Pantex Blog

Wild Pantex – Tarantulas on the Move

Posted: Tuesday, December 9, 2014 - 00:00

Article by Jim Ray, Pantex Wildlife Biologist/Scientist

In a previous blog, I mentioned that spiders were not my favorite critter to have to deal with. My family will even try to sabotage my tough guy act by telling that I might jump and scream should a spider jump while I am trying to deal with it – which I will neither confirm nor deny.

Now tarantulas I find interesting. At least they are big enough that you can see them. We just came through the period where I get lots of calls and comments in regard to ‘the tarantulas are “migrating.”’ This annual happening in the tarantula world occurs in the early fall, particularly September. While attending Texas Tech University, I distinctly remember impressive numbers crossing the highway during the fall while in the Canadian River breaks and valley during my many trips between my hometown of Dalhart and Lubbock. Some sources also describe a surge in activity during June.

The “migration” is simply the period of activity where males leave their burrows and go searching for females, who pretty much hang out in burrows of their own. Upon finding a female in her burrow, the “gentlemen caller” will approach the female's shelter cautiously, tapping and vibrating his legs. The female will be "lured" out of her burrow, perhaps thinking prey is causing the vibrations, and the rest is history. Sometimes the female may capture and eat the male, but regardless, the male will typically die in the weeks following a successful mating.

The tarantula found in the Amarillo area is the Oklahoma Brown Tarantula (Aphonopelma hentzi), which is often also referred to as the Texas Brown Tarantula or the Missouri Tarantula. This spider was observed in all three upland shortgrass prairie sites during a macro invertebrate study conducted at Pantex by West Texas A&M University during 2000 and 2001. Its distribution includes the prairies of Oklahoma, extreme northeastern New Mexico, southwestern Colorado, southern Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas, and in Northeast Mexico. A second species of tarantula can be found in the extreme southern Panhandle (for example, Caprock Canyons State Park and the Childress area). This is the Texas Black Spot Tarantula (A. armada) and its range encompasses inland California, Arizona, New Mexico, and parts of Nevada and Texas.

Oklahoma Brown Tarantulas are a burrowing spider with a leg span of about four to six inches at maturity, which they reach at seven to 10 years of age. Males rarely live more than three months after they have matured (and mated), while females are long-lived, capable of living into their thirties.

In nature they primarily live in burrows, sometimes under wood or flat stones, although they can also be found in the abandoned dens of other small critters. They line the entrance of their home with webbing, rigged in a manner to carry them the vibration of passing prey. Prey includes beetles, cockroaches, crickets, grasshoppers, and even lizards, toads and mice.

A behavior that I find fascinating about tarantulas is a symbiotic relationship that they have with the Great Plains Narrow-Mouth Toad, which can be found as close to Pantex as the row of counties to our south. In one study, researchers found that 75% of burrows of the Oklahoma Brown Tarantula were also occupied by 1–3 Western Narrow-Mouthed Toads. These tiny 1.5-inch long toads likely derive protection from their host tarantula, while the spider may benefit from having their nests kept free of ants, which could harm the spider’s eggs and spiderlings. Reportedly, while other animals are quickly attacked when entering a tarantula’s burrow, the narrow-mouthed toad is greeted with a “quick touch with an inquiring foot” and then is allowed to remain in the burrow. The toads even seem to “attack” ants when they get close to the spider’s eggs.

Now that is cool!

Oklahoma Brown Tarantula

Photo: An adult male Oklahoma Brown Tarantula. Photo courtesy of W. David Sissom

Wild Pantex – Fifteen Years

Posted: Monday, November 24, 2014 - 00:00

Article by Jim Ray, Pantex Wildlife Biologist/Scientist

It staggered me a little bit when my department manager handed me a 15-year Milestone Award recently. Good grief, where has time flown! My nine years as a biologist with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department seemed like a nice, long career, and here I am not too far off from doubling that here at the U. S. Department of Energy/National Nuclear Security Administration (USDOE/NNSA) Pantex Plant. I figure that it is now time for a little reflecting on my time at the primary facility for the maintenance and disassembly of the nation’s nuclear weapons arsenal.

In October of 1999, I became the wildlife biologist/scientist for the operating contractor of the Pantex Plant – today that is Consolidated Nuclear Security, LLC. It has been a great place to work and I have enjoyed the ride from having to make a “decision in the face of the unknown,” to going for it, and then gaining the support that has led us to have more interaction with the outside wildlife community, a leadership role in the agency’s accomplishments under a government-wide migratory bird initiative, and the initiation of a wildlife research program that not only answers our questions, but also contributes to the wildlife literature.

It has been great working with agronomist, Monty Schoenhals, in terms of land management and the “habitat layer” that not only is good for native wildlife, but it is also good for the land itself. When you are meeting your management objectives and a neighboring cattleman incorporates your concepts on his own land – you know that you are doing some good. When your plans that guide soil, water and wildlife conservation are certified by the state Soil and Water Conservation Board – you know that you are doing some good.

