Arachnophilia

Eight-legged beasties take over the Sophia M. Sachs Butterfly House

Sophia M. Sachs Butterfly House director Joe Norton removes the baby tarantula from its clear-plastic cage and gingerly places it on his hand. In a flash, it is halfway up his arm. These spiders are fast -- and big. With a lifespan of up to 25 years, tarantulas can grow rather large. The biggest of them all, the Chinese land tiger, is 11 inches in diameter when its legs are fully extended. It and its smaller relatives will be making an appearance at the Butterfly House's www.eightlegs.org: We're More Than Just a Pretty Face exhibit.

The exhibit is partially intended to mollify the common adult fear of some bugs, the ones that may not seem as aesthetically pleasing as the butterflies in the next room over at the living museum. Yet the spiders and scorpions and other arachnids visiting the Butterfly House are captivating to watch and beautiful in their own right. "We hope to really change the attitudes of adults," says Norton. "Children are already fascinated by the spiders."

Observing a spider spinning its web, or a scorpion throwing down with its next meal, is about appreciating some of nature's masterful predators. Indeed, these critters are a boy's fantasy of claws, venom, mummy-wrapping, vampirelike sucking and cannibalism. And they help rid the garage and basement of bugs, too. Norton says that without spiders, we would be overrun by insects.

Heteroscodra maculata, a.k.a. the Togo starburst tarantula
Heteroscodra maculata, a.k.a. the Togo starburst tarantula

Please don't think that the spiders coming to the Butterfly House will be loosed among the butterflies. Amusing as it would be to watch a huge, hairy bird-eating spider drag off a large blue tropical butterfly, that kind of chaos is not on the agenda. The spiders and scorpions, though happy to eat a variety of meaty insects, will be housed in a collection of terrariums in the central corridor of the building.

Why is the exhibit called www.eightlegs.org? Because that way, people will be drawn to the live exhibit as well as the concurrent Web site of the same name. The Butterfly House is all about science and ecology education, so a highly practical name was chosen for this, the facility's first temporary exhibit. Eight legs and two body segments are the defining characteristics of the arachnid, as opposed to the six legs and three segments of insects.

Twenty-four terrariums will showcase more than 100 species of arachnid over the duration of the installation, with some displays changing from week to week. Thirty-six species should be visible at any particular time, with some animals sharing space but not, Norton adds, eating each other.

These cricket-eating, web-building, fanged venom injectors are throwing a party. Some of the most exotic spiders on the planet have journeyed from near and far to join the festivities. See tarantulas in shades ranging from brilliant cobalt blue to fiery red and spiders with delicate little pink "toes." The pink-and-black stripes of the pink zebra beauty spider would put all but the most wildly decorated butterfly to shame. Meet the much-maligned black widow and brown recluse, Missouri's only native spiders with poison strong enough to slow down a human being. Wondering how the folks at the Butterfly House were able to obtain all these animals? Some were imported, some came from breeders (tarantula breeding is extremely popular in the United States) and the rest were collected from the wild.

In exhibit literature, the tarantula is variously called timid, speedy, elusive, mysterious, misunderstood and complex. The bigger ones eat small mammals such as mice -- truly impressive when you realize that this means an invertebrate consumes a vertebrate. Speaking of eating, Norton happily relates that in some parts of South American, tarantulas are roasted on sticks over an open fire. He says it's a delicacy that reportedly tastes like crayfish. Pass the Tabasco.

In addition to being a band of balding German classic rockers, scorpions are another fascinating arachnid coming to a terrarium near you. The South African fat-tail scorpion could be the show-stealer; the nasty poison he carries in his plump posterior can kill a man. "They live in an extremely harsh environment," Norton explains, "so they have to drop their prey with the first sting."

Someone has written "DEADLY" in red grease pencil on the cage housing the fat-tail. Only experienced handlers attempt to feed or move the critter, and they address it with a long pair of tongs.

Like some of the other species of arachnid here, a scorpion might eat only once every three weeks. They are patient little badasses.

The price of admission also includes a stupefying experience that can be described, but always inadequately. The butterfly conservatory itself is a riot of swarms of zooming butterflies gathered from tropical regions across the globe. Here you will see 60 species of butterflies -- small and giant, in colors bold, transparent and even iridescent -- drinking nectar, sunning their wings and looping through the flowers and trees. You will need to leave your winter coat in the cloakroom to withstand the 82-degree, 75 percent humidity in the capacious glass chamber. (The employees wear shorts to work, even in February.) At the ends of the pathways through the butterfly jungle, you can watch something that you have only seen in books -- hanging in a small, glass-walled enclosure, hundreds of chrysalises of a variety of species buck and rend as new butterflies convulse within and then emerge. You look out of the clear walls of this unreal hothouse at the unassuming and snow-covered suburb of Chesterfield and the many Canada geese wading in the aerated pond just outside the building. Wild.

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