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Tarantulas scour foothills with sense of purpose

By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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It’s tarantula mating season in the foothills. For some, that means an opportunity to venture out for a rare sighting of the reclusive giant of the arachnid world as the spider ranges farther afield in search of a partner. For others, particularly those with a fear of spiders, it’s an opportunity to not venture out for a rare sighting of the reclusive giant of the arachnid world. A beauty or a beast, tarantulas are braving roads, exposure to humans and even the prospects of being eaten by a potential mate. “They’re looking for love in all the wrong places,” said Charles Dailey, an entomologist who has taught for 44 years at Sierra College. Tarantulas are native to California and range in the Placer County foothills from the edge of the Sacramento Valley floor to the Manzanita thickets above Auburn. “They aren’t common but they are around,” Dailey said. In the fall, particularly after the first one or two rains, increased humidity allows the males to venture out of their burrows – usually at night – in search of a mate. “They have a tendency to be more nocturnal,” Dailey said. But the large spiders can also occasionally be spotted during the daytime – either alone or in a larger group making a short migration using their sense of smell to zero in on females. Along the way, they brave being squished by the tires of passing motorists as well as wasps called tarantula hawks that sting and paralyze the tarantulas. The wasp lays its eggs on the tarantula and it provides a ready food source when the larvae hatch, Dailey said. Tarantulas are not poisonous, although the California Poison Control Center advises people to wash their hands to remove sharp hairs after touching one. Clark Pest Control reports on the Pest Control Blog that a tarantula bite will swell but pain will only last a few hours. Dailey said that while tarantulas are equated with desert regions, they likely range far into Northern California. The theory is that tarantulas moved farther up California when the climate was more desert-like in the area and managed to stay put as conditions changed, he said. Auburn Reptile Company owner Shawn Thomas said he’s heard several stories of people stopping their cars to watch a migration along roads of dozens of the spiders. “Every few years there seems to be an onslaught of migrating tarantulas,” Thomas said. “They have a purpose in the wilderness. They’re coming out of their slumber and looking for a mate.” Thomas said he advises people that if they’re allergic to bees, they shouldn’t pick a tarantula up because they have venom similar to what a bee carries. “But they are very reluctant to bite,” Thomas said. In the Auburn State Recreation Area, where a tarantula sighting at noon Sunday on the Lake Clementine Trail below the Foresthill Bridge was reported to rangers, people were surprised to learn there were giant spiders in the canyon. “I had no idea,” Auburn’s Darcie Davis said, before embarking on a hike up the Stagecoach Trail. “I don’t like spiders so I’m thinking sometimes it’s better not to know about some things.” Tennie Davis, 11, of Auburn, said she had never seen a tarantula up close, except in pictures. Davis said she’d let the spider be if she saw one because it helps keep the bug population down. “If there were no spiders, the world would be full of bugs,” she said. Sacramento’s Jake Dickerson said he was thrilled to learn that tarantulas were part of the park’s wildlife population. Dickerson said he visits the park to mountain bike on a regular basis and had seen a bear on the Stagecoach Trail, a skunk and rattlesnakes – but never a tarantula. “I’d like to see one – they’re pretty safe,” Dickerson said. “I would be more afraid of a black widow.” Cool’s Brett Carlson walks his dog Bro in the recreation area and fishes downstream from the confluence. He’s seen deer, a fox and coyotes – but never a tarantula. “I didn’t know we had them,” Carlson said. “I’m not a fan of spiders. But I also understand that they’re just living their lives.”