Mysterious Giant Spiders of the Congo

Many people feel a natural aversion or revulsion to spiders. There is just something about them that seems to tickle at some primeval part of the deepest recesses of our brain and send some ancient, ingrained fear coursing through our veins. The mere sight of a spider can leave a lot of us cringing, recoiling, jumping away, or reaching for a rolled up newspaper. Now, how big would you say a spider would have to be before you ran away screaming? How big would it need to be to really freak you out? The size of your thumbnail? Your hand? A dinner plate? That is probably quite large enough to give a lot of people nightmares just thinking about it, but unfortunately there are said to be even bigger spiders inhabiting the remote, dark jungles of the world. In fact, in Equatorial Africa, there are said to be spiders more like the size of a large monkey or a dog, which prowl through the darkened underbrush and our nightmares as well. These are the spiders which will truly send even the bravest of us darting away in terror, and for which you are going to need more than a rolled up newspaper.

Lurking within the thick, nearly impenetrable jungles of the most remote parts of primarily the Democratic Republic of Congo, but also Cameroon, Uganda and the Central African Republic, are said to be enormous ground dwelling spiders which the natives of the region refer to as J’ba Fofi (pronounced ch-bah foo fee), which literally translates to “giant spider.” The J’ba Fofi are said to be reminiscent of a tarantula in both form and color, with adults exhibiting a dark brown coloration, but the real difference is in the size, as the Congolese Giant Spiders are said to attain leg spans of anywhere between an unsettling 4 to 6 feet. This shockingly immense size allows them to allegedly prey on a variety of small animals including birds, small jungle antelopes known as duiker, monkeys, and various reptiles, which they trap in an elaborate pattern of webs strung out between trees and devour after pouncing forth from a shallow depression camouflaged by leaves, in a manner very similar to trap door spiders. Reports from missionaries in the region and natives have suggested that the spiders are even known to kill humans on occasion and that their venom is extremely potent, which is illustrated by old reports from the jungle choked African interior of porters or tribesmen succumbing to giant spider bites in short order.

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Although explorers, missionaries, and natives had long told of seeing these massive spiders in the depths of the African jungle, perhaps the report that most thrust the J’ba Fofi into the spotlight was a sighting made by a Reginald and Margurite Lloyd in 1938 and chronicled by cryptozoologist George Eberhart. According to the account, the Lloyds were exploring in a remote region of what was then known as the Belgian Congo when they spied a dark shape skitter out from the underbrush and across the road in front of them. At first, the couple thought that it was merely some sort of cat, monkey, or some other common jungle animal, and stopped their truck to avoid hitting it and to let it pass. It was then that it became apparent to the horrified explorers that the creature was in fact a gigantic spider with a purported leg span of at least 4 or 5 feet. Before either of the startled eyewitnesses could get a camera or even really overcome their shock at seeing such a nightmarish site, the spider had already scampered into the thick brush on the other side of the track and was gone. Mrs. Lloyd was reportedly so upset by the incident that she demanded that they return to their home in Rhodesia at once.

Another report of giant spiders comes from Uganda during the 1890s, when an English missionary named Arthur Simes was exploring along the shores of Lake Nyasa. As Simes and company were trekking along, several of his porters allegedly became hopelessly entangled in a network of webbing that hugged the ground and was too strong to break with any means they possessed. It was not long before at least two giant spiders with leg spans of around 4 feet across pounced upon the ensnared men and bit them before Simes was able to drive them off with his pistol. Moments after being bitten, the porters were reported to have become feverish and delirious, their extremities swelled up considerably, and death followed shortly after.

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There are also accounts of giant spider sightings from several expeditions into the region in search of yet another cryptid, the saurian, dinosaur-like Mokele-mbembe. Such expeditions often heard stories from the natives about the J’ba Fofi, or even saw the spiders themselves. In fact, one naturalist and cryptozoologist, William J. Gibbons, was able to glean more detailed information on the J’ba Fofi during one of his many expeditions to the Congo in search of the Mokele-mbembe. Through various conversations with local tribes, it soon became apparent that not only did the natives know of them and see the giant spiders on a fairly regular basis, but that they had a good deal of knowledge about their behavior and life cycle. For instance, the eggs of the spider were said to be white or a pale yellow-white and around the size of a peanut, which were laid in clusters wrapped in webs in the underbrush and which were widely avoided by those who came across them. The newly hatched young spiders were said to be a bright yellow color with a purple abdomen, and gradually became a dark brown as they matured. Their preferred method of hunting was said to be laying an ambush for prey by weaving a series of webs between trees on either side of a game trail and lying in wait within a ditch covered with a pile of leaves woven together with webbing and said to be reminiscent of a pygmy hut.

The natives claimed that the venom of the spiders was powerful enough to drop a full grown man in seconds. Interestingly, Gibbons was able to learn that the J’ba Fofi had once been common and had had the unfortunate habit of sometimes building their nests near human settlements, but that they had become rarer over the years, suggesting that their numbers were perhaps dwindling or they were being driven by habitat encroachment further into the depths of the jungle. Gibbons was able to track down accounts of giant spider activity in the steamy jungles of Africa as recently as 2000, when he heard from a chief of the Baka tribe that a J’ba Fofi had built a nest near his village in the wilds of Cameroon.

