It is hard to imagine a creature more universally despised or feared than the spider. No matter what corner of the globe we inhabit, humans, myself included, have a unique vulnerability to the alien form and sinister nature of arachnids. The mere idea of being ensnared in one of their webs can send shivers down many a spine. We should count ourselves fortunate then, that the vast majority of spiders today are unobtrusive, tiny creatures. Even the largest known spider, the giant huntsman, which has a leg span of up to a foot, is too small to view a human as prey.
But could there be a spider that does?
Deep in the mysterious, unexplored jungles of Central Africa, so the story goes, the native peoples live in fear of a monstrous eight-legged beast whom they call the “J’ba Fofi”. These gargantuan spiders are said to resemble tarantulas, but are five or more feet across. They dwell deep in the jungle, spinning elaborate webs on the forest floor and pouncing after unfortunate prey, including humans, who may stumble into them.
Sightings of the J’ba Fofi are relatively few, as the areas which it supposedly inhabits lie far from the prying eyes of modern civilization. However, several have been catalogued by one William Gibbons (more on him later).
- In 1938, Englishman Reginald Lloyd and his daughter Marguerite were traveling through the Congo when a spider with an estimated leg span of five feet crossed the road in front of them. Lloyd grabbed for his camera but, as is so often the case in these tales, the creature had disappeared into the forest before he could take a picture.
- In the 1890s, a missionary named Arthur Simes was traversing the jungle with two porters, who stumbled into a massive web. Within seconds, two enormous spiders jumped on the men and bit them several times before Simes was able to drive them off with his pistol.
These are perhaps the most notable and widely repeated sightings, although several others appear in various sources.
These stories are the only “real” evidence of J’ba Fofi. There are no supposed photos taken of it, and no true expeditions have been launched to attempt to find it. So what do we make of this evidence? Well, for starters, the main source of these two stories is a man named William Gibbons. Gibbons made a small name for himself in the cryptozoology community by investigating the Mokele-Mbembe, a supposed living dinosaur which is also said to lurk in the depths of the Congo. The problem, however, is that Gibbons is an employee of the Institute for Creation Research, a self-declared “academic institution” dedicated to perpetuating the long-discredited belief of young earth creationism. Thus, not only does Gibbons have, to say the least, a very questionable scientific background, he would seem to have a vested interest in proving that supposedly ancient creatures such as dinosaurs and giant spiders are still alive and well today, as it fits into the young earth narrative.
So, if the evidence is scarce and what evidence there is does not meet any true scientific standard, is there any reason to give credence to the story of J’ba Fofi?
Many arachnophobes may breath a sigh of relief when I say that the answer is no. The reason is a biological one. Spiders, as a whole, are ancient life forms which evolved during the Triassic Period, approximately 200 million years ago. Back then, the Earth’s atmosphere was nearly ten percent more rich in oxygen than it is today. This rich environment allowed arachnids and insects to grow to monstrous sizes. Many types of spider, including the tarantula family (of which the J’ba Fofi is apparently one), feature a set of book lungs, layers of extremely thin “leaves” which allow for the passage of oxygen. These were able to support larger creatures in the Triassic air, but cannot do so in today’s comparatively oxygen-depleted atmosphere. However, even during this optimal stage, no spiders are known to have exceeded the size of the giant huntsman spider, which is less than a fifth the size of the supposed J’ba Fofi.
So does this titanic tarantula exist? I would say that the answer is almost certainly no. Although many may counter that the jungles of the Congo are vast and unexplored, the biological knowledge of spiders and how they work does not support the possibility that such a creature exists. Perhaps one day one will come lumbering out of the jungle and be caught on film, but until then, I believe that we can all safely say that there is no such thing.