Late summers in southeastern Colorado are usually synonymous with golden honeydews and cantaloupes, as the Rocky Ford melon harvest gets underway. But as evening temperatures cool, another lesser known ritual begins — the annual tarantula migration.
KUNC’s Esther Honig traveled south hoping to catch a glimpse of the spiders on their journey.
Growing up in Colorado, I’d always assumed large, hairy spiders lived exclusively in the tropics or as pets inside glass aquariums. Come to find, the Oklahoma brown tarantula — which can grow a leg span of up to 11 inches — is common throughout the counties bordering Colorado’s Arkansas Valley.
Year round, these large arachnids burrow in the undisturbed desert prairies and feed on small bugs. It’s only during late summer and early fall that they become more visible, as the males emerge for a few short hours at dusk to search for a mate. It’s a scene one might not expect in a Colorado desert.
Hoping to catch a glimpse, I traveled south to Pueblo, where 22-year-old Keythur Merchant, a student of wildlife and natural resource management, agreed to take me tarantula hunting.
In his Vans sneakers and baseball cap, Merchant meets me at the open fields behind Colorado State University-Pueblo, where he’s caught wild tarantulas in the past. He tells me he’s also caught them in parking lots and on the soccer field. Originally from Trinidad, Colorado — about an hour south of here — Merchant grew up catching tarantulas with his bare hands. He’s the type that loves invertebrates the way most people love puppies, and whatever he finds today will become a part of his bug zoo: a living collection he brings to elementary schools to teach kids about local wildlife.
“Part of my hope with that is to try to eliminate those fears,” he said. “Some kids are taught to be afraid of tarantulas.”
For the sake of transparency, I should include myself in that category. Typically, a close encounter with a spider makes me scream with panic. In fact, this assignment might feel more like exposure therapy than a serious journalistic pursuit.
As Merchant and I stomp through dry prairie grass, he explains that while it’s called a migration, these tarantulas are just out roaming to find a female in her burrow.
“They’ll go in there and they kind of have a ritual where the female will decide whether or not to accept the male and he either gets mated or he gets booted out,” he said.
Thanks to their size, the tarantulas are easy to spot from a distance, as they crawl across roads and through open prairies. We continue searching for about an hour as the sun slowly sets behind us. When I see what I think is a tarantula, Merchant assures me it’s just a large stink bug. In the end we don’t spot a single one.
“I feel like it’s a little early in the year,” said Merchant. “Usually mid to late September is a little bit more prime.”
He’s right, we’re at the tail-end of August and the evening temperatures are still too hot. Peak tarantula mating season isn’t for another week, when I’m told there are so many running around, they’re hard to miss. But my editor has shown little enthusiasm for extending my deadline. The next day I travel even further south.
Early morning in La Junta, Michelle Stevens with the U.S. Forest Service unfolds a large white map. Wearing a dark green cardigan, she uses a highlighter to mark the best routes for spotting tarantulas in the Cimarron and Comanche National Grasslands, which contains acres of tarantula habitat, undisturbed by farming or development. It’s easiest to spot them on the rural roads as they scurry across to reach adjacent prairie land.
Ever since several online articles about the local tarantula population went viral, Stevens has seen an uptick in the number of curious tourists.
“I think it’s a big moment for tarantulas in this region,” she said.
She stresses they’re just one of the many attractions found in the national grasslands, including prehistoric rock art, endless scenic trails and wagon ruts left behind on the Santa Fe Trail. But tarantulas seem to be “having their moment in the moonlight,” as she puts it, which has also provoked plenty of calls from concerned visitors who fear herds of spiders will sneak up, crawl into cars and attack.
“That sounds like a great B movie, but it is not really what reality is,” she said.
Which is that these tarantulas travel independently and most visitors will be lucky if they spot a handful. Also, as is the case with most wildlife, they only bite when harassed and aren’t even venomous to people.
“There’s really no reason to be fearful of tarantulas,” she reiterated. “They’re harmless.”
Clearly, this is all prudent information for any tarantula tourist, but I have yet to see one in the wild. I ask Stevens about conditions for spider spotting in the next few days and she says temperatures are supposed to get a bit cooler, meaning the odds are looking good.
When I set out to explore the Comanche National Grasslands, it’s early on a Friday evening, a time when most people might choose to be with friends, sipping cold craft beer. To my shock, I’m the only one out here hunting spiders.
Over the next hour, I drive up and down Highway 109 as well as several smaller dirt roads. I spot many things that look like a tarantula from a distance, but upon closer observation are more stink bugs or small birds. As the sun lowers in the sky, the light becomes orange and piercing. I hold out hope I’ll find one.
Those hopes are dashed when raindrops hit my windshield.
Like a wall of water, a desert storm moves in swiftly, and I assume the night is a loss. If I had cell service I would Google, “Do tarantula like rain?” but I imagine their hairy paws recoil at the smallest drop of water. I put the car in reverse to head home.
But once I reach the edge of the national grasslands, the rain, as quickly as it came, has already cleared. I consider for a moment how tired I am and how I would really like to head home. If I leave now, maybe I can still watch Netflix with my husband. But darn it, I came all this way to see a spider.
I head back into the lonely sunset prairie. A half-hour passes when finally, at the edge of the road, I think see the distinct silhouette of a very large spider.
Unsure if maybe I’m hallucinating, I pull the car over in a panic. I race to the edge of the road and there he is; brown, furry, and about the size of my hand.
I kneel down for a closer look, and rather than feel terror, I’m actually a bit moved; this tarantula is making the trek of his life, braving predators and cars, all to find his mate.
Before I can pull out my camera, he’s continued to crawl off into the cool, dark prairie. It was enough to see just one tarantula, but any tourist traveling southeast between mid-September and early October can be sure to see many more.