Creature Feature: Red-knee or pink toe, tarantulas are colorful but not cuddly

25 Oct

BY RHONDA OWEN
Special to the Democrat-Gazette
My son thinks he wants a tarantula for a pet. I don’t know anything about them. Are they hard to take care of? The main thing I want to know is if they bite and are poisonous.

Mexican Red-Knee Tarantula

These hairy arachnids bite and are venomous but the effect on humans is described as similar to the sting of a honeybee. They’re painful but cause complications only in people who are allergic to tarantula venom.

Tarantulas are low-maintenance pets — more of a hobby, really — and interesting to watch, but if your son wants a pet that he can handle frequently or play with, he’ll disappointed.

Spiders aren’t “interactive” pets. They can be picked up or stroked but it’s not recommended, primarily because of the possibility of harming the spider.

The American Tarantula Society  says there are more than 850 species of tarantulas worldwide and you need to be sure of what you’re getting to know how to care for it properly. Most people buy their spiders from online breeders (although some pet stores carry them) so you should be able to get specific care information for the type you choose.

Burrowing tarantulas, for example, will need material in the bottom of their housing (typically a 2-gallon tank or aquarium) that they can dig in. The burrow material (or substrate) should be a peat/vermiculite mix. Trees are the natural habitat of arboreal tarantulas so instead of burrowing material, they need some kind of wood that’s like a tree branch where they can make their tube-like webs.   

The Tarantula’s Burrow  offers a library of information about how to care for several tarantula species, such as the Costa Rican Zebra, Peruvian Pinktoe, Greenbottle Blue, Thailand Black and Mombasan Golden Starburst. There also a trio of Mexican tarantulas — Red-knee, Red-leg and Red-rump. CQ All

You can find more care information at exoticpets.about.com and tarantulas.com, which specializes in breeding tarantulas.

The Chilean Rose tarantula (native to Chile, as its name suggests) is one of the most common species kept as pets. It and other “starter” spiders (like the Red-knee and Pinktoe) are burrowers, docile and require little attention.

“Wild” tarantulas — you’ve probably seen at least one creeping around outside — aren’t considered pet quality. Sometimes they’re crawling with parasites or they may have been injured when captured (have lost a leg, for example). In fact, it’s a good idea to check out a tarantula before you buy to make sure it has eight legs and two pedipalps, the arm-like things on the front of the spider’s body.

Other things to know about tarantulas:
■ Different species grow to body lengths ranging 2-12 inches.
■ The largest tarantula in the world is the Burgundy Goliath Bird Eating Spider (native to Guyana), which has a leg span of 12 inches. They’re not recommended for beginner spider enthusiasts.
■ Most eat crickets but larger tarantulas can eat baby mice — or birds, as in the case of the Goliath.
■ Water in a shallow dish should be available at all times.
■ They’re not social so each spider needs its own house.
■ Spiders native to humid climates need to be misted regularly.
■ Humidity and temperature have to be regulated; this differs depending upon the species.
■ Spiders can “bleed” to death if injured; their blood (hemolymph) is pale blue to cloudy clear.
■ Female tarantulas live longer than males. A male might live as long as two years, but a female can live more than 20. Some dealers will guarantee the sex of a spider.
■ Tarantulas grow by molting, shedding the old exoskeleton for a new one. Shedding the old exoskeleton take several hours, then the new one needs several days to harden. The spiders are fragile and easily injured when molting.
■ They aren’t cheap. Prices found online for adult tarantulas range from $29 to $75 each. They’re often sold in lots of three.
■ Young spiders can be kept in small plastic boxes instead of the larger aquariums.

Mating season for tarantulas in the wild starts in July-August and continues through November, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas Heritage and Culture.

Tarantulas in Arkansas (we have the Texas brown variety) typically keep to their burrows, but the males venture out during mating season. One may travel as far as a mile to find his perfect hairy-legged girl. So romantic.

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Creature Feature appears weekly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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