I happen to know a reasonable amount about tarantulas. They have fascinated me for many years, and in fact I am an honorary member of the British Tarantula Society which was formed way back in 1984. I am now fortunate enough to live in an area where tarantulas occur. They are by no means common, and in fact can be very difficult to find, particularly females.
The California Black tarantula is a fairly small tarantula, usually black or very dark brown. The male’s body rarely exceeds an inch, and its leg span may be nearly 5 inches, but that would be a very large specimen. Of the two tarantulas that are commonly found in Southern California, the male of this species is the first one to emerge in a given season. The other species Aphonopelma chalcodes (Blond tarantula) will appear a couple of months after and is almost totally blond in color.
Mature males of most tartantulas are easy enough to detect if you are in the right location, because these are the tarantulas that you will see wandering around apparently aimlessly after the rains in June-July-August time frame each year. If you see a tarantula wandering anywhere, especially during the day, I would say you have a 95% chance that it is a male. It has become sexually mature, left its burrow, and gone wandering in search of a female mate. If he should find one, folklore has it that she will likely eat him after meeting with him. Unfortunately for the male tarantula, if the female tarantula is at all hungry, this folklore is in fact true! and she will attempt to eat him. For there is no better food for a tarantula, than another tarantula!
Below is an image of part of my back yard.
I was sitting by the pool with my wife one evening shortly after we had moved there, and suddenly she exclaimed: “What the *((*^ is that?!”
It was the tarantula that you see in the images below!
Juvenile tarantulas look very similar between the sexes until the males mature. In the wild, males mature between three and six years old. They develop sexual organs on the short appendages by their head, called pedipalps. These resemble boxing gloves, and have the function of a hypodermic syringe. The syringes suck up sperm that is deposited on the web by a furrow underneath the abdomen and then they go wandering looking for a female.
If they come across a burrow that is lined with silk that may house a female, they will tap the web in a kind of spasmodic dance. If the female is ready and willing she will come to the mouth of the burrow to investigate and engage with her suitor. I won’t go into the mating ritual other than to say it really is quite fascinating and worth hunting down on the web if you wish to witness it. The male also develops some ‘hooks’ on his front pair of legs – these are to lock under the female’s fangs as they mate.
The word tarantula is in fact a misnomer when applied to this family of spiders! Tarantula comes from the species Lycosa tarantela, which is a small gray spider found in Italy. Legend had it that if you were bitten by one of these spiders you would become possessed by demons, and the only way to exercise these demons would be to dance a very frenzied dance called a Tarantella. Thus, hairy spiders became tarantulas, whether they deserved the name or not. The image below is of a true tarantula, and is on the cover of a book written by my good friends John and Kathleen Hancock, many years ago. I actually shot that cover image!
Most tarantulas are in fact pretty much harmless. Their venom is generally no more toxic than that of the bee, however some people are very very allergic to bee stings and likewise tarantulas. These of course are the ones we hear about in the news. Don’t get me wrong, tarantulas have very large fangs for their size, and if you are unfortunate (or stupid) enough to be bitten by one, the physical bite will be painful. Why? Because it will be like a pair of cats claws diving into your flesh. Ouch!
Some brave souls, typically in the age range of about 15 to 35 and male, will handle tarantulas. This is apparently a very macho thing to do, though I am yet to find anyone who has ever been impressed by it, other than males in a similar age range. If you pick up a tarantula, and you happen to spook it or scare it, it will either bite you, or you will drop it. Tarantulas abdomens have a very thin membrane and if dropped from even a low height, this membrane will burst and the tarantula will die.
My first ever tarantula was a Brachypelma vagans (Belize), which I purchased in 1984 in London. It was already an adult female, therefore at least six years old. I ended up giving her to my friend Ann Webb in 1994, and in 2003 she reported that Bertha had just died, putting her around 25 years old. Some species of tarantulas have been kept in captivity for more than 35 years. Only females last this long, the males mature and that is their final malt before dying. In the wild this takes anywhere between three and six years.
Like all wildlife, as humans expand in numbers, habitat for tarantulas decreases, however these animals are not presently threatened.
The most well known predator of US tarantulas is the Tarantula Hawk Wasp – from the family Pompilidae (Spider Hawk Wasps) and usually the genus Pepsis – as does the one shown below.
These extraordinarily gorgeous wasps are often seen in the summer – their bright orange wings and black to satin blue bodies – and they ain’t small! They find tarantulas, sting and paralyze them, then drag them back to their own burrows, where they lay a small egg on the abdomen of the spider. When the egg hatches, the small larva nibbles its way into the still live but paralyzed tarantula, and slowly starts eating it from the inside. Instinctively, the grub leaves the vital organs until last, ensuring a fresh food supply. Upon pupating, a lovely fresh Pepsis wasp emerges, ready to repeat the cycle.