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About the cover

  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e    August 2008

Bugs Guide

Page: 2

Perhaps the ecosystem in this area of New Mexico could stand a bit of simplifying, at least in terms of the spider population. According to Miller, "one of the highest number in the United States of different species of arachnids (a category that includes spiders and scorpions) is right here in Grant County."

I believe most of those spider species have representatives living in my house. And I'm still not sure I would recognize a black widow spider if I saw one — though I do have more information to go on. I now know the body of an adult female (which, of course, is the one we need to worry about) is about a half-inch long, with a legspan of one to one-and-a-half inches. According to Richman, a "gravid" female — one that is ready to lay eggs — is about the size of a grape.

The rear segment of the black widow, I now know, has a distinctive shape. It is, as Miller describes it, "a bulbous abdomen that comes to a tear-drop point."

I have learned that another distinctive characteristic of the black widow spider is a red hourglass shape on the underside of its abdomen. I wasn't exactly sure how this would help me make a quick identification unless the spider obligingly turned belly up for me. But, according to Richman, black widow spiders generally hang upside-down in their webs — so, if the web is low enough, maybe under a rock, that red hourglass should be easy to see.

Still, the identification of black widow spiders is complicated by the fact that appearances, even within the same species (and there may be at least two different black-widow species in this part of New Mexico) vary quite a bit — even, surprisingly, when it comes to color. You would think it safe to assume that a black widow spider would be. . . well, black. And many are. But, according to Richman, others may be chocolate brown or plum-colored. Some males are white. And that classic red hourglass shape? Well, sometimes the red hourglass is there and sometimes there's only a red bar or two red triangles. On their backs, the spiders can be a solid black, brown or plum color, or there may be red and/or white dots and occasionally even canary-yellow spots, as in a specimen found in the southern part of New Mexico's Lea County.

Yet another species in the fairly extensive "widow" spider family may be heading toward New Mexico. Both Sutherland and Richman would welcome information about any light-brown spiders found locally "with a typically shaped orange hourglass mark on the underside and egg sacs covered with tuffs of silk." Richman explains, "This would confirm the invasion of the brown widow spider, a cosmotropical tramp species that has reached Arizona on one side and Oklahoma on the other."

Though the black widow spider and brown recluse spider can be considered dangerous spiders, the tarantula is not. Because of its large size, however, it probably qualifies as the scariest-looking member of the spider family. "Oh, they have venom, but it's overrated," says Richman. The bite is painful, nonetheless, simply because of the size of the tarantula's fangs. Richman compares the bite to being stabbed by a pair of tiny ice picks; Miller says it's like being stabbed by two lead pencil points.

Though neither of these descriptions sounds like anything one would want to experience, Richman warns: "The main danger of tarantulas is with the irritating hairs on their abdomens, which, when they feel threatened, they scrape off with their back legs, causing them to puff out in a little cloud. The hairs are equipped with microscopic barbs and cause irritation if they get in a person's — or a predator's — eyes."

Richman adds that tarantulas, or at least female tarantulas, are the longest-living members of the spider family, with a lifespan of 20 to 30 years. Male tarantulas, somewhat smaller than the females, don't fare as well, generally living no more than five years — four of which have to be spent reaching maturity.

Scorpions are another arachnid group that arouse an inordinate amount of fear in humans. As a kid, I learned from Western movies that, when camping in the Southwest, you'd better shake your boots out before putting them on in case a scorpion crawled into them during the night.

I also definitely got the idea that a sting from a scorpion was usually lethal. Not so, according to Miller. "For most people, a scorpion's sting is much like a bee sting — but, of course, there are some people who may develop a dangerous allergic reaction, as is true with bee stings." An individual allergic reaction is similarly possible, Miller emphasizes, with otherwise harmless spider bites.

Whereas a bite comes from the head, a sting comes from the other end. And a scorpion stings with style, generally carrying its tail arced over its head, perpetually poised for action. To sting, it grabs either prey or predator with its pinchers and stabs downward with its tail, stinging in front of its own head.

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"There are about 21 to 25 species of scorpions in New Mexico," says Richman. "I know that because I helped compile a complete list. Of those, only one can be considered truly dangerous: the Arizona bark scorpion. It lives in loose bark under cottonwood trees, in old adobe houses and under stones, and can be found in only three counties in New Mexico." Grant County, wouldn't you know, is one of the three, and the other two are neighboring Catron and Hidalgo.

"There is a related species found from the area of Las Cruces, east into the Great Plains. Its venom seems to be less toxic. It can be usually identified by the dark-colored triangle in the head area," Richman adds.

He describes these scorpions as "about two and a half to three inches long, slender, straw-colored. They can be striped or un-striped. They carry their tails curled up or sideways, or trailing behind when running. The females are chunkier than the males, which have the record for slenderness among our native scorpions."

One of the most ferocious-looking members of the related whip scorpion order are commonly known as vinegaroons. They are classified as whip-tail scorpions, and they are seriously ugly and intimidating: Their big, very dark, segmented bodies are somewhat flattened; they have large, claw-like appendages on either side of the mouth; and they have a long, whip-thin tail that trails behind them unless they're alarmed.

"When a vinegaroon is alarmed," Sutherland says, "its tail straightens up, it elevates its abdomen. If the threat persists, it starts trembling and releases a spray with a strong vinegar odor. And that's it. Those are its only defenses: size, formidable appearance and bad smell. For a dedicated predator like a hungry coyote, it's just pin it down and eat it."

She adds, almost affectionately, "Vinegaroons are really good guys. They make excellent classroom pets. With a little bit of handling, they won't spray in a calm environment. They can be kept for years with the right amount of moisture and food. Just put them in a terrarium with a bit of water, a place to hide, and feed them crickets, caterpillars, just about anything. They'll crack open hard-shelled beetles like coconuts. They eat a lot of different things. It's really underappreciated how many critters they're actually eating, and how much they contribute to keeping the populations of undesirable insects down."

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