The Red Hourglass: Lives of the Predators - Gordon Grice (1999)
Llightning showed them crossing the asphalt in the first tentative cracklings of the rain. They hustled across, more than we could readily count, each brown-and-beige body slung low amid the multiple dark arches of the legs. Rain dappled the windshield. The droplets staggered down through dust and the lambent blood of fireflies. The view at that moment would let you believe you weren’t seeing right, that rain and lightning and motion and filthy glass had cooked up an illusion. But the headlights began to show them straight ahead, middle of the road, not just on the shoulders, and the wipers left arcs of clear viewing between arcs of mud, and we knew we were seeing an exodus of tarantulas. We stopped to watch, and as I stepped out of the pickup I saw two of them convulsing on the shoulder behind us, wounded by our tires.
In Africa the wildebeest migrate, and when they come to a river the herd fords. Their great number gives the crocodiles a good chance to feed, but it also guarantees there will be too many for the crocs to take them all. That’s the brutal logic of mass movement. This spectacle was a little like that, the tarantulas going somewhere, crossing the asphalt river, and some of them dying beneath the treads of passing cars. One of the cars swerved in a slow ess, as if trying to miss one particular tarantula among the dozens. At the edge of the asphalt we could see them wrestling through the unruly grass to reach the road.
“Males hunting for females?” I said. It was the first time I’d ever seen more than one on the road.
“No, look. They’re all going the same way.” My friend bent to look at a tarantula breaching the grass at his feet. He was a burly man, but he reached with gentle precision to place a forefinger on the spider’s buck-colored carapace, the shell-like cover of the front half of its body. He pressed the spider against the pavement. His thumb and middle finger found a place to grasp in the thicket of legs. He lifted it to show me. It kept its legs bunched against its sides, still, like a cottontail rabbit that thinks you haven’t spotted it.
The fangs lay folded. They looked like the parings of a thumbnail in shape, color, and size. The legs and belly looked soft in their dusty brown hair.
“A female,” my friend said. “Look at that one.” Another tarantula had emerged from the grass-choked ditch. It walked taller than the one he held; its legs were longer, but its body was smaller and seemed shriveled. As it crossed the puddle of glare from our headlights I saw that its hair was darker, a brown approaching black. These, my friend said, were the characters of a male.
In the truck we found a few empty cups that documented the fast-food places along our route, and a plastic grocery bag. Such trash would serve until we got someplace. We caught eight of them—my friend did, actually. I was afraid to touch them. When we looked at them under the light, we found only two were male, which meant this was no seasonal wandering in search of mates. Only the males wander for that purpose.
“It must be the flood,” my friend said. It had rained too much that summer, and the fields were drenched; the place was a disaster area by the President’s say-so, the ordinary ditches beside highways supporting populations of duck instead of roadrunner, cattails instead of prairie grass. Some places people were climbing to their roofs or leaving their homes. We stood, our heads bare to the evening’s return of rain, watching the tarantulas leave their homes to cross from flooded field to equally flooded field, and then we drove on.
Wash your hand and leave it moist. Now place it, tips only, on a tabletop. Let it feel whatever air may move in the room. Do you feel the coolness on your palm? The shiver produced by your own pulse? The tiny shocks made by any other thing moving on the table? Listen with your fingertips, and you’ll notice that the tapping of something three feet away comes to you in waves, reaching the nearest fingertip perceptibly sooner than the farthest. If you practiced, honed this kind of perception, you could navigate blind and deaf; you could sense the world by touch.
Now you have a hint of what it’s like to be a tarantula. The big spider’s entire body is a tactile ear. Some of the hairs are specially built for vibration; rooted in sensory cells, they know the direction of their disturbance. And the tarantula tastes everything, from air to prey, with the tips of its palps and its feet and even with openings on its legs and under its knees.
My grandmother was known as a great screamer. Her screams were startling; they had some peculiar quality of making the front of your backbone itch. She screamed at anything creeping or otherwise verminous. Living in the country, she often happened to see creatures fitting this description. One time when a mouse showed itself in the house, Grandma let loose one of her high-pitched ear-splitters. The mouse ran away at top speed and crashed headfirst into a wall. It fell dead on the spot—of a broken neck, my uncle speculated.
