General Informaton

Tarantula Beginners Guide

Grammostola pulchra

Tarantula Housing

Tarantulas make great pets. Not only are they beautiful, majestic creatures, they are clean and easy to keep.  Once you have set them up in an appropriate tarantula housing their needs are easy to fulfill. So how exactly do you create an appropriate habitat? Not all tarantulas are the same; some dwell in trees while others prefer to stay on the ground. In this article we’ll take a look at the different  habitat requirements and help you choose the best home for your pet. The following describes considerations to consider when housing your pet Tarantula.

Terrarium / Enclosure / Cage

Let’s start with the material of the tarantula housing itself. Most terrariums are made out of either plastic, acrylic or glass. Though plastic is cheaper and more resistant, it has the tendency to become opaque over time; a problem you won’t face using a glass habitat. A nice and cheap alternative, especially if you are able to make them yourself, would be acrylic. Acrylic habitats have a number of advantages. As said you can make them yourself very cheaply, but also, they are a lot lighter than glass enclosures. Another benefit is ventilation, if you need to add ventilation to an acrylic habitat, it is easy to drill some extra holes. They are also very durable and won’t break as easily as a glass enclosure. They might scratch, like their plastic counterparts, but for acrylic habitats there are a variety of products available to polish them and remove scratches.

The size of  the enclosure will depend a bit on the type of tarantula you own, for most terrestrial spiders 30x30x30 is more than enough. For ground dwelling spiders you won’t want to get much higher than that as they sometimes climb the glass and a fall might damage their abdomen and possibly kill them. With the exception of the Goliath(Theraphosa Blondi), this specific spider is so large it will require a larger habitat, not higher but definitively larger, around 60×40 should do.  For spider that live in trees you might want to opt for 20x20x40 (LxWxH). Tree dwellers often make different kinds of webs, they will like to climb branches and will appreciate the higher enclosure.

There are several ways you can make the opening in to the enclosure. Personally I’m a big fan of the doors that slide up, more common however, are doors that slide to the side. If you choose the latter make sure to get a lock as well, you would not be the first person that has to search his house for a missing tarantula.

Aboreal vs Terrestrial

If you own an Aboreal Tarantula species it may be wise to consider a taller enclosure. This will allow the spider to climb higher, build more web and generally feel ‘more at home’. A taller enclosure can also reduce the likelihood of disturbing the web. Burrowing spiders can also benefit from a taller enclosure, simply fill the bottom of the enclosure with more substrate and watch your pet burrow down deep! Pet owners often find a standard terrestrial enclosure is enough as the spider rarely builds any webbing higher up the cage.

Climate

When it comes to climate there are three important things to consider, temperature, humidity and ventilation. Here it is very important that you research where your tarantula originates. Tarantulas can be found on all continents (with the exception of Antarctica) and though they tend to favor warm climates the differences between their natural habitats can differ enormously.
Once you have established where your spider is from, you can think about how to create a climate that is fitting for your spider.

Humidity can be controlled in a variety of ways, the simplest being spraying with a plant mister bottle. It is advisable to choose a type of soil that matches your needs regarding humidity. Certain types will hold humidity a lot longer than others, for spiders that originate in tropical climates it is wise to choose a type of soil that holds humidity well, does your spider come from a dryer region it s better to select one that let’s humidity through easier.

Another thing you might want to consider is placing a small metal ventilation strip, this can help prevent too much humidity building up. When housing your pet Tarantula humidity can build up in your enclosure, it might cause the enclosure to fog up. Not only does this make it impossible to see your pet it also can cause fungi to grow in your pet’s habitat, not good!

Temperature is the second item when it comes to climate control. Most spiders come from warm regions, the tropics, subtropics, deserts, etc. That means that the average temperature of your home might be a bit on the low side for them. Heating the habitat will create a climate that is more pleasant for the spider. This can be done either by the use of a lamp or by using heating mats. The benefit of the latter is that there are some mats available that have a thermostat that allows you to exactly control the temperature in the habitat. Their downside is that they are a lot more expensive than working with lights. When choosing for lamps you have to make sure that it is strong enough to heat the habitat adequately but not so strong that it raises the temperature too much. Also keep in mind that when using lights you can’t just turn them off at night, when you want to sleep. If you have your tarantulas in the same room where you sleep, heating mats might be a good choice.

