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