My family claims the scream was responsible for the rodent’s suicide. They say the scream was so intense, or so high in pitch, or so something, that the mouse’s brain was scrambled. And, to counter my skepticism, they recount The Tarantula Incident.
The tarantula, like the mouse, was an innocent wanderer. It happened into the kitchen where the family were assembled. Grandma spotted it and belted forth. It stopped and lifted its body higher on its legs. She screamed higher and louder; it rose higher. She seemed terrified that the spider didn’t run away; it seemed too scared to move. The battle continued to escalate—higher screams, higher spider.
Everyone else was laughing too hard to help. When my uncle finally stopped rolling on the floor, he clapped a jar over the tarantula. This action would normally cause a flurry of legs, but the tarantula simply remained at attention. My uncle soon had the spider sitting securely in the jar on the table. It never moved again. It just stood at the full extension of its legs, and after a day or two someone tossed it out.
Sound is, of course, nothing but vibration.
“It’s the eyes that gross me out,” my wife said. She was explaining why she found tarantulas far more disgusting than black widow spiders. The question came up when I brought home four tarantulas, my share of the ones my friend and I had captured on the road. Tracy has always tolerated my habit of bringing home assorted vermin in jars, but the tarantulas taxed her.
“I thought you would object to the widows, because they’re dangerous,” I said. A few dangerous tarantulas hang out in tropical rain forests, but no American tarantula’s bite is dangerous to humans. Of course, getting punctured by fangs that size doesn’t feel good.
“I don’t love the widows, but they’re so shiny they seem hard. I know they’re not, but they look like they wouldn’t be too disgusting to touch.” The widow she had named Sweetie Face sat in a jar on the table in front of us, snacking on a cockroach. “The tarantulas have hair, like something you might pet.”
I responded with a discourse on the texture of the widow’s hide, during which Tracy left, made something out of pasta, and returned, still nodding occasionally as if in agreement with some point I was making. When I paused she said, “But tarantulas have those two big, gross eyes. They’re so big you can look into their eyes.”
“Actually they don’t,” I pontificated. “They have eight small eyes, which are grouped into two hairy patches.”
“Which are right on top of its head staring at you.” At that moment the biggest of the tarantulas I’d brought home seemed to be staring at us with her two bunches of eyes, from which sprouted tufts of brown hair. Actually, a tarantula’s eyes are so weak they’re probably only good for noticing the shadows of predatory birds. I had named this big tarantula Prima, after the enormous heavyweight boxing champion Primo Camera. She stood motionless in a gallon jar. We’d put a cricket into the jar an hour earlier. The cricket had tunneled into the dirt for a while, then come up to look around. It walked under Prima, who lifted herself higher on her legs to let the cricket pass. The cricket made another circuit of the jar and came at Prima from the front, swishing its antennae against her legs.
The tarantula twitched as if she had been shocked electrically, and her twitch raked the cricket to her mouth. She stood holding the cricket the way a dog holds a dead rat. After the first bite, the fangs moved separately, stabbing down and in repeatedly. They were slow, sensual, almost obscene, and the flash of the tips made us shudder.
Spiders have pioneered the architectural possibilities for predation. The orb weavers spread nets to the wind. The bolas spider goes fishing with a sticky ball of glue on a string. Some orb weavers spread sheets of flypaper and then attack snared prey from below. One spider spins a net and then, camouflaged as a plant stem, sits with the net stretched between its front legs, waiting to cast it on an insect. Some orb weavers make their snares three-dimensional by pulling on the hub until the web deforms into a cone: when a flying insect hits, the spider releases the hub and the web snaps back, wrapping the insect by spring action.
The range of snares is astounding, but the spider clan knows other fancy predatory tricks too. Some spiders have bodies crusted with nodules and projections, their graceless forms disguising them from their prey and their predators. Others wait within flowers that match their own colors, killing the eaters of pollen and nectar who fail to see them. Still others trap prey from a distance by spitting toxic glue.
