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Tarantula territory 

Global warming, sprawl cited in spike in local spider sightings

click to enlarge Tarantulas may look scary, but they are really very gentle - creatures. They are being spotted more and more in - Southern Colorado. - BRUCE ELLIOTT
  • Bruce Elliott
  • Tarantulas may look scary, but they are really very gentle creatures. They are being spotted more and more in Southern Colorado.

It's the horror of all horrors for some, new and gangly visitors -- large, brown, hairy tarantulas -- are increasingly being spotted in Southern Colorado, including in Colorado Springs.

The spiders, whose habitat is usually in drier, hotter climates, have been sighted scurrying along highways, slinking through gardens and creeping across living rooms, said Jerry Prisk, plant and pest technician for Colorado State University's El Paso County office.

"They're looking for food," he said.

Last fall, Prisk fielded numerous calls for help --mostly from southern Colorado Springs -- and expects more of the same in coming weeks as spiders emerge from their winter slumbers.

Big furry things

With a leg span between 3 inches and 6 inches, the tarantulas have led Prisk and another local insect specialist, John May, to speculate whether spiders are somehow migrating to Colorado Springs -- or if people are moving into spider terrain.

May, an entomologist and bug collector at the May Natural History Museum south of Colorado Springs, wondered whether climate change -- global warming brought on by pollution -- is luring the tarantulas.

"As the climate seems to change and become warmer, they seem to go farther north," he said.

But Prisk noted that the fast-growing city's vast new neighborhoods could be inching toward the spiders' natural habitat in the more arid part of the region.

It could be a little of both. But a study, May and Prisk agree, would have to be conducted to know for sure.

Warming up

However, May's assertion that climate change could explain the spiders isn't out of bounds. A recent study by the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder found that even if all greenhouse gases had been frozen at the levels they hit five years ago, the earth's temperatures would still be destined to increase an average of 1 degree in the next 100 years.

The result will be significantly higher sea levels, melting glaciers and drier interior lands like those in Colorado, meaning, year by year, Colorado Springs could boast temperatures that are more inviting to tarantulas.

Studies have also linked the migrations of insects to global warming. A researcher at the University of Texas found that as temperatures in Mexico and Southern California have warmed, sensitive butterflies abandoned their ranges for higher ground. Subsequent studies have found that more than 50 percent of wild species have been somehow affected by global warming.

As for the spiders, they are only doing what they always do -- mating or hunting prey, Prisk said.

Bugs are cool

Colorado Springs residents should learn to live with the spiders, Prisk maintains.

They don't have a poisonous bite and are also good for the ecosystem.

"They're a natural control," he said. "If we get rid of all of them, then we're left with all the bad guys."

Among the bugs that the spiders eat are moths, which can ruin clothing, and various beetles that harm lawns or contaminate food.

He singled out Hollywood hype -- films like Arachnophobia -- for perpetuating tarantula terror.

"Those silly movies," Prisk said. "They're not very fact based, and fuel this unnatural fear we have of the natural world."

When he shows the spiders to children, they clamor to touch them. Fear is learned, mostly from parents, he added.

"It's Mom and Dad who are in the back saying, 'No way,'" he said.

-- Michael de Yoanna

  • Global warming, sprawl cited in spike in local spider sightings

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