Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Summer of Tarantula Adventure

     This summer has been an extremely busy one. There were quite a few events that I've attended with my Desert Blond tarantula, Minka. Minka has been my partner in crime this summer. We've covered most of the state together doing many fun things and meeting many awesome people of all ages. I really want to use this post to talk about the travels that Minka and I have had this summer.

     We started off the summer with a fun Summer Nature Camp at the Crosby Arboretum in Picayune, MS. It was a four-day camp that was full of all sorts of nature-related activities. A few of the campers had attended the Spider Day that I had done earlier in the year, and remembered Minka by name. That really touched me. Not only that they no longer feared spiders, but remembered her by name. I had several campers wanting to hold her, and I let them. It was great!
     Some of the students, who told me right up front that they didn't like spiders ended up being fascinated by Minka. I fed her a cricket the first time I brought her out, and they were amazed to watch her try to catch it. It ended up hopping out of her tank and onto the floor, so I didn't let her eat it. I put Minka on my hands, and they were amazed that a spider that large would be so docile.

     During camp one day some of the campers wanted to hold Minka again. I was passing her from my hands to the hands of one camper at a time and back. Right after the last girl held her, and I got her back onto my hands, Minka did something I've never seen her do before. She walked in a circle in my right hand, and proceeded to make the biggest poo I've ever seen a tarantula make in my entire tarantula keeping experience. I sat there dumbfounded while the campers cheered and laughed. She was better behaved for the rest of the camp.

     It was a few weeks before our next adventure. I was eating some supper one night when I got an email saying that I had been selected to be featured as the featured student on my college's homepage. The photographer asked if I could bring a tarantula for the photoshoot. I looked over at Minka as I replied with an enthusiastic "yes."

     So, a few days later we embarked on the hour-long drive to get to where the photoshoot was. I rode in the passenger seat to hold Minka. I was really excited, and wondering what the photoshoot would be like. We decided that we'd stop for some food on the way. We went for the drive through at our favorite fast food place. Well, when they gave us our food, one of the ladies at the window screamed "tarantula!!" and the entier store erupted into panic. I felt a little bad about it.

     We got to the photoshoot without any further incident. I sat before the camera holding Minka and smiling. I was so happy that she was there. It was much less stressful with my eight-legged stress reliever. A comment was made during the sitting that Minka and I are the ideal team. I kind of agree with that. She's quite the spider.

     Our next journey was to Bug Camp. I've been going to the Bug Camp for five years now, but this was my first one where I was officially a staff member. Minka got to sit on the table during check-in for the campers. She was a great introduction to what was going to go on during the camp, which is a 5 day adventure into the world of insects and plants.

     Minka was handled and introduced that first day, and throughout the week I used her to teach about spiders during the much sought-after downtime throughtout the camp. The kids loved her. Minka sat really sweetly while I held her and let the campers hold her. She spent a lot of time drinking water and rearranging her dirt.

     To conclude, Minka and I shared many adventures this summer. It was a great bonding experience for me and this spider who means so much to me.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

"Girl, Something Must Be Wrong With You"

    Warning: This is going to be a kind of rant about arachnophobia and why it bothers me.

      If I had a dollar for every time someone said that I was crazy, out of my mind, or "just not right" for liking spiders, I'd be a rich woman right now. The overwhelming majority of people I come into contact with can't stand spiders, and don't mind letting me know that. Many people have told me to stay far away from them because I actually like spiders. So I have. I don't want to scare people needlessly. Neither do the spiders that I almost constantly have with me in an assortment of vials and containers.

     One teacher, my biology professor, that I've had class with has threatened my grade because a spider "followed" me to class. In a petri dish. That I put it in. But that's beside the point! No matter what I tried, arachnophobia has been an enemy to me.

     But why the hate? Spiders are everywhere. With the exception of just a few, spiders can't really hurt us. I just don't get why people have to be so dang arachnophobic. There are so many reasons to respect and be thankful for our eight-legged friends, that it seems strange to me when people say stuff like "I just hate spiders. They're awful." Seriously, stop the hate.

    On That note, I've been reading some case reports that show that emersion therapy can help with arachnophobia. I guess that's what I've been doing, emersing people in a spider-friendly environment, hoping for the best. Some folks will listen. I've helped a lot of friends overcome their aversion to spiders just by talking about spiders near them. After a while, I show them spiders, intentionally or not quite so, and their interest is piqued. That, in my experience, is where the arachnophobia comes to a true end.

     In that respect, Audacia, my Chaco Golden Knee tarantula, has been my best teammate. People love her. That's why I like to have her with me at workshops and presentations. She's the Arachnophobia-blaster part of our team. True emersion therapy with eight legs. Who knows, maybe in the future spiders will be respected more. Shoot, they deserve a little more respect than they get now, that's for sure.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Adventure Recap: Tishomingo State Park

     On April 29, I went along on the annual field trip for the Mississippi Native Plant Society. This year's trip was to one of my favorite places in the state: Tishomingo State Park in northeastern Mississippi.

