Aphonopelma chalcodes

Jack Wright



Fear repels love.


Xerophobia is one of those fears: a dread of dry places. For the afflicted, the Chihuahuan Desert spreads out like a dying moon. The absence of green becomes the absence of virtue. For those burdened by humid expectations, the desert around Las Cruces is an ailment waiting to be cured by God, rainfall, and the survey stake.


Tarantulas are the poster species for that delusion. A cruel phantom lurking in the blasphemous sand. Big, hairy, and venomous. A giant bug with violence on its mind.


Here's the actual biography of a very shy spider: The world is home to 800 species of tarantulas. The Chihuahuan Desert has about a dozen. These mild-mannered creatures are invertebrate carnivores who hunt at night. They eat flies, beetles, crickets, lizards, snakes, birds, and rodents. We rarely see them except during mating season when priapic males lust around looking for company and get run over by cars. As a result, females live more than twenty years, males half that.


Tarantulas are lovely monsters. They are children of the Carboniferous, arising 300 million years ago in the coal swamps of Pangaea. Their main body consists of a cephlothorax, abdomen, and eight legs cantilevered into seven segments. They weave silk from spinnerets and build soft doorways for their underground homes. Pedipalps cushion their feet to reduce the sound of their approach to prey, then twin fangs emerge below eight myopic eyes. Venom is injected to dissolve the flesh of the captive. When the caustic marinade has done its work, the tarantula slurps up the spicy goo. Urticating hairs cover their body, each armed with a hook at the end. Those well-evolved spears irritate the flesh of whoever dares to touch the spider in anger.


If we fear this insect, we fear the desert. There are other species of concern, such as rattlesnakes, scorpions, black widows, and centipedes, but tarantulas loom large in our heebie jeebies.


But here's the truth. Two thousand people die each year falling down stairs in the United States. The entire fauna just described kills almost no one. Ticks are a public health threat, tarantulas are pets. If you happen to be bitten, it's like a bee sting. I know, as I was once chomped by a tarantula who had sought shade inside my pickup. I spooked the poor guy and he defended himself. No harm done. A fine life experience (for me). I hope he is still faring well at Aguirre Springs.


Now the tale turns melancholy.


Large, fierce, scary tarantulas are also prey. The hawk wasp is their Moriarty, their archenemy. This wasp is either bold or evolved enough to risk the tarantula's arsenal of defenses. If a female wasp successfully stings a spider, it becomes paralyzed. Then the hawk wasp does something Kafkaesque. She lays a single egg on the abdomen of the still-living, but immobilized spider. When the larva emerges, it burrows into the tarantula's body and gorges until the agonized host succumbs. Best not to think too long about that.


So it is time to have empathy for tarantulas. To understand their quiet, useful, and sometimes tortured lives. We should stand in awe of the 300 million year journey they're on. Apache creation stories place tarantulas at the very the beginning of time. First came Girl-Without-Parents, then Small-Boy, then Tarantula who spun silk in every direction giving form to the world. That is a species worthy of respect.


Personally, I love tarantulas. I love that they are brown or black or blue or pink. I love the way they ambulate like lamas or scurry like kittens. I love their mild nature behind their armored body; the way they frighten us when they're terrified. I love how we blamed them for Italian frenzies and a dance called the Tarantella. I love how they navigate at night using corneal magic and vibration-sensing feet. I love how they keep the desert wild; even wilder in our imagination than the actual beaten-down place.


Most of all, I love the ancient tarantula because they remind us that humans are young and often unwise. They speak to us from the arid darkness:


We survived by adapting, will you?




John Wright taught Geography at New Mexico State University (NMSU) for 28 years. He earned his PhD at UC-Berkeley. "Jack" has worked with land trusts to help conserve nearly two million acres of habitat across the American West. He helped found the New Mexico Land Conservancy and served as Board Chair for a decade. He retired from NMSU in 2017 to a life of writing about the good earth and working for its protection.