Autumn provides a brief glimpse into the workings of nature in the desert. At no other time is the intimate connection between life and death represented so clearly.
One of the species that best embodies this relationship between life and death is the desert tarantula, Aphonopelma iodium. Tarantulas, the largest spiders in North America, are typically two to three inches long and are covered with thousands of fine hairs ranging in color from tan to dark brown. Besides its eight legs, the basic sections of a tarantula's body are its cephalothorax (a fused head and thorax, or chest) and its abdomen.
To alert the female of his presence, the male taps one of his legs against the ground until the female emerges. The male must then participate in a dangerous mating dance, wherein he fends off the female, who wishes to devour him, by using hooks on his front legs. His death will give the female a needed boost of nutrition, as she must now produce 500 to 1,000 eggs and a silk cocoon where the eggs will be protected. Even if the male escapes being eaten by the female, he will still die within a few months. Females, on the other hand, often produce eggs for 25 years or more.
If you encounter a tarantula, take time to observe its body, its behavior, and its connection to the fabric of desert life, but please do not disturb this delicate connection. Wildlife should never be touched, chased, or fed, and the tarantula is no exception. Contrary to appearance and reputation, the tarantula is a timid creature and will not bite human beings unless seriously provoked. Like all animals in Joshua Tree National Park, the desert tarantula deserves our respect, not just for surviving, but for thriving in a place where the boundary between life and death is always shifting.
by Park Ranger Mike Cipra
Did You Know?
In the high desert country that was to become Joshua Tree National Park, rugged individuals tried their luck at cattle ranching, mining, and homesteading. William Keys and his family are particularly representative of the hard work and ingenuity it took to settle and prosper in the Mojave Desert. More...