WADE GOODWYN, HOST:
It's been wet in Texas this year, really wet, with record amounts of rain, and that means Texas right now is hot, wet and green. This is making the animal world happy, particularly insects. Take the tarantula hawk wasp for example. What - you've never heard of it? Well, it's so big and so nasty that it attacks tarantulas, who are, as you know, themselves big and nasty. Texas Parks and Wildlife invertebrate biologist Ben Hutchins joins me now from Austin to tell us about this wasp. Hi, Ben.
BEN HUTCHINS: Hi.
GOODWYN: OK, so I've been doing a little research and the tarantula hawk can wrestle and then throw these big, hairy Texas tarantulas onto their backs and then sting them into submission. How in the world is this possible?
HUTCHINS: Well, it's a pretty spectacular show. And, you know, we actually have several different species of tarantula hawk, and each one has its own different approach. So some will actually flip over onto their back and crawl upside down underneath of the tarantula to sting the tarantulas. Others will dart under there and grab the rear leg of the tarantula and then flip it over. And the tarantula hawk will actually use its back legs to pin down the tarantula's fangs to keep itself from getting bit. And then it delivers that sting, usually at a chink in the armor of the tarantula, so at joints in the legs or in the abdomen of the tarantula. And they can sting multiple times as well, so they'll get in there and make sure that that tarantula is paralyzed.
GOODWYN: So after the wasp sneaks under, it stings the tarantula. Then what does the wasp do?
HUTCHINS: Paralysis sets in almost instantaneously. In a second or two the tarantula is completely incapacitated, but still alive. And the tarantula hawk will then drag that tarantula to a burrow. So this could be the tarantula's own burrow. It could be a burrow that the tarantula hawk has dug itself. And it'll drag the tarantula down in there and place the tarantula upside down and it'll lay a single egg on the body of the tarantula. In a few days, that egg will hatch and the larvae will begin to feed on the living tarantula.
GOODWYN: And the spider is still paralyzed.
HUTCHINS: That's right. So interestingly enough, if the egg doesn't hatch, the tarantula can actually recover and go on its way. But more often that larvae will hatch and eat its way into the living but still paralyzed tarantula, and it'll feed on that tarantula for several weeks. And at least some species will selectively feed on non-vital organs first to keep the tarantula alive longer.
GOODWYN: What would happen to me if I stepped on this wasp?
HUTCHINS: The tarantula hawk is a bit infamous in that it has one of the more painful stings known to man. There are actually a number of sting pain indices and in all of these indices the tarantula hawk ranks right up top in that the pain associated with this sting has been described as traumatic, debilitating, instantly excruciating, so it's bad. You don't want to step on these guys.
GOODWYN: Have you ever seen one of these wrestling matches? Are the wasps easily found and seen?
HUTCHINS: Unfortunately, I've never seen the show. I can't wait, though. The day that I see a tarantula hawk come in contact with a tarantula I'm going to sit back and enjoy this dance. But you can see the tarantula hawks. They're actually quite common and quite conspicuous on the landscape, particularly throughout the southwest and indeed all the way from California to Virginia.
GOODWYN: Do tarantula wasps have interest in humans?
HUTCHINS: They do not. So as long as you're not explicitly harassing this animal, as long as you're not trying to step on it or grab it, it's going to leave you alone. And, in fact, you can walk right up to them and watch them as they forage and hunt for tarantulas.
GOODWYN: Ben Hutchins - invertebrate biologist for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Ben, thanks so much.
HUTCHINS: You're very welcome.
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