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The Tarantula

Updated: Nov 3, 2020

Did you know this is the month to see tarantulas in Santa Clara County? They are literally everywhere, you can find them in places like Alum Rock Park, Guadalupe Oak Grove Park, Calero County Park, Henry Coe State Park and Rancho Canada del Oro Open Space Preserve to name a few. They usually come out at dusk but you may find them out wandering earlier. Why are they wandering? Well, they’re looking for a mate right now.

Female tarantulas can live 15 to 18 years, but their menfolk “live to two years, if they’re lucky,” said Teri Rogoway, a nature educator for the Santa Clara County Open Space Authority.

The females are to blame for that because they often eat their mates after the fling is over, and may also devour others who stop by their burrows looking for a little action. Rogoway said the male prepares for mating by laying out a “mat” to drop his sperm on, then picks it up and puts it in pockets on his body.

The female does her own mating preparation by laying a mat outside her underground “house” and dropping pheromones all over it. Then she sits back inside her bachelorette pad and waits for a suitor to arrive.

So what does Mr. Right look like to a female tarantula?

“Females like guys with long legs and a thinner body,” Rogoway said.

Once the female feels the web vibrate, she knows he is outside and she pounces. What happens then is counterintuitive to human mating but commonplace for tarantulas.

“The guy gets scared because part of him instinctively understands he’s in danger,” Rogoway said. He tries to look appealing while the female sizes him up, but “if she doesn’t like him, she’ll eat him,” she added.

The male who makes the cut holds her fangs so she can’t bite him while he places his pedipalps — leg-like appendages — inside an opening of the lower surface of her abdomen called the opisthosoma. In turn, she places her hooks on his legs. Once mating is complete, he flees while he still can.

“The second they’re done, he runs like hell,” Rogoway said. “She leaves the mat, and the next guy that comes along is eaten.”

The female then seals the eggs and sperm in an egg sac and guards it for six to nine weeks, when 500 to 1,000 baby tarantulas hatch, according to Rogoway. During this time she turns the egg sac often, a practice known as brooding.

The growth of a newly hatched spider into a mature spider is a long process and can take up to ten years. The tarantula does not spin a web, but bites its prey with long, curved fangs, injecting it with a poison which slowly renders the victim helpless. It will then crush its food between its powerful jaws, at the same time injecting a fluid which breaks down the victim’s tissues. This turns the prey into a soft pulp, which can then be eaten.

Tarantulas have a wide range of defenses. Some species simply lean back on their haunches, raising their head and legs and exposing their curved fangs in an intimidating display. South American species of tarantula use their legs to scrape off the fine hairs from the top of their abdomen. Each hair is covered with tiny points which, when propelled at an enemy, are both painful and dangerous, especially if they come into contact with the eyes or skin. These tactics are used against a variety of predators, such as raccoons and skunks which try to dig the tarantula out of its burrow, or birds, lizards and frogs which may attack it when it is exposed in the open.

The name tarantula was originally given to a spider living in Southern Italy from the town of Taranto where legend claims that a small species of spider living there had a fatal bite. The only cure was for the victim to dance until exhausted, by which time the poison would have been sweated from the system (the frenzied folk dance based on the Italian legend is called the tarantella).

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