All of which points out how simple the tarantula is. While other spiders have evolved complex predatory behaviors, the tarantula still earns his meals the old-fashioned way: he hides in his hole until he senses some hapless critter passing, leaps on it like a mugger, and mashes the hell out of it with a wicked set of mandibles. He is to the orb-weaving spider as the Australopithecus is to modern man. He doesn’t know any tricks involving color. He doesn’t build snares. He hasn’t even mastered the fine art of killing with a dainty, pinching bite full of venom and then sipping his victim down like a gentleman. He has venom all right, but he still chews his food like a wad of tobacco, slobbering digestive juice all over it as he goes.
It’s not that the tarantula lacks silk. He uses the stuff to line burrows. He lays a few trip lines on the ground, radiating from his burrow starburst-style to tell him when something’s walking past. The female knits a silk knapsack for her clutch of eggs. The tarantula’s use of silk would actually be impressive if his younger cousins weren’t such geniuses with it.
As I write, the world is crazy for dinosaurs. Especially the carnosaurs, like Tyrannosaurus rex. While paleontologists argue whether the carnosaurs actually were predators—some say T. rex must have been a scavenger—Hollywood and its affiliated toy manufacturers continue to hype them as the baddest beasties ever to walk the planet. I’m sure it’s good marketing.
The movie people don’t mention the animals that ate carnosaurs.
In Georgia and Alabama a paleontologist found only a few bones of a big carnosaur called Albertosaurus, which was common elsewhere in that period. The Albertosaurs seem to have been edged out of this swampy environment by crocodiles. Bones of young Albertosaurs show the hack marks of crocodile teeth. This evidence has been lying around since the time when dinosaurs “ruled the world.” The type of crocodile that ate Albertosaurs grew to about thirty feet; larger types elsewhere managed fifty feet. They were longer, and probably more massive, than the Tyrannosaurs.
The biggest modern crocodilians don’t grow over thirty feet, but that’s still bigger than most of the dinosaurs. The crocodile eats whatever it wants, from fish to porcupines. The African crocodile, which is not the biggest variety, swallows warthogs whole. One was seen pulling a two-ton rhinoceros into the water by its snout before drowning and eating it. In World War II, Allied forces trapped a thousand Japanese infantrymen in a stretch of mangrove swamp on an Indonesian island. Twenty of the thousand came out alive, most of the others eaten by crocodiles in the night. Crocodiles still reduce the world’s human population by several thousand each year. They take people in Africa, India, Australia, and Southeast Asia. Once in a while even the supposedly harmless American alligator eats somebody.
The crocodilians have been around for 170 million years or so. From the time of the dinosaurs to the present “rule” of humanity, the crocodile has been swimming quietly in rivers and oceans, dining on members of the ruling parties, spilling more royal blood than Richard III. The reptile clan have specialized in many different ways, even introducing a successful line of venomous snakes—which the crocodilians eat, along with such venerable reptiles as the shell-protected turtle.
The crocodile’s success debunks a common misconception about evolution: that further-evolved animals replace outmoded, unsuccessful ones. Even though reptiles (and mammals and birds) have evolved an enormous number of successful body designs since the crocodile came on the scene, the crocodile’s “primitive” design has never failed. People like to think evolution means getting better, when all it really means is getting different. Extinction is not bound up with evolution as tightly as one might think. In fact, except for a few special cases, we don’t know why species die out. It’s a hot topic in biology.
The “primitive” predators likely to flourish unchanged while their descendants evolve into far different forms usually have a simple design, which usually means a big, dangerous mouth. Such predators are generalists, capable of killing a wide variety of prey. Consider the crocodile and the great white shark, both millions of years old without substantial change. They don’t kill with snares, cooperative group hunting, or even much intelligence. They just bite, often killing by sheer mechanical injury.
