Tarantulas - Intro


by Todd Gearheart
(updated 2/28/16)

So you want to join the fastest growing pet hobby? You've seen them in movies and in pet stores. Recent books and magazines are showing more and more photos of them and featuring articles about them. The Discovery Channel, Animal Planet and TBS's National Explorer TV programs are showing documentaries about them. You1ve heard all the bizarre stories that they are ugly, deadly , can jump 20 feet and are jet black and hairy, BUT is all this true? Curiosity has brought you this far. Let1s get the facts out and give you the basics about the hobby.

What is a Tarantula ?
A Tarantula is a very primitive spider that hasn't evolved much and is usually larger and more hairy than true spiders. Their fangs work in an up-and-down motion and they have four lungs. True spider's fangs work like scissors and have two lungs. They are more efficient and evolved animals than tarantulas. Why keep them? They are fascinating animals with their unique behaviors, colors and patterns. They don't take up much space, they don't make much mess, aren't expensive to feed, live very long lives, most are not dangerous and they are truly nature's jewelry.

Quick history of the hobby:
The hobby was pretty much started and became popular in the 1970's with the import and selling of the classic - the Mexican redknee, Brachypelma smithi. The 1990's has been an explosive decade for the hobby as over 200 different species have been imported or captive bred, and now there are species that appeal to every collector in color, habitat type, size, and temperament. In the late '90s, hobbyists had access to new species of Avicularia and recently, a new craving for Asian species for advanced hobbyists has pushed importers and dealers to acquire more Indo, SE Asian and New Guinea species. Also, has more pictures are made available and cares heets, large, terrestrial South American species like Xenesthis, Pamphobeteus, Vitalius, Acanthoscurria and Megaphobema have been all the rave. With the conservation movement in full steam, many countries are closing imports, but changing world economies are opening up previously closed countries so new tarantula species are still coming in every year.

Best beginner tarantulas: (because they are hardy and docile more than others)

1) "Concepcion" - Grammostola sp. This mellow tarantula was brought into the U.S. hobby for the first time in 2007. It come from central Chile in a grasslands/scrub habitat. It looks like a "Red Rose Hair", but has white legs hairs. It is still unknown if this is a sub-species of G. porteri or geographical variant, but it also might be the real G. cala. They are hardy, long-lived, easy to keep and best of all, in my opinion, they are the most docile tarantula species you can buy. Of course, their can be feisty individuals like in all tarantulas, but overall, they are very, very calm being reluctant to bite or kick urticating hairs. They are still rare in the hobby, but catching on in popularity and there is a lot of demand for them. Spiderlings run $20-$25, juveniles $35-$45, sub-adults/adults $55-$75. Similar species to consider: Grammostola sp. "Maule", and Grammostola sp. "North Gold".

2) Chaco giant golden-striped - Grammostola pulchripes.  This is a great new species from savanna habitats of the Chaco region of Paraguay.. Imported by Glades Herp in 1998, adults have been imported only in limited numbers, but several captive breedings happened in 2000, so this species is slowly being established in the hobby. Females are extremely docile and large with golden-green leg striping and capable of 8" legspans. They are reluctant to bite and kick hairs. Adults are pricey ($125-175), sub-adults are $65-85, but spiderings /juvs are $15-25. They are opportunistic burrowers.

3) Brazilian Black - Grammostola pulchra . Stocky, savanna and forest species, this great tarantula is velvet black with white-tipped hairs. Females achieve 7" legspans. Adults average about $95-125 and are not commonly imported. Captive breedings are rare as most Grammostola spp. are difficult to get fertile eggsacs from. This is a slow growing species. Established females are very calm and docile. Very heavy-bodied, so be careful in handling this species. A fall from 2" or more will prove fatal. They are opportunistic burrowers.

4) Mexican redknee - Brachypelma smithi . The hobby's "classic". This species started the hobby as we know it. It is a desert/scrubland species, slow growing, long lived (25 years + in the females!), hairy and colorful in red, yellow, orange, black and tan. Reluctant to bite, but sometimes kick hairs, which are very irritating. Still, this a favorite of the hobby. We can no longer import adults from Mexico (they are CITES II listed), but captive breedings are common and spiderlings, juvs and sub-adults are available on the market. They are opportunistic burrowers.

5) Rose Hair - Grammostola porteri. The most commonly imported tarantula. Cheap, $14-25 as adults, it is a scrubland/savanna species that is hardy and fairly docile. Freshly imported individuals can be skittish and show aggression. Captive born spiderlings are not too common as most Grammostola spp. are difficult to get fertile eggsacs from. Very slow growing. They are opportunistic burrowers. (This species used to be G. rosea, but it is the "Red Rose Hair" is now considered G. rosea. It is not often imported and tends to be not as docile, but compared to other tarantulas, it's fairly mellow.)

6) Pink zebra beauty - Eupalaestrus campestratus . Another new species first imported by Glades Herp in 1998 from Paragauay. They look like Aphonopelma seemani, but they have pink, curly hairs on their legs, underside and on the abdomen. Also, their hind legs are bigger, stronger and longer than the other legs which is a characteristic of the Eupalaestrus genus. They are a savanna species, hardy and females are very docile once established. Adults will run you $19-45. Captive breedings have established the species well, so spiderlings/juvs are available for $8-15. They are slow growing. They are opportunistic burrowers. Since Paraguay cut off exports in 2005, this species is now very rarely offered in the hobby.

