The word “tarantula” creeps me out; it’s the verbal embodiment of everything that skitters. Not much in nature makes me recoil, but we all have our things, I suppose, and tarantulas are mine. When I was a young thing, still getting acquainted with the way the world works, I felt a deep sense of disappointment and dread on discovering that huge, hairy spiders as big as my face were a thing in the world. Really? I thought. Did you have to go there, nature?
So imagine how I felt when I first heard the term tarantula migration. A single specimen is bad enough. But a migration is a horde.
I’m not sure where I first heard the phrase “tarantula migration” but it was doddering around in my subconscious when my nephew announced that he would be getting married in Santa Fe, New Mexico over Labor Day weekend. Travis’s parents and sister also live in Santa Fe, and I thought I remembered someone telling me, when I was there last winter, that September was when the tarantulas migrated.
Because I am me, chances were small that I would zip into Santa Fe for two and a half days, stick to the pest-controlled urban areas, and fly quickly back to the Midwest where the spiders have the good sense not to canvass the land. What, I wondered, were my chances of encountering a tarantula migration?
I took to Google immediately, but my research was complicated by the fact that most articles on the phenomenon are illustrated by gigantic, full-frame photos of the hairy bastards. So I had to be choosy with my clicks, but I did eke out some valuable information. As it turns out, tarantula migrations are not true migrations at all. Rather, when the males are about three years old, they decide it’s time to leave a legacy in the form of tiny, hairy offspring. So they go off looking for a mate. In short, tarantula migrations are just horny spiders wandering the landscape looking to get laid. Kind of like spring break for the arachnid set. The rainier the spring and summer, the more males there are to migrate.
The male of this species, it should be noted, has clearly drawn the short evolutionary straw. These guys will roam up to fifty miles looking for a girlfriend – which, relative to its leg size, is about the equivalent of me hiking the Appalachian Trail just to get my salad tossed – while female spiders stay tucked up safe in their burrows. If a male finds her and he is not to her liking, she lets him down easy: by eating him — and not, it should be noted, in the good way. If he is to her liking, then she might still eat him; but she’ll at least get down with him first. If the male spider doesn’t get eaten by his lover, or die of exhaustion because he hiked cross country for a one-off, then he might get to live another season before doing it all again the next year.
Females, on the other hand, live up to twenty years. And they have approximately 500 babies a few weeks after the liaison, which they will then ignore while they go back to their burrow and wait for another lover to cannibalize in the autumn. Girl tarantulas obviously have the better arrangement.
After all this research, I understood the phenomenon, but still wasn’t sure about my likelihood of encountering one, so I did a little more reading. Internet reports on tarantula migrations fall roughly into two categories: locals, inevitably long-term locals, who insist they have lived in New Mexico for decades and never seen a single tarantula, and the tourists, who all mostly say the same thing: “I was driving on this remote highway, and up ahead I saw a black cloud moving across the landscape…”
I, of course, am a tourist.
Travis’s mother, like the internet locals, tells me she has never seen a tarantula, let alone a migration. So last night when Travis was on the phone with her, I yelled at him to ask her how much rain they’d had this summer.
“Oh, quite a lot,” she replied.
I’m taking the high boots.