Colorado Tarantula Festival Celebrates Mating Season

It’s a last hurrah for male tarantulas, who die within months of their mating-season journey in the grasslands around La Junta, Colorado

  • Text and photos by Devon Matthews
  • Animals
  • Sep 27, 2023

A male tarantula (above) ventures onto Colorado State Highway 109 in October 2022 while traversing the Comanche National Grasslands—an annual pilgrimage celebrated in the nearby town of La Junta (below).

WHILE NATIVE TARANTULAS SPAN THE GLOBE, there’s only one town in the American Southwest where males of the species Aphonopelma hentzi are celebrated like kings. In La Junta, Colorado—population 7,000—the spiders outnumber the humans by thousands, which suits the people just fine.

“They are significant to our landscape, as the vastness of our public lands provides the ideal conditions to find and view tarantulas,” says La Junta director of tourism Pamela Denahy, referencing the 443,000-acre-plus Comanche National Grassland to the south. In October 2022, the town launched its inaugural tarantula festival: a parade, educational programs and even a tarantula taco salad from a local cafe. (No spiders were harmed in the making of these meals.)

An image of a car decorated with fake tarantulas.

Why all the fuss? For one, it’s a chance to draw regional tourism. But La Junta also sees wildlife education as a mandate, “focusing on and encouraging safe, responsible and sustainable viewing of the tarantulas in their natural habitat for many years to come,” Denahy says.

Just not “years to come” for these particular tarantulas. Because, for the males at the center of the action, this year is their final hurrah.

Once the male tarantulas reach sexual maturity at 5 to 10 years of age, they emerge from the burrows where they’ve lived their whole lives solo and travel up to a mile, sometimes more, in search of females. Their goal is singular. The spiders eat and drink less, focusing their energy on mating as much as possible before they die—which happens within months, whether they’re killed by females during mating, by predators or passing cars, or when temperatures drop to single digits.

Paula Cushing, senior curator of invertebrate zoology at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, cautions that calling the mating season a “migration” is a misnomer, given that only male tarantulas go walkabout. When a male finds a suitable burrow, it sticks its two pedipalps—akin to arms and distinct from a spider’s eight legs—into the hole and drums on the silk lining, sending vibrations downward. Females feel these vibrations and may be enticed to exit and reproduce. Unlike males, females can live around 30 years, breeding for two decades and producing around 4,000 total offspring.

Cushing doesn’t get bent out of shape by folks using the term “migration.” What does get her dander up are people who don’t respect tarantulas’ place in the ecosystem: managing populations lower on the food chain and serving as nutrients for birds and small mammals. “Without [them], we’d be up to our eyeballs in insects,” she says. “Spiders, including tarantulas, are the good guys and gals and nothing to be afraid of. To me, it is just plain important to understand more about all of the species we share this one planet with.”

See more photos in the slideshow below.

Devon Matthews is a conservation and wildlife photographer and filmmaker based in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

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