Experts call the tarantula a primitive spider not only because of the skills he lacks, but also because of a few anatomical differences from the later models. (He’s not the most primitive spider—a big, tarantulalike Asian critter, with a segmented abdomen, holds that honor— but the tarantula is the most primitive spider you’re likely to see.) Like the white shark and the crocodile, the tarantula is a simple generalist with big fangs, and a long-term survivor. Today it prospers around the world, in habitats from desert to rain forest.
The tarantula’s wait-and-ambush lifestyle has proved so successful that the spider clan has since rediscovered it many times. For example, the entire group called wolf spiders are members of the later, “advanced” type. They’re not related to tarantulas; they’re web-makers who went back to living in burrows and springing on passing prey.
Late one night, as I sat up reading, a spider the size of my palm sauntered out from behind the couch. It was a rabid wolf spider (“rabid” is part of its common name). After a chase and much dishevelment of the furniture, the rabid wolf became a guest in my water jug. I fed her for a few days. She took prey the way a tarantula does, pouncing and seizing. Eventually I introduced her to Prima, her even bigger neighbor in the next container. The rabid wolf didn’t last a full second.
I thought of the ten-foot crocodile whose stomach was found to contain a four-foot crocodile. For the simple predators, size is everything.
I caught June beetles for the medium-sized female we called Harriet. The first beetle I put into her cage waddled directly to her as if offering himself for sacrifice. She put a foot on his back, tasting him at a distance to see if he was worth killing. When she seized him he broke with a sound like a walnut cracking. I tossed in another June beetle. Without dropping the first, she snatched up the second, crunching both into a ball, which she continued to work with her fangs.
I put in another beetle. And another. She kept snatching them up, never dropping a morsel. I had caught only six, and soon the whole half-dozen hung from her fangs in a ball glistening with digestive fluid. Her fangs worked away, more like machetes than the hypodermic needles spider fangs are usually compared to.
Food starts to fall apart after a few seconds of such treatment. Harriet’s wad of June beetles was apparently becoming too sloppy for her taste. She put it on the cage floor and stood over it, arching her back so that her spinnerets aimed straight at the mess. Those two spinning organs on her hind end worked with the dexterity of human fingers as she threw fine silk. She rotated in place as she spun, her spinnerets always aimed at the mess of beetles. Soon she had webbed the mess into a neat bundle. She settled down to suck the juices out.
The tarantula is the largest and strongest spider. The largest and strongest kind of wasp is called the tarantula hawk. The feud between these two giants fascinates people who follow wildlife; it is among the naturally dramatic predator rivalries, like cougar and coyote, lion and hyena, sperm whale and giant squid. The spider is primitive, a generalist predator whose kin have long since evolved tool-using specialties and left its brutal hunting methods behind. The wasp, far from primitive, is one of the most specialized animals on earth, and its specialty is hunting tarantulas. Their encounters usually end in the most horrible death imaginable.
As I write, the particular tarantula hawk I want to tell about sits on my desk, dead. I captured it in a gravel parking lot outside a truck stop a few years after the rainy summer during which I kept my first four tarantulas. Measured in a straight line (rather than along the many curves of its body), it is a shade under two and a half inches long from the outer coils of its antennae to the tip of its stinger, though the stinger of this one is mostly retracted. When a hawk is planning to sting, its stinger protrudes another quarter of an inch. This one’s veined wings span three and a quarter inches—bigger than the rim of the coffee mug sitting beside it. Its legs are longer than its wings. In warmer, wetter places some hawks double these dimensions.
Trucks had parked on this lot for years, and the previous night’s rain had summoned the smell of petroleum from the ground. The hawk flew in figure eights over the landscape of gravel, mud ruts, oil stains, and sickly weeds. As she skimmed near me, I caught a whiff of an odd smell like that made by ants when they sting in a mass. Touching down abruptly, the hawk walked in rapid zigzags, her coiled antennae wiggling. Her black body seemed surrounded by an orange cloud, as if electric shocks were exploding around her so fast as to be only subliminally visible. Only when she stood still could I see this aura had been made by the motion of fast-beating wings. Their dull orange color was one I’d seen elsewhere only in wood fires, at the hazed border of flame and smoke.
