Ranger Rick Spiders October 2016

TAR-R-RANTULAAA

By Gerry Bishop

WATCH OUT– This hairy, scary spider is deadly, right? Well, maybe not. 

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ARE TARANTULAS REALLY DEADLY?
It depends. For any animal smaller than a tarantula, the answer could be yes. But for people, a tarantula bite is usually no worse than a bee sting. Besides, most tarantulas would rather run and hide than bite.

OK, SO HOW BIG ARE THEY?
There are more than 900 species of tarantulas, and they come in all sizes. The smallest is the Paloma dwarf. It could fit on a postage stamp. The biggest is the Goliath birdeater. It could fill up a dinner plate. (No, “birdeaters” don’t eat birds. Well, not often, anyway.)

ARE THEY ALWAYS BLACK OR BROWN?
Most are, but some are a lot more colorful than you’d expect. There are tarantulas with orange spots or stripes, red or yellow knees, pink or purple legs. But the most colorful tarantulas are blue.

HOW LONG HAVE TARANTULAS BEEN AROUND?
Fossils show that tarantulas have existed for at least 20 million years. That’s much longer than humans have been around.

WHERE DO THEY LIVE?
Tarantulas are found just about anywhere in the world that doesn’t get super cold. You’ll find the most species in deserts and in South American forests. Wherever these spiders live, they often hide in shelters during the day. Some build silk nests (called tube tents) in trees. Many others make silk-lined burrows underground. But some tarantulas just use any good hidey-hole that they can find. Super-sized spider. With legs outstretched, a Goliath birdeater can be up to 16 inches across.

Flashy color
The peacock tarantula has a more painful bite than most tarantulas. Its bold color may help warn off predators.Oh, my–so shy!  An Ecuadorian purple tarantula scurries into its silk nest to hide.

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WHAT DO TARANTULAS EAT?
Tarantulas eat mostly insects, but they also go for scorpions and other spiders. The largest tarantulas are powerful enough to catch and kill small lizards, frogs, mice, and snakes for food.

HOW DO THEY CAPTURE PREY? 
Tarantulas hunt at night. They may quietly prowl around, looking for prey. Or they may wait in ambush until something comes close enough to snatch.     After pouncing on some prey, a tarantula stabs it with two hollow fangs. Then the tarantula squirts venom through its fangs and into the prey to kill or paralyze it.   To help soften the prey’s body parts and make them easier to digest, the tarantula spits juices onto them. Finally, the tarantula chews the parts into a mush and sucks up the mess with its mouth. Yum!

HOW DO THEY PROTECT THEMSELVES?
A tarantula will usually turn away and hide from trouble. But if it can’t, it may rear up, wave its front legs, and show off its mean-looking fangs.    If that doesn’t scare off the predator, some tarantulas use their back legs to flick hairs off their body and toward the predator. The hairs are sharp and barbed like a honey bee’s stinger. If they stick into the enemy’s skin or eyes–yeow! The hairs sting so much that the predator may forget all about dinner.

DO THEY HAVE ANY ENEMIES?
Many kinds of birds, snakes, and lizards catch and eat tarantulas. But a tarantula’s worst enemy is a kind of wasp. First this female wasp paralyzes the spider with her sting. Then she lays an egg on the spider. When the egg hatches, the wasp larva has a living meal that can’t fight back!

HOW DO TARANTULAS CARE FOR THEIR OFFSPRING?
After mating, a female tarantula weaves a sheet of silk and lays her eggs on it. Then she wraps the sheet into a ball with the eggs inside.     To keep the eggs safe until they hatch, a tarantula may care for her ball of eggs inside her burrow. Or she may use her fangs to carry the ball around with her.     One to three months later, the little spiderlings pop out of the ball. They’ll hang out with Mom until they’re able to go off and live on their own.

DO THEY MAKE GOOD PETS?
Some people enjoy keeping tarantulas as pets. And some even take them out of their cages to play with. But that can stress out a tarantula. And then there are those stinging hairs to watch out for! Pet tarantulas also do almost nothing all day long but hide. So, especially for kids, pet tarantulas can be really boring. Seems better just to have fun reading about them, don’t you think? Steer clear!  An Indian ornamental takes on this threatening pose to scare away a predator.Hoppy meal. A Brazilian pinkbloom digs its fangs into a crunchy grasshopper.Carrying the ball. Goliath birdeater lugs her ball of eggs out of her burrow.

“TAR-R-RANTULAAA” originally appeared in the October 2016 issue of Ranger Rick magazine.
(Click on each image above for a closer view of the story.)

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