Tarantulas on the prowl

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A Desert Tarantula commonly seen in Arizona, New Mexico and southern California down into Mexico makes its way across Santa Fe County, New Mexico road 42 on Wednesday Sept. 25, 2013. The large spider can have up to a 2-2 3/4" in length body size and a leg span up to 4". The life span of females is 20-30 years, males 8-10 years. (AP Photo/The New Mexican, Clyde Mueller)

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Big, hairy male tarantulas are on the move this time of year in Northern New Mexico. It’s mating season, and the males are on the prowl.

Around here, the eight-legged, insect-eating arachnids are about the size of a Krispy Kreme doughnut and have a leg span of about 4 or 5 inches. A number of people have reported seeing them strolling slowly and deliberately down Santa Fe County roads in recent weeks.

The best time to spot them is in the afternoon and early evening, when they are most active, according to Peter Lipscomb, the education coordinator for Cerrillos Hills State Park. He’s seen one this year so far during the first week in September.

If you’d like to track them in the safety of a group, such an opportunity is coming up this weekend. On Saturday afternoon, Sarah Wood, the park manager, will lead a hike to find some of critters and talk about their life history and biology. According to her invitation, there have been several recent sightings in the park.

Wood coyly advises those joining the group to keep their “pedipalps” crossed. Pedipalps are the two small leg-like appendages near the spider’s mouth, used in feeding, locomotion and reproduction. The latter function is key, at least at this time of year. The male spider uses them to transfer sperm from the surface of a web he has spun to the female spiders. Sometimes this ritual is preceded by the dipping of his abdomen and drumming.

After copulation — which can take as little as 10 seconds — he scurries away because females sometimes eat their mates. The female seals the eggs and sperm in a cocoon and guards it for six to nine weeks when, according to nationalgeographic.com, more than 500 tarantulas hatch.

Tarantulas don’t look it, but they are pretty harmless. According to Lipscomb, who is also a regional interpretive ranger for New Mexico State Parks, they don’t attack unless you corner them. And their bite is no worse than a bee sting, for most people, although some could be allergic.

But lore has it that the people of the Spanish town of Taranto believed the only way to survive a bite was spinning and jumping until they fell to the ground exhausted.

According to Lipscomb, tarantulas have a patch of hair on the back of their abdomen. Under stress, they use their rear legs to kick off those hairs, which are highly irritating to other animals, causing itching.

Tarantulas are found all over the world. Some are brown, others a lot more colorful. They can grow as big as dinner plates. The cephalothorax (combination of head and thorax) of the female is larger than that of the male. And they can live 30 years.

To kill prey, mostly insects, they grab with their appendages and inject a paralyzing venom. Apparently, after a good meal, they don’t need to eat for a month.

Lipscomb has other family-friendly activities planned for the rest of the year at the state park, including moonlight hikes and classes on scat, grass, hibernation and other nature topics.

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