7) Pinktoe - Avicularia avicularia . Often called the "French Guiana pinktoe" as they are commonly imported from that country, this small, colorful and docile arboreal species is a classic of the hobby. They are basically black with "pink toes", but under the right light, they possess a nice blue-green iridescence. They are a rainforest species which will require a vertical tank with cork bark slabs and slightly moist peat moss/vermiculite substrate. They are fast and "jumpy", but are very reluctant to bite unless startled or pinned. Adults are available as wild-caught for $14-$25 and captive breedings are common with spiderings/juvs available for $7-$10.

8) Giant Metallic Blue Pinktoe - Avicularia metallica. This specie is exported from Guyana, but found in several countries in the north part of South America. It is an arboreal rainforest tarantula that needs 80% humidity and warm temps. They can be fast and "jumpy", but rarely bite unless cornered, startled or pressed upon. They grow large to 7"-7.5" and make great display tarantulas.

9) Curly Hair - Brachypelma albopilosum . This rainforest species is an opporunistic burrower from Central America. It is a common import from Nicaragua and Hondurus with CITES II permits.. They grow quick, which makes hobbyists wonder why they are lumped with Mexican Brachypelma spp. under CITES II listing. They are brown to bronze with long, curly hairs. They look like they got in a fight with a hair dryer. Established females become very docile, but fresh imports are skittish and kick hairs. They are heavy-bodied in the females, so be careful in handling.

10) "Chilean Dwarf Flame" - Euathlus sp.  This temperate climate, obligate burrowing species from Chile is a sweetie. In the U.S. hobby, they have become very popular starting around 2011.They are slow-growing and grow to about a 3.75" leg span. They are very hardy, long-lived, beautiful in black with a tuff of bright red hairs on the end of the abdomen. Their temperament is generally very docile as they rare kick hair or do a threat display especially in the females. Similar species to consider are E. 
parvenus, E. trunculentus, and E. manicata.

Tarantulas of the genera Brachypelma, Grammostola, Aphonopelma, Eupalaestrus, Euathlus and some species of Avicularia are generally considered to be docile. Keep in mind, some species and even individuals within those species can be skittish and/or aggressive.

Bad tarantulas for beginners:

Most African and Asian and even some large South American Tarantulas are not good choices for beginners. They are too fast, hard to keep, some are very large, aggressive, nervous and some have a bad bite. Stay away from obtaining these species until you have acquired lots of experience , reading, research and communication with experienced keeper's of these species under you belt. In particular, the following genera are NOT recommended for beginner's: Poecilotheria, Pterinochilus, Stromatopelma, Heteroscodra, Hysterocrates, Selencosmia, Acanthoscurria, Haplopelma, Chilocosmia and Sericopelma.

What do you keep them in?

Most adult tarantulas can be kept in 5 to 10 gallon tanks with four-six inches of peat moss and vermiculite for a ground substrate, a cork bark shelter to hide under, and a shallow water dish. Know your species. They can be arboreal, burrowing or forest floor wandering. They are found in deserts, savannah plains, lowland rainforest and cool, montane mountains. Find out more about the type of species you are keeping and about its habitat to know how to keep it successfully.

What do you feed them?

Adult tarantulas feed on crickets and super worms; large species can eat new-born mice and small anole lizards. In most cases, feeding them once a week a couple of the above listed prey is fine.

When and how often do you have to clean their home?

With a good routine of feeding them once a week and throwing out their left over dinners the next day, you should only have to clean out your tarantula1s tank once every six months.

Can or should I handle a tarantula?

I don't recommend handling. Tarantulas should only be handled by professionals with lots of experience. They are not really pets, but "display animals" much like keeping fish in a tank. They don1t have a need for it and don1t understand it like a cat, dog or mammal would. There is no such thing as "taming" a tarantula. These are very primitive animals. They have no idea what handling is and most tarantulas can be injured from falling off your hand. If you only want to get a tarantula to hold and show off to your friends, you are getting into the hobby for the wrong reason. Please do not handle tarantulas when you are a beginner!!!

Are they dangerous?

No one has ever died from a tarantula bite. Most tarantulas are reluctant to bite and would rather run away from you, BUT they do have large fangs and if they were to bite, it would feel like a bad bee sting unless you were allergic to their venom. There are some species like Poecilotheria, Stromatopelma, Pterinochilus, Selencosmia, Chilocosmia, Heteroscodra and Acanthoscurria that have medically significant bites.

Rules of thumb: Don't handle them!, know everything about the species that you are keeping, and never lose respect for the animal. In my 35+ yrs. of experience, I believe more than 50% of hobbyists that handle their tarantulas end up dropping them and injuring or killing their beloved tarantula. These are delicate creatures. 

Captive Breeding:

After keeping several species and reading several of the good books on Tarantula breeding, you might want to try this. Captive breeding is very desirable as it keeps us from having to collect species from the wild in large numbers.
Record Keeping: Keep records on when you acquired your tarantula, from whom, how much did you pay, molt dates, breeding notes, etc. It is very important to assign stock numbers to keep separate blood lines for breeding later also.

How can I find out more?

1) Join a local Tarantula-keeping hobby club or group.
(2) Join the British Tarantula Society (www.thebts.co.uk/) and receive their informative and educational Journal.
(3) Obtain and read the following recommended books:

Sam Marshall's: Tarantulas and Other Arachnids
Stanley and Marguerite Schultz's: The Tarantula Keeper's Guide.
Ronald Baxter's: Keeping and Breeding Tarantulas in Captivity.
Andreas Tinter's: Tarantulas Today.