All through my formative years, my aunt and uncle had a pet tarantula. A strange choice of pet, no doubt, but Uncle Jim loves the Desert Southwest more than just about anyone else I know, so I guess it made an odd sort of sense.
My first tarantula-cousin was a male named Fred who came home to Virginia with Uncle Jim (as in, Uncle Jim intentionally brought him along–Fred wasn’t a stowaway) from the desert. Fred didn’t last long, so on his next trip out West, Uncle Jim found a replacement Fred. Freds were everywhere, it turned out, because Uncle Jim always visited in the fall, when male tarantulas come out of their burrows to mate. Fred 2 didn’t survive long in VA either. The next Fred, or Federica, came from a pet store: a beautiful female (with a much longer life expectancy than the previous male Freds) Mexican orange-kneed tarantula.
My sister and I were always a little wary of sharing space with a tarantula when we visited (my sister would phrase that more strongly): in our minds, they were dangerous killers sure to escape from any enclosure and murder unsuspecting little girls as they slept nearby. Naturally, I carried that belief into adulthood.
I knew that tarantulas live in the desert, but last Big Trip we saw nary a one, so I obsessed more about finding a scorpion in my shoe (a tale of horror that happened to J’s grandfather) than tarantulas attacking me. This trip was different. We saw our first tarantula in Salt Lake City, hardly part of the Desert Southwest! We saw a couple near Flagstaff, where Bugsy stepped on an unlucky tarantula crossing our hiking trail! (Bugsy didn’t even notice.) We saw one in Organ Pipe National Monument. We saw one in Big Bend. It turns out they’re not that terrifying–they saunter rather than scuttle, and the fact that they’re so big and hairy is more intriguing than frightening to my adult brain. We kind of liked them, so we wanted to learn more about them, and here I present to you our findings.
Tarantulas in the US
Tarantulas are found all over the world; in the US, they’re in the southern and southwestern states. Of the 800 or so species worldwide, we’ve got about 50, and they’re all generally big, brown, and hairy. Males have a much shorter lifespan than females, up to several years versus decades.
Can a Tarantula Kill Me?
A tarantula will not kill you! Unless you have some sort of tarantula allergy, I suppose. Yes, their bite is venomous, but it just hurts a lot. You’re more likely to get hit with urticating hairs than fang venom: tarantulas use their back legs to pull these barbed, irritating, slightly poisonous hairs from their abdomen and cast them into the face of perceived predators.
You should still stay away from tarantulas, though; respect them like any wildlife you chance upon. Certainly, you should not allow your dog to step on one. Sorry, dude.
Where do they live, what do they eat?
I always thought of tarantulas as desert beasts, but they also live in hills and forests, alone in their burrows in the ground. Tarantulas don’t spin webs; they pursue their prey and eat small critters: crickets, grasshoppers, cicadas, caterpillars, small spiders and lizards–not humans.
Does anyone eat tarantulas? Yes: coyotes, foxes, spider-eating birds, lizards, and snakes. A more horrifying way for a tarantula to perish than getting snapped up as a quick meal is by tarantula hawk attack: this wasp stings a tarantula, paralyzing it, lays eggs on it, and seals it up in a burrow. When the wasp larvae hatch, they eat the paralyzed tarantula alive.
Female tarantulas may eat males after mating, and if the female isn’t impressed with the male’s overtures and chooses not to mate with him, she might still eat him. Girl power!