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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.




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.


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.



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.




Further Reading

Tarantula Care and Natural History

Beyond Webs: Swimming, Spitting and other Spider Hunting Strategies

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




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

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 »

Important Supplies for Pet Tarantulas – a Zoo Keeper’s Notes

Among the world’s 900+ tarantula species (Family Theraphosidae) we find spiders of every conceivable size, description and lifestyle, some of which make interesting, long-lived pets.  I had the chance to work with many during my zoo career, and most of the supplies that I relied upon are now readily available to hobbyists.  Whether you are just starting out or looking to add additional species to your collection, the following information will assist in your decision.  Please be sure to post any questions or observations about pet tarantulas below. 


Setting up the Terrarium

Tarantulas are best kept in screen-covered aquariums, reptile cages or plastic terrariums.  “Extra high” styles are best for Pink-Toed Tarantulas and other arboreal species.  Be sure to use cage clips on the cover, as tarantulas can climb glass and are incredibly strong.  A 10-15 gallon aquarium is adequate for all but the largest individuals.

Goliath Bird eating Spider

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Snakecollector

All tarantulas require a dark hiding spot.  Burrowing species such as the Goliath Bird-Eating Spider will dig their own caves if provided deep substrate. Sri Lankan Ornamental Tarantulas and other arboreal species will utilize the underside of an upright piece of cork bark.  Most also accept inverted flower pots and plastic reptile caves. Read More »

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