Tarantulas in Colorado are on the move, and they’re looking for love

Shanna Lewis/KRCC News
A festival goer gets to hold a tarantula in the education pavilion at the second annual Tarantula Festival over the weekend in La Junta, Colo. about three hours from Denver.

Dust swirls on the dirt roads running through more than 400,000 acres of cactus-studded grasslands south of La Junta, Colo. Suddenly, Jessica LaPage spots the reason she's here: A two-toned brown tarantula about the size of an adult's fist, crawling through the scrubby plants.

LaPage snaps a photo of it with her cell phone as the hairy clump with eight legs moves toward her. She jumps backward, barely stifling a fearful squeak. Asked if she'd like to hold one she answers, "Absolutely not!"

Tarantulas — hundreds of them — are now on the move in the plains of southeastern Colorado. While it may look like some kind of Fall migration, these large spiders are simply going mobile looking for love.

It's tarantula mating season around here and La Junta, a city of about 7,300 capitalizes on the spiders' season of romance with an annual tarantula festival.

LaPage's reaction to the big hairy spiders isn't uncommon. Even so, they've got a lot of fans. So much, that little La Junta is aiming for the title: Tarantula Capital Of The World.

That's something the city's tourism director, Pamela Denahy, didn't imagine as a kid growing up here.

"Never did I think that they would be a tourism draw," she says.

But hundreds of people from all over Colorado and nearby states showed up for La Junta's second annual tarantula celebration, held last weekend.

Festival goers got to cheer for their favorite homemade tarantula parade floats and costumes, kids got their faces and arms painted with rainbow-colored spiders and bugs, and checked out festival organizer Angela Ayala's booth to pick up some spidery swag.

"We do custom T-shirts, of course, the tarantula fest buttons," she says.

Then there's the furry artificial souvenir tarantulas. "If you don't find them out south, you can get one custom here and they won't crawl all over you and they won't die," she says.

Along with a human hairy legs contest, an eight-legged race, food and other fun stuff, the festival has an education component, too.

That's one of Dallas Haselhuhn's festival jobs, along with parade judge. He's a tarantula researcher with Eastern Michigan University's Shillington Arachnid Laboratory. He drove out to meet the tour buses in a car stuffed with tracking equipment and other spider collection gear. On the way there, he spots a telltale dark spot scurrying across the road.

Shanna Lewis/KRCC News
Tarantula researcher Dallas Haselhuhn talks to tarantula festival goers at a stop on Tarantula Trek bus tours in the Comanche National Grasslands south of La Junta, Colo.

"We got a good spider sighting right here. I've got to jump out and do my best Steve Irwin and grab it, wrestle it." he jokes, as he squats next to the tarantula.

"So right now he's trying to be big and scary, even though he's about as heavy as a quarter," he says. "So I'm just gonna slowly edge him into a little container because I don't want to get bit or anything like that."

Haselhuhn says tarantula bites can really hurt, but their venom is only about as bad as a bee sting. And they aren't aggressive unless you try to grab them the wrong way.

"All the scary bits are on the bottom of the tarantula," he says. "Their fangs are face down into the dirt at all times. So if you're getting bit by a tarantula, it's because it's on you or in your hands."

Dozens of male spiders wander along and near the sides of the road looking for females. Once they find a potential paramour they perform an odd courtship ritual where they tap out a rhythm with their legs to draw the female out of her burrow.

"They're going to do their little dance and drum set, hopefully have a successful mate," he says. "If they're quick enough, they're able to get away and run and try and find another mate."

They need to skedaddle because their love interest might decide to eat them for dinner. That's not the only threat to those roaming males. There are plenty of predators too.

"I usually call them a quick snack for coyotes," Haselhuhn, a tarantula expert, says. "It's going to just snap it up as a nice little protein bar."

Shanna Lewis/KRCC News
The self-dubbed Arachnid King and tarantula fan, Charlie Fox shows off his spider-themed costume after marching in the La Junta Tarantula Festival parade in southeastern Colo.

These spiders are the most abundant tarantula species in the United States with a range from New Mexico to Louisiana. Haselhuhn's work in the Comanche National Grassland south of La Junta has included gathering basic information, such as counting the number of tarantulas and observing their mating behaviors in relation to the seasonal change in temperature.

But these spiders still aren't that well studied, according to Haselhuhn. Until there's more research, he says, scientists won't know how the spiders might be affected by human-caused climate change or land development.

Meanwhile, the folks in La Junta tell festival-goers to take a picture or some spider swag home with them. But not a tarantula.