The Tarantula Scientist
(Scientists in the Field Series)
Houghton Mifflin, March 2004
The Tarantula Scientist

“QUEEN OF THE JUNGLE”

Sam Marshall is lying on his belly in this rainforest, his freckled face just inches from a fist-sized hole in the dirt. He turns on his headlamp. He gently pokes a twig into the tunnel and wiggles it. “Come out!” he says into the hole, “I want to meet you!”

Normally, it’s not a great idea to be poking sticks into burrows in the jungle—especially if you don’t know who lives there. Snakes, for instance, don’t appreciate it. In this particular rainforest, the most common snake is the fer de lance. The name means “spear-head” in French, which suggests you’d better not bother one.

“AVERTISSEMENT!” (French for “WARNING!”) reads the rough-hewn sign at the head of the jungle trail to Tresor Reserve. The sign warns visitors to beware of snakes—and while you’re at it, watch out for spiders, wasps, biting ants, bees, wild pigs, slippery trails, roots poking up from the ground and branches falling down from the trees.

But Sam knows this forest well. He knows exactly what he’s doing. Sam is a spider scientist, or arachnologist. (say it, “arr-rack-NAWL-o-gist.”) His specialty? The biggest, hairiest, and some would say scariest group of spiders on Earth: Tarantulas. That’s why he’s come all the way from Hiram, Ohio to French Guiana in South America.

Just north of the Equator, French Guiana is home to only 150,000 people. It’s about the size of Indiana. But for its size, this is probably the tarantula capitol of the world. Perhaps a dozen species of tarantula live here, including some of the most spectacular.

So far, Sam’s only caught a glimpse of hairy legs in the hole. But he knows who’s in there: A Goliath Birdeater Tarantula, the largest species of spider on the planet.

How big might that be? Big enough that with outstretched legs, this spider could cover your whole face. A large one could weigh as much as five mice. This tarantula is a Goliath for sure!

Sam isn’t frightened at all. “C’mon, Sweetie!” he calls down the hole. Sam is trying to lure the spider out. Normally tarantulas spend the day waiting in their silk-lined retreats. They come out at night to sit in front of the burrow. There they wait for prey. But by wiggling the stick like a juicy worm or a scuttling cockroach—a meal the Goliath Birdeater, despite its name, would probably prefer to a bird—Sam hopes to coax her out into daylight.

There! Sam feels her grab the twig in the pair of food-handling feet, called pedipalps, by the front of the head. “She’s pretty strong,” he says. He knows she’s a female because he can already see how big she is. Females are bigger than males and live much longer.

He wiggles the stick some more. He thinks she’ll come out if the “prey” seems to be trying to get away. And he’s right: “Here she comes,” he announces.

She thunders out of the hole! Her eight walking feet, each tipped with two claws called tarsi, patter loudly on the dead leaves on the forest floor. “These tarantulas are the jaguars of the leaf litter,” Sam says. And it’s true: to the frogs and worms and insects who live here, this tarantula must be an awesome predator.

Even for a big mammal like a human, the sight of a Goliath Birdeater tarantula rushing out of her burrow takes your breath away. She’s not even full grown, but her head is the size of a 50 cent piece. Her abdomen is bigger than a quarter. All of her body, including each of the seven segments of her eight strong, long legs, is covered with rich, deep reddish-brown hairs, some of them half an inch long.

When she races out, she looks like she might rush up Sam’s arm—maybe onto his face! And if she does, will she bite him? Would he die?

The giant tarantula stops abruptly, just four inches past the mouth of her burrow. Even though her eight eyes are almost blind, her other senses—which include chemical senses humans can only dream of—tell her the bad news: No meal here. And then, quite reasonably, she backs down partway into her burrow.

Sam ties a bit of bright pink plastic tape to a nearby tree, to help him find the burrow again later. He gets up to leave, to find more spiders. The tarantula doesn’t vanish down the hole; she waits calmly, still near the mouth of her burrow. Three adult humans—Sam and two companions—thud past her. To her fine-tuned sense of touch, the vibrations must shake the very earth. Surely she realizes that nearly 500 pounds of monsters are clomping around just inches from her home!

“Yeah, but why should she care?” Sam says. “She’s Queen of the Jungle!”