I confess—I am really afraid of spiders. While my rational side finds them fascinating, my emotions run screaming, and so do I.
In a determined effort to overcome what I see as a major stumbling block for a nature lover like myself, I decided to get better acquainted with arachnids. What better place to start than with tarantulas.
Actually, tarantulas bother me less than other spiders. Their furry bodies remind me more of mammals with extra legs. (Those striped garden spiders are another matter entirely.) While venomous, they rarely bite, and their venom isn’t dangerous. Instead, their main mode of defense is launching a barrage of abdominal hairs at you. These barbed spines cause intense skin irritation, and are nearly impossible to remove.
Many tarantulas are quite attractive, in an arachnid-y sort of way. This Mexican Redleg has striking coloration. The Chilean Roseate my husband was holding (above) is one of the most docile tarantulas; both are sold as pets.
Far from being scary monsters, tarantulas are beneficial to people. They eat cockroaches and other insects, scorpions, and the small rodents they find in their underground tunnels. In fact, they think nothing of appropriating that mouse’s burrow, gaining both bed and breakfast at the same time.
A tarantula’s dream home would be a small underground chamber at the bottom of a foot long vertical shaft leading to the surface. The entranceway is often plugged with silk and dried leaves to deter predators. At dusk, the homeowner emerges to sit on the front porch, waiting for some unsuspecting insect to wander too closely. Then the spider pounces on its prey, impaling it with its fangs. When winter comes, tarantulas just hole up and wait for spring.
Female tarantulas can live a long time—over twenty years. While the females are homebodies with relatively short legs (like the Desert Tarantula at right), the longer-legged males roam far and wide searching for a mate. In fact, it’s pretty much the only thing they do. They need to make haste, as male adults only live for a few months. If old age or cold weather doesn’t do them in, their mate might. Females often consider the males a handy meal.
Like other spiders, tarantulas hatch from eggs. The female makes a nice silk nest, lays her eggs, and then bundles them up into a sack. She hauls that sack downstairs where the eggs will mature in the safety of the burrow. About two months later, they hatch, and the babies set out to dig burrows of their own.
Tarantulas enjoy a long childhood, molting as they grow. This might take as much as seven to ten years for males, and a little longer for females. Once they become adults, the males leave their homes to hunt for that elusive perfect mate, while the females hang around waiting for their prince charming to arrive.
Colorado has several species of tarantula, all found in the southern parts of the state. (I was relieved to know that I’m unlikely to find one at home, since we live farther north at 7,000 feet.)
This is a “Sugar City Brown,” otherwise known as Aphonopelma coloradanum. They live in southeast Colorado on rocky hillsides covered with pinyon pines and junipers, where they gobble down other small invertebrates.
The Colorado Chocolate Brown (Aphonopelma echinum) and the Oklahoma Brown (Aphonopelma hentzi) are also sometimes found in southeast Colorado. (Taxonomists are considering lumping all three spiders into two, or even a single, species.)
Colorado’s other two tarantula species, A. vogelae and A. marxi, live in the southwest portion of the state, and are much smaller than the eastern species. A. vogelae is the more common of the two, but both are rare enough to lack common names.