Chris Caskey, The Union Democrat

It's a good time to be in the Sierra Nevada foothills for lovers of the creepy and crawly.

The local tarantula population will be out in full force in the coming weeks as the heart of the hairy spiders' mating season approaches.

California tarantulas are common in the area but are rarely seen during most of the year due to their nocturnal nature.

But once a year, sexually mature males will roam openly in search

of a mate. The males locate females in their burrows by sensing

pheromones, or chemicals emitted by the female spiders. The males are

equipped with a special hook that prevents them from being stung during

the mating process.

"The males are prowling, really looking for a mate, and forgoing

everything else, including food," said Jerry Snyder, spokesman for the

Stanislaus National Forest. "This is their one purpose at this point."

Tarantulas can be found in the Stanislaus National Forest, though

they tend not to roam above 3,500 feet of elevation, Snyder said. The

wandering males are most commonly found from the afternoon to dusk, and

they respond to warmer autumn weather.

"The colder it is, the slower they are," Snyder said. "They're probably not very happy with the weather we had (this week)."

Tarantulas are somewhat infamous due to their size of up to five

inches and their hairy legs and body. But the spider, which can be

gray, black or brown, is very docile and rarely bites. While a bite is

about painful as a bee sting, the spider's venom is not harmful to

humans.

The spider's top predator, the tarantula hawk, packs a bigger

punch. The large wasp preys on the tarantula by paralyzing it with a

sting and laying eggs on the spider so the larva can consume it. The

tarantula hawk also has a much more painful sting, ranking among the

highest in the insect world.

Tarantulas defend themselves from predators by shedding their spiny

hairs, which can cause irritation to the skin or eyes. They also will

make a hissing or purring sound and rear up on their back legs when

threatened.

Jim Tassano, owner of Foothill-Sierra Pest Control, receives

occasional phone calls this time of year from concerned people who come

across the hairy critters. The "striking" arachnids can startle those

who don't expect them, but Tassano said he mostly tells customers to

leave the spiders be.

"Education goes a long way towards helping people understand what

they see," he said. "Let them go. They're just passing through."

Snyder agreed, and he also suggested avoiding another activity that

also increases this time of year - especially with inquisitive

youngsters.

"This is the time of year approaching Halloween when someone might

consider getting a scary looking spider to put in a jar," Snyder said.

"But really, you should let them go about doing what is natural for

them."

According to National Geographic, hundreds of species of tarantulas

exist on every continent except Antarctica. They can range from four

inches to almost a foot in diameter and prey on insects as well as

small birds and mammals, catching them without a web and paralyzing

them with their venom.

Between 20 and 30 species of tarantula are believed to exist in the southwestern portion of North America.

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