Range and Habitat
Tropical, subtropical and temperate regions of Africa, Madagascar, the Middle East, southern and southeast Asia, the Indo-Pacific region, Australia, northern New Zealand, Micronesia, Central and South America, the southern USA and many Caribbean Islands.
Deserts, grasslands, arid savannas, rainforests, open forests, fields, farms, gardens and homes in rural areas. There are ground dwelling, burrowing and arboreal species.
Tarantulas consume a wide variety of prey, including spiders, insects and other invertebrates, rodents and other small mammals, frogs, lizards, small snakes and birds.
Most species will thrive on a diet based on crickets and roaches, but they should be offered a variety of other foods when possible (i.e. wild caught insects, earthworms and waxworms). Vertebrate prey is not required by even the largest tarantulas, but if offered should consist of pre-killed pink mice (most readily accept dead prey left in the terrarium or moved about with a forceps).
Tarantulas are best maintained in screen-covered glass aquariums
or plastic terrariums
. Vertically-oriented "extra high" style aquariums or vertically oriented plastic terrariums are best for pink-toed tarantulas and other arboreal species. Be sure to use cage clips
on the aquarium cover, as even large burrowing species can climb glass, and all are incredibly strong.
Heat, Humidity and Light
You should research the needs of your particular species of tarantula carefully, but in general most will thrive at temperatures of 75-82°F. Depending upon your room temperature, a fluorescent bulb
may do the trick. If you need to use an incandescent bulb, use the lowest wattage possible, lest you risk over-drying the terrarium. Sub-tank heaters are another option, but be sure to add enough substrate over the heater to prevent burning, and monitor temperatures carefully. Under tank heaters
and reptile night viewing bulbs
may be used to provide heat at night as well.
Humidity is an important and often overlooked aspect of tarantula-keeping. Tropical forest species such as the Thailand black tarantula require humidity levels in the range of 75-85%, arid habitat tarantulas such as the Chilean rose-hair do best at 40-50% humidity (desert-dwelling species spend most of their time in deep burrows, where the air is far moister than above ground).
Humidity may be maintained by choosing the proper substrate (please see below) and by misting the terrarium 1 or more times daily. Partially covering the terrarium's top with plastic will increase the ambient humidity, but be aware that even rainforest species require ample air circulation – cover 50% of the top at most. You can provide your tarantula with a humid retreat by stocking its cave or burrow with damp sphagnum
or sheet moss
(this should be inserted into the cave via a long-handled forceps, not with your fingers; please see "Cautions Regarding Handling", below)
While tarantulas are largely nocturnal and have not been shown to require UVA or UVB light, a natural light cycle (check the range of your species and adjust the day/night length accordingly) may encourage normal activity levels. A florescent UVA-emitting reptile bulb
should be useful in this regard (be sure the spider has a dark retreat) and will allow you to keep live plants if so desired. A night-viewing bulb
will enable you to observe your tarantula after dark, when it is most active, and is highly recommended.
A mix of coconut husk
, reptile forest bark
, cypress mulch
and other moisture-retaining reptile/amphibian beddings
will work well for Cameroon red tarantulas and others hailing from moist habitats. Sheet moss (frog moss
) can be added as a ground cover. Tarantulas native to semi-arid and desert habitats, such as Mexican red-knees, can be kept on a sand-gravel substrate
, with vermiculite mixed in to retain some moisture.
Caves and Other Retreats
All tarantulas require a secure, dark hiding spot. Burrowing species such as the goliath bird eating spider will dig their own caves if the substrate is of the right consistency. Sri Lankan ornamental tarantulas and other arboreal species will utilize the underside of a cork bark slab or a similar arboreal hideaway. Most species will also readily accept artificial caves and shelters
designed for reptiles.
An interesting option for burrowing tarantulas is to utilize a thick piece of florist’s foam, cut to the exact size of the terrarium and into which an artificial burrow has been hollowed out. Be sure to locate the "cave" area near the glass, so that you can observe the spider (a piece of cardboard or black paper taped over this area, and lifted only on occasion, may convince the tarantula not to cover the glass with silk). The foam retains moisture well and is washable.
Tarantulas obtain a good deal of water form their prey, but should none-the-less be provided with a shallow water bowl. The enclosure should be misted one or two times daily, depending upon the species kept and substrate used.
Tarantulas become lethargic a day or so before molting, and may appear ill at this time. Most lay down a silken mat on which to molt and complete the process at night while lying on their sides or backs. Do not attempt to right a tarantula that you find in this position, as you will seriously injure it if a molt is imminent (if it is not molting, there is not much that you can do in any event). The terrarium’s humidity should be increased just prior to and during the molt (see above for techniques). Do not disturb or feed your tarantula for several days after it has molted, to assure that the exoskeleton has hardened properly.
Cautions Regarding Handling
Tarantulas, like all spiders, manufacture venom and are capable of delivering a painful bite. Human fatalities from tarantula bites are unknown, but their venoms are relatively unstudied, and an allergic reaction is always possible.
New World tarantulas possess urticating (irritating) hairs, which are shed when the spider is disturbed. Airborne hairs, or those that remain on one’s fingers or face, can cause serious injuries - a colleague required eye surgery to remove hairs shed by a Mexican red-knee tarantula (a relatively docile species). Do not handle tarantulas, despite what you may see others do.
Move the spiders, if at all, by urging them into a plastic container with a nylon fish net
or tongs, and wear goggles while doing so. Long-handled tongs
should be used to remove uneaten food items and water bowls from the terrarium, and to urge spiders into containers for transport. The commonly touted method of grasping a tarantula about the cephalothorax will result in your receiving a nasty bite at some point.
A flat-bottomed plastic box, nylon fish net (with cardboard to cover the opening), and a long-handled tongs should always be on hand to assist in capturing escaped tarantulas.
A number of commonly available species, including the Sri Lankan ornamental and African horned tarantulas, are simply too high strung, fast-moving and prone to jump for safe handling, even when utilizing a box and tongs.
To date, 906 tarantula species, all classified within the family Theraphosidae, have been described. They inhabit every continent except Antarctica.
Tarantulas are distinguished from the approximately 38,120 other spider species by the following characteristics:
The fangs, attached to the front of the cephalothorax, operate in an up and down as opposed to a side-to-side manner.
They breathe via 2 pairs of book lungs as opposed to a trachea and 1 pair of book lungs
They have 2 claws and adhesive pads on each foot
Certain tarantula species grow far larger than do other types of spiders
Tarantulas are "sit and wait" predators, and do not actively search for prey. Nor do they use silk to ensnare their food, although the silk lines surrounding tarantula burrows and retreats may serve to warn the spiders of an approaching meal or enemy.
Like all spiders, tarantulas utilize external digestion – digestive fluids are regurgitated onto the captured prey, after which the liquefied remains are consumed.
About the Author
For more articles by Frank Indiviglio visit That Reptile Blog
or read his biography.