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Tarantula! January 2, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, pets, wit and wisdom.
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Gasp. Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood thought we had the market cornered on pets. We currently have a dog, three indoor cats and one outdoor cat, a parrot, three parakeets, two aquariums (housing fish, shrimp, and snails), a half-barrel water garden with snails and goldfish, and five chickens. In the past, besides innumerable cats, dogs, birds, bunnies, and fish, we’ve had anoles (OFB), toads (OFB), and mice (Silence). True, we haven’t had turtles or snakes, though we admire them, or, say, starfish and sea urchins, but on the whole, we thought we had the pet spectrum pretty well covered, at least until last Thursday.

That was the day our friend Susan, who was visiting us, casually mentioned that she had acquired a pet tarantula the previous month. Talk about being one-upped! A friend of Susan’s, an entomologist at Cornell who specializes in arachnids (spiders), had gifted her with a young Mexican red-rump tarantula (Brachypelma vagans, also called the Mexican black velvet tarantula) on a recent visit.

We, of course, were fascinated (though admittedly rather grateful that she hadn’t brought the spider along on her visit to us). Susan said she’s keeping the tarantula, which enjoys burrowing in soft substrate, in a terrarium with a layer of vermiculite on the floor to provide burrowing options and help maintain humidity (red-rump tarantulas like it pretty humid, up to 70%). A small heater helps the spider stay comfortable. Susan keeps a shallow water cup in the terrarium and feeds the tarantula live crickets, which it relishes.

In case you’re wondering how the red-rump gots its name, it’s not because it has a red bottom. Rather, its sizable abdomen (eventually reaching the size of a silver dollar) is covered in bright red hairs. The rest of its body is a velvety black, giving it its other common name, Mexican black velvet. And it’s also ornamented with a cream-edged carapace and cream-colored stripes on its legs. Quite the colorful critter, all things considered, and pretty darn big, too: full-grown females reach 5 inches, counting the legs. And they can live 15 years.

Yowie zowie! We wouldn’t want to encounter one of those in the dark, which is actually not unlikely, since they’re apparently incredibly fast and aggressive (fans prefer the term “skittish”), not surprising in a spider that lurks at the mouth of its burrow, then darts out if it perceives potential prey. Which is to say that escapes are probable. We weren’t reassured by one website that announced that the toxicity of its bite was unknown, but was “expected to be low.” Right.

To minimize the risk of escape, the Cornell professor cuts a small hole in the side of her plastic tarantula terrariums—too small for the spider to get through, but large enough to insert a cricket. That way, she doesn’t have to remove the lid each time she feeds the tarantula. Good thinking! Still, we’d feel a bit better if that hole was sealed between feedings.

Checking things out with our good friend Google, we found that some keepers of red-rump tarantulas recommend a 5-gallon terrarium with a 4- to 6-inch layer of vermiculite and perlite so the spider has plenty of room to burrow. (Note that “spider” singular: they’re cannibals, so you don’t want to keep more than one per terrarium.) They provide a half-buried clay pot, turned on its side, or a piece of cork bark as a shelter, sort of like a toad house. They also suggest misting the spider and substrate occasionally to keep the humidity at the desired level. And they pointed out that the critters have voracious appetities, though they can survive without food for several days if necessary.

The most disturbing detail was provided by Susan herself: She said the spiders have to be moved and handled very carefully, since they’re not adapted to hard surfaces and, if dropped or handled carelessly, their abdomens can shatter “like a raw egg.” Eeeewwww!!! Scrambled tarantula, anyone?

So there you have it. Susan named her spider Rosie, presumably as a nod to its common name, but we felt she could have done better, especially since she doesn’t yet know if it’s male or female. Our vote goes to Quentin. While Tarantino and tarantula are probably only related by sound, it still seems appropriate. And besides, there was Quentin, the werewolf cousin on “Dark Shadows,” the very first vampire series; no one could deny that he was (at least periodically) pretty darn hairy. 

In any case, we’ve decided to hold off on acquiring our own tarantula for now. With gas prices shooting for the stars, we can’t afford the daily cricket runs.

Comments»

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4. scm - January 21, 2011

Rosie/Quentin is quite thrilled to read such a friendly post about herself, especially so soon after an unfortunate incident in which a casual mention of her/him at a social gathering this evening sent a friend practically exploding backward through the wall of a restaurant booth in horror at the mention of s-p-i-d-e-r-s! Enough to make a young tarantula develop a phobia of p-e-o-p-l-e!

Ha! I’d say practically anything is enough to make a young tarantula develop a phobia of people. I know I would were I one!


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