Her zigzag walk reminded me of a bloodhound. Abruptly she took the air and circled, her circles lowering and tightening toward the spot she’d taken off from. She landed and walked a circle of a few inches, then vanished.
I came closer. The hole in the ground peeked from a camouflage of gravel and withered weed stem. Barely perceptible traces of silk tapered from the hole. The hawk came backing out; a tarantula came out facing her in a lockstep dance, his impossibly large shape seeming to unfold from the slender opening.
The hawk led the dance away from the burrow. The tarantula followed in a dreamy slow motion. The hawk stopped backing and began to feel the spider all over, like a shopper testing the produce. She crawled the tarantula’s body, even turning upside down to scoot underneath like a mechanic checking for leaks. The tarantula obligingly lifted himself higher to give her room.
Suddenly the tarantula shrugged off his hypnotic stupor and made that fatal twitch, snatching at the hawk, but the hawk had already positioned herself to advantage. The two rolled over and over, knocking bits of gravel around. Suddenly the tarantula contracted and flopped onto his back. He had been stung, probably in the juncture of a leg with the cephalothorax. His legs flexed rhythmically, as if washed by invisible waves.
The hawk flew off toward a fringe of weeds that grew along a chain-link fence. I came closer and prodded the tarantula with a weed stem. He kept flexing, unaffected by the poking. I saw the hawk rise from the weeds and backed off to a respectful distance. I have heard the hawk’s sting is incredibly painful, far worse than the fiery stab of a paper wasp.
The hawk returned to the tarantula. Taking a massive leg in her jaws, she lugged the body toward the weeds. When she had gone less than a foot, she once again abandoned the body to visit the weeds. I followed her, but couldn’t see exactly where she went. I had seen other kinds of predatory wasps tackle smaller spiders, and in one species I had noticed the odd habit of checking the prepared grave, a deep tunnel, repeatedly. The wasp sticks her head into the tunnel and flitters her wings. Maybe she’s making sure no prowler waits to catch her when she is burdened with groceries, or maybe she’s just resting.
I guessed the hawk suffered from the same compulsion. She dragged the tarantula a little farther on each trip, frequently pausing to visit her hidden tunnel in the weeds. I knew what fate awaited the tarantula there. The hawk would deposit an egg on his abdomen. A wormlike larva would hatch from that egg and devour the tarantula, taking a few weeks to finish the huge meal and saving the major organs for last.
Of course, a dead spider would rot before the larva could hatch. That’s why a mother hawk carefully places her sting to leave the tarantula alive but paralyzed. Spiders removed from wasp burrows have been found to last at least nine months in this condition. In the burrow, however, the larva soon eats some major organ and kills its host. Grown fat and indolent, the wormlike parasite falls into the sleep of pupation. The spider’s hairs and carapace decay in the soil as the larva at their center transforms into a gleaming hunter.
It was too horrible to allow, so I decided to intervene. Either that, or I wanted the two combatants for my collection—who knows his own motives? Anyway, I rummaged in a nearby garbage barrel until I found a plastic margarine bowl with a lid. When I returned, the hawk was lugging away at the tarantula noiseless and patient in his paralysis. I clapped the bowl over the odd couple. The hawk buzzed and thumped against the plastic. Somehow I worked the lid onto the bowl, capturing the hawk and leaving the tarantula out.
The hawk died in a day or so—they usually do in captivity. Now her cat-eyed, hunchbacked, long-legged carcass sits on my desk. Once in a while I stare at the stinger and contemplate my stupidity.
The tarantula’s fate was far stranger.
I brought him home and laid him out on a paper plate. He was only paralyzed, so reviving him should have been possible, I reasoned. I moistened the bristles around his mouth. I looked him over with a magnifying glass, trying to find the stung spot, but I never did. I poked him with a pencil. I blew on his belly, trying to push oxygen into his simple lungs. That was all I could think of to do, so I left him alone.
