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Students get up close and personal with spiders at Texas Zoo

By Gheni_Platenburg
Oct. 5, 2010 at 5:05 a.m.

Jonah Cantu, 3, sings "Itsy Bitsy Spider" with The Texas Zoo education curator Karalyn Jones during a Zoosday program called Eat up!: Spiders. Tuesday's program taught kids about spiders, specifically how they eat. Jones said she teaches the program because she wants children "to know the basics of the world around them so they can safely explore."


What: Zoosday

Where: Texas Zoo

When: Every Tuesday at 9:30 a.m., but in November, it will start at 10 am.

How much: Zoosday is free with paid admission to the Texas Zoo

10 Facts about tarantulas

1. Female tarantulas can live 30 years or longer in the wild.

Female tarantulas are famously long-lived. Even in captivity, they've been known to live for more than 20 years. Males, on the other hand, don't make it much beyond reaching sexual maturity, with a life span of just 5-10 years on average. In fact, males don't even molt once they reach maturity.

2. The largest tarantulas have a leg span of nearly 10 inches, or about the size of a dinner plate.

Even spider lovers might have trouble sitting still with a 10-inch tarantula headed toward them. Movie directors love to feature tarantulas in their horror flicks, which has given these big, fuzzy spiders an undeserved bad rap.

3. Tarantulas are quite docile and rarely bite people.

Many large predators would quickly make a meal of a tarantula, so they aren't too anxious to tangle with something as large as a person. And it wouldn't do a tarantula much good defensively to bite you, since its venom doesn't pack much of a punch. A tarantula bite is no worse than a bee sting in terms of toxicity.

4. Tarantulas defend themselves by throwing needle-like, barbed hairs at their attackers.

If a tarantula does feel threatened, it uses its hind legs to scrape barbed hairs from its abdomen and flings them in the direction of the threat. You'll know it if they hit you, too, because they cause a nasty, irritating rash. Some people may even suffer a serious allergic reaction as a result. The tarantula pays a price, too - it winds up with a noticeable bald spot on its belly.

5. Tarantulas ambush small prey at night, stealthily sneaking up on a potential meal and then pouncing.

Tarantulas don't use webs to capture prey, they do it the hard way - hunting on foot. Smaller tarantulas eat insects, while some of the larger species will hunt frogs, mice and even birds. Like other spiders, tarantulas paralyze their prey with venom then use digestive enzymes to turn the meal into a soupy liquid.

6. A fall can be fatal to a tarantula.

Tarantulas are rather thin-skinned creatures, particularly around the abdomen. Even a fall from a short height can cause a deadly rupture of the tarantula's exoskeleton. For this reason, handling a tarantula is never recommended. It's easy to get spooked or, even more likely, for the tarantula to get spooked. What would you do if a huge, hairy spider started squirming in your hand? You'd probably drop it, and quickly.

7. Tarantulas have retractable claws on each leg, like cats.

Since falls can be so dangerous for tarantulas, it's important for them to get a good grip when climbing. Though most tarantulas tend to stay on the ground, they sometimes climb trees or other objects. By extending special claws at the end of each leg, a tarantula can get a better grasp of whatever surface it is attempting to scale.

8. Though tarantulas don't spin webs, they do use silk.

Like all spiders, tarantulas produce silk and they put this resource to use in clever ways. Females use silk to decorate the interiors of their burrows, which is thought to strengthen the earthen walls. Males weave a silken mat on which to lay their sperm. Females encase their eggs in a silken cocoon. Tarantulas also use silk trap lines near their burrows to alert them to potential prey, or to the approach of predators. Scientists recently discovered tarantulas can produce silk with their feet, in addition to using spinnerets as other spiders do.

9. Most tarantulas are seen wandering during the summer months, when males head out in search of females.

During the warmest months of the year, sexually mature males begin their quest to find a mate. Most tarantula encounters occur during this period, when males disregard their own safety and wander during daylight hours. Should he find a burrowing female, he'll tap the ground with his legs, politely announcing his presence. The courtship is quick, with the male quickly handing over his sperm and trying to escape. To the female, this suitor is a good source of much-needed protein and she'll often try to eat him once their marriage is consummated.

10. Tarantulas can regenerate lost legs.

Because tarantulas molt throughout their lives, replacing their exoskeletons as they grow, they have the ability to repair any damage they've sustained. Should a tarantula lose a leg, a new one will reappear as if by magic the next time it molts. Depending on the tarantula's age and the length of time before its next molt, the regenerated leg may not be quite as long as the one it lost. However, over successive molts the leg will gradually get longer until it reaches normal size again. Tarantulas will sometimes eat their detached legs as a way to recycle the protein.

Source: a/10-facts-about-tarantulas.htm

Several children were caught up in a web of interest when it came to Charlotte, the not so Itsy Bitsy Spider, on Tuesday morning during the Texas Zoo's weekly Zoosday session.

About 12 kids gathered outside near the zoo's educational building to learn more about Charlotte, one of the zoo's two Texas tarantulas, and spiders in general.

"A lot of kids just don't know about the world around them," said Karalyn Jones, the zoo's education curator. "We can help them start building curiosity about the world around them."

Every Tuesday morning, Jones hosts Zoosday, an educational session geared toward teaching kids in pre-kindergarten through elementary about various animals including snakes, owls and bats.

In addition to getting up close and personal with Charlotte, the students learned about spiders' anatomy, dietary habits and silk web-building capabilities.

In a hands-on demonstration, the participants used angel hair pasta and glue to create their own mock spider webs.

"He liked looking at the spiders. The arts and crafts are a little bit over his head, but he likes to watch me do it," 27-year-old Victoria resident Kym Wiggins said about her 1-year-old son, Thomas Leal. "The lessons she does are always really cute."

Like every session, Jones said the participants' favorite part of the program is getting to observe the animals up close.

Zoosday veteran Brigette Dupnik, 29, said her 22-month-old son, Travis Davis, has become a more nurturing person since he has been coming to Zoosday.

"It's helping him be nicer to animals. He used to hit our dogs, but since he's been coming here, he's stopped that," said Dupnik. Now, he's trying to give them hugs and kisses.

Meanwhile, newcomer Cassandra Sanchez, 26, said she decided to bring her 2-year-old son, Tristan, to the event because of his fondness for spiders.

"He liked it," said Sanchez. "I decided to bring him because he really likes the song 'Itsy Bitsy Spider' and since it's close to Halloween, I thought he would enjoy the spiders."

Cassandra's husband, Jimmy, viewed the event as a fun, family outing.

"Anytime I have time to spend with Tristan or any other kids, I take advantage of it," he said.



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