And then there is ventilation, many species of tarantulas require very little to no ventilation, but there are a few that require a lot. When dealing with Avicularia species (Pink Toe, and others) there is a greater need for ventilation. With these spiders it would be wise to get cross ventilation going in your habitat. Remember though that with more ventilation there is a tendency for the temperature and humidity in your enclosure to drop. If they do drop below acceptable levels, you can try experimenting with closing part of the ventilation holes and see what the effect on temperature and humidity is.

Substrate

When housing your pet tarantula substrate fills an important role in your terrarium and you should carefully consider what type to choose. As mentioned above, certain types of substrate can help you regulate the humidity in your enclosure. And the different types of substrates all have their pros and cons, try to choose the kind that best fits your pet’s needs.

One type is substrate that is very popular nowadays is coco fiber. Coco fiber is ground up coconut and can be found in most stores that deal with exotic pets. One of the great benefits of this material is that it can be used for both humid and dry habitats though it does have the tendency to dry quickly. Good for spiders from arid regions but something you need to keep an eye on if your spider comes from a more humid area. If you have a spider that has the tendency to burrow this might not be the best choice for you as the material can become fluffy when dry. Also if you have larger habitats this might not be the most economic option.

Another great option that retains humidity well is top soil. This can be found in most gardening stores and is very inexpensive. If you are making a larger habitat it does have the tendency to become heavy very fast. Make sure you select one without fertilizer though. The quality might differ greatly as well and some come with rather big chunks that you will need to break down before using it. When using topsoil you also want to keep an eye out for fungi.

Composted bark is another good option. It holds humidity fairly well and if you have the extra fine variant it is very suitable for burrowing tarantulas. Though you have to be careful to make sure there are no sharp pieces left in the bark, as this might seriously hurt your spider, this is especially relevant in the less fine variants of composted bark.

If you read older books or texts on what substrate to use for your spider habitat, you will probably come across texts talking about vermiculite. It was very a very popular choice because it was free of bacteria and fungi resistant. Nowadays it is not used often anymore because it has some negative qualities when used pure, such as becoming a bit sponge-like. You can still use it as an additive in enclosures for spiders that like higher humidity and/or are prone to burrowing.

There are many other options, such as peat, moss (as an additive), wood chips, etc. When talking o other owners they might come with different options or combinations of several different products. Some people will warn against wood chips as they might create splinters and harm, or potentially kill, your pet, but in very humid enclosures this poses less of a risk. Peat moss is not a very environmental friendly option, as it is harvested from wetlands that are crucial to the ecosystem. It does however come free of bacteria and can hold up to 20 times its own weight in water, making it a very attractive substance to use as an additive for substrate in a tarantula enclosure.

There is not one perfect choice when it comes to substrate. As you can see the considerations range from price, proliferation of bacteria and fungi to environmental. Think about what your spider needs and base your choice on that and experiment if need be until you find something that fits both your spiders needs as well as your own.

Shelter

There is a reason you don’t often see spiders in the wild, and if you do see them often be sure that for each one you see there are dozens, if not hundreds, more that you don’t see. Tarantulas love to hide and your enclosure should have a space where your spider can retire to if she feels the need. There are many things you can place in your enclosure for this purpose, stones for instance, pieces of wood, bark or plant pots.

When creating a space for your spider to hide in make sure that it is big enough, but also take in to account how it will look. Your spider will be fine hiding in half a plastic plant pot but you will need to look at it, so you might want to go for something that creates a nice dark niche for your spider but also is pleasing to the eye.

Water supply

Having an adequate water supply is vital for your spider. Tarantulas require water for webbing and though they get a certain amount of liquid from their prey that alone is not enough for the amount of webs they make.

When selecting a dish for a water supply, size is very important. It does not need to be deep, but try to find a dish that is big enough for the spider to submerge the front part of its body, the Chelicera. You probably won’t see your spider drink often but it is important to always have some fresh water available just in case.