I decided I might as well consider him dead. I planned to preserve the tarantula, but I didn’t get around to it for a while. The matter was not hygienically urgent because, unlike a truly dead animal, this one wouldn’t rot for months. When I finally went to stick the tarantula into a jar of vinegar, I found him standing up on the paper plate cleaning a forefoot with his mouth. As soon as I felt sure I wasn’t really having a heart attack, I prodded him into a cigar box. He lived in a terrarium for about a month, walking about in a tentative, uncoordinated gait, occasionally bursting into a spastic frenzy of gestures. He ate an occasional grub, but soon began to shrivel. I found him lying flat one morning, soft as a silk glove.
If you put a predatory wasp, even a tarantula hawk, into a tarantula’s cage, the tarantula makes a nice meal of it. A tarantula could do the same to a hawk that attacks it in the wild. Those ragged scimitar fangs would reduce the wasp to pulp in a second.
The hawk is fast, and it’s one of the strongest insects. Its long legs, movable head, large eyes, and shearing mandibles give it abilities reminiscent of that awesome predator, the mantid. But it shouldn’t be any match for the tarantula, which can be ten times heavier. The hawk has its sting, but the tarantula has its venomous bite: either one can paralyze the other with one shot.
Somehow the hawk casts a hypnotic glamour over the tarantula. So strong is this spell that some species of hawk dig their burrows only after finding and examining the tarantula, which means the tarantula simply stands around for an hour or so waiting to be stung. The hawk only casts its spell when it’s specifically hunting tarantulas; that’s why it gets eaten if you capture it and throw it to a captive spider. Furthermore, each species of hawk seems to match a species of tarantula; a hawk can’t hypnotize the “wrong” kind of tarantula, and if it tries, it dies—the ultimate in predatory specialization.
Hypotheses to explain the spider’s trance are numerous. Maybe the hawk’s odor reveals that it’s emitting a hypnotic chemical. Maybe the hawk’s pattern of touching the spider hypnotizes it—a method used by Franz Mesmer, the pioneer hypnotist of human subjects. Maybe the tarantula is a simpleton, responding to stimuli in a few stereotyped ways, and the hawk knows how not to trip its fight response. Maybe the hawk mimics the sexual advances of another tarantula.
We really don’t understand how the tarantula hawk entrances the tarantula. But then, we don’t understand how human hypnosis works, either.
“It was nailed to a tree out on my granddaddy’s farm,” my friend said. “I suspect Satanists. Anyway, I thought you might want it. Nobody else would.”
A dog’s skull. On top of the domed region that used to encase a brain, the round entrance wound of a bullet. On the hard palate beneath, the exit wound, smaller than a nickel. The dog must have been shot point-blank. Maybe it had been rabid. Now the skull was bare, picked and long since abandoned by ants and carrion beetles. Its long cuspids wiggled in their sockets at my touch.
I knew what to do with it. I was making a terrarium for Harriet. The sight of her crawling over the dog skull proved scintillating, though the dollhouse furniture a niece donated to the cause created an even eerier effect.
On Harriet’s first day in the terrarium, one of my friends reached in to pick her up. She didn’t like the idea. She bent herself up at an oblique angle to show her fangs and the light hair around them. When my friend persisted, she ran around the terrarium, kicking hairs off her abdomen with her hind legs to discourage her tormentor. Soon after he stopped—without having held the tarantula—his forearm broke out in itchy little nodules. I hadn’t been able to see the hairs as she shed them. I’ve since seen pictures of tarantula hairs magnified; each filament looks like a cross between a harpoon and a Christmas tree, and they work their way into the skin, causing horrible discomfort in some people, no effect at all in others. Later, staring at the bald pinkish patch on Harriet’s abdomen, Tracy said, “I take back what I said about the eyes being the grossest part.”
After Harriet had lived in the terrarium for a few days, I sat watching her where she snuggled in a hollow place in the dirt beneath the dog skull. “I wonder if they’re really territorial,” I said to no one in particular. The next thing I knew I had embarked on another of my unscientific experiments, dumping in another tarantula, a stubby-legged, slightly immature female we had captured on the road that rainy night. They both reared up and tangled their legs, fangs stretching open wide enough to accommodate a human thumb. They stumbled over the dog skull in their grappling. They un-clinched and scrambled away to opposite corners of the terrarium, knocking doll tables and chairs over in their haste. In the wild, that would surely have been the end of the fight, but they were cramped together in a cage. I thought of reaching in to take one out, but both were riled, and I was afraid to try.
