Category Archives: Tarantulas

Spider in the sky with diamonds

Oh what a lovely web we weave . . .

I finally got a look, a proper nighttime look, at the marvelous tarantula sculpture mounted to the wall of a parking garage in Morgan Hill, California. Here it is!

That’s Venus shining down, by the way. Tell me this ain’t a sight you’d drive all the way to Morgan Hill to see. [Photos by Charles Lindsey]


Recall how the art-loving (and publicity-friendly) civic leaders of this horsy Bay Area town withstood the faint cries of arachnophobes and naysayers and commissioned this sculpture to beautify the garage, which, like all parking garages, could be made more beautiful by practically anything. But in this case, the artwork is a stunner.

You won’t forget where you left your car. (Insert joke about Fiat Spider here.)

The glittering tarantula, by sculptor Gordon Huether, is a tribute to the native tarantulas that prowl the foothills in search of mates. It gleams with the beams of multiple car headlights—I bet you never thought of building a giant spider out of old car parts, did you?—and gives Morgan Hill’s modest downtown a shot of color and charisma.

That glitter rocker who was talking about spiders from Mars? They probably looked like this.








But the surprising thing to me is how spidery it is. The proportions, the graceful bend of a knee, the sense of aloof purpose—all those really do evoke the tarantulas that stride around in the fall. People caricature spiders with the dripping fangs, and the red eyes, and all the other grotesque nonsense, or they draw ticklike silhouettes like the Richmond Spiders mascot  and it’s obvious they have no idea what spiders even look like. Is it any wonder they think spiders are invading beds, and biting British tots, and leaping around, and infiltrating beehive hairdos? Not surprising at all.

Still handsome by day. Just not as electric.

But Huether got it so right. His spider is built on a structure of red metal beams, and like other skilled sculptors he turned that rigid material into a shape suggestive of both grace and heft, like a tarantula itself. Those strong femurs, narrowing down to the delicate tarsi and toes; the front legs raised slightly as the nearsighted animal investigates its path; even the multiple little orbs across its back, reminiscent of a mama wolf spider carrying its babies around. It all evokes not only movement but natural movement.



A spider of that size really would walk, and climb, and pause that way. Here, of course, I need to acknowledge the law of scaling that insists a living spider that big is impossible, at least on our planet. It wouldn’t be able to take in enough oxygen or support its weight, although I bet some cool steel prosthetic legs would help.

Also: laser eyes, as long as we’re blue-skying physiological improvements.

As for the sculpture, I don’t see any room for improvement. It’s perfect. Long may it glow.


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Posted by on February 3, 2017 in Tarantulas


Downtown Spider Brown

Nothing says you’ve arrived like a GIANT METAL SPIDER

Wouldn’t want to be a fly on that wall.

On the up-and-up: Spiders are coming for your SUV! Mind the silk. (City of Morgan Hill)

Movin’ on up: Spiders are coming for your SUV! Mind the silk. (City of Morgan Hill)

Not with that arachnid dangling right alongside. See it? It’s just about to pounce on that plump crossover.

This is Morgan Hill, California, a booming ‘burb in the southern reaches of the San Francisco Bay Area. It seems to be managing its growth pretty well (the spiders are sure filling out). Only a few decades ago it was a sleepy satellite of big San Jose to the north. Horse country. Drowsy businesses off the freeway. The kind of town you’d visit in the fall for pumpkin patches and corn mazes.

Now Morgan Hill is adding not only new and sometimes palatial houses (they still have the horses) but also restaurants and shops. And it’s wielding the D-word heard in every aspiring community: downtown. Twenty-five years in the area, and I didn’t know Morgan Hill even had a downtown. Where there’s downtown, there has to be parking. And where there’s parking there’s . . . this giant spider.

The city is about to christen a new downtown garage adorned with the sculpture shown here. It’s in homage to the lovelorn tarantulas that stroll the golden hills outside Morgan Hill in the fall. My kind of town!

The spiders honored by this artwork make themselves known in October and November as the males wander in search of a mate. Nearby Henry Coe State Park has its annual Tarantula Festival in which kids and adults buddy up to the leggy, shaggy California tarantulas that would give up all that fame and fortune and commissioned artwork if they could only find a partner. Then, of course, they die.

