It’s mating season for the furry tarantulas in the Santa Cruz Mountains | News

A hairy spectacle unfolds in the fading sunlight at the Stanford Dish and in the open fields in the hills. In the ground beneath the tawny grasses, male California tarantulas emerge from their underground burrows in search of mates.

The large, furry spiders slowly crawl along the ground in search of the nests of equally furry females, guided by scent. If he finds one, the male will seductively tap the ground with long front legs outside her den. Sensitive to vibrations in the ground that can signal the presence of prey, danger or a suitor, the female will tap back a reply.

She will come out of her bedroom to inspect her lover. If she agrees, let him mate.

But worshipper beware. If she doesn’t like him, the bigger —‌ and usually hungry —‌ female will likely eat him, said Jack Owicki, a teacher and naturalist at the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District.

August through October is the breeding season for tarantulas in the Bay Area. Along trails and fields, dozens of arachnids mate in the late afternoon and at night, when they prefer the cooler hours and, perhaps, the cover of darkness.

That’s when Owicki, a retired scientist, finds them. In the years before the COVID-19 pandemic, he led Arachnophilia, a nighttime spider walk, for the open space district, including tarantulas.

While they are sometimes considered residents of the drier hills of East Bay, tarantulas are equally common in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Nature lovers can find them in many of the Midpeninsula Open Space reserves and in Palo Alto’s Foothills Park. The burrows are lined with white spider silk, a corolla of the sticky substance protruding from their entrances. The holes range from the diameter of a dime to a quarter, Owicki said.

Inside, the black, gray or brownish spiders can have a body length of up to 5 inches in length in California and a leg span of 4.5 inches, according to advocacy group Los Padres ForestWatch. Males are smaller than the females. They reach adulthood when they are 8 to 12 years old, when they mate. The males usually die within a year of adulthood and shortly after mating; females can live up to 25 years, according to SaveNature.org.

Often depicted as jumpers and ferocious attackers in scary Halloween props, tarantulas, despite myths, are not aggressive. They generally won’t bite unless provoked and they won’t run after people, Owicki said. The bite is also not medically significant, unlike that of the black widow spider. Still, a tarantula’s bite will likely hurt to the extent of a bee sting, he said.

The dangerous tarantula myth can be derived in part from stories about another spider with a similar name. In southern Italy, the wolf spider, or “tarantula,” a large arachnid found near Taranto, is said to give its victims a venomous bite that caused convulsions. Victims who performed a dance called the tarantella to certain types of music are said to have been cured, according to the American Tarantula Society. The wolf spider is not a tarantula —‌ it belongs to a different spider family —‌ and its bite is not fatal. However, it is said to be equally painful for the tarantulas.

Tarantulas have another interesting defense besides the bite: “On the back of their bellies, they have spiky, barbed hairs that are loosely attached,” Owicki said. The spiders use these hairs quite effectively and deadly against mice that sometimes attack them. When the tarantula vigorously rubs its abdomen with its hind legs, the hairs form a cloud. As the mouse inhales them, “they’re like nettles that the mouse gets in their lungs and they die,” he said.

The hairs, while not fatal to humans, can cause discomfort.

“If they catch you, you’ll get a rash,” he said.

The US has 29 different species of tarantulas, 10 of which are in California, according to literature from Los Padres National ForestWatch. They are mainly found in the Southwest and some central states.

Since mating is a tricky business for tarantulas, as soon as it appears that he will not be devoured by his potential mate, the male will gently stroke the female’s body. He will use two short legs with what looks like boxing gloves, or pedipalps, to insert a wad of silk with sperm, he said.

Before that feat is accomplished, the males must once again protect themselves from being devoured. Some males first insert thick spines on their front legs between the female’s canines to prevent her from delivering a deadly bite, he said.

Tarantulas maintain an important ecological niche and eat grasshoppers, beetles, herbivorous insects and sometimes small lizards. In turn, they become food for lizards, snakes, spider-eating birds, coyotes and foxes, according to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. The tarantula hawk, a spider wasp, paralyzes the tarantula and drags it to its nest so that its offspring have a fresh meal to feed when they hatch.

Humans can also contribute to the demise of a tarantula through pesticides and land use such as development and agriculture. But even the curious can unwittingly destroy a tarantula. Unlike hard bugs, dropping a tarantula even from a height of just 3 feet can kill them, Owicki said.

In addition to the tarantula, hikers may encounter another slightly smaller spider: the Calisoga, or ‘velvet tarantula’. It’s not a true tarantula and is in a different spider family, Owicki said. If encountered, Calisogas have a reputation for being a bit more defensive, he added.

To the touch, Calisogas have a soft sheen. Tarantulas are a bit coarser, Owicki said.

The tarantulas are a popular fall attraction in some parks. In Santa Clara County, Henry Coe State Park has an annual TarantulaFest this time of year. It has been canceled for 2020 due to the COVID-19 epidemic and the SCU Lightning Complex fires, which ravaged the area, according to the park’s website.

There are plenty of opportunities to encounter tarantulas his month, but it’s best to just leave them alone.

“Look at it with respect. Admire the very different way of life than the way of life of a mammal,” he said.

Leave a Comment

%d bloggers like this: