FORT COLLINS, Colo. (CBS4) – The annual mating “walk” for the Oklahoma Brown tarantula draws onlookers internationally. In southern Colorado, late August into early September is typically the best time to witness what experts call the walkabout, but for the first time in recent memory, the experts aren’t seeing nearly as many tarantulas walking.
“There’s hundreds out there on a good year. This year in particular though is not a good year,” said Maia Holmes.
Holmes is a graduate student at Colorado State University and the Director of the CSU Bug Zoo. She loves all bugs, but says spiders are her favorite.
“Part of my graduate research is doing entomology and education so talking to people about why arthropods are so cool!” laughed Holmes
Holmes says she has never seen the actual walkabout.
“Every year I say, ‘This is the year I’m going to do it!’ and every year, it’s in the fall semester and I get slammed with course work.”
Holmes says the end of August, when temperatures are cooling down in the southwestern part of the state, is the best time of year to see them. This year, many of her colleagues say they were lucky to see one.
“When they start doing their walkabout they’re anywhere from like 7 to 12 years old and about seven years ago, it was 2012 when we had extreme heat and a lot of fires. There was not a lot of vegetation and so we had a lower amount of tarantulas.”
Which is why, this year, there are not nearly as many mature males walking to find females. Holmes believes there are other external factors at play like development and more traffic on the roads in general.
“It’s really dangerous to be a tarantula out on the road! Another issue is we’re converting a lot of natural habitat over to things like ag (agriculture) and urbanization.”
Holmes loves spiders and continues to study ways she can help the population thrive. She was recently brought about 10 Oklahoma Brown tarantulas collected from La Junta and decided to mate a few.
Each female can lay up to a thousand eggs. In the wild, only a handful of the babies will make it.
While spiders freak many people out, Holmes is fascinated by their behavior and the annual mating ritual.
“They can wander up to miles trying to find a burrow for a female and they’ll come up to the burrow and they’ll make a little tap saying, ‘Hey I’m a male, not food please don’t eat me’ and if the female is mature and receptive they’ll mate! It takes about seven minutes to mate and then they part ways, and he’ll go try finding another female or sometimes if she’s hungry she’ll eat him. It happens in the spider world,” Holmes smiled and shrugged.
Since the tarantulas burrow, it makes them one of the more difficult arthropods to study and little is actually known about them in comparison to others.
“There’s even more to discover about them. We’ll never ever know everything about arthropods which is very delightful if you’re a scientist because it means you will never ever run out of questions!”
The males in the wild can live as long as 14-years-old, but the females have been known to live as long 40-years.
Inside the CSU bug zoo, Holmes handed CBS4’s Jamie Leary a 40-year-old red hair tarantula she described as slow-moving (due to her age), but friendly – like a Labrador.
“There’s general trends with dog breeds. Like poodles are known for being aloof and intelligent, Labradors like everybody right? It’s kind of like that with tarantulas.”
There are a few inside the bug zoo that Holmes describes as ‘no hold’ tarantulas. She even tried to hold one of them because she loves them so much, but found out quickly it did not feel the same way.
Spiders rarely use their venom to attack because Holmes says, they like to save it for food. Instead, they can flick which sends hundreds of tiny barbed hairs in the direction of their attacker.
Holmes inhaled a mouthful of them.
“The worst I’ve had is I’ve breathed it in before and there’s nothing you can do, it’s an occupational hazard!”
She says other scientists have had to physically squeeze a spider to get it to release its venom. In the rare case a tarantula decided to use its venom on a human, it’s far from fatal.
“My whole job has been trying to get people to care about arthropods and people have a really hard time with spiders.”
With a tough research budget and so little known about tarantulas, she hopes more people will come around to entomology in general.
In the meantime, you may have to visit the zoo to see the Oklahoma Brown tarantula. Holmes expects the annual mating ritual will continue but will likely see lower numbers of males for the next few years.
“We’ve had a bunch of rain this year so in about seven years, you’re gonna see a huge tarantula year which would be amazing!”