Tarantulas are a group of hairy and often very large species of spiders belonging to the family Theraphosidae within the order Araneae, of which approximately 900 species have been identified.
This article is written with a generalisation to caring for most of, if not all species of tarantula. There are however more detailed care sheets describing each tarantula species.
Tarantulas were the largest of the spiders, (the world’s largest spider title was taken from them in 2001 with the discovery of the Giant huntsman spider) and represent a mere fraction of the spider Order Araneae which contains a massive 40 000 species in over 100 families. Spiders date back 300 million years and have evolved to be some of the most significant predators of insects.
Choosing a Tarantula
Popular Beginner Species
- Mexican Redknee Tarantula
Brachypelma smithi is most commonly known as the Mexican Redknee tarantula and is found throughout the semi-desert scrublands of Central America and Mexico. They have been listed on the Cites II endangered species list and restrictions are now in place to prevent the demise of wild specimens, as such, only captive bred specimens are to be kept as pets. Mexican Redknee’s are amongst the most docile tarantulas and although they do have the ability to fire urticating hairs, they only do this very rarely when severely threatened. Because of it’s temperament, this spider makes an excellent beginner’s pet.
- Chilean Rose Tarantula
The Chilean Rose Tarantula (Grammostola rosea) is the most commonly kept species in the hobby. The Chilean Rose is typically very docile by nature, require minimal maintenance, and are cheap to purchase, which all contribute to making them popular pets. They are found throughout Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia.
- Honduran Curly Hair Tarantula
Brachypelma albopilosum is known as the Honduran Curly Hair Tarantula. This very docile species is part of the Brachypelma genus and is widely available. Though not the best looking tarantula it is an ideal beginner species for anyone interested in learning more about tarantulas. These tarantulas are native to Central America but are most seen in Costa Rica and Honduras. This species was first described scientifically in 1980 by Valerio.
- Costa Rican Zebra Tarantula
Aphonopelma seemanni is most commonly referred to as the Costa Rican Zebra Tarantula. It is a common species seen in tropical rain forests in Costa Rica, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Panama and the southern United States
- Chaco Golden Knee Tarantula
The Chaco Golden Knee Tarantula (Grammostola pulchripes, formerly Grammostola aureostriata), is named after its attractive golden bands on and around its legs. These tarantulas will burrow deep when young but seem to prefer the terrestrial life when they mature. The Chaco Golden Knee makes a great display tarantula, they are very docile and perfect for any beginner. Care is very similar to the Grammostola rosea, except this species will eat more and grow much faster.
Creating a Suitable Environment
Tarantulas can be kept in any decent sized container provided with plenty of ventilation. Spiderlings can be kept in waxworm tubs and even larger clear livefood tubs when a bit larger. You will probably want a nice display tank for your larger tarantulas so a small converted aquarium will do perfect. Tarantulas do not require plants or decorations, but should have somewhere to hide. If you want to make your pet’s home more attractive you may choose to decorate the enclosure. Avoid sharp edges and rough textures. Remember that terrestrial (ground dwelling) tarantulas should have more ground space, while arboreal (tree dwelling) tarantulas need taller enclosures with something to climb. The picture to left is exhibiting an enclosure that is probably too large. Shoot for something a bit smaller than this and you’re good to go.
Heating and Climate
Ensure that you research the specific needs of your tarantula carefully as their natural habitats vary from deserts to forests, and some stay on the ground whereas others prefer life in the trees. Most tarantulas will be happy in the temperature range of 70-85°F. Bear in mind that the warmer you keep your tarantula, the higher its metabolic rate will be. Therefore it will want to eat much more often and will grow much faster. At night temperatures can drop to as low as 65°F, ensure a temperature drop of at least 10°F, especially for desert tarantulas where the nights are cold.
It is important to ensure a temperature gradient is achieved in your tarantula’s enclosure. As in nature, allowing for a temperature gradient puts the tarantula in control of the environment it spends most of its time in. Your tarantula will then choose a suitable region of the enclosure where it feels most comfortable.
External heat sources are not necessary for any species of tarantula. In fact, they are generally detrimental to the life of your spider. They are notorious for “cooking” spiders because the heat is so difficult to control. Tarantulas are NOT a finicky pet. Additional heat sources are unnecessary work and will likely result in the death of your arachnid.
