Confessions of a Hose Dragger …

By Linda Patten

October/November

Que shrieking violin music…reeeek…. reeek… reek… I went spider hunting!  I’m sure many of you saw the local news clips last month of the great spider invasion of southern Colorado.  Each year between mid-September and mid-October hundreds – possibly thousands – of male Oklahoma Brown Spiders reach maturity and with that maturity comes thoughts of yearning and desire.  These lust driven spiders make their way to prairies and grasslands in search of well…female spiders.  Suddenly it all makes sense, right?!  For years I had secretly harbored my own desire to go share in this magnificent migration experience.  When my friend and her daughter casually mentioned that they too thought it would be fun, it was as if lightening had struck… the crackle and excitement of our spider trip planning began!  Research was done and evidently September 17th at 6:00 p.m. was prime time for this year’s spider migration. Accommodations were immediately procured because there might be hundreds – possibly thousands of like-minded spider voyeurs all vying for a bed.  Bags were packed, the route was planned, the car was gassed up, road-trip snacks were procured – we were ready!

La Junta here we come!  Three and a half hours later, logy from car snacks…at exactly 6 p.m., we found ourselves on highway 109 just south of La Junta…a prime spider migration location.  Cars were parked and people were gathered in clumps along the side of a very windy road.  Good, good, good!  Excitedly we pulled up to the first clump of eager spider watchers, “Where are the spiders?  Have you seen any?”, we ask with breathless anticipation. “Oh yeah! A guy down the road has spotted one!” Ummm…one?  So down the road we went.  And sure enough, there was one spider.  He was fantastic to be sure, but where were all his spider friends?  A quick decision was made, an inviting dirt road was found and out we drove into the vast wilderness that is the Comanche National Grasslands. Off we ventured on our adventure!  Deserted road be dammed. Desolate plains, who cares?!  We were three women on a mission and that mission was to see hundreds – possibly thousand of Oklahoma Brown Spiders!  With the sun going down and massive downdrafts from a nearby thunderstorm buffeting the car, we drove… and drove… no spiders… We ditched the car and tramped out into the near darkness with our only flashlight blazing.  Scouring the ground with a beam of light, we were encouraged to find nests, lots and lots of female spider nests.  How wonderful! Peering down in to one of the nests – there she was!  But where were all her suitors? Hmmm…. with the storm fast approaching and lightening all around we decided it prudent to head back to civilization.  You would think we would have been disappointed but no, the evening was so amazingly beautiful out there in the grasslands that one simply could not complain.  It was all so exciting… made even more exciting when a dash light came on indicating that we were getting a flat tire.  So, my friend who was driving, figured that the faster one drove, the less air that would come out of the tire.  I’m not sure about the physics involved in this logic but back to La Junta we flew… running over hundreds – possibly thousand of male Oklahoma Brown Spiders migrating across the road… except there were none.  Having a tire changed at 10:30 at night by a friendly local was fun.  A big hooray for AAA roadside service!  We were ready to go for next day’s spider hunting quest.

The day dawned clear and bright.  Unfortunately, my morning began by hearing my friends utter four fateful words, “We found a cat.” Groan…. Now just what are three cat-loving females hundreds of miles from home supposed to do? Well, feed the cat, water the cat, get the cat into the car, go to a local vet to see if the cat was micro-chipped – kitty wasn’t – have several quick tests done to see if kitty was well, purchase a cat carrier and bring the kitty with us.  So, off we went for a slightly abbreviated spider hunt before heading home.  Driving, driving, driving…because the only way to spot these elusive spiders is when they are crossing road.  We were all startled – kitty included when a shriek emanated from the back seat…a sighting at last!  Leaping from the car, doors flung open in anticipation…there he was… mind you, just one but there he was and he was all ours!

We carefully captured him in a jar for closer inspection.  He was spectacular… in a spidery sort of way… then we couldn’t get him out of the jar!  “Should I keep him as a pet”, my friend briefly mused?  After another of our many quick decisions, it was decided to set him free, back to the wilderness whence he came to find true love and happiness…except he still wouldn’t come out of the jar!  After several gentle prodding attempts made with various found objects – sticks, flowers, a wayward straw – we parted ways with our spider.

In conclusion… we had such fun!  It was a great trip! We are headed back next year. My friend’s daughter now has a new one-eyed kitty named Zodiac to add to her family that consists of a new husband, 2 collie dogs and 3 ferrets.  Some tips… don’t plan your visit expecting to see hundreds – possibly thousands – of male Oklahoma Brown Spiders.  Do stay at the Hampton Inn… beautiful rooms, fresh baked cookies every afternoon at four, fantastic buffet breakfast, hot tub and pool.  Keep in mind that all restaurants – even the biker bar – close at 10:00.  After 10:00 great takeout food can still be found at Lucy’s Tacos – order the smothered green chili fries, they are amazing!  Do take the back roads home – we drove through Rocky Ford and snagged several fresh cantaloupes.  Do keep the window down after doing this – the melons smell quite mellony!

In further conclusion… We learned a lot about the Oklahoma Brown Spider but as you can see from our adventure, not enough.  Below is an article that was sent to me AFTER our trip.  It is written by the State entomologist, Whitney Cranshaw.  Chalk-full of great info, the guy knows his stuff.  Enjoy and learn and I hope that you too will experience the thrill and excitement of seeing… Que shrieking violin music…reeeek…. reeek… reek… hundreds – possibly thousands – of male Oklahoma Brown Spiders!

Tarantula story craziness

A media story that has had far, far, far too much play this year – and has mutated bizarrely as it was repeated – involves the seasonal activity of male tarantulas as they wander about looking for mates in late summer.

