High Desert Sketches

Illustration by crowcrumbs.

All things ugly shouldn’t be stomped on 

When I first moved to the Chihuahuan Desert 25 years ago, I heard many fascinating stories of myth and folklore. One of the most fascinating was the fact that it was common in West Texas in the Big Bend area for people to stop their cars on the highway, get out and walk a tarantula across the road. At certain times of the year, the hairy wee beasty must leave its den and go seek its love match amongst females because they never leave their den. The people of our area recognize the fact that tarantulas are not the prettiest creature, but they are very functional when it comes to eating small rodents, and small rodents can become very inconvenient because of a certain virus. 

All you have to do to pick up a tarantula is use your thumb and forefingers on either side of its furry body. The wee beasty does not have a stinger but only its mouth, so if it bites you, you don’t feel any pain. In those days, my eyesight was too poor to determine which was its backside and which was the mouth side. 

I must admit I have more than contributed a little toward the myth of our West Texas insect population. I wrote to friends in the east who were certain I would perish by moving to this god-forsaken country. My male friends all said things like, “Are you going to get a seeing-eye armadillo?” And I had to explain that we don’t have armadillos west of the Pecos River. My female friends all said the same thing: “It’s a woman, isn’t it?” It wasn’t, I think. But I did write and tell them that the scorpions were the size of skateboards and that the tarantulas were so large and furry that women could use the smaller ones for powder puffs and the larger ones were used as toilet seat covers. I have always felt a little guilty about these proclamations of mine. 

Recently the East Coast has been invaded by a rather attractive spider called the Joro spider (scientific name Trichonephila clavata) that, unlike most invasive species, seems to contribute to our benefit. Erroneously called a flying spider or a parachute spider, the wee beastie actually will grab a piece of spider silk and be driven by the wind up to 60 miles from its birthplace. As these spiders don’t have to go through The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) at airports, they can spread rapidly. They have also been described as “giant” spiders when in fact most are not more than 3 inches. They are not aggressive, and if you really tick them off their bite is so weak that it seldom breaks human skin, so just leave them alone. 

They hitchhiked to Georgia in a shipping container that probably held your latest order from China. Instead of freaking out, the Georgians discovered that the spider loves to eat stink bugs, which is also an invasive species. The stink bug has been ravaging East Coast vegetable gardens for some time now and the only known predator of the devastating little stink bug is the Joro spider. 

Another insect that is in the “ugly” category is the vinegaroon. Our Texas variety is the Mastigoproctus giganteus and is found throughout the Big Bend. Vinegaroons have big mouth parts that are formed into pincers. The first pair of legs is long and thin and is used like antenna to feel their way around. The next three pairs of legs are used for walking. The abdomen is attached widely to the head-thorax region. The tail is long and thin, suggesting a whip which is where it gets the common name “whip scorpion.” The vinegaroon is not a scorpion and does not sting. The small creature will squirt you with an ill-smelling liquid if you antagonize it, so don’t. Vinegaroons are nocturnal hunters feeding mostly on insects, millipedes, scorpions and terrestrial isopods, but sometimes on worms and slugs. These scary-looking little beasties help rid the world of many troublesome bugs. 

While the Joro spider and the vinegaroon make our lives a little easier, the tarantula is by far the most beneficial of these insects because it eats small rodents such as mice, which sometimes carry the deadly Hantavirus. Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome (HPS) is a severe, sometimes fatal, respiratory disease in humans caused by infection with hantaviruses. Anyone who comes into contact with rodents that carry hantaviruses is at risk of HPS. Rodent infestation in and around the home remains the primary risk for hantavirus exposure. Even healthy individuals are at risk for HPS infection if exposed to the virus, so watch what you’re stomping on these days, and don’t mess with little creatures just because they’re ugly.

However, please feel free to dispatch any scorpion you may run across. Scorpions were created simply to keep people from running barefoot through the woods. I once asked a pest control individual the best way to kill scorpions and was told, “Buy a ball-peen hammer.” So, if you have any aggressive feelings toward insects, take it out on mosquitoes and scorpions.

For the last five years or so I have taken off in the months of July and August to catch up on things I never catch up on and probably never will. As it now stands, I’m going to take off the rest of June and July and shoot for returning on the first Thursday in August. I have received a number of phone calls from people saying they have not received my column even though they are on my email column list. If you missed the last two, on May 5 and 19, send me a note.