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Tarantulas: Are They The Right Pet for You?

Red Kneed Tarantula

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by George Chernilevsky

Among the world’s 900+ tarantula species (family Theraphosidae) we find a staggering diversity of sizes, colors, and lifestyles, and many that make interesting, long-lived pets. Having been involved with spider care in zoos and private collections from an early age (and at a time when only 1-2 tarantula species were readily available in the USA!), I’m pleased and somewhat astonished to see the explosion of interest here and abroad. Several species that were undescribed a few short years ago are being regularly bred by private keepers – usually to a far greater extent than is seen in zoos. However, as tarantulas become more “mainstream”, they are sometimes purchased by folks who may not have a good sense of their true natures. Unrealistic expectations will dampen the experience of both pet and pet keeper. Following are 5 critical points that the prospective tarantula owner should consider.

 

Please see the linked articles and post below for detailed care and breeding advice.

 

Defenxive posture

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Sascha Grabow

Tarantulas are “Hands-Off” Pets that Cannot be Tamed

Like most creatures, Tarantulas are capable of learning, and they routinely modify their behavior in response to captivity. However, they are mainly guided by instinct, and cannot in any way be tamed or “trusted” – they will not bond with people.

Please ignore the foolish advice so common on the Internet and do not handle your tarantula (please post below for info on safely moving tarantulas). Handling is a stressful event for any tarantula. More importantly, while the venom produced by tarantulas has not (as far as we know from published reports) resulted in human fatalities, children, the elderly, and people with allergies or compromised immune systems may be at risk. Please see the article linked below for information on serious reactions caused by the bites of certain Asian tarantulas.

 

Tarantulas bear urticating (irritating) hairs that are used to repel predators (please see photo). Hairs that come in contact with soft tissue can cause severe injuries. In fact, a Bronx Zoo coworker of mine underwent extensive eye surgery in order to remove Red Kneed Tarantula hairs from his eye. As this person learned, hairs that are in the terrarium or on one’s hands can be just as dangerous as those deliberately shed in response to a threat.

 

Cobalt Blue tarantula

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Flamesbane

Tarantulas are Nocturnal and Secretive

Well-adjusted tarantulas often emerge to hunt by day, but they will otherwise remain in hiding until nightfall. They will not thrive if forced to remain in the open.

 

Fortunately, red night-viewing bulbs will enable you to observe your pets after dark.

 

Your “Single” Tarantula may Surprise You with an Egg Sac

As a single mating can result in multiple egg cases, females sometimes produce eggs long after having been fertilized by a male. If you are not aware of a female’s history, you may find yourself with more tarantula-related responsibilities than you bargained for! While a fascinating endeavor (to me, at least!), rearing 100 or more tiny, cannibalistic spiderlings is not for everyone.

 

Cuban Green Roach

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Greg Hume

Tarantulas Need Live Food

While many captives learn to take canned insects and pre-killed pink mice from tongs (do not hand-feed!), live insects will form the vast majority of your tarantula’s diet. Cricket-only diets seem to work well for many species, but the best long term results will be achieved by providing a varied menu which includes roaches, waxworms, silkworms, grasshoppers, earthworms and other invertebrates.

 

The “It Doesn’t Do Anything” Factor

Ideally, the new tarantula owner will be interested in her or his pet for its own sake. But most of us also wish to see how the animal lives, what it does, and so on. Well-fed tarantulas that are not in breeding mode are often about as active as the infamous “pet rock”…and are nocturnal to boot!

 

Fortunately, red light bulbs now enable us to watch them after dark. If you provide your tarantula with a large terrarium and appropriate living conditions, you’ll have much of interest to observe.

 

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

Are Tarantula Bites Dangerous: Recent Research

Keeping the World’s Largest Tarantula

Keeping the World’s Largest Tarantula: a Zoo Keeper’s Experiences

Adult Goliath tarantula

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Sheri (Bellatrix on Flickr)

Over 30 years ago, a good friend and Bronx Zoo coworker amassed what was almost certainly the USA’s largest and most varied tarantula collection. He personally collected many of the spiders, and established several notable breeding firsts. Then as now, the massive Goliath Bird Eating Spider or Goliath Tarantula (Theraphosa blondi, then known as T. leblondi) topped the wish lists of zoos and advanced private keepers. I cared for my friend’s collection when he was studying Brown Tree Snakes in Guam. Although well-experienced in keeping large, aggressive spiders, birds, mammals and reptiles, caring for wild-caught Goliaths in the dark (I had promised not to disturb their day/night cycle) really put me to the test!

 

The huge females were ravenous, and far bolder at night than by day. They rushed at water being poured into bowls, and seemed to snatch dead pinkies before they hit the terrarium floor. I was hampered by the lack of a headlamp, working instead with a flashlight clamped between neck and shoulder. All went well until something jumped from the wall onto my arm, then to my chest. I froze, but was relieved to see that the “visitor” was the resident Tokay Gecko and not an irritated tarantula! Today we’ll look at the care of these fascinating but somewhat demanding spiders.

