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Tarantulas getting a leg up on Kansas prairies

Updated: 2013-10-31T13:54:02Z

The Wichita Eagle

Trick-or-treaters and those heading to horror-themed parties may want to pay extra attention as they’re making their Thursday night rounds.

Some saucer-sized spider, with legs like hairy soda straws and venomous fangs long enough to hit bone, may not be a Halloween prop.

It could be a real tarantula.

Though your chances of seeing one in Wichita – or receiving a life-threatening bite – are probably less than those of winning the lottery, parts of Kansas have healthy populations of the supersized spiders. Just the sight of one can put many people into a serious case of arachnophobia.

Jim Mason is not one of those people.

“They’re really pretty neat critters,” said Mason of the Great Plains Nature Center. “They’re the largest spider in Kansas, and they are capable of biting, but you really have to provoke them to get that type of a reaction.”

Hank Guarisco, a Lawrence-based independent arachnid researcher, said Kansas has more than 500 species of spiders but probably only one common breed of tarantula: Texas browns. Their habitat ranges from northern Texas and Louisiana into Kansas and Missouri.

Guarisco said the Kansas population occurs across most of the southern tier of counties and north as far as Gove and Trego counties out west. They’re especially common in the Red Hills near Medicine Lodge, according to Ken Brunson of the Nature Conservancy of Kansas.

Guarisco said the prairie and wooded hills of southeast Kansas, especially Chautauqua and Elk counties, have solid populations. As for surviving a Kansas winter, Guarisco said tarantulas possess a type of natural antifreeze in their blood.

“They can survive well below freezing,” he said. “As long as they’re under a shelter, even snow. They’re pretty hardy that way. … It’s just amazing stuff.”

Like most animals, Kansas tarantulas are highly habitat dependent.

“If you’re finding tarantulas, you’re usually in some pretty good country, like nice grasslands,” Brunson said. “You’re not going to find too many in croplands.”

Mason said he’s not heard of any tarantulas in the wild in Wichita, though they’ve been found in Butler and Cowley counties.

Guarisco said there’s been some talk among scientists that the tarantula range may be moving north in Kansas, as has been happening with other species, like armadillos. He did note that the first reference to a tarantula in what is now Kansas was from an Army explorer in about 1850.

An online search shows more than 900 documented species of tarantulas on all continents except Antarctica. The largest, the aptly named Goliath bird-eater tarantula from Venezuela and Brazil, can have a leg span of about 12 inches.

Male tarantulas found in Kansas can spread to about 5 inches, but females are smaller. Females can live 20 or more years, while males generally die after only a few years.

The best time to see tarantulas in Kansas is when the males go searching for females in September.

“There are stories of mass migrations across roads, but I have not been lucky enough to see one,” Guarisco said. “I have seen a dozen or more on a small stretch of road just north of Sedan.”

Brunson said tarantulas in Kansas normally live in burrows they line with silk they’ve made. Sometimes they’re found within inches of other animals.

Guarisco reports the spiders have often shared burrows with narrow-mouthed toads. On a herpetological count in Elk County, Brunson found several tarantulas under rocks with kingsnakes. Neither expert can explain the phenomena.

Most of the spiders’ prey consists of insects, such as crickets and grasshoppers, which they inject with venom. Guarisco added that all spiders are venomous, so it’s not a deadly trait of just tarantulas. Nor is it a deadly trait they apply to humans.

All three experts report that most tarantulas found in Kansas are docile, and they’ve picked them up in the wild and handled them with no problems many times. Mason said it’s generally easy to tell when they’ve pushed a tarantula’s patience.

“They’re real good at rearing up on their back legs and looking mean,” he said. “You can tell when they’ve had enough.”

Fatal tarantula bites are extremely rare, and their bites usually lack the huge physical impact of venomous snake bites, but they can be painful. Normally the venom produces a localized reaction in the body that goes away within a day or two.

What’s worse is to encounter another line of tarantula defense: When disturbed, Guarisco said, tarantulas may flick barbed hairs into the face of a perceived predator.

“This happened once to a colleague who raised tarantulas,” Guarisco said via e-mail. “She was holding a young one too close and it flicked hairs, 11 of which lodged in her eye. She had to have them surgically removed.

“It certainly wasn’t a pleasurable experience.”

Reach Michael Pearce at 316-268-6382 or mpearce@wichitaeagle.com.

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