The Morgan Hill Times reported “impassioned discussion” about the proposed sculpture, the work of Napa artist Gordon Huether. The artist will also put a less intimidating sculpture honoring a native stone, poppy jasper, on the opposite flank of the garage.

One resident launched a petition to squash the spider, but had no beef with the jasper. “My children will be frightened and therefore we won’t be coming downtown,” wrote a signer.

Another wrote, “I do not feel that the spider sculpture reflects what Morgan Hill is all about.” To be fair, the artist probably couldn’t figure out a way to sculpt a giant, metal property-tax bill. The petition fizzled out.

Morgan Hill Life, another local paper, urged town stalwarts to take a stand for “daring works of public art” like the spider. The artist, for his part, maintains that the spider art was meant to be “whimsical and cheerful,” and he believes the naysayers will eventually come around.

I’m not sure. Arachnophobes tend to be an irrational and impulsive lot.Morgan Hill spider closeup

“Red Tarantula was inspired by the tarantulas that visit Morgan Hill every October,” Huether confirms on his website. “The installation is composed of hundreds of vintage headlights for the spider’s body and is adjoined by eight vibrant red powder coated steel outstretched legs spanning the wall. Red Tarantula is not only a humorous addition to the parking structure, but is a witty response to Poppy Jasper on the façade.”

The $200,000 metal spider is chunky and shiny. The original design, it must be noted, didn’t look like a tarantula at all. It was more svelte and curvy, reminiscent of a widow or other cobweb spider. The local tarantulas, like all such, are more like plus-size models: big and beautiful. But Huether shows they can wear the sparkles too.

My turn to shine! A close-up of the leggy supermodel and its beautiful eyes, eyes, eyes. (Gordon Huether/Art Matters

My turn to shine! A close-up of the leggy supermodel and its beautiful eyes, eyes, eyes. (Gordon Huether/Art Matters

Morgan Hill has vineyards, so surely it has black widows too. If you’re gonna alarm arachnophobic shoppers, why not go all the way?

Huether could have festooned his design with a giant bunch of grapes, tapping into the perennial hysteria about black widows among the produce. Or maybe a banana, a nod to the hysterical Brits and their banana splits. A few months ago it appears someone was actually bitten by a refrigerated widow trying to escape its plastic prison. This is the first time I’ve ever heard of a spider in the grapes biting anyone. The victim was in pain for a while and then the doctors sent her home, much as if she’d stepped on a rusty nail. But all bets are off when the reporters find out.

Hurrah for Morgan Hill and its civic daring! Mass tarantella dancing to follow. That’ll bring them downtown.

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Posted by on November 3, 2015 in Tarantulas


Tarantulas Go Marching In, Hurrah, Hurrah

Talkin’ ‘Bout Mygale . . .

Tarantulas were my first love. Not the exotic pet sort of tarantula, but the rangy, shaggy, Tootsie-roll-colored spiders that roam the California hill country every fall. (Mygale is French for tarantula, which I need to mention so as to make sense of that headline.)

First name, Aphonopelma. Last name . . . not sure of species. But you can call me Mr. T. (Photo by Toiyabe--Creative Commons)

First name, Aphonopelma. Last name . . . not sure of species. But you can call me Mr. T. (Photo by Toiyabe–Creative Commons)

Incredible. You spend your whole life somewhere and don’t even notice an animal that lives right next door—though to be fair, they do lie low. Most people know that male spiders of all kinds saddle up and begin to wander as the year winds down, because that’s when everybody is sexually mature and preparing for the next generation. But house spiders are one thing; you can shrug at a wolf spider hustling across your rug. A slow-motion marathon of big, lovelorn tarantulas ambling across the trail is another thing entirely. Yet I had never noticed them.


One year I was living not far from the golden slopes of Mount Diablo in Contra Costa County. A story in the paper mentioned the striding tarantulas, which emerge from the ground in September and October to prowl the hills. Dry weather after the first autumn rain is said to encourage them. So I took my bike up the mountain (riding uphill . . . uphill! I used to do that) and bumped into a number of tarantula guys on walkabout.

