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American Museum of Natural History: A Visit to the Live Spider Exhibit

I’ve crisscrossed every inch of the American Museum of Natural History – unquestionably the world’s greatest – innumerable times since childhood (and once tried to scale its walls, to capture bats…long story!). Friends working there have kindly taken me behind-the-scenes in several departments, and my 6-year-old nephew is more familiar with the institution than are many adults. But despite having spent a lifetime working with animals at the Bronx Zoo, I am still thrilled each time a new, temporary live animal exhibit opens at AMNH – all are very well done, and perfect for adults and children alike. The current exhibit, Spiders Alive!, is no exception. Although I’ve collected and cared for hundreds of Arachnid species, and my little sidekick has also racked up some impressive experiences, we have visited several times so far, and enjoyed as much as did any novice!

 

spiderdisplay1The Displays

As with all similar AMNH exhibits, Spiders Alive! features interesting specimens in large, beautifully-designed exhibits along with state-of-the art graphics, huge photos, hands-on interactive opportunities and even a giant anatomically-correct spider sculpture for kids to swarm over (some held back…I guess it was very realistic to them!). Friendly, well-informed volunteers and staff are always on hand to answer questions and help with using the interactive displays. Entry is timed, so there are never crowds or long waits to see or use anything, and visitors are generally well-behaved and polite.

 

One display lets the visitor move a magnifier over a live spider to portray an enlarged view on an overhead screen; my nephew gave that one – and the very nice attending AMNH staffer – a workout! Happily for the budding artists among us (please see photos), spider hideaways and exhibit furnishings are arranged in a way that allows all exhibit specimens to be easily viewed.

 

Learning about Spiders

The species exhibited are used to highlight a number of topics, all of which are well-explained by the graphics. Most obvious is diversity, with arboreal, burrowing, local, exotic, desert-adapted, rainforest-dwelling and other spiders with varying lifestyles being on view now. Other aspects of Arachnid natural history that are illustrated include defense, anatomy, venom, and the uses and structure of silk.

 

scorpThe Animals

Following are notes on several of the spiders currently on exhibit. Spider relatives, such as scorpions and the bizarre vinagaroons and tailless whip scorpions, are also featured.

 

Fishing Spiders: these large running spiders are for some reason ignored by spider enthusiasts and zoos alike. The local species here in the NE USA, Dolomedes tenebrosus, is an impressive hunter of small fishes and tadpoles (please see photo of a female with eggs, currently in my collection). My nephew readily tackles snakes exceeding his own length, but when I asked him to swim under a dock and capture this spider, he quickly replied “No way, man”!

 

Goliath Bird-Eating Tarantula: perhaps the world’s largest spider, this species is a favorite of private and professional spider keepers. Field reports indicate that they prey upon small rodents, snakes, frogs, lizards and other vertebrates in addition to insects. Certainly, those under my care startled me with their voracious appetites.

 

Ornamental Tarantulas: Beautifully-colored but rather aggressive – and very fast moving, I can assure you! – these SE Asian spiders are highly arboreal.

 

Black Widow and Brown Recluse: known to many folks here in the USA, the habits of these two potentially-dangerous spiders are well-explained.

 

Orb Weavers: Several species are on view, each in the center of a large, intricately-woven web.

 

Funnel Web Spider: the species displayed is not the highly venomous Australian spider of the same name but rather a harmless and very common US native (Agelenopsis sp.). I’ve often kept these interesting spiders…but until now believed I was the only one to do so! Vertical “trip lines” knock flying insects onto a sheet-like web, whereupon the spider rushes out and drags its hapless victim down the funnel-shaped retreat. Always happy to demonstrate their talents to onlookers, I find funnel web spiders to be fascinating captives.

 

Several of the other species featured are well-known or common, but their habits are revealed in a way that cannot help but cause one to appreciate these maligned but fascinating little beasts. Some others that you can see include Mexican Red-Kneed Tarantulas, House Spiders, Trap-Door Spiders and Wolf Spiders.

Hi, my name is Frank Indiviglio. I’m a herpetologist, zoologist, and book author, recently retired from a career spent at several zoos, aquariums, and museums, including over 20 years with the Bronx Zoo.

Please check out my posts on Twitter and Facebook.   Each day, I highlight breaking research, conservation news and interesting stories concerning just about every type of animal imaginable. I look forward to hearing about your interests and experiences as well, and will use them in articles when possible.

 

Please also post your questions and comments below…I’ll be sure to respond quickly. Thanks, until next time, Frank.

