Araneae, commonly known as spiders, evoke terror and revulsion among many people. Fear of spiders — yes, arachnophobia — lists as one of the most common phobias among humans.
Yet many people around the world find spiders and other arachnids endlessly fascinating, even keeping as pets the web-spinning, venomous, insect carnivores.
A group of such enthusiasts plan to crawl into Oro Valley later this week for the annual convention of the American Tarantula Society, held at the Hilton Tucson El Conquistador Golf and Tennis Resort.
"Normally, we have it in the Southwest," said Ollie Meidinger, an officer with the American Tarantula Society. The desert is one of the world's prime tarantula habitats.
The group, which has about 300 members worldwide, attracts people from all walks of life, Meidinger said.
"What other people call strange, we call pets," he said.
He would know. The arachnophile has countless tarantulas and other arachnids throughout his home in Alberta, Canada.
"My son had a tarantula and I took over care of it — now I have several hundred," Meidenger said.
Like hobbyists of all stripes, tarantula enthusiasts typically jump in with all their feet. In a home on Tucson's far southeast side, in the shadow of Colossal Cave Mountain Park, spider and reptile hobbyists Bill Savary and wife Jillian Cowles have a room reserved for the creatures they collect. Some of the spillover lives in tanks in their living room.
Pulling the glass and plastic tanks that house Savary's spiders from the shelves, he rattles off the species with names like Mexican red rump tarantula, curly haired tarantula and a common brown tarantula typical of southern Arizona.
Savary shows a baby tarantula about the size of a silver dollar and an extraterrestrial looking creature called a vinegarroon or whip scorpion he found near the Wilcox Playa.
Holding aloft a tank with an African baboon spider, Savary issues a warning.
"These I don't open because they're fast and their bite is very painful," Savary said.
For many people, the thought of carnivorous-insect filled tanks scattered throughout the house is fodder for a lifetime of nightmares, but enthusiasts say its doesn't differ from other exotic pet collections.
"If you can imagine tropical fish, it's like that," Meidinger said.
With their many eyes and legs and otherworldly appearance, insects have captivated the human imagination since time began. Perhaps more than all others, spiders have intrigued, fascinated and terrified people.
Spiders appear in the ancient art and mythologies of cultures all around the world. Perhaps most famously in the tale of the Greek goddess Athena, who lost a weaving contest to a mortal girl.
Enraged, Athena punished the girl for the offense, who then killed herself. But Athena took pity upon her, bringing the girl back to life as the greatest of all weavers, a spider.
The girl from the myth gave name to the term scientists use today to describe the entire family of eight-legged, venomous insects: Arachne.
Today, scientists recognize spiders as a crucial ingredient for a healthy planet.
"Without the insect world, our whole ecosystem collapses," said Carl A. Olson, associate curator of entomology at the University of Arizona. "The micro world drives our ecosystem."
Olson said that over decades of research, scientists have begun to learn more about the ecological balance insects, including spiders, help to maintain. Insects that feed on plants often help to keep their environments healthy.
He cites the situation with bark beetles in Northern Arizona as an example.
The ponderosa pine forests in the northern part of the state have been deluged by park beetles, which can cause tremendous damage and kill trees on a large scale.
Olson said the beetles are simply the reaction to overgrowth and drought. Bark beetles target unhealthy trees, eating the inner bark and eventually killing the tree.
In this regard, the beetles are helping to thin out overgrown stands of forest. As their numbers increase, so to do their natural predators.
"The insect world is working to restore the balance," Olson said.
As one of the top predators of the insect world, spiders serve an important function in maintaining balance by preying upon other insects to keep their numbers in check.
"They're certainly good citizens in the biological chain of life," said Gary Hevel, an entomologist with the Smithsonian Institute Natural History Museum in Washington, D.C., about spiders. "They're good predators."
Scientists have even begun research into the potential health and medical benefits found in tarantula venom.
Tarantulas are numerous as well. At least 900 species of tarantula have been identified among the nearly 40,000 species of spiders.
Their sizes can range from a less than half a millimeter leg span to the frightful Goliath bird-eater tarantula, with a 12-inch leg span and weighing in at nearly half a pound.
In fact, spiders populate the planet in such numbers it's nearly impossible to avoid them.
Warning to arachnophobes: Please don't read the following sentence.
"There's a spider within 12 feet of you wherever you go," Hevel said.
Despite their numbers, and creepy countenances, Olson thinks fear of spiders is mostly overblown.
Spiders rarely waste their venom on people, who would make for a challenging meal even for the dreaded and potentially deadly brown recluse or black widow, Olson said.
"How often do you know anyone whose ever been bitten by one?" Olson said.
For the enthusiasts and others just interested in taking in the spectacle of hundreds of arachnids from all over the world in the same place, the American Tarantula Society annual convention begins Thursday.
Much of the convention is open to the public, appropriate for families and sure to amuse, Savary said. "There's lots of colorful characters."
Tarantulas comprise a group of large spiders belonging mainly to the family Theraphosidae. Scientists have identified approximately 900 of species.
They are part of the larger family of animals known as arthropods, which are invertebrates with exoskeletons, jointed limbs and segmented bodies. Other species of arthropod include insects like centipedes and scorpions, and aquatic animals like crabs and shrimp.
A tarantula's body consists of two main parts, the head or prosoma, and the abdomen or opisthosoma. The pedicle connects the two parts.
Their habitats include grasslands, rain forests, cloud forests, scrubland, mountains and deserts. Tarantulas can be divided into two main categories: terrestrial and arboreal.
Terrestrial types make burrows in the ground, and arboreal tarantulas build shelters off the ground in trees.
All tarantulas are predators, subsisting primarily on insects, although some larger species have been known to eat small birds, reptiles and rodent mammals.
Tarantula sizes vary depending on the species. Some have a body length of about an inch and a leg span of three inches, while others can grow larger than four inches and have leg spans of 12 inches.
The animals are venomous, but generally not harmful to humans. People with specific allergies can have stronger reactions to tarantula bites.
Some tarantulas also have urticating hairs on their abdomen, and throw the barbed hairs when threatened. These hairs can irritate skin, mucous membranes or lungs if breathed in.
Depending upon the species, tarantulas can live for several years in the wild and even longer in captivity.
American Tarantula Society comes to OV resort
The American Tarantula Society will bring its event, along with countless crawling, climbing and spinning arachnids, to the Hilton El Conquistador in Oro Valley from Thursday, July 22 to Sunday, July 25.
For more details, including prices and a schedule of events, visit the group's website at http://atshq.org.