What a sight! They’re leggy spiders, these Californians. The males are lean and look almost all leg; the females are chunkier, like the classic pet-store tarantula, but you won’t get to meet them because they’re waiting in their burrows for gentleman callers. I followed a few of the males and took note of the delicate sounds they made when walking across the leaf litter; it’s quiet on the mountain. I worked up my courage and put a flat hand in front of one of them; he crossed it without breaking stride. I didn’t bother them otherwise, knowing they were on their first and last mission.

The tarantulas on this mountain (Aphonopelma smithi) are known as Bay Area blonds, though to be honest they look more like dirty blonds (makes sense, I guess, for a guy who lives in a hole. And a Californian at that). And what looks like aimless wandering is just the prelude: male tarantulas sniff for a chemical signal, left on silk, that indicates a female’s burrow is nearby. Then they follow their chemoreceptors, as guys will do. Perhaps some of the males I saw that day got lucky; I’ll never know.

A lovesick tarantula is one of the better ways to engender sympathy among otherwise spider-fearing humans. You empathize with him . . . It’s hot, he’s lonely and lost, he’ll never see home again, but if he can find the one, his genes will outlive him and the spider walk will continue. After I let that tarantula cross my hand, I understood. He was supremely indifferent to me and all human schemes. He had his one priority, which was not biting people and was not terrifying bloggers. He just had to live long enough for his life to have meant something.

I had nothing to fear. But he did.

It’s tarantula season again, and if you can bear the suspense a fine way to celebrate the spiders comes October 4, when Henry W. Coe State Park holds its annual Tarantula Fest and BBQ. Tarantulas will not be barbecued—only steak, chicken, hot dogs, and vegetarian burgers. Last year at the fest the dirty blond spiders were not in abundance, and I wonder if the continuing ultra-drought will affect them this year too. But there are other spiders, music, and wonderful views. You can get a T-shirt stenciled with spiders and watch kids be brave. Unlimited refills on the spider solidarity.



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Posted by on August 21, 2014 in Tarantulas


As Easy as Herding Tarantulas

Let’s go on a spider safari

This one goes out to all you screamers who won’t pick up a spider in a paper cup and put it outside. In case it, you know, leaps for your throat or lays eggs in your hairdo or something else that happens all the time.

In South Africa, a road-widening project ground to a halt last year when workers found a bunch of baboon spider burrows in the way. The two species encountered, Augacephalus junodi and Ceratogyrus darlingi, are protected, so the spiders had to be relocated.

Helloooo, Blondie. Augacephalus junodi, the golden baboon spider, had to pick up stakes when the road came through.

Helloooo, Blondie. Augacephalus junodi, the golden baboon spider, had to pick up stakes when the road came through.

Augacephalus is one of the most beautiful species names ever. Auga refers to the rays of the sun and cephalus means head; the pattern on this spider’s cephalothorax looks like a big, golden sunburst. Ceratogyrus has a little horn.

Baboon spiders are tarantulas. Hairy, hefty. They even sound big, though by tarantula standards they’re not especially. Tarantula hobbyists like to show them off, which means the populations are at risk from the illegal pet trade.

So did the road workers all faint in unison at the prospect of herding tarantulas?

Of course not: South Africans, folks! they’re tough. They wrestle lions before breakfast. Instead the workers, advised by a team of scientists, rounded up the big spiders by rooting them out of their burrows and collecting them by hand. Out of 400 spiders relocated (cue “Kingdom of the Spiders” footage, hello Bill Shatner), only two of them bit anybody, and the game-reserve adviser on the project shrugged it off with, “It is like a bee sting.”

A scientist (you can tell, only scientists wear wristwatches anymore) shows one of the relocated baboon spiders  around her new digs. New burrow holes were dug with an auger, with grass and such added for curb appeal.

A scientist (you can tell, only scientists wear wristwatches anymore) shows one of the relocated baboon spiders around her new digs. New burrow holes were dug with an auger, with grass and such added for curb appeal.