Cleaning

Cleaning your enclosure should be done about two or three times a year. Tarantulas are very clean animals and cleaning more often is unnecessary. The first thing you should do when cleaning the enclosure is take your tarantula out,make sure your tarantula is not molting as this might make it more aggressive. One you have have taken your spider out and put it in a adequate temporary enclosure, you start removing all the items from the enclosure, the decoration, water dish, etc. These you scrub clean and set aside to dry. You then remove all substrate from the enclosure and dispose of it Do not reuse it as there might be droppings and/or remains of prey animals in there. Then wash the habitat, you can do this normally with water and soap. Once the habitat is dry, you replace the substrate, put all the items back in place and move your pet back to his home.

There is no set routine for cleaning the tarantula’s cage. In general, you should visually inspect the cage and determine if it is messy or smelly. In most cases, the cage can be cleaned once every 5-12 days. Experts recommend that a good cleaning of the entire cage should be done at least once every 4-6 months.

However, it is important to clean up any residual food that has been inside the cage for more than 24 hours. If you leave food for too long, it will start to smell. The one thing that does need regular cleaning is the water dish. Often the water becomes moldy or is fouled by food or an insect. You need to throw out the old water, clean the dish and add fresh water everyday. The water levels should be shallow otherwise it can drown the spider.

When you clean the cage, the first thing you should know is that this is the one time period when your tarantula has the greatest risk of escape. Even during minor cleaning, the tarantula can quickly escape from the open lid. So if you do not want to lose your pet, then you need to take precautions. Transport your tarantula to a holding container that is secure. Some people place a mesh jar/cup over the spider while they clean and others transport the creature outside to another secure holding case.

Once the spider is secure, wash the walls with a wet cloth, scrub the floor and remove all junk. Do not use any type of chemical to wash and scrub the tank. The fumes will generally prove to be toxic and kill your tarantula. You may need to replace the compost or vermiculite and plants every few months. Remove any jagged edges from the plants or small stones that can hurt the spider. Finally check the lighting to make sure it is not emitting too much heat and adjust the humidity to prevent excessive wetness.

Use a common sense approach to cleaning. If you do not clean the cage regularly, your tarantula will not thrive and the place will reek of bad odor. So if your tarantula’s housing smells, the problem is you are lazy and not the arachnid.

Lighting & Decoration

We already discussed lighting as a way of heating your enclosure, but lighting can serve another purpose as well. In combination with decoration, lighting can transform a simple habitat to an amazing decorative piece in your house. With climate, substrate, a hiding place and water taken care of you took care of all your pet’s basic needs (without counting feeding of course). The lighting and decoration are mostly for you as owner. So what way to go with decoration? This depends for a large part on what you prefer looking at when you are at home.

There are, however, a few things to keep in mind. Sharp objects might be harmful to a spiders abdomen and therefore better avoided. When placing stones as decoration it might be wise to keep them away from the outer walls of the enclosure for the same reason. Spiders will climb the glass and sometimes they do fall, falling on a hard surface increases the chance of hurting the abdomen. Some people choose to have actual plants in the habitats. Though this can look amazingly beautiful you have to take in to account that it will also cause a bit more work to keep your habitat clean. High humidity and organic material are a great breeding ground for fungi and bacteria. If you are looking for easy maintenance plastic plants can give almost the same effect.

For tree dwelling spiders you can use branches or big pieces of wood. When working with wood make sure that it is well dried before placing it. Just selecting some from your garden may again lead to fungi and bacteria.

As you can see there are a great many things to take in to account when creating your perfect habitat, the needs of your spider but also your own demands.  A great enclosure does not need to be expensive and when done properly a tarantula in his habitat is more than just a pet. It is something that, if you are like me, you can spend hours looking at. Good luck and enjoy!

Tarantula Molting

Molting is common in invertebrates- the classic examples are snakes. As the tarantula grows, it will molt. The old skin is removed and discarded. Molting may occur at a specific time of the year or it may occur at a specific point in the life cycle of the spider. Most tarantulas molt every 6 months and some may molt more often then other. In the wild, molting is a dangerous time for these arachnids because they become vulnerable to prey.

For most tarantulas, molting is labor intensive and a stressful experience.

