Live Pet Tarantula Care Sheet
The following caresheet is based on over ten years of experience keeping a variety of tarantula species. While their care requirements are minimal, quality care does affect ultimate size and growth rates. For slow growing species with long lifespans, like our native US Aphonopelma species, these considerations are helpful when choosing a pet tarantula. Other factors to consider include whether a tarantula species is terrestrial or arboreal. Finally, factors of speed, aggression and venom levels should be strongly considered.
Introduction : Tarantulas are easily the most popular pet bug (arthropod) group in the US live pet bug hobby. The vast array of species that are available, combined with their behaviors and ease of care contribute to their popularity. Many people just want a pet they can impress visitors to their home with, but tarantulas are a marvel of evolution. They are the largest spiders on the planet, exhibiting a truly amazing diversity of habits, habitats and appearance. Goliath birdeaters tip the scale as the largest species, while bright, metallic hairs cover the bodies of an amazing number of others. Symmetrically banded in reds, yellows or oranges appear on many species, like the popular Mexican Red Knee Brachypelma smithi. Various patterns of lines provide species like the ornamental Poecilotheria, or the tiger rump Cyclosternum fasciatum, a distinct appeal.
Buy Tarantulas : We used to be able to buy a few species of tarantulas from large, chain pet stores. Most commonly, the Mexican Red Knee was available. Some still offer Rose Hairs and a few other species, but not as commonly as before. Typically, these will be available as adults or near adults. Online dealers and hobbyist traders are the best source. Of those, dealers with good reputations and a long duration in the hobby are ideal. It can be difficult to purchase a healthy animal, sight unseen over the internet. Upon arrival, the abdomen of the tarantula would ideally be moderately plump. A recently molted tarantula would be typically thinner, but shouldn't be shipped for at least a few weeks following a molt.
Housing Habitats and Cages : As mentioned earlier, tarantulas can be divided in to two major categories--terrestrial and arboreal. There are a number of species that sort of fall in between, but the distinction is still helpful in discussing most species. Simply, terrestrial tanks will be horizontally oriented, while arboreal species will have cages that are taller than they are long or wide. The latter facilitates the natural tendency of these spiders to climb and lay down thick layers of web.
Tank size is important. If the cage is too large, the tarantula may have difficult coming in to contact with its prey. If the cage is too small, it may have trouble molting properly. Terrestrial tarantulas should have a floor as three times as wide and long as their legspan. Arboreals should have this minimum in the vertical direction.
Substrate is an important element of proper cage setup. A few inches in an arboreal tank acts as a buffer against desiccation (drying out) if it is wet down from time to time. Many terrestrial species prefer at least 3 inches of substrate, but will gladly burrow down a foot or more if given the room to do so. Of course, the deeper the substrate, the less likely you are to see your pet. Thinner substrate levels are often used by hobbyists to increase visibility of their pets. Coconut shell or cork bark or bark rounds are placed in the cage in sturdy fashion to provide hides. Whatever combination of elements you provide your pet, make sure that they are not prone to collapsing within the cage, accidently pinning your pet.
A water dish is often provided in the cage, particularly for keepers that are housing terrestrial species in screen-lidded cages or applying heat through lights on top or heat mats underneath the cage. Tarantulas are very prone to drying out, so these additions must be applied and maintained very carefully.
Plants and various other decorations can be added to the cage, but it is important to remember that the more time your hand is in the cage moving items around while cleaning or maintaining the cage, the more likely your pet may misinterpret your intentions. While there is much truth to the tendencies toward aggression in the various species, the individual temperment of a single tarantula can deviate drastically from the species' norm.
Foods : Young spiderlings start on fruit flies or the smallest crickets. The size of the crickets or roaches or other feeder insects grows as the tarantula grows. The goal is a nice, plump abdomen. A tarantula will usually indicate interest in its food fairly quickly upon introduction of the feeder. If the tarantula shows no interest in the food after several hours, or especially days, it is a clear indicator that it is not interested in feeding. Some individual tarantulas are prone to stress. A lacking feeding response can also indicate that the tarantula is preparing to molt. Feeder insects can actually prevent or interrupt a tarantula from molting by stressing it out or, worse yet, nibble on the soft, freshly molted exoskeleton of the tarantula, resulting in death.
Life Cyle : Tarantulas develop in an egg sac, typically incubated and watched over by mother. Special, often mechanical incubators are used by breeders to artificially simulate ideal condtions, with great results. Young tarantulas are referred to as spiderlings or "slings" for short. They resemble the adults and shed their skin a varying number of times until they mature as adults. Upon maturing, males seek out females, mate and usually die in a year or two. Females may continue to molt after reaching maturity. Females in some species, like Aphonopelma and Brachypelma, can live 20 to 30 years.
Molting : While arboreal tarantulas will often molt in a tube of webbing, well above the substrate in their cage, terrestrials will often be observed laying down a mat of webbing before they molt. This isn't always noticed, however. A terrestrial tarantula will molt on its back. This is a critically sensitive time for a tarantula and care must be taken not to disturb it whatsoever. Hopefully, the cage will not be so dry that the tarantula gets stuck in its molt. A freshly molted tarantula should be given a few days to allow its new exoskeleton to harden before food is offered.
Breeding : Captive breeding tarantulas is a hit or miss exercise. Nature often takes its course and a smooth courtship results. Males may drum the soil outside a female's burrow in a fashion peculiar to the species. Females may respond or may not. Three things can variously happen. One of the sexes may fail to show interest. The male can become a meal. Or maybe the tarantulas will mate. When they are finished, most keepers carefully intercept the male for later reintroduction. Repeat breedings help to ensure fertilization. It is not uncommon for everything to go perfectly, only to find that the female never lays an eggsac. Or sometimes she may shed her skin causing the need for refertilization. Other outcomes include the female being stressed or hungry, resulting in her making an unfortunate snack of her eggsac. The entire experience is subject to factors of beginner's luck and chance tragedies. Don't despair, however, as hobby successes are also very common! Breeding your pets is a natural part of their life cycle.
(rough draft, under construction)