Monday, August 5, 2013

Tarantulas 101: Choosing Your First Tarantula

Since I acquired my first tarantula in 2009 and my fascination with arachnids began, I've gotten a lot of questions about my eight-legged pets. Most commonly, people want to know if they're venomous (yes), deadly (no), if I've ever been bitten (not yet) and why I chose to start keeping them in the first place (because they're awesome.) Sometimes, people are interested in getting one of their own, but they're unsure where to find them, how to choose the right one and if they're really ready to commit to loving a giant, hairy spider. Guess what? I love these people!

While I'm certainly not an expert in all things tarantula-related, I've spent a great deal of time learning as much as I can about them, and I have a fair bit of experience keeping them as pets. Because I'm extremely passionate about my Ts, I'm starting a sort of series on the blog that will help educate others about them -- particularly inexperienced enthusiasts. Today I'll be covering how to choose your first tarantula, an important milestone you'll never forget.
Choosing your first tarantula is tough. It's overwhelming to sort through the Brachypelmas and the Poecilotherias to find a spider you're comfortable living with and can realistically see yourself caring for until it dies. Some people don't realize that different species have entirely different temperaments and needs, and end up selecting a specimen that's a lot more than they bargained for. Others pick out the first tarantula they see without knowing it's sex or age, and can't figure out why it refuses to eat and dies shortly after arriving home because they've been duped into buying a mature male. I've put together this guide from my own experience to help you avoid common pitfalls and make educated decisions when choosing your first tarantula. I hope it helps you find the spider that's the perfect fit for you!

It goes without saying, but research, research, research! Before you even start to narrow down potential species, it's essential that you put your Google skills to the test. Learn about tarantulas in general. Familiarize yourself with tarantula anatomybasic tarantula husbandry, the moulting process, and the difference between a terrestrial tarantula and an arboreal tarantula. Know common terms used by tarantula enthusiasts, how to set up an ICU cup, how to escape proof your enclosure and how to properly handle a tarantula. There is no such thing as too much research, and the more you know, the better care you'll be able to provide your tarantula.

Some extremely helpful resources I recommend for beginners:

  • Arachnoboards -- A forum for tarantula enthusiasts where you'll find countless tidbits of advice. It's also a great place for asking questions and getting quick, educated responses from experienced owners. Seriously, the best resource out there. 
  • Rob the Tarantula Guy -- Many American owners are well acquainted, and have likely purchased tarantulas from Rob at some point, myself included. In addition to breeding and selling Ts, Rob runs a popular Youtube channel that's great for learning pretty much all there is to know about tarantulas. 
  • Tarantula Guide -- This website is good for learning some tarantula basics and finding care sheets for various species. Care sheets aren't always entirely accurate, but they're a great place to start. Branch out and confirm information once you find a species that catches your eye. 
I'm sure someone, somewhere will beg to differ, but I do not recommend jumping into the hobby with any Old World species as a beginner. Hailing from Asia, Africa and Australia, these tarantulas are indeed some of the most stunning spiders to look at -- but they're also the fastest and most ill-tempered. New World species are native to North and South America -- and tend to be a lot slower, more docile and their venom is typically less potent. They're all-around much better suited for someone who has no experience in tarantula husbandry. However, beware; New World species have a defense mechanism Old World varieties do not in the form of tiny, urticating hairs on their abdomen. They flick these hairs when threatened and they induce a painful, itching sensation when they get embedded in your skin. I've fortunately never had a kicker (though my dear Lydia was prone to flinging spider poop at me on the regular). 

There are a few species that are commonly recommended for beginners, and are generally considered a "safe bet" for inexperienced owners. These include: 
  • Pink Toe Tarantula (Avicularia avicularia) -- Native to South America, these blue/black tarantulas stand out with the pink coloring on the tips of their legs. Slightly fast and usually docile, they're a great aboreal species for beginners. Life expectancy ranges from 5-10 years.
  • Mexican Red Knee (Brachypelma smithi) -- You probably recognize these guys from the many, many horror movies they've starred in. Native to Mexico, they're notable for their black, orange and white coloring and docile tempers. One of my absolute favorite species, and females are known to live upwards of 25 years. 
  • Chilean Rose Hair (Grammostola rosea) -- A medium, slow moving and typically docile tarantula native to Chile. One of the most common in the hobby because of their notorious easy tempers and longevity. Females can live up to 20 years in captivity. 
  • Curly Hair Tarantula (Brachypelma albopilosum) -- These tarantulas have a perpetual bad hair day, and are known for digging deep burrows where they spend most of their time. A distant relative of the Mexican Red Knee, the Curly Hair is also known for being slow and docile. 
  • Greenbottle Blue (Chromatopelma cyaneopubescens) -- Easily one of the most gorgeous New World species, the Greenbottle Blue has striking coloring as an adult and is a relatively docile spider from Venezuela. The first tarantula I ever owned was a GBB. 
Note: ALL tarantulas have the ability to be assholes, and species alone is not enough to ensure a docile spider. I've read horror stories on Arachnoboards of lunging Rosies, biting Pink Toes and everything in between. This is why it's essential to get a feel for a tarantula's temperament before you buy, which I'll discuss further in a bit. 