 

A Giant Among Giants

As invertebrate enthusiasts know, the Goliath Tarantula is the world’s largest spider. While the Giant Huntsman Spider (Heteropoda maxima) and one or two others may slightly top the Goliath’s near 12 inch leg span, none approach its bulk. One account lists a weight of 175 grams for a captive female…by comparison, the average house mouse (wild, not lab) tops out at 20-30 grams!

 

At present, the genus contains two other species, – T. apophysis, described from Venezuela in 1991, and T. sterni, described from Guyana in 2010. The Panama Red-Rumped Tarantula was included in Theraphosa for a time, but is now classified as Sericopelma rubronitens.

 

Grammostola species showing shed hairs

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Sarefo

A Note Concerning Handling

While certain tarantula species may become relatively calm in captivity, they cannot be “tamed” and should never be trusted on bare skin – Ignore You Tube videos to the contrary, please! Goliath Tarantulas usually remain high strung, even when provided with ideal captive conditions. They are very quick to flick hairs and bite when a threat is perceived. I and several arachnologist friends have worked with tarantulas at home, in zoos, and in the field for 50+ years without being bitten…because we do not handle tarantulas!

 

If it becomes necessary to move a tarantula, do so by urging it into a plastic container with a long handled tongs. Wear goggles around New World species, as all can flick urticating hairs into the air when disturbed (please see photo of “bald patch” on a tarantula). A colleague of mine required cornea surgery to remove the hairs shed by a Mexican Red Knee Tarantula. Hairs remaining on hands, terrarium tops, and other surfaces are as dangerous as those recently shed by a spider.

 

Tarantula fangs (chelicerae)

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by HTO

All tarantulas are capable of delivering a painful bite. Human fatalities are unknown, but their venoms are relatively unstudied, and an allergic reaction is always possible. A doctor should be consulted immediately if a bite is suffered.

 

The Terrarium

Goliath Tarantulas are best kept in screen-covered aquariums.   “High” style tanks are ideal, as they spend most of their lives in deep burrows, and will be stressed if not provided with such (some individuals adapt to surface caves, but burrows are preferable). Be sure to use extra cage clips on the cover, as tarantulas can climb glass and are incredibly strong. A 20 gallon aquarium is adequate, but I (and, I presume, the spiders!) much prefer a tank of 30-40 gallons capacity.

 

A wide variety of live plants may be used, although the spider may disturb these until a burrow site is chosen, Earth Stars (Cryptanthus) and other tough, low-light species are ideal; please post below for further information.

 

Habitat type

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Pedro Gutiérrez.

Substrate

A mix of coconut husk, top soil, and peat moss works well with these rainforest natives. Add just enough water so that the substrate sticks together when squeezed…keeping it so will prevent burrow walls from caving-in. Sphagnum moss can be worked into the soil in order to improve its moisture-holding capacity. Some keepers have done well by using 4-5 inches of substrate, but I provide adults with 8-12 inches or more.

 

Wild tarantulas often excavate burrows (or take over those occupied by their last meal!) beneath fallen logs, tree stumps and other cover. Several of the burrowing species I’ve cared for have used turtle huts and similar structures as starting points for their burrows. These and other caves should also be available for use until the spider constructs its own retreat.

 

Some keepers bury cork bark rolls with one edge facing the terrarium glass, and construct a tunnel that leads to the surface. In this way, the spider can sometimes be observed within its burrow. Please post below for further information.

 

Light and Heat

Red or black reptile night-viewing bulbs will not disturb your spiders and will assist you in observing their nocturnal activities.

 

Goliath Tarantulas are native to northern South America’s hot, humid rainforests and riverside thickets. They should be maintained at a temperature gradient of 80-86 F. Night-viewing bulbs, sub-tank heat mats and/or ceramic heater emitters can be used to warm the terrarium. All heat sources will dry out the terrarium, so it is important to monitor humidity.

 

t243860Humidity

Proper humidity levels are critical to good health, normal activity, and successful shedding (becoming stuck in a molt is a leading cause of death among captive Goliath Tarantulas). This tropical forest native requires humidity levels in the range of 75-85%. A hygrometer (humidity monitor) is an essential piece of equipment for the serious tarantula keeper. In dry environments, a small mister should be considered.

Just before and during the molt (please post below for further details re molting) humidity can be increased by partially covering the terrarium’s lid with plastic. As air flow is critical to good health, this option should only be used for limited periods.

 

Adult Goliath tarantula

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Snakecollector

Food and Water

While some folks have had success with cricket-based diets, variety is preferable, especially if breeding is contemplated. I’ve done well by basing the Goliath diets on roaches and earthworms, with crickets being used less often. I also offer katydids, locusts, field crickets, moths and other wild-caught insects during the summer months, and notice that these often induce a very vigorous feeding response (please post below for more information on using wild-caught insects).

