King of the creepy crawlies isn't so creepy
In the forests of South America, the "Brazilian black" stands guard outside its burrow, waiting for an unsuspecting beetle or lizard to scuttle past. It lunges forward with legs as long as fingers and buries its fangs deep, injecting a poison cocktail to liquefy it into lunch.
The tarantula is a hefty 6 inches in diameter, legs outstretched. Tucked safely behind glass beside Ralph Charlton's desk, it doesn't look so fierce.
He opens the terrarium, slips his fingers under her legs, and cups her in his palm like a hamster. This is the biggest Brazilian black he's ever seen.
"She's a cute girl," coos Charlton. “A good girl.”
With a gentle flip of his wrist, the spider's on its back, unmoving in his hand. Its legs poke out between his fingers. The fangs shine against black hair.
Here's where most people go "ichhh" and hold their stomach, or shriek and run from the room. But wait, says Charlton. Take a closer look and you'll see tiny white marks on its abdomen, like dabs of paint. They are minute lungs, called book lungs, because they look like the pages of a book.
Primitive spiders, tarantulas haven't changed much in the past 300 million years, including those lungs. Notorious for their poor eyesight, male tarantulas tap the earth looking for females. The females recognize the vibrations and tap back until they meet — the ultimate blind date.
They are also great housekeepers, surprisingly good parents and amazingly diverse. Tarantulas have way more going on than people see on the surface, says Charlton, of Springwater.
Once he got tarantulas and really started to look at them, he discovered “they weren’t as fearsome as people made them out to be. They don’t chase you, they aren’t rabid ...”
They don’t even eat children.
“Not even close,” chuckles Charlton, eying the Brazilian black, which is resting, unmoving, before him. “If something large comes by their
reaction is to run and hide. They’re pretty secretive ... Once you realize there's a lot going on in their lives, and they are not just pests to be stepped on, it's easy to get fascinated.”
Charlton is the entomologist at the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester and is director of its new Dancing Wings Butterfly Garden, where visitors walk among 800 free-flying species and watch them emerge from chrysalis. The dainty butterflies are a much easier sell. He loves all insects, but tarantulas are a personal passion. They’re not insects, but in the same umbrella family of arthropods. And he’s well aware that tarantulas get the ultimate bad rap as king of the creepy crawlies. His mission: to share what he learns to clear misconceptions about tarantulas, and inspire others to inch a little closer.
"Once people get close, they are surprised at how gentle and unassuming these things are," says Charlton. "They have a grace and stateliness to them that you wouldn't know they had until you interact with them."
A renowned tarantula researcher, Charlton’s goal is to find out how many kinds we have in North America. He’s identified 10 new species on the continent already. One is even named after him.
“It is cool,” says Charlton of the accolade. “I’m sort of a humble person and I’d never name anything after myself. Other people have though, so I’ll go with it.”
“Charlton's Grey Orange Rump” is a fist-sized spider that’s not very orange or grey, and lives in southern Arizona and New Mexico. When it molts — and sheds its external skeleton — it’s more orange.
"When I first pulled him out of the ground, I could tell he wasn't anything like I knew," says Charlton.
Charlton is like the Crocodile Hunter of tarantulas, or the Tarantula Whisperer. He treks out into the desert in search of wild tarantulas and wrangles them in — with his bare hands.
“I kind of cradle them in my hands,” says Charlton, who admits most other science buddies who go with him are wary to do it this way. “I kind of scoop ‘em up. They get startled at first — they have been abducted — but after a second, they calm down.”
He anesthizes them with a tiny dose of nitrogen gas and delicately pricks their legs with a tiny needle. He collects the blood and analyzes it to differentiate and ID species.
“It's like a genetic bar code," he says. "When the spiders come to, they're none the worse for the wear."
Charlton has caught and sampled some 5,000 spiders. He's searching the Arizona landscape now, exploring reports of what could be another new one, with bluish legs.
