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The Odd Couple
Two unlikely roommates share a burrow in a partnership as surprising as it is mutually beneficial.
By Gordon Grice
Illustrations by JJ Ritchey
Published January/February 2013
My eldest son keeps tarantulas in terrariums. Mostly, they eat earthworms and crickets. But in the spring, our walks are littered with little toads and other frogs, and sometimes my son puts them to use at home.
The captured frog, unsuspecting, creeps around the terrarium, exploring, perhaps looking for a way out. Sometimes it puts its suckered hand on the glass. When the frog gets close, my son’s tarantula, a female, senses the vibration of its steps. She raises her palps—the feelers at her front end—and perhaps a front leg or two.
She has unmistakably shifted from resting mode to full attention. We catch our breath, because even though what is about to happen is mere biology, it is also wondrous.
The frog seems to sense the spider’s movement and freezes in its tracks. Both are predators, and both wait for movement to tell them what’s happening. A frog can lie for hours showing nothing above water but its eyes; it only moves when it sees an insect worth the grab. In the terrarium, the wait can last several minutes.
Eventually, the frog takes a careful step. The tarantula lays a foreleg upon it, like a minister bestowing a healing touch. There is another long pause.
To us visual humans, the whole scenario is plain, but tarantulas, with their poor eyesight, depend on other senses. This one is, in fact, already tasting the frog with sensory cells on her foot. The frog probably knows something’s wrong, but what? Its eyes would tell it about the approach of a predatory bird, but what’s it to make of this gentle touch from the side?
Eventually, it takes another step. The tarantula makes a frantic grab. Then things are still, more or less. The frog’s leg may be twitching; it may keep breathing for a while, even though it’s being consumed.
The tarantula stands higher than usual on six or so of her legs. With her front legs and palps, she makes dreamy stroking motions, as if to adjust the position of her prey. The frog hangs there like an egregious chaw of Red Man. Between the palps, the tarantula’s mouthparts are at work, kneading.
They are like hairy, muscular arms that terminate in moon-sliver fangs. Maybe that’s what seems so wrong about the whole business: The tarantula does her chewing—and indeed, much of her digestion—on the outside, where you can see it. Her fangs are working digestive juices into the prey, rendering it into liquids she will, in the course of hours, suck down.
In the morning, the frog—unrecognizable except perhaps for a protruding hind foot—is a pile of detritus on the dirt. The tarantula has, with catlike fastidiousness, webbed it together. It’s easy for my son to scoop out with a spoon.
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Nature writer Gordon Grice is the author of two critically acclaimed books, The Red Hourglass: Lives of the Predators (1999) and The Book of Deadly Animals (2011). A native of Guymon, he lives in Wisconsin, where he teaches at the University of St. Thomas and in the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program.