from fynbos vegetation in Western Cape Province, South Africa (Araneae, Sparassidae, Palystinae). ZooKeys 67: 1-9.
  • Larsen, N. 2005.More than just a bag of old leaves: A look into our Rain Spiders. Newsletter of the Spider Club of South Africa 20 (2): 12
  • Lawrence, R. F. (1952a). New spiders from the eastern half of South Africa. Ann. Natal Mus. 12: 183-226.
  • Lawrence, R. F. 1962. Spiders of the Namib desert. Ann. Transv. Mus. 24: 197-211.
  • Lawrence, R. F. 1965. New and little known Arachnida from the Namib desert, S.W. Africa. Scient. Pap. Namib Des. Res. Stn 27: 1-12.
  • Lawrence, R. F. 1966. New dune spiders (Sparassidae) from the Namib desert, South West Africa. Cimbebasia 217: 3-15.
  • Warren, E.1926. On the habits, egg-sacs, oögenesis and early development of the spider Palystes natalius (Karsh). Annals of the Natal Museum 5 (3): 303 – 349.
  • Yates, J. H. 1968. Spiders of southern Africa. Cape Town: Books of Africa. 6-73.
    Unknown author.1998 The rain spider, the wasp and physiotherapy. Spider Club News. 13 (3) : 5-6.

Text by Norman Larsen ©

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