Critter Curiosity Leads Student to Tarantula Research
Description: Tarantula researcher Dallas Haselhuhn shows the tiny radio transmitter he used to put on tarantulas and the antenna he used to track them.
BY SUE KEEFER
When tarantula researcher Dallas Haselhuhn was a child, he would climb up on his playsets in his underwear, doing his best Steve Irwin, Crocodile Hunter, impression, and then leap off to find some little bug. Once he filled a garbage bag with cicada exoskeletons under his bed, which his mother found while cleaning.
Haselhuhn said he’s always been curious when it comes to nature: “I just so happened to find myself at a university (Eastern Michigan) where Dr. Cara Shillington ran her tarantula lab. Call it fate or a happy accident, either way it seems from a young age I was running around excited to tell people about a cool critter I found!”
When Haselhuhn learned about the tarantulas near La Junta, he came down here “just for fun” for a few years, and although he officially started collecting data in 2022, prior to that he was always noticing little things that led to his thesis proposal and subsequent thesis research at EMU: “Looking for Love on a Chilly Night. The Colorado Brown Tarantula’s Mating Season.”
He related that people often have a strong reaction when he mentions that he works with tarantulas. But once he was in La Junta, “it was honestly refreshing to be in a community and at a place where most of the reactions were positive rather than the usual disgust or indifference!” He didn’t get too many odd questions, “just general concerns about safety for the individual as well as the animal. Oh, and tarantula sex. I get asked a LOT about tarantula sex!”
Once his formal research began, Haselhuhn was out on Comanche National Grassland every day last year, from August 20 until late October. The first few weeks, he didn’t see one male tarantula wandering around, which he expected, but was still disappointed. “However, imagine my excitement after two weeks of seeing nothing, and then finally seeing my first tarantula. That excitement was quickly dashed as I realized a parasitic wasp was dragging it back to its burrow to lay its eggs on the paralyzed tarantula. But nature is nature, so it felt wrong to intervene.” He added, “I still counted it, though!”
Male Tarantula on mating quest.
Most people know that the female tarantula often dines on the male once mating has completed. He observed this happening quite a bit, especially toward the end of the mating season when temperatures start dropping. He explained that the males look for somewhere to escape the cold, usually under some grass or a rock. “But when it begins to get particularly cold, a nice burrow tends to be much cozier. Unfortunately, that burrow is usually home to a lady.”
He described the mating act: “In order for the tarantulas to mate, the males have to position themselves directly under the female’s fangs. If he’s not quick enough after mating, she can snag him pretty easily. The escape is much harder when he’s in the confines of a burrow, so the females have a higher success rate of getting dinner and a date if the males are setting up shop in the female’s burrow.”
Male tarantulas don’t reach sexual maturity until they’re about 7 to 10 years old. It’s then that the males start looking for females, sometimes in large numbers. Although this phenomenon is often called a migration, that’s a misnomer. They can travel for as much as 20 miles, though. Perhaps one of the reasons people assume they migrate is because there are several common names for the same species: Oklahoma Brown, Texas Brown, and Kansas Brown. Note that Haselhuhn refers to the tarantulas he studied as “Colorado Browns.”
Confusion about tarantula “migration” is very common. Steve Keefer, recently retired as a wildlife officer from Colorado Parks and Wildlife, related that in his 36-year-career, people often asked when the tarantulas would start coming in from Oklahoma. One person even wanted to know the exact spot they entered Colorado. He said he had this picture in his mind of tarantulas with tiny suitcases coming through a port of entry. Once he once had a hunter from the Midwest ask when the tarantulas would start “herding up,” because the hunter was concerned they were going to jump into his truck window and attack him and his son.
The tarantulas in Colorado have always been in Colorado. The large numbers seen in September and October are the males looking for females. Females are rarely seen. Haselhuhn noted that the males are very single-minded: “I’ve worked with tarantulas for nearly 10 years, and they’re usually pretty skittish. Even out there, if you step within a couple of yards of a female that’s on top of her burrow, she’s gone and hiding. Not the males. As soon as their mating season begins and they are out and about, you can practically step on them if you are not careful.
“I’ve stomped within inches of a male tarantula, and it barely flinched. They want to mate, and don’t particularly care about much else…this is the male’s only mating season, so they will continue to try and find a mate until they die, whether from a predator, a female, or they literally just freeze to death. This happened a few times, where I would find a male, especially late in the season, which would just be frozen to death, with no signs of trauma or anything, just dead.”
Haselhuhn tracked the tarantulas by affixing a little radio transmitter to their backs with super glue. Because the glue just sticks to the hair, he could remove the transmitters without hurting them: “It just makes them bald!”
Last year, when he was doing his research, Haselhuhn went to Woodruff Memorial Library to see if they would be interested in having him do a program about tarantulas. The librarian told him about the Tarantula Fest Committee, with its plan to have the first Tarantula Fest that fall, and he soon found himself an active participant. One of the committee’s goals is to educate about tarantulas, so he fit in quite well. He helped to bring in a colleague, Dr. Paula Cushing, the senior curator of invertebrate biology at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. She gave a talk at Otero College about spiders and was also present at the Tarantula Fest’s education pavilion.
Dallas talks to a young tarantula enthusiast at last year's Tarantula Fest.
Haselhuhn was also at the pavilion, and later stationed himself on the Comanche Grassland to talk to people who had signed up for tours to see tarantulas. He explained his research and answered questions. Among those he talked with were a woman and her son, who had traveled from Vancouver, Canada, just to see the tarantulas.
This year, a couple of weeks before the Tarantula Fest, Haselhuhn is teaching an online course, "In Search of Love (With Eight Legs): Colorado Tarantula Migration" through the Denver Museum of Nature and Science on Sept. 12. For more information, go to: In Search of Love (With Eight Legs): Colorado Tarantula Migration
One of the goals of the Tarantula Fest committee is to encourage people to enjoy the tarantulas, but to not pick them up, run over them, or take them from the wild. The tarantulas people encounter are males. They will die shortly after they start looking for females, whether they mate or not, so taking them out of the wild may keep them from mating, but will result in a dead tarantula before long.
The committee also suggests that people wear bright colors, since there may be hunting seasons on; watch for traffic, as many of the roads the tarantulas frequent, such as Highways 109 and 350, have narrow shoulders; and to respect private property.
The 2023 Tarantula Fest will be Sept. 29 and 30. Plans call for a talk Friday afternoon by Dr. Cushing, senior curator of invertebrate zoology from the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, followed by the movie, "Tarantula" at the Fox LJ Theater. Saturday's events include a parade, food and craft booths and the educational pavilion downtown, a car show, a beer garden, a hairy leg contest, tours to see the tarantulas, and other events to be announced. Haselhuhn, who will be receiving his Master of Science in ecology, evolution, and organismal biology in December, plans to be there.
More information about the Fest and tarantulas can be obtained at: https://visitlajunta.net/tarantula-trek/
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