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Keeping the Tarantula Healthy

By: Dr. Fred Sherberger, Entomologist, Member, American and British Tarantula Societies

Tarantula Health

INTRODUCTION

Of the approximately 35,000 known species of spiders, some 800 or so are known as true tarantulas (Family Theraphosidae). They are mostly heavy-bodied, and have eight eyes on a small "bump" at the front of their body. In North American, tarantulas are found from Arkansas westward, mostly in drier areas. All tarantulas are venomous, although only a very few cause more than a "bee sting" reaction.

PET STORE TARANTULAS

A species commonly sold in pet stores is the Chilean rose, Phrixotrichus cala (formerly known as Grammostola cala) or a related species. Phrixotrichus is a ground-dwelling species, staying in a burrow during the day and emerging at night to feed. Occasionally other species are imported for sale, and specialty dealers may offer dozens of kinds.

KEEPING YOUR TARANTULA HEALTHY

The major things needed to keep a tarantula healthy are to 1) provide a secure escape- proof cage; 2) provide proper food; 3) always provide water; 4) know something about the natural environment of your tarantula.

HOUSING

Almost any kind of container can be used to house your tarantula - an aquarium, plastic shoe box, even a gallon glass jar will provide a home. Tarantulas are excellent climbers and, no matter what kind of cage you use, a secure top is a must. This will both keep the spider in and help keep poking fingers and other potentially harmful harassment out. A few small air holes in the top and/or sides will provide enough oxygen for the spider and at the same time help maintain the humidity required. This is important because both summer air conditioning and winter heating remove moisture from the air. To prepare the container, put an inch or two of damp vermiculite (it's sterile and doesn't support mold growth), potting soil, or a mixture of sand, soil, and sphagnum moss in the bottom of the cage. DON'T USE cedar shavings as they are toxic to many invertebrates. Indoor/outdoor carpeting doesn't hold moisture and isn't recommended either. Rocks, real or artificial plants, or branches aren't really necessary for the spider, but can make the cage look "just like home", at least to you. Cactus is a bad idea, despite what some books show - you wouldn't want your spider to accidentally impale itself if it fell from the side of the container. Lastly, half a flower pot placed on its side will provide a place where the spider can hide. Room temperatures, around 70-75 degrees Fahrenheit or so, are acceptable to most species.

FOOD AND WATER

Tarantulas and other spiders are predators and will eat just about any living animal they can capture and kill. Crickets, most beetles, grasshoppers, earthworms, moths, and other animals are acceptable, and larger tarantulas sometimes eat small snakes, lizards and mice. Avoid wasps and bees, since they could harm the spider, and don't use insects from areas that might be sprayed for pests. Spiders will not overeat, so you can provide as much food as the animal will take. And, you don't need to offer food every day - once a week is fine. If your spider decides to stop eating for a few weeks that's normal, and may signal an upcoming molt. A plastic jar lid or similar container makes a good water dish, and putting in a large piece of sponge (not cotton, as that can get caught in the tarantula's mouth) can make it easier for the spider to get water. Keeping the water dish filled also helps maintain the cage humidity. Many tarantula keepers gently spray the substrate (not the spider) with water once a week or so. HANDLING The less this is done the better for all concerned, since a fall of only a few inches might result in injury. If you do want to pick up your spider, just reach in the cage and gently urge it onto the palm of your hand. If the spider runs from your hand or aggressively rears up towards you, it's probably best left alone. If you do pick the spider up, keep your hand close above some solid surface, such as a table top, and be aware that a puff of air or unexpected bump can make the animal skittish. If you want to make sure the spider is handleable before you purchase it, ask the salesclerk to demonstrate the proper way to pick up and hold your spider. Many tarantulas have specialized defensive "itching" hairs on the abdomen, and they sometimes kick these off when disturbed. It's nothing unusual for a tarantula to have a bald spot on its abdomen; the hairs will be replaced at the next molt. Some species cause more temporary itching than others, so it's a good idea to rinse your hands afterwards, if you do handle your tarantula.

GROWTH AND MOLTING

Like all spiders, tarantulas grow permanently in size only when they molt out of their old exoskeleton. The tarantula stops feeding for a week or more, then (usually) turns over on its back. The old exoskeleton splits, and the spider works it off and then flips right side up. Finally, the new exoskeleton enlarges and hardens. It will be several days before this last part if is complete, and the spider does not eat, nor should it be handled, during this time. So, if your tarantula stopped eating some time ago and you happen to see it lying upside down, DON'T touch it - tarantulas never die naturally on their backs. To help insure a successful molt remove any live food, spray the cage with water to increase humidity a bit, and make sure the water dish is full.

MALE OR FEMALE?

From the outside, the sex of a tarantula can't always be determined with certainty unless the animal is an adult or almost adult. Males are generally more slender than females, with longer legs and smaller abdomens, but these are relative characteristics. Adult male tarantulas of most species have distinct hooks on the bottom of the third segment (from the end) of the front walking legs. Also, adult males (of all spiders, not just tarantulas) always have mating structures at the ends of the arm-like appendages (the pedipalps) at the front of the spider; the ends of these appendages appear swollen. Female spiders of any age don't have any hooks, and the ends of their pedipalps always look just like the ends of their walking legs. Mature (and almost mature) females also have a "cliff" on the bottom of the abdomen, near its base.

LONGEVITY

Depending on the species and sex, some female tarantulas can live 20 years or more, although most don't achieve this age. Males are relatively short-lived compared to females, and generally die within a year and a half after becoming adults.

Dr. Fred Sherberger

Fernbank Science Center

156 Heaton Park Drive NE Atlanta, GA 30307


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