So, you’ve decided to adopt a tarantula. Congratulations! Now what?
First things first: Tarantulas are wild animals and it goes without saying that they should be approached with utmost care and caution. They are quiet, solitary creatures, but like other non-domesticated animals, tarantulas will defend themselves without warning when frightened, provoked, or threatened. With the right amount of respect and plenty of research, caring for them can be easy.
Get to know your eight-legged friend
They’re huge, they’re hairy, and they might look a little scary, but tarantulas in general are cool, calm, animals who mind their own business. Knowing basic information about them is key to having many years of companionship with them.
World wide web
Tarantulas can be found in all continents, except Antarctica. Two main groups of tarantulas are known as Old World tarantulas and New World tarantulas. Old World refers to species found in the Eastern hemisphere such as Asia, Africa, Europe, and Australia, while New World refers to species that come from the Western hemisphere, in parts of North and South America.
Old vs new world
Old World tarantulas are more defensive and aggressive. They lack urticating hairs but possess a powerful bite that can cause localized pain and swelling, exhaustion, moderate to severe muscle cramping, labored breathing and fever in humans.
New World tarantulas have less potent venom but have urticating hairs that they can kick off their abdomen into the direction of their potential attacker. These hairs can become lodged into the skin or eyes of other animals and cause immense itching and irritation (and could potentially lead to eye damage if not removed immediately).
There are no accurate terms for a tarantula’s stages of
growth. However, as a general guideline, a tarantula’s size can be categorized
into four stages:
• Spiderling (or sling) .5 inch to 1.5 inches
• Juvenile 1.5 to 3 inches (adult colorations appear)
• Sub-Adult 3 to 4 inches
• Adult 4 to 6 inches (sexual maturity is reached)
Tarantulas can be terrestrial, arboreal, or fossorial.
• Terrestrial tarantulas stay on the surface and live on the ground.
• Arboreal tarantulas live high up on trees and off the ground.
• Fossorial tarantulas construct burrows and live underground.
• Terrestrial or ground-dwelling tarantulas need a
horizontally longer cage; the distance of the top of substrate to the top of
the enclosure should not be more than the leg span of the tarantula so as to
prevent injury from a fall.
• Arboreal or tree-dwelling tarantulas are fond of climbing and require taller enclosures. Adding a vertical piece of bark where they can climb up and down or anchor their web on is ideal.
• Fossorial or burrowing tarantulas are fond of digging. Their enclosure can be set-up the same way as a terrestrial tarantula but with much deeper substrate for them to be able to burrow.
Choose a substrate that is free from chemicals. Most tarantula carers use fine coconut fiber or coco coir as a substrate. Some use a combination of coco coir, vermiculite, and topsoil.
Provide a piece of curved bark or plant pot as a hide for your tarantula. They will use this as little retreat where they can eat, sleep, or simply hang out.
Tarantulas get most of their water requirement from their food. However, it would still be wise to give them free access to water; placing a water dish inside the enclosure will not only ensure that the tarantula stays hydrated but will also help maintain humidity.
Provide cross ventilation by putting small holes on the sides of the enclosure and on the lid for proper air circulation.
Tarantulas are generally clean animals. They groom themselves after meals and they excrete waste and leave boluses (insect leftovers) usually in one corner of the enclosure, so their tanks need not be cleaned frequently (except for the water dish, which need to be replenished with clean water at all times).
Experts do suggest that general cleaning be done once every 4-6 months to replace the substrate, and that scrubbing of their enclosures be done regularly.
If you adopted or rescued an adult tarantula, they can already be placed in an enclosure where they can live permanently. Spiderlings or juveniles, on the other hand, will need to be rehoused as they grow.
To move the tarantula to a bigger enclosure, it is recommended to use a paint brush or tongs to gently nudge the tarantula from their old home to the new one. Some species are more skittish than others. Have a “catch cup” on standby in case they decide to go on an off-path adventure (in other words, bolt out).
Tarantulas are insectivores – this means that their main diet consists of insects. In the wild, they mostly feed on crickets, grasshoppers, caterpillars, beetles, and smaller spiders. However, some tarantulas grow big enough to eat larger prey like mice, lizards, and birds. In captivity, they can be fed with mealworms, superworms, red runner roaches, or crickets.
Tarantulas do not eat their prey solid and need to liquify the insects to “eat” them. They do so by injecting venom through their fangs into their prey.
For safety reasons, it is recommended that tongs or tweezers be used to place live insects in the tarantula’s enclosure.
• SPIDERLINGS have a lot of growing up to do and need to
grow out of this vulnerable stage as quickly as possible. They can be fed two
to three times a week with small sized insects.
• JUVENILES are a lot less fragile so feeding can be eased to once or twice a week.
• SUB-ADULTS / ADULTS: Some species can be fed once a week, while others need to consume double or triple the number of preys to feel satiated. Research about your companion’s species and observe their appetite before settling on a feeding schedule.
• Remove any uneaten insect from their enclosure after 24 hours.
It’s moltin’ time!
There will be times when a tarantula will not eat. This might simply mean that they’re not yet hungry, in which case feeding can be done again in a week.
A tarantula that ignores prey could also mean that they are nearing a molt, which means that they are preparing to shed their exoskeleton, a process that all tarantulas go through as they grow and age.
Tarantulas are known to fast for weeks or months prior to a molt. Try not to disturb them during this time and make sure to provide them with clean water.
After molting, tarantulas will still be soft and fragile. Wait one to two weeks before feeding them or until their fangs turn black. Otherwise, leaving any insects with them in their enclosure while they are at this vulnerable state could cause them stress and injury.
Temperature and humidity
Tarantulas live in tropical, subtropical, and arid regions. Enthusiasts who live in countries with cold weather keep their fanged friends at a temperature of 20-26 degrees Celsius, while tarantula carers who live in warm countries need not bother with heating at all as long as they house the spider in room temperature (not in an air-conditioned room).
Placing a water dish or keeping one side of the substrate damp will help with the humidity requirement. Adding peat moss can also help retain moisture as it holds water well. In small enclosures, such as a sling’s, where a water dish is not provided, misting the sides of the enclosure will do the trick.
Most New World tarantulas are docile and calm while old world tarantulas are more hostile and aggressive. To be on the safe side, it is recommended not to handle tarantulas at all except when necessary (during a rehouse or when performing tarantula first aid).
Save the spiders!
Thirty-two species of tarantulas are already red-listed by the IUCN. Among the major threats to their population include intense agriculture, livestock farming, housing and urbanization, storms and flooding due to climate change, and illegal trade.
According to the IUCN, there is an “unknown amount of illegal trafficking of live animals. Many specimens were taken from [the] wild due to demand of what collectors call as “pure blood lines”. They go on to say that “the populations are easily accessed by smugglers, which increases overharvesting.”
“Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive,” is a line from a poem by Walter Scott that often comes to mind when I hear about the lucrative yet illegal wildlife trade. Although only 32 of the 900 known species of tarantulas are redlisted, with the rate of abuse that humans are capable of, and if we don’t act right away to protect them, we may as well put them all on the red list now.
While many spider enthusiasts have been caring for tarantulas successfully since the 70s, it should be stressed that they they are better off not kept as pets. As wild animals, tarantulas play an integral part in the ecosystem and are much better off in their natural habitat than in our homes.
Given that many tarantulas are already in captivity, it is crucial that we stop supporting the wildlife trade and do our best to care for those who are already in our homes. Part of treasuring them as our companion animals is striving for their conservation and protection, too.
This appeared in Animal Scene magazine’s December 2019 issue.
Photos by Jeffrey Lim