Taken with Tarantulas
Science professor and students advocate for Arkansas Valley arachnids
By Coleman Cornelius | Photography by Mary Nieberg
In a state known for natural beauty, every region has a trademark animal, a wild species that uniquely reflects the local landscape and is generally prized by its people. The lark bunting, the state bird of Colorado, flits along fence lines on the Eastern Plains. Moose saunter across North Park. Mountain goats spring among boulders on the Continental Divide. Lynx pad through southwestern Colorado, their slight population rising and falling with the snowshoe hare.
And the Arkansas Valley? It’s crawling with arachnids – namely Aphonopelma hentzi, the Oklahoma brown tarantula.
Each fall, mature males emerge from their burrows and creep around southeastern Colorado, huddling at times under prickly pear cactus, scuttling at times across remote roadways, and spotted at times on golf courses, soccer fields, and sidewalks. As surely as bull elk fill the autumnal meadows of Rocky Mountain National Park with eerie bugling – and for the same reason – male tarantulas crawl searchingly through rabbitbrush on the prairie.
Because it’s mating season.
The male tarantula doesn’t possess the majesty of the bull elk that helps make Estes Park a tourist mecca. But science students at CSU-Pueblo are here to tell you southeastern Colorado did not draw the short straw with its characteristic creature.
“Tarantulas are so cool. I’d like to see people respect them,” Sarah Lira, a chemistry major in the CSU-Pueblo Honors Program, said.
Lira is a student ambassador at CSU-Pueblo, and she often leads campus tours for prospective students and their parents. During these outings, Lira touts the tarantula as a captivating aspect of the campus that sits on a bluff above the Arkansas River several miles from downtown Pueblo. It’s not uncommon to see a tarantula skirting an open expanse as summer cedes to fall. But don’t worry, Lira assures visitors, sightings are intermittent, and the spiders are not harmful to people.
“It’s one of my engagement points when I talk to students because it’s one of the unique things they might experience here,” said Lira, a junior on a pre-veterinary track. “Not having a city impede on you allows you to see the wildlife around us, and tarantulas are part of what you might see. It’s cool being on the outside of the city because you get to experience the prairie. It’s an opportunity for discovery.”
When Lira gives visitors her spider spiel, “it takes them a minute to process it,” she admitted. “Then they’re like, ‘OK, that’s cool.’”
It didn’t take a sales pitch to interest Keythur Merchant in tarantulas. A junior in wildlife biology, Merchant grew up collecting spiders and snakes in southeastern Colorado. He is working to establish a CSU-Pueblo bug zoo that would offer educational outreach to local schoolkids who might become enamored of arthropods and science, just as he is.
As he walked to zoology class in early October, Merchant plucked a tarantula from a campus sidewalk and delivered it to a terrarium in the Biology Department for study and discussion.
“I see them as puppies,” Merchant said, as he peered into the terrarium with fellow science students. “The tarantula has fur, so it’s kind of like a little pal, a companion. I’m like, ‘Come here, buddy, I want to be your friend.’”
The Oklahoma brown tarantula is moderately sized, as mature tarantulas go. Still, with a leg span about 4 inches in diameter, this is no itsy-bitsy spider. The males cruise from their burrows only when sexually mature, typically at 7 to 10 years old. They have one final purpose – to procreate – and they are drawn by pheromones emitted from females huddled in their own burrows, Professor Moussa Diawara, chair of the Biology Department at CSU-Pueblo, explained.
The fall phenomenon is often called a tarantula “migration,” but that’s a misnomer for the male’s mating-season walkabout. The spiders don’t troop en masse in a single direction, but wander by ones to find their mates.
As his students examined the tarantula in its glass enclosure, Diawara said laughingly, “He was seeking love. We shouldn’t have disturbed him.”
Unlike other spider species, the professor explained, the tarantula spins its web not to ensnare but to detect the movement of prey, chiefly insects, such as crickets, beetles, and grasshoppers. The tarantula ambushes its prey, injects it with immobilizing venom, liquefies its body with digestive enzymes, and then slurps the meal like soup.
The female’s web, at the entrance to her burrow, is also the screen door upon which a male may come a-knocking during mating season – signaling her emergence for breeding.
“I think they’re fascinating from a scientific standpoint,” said Morgan Mohalla, a biology student with his sights set on medical school. “They’ve got eight legs, fangs, a hairy butt, spinnerets, and they have to molt to grow.”
The Oklahoma brown tarantula is considered a docile spider (unless you’re a cricket). It is unlikely to bite when gently handled by people. But if it comes to that, the bite is akin to a bee sting, Diawara said. More problematic is its defense mechanism: The tarantula ejects barbed abdominal hairs, called urticating hairs, when it feels threatened. The effect is like pepper spray in the eyes and sensitive facial tissues of potential predators.
But this is a romance, and the male tarantula is a sympathetic protagonist, even with nasty table manners and flyaway hair. That’s because our arachnid’s uncertain journey, if successful, ends with fruitful coupling and death. While a female tarantula might live to be 25, the male enters a steep and ultimately fatal decline after mating. He stops eating and essentially withers away.
The reasons are unclear, but are surely tied to species survival, Diawara told his students. “I’m good – my life is done,” he summarized, speaking for the spider.
After an introductory tarantula talk last fall, Diawara and five students set out to scout for spiders on the CSU-Pueblo campus. The outing occurred at dusk during the height of tarantula mating season, a promising time to find one of the nocturnal creatures. Still, it took focused hunting to find a tarantula.
“Oh, I found one,” exclaimed Lira, the pre-vet student, peering into brush at the edge of a parking lot. But the furry body she spotted was a complete tarantula exoskeleton, shed during molting and locked in a spidery stance.
A few minutes later, Merchant, the aspiring wildlife biologist, spied a tarantula amid cactus and sagebrush. He scooped it up, and his classmates gathered around as Merchant let the tarantula creep along his forearm. He plopped the creature on his jawline to demonstrate its friendliness, and the tarantula crawled agreeably down Merchant’s neck and shoulder.
Kaitlin Diodosio, a junior in biochemistry, anxiously cupped her hands to receive the tarantula from her friend, and she was entranced as it moved with soft pitter-patter steps over her palms, into those of a classmate, and back again. She had joined the excursion to learn about the Oklahoma brown tarantula and to overcome her trepidation. “I thought, ‘What better way to get over my fear?’” Diodosio said.
She gazed at the fuzzy creature in her hands, ready to release the tarantula back to its romantic quest. “I’m sorry if I scared you, little spider,” she said quietly.