 

Further Reading

Keeping the Fishing Spider

Spider Hunting Methods – Beyond Webs

 Spiders Alive!

Emperor Scorpion Care: The Best Supplies and Terrariums

Threat display

Hello, Frank Indiviglio here. Among the world’s 2,000+ scorpion species we find creatures of every conceivable size, description and lifestyle – some deadly, others which make interesting captives for mature keepers. I had the good fortune to work with many during my zoo career, and most of the supplies that I relied upon then are now readily available to hobbyists. The following article will assist you in preparing for scorpion ownership or adding to your supply of scorpion care items. Most of the information is applicable to a wide array of species…please post below for more specific information about the scorpions in your collection.

 

Scorpion Terrariums

Scorpions are best kept in aquariums topped by screen covers secured with cage clips or plastic terrariums with locking tops.   I favor deep or “extra-high”models for Emperor Scorpions and other burrowers, so that they can construct tunnels and caves.

 

t260271_2Hiding Spots

Caves and hideaways designed for reptiles make ideal scorpion retreats. Cork bark is also ideal, and very versatile. I like to bury cork bark slabs below the substrate – Emperors evacuate burrows to them and will create a complex underground habitat if given enough space.

 

Plants

Many scorpions do great in complex, planted terrariums. I often use Earth Stars (Cryptanthus), a common house plant that is very sturdy and thrives in low-light conditions. Please post below for information on other live plants that can be used in scorpion enclosures.

 

Comsobuthus sp. with young

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Fusion121

Substrate

A mix of coconut husk and peat moss or top soil works well for Emperor Scorpions other rainforest natives. For burrowers, add just enough water so that the substrate sticks together when squeezed…keeping it so will help to prevent tunnel walls from caving-in.

 

Scorpions that are native to arid habitats can be kept on a sand-gravel substrate.

 

Light

Red reptile night bulbs do not disturb scorpions and so will allow you to watch their nocturnal activities.

 

Heat

Most scorpions thrive at temperatures of 76-86 F (please post below for specific information, as needs vary among the different species).

 

 

Scorpion under black light

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Ladyb695

Red/black reptile night bulbs or ceramic reptile heaters can be used to warm the terrarium. Reptile heat pads and tapes should also be considered, but these often do little to heat the air. All heat sources will dry out the terrarium, so it is important to monitor humidity.

 

mediaHumidity

Proper humidity levels are critical to good health, normal activity and successful shedding. A hygrometer (humidity monitor) is an essential piece of equipment for the serious scorpion keeper. A reptile humidifier or mister will be useful in dry rooms; otherwise you can rely upon a hand-held mister.

 

Tropical forest species require humidity levels in the range of 75-85%, while those native to arid habitats do best at 40-50% humidity. Desert-dwelling scorpions spend much of their time in humid burrows, and should therefore be provided a cave stocked with damp sphagnum moss.

 

Food and Water

Most scorpions will thrive on a diet comprised of crickets, mealworms and earthworms. I’ve also offer wild-caught insects, roaches, waxworms, and other invertebrates as well, and believe this is key to the long-term health and breeding success of some species.

 

Canned grasshoppers and silkworms moved about with a long-handled forceps are an excellent source of dietary variety.

 

Scorpions obtain water from their prey, but should also be provided with a shallow water bowl.

 

Miscellaneous Supplies

Always use forceps to offer food, remove debris, re-arrange terrarium furnishings, and prod scorpions into carrying containers. Small nets should also be kept on hand.

 

Extra plastic terrariums can be used to isolate aggressive or injured individuals.

 

Super glue and petroleum jelly are sometimes useful in treating exoskeleton cracks and other injuries. Please see the cautions noted in the article linked below, and post below for information before attempting to care for an injured scorpion.

 

Please check out my posts on Twitter  and Facebook. Each day, I highlight breaking research, conservation news and interesting stories concerning just about every type of animal imaginable. I look forward to hearing about your interests and experiences as well, and will use them in articles when possible.

 

Please also post your questions and comments below…I’ll be sure to respond quickly. Thanks, until next time, Frank Indiviglio.

 

Further Reading

Treating Sick and Injured Scorpions

Scorpion Care Overview

Fishing Spider: Habitat and Care

1234The largest true (“non-tarantula”) spiders that most folks in the USA will ever encounter, Fishing Spiders are at once fascinating and a bit intimidating. This is especially so for egg-guarding females, who may prefer to fight rather than flee when disturbed. I recently came across one such female below a dock, while accompanied by my 5 ½ year old nephew. Thanks to my long career as a zookeeper, the little guy has been up close to a huge array of animals since infancy, and especially favors spiders. After locating the spider, we swam out from beneath the dock to plan our capture strategy. Noting my sidekick’s smaller size, and the fact that he has handled snakes longer than himself, I suggested that he go back and collect it, as the area was cramped. “No way, man” was all he said!

 

But ferocious appearances aside, Fishing Spiders make great terrarium inhabitants. Due to their size and boldness, they are very easy to observe as they catch fish, walk on water and care for their eggs and young. I’ve never understood why more spider enthusiasts have not taken an interest in them… perhaps this article will change some minds!

 

Cameroon Fishing Spider with tadpole

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Howcheng

Tarantulas are not the only Vertebrate-Eating Spiders

Most folks know that large tarantulas sometimes catch small lizards and other vertebrates, but among the true spiders this strategy is relatively unstudied. A recent survey of the subject, published in the June 18, 2014 issue of Plos One (please see link to article, below) revealed that at least 18 species in 8 families feed upon fish. Despite being small and slightly built by tarantula standards, Fishing Spiders, aided by vertebrate-specific neurotoxic venom, can take prey that exceeds their own weight 5-fold.

 

North America is particularly rich in Fishing Spiders, most of which are classified in the family Pisauridae. Eleven family members are documented fish-catchers, and others may do so as well. Also known as Nursery Web Spiders, some live far from water and eat insects, while others move between aquatic and terrestrial habitats.

 

The Dark Fishing Spider

My favorite is the Dark Fishing Spider, Dolomedes tenebrosus, which ranges from southern Canada west to North Dakota and south to Florida and Texas.Females measure over 1 inch in body-length, and their legs span 3+ inches. The grayish-brown body is marked with black, and the legs are banded, but individuals vary.

 

Fishing Spider with young

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Brummfuss

Maternal Care of Eggs and Young

Female Dark Fishing Spiders carry their egg cases, which may contain up to 1,400 eggs, suspended between the chelicerae (fangs), pedipalps, and spinnerets (large wolf spiders, which resemble fishing spiders, carry their eggs at the rear of the body, attached to the spinnerets).

 

Egg-guarding females that I collect in July often produce a second fertile egg case in September. Those I’ve kept near an east-facing window regularly basked in the morning sun with their egg cases, and then took shelter as temperatures rose.

 

At the end of the incubation period, the female constructs a web in which she suspends the egg mass…hence the alternate name, Nursery Web Spider. She stays with the hatchlings for awhile, defending them against predators. My females refused food at this time, but would rush out and “push” crickets that ventured near the web, and would strike at forceps placed in their vicinity.

 

Dark Fishing Spider eggs hatch from July to September. Outdoors, the young hibernate during the winter and become sexually-mature by the following May-June.

 

Hunting and Fishing

Fishing Spiders employ varied hunting techniques. Mine leap at moths, chase down crickets with blinding speed and, most amazing of all, snare guppies and minnows from beneath the water’s surface. In large, planted terrariums, most split their time between lying in ambush on bark slabs and “fishing” at the water’s edge.

 

Anecdotal reports suggest that some Fishing Spiders lure fish to the water’s surface by wiggling a leg in imitation of an insect. I don’t believe this has been definitely documented (please write in if you know otherwise), but the theory is a fascinating one. When hunting at the water’s edge, they anchor the rear 6 legs to a dock, plant or rock and keep the front legs on the water’s surface. Fish, tadpoles or insects that disturb the surface are instantly attacked, with the spiders moving out over the water for several inches if necessary. Flying insects that fall onto the water likely comprise the bulk of their diet in most habitats.

 

Along the Delaware River, I’ve also observed Fishing Spiders standing on the water’s surface, 1-2 feet from the shore, after dark. They are unaffected by a weak flashlight beam, and, much like over-sized water striders, quickly “skate” over to grab insects that I toss in their vicinity. They can also dive and swim below the surface, but I’ve yet to observe this personally.

 

Fishing Spider Care

Caution: Although Fishing Spiders are not considered to be dangerously venomous, they are fast and will not hesitate to bite.  We know little about spider venom, and the possibility of an allergic reaction must be considered….please do not touch any spider with bare hands. Be sure to check your spider’s location before opening the terrarium, as they are incredibly fast.

 

The Terrarium

Dark Fishing Spiders do fine in simple terrariums, but show themselves to their best advantage if provided plenty of space, live plants, upright cork bark slabs and a small pool of water. I use large battery jars or 5-10 gallon aquariums which have a water area created by attaching a panel of glass to the aquarium’s sides with silicone. Complex terrariums allow the spiders to show off their impressive hunting skills, which are most evident when they leaping at moths or flies and snaring fishes.

 

Male on water's surface

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Bryce McQuillan

Feeding

Fishing Spiders are quite voracious. Captive females have even been observed feeding upon dead fish, and a photo in the article linked below shows one grabbing a bait minnow from a miscast fishing line (I once accidentally hooked a hawk in Venezuela, but this is the only “fishing for a fishing spider” incident I know of!).

 

Along with guppies and minnows, I offer wild-caught moths, grubs, tree crickets, caterpillars and such when possible, saving crickets and waxworms for the cooler months (wild adults expire in September-October, but captives can live well into January). Hatchlings will take fruit flies, springtails and “meadow plankton”. Small frogs, tadpoles, dragonfly larvae and even slugs have been documented as part of their diet in the wild.

 

Light, Heat and Humidity

I keep my Dark Fishing Spider terrariums very moist, but others have done well in dry set-ups with a daily misting. Hatchlings desiccate easily, and so should be kept in humid enclosures. Normal room temperatures suit them well. I’ve also kept several related species that frequent upland habitats…all have proven to be interesting, hardy captives.

 

While they are not at all shy about feeding by day, Fishing Spiders really come into their own at night. A red reptile night bulb will be a great asset if you wish to observe them after dark.

 

Display, male Peacock Jumping Spider

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Jurgen Otto

Other Spiders in the Terrarium

Fishing Spider fans will also enjoy the Huntsman or Giant Crab Spider (Heteropoda venatoria), a large, aggressive Asian species that has become established in Florida (of course!) and elsewhere. Jumping, Crevice, Wolf, Crab and Orb-Weaving Spiders, along with countless (literally!) others, also make fascinating terrarium subjects. Please see the articles linked below for information on keeping other spiders, and be sure to post your own thoughts and experiences.

Hi, my name is Frank Indiviglio. I’m a herpetologist, zoologist, and book author, recently retired from a career spent at several zoos, aquariums, and museums, including over 20 years with the Bronx Zoo.

Please check out my posts on Twitter and Facebook.   Each day, I highlight breaking research, conservation news and interesting stories concerning just about every type of animal imaginable. I look forward to hearing about your interests and experiences as well, and will use them in articles when possible.

 

Please also post your questions and comments below…I’ll be sure to respond quickly. Thanks, until next time, Frank.

 

Further Reading

Jumping Spider Care

Collecting and Keeping Huntsman Spiders

Beyond Webs: Swimming, Spitting and other Spider Hunting Strategies

Plos One Fishing Spider Article

Are Tarantula Bites Dangerous? Sometimes Yes, According to New Study

Are Tarantula Bites Dangerous? Sometimes Yes, According to New Study

 

P regalis

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Morkelsker

Hi, Frank Indiviglio here.  I’m a herpetologist, zoologist and book author, recently retired  from a career of over 20 years with the Bronx Zoo.  I’ve worked with thousands of tarantulas, in zoos and my own collection, for over 50 years.  In all that time, I’ve never been bitten…mainly because I do not handle them!  Tarantulas certainly adjust to captivity, but they can in no way be “tamed” or “trusted not to bite”…videos and statements to the contrary should be ignored.   Cases involving muscle spasms, chest pain and other severe reactions requiring hospitalizations were reviewed in a recent study – I am aware of similar cases involving colleagues working in the field.  The urticating hairs of New World tarantulas are also a consideration; some years ago, a co-worker of mine required corneal surgery to remove those shed by a Red-Kneed Tarantula.

 

Indian Ornamental Tarantula Bites

In a recent incident reported in the journal Toxicon (an excellent resource for those interested in venom and venomous creatures), a man in Switzerland was bitten on the finger while feeding his pet Indian Ornamental Tarantula, Poecilotheria regalis.  He felt little pain at the time, but experienced hot flashes 2 hours later.  Within 15 hours, he was hospitalized with muscle spasms and chest pain.  He was treated with muscle relaxers, but muscle cramps continued for an additional 3 weeks.