I love this place! Then the team dug hundreds of artificial burrows for this shy, retiring animal, which lives most of its life in the same hole in the ground. The refugee spiders accepted the carefully located new burrows, which featured moistened soil and a scattering of plant material outside for shelter. The project turned out so well that other construction projects in South Africa started sending their spiders to the new habitat, too. Adjust your safari plans accordingly.

A side note: I’m sure you’ve noticed how eager energy companies are to trumpet their environmental credentials. These spider wranglers worked for a South African mining concern called Exxaro, which was widening a road to a power plant. I know nothing of their record and of course this story makes them look good—especially the part where some of the spiders set up housekeeping in a pile of ash next to another coal-fired power plant. Still, if oil companies can pass themselves off as cormorant-hugging do-gooders, I suppose this mining concern can use tarantulas as spokes-spiders for sustainability. After all, they coulda just squished them.

Ah, that new-home smell. Hope the neighbors are friendly.

Ah, that new-home smell. Hope the neighbors are friendly.

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Posted by on August 20, 2013 in Spider science, Tarantulas


Swatting down the angry spiders of Assam

Three and even more cheers for the level-headed journalists of India! who took that crazy spider story in Assam and dragged it into the cold light of day. You might have read those tales about big, huge, ENORMOUS dark-colored spiders being spotted in large numbers where they hadn’t before. Biting people, disrespecting cultural festivals, sending a few people to an early grave. First stories indicated they were giant (photos indicate otherwise) or called them “tarantulas” (again, photos are unclear), and cooked up a stew of overreaction seasoned with muddy facts.

No U.S. news outlets parachuted into the spider zone, so who knows what the arachnids would have done when confronted by Anderson Cooper and his accusing baby blues. So all we heard at first from this remove were tales from an echo chamber. Given the way these stories usually play out, how delightful to see how aggressively the Indian media smacked down the misinformation:

No evidence of spider swarms. Two people who died were swiftly cremated and evidence indicates one was bitten by a snake, and the other might have had an adverse reaction to the folk treatment inflicted on him. Arachnologists identified the supposed baddy as a common enough spider, not medically significant. The government even handed out pamphlets urging people not to panic, and pointing out that any “aggressiveness” on the spiders’ part was probably due to their being more noticeable at breeding time while on their nuptial stroll. A handful of people reliably reported as suffering spider bites (“I picked it up,” one admitted to the camera) were simply treated and released.

I liked the coverage on one website dedicated to covering “the marginalized areas of India.” pointed out that frightened people were killing spiders on sight, which was likely to harm the ecosystem. That’s a germane point your average breathless rumormonger rarely makes. Wipe out spiders and you’ll give free rein to crop pests, malaria-carrying mosquitoes, and who knows what other invertebrates and nasties.

(That site wants to be a “voice of sanity” for regions where good reporting is hard to find. Not perfectly objective or comprehensive, but a source of reliable information for intelligent decision-making. Wow. Missed the Web 2.0 version of online news in a big way, didn’t they?)

The India spider panic began more than a month ago, and I’d call it a Rorschach test for spider phobia if the term “Rorschach test for . . .” weren’t so overused and abused. (Same with “tabula rasa.”) Let’s just call it a great example of how spider fear can amplify and twist stories, and keep skepticism at arm’s length because when you’re talking about spiders, of course they’d do exactly that, wouldn’t they? The Times of India, which unlike its compatriots did not acquit itself well, even used the phrase “eight-legged freaks.”

And, oh god. One guy thinks spider swarms mean Gaia is fighting back. A blogger on NPR confidently asserted: “Assram state doesn’t have any poisonous spiders.” Uh, Assram? No venomous spiders? What do the spiders of Assam inject, Sunny Delight?

The crack news team at the Long Island Press illustrated their story with a picture of a fake spider from the “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” movie. Note to crack news team: spiders don’t scowl.

Meanwhile, HuffPo thinks there are vampire spiders.

