ST. GEORGE — The desert southwest is full of all sorts of interesting creatures, from large birds of prey to slithery snakes, and bobcats to kangaroo rats. But, perhaps one of the most commonly misunderstood creatures is the tarantula.
At least that is what one Zion National Park Facebook post recently said about the spider that sometimes incites fear in visitors to the area.
“Being the largest spider in the Southwest, tarantulas are often feared, but also misunderstood,” the post said.
According to further information from Zion National Park, the large, hairy arachnids have gotten a bad reputation in large part due to their portrayal as aggressive, poisonous and even deadly monsters in horror movies.
But the truth is that tarantulas are actually quite docile, and seeing one in the wild in Zion or anywhere in the southwest is a rare and special occurrence.
Zion National Park Ranger Avery Sloss told St. George News that the biggest misconception about tarantulas is that they are inherently dangerous.
Theraphosidae, commonly known as tarantulas, are carnivorous spiders often identified by their hairy bodies. According to National Geographic, there are over 800 known species of tarantula.
The most commonly found species in Southern Utah is the Aphonopelma chalcodes, or Western Desert Tarantula.
Although they can and will bite if harassed, tarantula venom is generally considered nontoxic to humans.
“Their venom isn’t too strong, but still it isn’t something you would want to happen to you,” Sloss said of being bitten by a tarantula.
As a natural defense against predators, tarantulas fling barbed hairs from their bellies to ward off attackers. These hairs can also cause irritation and itching to the face of a coyote or human skin, Sloss said.
That said, unlike most spiders, tarantulas move slowly in a manner that Sloss described as a saunter, and are generally harmless if left alone.
“They are usually very slow, just kind of lumbering along,” Sloss said.
However, their slow movements do have a purpose, and when seen in the daylight, the tarantula is usually on a very specific mission.
That mission is to find a mate.
Typically a nocturnal creature and hunter, the tarantula is not often seen in the daytime. But in late summer to fall, the male tarantula will start to look for a mate and can be seen more in daylight.
Information from the park’s website said the following:
Tarantulas are rarely seen in Zion – they are nocturnal and spend most of their time in underground burrows – but sightings are most common on park roads in late summer and fall, when the males are out cruising for females.
Female tarantulas, which have a lifespan of up to 25 years, are what the park called “homebodies,” sticking to their burrows. But the males can be found undertaking the perilous journey to find a mate and can sometimes be spotted on park trails and roads.
Tarantulas have several natural predators including foxes, bats and roadrunners, but maybe none more gruesome than the tarantula hawk, Sloss said.
The Tarantula Hawk is a specific kind of wasp that uses its sting to paralyze a tarantula. The wasp will then lay its egg in the tarantula, and when the egg hatches, the larvae will feast on the still alive arachnid.
Sloss said the tarantula hawk leaves the tarantula alive because it preserves the spider’s organs and the life-giving nutrients they provide for the wasp larvae.
For the male tarantula, whose life span is closer to around 10 years, even if he survives the journey to find a mate, he will most likely be eaten by the female after mating or die shortly after, park information said.
Though tarantulas can be seen in the day more often from late summer to fall, the frequency in which they are seen is still low, Sloss said.
“I maybe see five to 10 a year,” Sloss added.
For visitors who do see them, Sloss gave a few dos and don’ts so that they can be safely viewed:
- Do: Watch for them on roads and trails. Sloss said that many tarantulas seen in the park are seen on the roads and bike trails and can easily be run over if the visitor is not observant.
- Do: Give them plenty of space. It is best to view and photograph the spider using a telephoto lens or binoculars.
- Don’t: Get in their path. Tarantulas are usually headed in a specific direction to find their burrow or mate.
- Don’t: Pick them up or take them home as pets.
“We take a very hands-off approach to wildlife here in the park,” Sloss added.
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