Originally Published: July 27, 2018 9:39 p.m.
A group of children watch from the front porch as a hairy creature creeps its way across the wet road in front of their Prescott-area home. A car passes, stops, and then backs up, deliberately crushing the eight-legged marvel known as the desert blonde tarantula.
This scene played out after a recent monsoon rain, and will likely happen again if fear, misinformation and Hollywood continue to portray these large, colorful spiders as villains. The truth is, to many entomologists, tarantulas are the heroes of the spider world.
“Argh, it makes me so sad that people feel the need to run them over,” said Katelyn Garcia, outreach and office administrator for the Phoenix Herpetological Society. “I love tarantulas. I have always loved all animals, but they are one that is so misunderstood. Arachnophobia is the most common zoological phobia around the world.”
TARANTULAS EAT OTHER PESTS
According to Garcia, tarantulas feed on a number of insects that homeowners consider pests, like cockroaches, scorpions, earwigs, mosquitoes, flies, fleas and moths. They also eat other spiders. Having them around becomes a natural means of insect control, which can even help prevent the spread of disease by dispatching insects that spread bacteria. Some larger species in other regions will even eat mice.
Because they are a native, non-invasive species, tarantulas do not pose a threat to the local ecosystem.
“They are natural exterminators, so you are not using poison or other chemicals around the home,” Garcia said.
Despite their fearsome appearance, tarantulas generally are not a threat to humans, Garcia said.
“The venom of the desert blonde tarantula is actually milder than a common bee sting,” Garcia said. “Their bites can be painful, but they are not harmful.”
For this reason, tarantulas are a popular pet for arachnophiles (spider-lovers).
“They don’t want to hurt anybody, they just want to eat and move on,” Garcia said. “One thing that a lot of people don’t know is that they actually have retractable claws like cats. They can retract them to climb and that makes them a furry little animal much like kittens and not something scary and unknown.”
MONSOON RAINS BRING OUT THE MALES
“When it gets rainy like this you’ll see them all over the place,” said Larry Phoenix, the Prescott regional supervisor for Arizona Game and Fish. “Just like snakes and mice, the rains bring them out. You’ll see them on the roads and on the trails.”
Arizona monsoon rainstorms act as a sexual cue for mature male tarantulas to begin their quest to find females, Garcia explained.
Females, which can live in the wild for 20 years or more, will wait in their burrows for the seeking males, which live only for 3 to 7 years. There are 800 species of tarantula in the world, and about 30 live in Arizona. The desert blonde — the most common tarantula in the Prescott area — can grow to a length of 3 to 4 inches, or about the size of the palm of your hand.
Females can stay below ground indefinitely, letting the food and mates come to them.
The males will maintain their single-minded mission until they find a female willing to mate. This means braving roadways, dogs, uneducated drivers and other human-caused perils, and what’s known as the tarantula hawk, a wasp that paralyzes the tarantula, drags it to a nest and lays its eggs in the spiders’ abdomen to hatch larva which will eat the still-living prey.
“Tarantula hawks are cool, but they are a threat to the tarantula,” Garcia said.
According to the National Park Service, when a male tarantula finds a female burrow, he taps his foot to alert the female to his presence. If she is receptive, she will emerge and allow the courtship to begin. Once the mating ritual is completed, the male tarantula will make a quick getaway because females often try to eat males after mating.
IF YOU SEE ONE
While some may become frozen in fear at the sight of a tarantula, or feel the need to kill it, Garcia and Phoenix both expressed the same sentiment, “Don’t kill the tarantulas.”
“If you come across one on a trail, watch it just like you would any other animal, like an elk or a deer or a raccoon,” Phoenix said. “They’re not a critter to be afraid of, so please don’t kill them. Just watch and let them do their business.”
“If they are in the road I recommend using a stick or magazine to help scoot them along the way,” Garcia said. “I don’t recommend picking them up if you don’t need to. A male looking for a female may become a bit defensive.”
If you find one in your home, Garcia recommends you gently capture it and release it outside.
“Let them live their 8-legged life,” Garcia said. “They’re providing free pest control.”
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