A mesmerising look at nature's eight-legged wonders

From tarantulas to jumping spiders, these intimate portraits of arachnids show how unique, beautiful and even charming they are.

By Jason Bittel
Published 9 Feb 2023, 10:18 GMT
Perched on a banana flower, this bromeliad spider (Cupiennius sp.) in La Maná, Ecuador, waits patiently for an unlucky pollinator to drop by. These arachnids are often confused with wandering spiders (Phoneutria spp.), which have some of the most potent venom on Earth.
Photograph by Javier Aznar

Spiders are remarkably diverse. There are more than 50,000 known species, including diving bell spiders that live mostly underwater, arctic wolf spiders that can thrive north of the Arctic Circle, and giant spiny trapdoor spiders that can reach the ripe old age of 43. But many people never give arachnids a chance. 

This juvenile Ecuadorian red bloom tarantula (Pamphobeteus vespertinus) has telltale red markings on its abdomen. The stunning arachnid was photographed at night in La Maná, Ecuador.
Photograph by Javier Aznar
Spiny-backed orb weavers, like the Gasteracantha cancriformis shown here, come in a variety of colorations and can be found all over North, Central, and South America. This one was photographed in Yasuní, Ecuador.
Photograph by Javier Aznar
A jumping spider from the genus Sidusa eyes the camera as photographer Javier Aznar takes aim.
Photograph by Javier Aznar
Named after the Norse goddess of love and fertility, this jumping spider in the genus Freya was photographed in Yasuní, Ecuador.
Photograph by Javier Aznar
Scientists believe the spiny orb weavers (Micrathena sp.) evolved spikes on their abdomens as a way to dissuade predators from taking a bite.
Photograph by Javier Aznar
As their name suggests, turtle ant-mimicking spiders, like the Aphantochilus rogersi shown here, resemble the ants they prey upon.
Photograph by Javier Aznar
Officially known as Breda lubomirskii, this jumping spider was photographed in Yasuní, Ecuador. Jumping spiders pounce on their prey rather than catching it in webs.
Photograph by Javier Aznar
During the rainy season between December and July, males of the species Psecas viridipurpureus put on elaborate dancing displays in an attempt to woo a mate.
Photograph by Javier Aznar
Spiny-backed orb weavers like this Gasteracantha cancriformis may look particularly devilish, but their venom poses no serious threat to humans.
Photograph by Javier Aznar
A rarely seen crab spider (Onocolus sp.) blends into the foliage in the Jama-Coaque Ecological Reserve in Ecuador.
Photograph by Javier Aznar

“When people think about spiders, they think of something creepy,” says Javier Aznar, a Madrid-based biologist and photographer who has built up an impressive kalaeidoscope of spider images, particularly from the rainforests of Ecuador, where he lived for three years. “But when you look closer, you will see an amazing world.” (Spider silk is one of the most versatile materials on Earth.)

A bold jumping spider (Phidippus audax) rests atop a finger in Dallas, Texas. These spiders have iridescent colorations on their jaws and an inquisitive nature. They don’t spin webs but rather seize prey by ambush.
Photograph by Javier Aznar

Take the bold jumping spider (Phidippus audax), the charismatic arachnid staring you down just above. Aznar says these spiders, which can be found throughout North America, seemed “friendly,” and were not fearful of him. (Only about a dozen spider species are known to be harmful to people.) A few jumping spider species also have excellent colour vision, so when they turn that puppy-dog gaze your way, they’re actually seeing you. (Do spiders dream? A new study suggests they do.)

Suspended by a thread of silk, a thorned heart orb weaver spider (Micrathena clypeata) builds her egg case in the Amazon rainforest near Tena, Ecuador.
Photograph by Javier Aznar

Then there are the fascinating ant-mimicking crab spiders in the genus Aphantochilus, native to South America. Their broad, horned faces are strikingly similar to those of the ants they prey on, allowing them to sneak up on their meals without being noticed. As masters of disguise, the predators can be difficult to find, let alone photograph. In fact, Aznar has only seen them in Ecuador three or four times. (These spiders feed their leftovers to carnivorous plants.)

This tarantula’s striking defensive pose warned the photographer to stay back. He discovered the spider while hiking through the jungle at night in La Maná, Ecuador.
Photograph by Javier Aznar

Navigating such quirks of spider biology makes his work both challenging and fun, says Aznar, who often spends long nights in the jungle trying to catch spiders in action. (These tiny spiders perform a synchronised pop-and-lock ‘dance’ as they hunt.)

A growing spider in La Maná, Ecuador, casts off its exoskeleton in a process known as molting. This is a perilous time for the spider, because it requires a lot of energy and makes the spider vulnerable to predators.
Photograph by Javier Aznar
In Madrid, Spain, a female crab spider (Misumena vatia) feasts on a katydid as a much smaller male crab spider of another species (Thomisus onustus) perches on her abdomen. While it is common for a male crab spider to sit on a female before mating, scientists say it is rare to spot this among different species.
Photograph by Javier Aznar
A wandering spider (family Ctenidae) tucks into a katydid on the forest floor near Yasuní, Ecuador. Spider bites from this species are dangerous yet rarely fatal because of the small quantity of venom injected and available antivenom treatments.
Photograph by Javier Aznar
An arboreal tarantula (Avicularia sp.) waits for dinner to wander by in Yasuní, Ecuador. Aznar remembers seeing the same spider in the same place, night after night.
Photograph by Javier Aznar
All spiders produce silk, but only about half of spiders spin webs. This ogre-faced spider (Deinopis sp.) in Loracachi, Ecuador, shows an alternate strategy for catching food with its silken net, which it casts at insects as they flutter past.
Photograph by Javier Aznar

Photographing ogre-faced spiders in Ecuador, for instance, took him several years. Rather than weaving traditional webs, these big-eyed, long-legged arachnids create square nets of silk that they hold with their legs and swat at passing insects. (Ogre-faced spiders have great hearing—without ears.) 

However, the animals are skittish and will tuck their snares away and hide if suddenly approached. To capture the behavior in all its glory, the photographer had to become a sit-and-wait predator himself, spending long periods silent and unmoving. Then, one night as an ogre-faced spider readied its attack, with a click and a flash, Aznar finally got his shot.

Jason Bittel is a science journalist and National Geographic
Explorer. He is currently writing a book for National Geographic
about North American wildlife.

This story appears in the March 2023 issue of National Geographic magazine.


Explore Nat Geo

  • Animals
  • Environment
  • History & Culture
  • Science
  • Travel
  • Photography
  • Space
  • Adventure
  • Video

About us


  • Magazines
  • Disney+

Follow us

Copyright © 1996-2015 National Geographic Society. Copyright © 2015-2023 National Geographic Partners, LLC. All rights reserved