Had I known when I was interviewing for this position that one of the resident species at the Nature Center was the tarantula, I would have quickly placed it into the category of animals to actively avoid – along with all other venomous animals.
I certainly had no pressing desire to cross paths with a 3-inch, eight-legged hairy critter with very pronounced fangs. It wasn’t until early September that I learned about our resident arachnids, and by then, I treasured all things about the Nature Center. My curiosity was piqued, and I figured it was time to learn more about tarantulas.
About 50 different tarantula species inhabit the Southwest – living in the Four Corners states and into California and Mexico. They are solitary and reclusive animals, except in the fall when the males actively seek out females for mating. That’s why we are most likely to see them traveling through the Nature Center and other areas throughout our region.
A female will lay 500 to 1,000 eggs in an egg sac and aggressively guard her brood during her six- to seven-week gestation. Once they hatch, the youngsters disperse relatively quickly, and as you might expect given the number of eggs hatched, there is a significant attrition rate.
Tarantulas are not web spinners, although you may see a silken mat in front of their burrows that vibrates, alerting them to potential prey. They will pursue most prey that they can subdue, including grasshoppers, beetles, cicadas and, if the spider is big enough, lizards, mice and snakes.
However, tarantulas are docile and harmless to humans unless adequately provoked, and then, if they do strike, the pain does not even compare to a bee sting. Tarantulas do have “urticating” hairs on their abdomens, and they use their legs to cast the hairs into the faces of threatening animals, inflicting irritation of soft tissues and eyes. But the big takeaway from my research is that tarantulas do not pose a threat to humans.
Armed with a better understanding of tarantulas, I wanted to see them in their habitat, so I ventured out to the Nature Center last weekend and looked anew at trails that I have walked a number of times now. It never ceases to amaze me what we can see when we actually slow down and pay attention.
I looked at small, 1-inch holes with a completely different perspective. It didn’t take too long to find what I was looking for – a likely male tarantula in search of his mate. He was traveling along an arroyo, but he graciously allowed me to observe him as he traveled along. He even checked me out as I knelt down to get closer to him. There was no fear on either of our parts. Just curiosity.
My willingness to learn about this maligned creature sparked an appreciation and a desire to share my knowledge with the community. It’s easy to fear tarantulas, but like so many things, if we actually take time to understand them, we realize they pose no threat. They are remarkable animals.
The Nature Center provides a perfect opportunity to observe tarantulas and many other creatures that live in this region. But don’t delay. The Nature Center is open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays through Oct. 28, and then it will close to the public until next spring. So now is a great time to see if you can catch a glimpse of one of our resident tarantulas.
Stephanie Weber is executive director of Durango Nature Studies. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.