 

Although wild Goliath Tarantulas frequently ambush frogs, lizards and, perhaps, small rodents, a vertebrate-based diet is not recommended. Pre-killed pink mice can, however, be supplied every 2-4 weeks; some keepers believe this to be especially beneficial to breeding females. These voracious predators will readily accept dead prey moved about with a forceps or, in some cases, simply left in the terrarium; live mice should not be offered.

 

Incidentally, the “bird-eating” reference arose in 1705, when Swiss naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian included, in a book on the insects of Suriname, a painting of a Pink-Toed Tarantula consuming a hummingbird. The name she coined, “Bird-eating Spider”, remains in common usage today. While I’ve no doubt that a Goliath Tarantula would happily make a meal of any bird nestlings it might happen upon, this is likely a rare occurrence in the wild.

 

Canned grasshoppers and other invertebrates moved about with a long-handled forceps (remember, tarantulas have poor vision and may strike well above the food item – do not risk a bite!) can be used to provide occasional dietary variety.

 

Although spiders are able to obtain water from their prey, a shallow water bowl seems critical to success in keeping Goliath Tarantulas. The enclosure should also be misted daily.

 

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 and Natural History

Beyond Webs: Swimming, Spitting and other Spider Hunting Strategies

Emperor Scorpion Care: Five Things New Scorpion Owners Should Know

Emperor scorpion

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Ladyb695

It is with good reason that the Emperor Scorpion (Pandinus imperator) is so popular among pet-keepers and arachnid fans.   One of the largest of the world’s 2000+ scorpions, the Emperor exhibits complex social behaviors, is generally mild-mannered, and breeds readily. However, one should not embark upon scorpion ownership without understanding the nature of these fascinating creatures, and their specific needs. Unrealistic expectations will dampen the experience of both pet and pet keeper. Following are 5 critical points that the prospective scorpion owner should consider.

 

Please see the linked articles and post below for detailed care and breeding advice.

 

Scorpions are “Hands-Off” Pets That Cannot be Tamed

Like most creatures, Emperor Scorpions are capable of learning, and of modifying their behavior in response to captive conditions. However, they are mainly guided by instinct, and cannot in any way be tamed, trained or “trusted” – they will not bond with people.

 

Please ignore the foolish advice and videos so common on the internet and do not handle your scorpion (please post below for info on safely moving or transporting scorpions). Handling is a stressful event for any scorpion, although this may not be apparent from its behavior. More importantly, while the venom produced by the Emperor Scorpion is not considered as dangerous to healthy adults, children, the elderly, and people with allergies or compromised immune systems may be at risk.

 

Deathstalker Scorpion

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Ester Inbar

Important Note: Certain scorpion species available in the trade (please see photo) are dangerous, and have caused fatalities. Most are difficult to identify, and are sold under a variety of common names. Please post below for details.

 

Emperor Scorpion Threat Display

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Mike Baird

Scorpions are Nocturnal and Secretive

Well-adjusted scorpions will emerge to hunt by day, but they will otherwise remain in hiding until nightfall. In the wild, Emperor Scorpions construct long burrow systems. Providing them the opportunity to do the same in your terrarium will enable you to see a variety of interesting behaviors – much more so than would be possible in bare enclosures. The scorpion terrarium should also be stocked with a variety of caves, cork bark sections and other hideaways. They will not thrive if forced to remain in the open.

 

Fortunately, red reptile night bulbs will enable you to observe your pets after dark.

 

Your “Single” Female may Surprise You with Youngsters

Female Emperor Scorpions sometimes give birth a year (or perhaps longer) after mating. As there’s no way to know if your female has mated in the past, you may find yourself with more scorpion-related responsibilities than you bargained for!

 

Female Emperors give birth to live young, and carry them about on their backs until the first molt. They are usually good mothers, and in many cases may be kept with the brood long-term. However, captive conditions can be a stress to them, and cannibalism is common. Please see the linked article and post below for further information on breeding.

 

t204477Scorpions Need Live Food

While many captives learn to take canned insects from tongs (do not hand-feed!), live insects will form the vast majority of your scorpion’s diet. Many have been raised on crickets alone, but the best long term results will be achieved by providing a varied menu to which roaches, waxworms, silkworms, grasshoppers and other insects have been added.

 

The “It Doesn’t Do Anything” Factor

Ideally, the new scorpion owner will be interested in her or his pet for its own sake. But most of us also wish to see how the animal lives, what it does, and so on. Well-fed scorpions that are not in breeding mode are often about as active as the infamous “pet rock”…and are nocturnal to boot!

 

Fortunately, red light bulbs now enable us to watch them after dark. If you provide your scorpion with a large terrarium and a deep substrate into which it can burrow, you’ll have much of interest to observe. Maintaining compatible groups (they are social in the wild) and, of course, breeding pairs, is also an exciting prospect.

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

Emperor Scorpion Care, Natural History and Breeding

Scorpions as Pets: Overview

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

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