Local residents who may be new to Southern California’s Inland Empire or who don’t often venture into the wilderness may not be aware that love … well, um, copulation is in the air.
Late summer is tarantula mating season. A morning trek onto the Santa Rosa Plateau just west of Wildomar Wednesday morning showcased an abundance of mature male tarantulas looking for females to mate with. In the span of an hour, five tarantulas were spotted on the trail toward Monument Hill.
“Males are now out and about,” explained Dr. Doug Yanega, senior museum scientist for U.C. Riverside’s Entomology Research Museum. Reached by phone Wednesday, he said, “These are good conditions for them to do their thing.”
Once a male tarantula is sexually mature, he leads a straying, wandering lifestyle, and milder temperatures in late summer and early fall set the mood for tarantula romance. Wednesday morning’s cooler air brought out the mature males, looking for females that hide in burrows, Yanega suspected.
“If it’s too hot or too cold, they just hunker down,” Yanega said of the arachnids.
Tarantula mating season in Southern California has just started, and can last for up to two months, depending on weather and food supply, Yanega said.
“If a male is lucky, the first female he finds will be receptive and she won’t eat him,” he explained. “It all depends on how hungry she is.”
Some male tarantulas meet with that same poetic fate after "the act" is over.
“Once she’s been fertilized, she needs the energy,” Yanega explained. “It’s survival.”
A tragic ending?
“What nobler thing than to be giving your life for your offspring,” Yanega said.
And if that’s not “Alien-esque” enough, consider this: The infamous “tarantula hawk” – that big black creature with red wings that any Inland Valley SoCal kid can wax on about in detail – really does exist and it really does prey on tarantulas. The “hawk” is actually a parasitic wasp. Its modus operandi is simple: Step 1: Sting a tarantula to paralyze it. Step 2: Drag the now-zombified spider to your underground nest and lay eggs on it. Step: 3: When the eggs become larvae, they snack away on the still-living but immobile tarantula. Step. 4: Polish off the tarantula while it’s still tasty, before it starts to decay.
“The predator must have something fresh and edible too,” Yanega explained with a laugh.
Tarantulas also have an interesting way of obtaining their sustenance.
“They eat anything they can pounce on and sink their fangs into,” Yanega said, noting that crickets and grasshoppers are likely mainstays, but the occasional baby mouse or lizard is probably palatable tarantula fare too.
That said, local tarantulas don’t pose much risk to humans.
“All spiders have venom, but very, very few have venom that’s toxic to humans,” Yanega said. “Tarantula venom is not particularly harmful.”
What’s more irritating to humans are a tarantula’s “bristles.” When threatened, Yanega said a tarantula pulls its bristles from its body with its legs and “throws” them at predators.
“You don’t want to get a face full of bristles,” he said.
So for those thinking about "domesticating" a wild tarantula, Yanega advises against it. Although the spiders can live in captivity for more than 20 years, they require experienced handlers, he said.
“Taking one of out the wild is not something you just casually do,” he said. “It can be unpleasant for you and it's definitely unpleasant for the tarantula.”