They met again, seizing, pushing, threatening with fangs. The spectacle was like amateur wrestling with meat cleavers. They separated and retreated. Each felt her way around the terrarium until they met again for a similar skirmish. They didn’t seem to grasp that they were caged; they repeatedly ran away in a panic, only to bump into each other and brawl again. I stayed up well into the night listening to music and watching them fight.
In the morning the stubby-legged female lay dead, her tough carapace bitten through like piecrust. Harriet didn’t seem to have eaten on her: it was a simple killing.
“The females are highly territorial,” I told Tracy.
Snooping under rocks down by the creek, I turned up a meager supply of tarantula food: one small centipede and a dozen pill bugs. I doubted a tarantula would eat such small prey. I tossed the whole batch to Prima. With a precision I didn’t expect, she stabbed her long fangs into the skinny centipede. After she had worked at him awhile, he looked like a bit of knotted thread. She had no interest in the pill bugs; when one bumped into her, she shook her leg like a cat that has stepped into a puddle.
It’s common for a tarantula to pass an entire winter without a morsel, but I didn’t know that. I thought she needed food. I went to a pet store and bought a dozen crickets.
I poured the entire dozen in at once. Prima stood in the center of the jar. She immediately took a cricket, folding his little brown-and-white body double with the force of her bite. His comrades didn’t take any particular interest in his fate. They spread out around the jar, hugging the glass. The pet store must have skimped on the protein: each cricket seized a pill bug, turned it upside down, and began devouring it, using its shell as a bowl and eating the insides. The pill bug (also known as a wood louse or a roly-poly) is a crustacean; maybe crickets prize them as much as we do lobster.
Prima stood in the center of the ring of carnivorous crickets, chewing her cricket slowly. She looked like the queen of some little pocket of hell.
The fourth tarantula I’d brought home that rainy night was the only male. We called him Raoul. His behavior wasn’t like the females’. If I prodded Harriet with a pencil, she would move off a few leisurely paces. If I prodded Raoul, he would run six frenzied laps around his container.
One day Raoul spun out a rectangular sheet of web. It was about the size of his own body. He lay on it with his belly pressed to the silk, bouncing and trembling. Then he rose and applied his palps to the droplets that had oozed from the pore in the forward part of his abdomen. His palps swelled at the tips. The male tarantula uses the palps, which aren’t connected to the gonads, to copulate. Until humans invented artificial insemination and in vitro fertilization, only two animals used such a two-stage sexual system—the spider and an insect called the mantidfly.
Raoul circled his container slowly, as if afraid to bump into anything, his gait different from before, eager but somehow delicate. It was such a change from his former hyperactivity that I felt vaguely embarrassed to watch him.
A female tarantula takes a decade or so to mature; then she can mate every year for the rest of her life. She can live to the age of twenty or thirty. A male spends his decade growing up, gets a few days in autumn to find a mate, and then, successful or not, he dies. I decided to give Raoul the same chance he’d have in the wild. I put him into Harriet’s terrarium.
They met at what used to be the dog’s nose. Harriet flinched and took a step back. (“Egad! A tarantula!” Tracy said, guessing at Harriet’s first impression of her suitor.) In the wild, a male has to stomp around outside a female’s den acting like prey so she’ll come out. Here, however, Raoul could proceed with the tapping of Harriet’s forelegs. The tapping forms a code, particular to a species, which seems to translate as “Please don’t eat me.” It is not terribly uncommon for the female to ignore this request.
Harriet reared up on her hind legs to expose her fangs. Raoul reared up to meet her. They wrestled, just as Harriet and the stubby-legged female had a few days before. The difference this time was Raoul’s thumbs.