Gibbons’ information is very intriguing to me not only for its detail, but also because it demonstrates that the tribes of the area saw the J’ba Fofi as a very real flesh and blood creature and a real part of their world. The detailed description of the J’ba Fofi’s life cycle, with mention of the eggs and the changing color as the juveniles attained adulthood, suggest that to the natives the giant spiders were not merely some sacred spirit or revered creature of myth, but rather a regular, albeit dangerous, jungle creature like any other. The description of the spiders is very matter-of-fact, and there seems to be no attempt on the natives’ part to play up the attributes of the spiders or make them seem like anything other than just another of the many denizens of the jungle, with a normal life cycle like any other real organism. Besides the fact that no such spider has been documented by science there seems to be no reason to assume they would be lying about such things and this has all of the hallmarks of an ethnoknown animal, or one that is known by natives or locals but is not typically yet formally recognized by outsiders or science. Bear in mind that a great many new species that were discovered, including ones that at one time were even considered fantastical or absurd, such as the gorilla, okapi, and panda, were at some point ethnoknown animals, and native accounts of the creatures which they take as a fact of life but for which we have no strong evidence yet are not always to be brushed off or dismissed so lightly.

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The problem with the tales of such colossal spiders prowling through African jungles to me is not that sightings are few and far between or that we know of them mostly from native accounts, nor even that we have no real physical evidence for them. The major problem with the J’ba Fofi, or indeed any reports of giant spiders around the world, has always been more one of physiology. There are two main hurdles for a spider to get to the sizes reported here. The first is respiration. Spiders have either book lungs, which are respiratory organs consisting of stacked alternating air pockets and tissue, or a tracheal respiratory system consisting of a network of small tubes that branch out into the body, which is present in many insects as well. Many species of spiders have both. Yet the problem with these methods of respiration is that neither one of them is particularly efficient for exchanging atmospheric gas when dialed up to large sizes and this limits the sizes attainable by terrestrial insects and arachnids.

Many readers may be thinking already of the numerous giant insects that once roamed the earth many millions of years ago, but there was far more oxygen in the atmosphere of those days which could compensate for this inefficiency, and even then there were no spiders as large as is claimed with the J’ba Fofi. This limitation of the respiratory system of arachnids puts a cap on how big they can get, and the largest known spiders today are the Goliath birdeater (Theraphosa blondi), which can have a leg span of up to 11 inches (28 cm) and can weigh over 170 g (6.0 oz.), and the giant huntsman spider (Heteropoda maxima), which is not as heavy but has a longer leg span at 12 inches (30 centimeters) and incidentally was discovered in Laos only recently in 2001, despite being so frighteningly large. These are both disturbingly large spiders to be sure, but quite possibly the maximum size attainable for a spider and still nowhere near the incredible sizes reported for the J’ba Fofi.

Ok, so let’s say that the giant spiders of Africa have somehow evolved a radical new type of respiratory system and have transcended the size limitation imposed on other arachnids. Even if that were the case, there is still another, perhaps even more insurmountable obstacle to face and that is their exoskeleton. The problem with an exoskeleton is that it is heavy, which at smaller sizes is not really a problem. However, muscular strength is largely a function of the width of the muscle at its widest point, so as an arachnid gets larger the factor that determines its muscular strength, the width, grows in two dimensions as the exoskeleton grows in three dimensions. To put it simply, the weight of the exoskeleton is growing faster than the strength of the muscles that support and move it. What this means for the spider is that its exoskeleton will at some point become too heavy for it to carry or for it to even move. It is a formidable challenge for any arthropod (a creature with an exoskeleton) to overcome if it is to become very large. To be sure there are quite huge arthropods out there that we know of, such as the Japanese spider crab, which can reach 3.8 meters (12 ft.) from claw to claw, but these creatures have the benefit of having the surrounding water to help support all of that weight. There are indeed also enormous terrestrial arthropods in the form of the coconut crab, which can grow to up to 1 m (3 ft. 3 in) in length and weigh 4.1 kg (9.0 lb), but this is quite possibly the largest size physically possible for a land based creature with an exoskeleton, and anyone who has observed a coconut crab in action will notice how incredibly slowly they move. Considering all of this, it is really hard to imagine a spider with a 4 to 6 foot leg span explosively darting out to capture prey or swiftly scurrying about through the jungle.

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While the inhospitable and little-explored jungles of the African interior certainly seem like they could harbor a large undiscovered animal, these physical restrictions tend to make the reports of the J’ba Fofi sound a little far-fetched, and leaves me wondering how much stock we should put into them, yet the stories of African giant spiders and indeed reports of giant spiders in many places around the world persist. Is it possible the reports are of some very large spider, but perhaps the sizes have been exaggerated somehow? Are these misidentifications of some other creature? The natives seem to take it for granted that such giant spiders exist, so what do we make of these accounts? The answers to these questions are likely to elude us until we find more evidence of the existence of the J’ba Fofi, or even some proof that its existence is physiologically feasible. Until then, it might be best to keep an eye to the ground while exploring the jungles of Africa and be wary of any tangles of webs that may cross the path, just in case.

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