LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — When John Duerk heard that the tiny town of Gabbs, Nevada, was the “epicenter for the tarantula migration,” he was all in.
On an October 2021 trip, he saw six of the big spiders. Not exactly on the magnitude of the “follow the spiders” scene from Harry Potter, but certainly not a disappointment.
“I think sometimes people think of it in horror movie terms,” Duerk said. He’s a political science instructor at Western Nevada College in Carson City with a lifelong love of creepy crawlies — spiders, scorpions, snakes, frogs, toads, turtles … it’s a long list.
As the lore around the tarantula “migration” grows, an official in Gabbs says spider activity has dropped in recent years. Linda Raymond of the Gabbs Town Advisory Board says she has noticed it’s dropped off over the past five years. But the town’s spidey sense is still strong, with tarantulas firmly entrenched as the school mascot.
Scientists will tell you, first thing, it’s not even a migration. And it happens everywhere tarantulas live, not just in one remote Nevada town. It’s simply a mating behavior when male spiders come out to look for females. That doesn’t make it any less interesting.
The desert tarantula (Aphonopelma iodius) ranges across the Southwest, concentrated in the Mojave Desert and parts of Southern California.
A good place to see tarantulas closer to Las Vegas is Valley of Fire State Park, about 45 miles to the northeast on Interstate 15.
In Southern Nevada
Kayla Wolfe, a naturalist at the park, says tarantulas are out most often in September and October. She said Valley of Fire Highway and the road into Lake Mead National Recreation Area are good places to spot them. Most sightings occur at dusk, but dawn is another good time to look for them.
Wolfe has been known to pick up tarantulas to introduce them to people at the Valley of Fire Visitors Center. But she’s careful how she presents them.
“I don’t try to convince people that they’re not scary,” she said. She thinks of them more as “interesting creatures with a bad reputation.”
The trick, she says, is in the approach. “Do you want to see something scary?” she’ll ask. That tilts the conversation, and suddenly instead of wanting to avoid the “scary” creature, people want to take a closer look.
“It’s about finding a way to appreciate them, even when you’re afraid. Those two feelings can coexist.”
‘Ewww, a human’
Wolfe has a knack for changing how people see tarantulas.
“If you have one walking along, if a foot touches something they don’t expect, they will just sit there and won’t move,” she says. And sometimes, she’ll see them pull their foot back slightly. In her mind, that’s when a tarantula says, “Ewww, a human.”
Dr. Chris Hamilton of the University of Idaho is one of the foremost experts on spiders. He’s an assistant professor of entomology, plant pathology and nematology.
“These tarantulas — the ones we have in the U.S. are giant teddy bears,” he said.
“People are scared of them because they’re big spiders,” but they’re incredibly calm creatures, Hamilton said. “I’ve handled thousands of them. I’ve never been bitten.”
This time of year, stories are spreading through the media about the “migration.”
“They’re not moving from one place to another,” Hamilton said. “It’s mating season and that’s when the males come out and walk around, looking for the females.” The timing each year depends on the climate. Females attract males through pheromones and “putting silk around their burrows.”
Wolfe said it’s much easier to spot males crossing a road than chancing upon a female crouched outside her burrow. She said females don’t usually go more than a couple of feet from their burrows.
Tarantulas live much longer than most spiders. Some females have been known to live for 30 years in captivity, Hamilton said.
He also dismissed the idea that female tarantulas eat the males after mating. “It happens, but that’s not a common thing.”
Where does all this leave Gabbs as the unofficial tarantula capital? So far, there’s no one stepping forward to claim the title. In fact, what’s happening there is probably happening everywhere. Hamilton said populations almost certainly have decreased, and human activity continues to destroy habitat.
“It’s important to remember that these organisms have evolved for this habitat (and the ecological niche of that habitat — temps, precipitation, other organisms that live there). As the temperatures change and generally get warmer, the populations of these species may not be able to adapt fast enough to higher and higher temperatures,” Hamilton said.
“Species that can move will move, others that can’t move or move very far/fast will die. For example, tarantulas can’t fly, they can’t “balloon” — which is releasing silk and being carried away with the wind, like a parachute, the way other spiders can. They have to walk to move somewhere,” he said.
And the fact that they have long lifespans works against them, Hamilton explained. The recovery period takes much longer in comparison with a species that goes through an entire life cycle in a year.
And while Hamilton, Wolfe and Duerk all see tarantulas from different perspectives, there’s certainly a shared admiration.
“That’s a pretty harsh habitat, so I think more people should be fascinated by the creatures that survive,” Hamilton said.
“I guess they’re not snuggly or anything,” Wolfe said, but that doesn’t stop her from introducing them to Valley of Fire visitors any chance she gets.
Duerk, who provided the video from Gabbs at the top of this story, wishes people had more of an appreciation for wildlife. While others are intimidated by a spider the size of a tarantula, “I think it’s beautiful, to be honest.” He said he didn’t touch the spider he captured on video — he has mixed feelings about whether people should interact with wildlife.
“As human beings, we’re a little inconsistent with our appreciation of animals,” Duerk said.