The male tarantula’s thumbs appear with his final molt, the one that makes him an adult. They project from the knees of his forelegs. I had hardly noticed these little spurs on Raoul, but now they came into play. He neatly hooked one thumb into each of Harriet’s fangs, so that his long front legs leveraged the fangs apart. He was safe for the moment. He pushed her back until she was almost vertical; then he plugged one of his clubby palps into her belly. They stood still in this position for several minutes. Then he pulled away and exploded into a flurry of legs, bouncing off the ground repeatedly in his hurry to escape. Gone was the awkward gait of his mate-hunting phase; returned was his hyperactive paranoia. He ran straight up the glass wall and cowered in a high corner. Harriet strolled off, looking a little irritable, but she showed no further interest in Raoul. This fact did not persuade him to descend. He stayed there all day and all night, pressing himself into the smallest possible volume.
Raoul had mated and would soon die. Prima, languishing in captivity, would have no opportunity to mate. Harriet would soon produce an egg sac, and then the problem of caring for many tiny tarantulas would descend on me. Tracy and I were about to move to a new city, and I decided the best move would be to free the tarantulas. I released them in a grassy field. I like to think that field is pocked with the burrows of their descendants.
Every few years I get the tarantula itch. It’s hard to find the females, but the males are easier. All I have to do is pay attention as I drive highways in the summer. I notice where I see a tarantula. Then, in the last few autumn days before the first freeze (which tarantulas predict more accurately than human forecasters do), I visit these spots. The males who haven’t mated yet are desperate by now. They cross the highways in search of females. Sometimes the road is dappled with their crushed bodies.
I cruise these spots at sundown, watching for the eerie gait of the tarantula. If I can stop safely, I get out and stand on the shoulder to meet the wanderers. I usually catch them in baby-formula cans, shooing them in with the lids. These males, who would die in the freeze, can live a few weeks longer indoors. As I drive home, I can hear the spiders scratching their tin prisons on the seat next to me.
Acquaintances of mine who often drive Highway 160 call the part east of Meade, Kansas, “the Stretch,” because it is a desolate, boring road. The towns are small and thirty miles apart. There are a few places where water has gouged wicked scars on the red earth, but otherwise the view is all field, fence, cattle, open sky, and asphalt, occasionally interrupted by a steep hill or a tight turn. To drive that road is to stretch your patience, or your ability to stay alert. Everyone speeds through.
Driving from the east, one couple was nearing the end of the Stretch. As they came to a bridge near Meade, they saw something that cured their boredom.
“It must have been this big,” the woman said, holding her hands in a circle eight inches in diameter. She claimed the tarantula was far bigger than any other she’d ever seen, so big it made her nauseous. She felt conflicting urges to ask her husband to swerve and kill it, or make sure the car didn’t touch it. When they had passed she saw the tarantula in the side mirror. It was striding off the road just beside the bridge.
She said she had no love of spiders, but had never had such a visceral reaction to one before, even to another tarantula. “It was the size,” she emphasized. Her husband nodded vigorously as if to underscore her remark.
Of course, I doubt the monster exists. Maybe weariness and surprise enlarged the spider in my informants’ perceptions. But it’s possible. Something about the psychology of the woman’s reaction strikes me as authentic. That primal arachnophobia most of us have a bit of emerges in direct proportion to the size of the spider.
I covet that tarantula. Others have told me their stories of tarantulas on the Stretch. The creatures, they say, are plentiful and large there. I can vouch for the abundance. I have spent autumn evenings cruising that road, my eyes scanning the asphalt for the distinctive rippling movement that is the walk of the tarantula, a movement only slightly different from that of a maple leaf pushed along by wind. I have seen tarantulas on the Stretch, and, on rare occasions when there’s no traffic on the shoulderless road, I’ve stopped the car to capture one, typically a male with a leg span of about five inches.
But I’ve never seen the huge tarantula. It would have to be a female to get that big, so maybe it’s still alive these several years later. Sometimes I park near the bridge and walk along the creek it spans, gazing down the steep bank into the dark deepening with evening, and I hope for a monster.