 

Researchers at the Swiss Toxicology Information Center became interested in the case and decided to investigate further.  They turned up 18 additional reports of severe reactions to the bite of the Indian Ornamental Tarantula (a/k/a Indian Ornamental Tree Spider) in their organization’s records and reported in medical journals.  Spider care websites contained anecdotal information about 18 other bites from the same species.

 

Most of the bites were to pet-owners’ hands, but thighs, cheeks and shoulders were also bitten (I imagine this to be the result of foolishly letting spiders wander about the body).  In 58% of the published cases, muscle spasms were suffered by bite victims.  Cramps continued for 1-4 weeks after discharge from the hospital.

 

Tarantula Venom

When corresponding with tarantula owners or training zookeepers, I always stress the fact that spider venoms are quite complex, and we that know very little about those of even commonly-kept species. Antivenin is, in most cases, not available.

 

P metallica

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by MLursus

Also, spider venom may evolve in response to the reactions of prey species, as has been shown to occur among many venomous snakes.  This may affect how bites should be treated, but specific information is scarce.  Venom composition (and, therefore, the necessary treatment) may vary among different populations of the same species…again as occurs in venomous snakes.  Individual sensitivities to tarantula venom, another unstudied subject, must also be considered.

 

As numerous species may be sold under the same common name, and exact identification is often difficult, it is critical that you ascertain the Latin names of any tarantula under your care.

 

Urticating Hairs

North and Latin American tarantulas shed tiny barbed hairs when agitated.  I saw x-ray images of such hairs imbedded in my co-workers eye (please see above).  At the time, I was undergoing a cornea transplant (non-spider related!), and being treated by the same surgeon who had operated on my co-worker.  According to the surgeon, tarantula hairs that work their way into the eye are extremely difficult, and in some cases impossible, to safely remove (in 2009, doctors were unable to remove the hairs of Chilean Rose-haired Tarantula from the eye of a victim in England).

 

P. subfusca

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by mistic

So please…enjoy observing and studying tarantulas, but do not touch them.  Please see the articles linked below for information on how to safely keep and transport these fascinating creatures. 

 

Snakes: Venomous Bites and Human Predation

Two surprising studies examining venomous snake bites and snake predation on humans:

 

Venomous Snakes Bite 4.5 Million People Each Year

 

People as Reticulated Python Prey: Study Documents 150 Attacks, 6 deaths in the Philippines

 

Please check out my posts on Twitter and Facebook.   Each day, I highlight breaking research, conservation news and interesting stories concerning just about every type of animal imaginable.  I look forward to hearing about your interests and experiences as well, and will use them in articles when possible.

 

Please also post your questions and comments below…I’ll be sure to respond quickly.  Thanks, until next time, Frank Indiviglio.

 

Further Reading

Tarantula Care: Popular Species

Important Supplies for Tarantula Keepers

Interesting Tarantula Facts

Tarantula Care and Habits – Useful Facts for those with Pet Tarantulas

Hello, Frank Indiviglio here.  Over 900 of the world’s 40,000+ spider species are commonly known as tarantulas (family Theraphosidae).  Among them we find a staggering diversity of sizes, colors, and lifestyles, and many species that make interesting, long-lived pets.  In the early 1980’s, I had the chance to work with the huge collection of a long-time friend, now a noted arachnologist.  Several species in that collection were (and remain) little known in the hobby or zoos.

Goliath Bird Eater

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Bobisbob

Today, a wide variety of pet tarantulas, including such long-time favorites as the Mexican Red Leg (Brachypelma), Chilean Rose-Haired (Grammostola), Pink Toed (Avicularia) and the massive Goliath Bird-eating Tarantula (Theraphosa blondii), are now regularly bred by hobbyists.  The key to success with tarantulas is an understanding of their lives in the wild.  Following is an overview; please remember that tarantulas are an extraordinarily diverse group, so details will vary.  Please post below for information on individual species.

Unique Characteristics

While the fangs, or chelicerae, of typical spiders move from side-to-side when grasping prey, those of tarantulas are employed in a downward strike.  Tarantulas are also distinguished from other spiders by their unusual respiratory organs, known as book lungs, and by the presence of 2 claws and adhesive pads on the tips of the legs.  The defensive, urticating hairs of New World species are also unique among spiders (please see “Handling”, below).

One typically sees tarantulas referred to as “primitive” spiders, but they quite successful (please see “Range and Habitat”), and may be the dominant invertebrate predators in many environments.

Females of several species may live into their 30’s, while males rarely exceed 1- 4 years of age. Read More »

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