Tracking the patient tarantula

Posted Oct. 30, 2013, at 3:40 p.m.

CLAYTON, Calif. — Dude, give it up. This booty call is going nowhere. Go ahead and turn on all your arachnid charm, tap on her burrow with your hairy claspers all you want, but the lady ain’t answering. She’s just not that into you.

Yet, ruled by instinctual urges and raging pheromones, this male tarantula on the make persists. He stands stock still, all eight legs extended, outside a female’s nickel-sized burrow along Black Point Trail in Mount Diablo State Park, prime pick-up spot each fall for tarantula mating because of its hot, dry climate.

He looks to be a middle-age guy, slightly haggard with a classic case of male-pattern baldness on his dark brown abdomen and legs even spindlier than than those of his peers. What he may lack in virile tarantula charisma he makes up with sheer doggedness. Five minutes pass, with nary a hint that the female tarantula will emerge and submit to an exchange of bodily fluids to propagate the species, but the male refuses to give up.

The clock is ticking, after all. Winter is fast approaching, and most male tarantulas succumb to cold and starvation if they don’t become appetizers for coyotes or raptors. Our gentleman is lucky in that he resides on the northwest side of the mountain, away from the site of the September wildfire that saw scores of tarantulas fleeing for their lives. Still, he’s staring down mortality as he lurks just outside the lady’s crib. He taps again on the lip of the burrow with that curved mating finger, hoping to trick his paramour into surfacing, believing it’s an insect wandering by that could be her lunch, not another one-track-mind male tarantula out to get some.

No response. Nothing. Not even a “it’s not you, it’s me” brushoff.

Our guy is the very picture of sexual frustration.

Worse – and I know I’ve taken this anthropomorphization too far, but I can’t help it – he’s struck out big time in full view of a dozen hikers taking part in one of the Mount Diablo Interpretive Association’s many tarantula tours each fall. Oh, the indignity. Oh, the castrating humiliation.

The women in our group, I notice, find this amusing. The men are silent. We understand. We’ve all been there, pal.

“Maybe,” I say to docents Leslie Contreras and Helene Cahill, “all these people around are harshing the tarantula’s game.”

“Nah,” Contreras says. “He has eight eyes but can only see shadows. He probably doesn’t even know we’re here.”

A man asks, “Then how does he know there’s a female down in [the burrow]?”

“Pheromones and stuff,” Contreras says.

At last, our male tarantula moves. Rather than retreating, he inches forward. Three legs now create something of an arch over the burrow. The hiking group leans in, a few members squatting to get close-up shots with their smartphones.

“Wow,” Cahill says. “He’s going to hang out for a while, it looks like.”

Time passes. No hot tarantula action yet. Contreras says that, in all her many years hiking on Mount Diablo and leading tours, she’s never actually seen tarantulas in flagrante delicto, as it were. Then again, it only takes seconds for impregnation to take place. She has, however, seen males, sated, slinking away in post-coital despond, looking about ready to shuffle off this mortal coil.

“The males can mate more than once,” Cahill says, “but it takes a lot out of them. They last only one [mating] cycle. They either get eaten, drowned or freeze to death.”

I’m thinking, no wonder males like our randy buddy here lose their hair on their abdomen and backs. It’s hard out there for a tarantula. I mention that to Contreras and she shakes her head. “They lose their hair because a lot of times a coyote or bobcat will come behind them, and [the tarantula] will shoot their hair out for protection. The hair goes in the coyote’s nose and they’ll have time enough to walk away and live to mate.”

Sometimes, even mating itself is lethal. Female tarantulas have been known to kill and even digest the males after sex, which seems backward. Aren’t you supposed to buy her dinner before mating?

Contreras bends to get a better look at our suitor-in-waiting.

“It looks like there’s only a half a web [encircling the burrow],” she says. “It looks like somebody’s been there before. Obviously, she’s not going to come out.”

Cahill concurs.

“It’s not looking too hopeful there for Elmer.”

Elmer? Really? The least we can do, it seems, is give him a dashing nickname. George Clooney, maybe. Or Carlos Danger.

But, no, tarantula life on Mount Diablo seems predominantly matriarchal. Men are only good for one thing, apparently.

The females, docents say, can hatch about 200 “spiderlings” each spring – but only about two live into adulthood. Female survivors can expect to live to about 40. Lucky males who aren’t preyed upon or die of starvation usually live to the ripe age of 12, Contreras said. Mature females sometimes grow as large as a small hubcap, the males maybe the size of a coaster.

“Why do the females endure?” Contreras asks. “Because they stay in their burrows.”

Our guy, after a 10-minute vigil in which he did everything except put a boombox over his head to blast “In Your Eyes,” a la John Cusack, finally gives up and slinks away in a crawl of shame.

Maybe – just maybe – he’ll find another burrow and score before the day is through.

Distributed by MCT Information Services

 

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