Before molting occurs, your pet tarantula will eat very little. Other things that you may notice are drops of a waxy fluid from the leg and a shriveled abdomen. This fluid helps the skin come off without too much friction. Some spiders may lose the hair on their abdomen. However, in most cases, the spider will usually lie on its back and may appear dead. The legs and body will start to show webbing. This is just part of the molting process and you should not get alarmed.
Whenever you see the spider on its back, you should not disturb it as it is in the process of molting. If you disturb it, it can cause stress and even lead to death of the spider. The molting process for tarantulas varies from 30 -180 minutes.

Once the old skin has come off, the tarantula will have a fresh appearance but its whole body is fragile and sensitive. After the molting process it is best not to handle the spider or cause any unnecessary noise or motion in the cage for about 7 days.

Most tarantulas will not eat for a several days after molting but they will drink. So you need to supply it with fresh water everyday. Never feed a live cricket or worms to the spider at this time because the tarantulas’ body is quite sensitive and can easily be injured by the cricket.

The most amazing thing about molting is that not only does this process shed old skin but it also help regenerate any missing legs or hairs. While the new leg will not be the same size as the original leg, it will still be functional.

When Tarantula Molting Goes Wrong

Tarantula Molting does go wrong sometimes when the old skin does not easily come off and may entrap a leg or the lower body. If this entrapment is not relieved it can lead to a slow death.

Molting problems tend to occur when the cage is dry or lacks humidity. Without proper lubrication, the process can be difficult for the spider. Older spiders and those who have not been fed well tend to be at the highest risk for molting injuries. The only time that you should intervene during molting is when you see the spider having trouble extricating itself from the outer skin. Just apply some moisture with a soft brush as this will help separate the old skin from the rest of the body. Sometimes the old skin may be attached to a leg- you can help remove this with the tweezer- do this only if the spider is having a problem.

To prevent molting injuries, keep the environment humid and offer fresh water. Remove all live insects from the cage during the molting process. Be observant when molting is going to occur so that you can be prepared.
Tarantulas are magnificent creatures once you understand their lives and behavior. While they may not show affection like dogs or cats, it is the observation of how they live that can be educational and awe-inspiring. Though these arachnids appear fierce; in fact they are very fragile docile creatures and many get injured or die during molting.

Feeding

One of the best thing about having a tarantula as a pet is that they are the least finicky eaters, feeding tarantulas is fairly straight forward. Even in captivity, they are relatively easy to feed on a variety of insects. And because tarantulas do not have an enormous appetite, all you need is a couple of insects like crickets every 3-6 days. However, if your tarantula is large it may need a cricket every day.

Unlike most other pets, the other great feature about tarantulas is that they generally do not overeat. Once the tarantula has had its fill, it will move away. It is best to remove all old food every 24-48 hours. So an obese tarantula is something you will never see.

Today, there are many commercial cricket foods available –this means you do not have to venture and find your own insects.

How much to feed?

It is important to understand that tarantulas often eat in cycles and you may notice that they do not eat for several days at a time. In fact, many can survive for weeks or even months without eating. If your tarantula looks healthy and is moving around, then you do not need to worry if it has not eaten for days/weeks. However, if you notice that its abdomen has shrunk and it is lethargic, you need to give it food and water right away. This is a sign of starvation or dehydration.

Water

Even though you do not have to provide food daily, you must have a shallow sturdy dish with fresh water. This water must be provided every day. Some tarantulas drink a lot of water and others drink sparely. The reason is that the water intake may also depend on the humidity in the tank and the type of food you provide.

How much to feed a tarantula depends on the species. In general, the young spiderlings grow fast and tend to eat a lot. As they become adults, their growth size plateaus and they tend to eat less. Further, there are some tropical spiders like the Acanthoscurria, Therophosa, or Nhandiu that have a big appetite. So know the type of spider you have.

Tarantula foods

Crickets are readily available in most pet stores and are relatively cheap. They are the easiest meal for tarantulas and least messy.

Besides crickets, there are other foods that you can offer to tarantulas. Mealworms are also available in pet stores and can be kept in the fridge. They are ideal for small spiderlings. If the tarantula is big, then go with the super worms, which are also sold in pet stores. The only downside is that these worms can sometimes injure or kill a tarantula and can’t be stored in the refrigerator.

While some people do recommend roaches, these critters are often not available in pet stores and can even escape into your home, breed and become a household pest. And the worst thing is that after going to all the trouble getting roaches, some tarantulas won’t eat them.