Mamma mia, if it's-a not-a one-a stereotype, it's another! Whattaya gonna do.(Lycosa tarantula photo © J. Coelho, Creative Commons)

Spider hysteria has been kind of quiet lately. The Assam story echoes the folk fears that inspired the tarantella, the dance craze based on the belief that one had to boogie down and shimmy out the venom of the field spider that inspired the word “tarantula” (the spiders of Taranto, Italy, were probably not tarantulas but wolf spiders). I bet the tarantella has launched a thousand dissertations about medicine, mental health, and bacchanalian behavior. I only note that a spider—not an ant, not a bee, not a beetle, not even a rabid dog—kindled such a strange belief. Ancient or medieval or modern, people are always quick to tremble over the small dangers presented by spiders, even when they should be worrying about the large dangers of MRSA or viruses or much bigger animals with much bigger teeth. Or, if you live in Assam, cobras.

Also I think of those cohorts of schoolkids (typically girls) who develop strange speech patterns or tics or bruises en masse, blaming a purported toxic dump or a funny smell or a locally defamed creepy animal, only to miraculously recover. Watch for a fifth-grade class somewhere to be pursued by an army of recluses with a sudden appetite for ankles. And squeeeee! . . . off they go.

The Assam spiders surely were there all along, minding their own business in the woods and fields, until somebody trod on a few burrows or tipped over the wrong hollow log. Poke ’em with a stick and they display “aggressive behavior” toward the huge mammal that can crush out their life. Wouldn’t you?



Put down the comic books. This is science

Huffington Post, how do I hate thee? Let me count the ways … OK, just one for now. But it’s a big one. It’s your “coverage” of science. Sciiiience. You know—the topic that has to be reported really carefully, and where you really have to get the words right, and it can’t be goosed up by inaccurate headlines?

“Tarantula silk could shoot from spider’s feet like Spiderman, scientists say,” brays the headline. But they don’t. And it doesn’t. And the initial tease—that silk can be extruded from a spider’s foot—appeared more than a year ago, to be followed by a couple of thundering rebuttals by heavyweight spider anatomists who had studied and published for decades. And even the first story didn’t say silk could “shoot” anywhere, only that it could be dabbed here and there to help a big spider keep its footing in a precarious place.

That’s a cool thing to explore. Evolution may have equipped ancient spiders with different silk capabilities than they have now. But the hypothesis that tarantulas employ silk-producing “spigots” amongst their toes has already been elegantly rebutted in the Journal of Experimental Biology, the place where the first paper appeared. The scientists challenged the hypothesis by covering the tarantulas’ spinnerets, the organs at the tip of the abdomen that are the only known places where a spider secretes silk, with wax. Traces of silk on the feet vanished. Ergo, the silken slippers had come from the spinnerets all along.

Some of the sensory organs of a solifugid, or "camel spider" (an arachnid but not in fact a spider). ©Journal of Arachnology

I’m just an amateur, but even I’ve read enough about spider morphology to recognize the structures that this correspondent had never seen before, these purported spigots. They’re chemoreceptors of some kind. The esteemed spider researcher Rainer Foelix, one of the aforementioned heavyweights, is the godfather of the spider textbook (yes, quite a specialized field). His works are filled with astonishing electron micrograph images of such structures, which look like a long, slender thorn or hair with an opening at the end. Spiders’ bodies are covered with thousands of these tiny biological instruments, along with others even stranger, with names like slit sensilla and lyriform organs. They form a neural network that tells the animal about its orientation, the position of its limbs, the physical load on its body, and its environment. The purpose of some of them is mysterious. These organs are the reason that an animal that is essentially blind, despite its abundance of eyes, can maintain such a sophisticated understanding of its surroundings: prey, moisture, dangers, weather, mating opportunities.

These are deep wonders, part of the reason I appreciate spiders so much. What we see from our human heights is a small, obscure being, going about its business with a stony disregard for us (oh, except for its lying awake at night, plotting to bite innocent schoolchildren, but that’s just insomnia. They don’t have late-night TV or Ambien). Of all animals they may be the ones most often seen through a glass darkly. But the view from a book like “A Spider’s World: Senses and Behavior,” by arachnologist Friedrich Barth, is vivid and literally otherworldly.

