Spiders in Love

Always wanted to see a tarantula in the desert? Now’s the time

In the fall, a young tarantula’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love. Or, at least, to female tarantulas.

And so that male tarantula wanders high and low in the desert, crossing Charleston Boulevard near Red Rock, skittering around Highway 160 and Pahrump, and sidestepping across Death Valley. The months of October and November are the best (or worst, if you hate spiders) times to see tarantulas around Southern Nevada and the surrounding region.

The movement is often referred to as the tarantula migration—a misnomer for what could be more accurately called “horny spider season.”

“At the fall of the year the male tarantula matures and basically goes out looking for females,” says Jeff Knight, Nevada’s state entomologist. “They kind of wander around and people will see a lot of them, especially warm days late in the evening.”

He says that in Southern Nevada you can often find the hairy arachnids trolling for action up until the first cold temperatures set in, usually at the end of November or beginning of December. Knight says he’s personally seen tarantulas around Red Rock, Pahrump and Caliente, and the largest he’s encountered has been about 4 inches across, leg-to-leg.

The journey truly is as good as it will ever get for the male tarantula. Knight says it begins when the spider reaches 4 or 5 years old and becomes sexually mature. Life generally peaks with the prowl, as they tend to not live much longer than that. “They basically expend all that energy looking for a mate and then die,” Knight says.

Females, on the other hand, live up to 15 years and rarely leave their burrows, except in cases of flooding or other problems. Of course, if the male is lucky, the female will hear its tapping outside the burrow and leave home just long enough to receive a, well, deposit. And from there the life cycle continues.

If you do encounter a tarantula in the desert, Knight says to use common sense. “Just leave it alone,” he says. “And if you need to move them, then carefully move them.”

The spider has large fangs, Knight adds, and will bite you if disturbed. While tarantulas carry venom, their bite is rarely worse than a bee sting for humans (unless you’re allergic). On its prey, however, it’s vicious. The enzymes it secretes actually work to liquefy insects, rodents and small birds so the spider can then slurp the critters up through its straw-like mouth.

It’s not just the mouth that’s worrisome. Knight says people should also be aware of the hairs that surround the tarantula’s abdomen. They’re used defensively and can cause a rash similar to a stinging nettle.

“They use their back legs to flick the hairs at whatever is coming after them,” Knight says. “They make a little cloud of hairs.”

If the hair clouds, the fangs, the liquefied prey and, of course, the whole concept of a hefty, 4-inch-long spider doesn’t do it for you, just know that the coming of winter will send them back from whence they came, rarely to surface until next fall, when a young tarantula’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love. Or, at least, to female tarantulas.