When feeding tarantulas, first know where your spider is in the enclosure. Then only partially open the lid and drop the prey. Close the lid securely and the tarantula will know where to find the prey.

Today all the available commercial foods come with labels on how to feed and what not to do. Plus there are ample videos on the Internet on how to feed a tarantula. A common sense approach is required when it comes to feeding a tarantula.

Handling

Unlike a dog or a cat, spiders in general, do not like to be handled. They do not care about being caressed with your fingers nor will they reciprocate affectionate feelings. So in general, it is best to avoid handling your tarantula. However, during maintenance and cleaning, you may have to handle a tarantula.

Like dogs and cats, some tarantulas are easy to handle and some not so. Overall, most tarantulas like to be left alone. A tarantula does not necessarily need to be handled during maintenance. In most cases, it will hide until you are done.

The first thing you have to know is that inside its enclosure the tarantula appears sluggish and lethargic- but make no mistake, given the opportunity it can quickly jump and get away. After all, no one wants to be kept in a small box for its entire life.

If you have to pick the tarantula then the best way is to gently allow it into the palm of your hand. Some gentle nudging with a soft brush may work but do not use your finger. Some experts recommend gently picking up the tarantula by its legs, but you also have to be gentle and fast. Once the spider is in your palm, it may move around so you have to watch it and may have to alternate hands to prevent it from falling. Do not place the tarantula on your shoulder or your chest because if the tarantula falls from a height, it can get hurt or even die. Even though the tarantula has strong legs, it has a very weak abdomen that can burst open during the fall.

What if the tarantula does not want to be picked up?

Most tarantulas hate being picked up and will retreat. Sometimes it may make its throw it hairs at you just like a porcupine throws its quills. These hairs can cause a very irritating itch and can be painful. If you are very rough with the tarantula, it may even bite you but the amount of venom is so small that it will have no effect on an adult. However, you will feel the sting, which is similar to a bee sting. If you do get bitten, stop what you are doing and clean the skin under running water for 5 minutes. You may apply an antiseptic to prevent any infection. The bite will hurt for several hours. If you develop an allergic reaction like a rash, chest pain, swelling of your lips and face, you need to seek immediate medical attention.

Fortunately, in the majority of cases, a tarantula will send you a warning before biting. It will stand erect on its hind legs and show you its fangs—akin to a dog. If after this sign you persist, then you will get bitten. So if you note signs of fear in your spider just leave it alone. In most cases, pet tarantulas settle down with time and rarely bite. Once they get used to you hand, it is very rare for a tarantula to show any aggression.

Getting your pet tarantula used to your hand takes time. In the beginning, do not be in a rush to hold the tarantula but let it get used to your hand and smell. Once it gets used to your hand and you start to learn behavior signs of aggression, you will know the right time to pick the arachnid up.

Finally, a practical point; ‘do you like to be handled by your feet or be picked up when you are sleeping?’ If the answer is no, then the same applies to your pet tarantula. The least handling you do, the better it is for the spider. While this may not be ego boosting like many zookeepers who pick up these creatures, it will help maintain your tarantula healthy and prevent any unnecessary injury.

Life Cycle

The postembryo begins its first true molt a stage formally known as the first instar. The total number of molts depends on the species, sex and the individual of the tarantula during its life.

After hatching, the stage of the spider before reaching sexual maturity is called penultimate instar which is followed by the adult (ultimate instar). All the male spiders except for a few exceptions do not molt after reaching their adulthood. Tarantulas and some other female spiders however can continue to molt after reaching the adulthood (Ultimate instar). Its first true molt after reaching the ultimate instar is called first postultimate instar and so forth. The term larva and nymph do not apply to spiders.

Factors affecting the rate of the spider development are mainly temperature and availability of food. In the wild, tarantulas in the warmer regions take a shorter time to mature than those in the colder regions. Tarantulas in the captive as pets or specimen in the laboratory however are affected by the availability of food. The life expectancy of the tarantulas ranges from 6 months to a record of 50 years. Males live for 10- 12 years with the females living for twice this much.

