Tarantulas are big, hairy, scary monsters that will eat you while you sleep!

That’s completely false, of course, but the way some people react to them, you’d think it was a fact.

As part of the “creepy” creatures I’ll be featuring this month, this column concerns an arachnid that is perceived as scary — the Oklahoma brown tarantula — but is not at all so.

Often in the movies, they are portrayed as monsters, and it’s enough to give people arachnophobia. But tarantulas are actually quite docile.

Now, they are called the Oklahoma brown tarantula, however, they are also known as the Texas brown tarantula, Missouri tarantula and Arkansas tarantula. I think you know where I am going with that.

I absolutely love these things. In my youth, I kept some as pets. And they can be good pets: however, they should be well taken care of. They need proper housing and food. Nowadays, I just let them be.

One of my favorite stories about the Oklahoma brown tarantula concerns a camping trip in Coal County in the 1980s.

It was a freezing winter night. We, my family and I, had built quite a nice campfire. While trying to keep warm, I noticed a tarantula walking in a circle around the fire. I was shocked to see it, as it was so cold, but then I realized it had left its burrow to warm up by the fire. Kind of like what I was doing.

After making several rounds, a separate tarantula started traveling around the fire. “What are the odds of that?” I thought to myself.

They were some distance apart, and I don’t think they noticed each other at first. Both were moving in a counterclockwise direction. After a while, one turned around and began walking clockwise. When the two nearly bumped into each other, they took defensive positions and managed to walk around each other without incident.

After a little while, they each walked away and disappeared into the darkness. Back to their burrows, I suppose.

Description

These tarantulas can vary in color, but most of them that you’ll see in Oklahoma and Texas are similar in appearance to the individuals in my photos.

Their legs are brown to nearly black with brown hairs on them.

The cephalothorax — the front part of the spider, which contains the eyes — resembles a coconut, in my opinion. Look at one closely, and you’ll see what I am talking about.

The colors are bolder after a molt, as with many arthropods.

Tarantulas have something called pedipalps in the front, which resembles an extra pair of legs. Males have longer pedipalps than females.

These tarantulas can grow to about 5 inches in diameter — legs and all — and females are usually larger and a little thicker than males.

Food

Tarantulas feed on crickets, grasshoppers, various beetles, caterpillars and cicadas. They do not spin intricate webs. However, according to the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension, webbing is sometimes used to line a burrow, and a few lines of silk are placed on the ground in front of the shelter to detect passing prey.

Predators

Perhaps the greatest predator of the tarantula is the tarantula hawk.

A tarantula hawk is a huge black wasp, about 2 inches long, with orange wings. Adults don’t eat tarantulas, they drink nectar.

However, the process of reproduction for the tarantula hawk is tantamount to a horror story, if you ask me.

The female will often pick a fight with a tarantula, and she will almost always win. After stinging the tarantula, it will become paralyzed nearly instantly.

She will then drag the tarantula to a hiding spot — I call it a tomb of nightmares — where she will lay a single egg on it. Once the larvae hatches it will slowly feed on the immobile, yet still living, tarantula until it is ready to go out on its own.

I have witnessed this action two times in my life. Both times I was without a camera. Ugh!

I will write about those events in the future when I feature the tarantula hawk.

Also, the tarantula hawk isn’t the only wasp that reproduces like that. There are other smaller wasps that do the same with wolf spiders. I will write about that in the future as well.

Habitat

In Oklahoma, tarantulas are common in grasslands and semi-open areas. But I would say most people see them when they venture into yards or when crossing roads.

They are most often seen in late summer when they are out wandering, usually during the evening.

According to experts at the El Paso Zoo, in August or September, females release pheromones that allow males to locate them. This is when the males are out wandering.

However, according to the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension, that phenomenon is not well understood and may be related to migration more than mating.

Range

The Oklahoma brown tarantula is primarily located in Oklahoma and Texas. However, it is also located in parts of Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana and northeast Mexico.

Reproduction

According to Texas A&M AgriLife Extension entomologists, female tarantulas lay anywhere from 100 to 1,000 eggs in a web which is constructed like a hammock.

The egg sac is kept guarded in a borrow. Eggs hatch in 45 to 60 days. Spiderlings hatch in the summer within the egg sac. Once they leave the egg sac, the spiderlings may stay with the female for three to six days or longer before dispersing.

Odds and ends

In conclusion, let me say, don’t fear these creatures. Being scared of tarantulas is probably similar to the overwhelming fear I had as a kid that I would someday get trapped in quicksand — complete nonsense. Thanks, Hollywood!

Now, tarantulas are venomous, but the venom is only strong enough to harm small prey.

If a human is bitten — often the result of mishandling — the result is similar to that of a honey bee sting.

However, a bite can have a negative reaction for people who have allergies to venom — like bee stings.

But I will say, I have handled hundreds of tarantulas in my life and I’ve never been bitten, so rest easy.

In a 2010 article in Texas Parks and Wildlife magazine, Rick West, one of the world’s leading authorities on tarantulas, said, “To date, there has never been a proven human fatality directly resulting from the bite of a tarantula.”

Here’s an interesting fact: Female Oklahoma brown tarantulas can live more than 25 years!

Randy Mitchell is a freelance writer and photographer. He has been an avid birdwatcher, nature enthusiast and photographer for 40 years. Reach him at rnw@usa.com.