(Barth, by the way, works extensively with Cupiennius salei, a chunky tropical spider that sometimes hitchhikes in fruit shipments and is often accused of being Phoneutria fera, a much scarier individual. Cupiennius isn’t big and bad, it’s just big. But watch how fast a British grocer can scream that he’s found “the world’s deadliest spider” lurking in the bananas! It’s probably poor Cupiennius, chilled to the spinnerets.)

Foelix and Barth explore the wonders—not just anatomy but spider behavior, another planet alien to us—and lead science forward micron by micron. These books are never easy reading, and much of the science is beyond me (sometimes I just look at the pictures), but ultimately the diligent arachnologists run with the Carl Sagan pack, the Stephen Jay Goulds, who stress that wonder is out there. Not found by stretching human understanding and schemata over the universe like some sort of shabby cloak, but by letting these alien worlds of stars and animals and physics press their stories on us, and on our philosophies and gods.

So HuffPo, you shabby cloak, stop treating science like some throwaway bulletin about what the Hollywood hormones did today. Don’t you want another Pulitzer? You got the first one by nailing a story, getting it right the old-fashioned way. You won’t get another by spotting Spider-Man in the bananas. Don’t make Cupiennius come over there and bite you.



Blame that spider!

Let’s start with a good round of blame. Blame the Internet! Blame ignorance! Blame visceral fears our species has been lugging around since we lived next door to the Flintstones! There, that felt good. I’m launching this blamefest because accurate information about spiders just doesn’t seem to get through, or to stick around, or to withstand its turbid journey through the online sloughs, and I’m sure there are reasons that don’t reflect badly on the hive mind but at the moment I can’t think of any.

Sure, spider information is better than it used to be. A decade ago, where were the smart arachnophiles swatting down myths and hysteria? Scarcer than a white black widow. Now you can find such smart people out there, patiently weaving their way through the intellectually toothless carnies in the midway called “Reader Comments.” There are scientists and wildlife experts, doctors, gardeners who like to know their microcosms and the inhabitants therein, and people just happy to see data driving out drivel. Still … it’s not an arachnophilic world. Dopey spider postings pop up every day. Like this one:


[A blogger dubbed “Reality Steve” dishes about an episode of “The Bachelor”]

Was given some inside information regarding the “extras” scene from this week. You know, the one where they showed Ben and Courtney on the temple and Terry the tarantula that they befriended. You see that thing crawling all up and down Courtney’s arm. Blech. I will have you know that my sources informed me the tarantula actually bit into Courtney pretty good and started sucking the blood right out of her, which immediately then had an ambulance on scene and things got messy with people being transported to the hospital. And it’s with a heavy heart that I have to be the one to break the news to everyone, but on the way to the hospital, Terry the tarantula passed away due to blood poisoning. He will be missed.


Zing! Actually pretty funny, you Reality Steve. I get it. Apparently Courtney Whoever occupies the coveted reality TV role of The Man-Eating Skank. But soon this gem was cross-posted on other entertainment sites by people who believed it. Yeah, the blood-sucking. Hospitalization. Death by poisoned blood.

How do I know? Reality Steve became Astounded Steve and said so:


As far as Terry the tarantula, now that caught me completely off guard. I’m shocked at how many people read that paragraph and thought I was serious that that tarantula sucked out Courtney’s blood then died from blood poisoning. I thought it was written so ridiculously and so sarcastically that people couldn’t possibly believe that was true. Guess I was wrong. People were emailing me cheering that they’d heard the tarantula bit her. Unreal.


A mixed bag, I guess. The foolish re-posters pulled down their ripped-off gossip, and Reality Steve sounds like he might have one foot in reality after all. The tarantula calumny vanished. But still, why did it jerk a knee? Who would have bit on that tale if it had been a dog bite or (much more plausible, given the sucking) a mosquito?

So that’s the thing. Harmless big spider gets accused of vampirism because it would if it could. Just like those black widows, lurking in grapes not because they got caught up in the harvest and kidnapped into a refrigerated shipping container and plopped into an English supermarket, but because they want to murder your children. Your fair British children. Not just malign intent, but malign fantasy powers—none of it plausible, but spiders are the creatures from whom everyone expects the worst. That’s one myth. Let’s bust it up.



Posted by on March 14, 2012 in Myths and Calumnies, Netlore, Tarantulas