The tarantulas will go on to grow between a length of 2.5 cm to 11cm depending on the species. They will also weigh between 80gm and 170gm. The largest tarantula has fangs reported to reach 1.5 inches. The differentiating characteristics between the female and the male is the color and the size. Females have bigger stocky bodies covered in brown hair while the males have thinner bodies covered with black hair. However, the color of these tarantulas can range from cobalt blue to green with black and white stripes.

The tarantulas are predatory and ambush feeders. Although low in acute vision, they feed on grasshoppers, crickets, small birds and even snakes which have much better vision. They however cannot chew their prey and therefore inject them with venom which contains digestive enzymes that liquefy them and in the process feed on the “soup” from them. Apart from injecting their prey with venom, the tarantulas can also tear the prey apart and roll the pieces into balls and liquefy them. This simplifies the capture of multiple prey items instead if securing them one at a time.

The tarantulas are not short of enemies with the greatest being the wasp family of prompilidae also called the tarantula hawks. These track and kill tarantulas. They have a reputation of injecting the underside of tarantulas’ cephalothorax making use of the thin membrane. This paralyzes the spider and it drags it to a burrow, depositing its eggs inside its body which provide the wasp larva with flesh when it hatches.

The tarantulas have special hairs that they use for defence against the predators. These hairs are irritating upon contact. Most tarantulas in the wild die of because predation and the males in particular because of the attacks by the females after copulation. Some tarantulas are endangered as their natural habitat is encroached by man and also the environmental changes. Also due to being traded as exotic pets, their numbers are increasing at home and can pose as a threat to the ecosystem in cities and towns notwithstanding the allergic reactions they pose to those with low immunity.

Reproduction

Arachnids, spiders in general differ in their mating techniques with mammals’ life primates and humans. Once a male tarantula reaches a reproduction maturity, they seek out the females and this can seem as they are migrating. This is because, these spiders are mostly solitary creatures and the next available mate can be hundreds of meters away.

Spiders have pedipalpi which are two six segments appendages connected to the thorax. The terminal part of thepedipalpi of males functions as part of the reproductive system. The males have special spinnerets (this are flexible tube-like structures from which the spiders spin exude their silk which hardens upon contact with air) around their genitals to which the sperm web is spun from. The males spin this web(silken) unto which they release the semen from the glands in their opistoma. The sperm web platform is laid on the ground during this process. They insert the pedipalps into the semen which absorbs it and keeps it viable for a period until a mate is found.

Spiders exude chemicals when they are ready to mate and a male can tell off if the female is of its species by the chemicals it gives off. Males search for those females that have newly molted as they can be particularly aggressive after mating which can result in the death of the male. Careful selection enables not only a successful copulation but self-preservation.

Upon finding a female though scent left by her substratum, the male tests her receptiveness by tapping near her burrow entrance or web. The male will them carefully enter the burrow and meet up with the female. If the female is not ready, she will either pay no attention or attack him in which case the male will rapidly run away to prevent being the devoured as the next meal. If the female is ready for mating, she might not show interest upon which the male will have to perform a special mating ritual. He will lower his front and raise his abdomen. Having extended his forelegs and pedipalps moving backward outside the burrow. This attracts the female and to keep the attraction going on, he stops from time to time moving his forelegs and pedipalps from left to right shuddering his body.

When they reach out outside, the male is free to move and unlike the courtship of other spiders, the tarantula males approach the females carefully and touches her with the tips of the front legs and pedipalps with repeated breaks to make sure that that behavior does not pose danger to him. If the female is passive after this, the male will approach her, hook his front legs between her pedipalps and chelicerae which move in readiness for mating. He then lifts her prosoma stroking her abdomen lower surface. If the female is ready for mating now, the male unbounds the pedipalps embolus containing the semen and inserts it in the female gonopore. This takes place for a fraction of a minute after which the male runs away because the female’s appetite grows and may eat him. This enables him to mate with other females if he keeps his life. Also the females are able to mate with different males for a season.

Fertilization occurs in the womb within a determined period after the copulation which can be as short as 1 month or 8 months which depends upon several factors such as, the female’s last molt, season, presence of food or even humidity. The female lays eggs entwined with the cocoon. Unlike the other spiders, the female takes care of the eggs, turning them periodically and also moving them depending on the temperature and humidity. The amount of eggs laid by the female depends on the species, the size and age of the female. It can range from 50 up to 2000 eggs.

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