STORY WRITTEN BY LUCAS RODGERS
@LucasMRodgers on Twitter
PHILADELPHIA >> Tarantulas have a reputation of being terrifying, fast, hairy and scary — but they’re not quite as frightening when observed in a safe and controlled environment.
Visitors to the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University will be able to see some of the biggest, baddest and most fearsome of all spiders in a new exhibit, called “Tarantulas: Alive and Up Close.”
The exhibit, now on view through May 30, will give visitors the chance to come face-to-face with nearly 20 species of
live tarantulas — fangs and all — with only a pane of glass in between.
“This exhibit will be an eye-opener for everyone who has ever loathed or loved spiders,” said Exhibits Director Jennifer Sontchi. The exhibit appeals to people of all ages, she added.
Tarantulas are probably some of the most misunderstood creatures in the animal kingdom; the negative aspects of their reputation are not entirely deserved.
Thanks to Hollywood movies and urban legends, tarantulas are notorious for being terrifying creepy-crawlers that are deadly to humans, but although tarantulas are indeed venomous, their venom has a fairly low toxicity, and it is not fatal to humans.
The exhibit aims to take visitors on a journey of scientific discovery, and present these eight-legged giants of the spider world in a new light.
Focusing on the diverse and natural beauty of tarantulas, the exhibit provides a personal view of the hidden world of these incredible creatures and an engaging live experience for visitors. Videos, colorful graphics and interactive activities highlight the unique attributes of some of the 900 known species of tarantulas, which are found all over the world.
Among the species on display are the Goliath bird-eating tarantula, which is the largest of all tarantulas; the rare and colorful greenbottle blue tarantula; and the Indian ornamental tarantula, a species troubled by loss of habitat. Each tarantula has a unique story to tell.
Other arachnids are also on display, including several species of scorpions; a vinegaroon, also known as a whip scorpion; and symbiotic mites living on hissing cockroaches.
All the animals in the exhibit are female. Arachnids have sexually dimporphic characteristics, and females are generally larger, more colorful and have longer lifespans than males. Some tarantulas can live up to 20 or 30 years.
The exhibit also includes an area where kids can participate in a scavenger hunt to search for images of spiders that can be found in the Philadelphia area, as well as put on a spider costume and pose for a photo in an oversized ‘jelly jar,’ as if they had been captured.
Invertebrate Specialist Karen Verderame gave a presentation on tarantulas, and held a rose hair tarantula, named Indy, so visitors could see her up close.
After that, Verderame handled a curlyhair tarantula named Danielle. Verderame said some of the tarantulas are named after former or current interns at the Academy.
Rose hair tarantulas can be found in Chile and Peru, and curlyhair tarantulas can be found in Costa Rica, Verderame said.
Verderame encouraged visitors to keep an open mind about tarantulas because despite their reputation, they’re the ‘good guys.’
“They’re good recyclers, they’re good exterminators … they’re really serving a purpose in our environment, and they also are quite beautiful,” she said.
Sontchi said the decision to create an exhibit focused on tarantulas was an easy one to make because they tend to stir up excitement in people, whether it’s good or bad.
“We know that they’re frightening, people are scared of spiders,” Sontchi said. “They’re part of the darkness of the world, so we knew that they were inherently interesting to people.”
She said people’s feelings about tarantulas could also encourage them to check out the exhibit and learn the truth of the matter, which is that “tarantulas are animals in an ecosystem, and they have different strategies, and they need to eat prey like every other animal, and they are prey like any other animal.”
“They’re really quite fuzzy and beautiful; there’s a lot to be revealed about them here,” Sontchi said. “We’re really hoping that people see it as a great opportunity to kind of break down some barriers about nature and have a good time with their families.”
A “Tarantula Talk” will be held in the exhibit at 11:45 a.m. every Saturday and Sunday, in which an Academy educator will give a short presentation featuring a live tarantula.
Tarantulas get their hairy appearance from the bristles, or setae, on their bodies. New World tarantulas, which live in the Americas, can throw these bristles from their abdomen and hind legs as a defense mechanism, and the bristles cause a stinging sensation, discomfort and irritation if they embed in a potential attacker’s skin or eyes. Old World tarantulas, which live in Africa, Asia and Europe, don’t have this ability; they rely on their fangs as their primary defense mechanism.
The bristles are sort of like tiny spears, said Kyle Taylor, a volunteer at the Academy.
Even though tarantulas can seem intimidating, they tend to be quite docile, and they are ambush predators, so they usually wait for their prey to come to them instead of wandering around to hunt for prey.
Tarantulas’ prey varies, but it can include just about anything that’s smaller than the tarantula, Academy volunteer Dennis Winters said. Some tarantulas can eat birds or mice, and others stick with smaller insects.
Tarantulas use their fangs to inject venom into prey to dissolve the innards, and then they suck out the nutrients. All tarantulas are carnivorous.
The tarantulas in the exhibit are fed live crickets, and each tarantula only needs to eat about once per week.
Taylor said that some tarantulas can go for more than a year without eating.
Tarantulas live in diverse habitats around the world, from the tallest rainforest treetops to deep underground in the most arid deserts.
While some people keep tarantulas as pets, tarantulas are also considered a delicacy in certain cultures.
Tarantulas can range from the size of a fingernail to the size of a dinner plate.
While habitat loss and pesticide use are threats to some species, scientists are still trying to understand some of the creatures’ attributes.
Tarantulas: Alive and Up Close will be on view through May 30. The exhibit was created by Outhouse Exhibit Services.
Follow 21st Century Media staff writer Lucas M. Rodgers on Twitter @LucasMRodgers and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/lucasmrodgers.