“That’s always the fun of it,” he says. “You never know what you’ll find.”
There’s more than 800 species of identified tarantulas species the world over. One from Malaysia is a “screaming” metallic blue. “It’s a feisty one,” says Charlton. So is the pumpkin-colored Usambara baboon tarantula in Tanzania. He owned one that taught itself to unscrew its container lid. His Venezuelan green bottle blue sports blue-tinted legs and a green carapace.
Their diversity is what got him hooked.At first, he says, he thought they all looked alike. Before moving to Rochester, Charlton was a professor at Kansas State University and started a butterfly garden and insect zoo there. He bought tarantulas to display.
“They were all different colors and lifestyles,” says Charlton. “I was astounded.”
The smallest tarantula in North America is a dwarf with the leg span of about a quarter. “They’re little dudes,” says Charlton.
The biggest in the world? The goliath bird eater. The largest recorded is more than a foot in diameter.
“I had one,” says Charlton. “It could grip the edges of a conventional dinner plate.”
The aficionado, Charlton has amassed a collection of hundreds of live tarantulas, which he keeps tucked neatly into plastic containers and terrariums at home, with tiny water bowls and enough soil to keep them comfy and dig a burrow. He feeds them earthworms, meal worms and crickets and cleans their habitats in waves, 50 at a time.
It still takes about two hours each time.
Yes, he’s been bitten, but it’s rare. Tarantulas typically have to feel very threatened to attack a person, he says. One of those dwarf tarantulas got him, and the feisty Usambara dug its fangs in while he was holding it and inspecting it for illness.
“It was the worst pain of my life,” he says. “It was unreal.”
Tarantulas he’s brought for temporary displays at the National Museum of Play are safely sealed in glass, with a good view for parents and kids to take a gander. Kids are more open to them, he says, without a lifetime of horror flicks to predispose them. They become ambassadors, to tell their friends and parents.
“Girls are usually the pioneers,” and come forward first, Charlton laughs. The boys, of course, are compelled to follow.
“I’ve never touched one before!” hollered 7-year-old Philip Mona, of St. Matthew’s school in Tonawanda during a recent trip to the museum, as he touched the hairs of an exoskeleton left on a table for just that reason. He felt the Mexican red-legged’s shell for just a moment before he jerked his hand back with shrieks of laughter.
“I was thinking it was still alive!” he said, before eying it up and finally lifting it with the tippy tips of his fingers. After, he said, “It kind of felt like silk.”
He likes tarantulas, he’s said, because “they’re big, scary and look awesome.”
Peter Haluska, 6, of Auburn, was also perusing the “touch” table. The exoskeleton was way softer than he imagined, and not as scary. “It makes me less afraid of them,” he said.
That’s the idea, for Charlton.
He’s discovered lots caring for them and studying them in the wild over the years. He was most surprised by their longevity — females can live to up to 30 years. Males, on the other hand, die within 10 or so years.
“Once they mature and go out looking for females,” says Charlton, “they’re not long for this world.”
Charlton also admires their housekeeping abilities. Tarantulas push their poop and prey residue, like beetle wings, into tidy out-of-the-way piles.
“They’re very fastidious,” he says.
He also once witnessed a mom tarantula bring its egg sac into the sun, and delicately roll it to warm it in the sun.
“They’re good parents,” he says.
Soon, there will be a Web site dedicated to what he and others discover about tarantulas. Charlton is inspired to create one from the many questions he receives about them, and photos from people wondering about what they find near their homes.
It will include species, behavior, where to find them, sightings and more — a sort of guide book for tarantulas.
Birds and trees get them; why not tarantulas?
It will be available to everyone and include a forum to discuss tarantulas. He suspects enthusiasts will help with his research, too.
“Natural science has a strong tradition of amateurs making contributions,” he says. They might even help him make discoveries.
“There are definitely new ones out there,” he says.
Kris Dreessen can be reached at (585) 394-0770, Ext. 253, or firstname.lastname@example.org