My first tarantula was a GBB spiderling I affectionately named Charlotte, and when she died less than three months later, I couldn't figure out where I'd gone wrong in caring for her. I had harbored dreams of raising this tiny black spider that came to me the size of a pencil eraser into a pumpkin orange, emerald green and royal blue arachnid the size of my hand. You see, I broke the first rule of choosing a tarantula and didn't do enough research beforehand. I didn't realize that few slings make it to adulthood and it's recommended that you purchase a few of them if you hope for at least one to reach maturity. I also found that caring for her was far more difficult than larger spiders I've owned. It was hard to regulate the humidity in her vial, it was difficult to remove food scraps without her escaping, and overall, it was a lot of work that I simply wasn't prepared for as an inexperienced tarantula owner. I highly recommend going for a juvenile or sub-adult spider with at least a three-inch leg span for as a beginner. At this age, they're far less likely to die while moulting, they're large enough to utilize a shallow water dish, they're big enough for handling if you so desire and they require a lot less upkeep. Best of all, you'll still get the thrill of watching the T grow and obtain it's adult coloring as it moults.
Some tarantula owners don't care about the sex of their spiders, but alas, I am not one of them. I'm incredibly sexist when it comes to my tarantulas, and I will only purchase verified females. There's a few reasons for this, but mostly it's because females of all species have significantly longer life spans than males. Females also tend to be larger when they reach maturity, and I have a bit of a "go big or go home" mindset when it comes to my tarantulas. However, to be fair, males come with their perks too. Males tend to be more active than females, and also more docile depending on the species. In the end, it's up to you which you're more comfortable with. If you're purchasing a spider that's been "verified," make sure the person you're buying from is trustworthy and knows what they're talking about. Ask if they personally sexed the spider, and how they did it. If they tell you they simply flipped the T over and had a look, that's near impossible, especially in smaller spiders. The only 100% accurate way to sex a spider is by checking it's exuvia after a moult. Also be weary of anyone who claims to have sexed a spiderling. Here's a helpful guide for sexing a tarantula yourself if you buy an unverified spider, or if you want to confirm what the seller told you after your new friend's next moult. Even if you trust the seller, I recommend doing this.
Stay far, far away from places like Petco and Petsmart in your quest to find a tarantula. They're notorious for keeping their Ts in horrific conditions, meaning you're more likely to pick out an unhealthy spider that dies on you soon after arriving home. Also, most of the tarantulas you see at large chain retailers are wild-caught adults, meaning they were literally ripped from the wild to be sold to you. Not only is this questionable morally, but many tarantula owners report wild-caught spiders being more temperamental and quick to bite. While I'm strongly against breeding cats and dogs, I'm strongly for breeding of exotic pets over wild caught. Stick with buying your spider directly from a breeder or from a small, local exotic pet shop that sources their spiders from breeders. Research the reputation of any breeder or shop before you buy. Another perk? You'll find a far wider selection of tarantulas to choose from in terms of age and species. I don't think I've ever seen anything other than a Pink Toe or a Rosie at Petco.
Pretty much any reputable exotic shop will let you handle potential T's while they supervise you, and even if you don't plan on handling your spider frequently, I think it's essential that you get a feel for their temperament before you buy. I know some tarantula owners who never handle their spiders, and I personally limit the handling of mine, but temperament still matters. The last thing you want is a spider that lunges to bite or begins flinging hairs when you're trying to feed it, change the water or rehome the T into a new enclosure. If you're hesitant to handle the spider on your own, watch an employee handle the tarantula and observe how it interacts with people. If the tarantula is slow and seems relatively at ease while being handled, you've got a winner. If the T is antsy, fidgety, starts kicking hairs or worst of all, bites, your best bet is to pass and continue on with your search.

I'm always happy to answer any questions about tarantulas to the best of my ability, so if you've got a question or concern about selecting your first tarantula that I didn't cover in the guide, please feel free to leave a comment! Have any other questions? Go ahead and ask those too!

(Note: All photos used in this post are either my own or were obtained from the public domain through Wikimedia Commons)


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