     The day started early, with my alarm clock jolting my twin sister, a Horticulture Major, and myself awake at 4:00A.M. We had our bags packed for the trip in advance, and we were ready to go. We met a friend, Edward, a grad student at the college we attend, and rode together out to Dr. John Guyton's house. We loaded up in the van, which was packed with gear, and headed out on the 3+ hour trip to the park.

     On the way, we discussed plants, insects, and spiders, of course. As we rode, we noted the wildflowers along the sides of the road. I'm not much of a plant expert, so I listened intently as Sis and the others talked about the different plants. Pretty soon, though, I saw something that caught my eye. There were spider webs all along the road. Funnel webs in the style of spiders in the family Agelenidae. We stopped near a rest stop on the Natchez Trace to pick flowers for a plant talk scheduled for later that day. I took the opportunity to take some pictures of the webs.

           As you can see in the picture, a few of the webs had their little occupants in them. We continued on from there to the park. We arrived before people started showing up, in order to help set up.  Dr. Kelly, who is the President of the Mississippi Native Plant Society, was there waiting on us. I was thrilled to find out that she had a present for me as soon as we got there. Waiting in a ziploc bag was a scorpion!

        Mississippi has only one species of scorpion, Vaejovis carolinianus (Beauvois) It's not a large scorpion, an inch or two in length if you include the tail. It 's not  a dangerously venomous species, either. This makes it a really neat pet. I used the scorpion to help me teach some of the people who were steadily arriving about some really neat arachnids. Using a pocket sized blacklight that I borrowed from Dr. John, I showed anyone who I could get to something that most folks had never heard of.
     When scorpions are exposed to the light from a blacklight, they flouresce. This neat reaction was a fun thing to show to the children who were there. They were all amazed by it.
      After a short time of being there, I was pegged as the "Spider Woman." I spent a while answering questions about spiders and insects of all kinds. I went along on hikes, collecting spiders as I went, and helped answer spider questions when they arose. I was no help on the plant aspect of the trip, which was the point of the field trip, but I learned a ton.

     All in all, I found eighteen different species of spiders that day. It was a fulfilling day in that respect. It was also worth every moment to see the realization that spiders aren't all bad dawn on the people I was talking to.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Salticidae, Adorable Predators

     For the past couple of years, the main focus of my taxonomy research has been the family Salticidae. Their common name is the Jumping Spiders, and they come in a range of sizes. They're relatively small, especially compared to my tarantulas, but they've got big personality.

     Maybe it's not good "Science" to refer to my spiders as "adorable," but I can't think of a better word for the entire Salticidae family. They're said to have the best vision of any of the spiders, and it's not too hard to believe, if you look at those big front eyes.


     Now onto the fun, science stuff!

     Salticidae is the largest family of spiders, with something like 4400 described species. In the United States, we have a little over 315 known species, with many more, I'm sure, yet to be described. There are, last time I checked, 63 genera of Salticids just in the United States.

     Jumping Spiders come in all shapes and colors. Some look like little bits of wood, others are eerily accurate mimics of ants. Many in the genus Phidippus have bright, metallic, green chelicera.

     Jumping spiders are very intelligent little spiders. They're always fun to watch and observe.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

A Year Of Spiders

        2011 was a great year for observing spiders. I saw a lot of different species this year. I'd like to tell you about some of the more interesting ones that I found.
       Here, you'll see a picture of a jumping spider, family Salticidae, This particular spider is an adult female Phiddipus putnami. I found her sitting on a railing while walking home from class one Friday afternoon. I scooped her up in my hands and hurried home to the dorms. She eventually laid an egg sac, which hatched and, as of this writing, is doing well.

      One of my favorite finds of 2011 was Brownie. Brownie is a large female Brown Recluse, Loxosceles reclusa. She's the largest Brown Recluse that I've ever seen. We actually found her crawling on a gas can in the shed behind the house. I caught her and decided to keep her as a pet and display spider. She's been a good one.

      Throughout the summer and fall, I found a bunch of wolf spiders, Lycosidae. These large, sleek spiders have always been one of my favorite families. The one pictured was found sitting near the door to the dorms one day after I had finished with my classes. I kept her for a long time, and she eventually passed away in my care.

      Another cool spider that I found was the Golden Silk Spider, Nephilla clavipes. I'd never seen one alive in person before BugFest of 2011. She'd been building her web over a trail that I was walking down, and so I coaxed her onto my hand. I ended up incorporating her into my presentation that night and the next day. She crawled onto my face during one of these talks, which got a great reaction from the crowd.

    2011 was a great year for finding all kinds of interesting spiders. I have a feeling, though, that 2012 will be even better. Here's to a great New Year!

