It’s fall in colorful Colorado. At dusk, the moon will soon replace the sun. You are taking a stroll outside in the crisp, cool air when something large, brown and hairy with eight long legs scuttles across the street. Would you be scared?
You shouldn’t be! It’s just a male Oklahoma brown tarantula (Aphonopelma hentzi) (aka Texas or Missouri brown tarantula), out looking for love. You are witnessing the epic journey thousands of male tarantulas make every year. But first, let us show you why tarantulas are cool.
Tarantulas are the largest spiders in North America, usually measuring two to three inches long. They are covered in thousands of tiny hair-like bristles called “setae.” Their colors range from yellow, blue, brown to black, and males are much smaller than females. Females have a lifespan of around 20 years, while males live about 8 to 10 years.
Director of Animal Collections Mario Padilla at the Butterfly Pavilion in Westminster, Colorado is passionate about tarantulas. “There are so many special things about tarantulas! My favorite thing about them is their diversity in what habitats they need, and they are also diverse in size.”
There are approximately 800 types of tarantulas worldwide, with more than 50 tarantula species in North America, which are found from California to Louisiana, and even in the Rocky Mountains. Tarantulas are solitary creatures (something most of us can relate to in 2020), usually preferring to live in deep burrows or under rocks, and maintaining a small hunting radius of just a few feet for food (is the tarantula the mascot for 2020?!).
Tarantulas have chelicerae (pronounced kuh-LIS-uh-rah), which are a pair of appendages near the mouth that resemble pinchers. These chelicerae work like the spider’s jaws to crush their prey — anything from insects to frogs, mice and even small birds. Their fangs then release a venom that paralyzes the prey.
Don’t worry though, the venom of North American tarantulas is not very toxic to humans. If you are pierced by tarantula fangs, you can expect a pang like a bee sting or paper cut. However, on rare occasions, humans can have an allergic reaction.
Tarantulas are usually not aggressive, but if they are handled carelessly, they may bite to protect themselves (and who can blame them). It’s generally best to keep your distance because they also have barbed hairs on their abdomens that they can flick at a potential predator to irritate the skin, eyes and respiratory tract. So, show them some respect!
Looking for Love
Once they reach sexual maturity (7–10 years old), male Oklahoma brown tarantulas abandon their burrows in late summer and fall in search of a female to mate. Most of the year, males do not travel more than a few inches from their burrows, but during mating season they have been found nearly a mile away from their burrows — that’s a long journey for a spider!
Other than emerging to eat, females usually stay within their burrows for their entire lives, waiting for males to find them (so, basically, they’re Rapunzel). Can humans emulate this? Asking… for science.
Don’t panic. Even though thousands of tarantulas make the trek, since they are solitary creatures you’re only likely to see one or two at a time.
According to Padilla, once a male has reached a female’s burrow, he will drum on the outside of the opening with his pedipalps (small appendages near its head) to make her aware of his arrival. She emerges, the tarantulas face each other, the male grasps the female’s legs and releases sperm from his pedipalps into the female. So romantic.
Once done with the deed, the female may devour her partner. According to Colorado State University, if he escapes, he will not survive long due to the incoming winter. Love bites and can be deadly.
Since tarantulas are so unique, they face a huge threat by illegal wildlife trafficking, commonly smuggled into the U.S. to be sold as pets. In some countries they are considered a delicacy.
In 2018, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), Office of Law Enforcement’s wildlife inspectors seized 250 baby Brazilian white-knee and salmon pink bird-eating tarantulas that were hidden in deli cups and film canisters being brought into the country illegally at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in Washington. USFWS was able to find some of the baby spiders a permanent home at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle. Check out their recovery story from National Geographic’s Jason Bittel.
The tale of the baby tarantulas is one of dozens of daily challenges faced by USFWS Office of Law Enforcement, which works to identify, prevent and stop potentially devastating threats to wildlife resources — such as illegal trade, unlawful commercial exploitation, habitat destruction and environmental contaminants. USFWS wildlife inspectors, special agents and conservation law enforcement officers investigate wildlife crimes, regulate wildlife trade, help Americans understand and obey wildlife protection laws and partner with international, federal, state and tribal counterparts to conserve and protect wildlife resources.
The Tarantula Truth
Initially, tarantulas may seem terrifying, but the truth is these large, gentle and fuzzy spiders are just trying to survive and find a soulmate like the rest of us. So, step softly on your next evening stroll. We loners have to watch out for each other.
We wish we could have told Marv he had nothing to fear from this furry friend!
Learn more about tarantulas:
Learn more about tarantula migration:
Story by Mikaela Oles, a Public Affairs Specialist in the Lakewood, Colorado regional office.