Tarantulas: Listening for love - Albuquerque Journal

Tarantulas: Listening for love

Cerrillos Hills State Park Manager Peter Lipscomb tells a crowd of about 87 people about the Western Desert Tarantula during a tour/hike Oct. 18, looking for the species at the state park. (Andy Stiny/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

CERRILLOS – In Italy, from the 1500s to the 1700s, the bite of a tarantula was suspected of causing hysteria whose victims were cured by frenzied dancing, giving rise to the lively folk dance called the Tarantella.

But no one was bitten and no frenzied dancing was evident last week when almost 100 people showed up for a 1½-mile, 1½-hour guided tour/hike at Cerrillos Hills State Park, all with an interest in the subject of the day: tarantulas.

Eighty-seven people of all ages hiked and listened with rapt attention as Park Manager Peter Lipscomb led the hike and, at stops along the way, gave animated talks laced with humor about the fuzzy creatures.

“Mr. Boris” is an example of a male Western Desert Tarantula. The species, found in New Mexico, Arizona and Mexico, can grow to a width of three to four inches. (Andy Stiny/Albuquerque Journal)

“It’s one of those things that’s special about being here in New Mexico, just like the smell of roasted chile in the autumn, the turning of the aspen leaves, there are things that we get used to and kind of set our own little personal calendars with, and tarantulas – out for a mating season – are, for some people, one of them,” Lipscomb told the crowd.

He warned he could not predict wildlife behavior to assuage hopes and none of the creatures was sighted.

This is an annual event, but the first one held since 2019. While many locals from around the area showed up, Pattie Chouinard and Cheryl Rodzen, both paralegals from Connecticut, on a two-week New Mexico tour, had their interest piqued enough to drive down from Santa Fe. Rodzen is a huge Green Bay Packers fan and the twosome were looking for an after-game activity.

We saw it on some website, Chouinard said. “We were looking for something today and we are staying in Santa Fe, and thought we would take a trip down to Madrid and walk around, and this popped up and it happened to be today,” she said.

“We love it up here (New Mexico),” said Rodzen, noting it was their fourth or fifth visit. “We certainly don’t have them (tarantulas) in Connecticut, and we have seen two so far on this trip.” Those were spotted in southern New Mexico. “We thought it would be a cool time to maybe see some more,” said Rodzen.

After a short walk up the road to the trailhead, Lipscomb stopped to address the group. After he corrected someone’s assertion that the tarantulas were migrating (they don’t), one man called out the answer to why they are out and about now: “Looking for love.”

“This is mating season, cherchez la femme (French for ‘look for the woman’),” said Lipscomb, adding a touch of romance language to romantic endeavors. “That’s why tarantulas are active this time of year,” he said.

Before leading the group up a moderately steep trail under deep blue autumnal skies, Lipscomb pulled out a glass frame containing “Mr. Boris,” a male western desert tarantula he spared from a road squashing a few years back. A reporter asked to get a close-up photo of “Boris.” That’s “Mr. Boris,” Lipscomb corrected him.

He launched into some anatomical arachnid details, such as their 10 appendages, and put aside any biological debate about whether they are spiders or not.

Two of those appendages are called pedipalps, like “little hands,” which is what they “use to get things or to move things back and forth.”

The females have much larger abdomens and can live from eight to 10 years, while males’ life expectancy, if they can avoid a car, is three to four years.

Lipscomb said he has only seen one female in 12 seasons.

“Male tarantulas are the only ones we see out this time of year,” said Lipscomb. “They are looking for the females, so trying to find a female tarantula is kind of tricky because they are in their burrows and the only way the males will find them is generally by a drumming that the females will do,” he said. “If they are interested in a gentleman caller, they will start rooting around and making some sounds, and the males will maybe be able to detect that.”

The hikers, including Judy Robinson and her husband, Neil, of Santa Fe, seemed to enjoy the camaraderie of the tour and Lipscomb’s expertise.

“We like to hike, anyway, and I love guided tours with somebody knowledgeable so you can learn something,” said Judy Robinson.

Lipscomb called tarantulas “really amazing animals” and, using the framed “Mr. Boris,” charts and a soft tarantula animal, he regaled the unenlightened with more esoteric tarantula trivia.

“They have eight eyes, four in the front, one on each side and two in the back,” and they rub their rear legs when endangered to shed barbed hairs that can “irritate and ward off potential predators.”

There appears to be some ambiguity regarding tarantula folklore, as is often the case in folklore. While some sources say it was a tarantula’s bite that set off hysterical attacks in ancient Italy, Lipscomb has a slightly different take, attributing the frenzy to the wolf spider, which shares some tarantula characteristics.

“It’s actually the wolf spider that caused the level of toxicity that made people crazy, tarantulas got a bad rap, man, they definitely did,” said Lipscomb.

Both spiders have a toxic bite, but, for humans, it is generally considered equivalent to a bee sting.

Even the young in the group garnered some knowledge from the day in the fresh air, and perhaps an experience to share with classmates.

Steven Zappe, 7, of Santa Fe, listens to Cerrillos Hills State Park Manager Peter Lipscomb describe the habits and characteristics of the Western Desert Tarantula during a tour/hike Oct. 18, looking for the species at the state park. (Andy Stiny/Albuquerque Journal)

Steven Zappe, 7, of Santa Fe, was out with his dad, Christopher. “I liked it,” Steven said of the hike.

“I didn’t know there was such a thing as the tarantula hawk wasp,” he added, alluding to Lipscomb’s description of a tarantula predator.

Robert Gear and his wife, Jolene, of Eldorado, also enjoyed their day out. A neighbor, who had taken the tarantula tour previously, told them about it. “Hiking and nature, and so forth, that’s always nice,” said Gear. “I’d liked to have seen some tarantulas, but we were warned … and now we know where it is, I suppose we might come out again on our own some time.”

The Connecticut tourists Pattie Chouinard and Cheryl Rodzen, also enjoyed their day and plan on returning to the state. “It was a good hike. I guess I had hoped that we would see tarantulas, but I learned a lot about them, even if I didn’t see any,” said Chouinard.

“I thought it was very interesting, I think it was a great turnout,” said Rodzen. “It was great to see a lot of people, especially locals, who are interested in the local insects. I’m happy we did it.”

But how did it compare to Packers-Bears? “The Packers game was a little different,” said Rodzen. The Packers stung the Bears, 24-14.

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