Some ‘spooky’ arthropods call Texas home

Excerpted from an AgriLife Today story by Paul Schattenberg, Texas A&M AgriLife Communications

The state of Texas is host to some interesting arthropods that are some of the most iconic symbols of Halloween. Our entomologists give some interesting facts about a few of these residents that make the Lone Star State their home.

Tarantulas — More hairy than scary

Tarantula on hand

Tarantulas are actually very docile. (Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service photo)

Extension entomologist and long-time tarantula enthusiast Molly Keck said while tarantulas are large and eerie looking, they are actually very docile and rarely bite.

“The exceptions are when they paralyze their prey to eat it — or they may bite if threatened,” she said. “But though their venom can paralyze an insect or very small animal, it rarely causes a severe reaction in humans.”

Keck said when in danger some species of tarantula can rapidly dislodge prickly hairs from the top of their abdomen with their hind legs, and these hairs irritate the eyes or skin of the attacker.

“But tarantulas, like most spiders, are beneficial predators that feed on other insects,” she said. “Some species even make good pets. But native species, like the Texas tan, are short-lived in captivity. Generally, however, tarantulas are low-maintenance and make good starter pets.”

Black Widows — They’re not [really] that bad

Black widow on web

Black widows are known for the distinctive hourglass shape on their undersides. (Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service photo)

Texas is also home to another arachnid often associated with Halloween– the black widow spider.

“This spider is most commonly identified by the red hourglass-shaped mark on its underside,” said Wizzie Brown, an AgriLife Extension entomologist that serves the Travis County. “But even though its venom is highly virulent, the spider itself is very timid. Even if disturbed while it’s in its web, it tries to escape rather than attack.”

She said Texas has southern black widows, northern black widows, western black widows, and brown widows, but the brown widows are not native to the state.

Black widows can be found year-round in buildings and sheltered areas such as sheds, garages, attics and crawl spaces, she said.

“Contrary to popular belief, female black widows do not usually eat males unless they are kept together in confined spaces where the male cannot escape,” Brown said.

However, she noted, their scary reputation is at least partly deserved because the venom from the black widow is a neurotoxin that can cause anything from elevated temperature, nausea and sweating to a painful cramping and constriction of the abdominal muscles and the chest, and even death.

“Death from a black widow bite occurs very rarely, and it is more likely to happen if the person bitten is either very young or elderly,” she said. But no matter your age, it’s important to seek medical attention if bitten by a black widow.”

Daddy longlegs — Just don’t call me ‘spidey’

A group of daddy longlegs on a karst feature. The daddy longlegs, however, is usually a solitary creature. (Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service photo)

A group of daddy longlegs on a karst feature. The daddy longlegs, however, is usually a solitary creature. (Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service photo)

Daddy longlegs are not spiders, but arachnids more closely related to scorpions. They belong to a unique order called Opiliones, or harvestmen.

“While both daddy longlegs and spiders have eight legs, they are easy to tell apart,” said AgriLife extension entomologist Dr. Mike Merchant. “Spiders have a two-part body, while daddy long-legs have a single, fused body. And unlike spiders, daddy longlegs do not make silk and can’t spin webs.”

Merchant said contrary to urban legend, daddy longlegs are not dangerous to people because they lack venom glands.

“Harvestmen can be found on every continent except Antarctica and can be found throughout Texas, from the piney woods in the east to the deserts of the western parts of the state,” he said. “They live for about one year and feed on invertebrates and dead plant material.”

Merchant said they are called harvestmen because they are typically seen around harvest time in the late summer and fall.

“They are also called ‘shepherd spiders’ due to the males guarding the females as they lay their eggs,” he noted.

Daddy longlegs are primarily night prowlers and are usually solitary, but at times a large group will amass and form a wicked-looking dark cluster that resembles a beard. However, their most compelling feature is their legs.

“While most harvestmen species have very long legs, there are some short-legged species that closely resemble mites,” Merchant said. “Daddy longlegs have eight long legs — from one to two inches in length — extending from the body. If humans had a similarly proportioned torso, our legs would extend to a span of some 40 to 50 feet.”

He said the legs are very delicate and also serve as a means of protection.

“When a predator takes hold of a leg, it can easily detach and then continues to twitch, which both confuses the predator and gives the daddy longlegs an opportunity to escape,” he said.

Another way they protect themselves is by using their scent glands, which produce a foul-smelling fluid that helps ward off the predator.

“Alone or in clusters, daddy longlegs can look strange or even ominous, but they are completely harmless,” he said.

FACTOID: In frontier days, it was believed daddy longlegs could find lost cattle. If one was picked up by seven of its eight legs, the remaining leg would point in the direction of the missing livestock.

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