Some background.  Colorado has some tarantulas.  They are most abundant in SE Colorado, in the Arkansas Valley and points south.  Depending on the current state of taxonomy there are between 1-3 species in SE Colorado, with the primary (sole?) species being the Aphonopelma hentzi, known variously as the “Oklahoma brown” or “Texas brown” tarantula.  Two other species, smaller in size, are known from SW Colorado.  A summary of the situation is in the sheet:https://webdoc.agsci.colostate.edu/bspm/Arachnida%20(Arachnids)/Tarantulas.pdf

These tarantulas are long lived spiders and they spend almost their entire life living within a burrow, feeding at night on insect prey that pass by the burrow.

A change happens when the male spiders mature.  This seems to happen sometime between 8-10 years after they are born – the exact age when they mature is a bit unclear.  When the males do mature they change habit and begin to seek out mates – receptive mature female spiders that remain near their burrow.

To find the mates the adult males of the “Oklahoma brown” abandon their burrows and move about the “neighborhood”.  (This is typical of other tarantulas in North America.) They are much more active at this time and are much, much more easily seen.  Particularly when they are crossing roads.  If they find a female and things work out all around the female mates with the male, and females may mate with many males.  Later the female will produce an egg sac and later young will hatch from this to start life on their own, typical of all spiders.

For the Oklahoma brown this activity, when the adult males start to move about, may start in late August but usually peaks during September and early October.  Some males may still be wandering about until frost kills them off, dying a couple of months after they are mature and have started their “walkabout”.  The females are much longer lived, 20 years or more, and remain at their burrows able to receive new suitors annually for many years.

For a great many years I have collected males in September to use with students in my non-science major entomology class (Insects, Science and Society), and they are always a great hit.  Some of the students get to keep a one of the collected males as a pet, which usually works well since they are harmless, kind of cool – and are almost assuredly going to die by the end of the semester anyway.

Some word of this got around years ago and there was some filming of this.  The video of this that was done the best, I think, was by Channel 9 News in Denver.  Produced in 2015, this has been release repeatedly every year since (news must be slow in summer!) including sometime in August of this year.  The filming was done in the area where I have always collected them, which was south of LaJunta, an area that I visit solely because it has been convenient to me since I am always working nearby in September.

(If you want to see this video I search “Channel 9 tarantula” and it comes up.  A link to a YouTube of this is at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nZR579bgc18  )

For some reason this 2015 story went viral this year – causing a cascade of craziness.  Headlines appeared in media outlets all over the country in August with headlines like “Thousands of Tarantulas Crawl Across Colorado” or “Tarantulas to descend on southeast Colorado in search of mates” or variations on this purporting a “great migration” of tarantulas was imminent.

All of this gave the impression that this was 1) some sort of novel phenomenon; 2) that SE Colorado (usually specifying LaJunta, which is where the original Channel 9 story had been filmed 4 years earlier) is where this occurs; and 3) that some sort of “great migration” event occurred, in some cases implying that Colorado was being invaded by a wave of tarantulas coming across the border from Oklahoma.

This is not a novel phenomenon.  It happens every year.  Some years there are more observed than others.  The only reason that this story year took off is because the internet, after four years, picked up on an ancient 2015 story and then went nuts.  And, as it turns out, somewhat ironically, 2019 is probably the worst year for seeing male tarantulas wander about in many years.  This I suspect is related to poor conditions early in their development, when they may likely be particularly susceptible to dying.  And 7-8 years ago, when the 2019 males were babies, SE Colorado – and much of the state – was in extreme drought.  (2012 was the year the whole state seemed to be burning.)

Also these tarantulas occur over a very wide area.  Aphonopelma hentzi is known to occur in New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri.  Within Colorado they occur widely in the SE, in areas where the prairie remains intact.  (A plowing event destroys the habitat for these long-lived species.) I have always heard far more people say they have seen tarantulas south and east of Pueblo than LaJunta.  Yet there were people calling to say they were going to drive up from New Mexico to see this in LaJunta – which means they were driving by 100s of miles of suitable habitat enroute to an outstate location that likely has no more than they could be found close to home.

And finally this is not a true migration.  It is just a bunch of mature males cruising the neighborhood.  These are not coming in waves across the border as many people were led to believe.  Accckkkkk!

The absurdities of the out-of-control media hype this season aside, seeing some tarantulas walking about is something that many people would enjoy seeing sometime.  I don’t suggest this year as the numbers are so low, but sometime.  And I also think people should visit SE Colorado more than they do – there are areas of unique wildlife and ecosystems most Coloradans are clueless about.  There are a great many sites in national grasslands and accessible public lands in that part of the state that are a real treat to visit.

If you are looking for tarantulas, the easiest way to see them is to find a piece of road where they occur and cruise it.  Dusk is the period when they start to become most active and can be most easily seen – the last hour and a half before it gets too dark to see well.  (The tarantulas continue to move about at night, but are less easily found.  Bring a head lamp and get out of the car at that point.  You want an evening that is warm and preferably not too windy.  And sometime from mid-September to early October is likely peak.

And if you go a bit earlier in the season look on flowering vegetation along roadsides for one of their main natural enemies, the “tarantula hawk” wasps that hunt themhttps://webdoc.agsci.colostate.edu/bspm/arthropodsofcolorado/Tarantula-hawks.pdf .  Where you see large numbers of these nectaring on plants you can be pretty sure there are either tarantulas are other large spiders (e.g., giant wolf spiders/Hogna spp. or burrowing wolf spiders/Geolycosa spp.) nearby.

Whitney Cranshaw, Colorado State University