Fearsome looking, the tarantulas – diverse and the largest of the spiders – hold a place in the folklore of cultures across the world. Surprisingly, they also become novel and treasured pets in the homes of some people. More surprisingly, they serve as delicacies at the dining tables of indigenous peoples of the Amazon.
Tarantula on stucco wall. Photo by Jay Sharp.
Worldwide Distribution of Tarantulas
"There are about 850 species [of tarantulas] worldwide," according to Barron's Tarantulas and Other Arachnids, and "Their range includes Africa and Madagascar, parts of the Middle East, southern Europe, southern Asia, the Indo-Pacific region, Australia, northern New Zealand, some of the Micronesian Islands… all of Central and South America, parts of the Caribbean, and the United States north to central California and east to the Mississippi River." More than four dozen species populate the U. S. range.
Habitat and Prey
Typically, in the southwestern United States, tarantulas live in solitude in desert basins, mountain foothills and forested slopes. They occupy various kinds of nests, with many species taking up residence in burrows or crevices, which may be sequestered in the ground, along cliff faces, among rocks, under tree bark, or between tree roots.
Some line their burrows with silk. Some surround the entrance with a silken "welcoming mat," which vibrates like guitar strings and sends signals to the spider cloistered there, if potential prey should touch the strands. "A tarantula will attack literally anything that it can subdue: beetles, grasshoppers, locusts, other spiders, small lizards and mice," says biologist Fred Punzo. Tarantulas kill by injecting venom through their fangs into their prey.
During mating season, which varies from spring through fall, depending on the species and conditions, the males leave their burrows, sometimes en masse, to seek willing females. A male, encountering the silk surrounding the entrance to a female's burrow, calls and dances amorously. He may be rejected or embraced. In either event, he may get eaten up, becoming "a readily available source of protein to fuel development of the next generation," said Pete Taylor, writing for National Wildlife magazine.
Several weeks after mating, the female, said Taylor, produces an egg sac, and six or seven weeks later, "hundreds of tiny spiderlings hatch to begin the cycle anew." After a few weeks, the young disperse to take up their lives. As tarantulas mature, they molt several times, each time shedding their old exoskeleton for a new one. The males may live for several years, the females, for several decades.
Taxonomy of the Tarantula in the US
Kingdom ---- Animalia ---- All animals
Phylum ---- Arthropoda ---- Spiders, insects and crustaceans
Class ---- Arachnida ---- Spiders, scorpions, ticks, mites
Order ---- Araneae ---- All spiders
Family ---- Theraposidae ---- All tarantulas
Genus ---- Aphonopelma ---- All tarantulas
From Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission
Many produce a hissing sound by rubbing their jaws, front legs, or palps against each other.
Eight close together
Weight: 1-3 oz.
Sexual Maturity: 3-9 yrs.
Mating Season: Fall
Incubation: 6-9 weeks
No. of Young: 500-1000
Birth Interval: 1 year
Lifespan: 25-40 years
Typical diet: insects
Appearance and Anatomy of Tarantulas Found in the US
- Body and legs are hairy
- Tan to reddish brown to black in color
- Body size is up to three inches long and two to three inches tall
- Leg span of three to five inches
- Male tarantulas are longer and slimmer than females
- Male tarantulas have much smaller abdomens than females
- Exoskeleton (outer shell) includes a fused head and thorax connected at a narrow waist to an oval-shaped abdomen
- Eight marginally functional eyes in two groups on the forehead
- Mouth and two backward-pointing fangs below the eyes
- Two pedipalps (leg-like appendages) for food handling near the mouth
- Abdomen contains several vital organs
- Abdomen has silk-producing spinnerets at the tip
- Four pairs of legs connect to the fused head and thorax
Common Questions About Tarantulas
Tarantulas are harmless to humans and can be trained as pets.
The tarantula spins no web but instead catches its prey by pursuit.
There are more than 800 species of tarantulas.
Some tarantulas have vibrant colors, for instance, the Brazilian white knee tarantula, which has black and white stripes; the Mexican red knee tarantula, which has a black abdomen and orange and black leg bands; and the Greenbottle blue tarantula, which has a bright orange abdomen and metallic blue legs.
The name "tarantula" apparently originated in the 14th century, in the Italian city of Taranto, where people felt compelled to dance the wildly erotic Tarantella if bitten by a spider.
One Venezuelan species has a leg span of some 11 inches; another South American species, a body diameter of some 2 ½ inches; an Arizona species, a body length of 1/3 inch.
Most American tarantulas have barbed and mildly venomous "urticating" hairs on their abdomens, and they use their legs to cast the hairs into the faces of threatening animals, inflicting irritation of soft tissues and eyes.
Some species have on their feet tiny spinnerets that produce sticky silk patches, helping the spider gain a foothold for climbing on slick surfaces such as window glass. Some species produce a buzzing sound, like cloth ripping, by rubbing appendages together. A tarantula's fangs move up and down; all other spiders' fangs move horizontally.
More pictures of Tarantulas by Kenton Elliott at Calico. They were photographed on Main Street at Calico Ghost town in California.
Watch video of a Tarantula Hawk.
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