I smile every time someone says something like “one of the great perks to working at Pantex is to see all the wildlife.” This was the case when I received reports of the bald eagles harassing the geese above our water-treatment facility, the pronghorn doe tending twins a short distance from our main working area, and the Pantex Plant’s first recorded litter of bobcat kittens curiously playing with a creature strange to them – our first record of an Armadillo. One weekend night, Pantex Fire Department personnel called me at home just to describe the blow-by-blow details of a battle that a mother bobcat had with a large bull snake – one which the cat won and carried the serpent off to feed her kittens.

My highlight memories include things like the customary “fist bumps” with students of West Texas A&M University upon completion of “working up” and collaring a captured bobcat, hearing the exciting story from two of my co-workers of a badger and a family of coyotes cooperatively hunting together, and feeling the excitement of Texas Tech University students when we release satellite-marked Swainson’s hawks into the wild blue yonder.

I will never forget the time I was radio-tracking a female bobcat, only to see her look past the front of my vehicle in a serious stare, emit a bird-like coo that I would have never guessed could come from such a predator, and watched two bobcat kittens instantly stop forward progress and drop from sight, having merged natural camouflage with the soil and grasses. That was a scene rarely observed by man, I assume.

As for our successes, let it never be said that we undervalue the fantastic contributions of our collaborators: the students, graduate students and professors of Texas Tech University, West Texas A&M University, University of Manitoba, and York University; nor, the many natural resource entities that we consult, the Purple Martin Conservation Association, or the many cooperative private landowners around us. Every individual involved has worked on our facility or otherwise observed our commitment to the environment – that is of great value in itself.

My how time has flown! Onward!

West Texas A&M University's Dr. Raymond Matlack (left) and Jim Ray

Photo: West Texas A&M University's Dr. Raymond Matlack (left) and Pantex Wildlife Biologist, Jim Ray, with a recaptured Pantex male bobcat, sporting its second G.P.S. satellite tracking collar.

What a Treat

Posted: Friday, November 14, 2014 - 00:00

CNS sponsors Halloween party for mental health organization

CNS sponsors Halloween party

Consolidated Nuclear Security, LLC sponsored its annual Halloween party for clients of Texas Panhandle Centers Behavioral and Developmental Health October 31 at the Amarillo Civic Center. The organization serves individuals with mental illness and intellectual and developmental disabilities. The nearly 600 attendees were treated to music, dancing, group photos, and pizza served by Pantex volunteers. This year marks the 12th for this event, which many volunteers say is the most rewarding volunteer experience of the year.

CNS sponsors Halloween party

Pantexans Honor Veterans

Posted: Tuesday, November 11, 2014 - 00:00

Amarillo home receives gift from CNS

Pantexans are saluting area veterans this week by participating in community events to honor Veterans Day and the men and women who have served our nation.

CNS was a proud corporate sponsor of a Saturday, Nov. 8, front-lawn Veterans Welcome Home Celebration at the Thomas E. Creek VA Medical Center in Amarillo, Texas. There, Pantexans volunteered at a dessert booth serving up treats for Celebration attendees. The afternoon Celebration capped off a full day of events which included an all-you-can-eat breakfast and a downtown Veterans Day Parade.

Veterans Welcome Home Celebration

Veterans Welcome Home Celebration

Veterans Welcome Home Celebration

Photos: Pantexans serve up treats at a CNS-sponsored dessert booth during a Saturday, Nov. 8, front-lawn Veterans Welcome Home Celebration at the Thomas E. Creek VA Medical Center in Amarillo, Texas.

Pantexans also visited the Ussery-Roan Texas State Veterans Home in Amarillo on Monday to present four bread making machines on behalf of CNS. The home provides long-term nursing care for nearly 120 Texas veterans and family members.

“Providing care for our veterans is important,” said Pantex Deputy Site Manager Todd Ailes. “When we learned the smell of fresh bread baking helps stimulate appetite, we knew the machines can make a positive impact for the residents”.

CNS will also sponsor a December, Veterans Holiday Party at the home.

Todd Ailes and Debra Halliday present bread machines

Photo: Pantex Deputy Site Manager Todd Ailes and Debra Halliday, Pantex community relations coordinator, present bread machines to the Ussery-Roan Texas State Veterans Home.

Connecting with the Next Generation

Posted: Friday, October 31, 2014 - 00:00

Pantex employees supported the recent Top of Texas Career Expo for juniors and seniors across the Texas Panhandle. Professionals from various specialties, such as information technology, engineering, security and communications, shared job prospects, necessary education and skills, salary ranges and personal experiences. More than 800 students attended the event at West Texas A&M University.

Sean Usleton, Amanda Helker, and Kennith Springs

Sean Usleton, systems architect, Amanda Helker, process engineer, and Kennith Springs, security police officer, talk to students about the variety of careers at Pantex.