Saturday, December 10, 2011

No Tarantulas Allowed?

Ever since I got Audacia, my Grammostola pulchripes, I've been taking her with me to the assortment of summer camps and presentations that I do to help people learn about spiders. She's very friendly, which is a fact that most if not all of the people at the camps and presentations have learned.

However, it's much harder to convince the people that I encounter to and from these events. I never realized this, until one day when I was going to the annual Bug Camp that I have attended since I was a sophomore in high school.

It was a hot day in late June, Bug Camp was going to begin at noon. My Dad had driven my sister and me to the Camp, which is held on the same campus where I work and attend class. We'd handled check in, and were headed over to the Entomology Building, where the other campers were going to meet in a little over an hour. I had Audacia with me, and was going to store her in the building until the time when I was going to do my presentation with her.

We walked up to the front door, and sure enough, it was locked. Well, I knew that since the professor who had the other key wouldn't be finished checking in other campers for another hour, and it was really hot outside. To top it off, we were all hungry. I looked down at Audacia and knew that I needed to get her inside into an air conditioned space.

We decided to go and grab a burger at one of the local fast-food places. As hot as it was, there was no way that I was leaving Audacia in the car. So I walked in carrying her tank right under my arm. I walked to get a table in the back while my Dad and Sis ordered our food.  I sat down at a table far away from the other patrons, so that Audacia wouldn't scare anyone.

As I sat there, waiting for the food and watching Audacia take a drink from her water dish. I soon became aware of someone standing near the table. I looked up to seeing one of the waitresses staring at the tank. She started muttering curse words, and leaning in closer. She asked a few questions, which I politely answered. Then she did something that really irritated me.

She started thumping the side of the tank, right next to Audacia. I asked her to stop, but she ignored me. She was asking why the spider wasn't crawling around, and proceeded to try and make her. I told her that she was starting to irritate the large arachnid, and she got scared and ran away. I ate my meal in quiet, after that.

The rest of the restaurant was empty, until we were about to leave. I had noticed a school bus pull up outside, but hadn't really paid any attention to it. I picked up Audacia's tank and headed for the door. The door was blocked by nearly 20 cheerleaders. I was holding the tank down, not greatly obvious. I looked for a way to get through the crowd, but they were all crowded in the door.

I asked them to move, but their leader whirled around and informed me that I "needed to be quiet" because they were talking. I sighed, and held up the tank. "Excuse me," I said for the 5th time, "I need to get my large tarantula out of here." The group turned around again, and their faces changed from their previous annoyed expressions to ones of fear.

It was like the parting of the waters as the group scrambled to get away. I walked out, got in the car, and rode away, ready for the fun week of camp activities.

I've carried her into other places, and the reactions I get are mixed. Some people give me angry looks, and others actually ask questions. She's a great traveling companion, but not everyone is happy to see her. So far, I haven't gotten myself kicked out of anywhere because of her, but who knows. Someday there may be signs saying "No Tarantulas Allowed."

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

A Very Special Spider

I want to tell you about my beloved friend, Audacia. Audacia is a Chaco Golden Knee tarantula Grammostola pulchripes. Out of all the spiders that I own, I probably have the tightest bond with Audacia. Her name is Latin for "Courage" and is very fitting of her personality. She's helped many people overcome their Arachnophobia, and some have come to cherish spiders from their meetings with this sweet spider.

I met Audacia on Friday, January 29, 2011. It was a cold night, and I was heading home from a week of college to go see my family. It was getting dark, but I realized that I needed feeder crickets for the seven tarantulas that I already had at home. I asked my Dad, who was driving the car, to stop at a small pet shop in town so that I could go in and get some. He pulled into the store, and I went in. As I walked towards the shelves in the back, I had no way of knowing that my life was soon to change forever.

Sitting in the back of the shop, were two tanks. Neither of the tanks were properly labeled, and the tarantulas inside were misidentified, but I couldn't look away. She was sitting there, next to a water dish and a plastic cup. Something about her was captivating. I knew then that this was soon to be my spider.

As I looked at her, I knew that I couldn't leave without her. The cashier walked up to me and we began to talk. He told me that she'd only been in for a few days.

I looked back into the tank. By this time my dad had walked in, and was looking at the spider, as well. "You've got plenty of spiders." He told me, but I couldn't look away from her. I walked over to get the feeder crickets, when Dad said "Aren't you going to get your spider?" I looked at him, and he smiled. I walked over and picked up her tank. Smiling from ear to ear, I showed her to my twin sister, who was happy that I was happy.

Since that night, Audacia has been my near-constant companion. I spend most of my free time with her. Not just for tending to her, or feeding her. She's also my stress relief and confidant. I now carry her around the state and region doing speeches and programs about tarantulas and spiders in general. She's always super-friendly and calm for the duration of the speeches. Children love her, and enjoy gently petting her soft fur.

She's a great spider, and an even better friend.