Students work with tarantula

April 13, 2015
Biology department assists basketball team in acquiring and caring for live tarantula mascot

By Jess Dankenbring, '17

As if having the spider as a school mascot wasn’t intimidating enough, now there is a tarantula roaming the sidelines during basketball games.

Before basketball season began this year, the team reached out to Jennifer O’Donnell, the biology department’s animal care manager, about finding a live mascot. After some research, she settled on a Greenbottle Blue Tarantula, which is a good “beginner” tarantula and is vibrant blue in color.

“I found an adult Greenbottle Blue Tarantula for sale from a breeder in Utah, and we ordered her in time for the first home game of the season,” O’Donnell says. “She arrived by mail, wrapped carefully in paper towels, and secured in a lidded plastic tube.”

O’Donnell released her into her current enclosure where she made an impressive web tunnel, which she spends most of her time in. She also ate six crickets in one sitting when she first arrived, far more than her regular diet of four to six crickets over the course of a week.

The tarantula, named Tarrant after Hall of Fame Richmond basketball coach Dick Tarrant, has drawn attention from fans at games, where she sits on the sidelines and intimidates opponents.

“Her behavior [during games] has ranged from actively scaling the walls of her cage to hunkering down in her web tunnel,” O’Donnell says. “These behaviors are both normal for a tarantula in everyday circumstances. If the lights and noise become too much for her, she will go and hide in her web tunnel, where she can feel safe.”

Tarrant has attracted attention not just from fans but also Richmond science students.  

“The students have been excited to be involved in Tarrant’s care — even the students who are self-proclaimed arachnophobes,” O’Donnell says. “Tarrant has a way of winning people over once they can observe her from outside of her Plexiglas cage walls.”

Tarrant has not visited biology classrooms as an official learning tool, but she is exposed to students regularly. The hope is to one day have her in a secure display case where students, faculty, staff, and visitors can get up close and see her.

“She has visited lab classes for surprise visits,” O’Donnell says. “The students are always excited to get close enough to her enclosure to really see her, and they always ask some really good questions about how spiders eat, grow, and molt. The excitement we have seen from these surprise visits has made us look forward to using her as a teaching tool in a more official way.”