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Summer Rains Sound Like Love to Arizona Tarantulas

Tarantulas appear frequently on roadways during the summer rains in Sedona Arizona.

The already-lazy traffic comes to a halt one damp afternoon in the town of Sedona, Arizona.

Two people are in the middle of the two-lane highway through town, holding up their hands to stop the cars and poking at something on the ground with their toes, ushering it slowly toward the curb. The drivers' irritation reflex begins to kick in, until they see the cause for the holdup. It's Arizona's version of the Boston children's classic Make Way for Ducklings - it's Make Way for Aphonopelma Chalcodes, better known to most of us as the desert tarantula.

Like the thumping of bass or $2 draft beers for humans, summer rainstorms of the Arizona desert cue sexually mature male tarantulas to begin their single-minded quest to find females, marching stoically along to fulfill their romantic destinies, come rain, come Tarantula Hawk (a nasty wasp that lays its eggs in the spiders' abdomens) or come Volkswagen. This is the time of year you'll see them picking their determined way across highways, yards and occasionally into the bathrooms of Arizona homes from Tucson to Sedona, while the females wait in their burrows for their prince charming.

Luckily for the resident Sedona tarantula, pictured here, a lot of Arizonans are big fans of these hairy arachnids, and go out of their way to protect it from human-caused perils, anyway. Despite their horror-movie getup, tarantulas are pretty docile creatures, as the many passionate owners of pet tarantulas will readily attest. You really have to harass a tarantula to provoke its essentially harmless bite, and most of us just don't want to get that close.

The Apaches tell of Tarantula as one of the first beings formed by the Creator, giving him a role in the creation of the earth itself.

Aesthetic and personality issues aside, they perform a very important task in the desert ecosystem, eating cockroaches, centipedes, scorpions, rodents and other insects people consider pests. While the males have a short lifespan of perhaps a year at best after reaching sexual maturity, the females can live up to 25 years or longer for some species.

There are 800 species of tarantula in the world, and about 30 live in Arizona. Their bodies are 2 to 3 inches long, with the standard eight legs plus two "palps," or feelers, in front. Mature tarantulas will molt occasionally, shedding their entire exoskeleton and growing a new one, like a snake sheds its skin.

Perhaps the oddest tarantula habit is "hair spitting," a defensive move in which a threatened tarantula hoists up its abdomen and uses its legs to flick its tiny body hairs at a perceived danger source. These hairs can irritate the eyes and nose of a curious potential predator.

The molting behavior is referenced in a well-known Zuni legend about the tarantula, who takes the role of the "trickster" in several Zuni stories. This story features Tarantula, who at the time was the only one of his kind on earth, and was large as a man. He managed to trick a Zuni boy named Swift-Runner out of his elaborate ceremonial costume, exchanging it for his own woolly leggings and dirty grey cape. Swift-Runner and his village tried every means necessary, including employing several crafty birds of prey, to con Tarantula out of his den and take back the costume, but nothing worked. Finally they appealed to the grandmother of the war gods, who crafted decoy deer out of stone, which lured Tarantula out with their lifelike appearance, then fell on him with their inanimate weight when he tried to take them. The Zuni overtook Tarantula and threw him onto the fire, where he burst into a million tiny versions of himself, populating the world with tarantulas as we know them.

The tarantula is also featured in the lore of other Native Southwest people, but generally has a more benevolent aspect, and is often part of creation itself. The Apaches tell of Tarantula as one of the first beings formed by the Creator, giving him a role in the creation of the earth itself. To the Navajo, Spider Woman, who lives atop Spider Rock, a tall spire-like formation in Canyon de Chelly, was instrumental in helping humans transition into this "fourth world," offering them protection, creating order in the new world, and, not insignificantly, teaching the Navajo the art of weaving.

Encountering one of these creatures does speak to some primal part of our consciousness, for better or worse. Some folks find them fascinating and beautiful and develop a life-long interest in these giant spiders, while others become frozen in fear at the mere thought of them. In reality, the tarantula is simply a part of the complex web (excuse the expression) of life in the desert and offers more good than harm to human life here.

Article by Sarah Horton.

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