Humidity can be produced by moist substrates and a misting bottle, although the latter may be dangerous to the tarantula. Misting can cause tarantulas to lose their grip on smooth surfaces. The best way to keep the tank humid is to provide a large shallow water bowl and keep the substrate moist. Some of the tarantulas that require a high humidity are Avicularia avicularia, but for most other species humidity shouldn’t be an issue.
To successfully maintain the desired humidity conditions for your tarantula you are going to need a hygrometer. A hygrometer is a device used to measure relative humidity within the enclosure.
There really is no ideal substrate and most of the time it is really only chosen for aesthetical reasons. Make sure it is not a dusty substrate and meets the needs of the tarantula. Peat is probably the favoured substrate to use, it holds moisture well and it allows for easy burrowing. Mould should not be an issue unless the substrate is always damp, most species of tarantula will not require a constantly damp substrate unless they require very high humidity conditions.
Food and Hydration
Tarantulas eat insects, reptiles and small rodents up to their own size, some will even tackle prey larger than themselves. Suitable insects include crickets, moths, beetle larvae (meal worms and superworms), houseflies and cockroaches. Suitable rodents are mice and rats, and suitable reptiles include anoles and smaller snakes. Food items can be fed dead or alive but be wary of the harm a live rodent or reptile will do to a tarantula, dead food items will need to be wiggled to catch the tarantula’s attention.
When feeding livefoods, although it may be fascinating to watch, try not to over challenge the tarantula by giving it food items that are too large. Stick with something about half the size of the tarantula and remove uneaten food items so they do not cause harm or stress the tarantula.
Spiders usually eat larger amounts post-moult until they are full, this is called power feeding. They will refuse food pre-molt or when ready to lay an egg sac. It usually takes about 1 week to 1 month for a tarantula to accept food after a molt, all depending on the size and species. You can never overfeed a tarantula, but this doesn’t mean you should overdo it by giving it 50 crickets after a molt; the tarantula will probably end up killing them all and leaving dead ones uneaten. If this is the case then they should be removed to prevent bacteria and mould growth.
Tarantulas require a source of drinking water provided by a shallow container filled with water. Some species such as Grammostola rosea will submerge themselves in the water to drink so do not think they are drowning. A Tarantula’s main source of moisture is in the food it eats, this is especially so for smaller spiderlings which will take water from water droplets when necessary. In general spiderlings up to 2 inches do not require a water bowl but instead you should mist the vivarium and they will collect droplets of water. Be careful not to overdo the misting, you do not want to increase the humidity more than it should be for the specific species you are keeping.
Handling Your Tarantula
Handling tarantulas can be dangerous and can be deadly for the tarantula. If startled they will run and even jump, possibly rupturing the abdomen when they hit the ground. Some species of tarantula are known for their docile nature, so can be safely handled with little risk to you or the tarantula. Others are more vicious and skittish, getting into a strike pose if you even go near them. You should be aware that all tarantulas and spiders are venomous and have the ability to bite. Although venom of tarantulas is not known to be specifically deadly to humans this doesn’t mean that you won’t have an allergic reaction. Different people react differently to bites so it is always best to keep some distance between you and their fangs.
Breeding tarantulas can be extremely difficult but can also be extremely rewarding. From a successful mating, anywhere from 50 to 2000 eggs can be produced, depending upon the size and species of the female. The Brazilian Salmon Pink (Lasiodora parahybana) are of the larger species and have been known to produce some 1500-2000 eggs in one sac. Another popular species The Goliath Bird Eater (Theraphosa blondi) however, has been known to produce as little as 50 eggs despite its “goliath” size.
The basic steps involved in breeding tarantulas are discussed further:
- Preparation for breeding
- Tarantula breeding
- Looking after an egg sac
- Caring for the female
- Caring for the spiderlings
When a tarantula moults it also sheds its sexual organs. The spermathecae is where females store sperm after a mating. Since a female has a spermathecae where the male does not we can tell the difference between genders.
In the abdomen of the moult there are four pairs of book lungs, these appear as a white looking film. Between the front facing pair of book lungs is the epigastric furrow, where, in females, the spermathecae is located. The spermathecae appears as a flap of skin.
Tibial apophysis are often referred to as mating “spurs” or “hooks”. Males use these to lift up the female by her fangs before continuing to mate. They are located on the first set of legs before (see below).
Not of all species of tarantula possess tibial apophysis (mating “spurs” or “hooks”). Tarantula species that do not possess tibial apophysis.