Chris Pague, Ecologist for the Conservancy's Colorado Chapter
Imagine it being dark. No moon. No stars. Almost cave dark. This is the sort of pitch blackness that can descend on Colorado’s Lower Purgatoire River Valley. With ranches sprinkled every 35,000 or more acres, light can seem almost nonexistent.
Now imagine being surrounded by hundreds of tarantulas.
This is the scene every year in Southeast Colorado and ecologist Chris Pague actually marks it on his calendar as a good time to visit. It’s mating season and the active tarantulas make being a spectator easy. Just remember to bring extra headlamp batteries and a strong resolve.
If Colorado scientist Chris Pauge is arachnophobic, he hides it well.
“Spiders are all around us, usually in burrows, but in the fall these guys are easier to find,” says Pague, cautiously picking up a tarantula to move it across the road. “Their hairs can irritate your skin and the fangs give a good warning not to get too friendly, but if you are careful, they aren’t any threat to people—other than being a little scary.”
Tarantulas are the top of the spider food chain. And like most of their eight-legged brethren they are carnivores—eating other spiders, crickets, grasshoppers and beetles. They also provide needed food for small mammals, birds and other insects, making them important in the web of life.
The tarantula hawk is not a bird, but if it buzzed by, you might mistake it for one. These massive wasps are among the largest in the world and the females use a long stinger and paralyzing venom to stun and kill unlucky tarantulas. However, their quest is not always successful as the furry spiders put up a pretty good fight, sometimes getting a meal of their own.
Another threat to tarantulas are humans.
Intact and untilled, the Prairie Canyonlands are a spectacular area of rimrock, junipers, cactus, grasses, cottonwoods and dramatic canyon systems carved out by the Huerfano, Apishipa and Purgatoire rivers.
The rivers host one of the best native fish assemblages in the Central Shortgrass Prairie, while remote tributaries and shale outcrops support rare plant species, the most intact complement of large mammal species in eastern Colorado, and the greatest diversity of reptile and amphibian species in Colorado.
The area is also perfect territory for big spiders. Unfragmented room to roam is imperative for the tarantula’s survival, and the Conservancy is working with local ranchers to keep their lands intact. Large scale land protection efforts in addition to fire management techniques and sustainable ranching practices help keep the landscape more natural for tarantulas and host of insects and animals.February 16, 2011