To get in the mood for Halloween, I recently watched the cult classic, Kingdom of the Spiders, on YouTube. Set in Camp Verde with locations in Camp Verde, Sedona, and Oak Creek, the film stars William Shatner, of Star Trek fame, as a veterinarian and Tiffany Bolling as an ASU archnologist. The real stars of the movie, however, are tarantulas, which are the subject of this month’s story.
In the movie, mutant tarantulas have taken over Camp Verde, killing everything in their path, starting with the cows. Ranchers Walter and Birch Colby are devastated when their favorite calf (certain to take home the $1,000 prize at the Verde Valley Fair) is killed by what the ASU arachnologist discovers are killer tarantulas. The venom of these tarantulas is five times stronger than normal. Why? Indiscriminate use of DDT has killed the tarantula’s natural prey and turned them in crazy killers. Released in 1977, the story is a classic 70s tale of modern science and technology gone awry.
According to IMDB, the studio paid $10 each for 5,000 tarantulas, mostly caught in Mexico. The $50,000 cost of the spiders was the biggest item in the budget. As I watched the movie, I wondered how many of them survived. Most of the spiders in the close ups looked like Mexican red-knee tarantulas, a docile species that is frequently sold in the pet trade. I was rooting for the tarantulas.
If you are afraid of spiders, this movie would certainly creep you out. But I lost my horror of spiders many years ago. While I started out afraid of spiders like most people, I lost my fear in adulthood. When I was a high school biology teacher, I thought it was best never to show fear in front of my students. One day, a student brought a tarantula into class to show off. Now my reputation was on the line. And so, I forced a smile on my face and allowed a tarantula to walk up my arm. I survived!
From that point on, I was no longer afraid. Spiders (and tarantulas) will never be my favorite cuddly animals, but they no longer terrify me. Scanning my iNaturalist observations, I found that I have recorded tarantulas four times in the Verde Valley since 2019. Two of those were identified as Grand Canyon Blacks, one was a Desert, and another was a Desert Blonde tarantula. I’ve also seen a number of tarantulas squashed dead on the road. The poor things were simply trying to cross the road and got in the way of a fast car.
Tarantulas do a lot of moving around, hunting for food and mates. While I have seen them during the daytime, they mostly hunt at night. They will capture and eat anything small enough, focusing on grasshoppers, beetles, other small spiders, and other arthropods. They will even eat small lizards, if they can catch them. Each tarantula lives in an underground burrow, which it has lined with silk.
What eats tarantulas? Animals that will take on a tarantula include snakes, lizards, roadrunners, coyotes, and foxes. Humans catch them, as I said earlier, for the pet trade. But the tarantula hawk wasp is another kind of predator. It is hard to miss this spectacular, large wasp with its shiny blue-black body and red or orange wings. If you’ve ever seen one of these big wasps, you’ve seen a fearsome tarantula predator. The females hunt tarantulas in a high stakes game.
When the female tarantula hawk finds a tarantula, she engages it in battle. If victorious, the wasp stings, paralyzing the tarantula. The resulting immobility allows the wasp to drag the tarantula to a burrow, where she lays an egg on its abdomen. Safely stowed away, the tarantula never wakes up. The egg hatches into wasp larva, which eats the tarantula. Just as the spider uses its venom to subdue its prey, the tarantula hawk wasp uses the same method on the tarantula.
Spiders and their victims are often depicted in horror movies and stories. Think of the movies Eight Legged Freaks and Arachniphobia (both of which I recommend this October). Even Harry Potter has horrible spiders that try to eat Harry and Ron. In the Lord of the Rings, the evil Shelob stalks and lays traps for Frodo and Sam; it is a scary part of the story. And yet, in Tolkien’s writing, I’ve always sensed a certain holding back and sympathy for Shelob, an overly large spider that is, quite simply, just hungry.
When you come upon a tarantula or any of their spider cousins, try rearranging your attitude. Try marveling at the fascinating creature that is a part of our ecosystem, here in the Verde Valley. You can learn more about the Verde River and its environment at verderiver.org.
Nancy L.C. Steele, Executive Director