Wondrous Wildlife
By Vern and Lori Gieger
Eight legs, Eight eyes… A cure for fatal diseases?

     Although they look menacing to some people, tarantulas do not deserve the bad reputation they have. Typically, tarantulas prefer to just sit and rest most of the time. The original couch potato. Though usually peaceful, a threatened Mexican red-kneed tarantula will rear up and display the red bristles on its body. Tarantulas protect themselves by rubbing their back legs, and top of their abdomen. Hair is dropped as a defense. These hairs have short barbs on them that penetrate the skin, causing a rash. They also cause discomfort if they come in contact with sensitive areas of the body such as eyes or nostrils. However, there are no long-term effects.
     To adopt a threat posture, they lean back on their hind legs and reveal their fangs, thus making themselves appear formidable. This usually persuades the attacker to retreat but if it does not the spider lunges forward, two hollow fangs used to inject venom. All spiders have venom, most with venom equivalent to a bee sting. There are a few that are more serious. While a tarantula bite can be painful, it rarely posses a serious threat to humans.
     Tarantulas are found in a variety of habitats including deserts and rainforests. Red-kneed tarantulas are found in the rainforests and coastal areas of Mexico. Home is a burrow made in the ground lined with spider’s silk. But unlike many other spiders, it does not spin a web to catch its food. Rather it waits at the entrance to its burrow for any movement that signals the arrival of prey. As soon as it senses the arrival of “dinner,” it darts out and pounces upon it. Its diet consists of insects, small frogs and sometimes mice. It has eight eyes positioned around the head to see both forward and backwards. Even with so many eyes, a tarantula does not have great vision. Instead, it uses its sensitive leg hair to detect the faint changes in air currents and vibrations caused by moving prey.
     Female tarantulas may live for 25 years or more. Males rarely live past 10 years. A mother can produce up to 700 babies a year. Eggs are carefully wrapped in silk and carried between mum’s fangs. Spiderlings are guarded for several weeks. However, very few survive to adulthood. These tarantulas may hold the clue to curing two fatal diseases, holding out hope for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s patients. The Mexican red-kneed tarantula is highly endangered (and is protected). A Mexican red-kneed tarantula was seized from a Chicago area pet store. The paper trail for this spider led to the discovery of a laundering operation for smuggled tarantulas from the Mexico/Texas border. Over 1,000 of these tarantulas were smuggled in the U.S. over a three-month period. The loss of habitat and illegal pet trade, could wipe out this important research, along with the species itself.
     We may not give much thought to how we as humans may be affected by the extinction of a seemly insignificant species. Life is like a spider web; what we do to the web, we also do to ourselves.