Tarantula Sling Husbandry – A Comprehensive Guide

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I can remember getting my first two slings, a L. parahybana and a C. cyaneopubescens, several years ago. Although I had kept adult tarantulas before, these tiny little gals just seemed so tiny and fragile. I had spent hours researching the care, and had even spoken to a couple of keepers about them. I thought I had the correct setups, and my temperatures seemed okay, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that something with my husbandry was amiss and that I would inevitably end up with two dead slings.

Even folks who have kept larger specimens for years tend to experience more than their fair share of anxiety when they keep their first slings. Part of the problem is that much of what you read about sling care can conflict with what you read about their adult counterparts. For example, good husbandry information will tell you that the Brachypelma smithi is an arid species that requires dry substrate to be content. However, look up the care of a B. smithi sling, and you may find folks keeping them on damp substrate. Or, let’s consider the husbandry requirements for some arboreal species. Look up how to set up a Poeciotheria regalis, and you’ll be told a tall enclosure with a couple of inches of substrate and piece of cork bark flat for climbing. Pokie slings, however, will often burrow and stay beneath the ground until the reach the “juvenile” stage, so more substrate and less height might be prudent.

This conflicting, sometimes confusing, information can prove stressful to those new to the hobby (or even those used to Ts but raising slings for the first time). In the past several years, I’ve been contacted by many hobbyists new to keeping slings about my thoughts on their care. More than a few said that they wished there was a “standard of care” guide for those interested in raising slings for the first time.

Well, I definitely wouldn’t be presumptuous enough to label this attempt at a guide as the “standard”, but I will say that I’ve used the techniques, tricks, and information presented here to successfully raise healthy slings for years. I would definitely recommend that anyone attempting to raise a sling first look up the specific husbandry for the species they will be getting, and to use this FAQ as a springboard for further research. With that out of the way, let’s begin our rather lengthy tutorial on tarantula spiderlings.

Selecting the size of your sling

We’ve all been there. While shopping around for the tarantula species you’ve been eyeing, you find someone who has it for an impossibly good price. You can barely contain your excitement as you click on the photo to read the product description more closely to determine if there is a catch. As your eyes move from word to word, you find the little detail that makes your heart sink.

It’s not just a sling, it’s a small one. Really small.

1/4″ of spider.

Still the price is so good, you’re tempted to add it to your cart and pull the trigger. After all, there isn’t much difference between a 1″ sling and a 1/4″ sling, right?

Well, yes and no.

Baby tarantulas come with their own unique set of challenges, and the tiniest ones can be more challenging still. I usually encourage folks who are buying their first sling to try to get one at least .75″ or so, with spiderlings around 1″ being ideal. Slings of this size are usually better established and a bit more hardy than smaller ones, and it won’t be long until they reach the much less risky juvenile stage. As there will always be some anxiety involved when it comes to raising one’s first sling, a large specimen will bring a bit more piece of mind.

Besides being more fragile and susceptible to husbandry mistakes, spiders 1/4″ or less can be very difficult to see, as they often blend too well with the grains of the substrate. Factor in that many slings burrow, and you will likely spend several months staring at what seems like a plastic container of dirt. This can lead to the keeper constantly worrying that the animal has escaped or died. Also, slings of this size often must scavenge feed, or eat off of larger, previously-killed prey because most prey items offered on the market will be too large for them to take down. However, due to their minuscule size, it’s often impossible to tell whether they are feeding or not as even prey items that were fed upon may appear untouched. Finally, their tiny stature can make recognizing premolt more difficult.

Again, more stress.

Another important aspect to consider is the growth rate of the species. Many of the popular Grammostola, Brachypelma, and Aphonopelma species are very slow growers, especially as small slings. Not only can they take several months between molts, but the growth between molts, especially early on, can be negligible at best. Some of these species are also notorious for fasting, This means that if you purchase that the 1/4″ B. smithi sling you’re eyeing, it will likely be many years before you have an animal that looks like a big, hairy spider. If you’re the impatient sort, the wait can can be more than a bit frustrating.

Does this mean that someone shouldn’t attempt to raise a smaller sling as their first? Absolutely not. An informed hobbyist who is aware of the challenges they may face with a tiny sling may have no problem at all.  Obviously, plenty of hobbyists have succeeded in raising the smallest of slings successfully. However, before you hit that buy button, you should be aware of some of the challenges you may face.

Tip: Occasionally, a dealer will indicate the “age” of the spider by using the term “instars”. An instar is the period between each of a tarantula’s molts, and it can be used to identify how far along a sling is in its life cycle. For example, a sling that has molted out of its “eggs with legs” stage (they essentially look like yellow spider eggs with legs when first “hatched”) would be considered “1st instar”. After its next molt, it would be “2nd instar” … and so on. Therefore, a “4th instar” specimen would be a fairly well-establish sling. 

Your sling is on its way…now, what to put it in?

When you hit your local pet store to buy a new animal, you likely don’t have any issues finding an appropriate enclosure for it. After all, many of the creatures offered in the pet trade have been staples for years, and several companies have jumped into the lucrative pet industry with specialized enclosures. Buy a hamster? Get a hamster cage. Want some fish? Grab up that aquarium. Picking up that bearded dragon you’ve always wanted? Shell out for that awesome beardie set up kit.

Buy a baby tarantula on the other hand? Good luck.

The fact is, tarantulas are just starting to gain some mainstream popularity in the pet industry, and no one in the mainstream pet trade has, to my knowledge, produced an enclosure specifically for tarantulas, never mind a spiderling. And, as most pet store employees are woefully uneducated on proper tarantulas husbandry, if you do buy a cage from a pet store, you’re likely to come home with something that is inappropriate.

Tip: The popular all-purpose Critter Keeper cages are not appropriate for smaller slings. Although they make them in mini sizes that offer good dimensions for a baby spider, the vent slats in the lids are wide enough to permit a spiderling to escape. 

So, what do you do?

The good news is, you may have the perfect sling enclosure in your home right now.

Most serious keepers agree that part of the fun of the hobby is finding new and interesting containers to use as cages. I’ve personally experimented with dozens of plastic bins, containers, and such as my collection has grown, and I can’t walk into the container section of Walmart without scouring the assortment of canisters for something that might work with my Ts.

The most commonly used and appropriate sling enclosure options are quite inexpensive and easily acquired at the local grocery store or online. Just a couple of dollars and ten minutes of time can yield you the perfect sling housing. Let’s take a look at the most widely used containers.

Plastic snap cap or “dram” bottles: Keepers have used these for years, and they are particularly handy for folks who find themselves with huge quantities of slings. They are transparent, secure, and come in an assortment of convenient sizes. To ventilate, use a thumb tack or needle to poke several small holes in the top (I usually put a couple dozen). The only downside is that they are very difficult to vent anywhere other than the top, which means no cross-ventilation. They are also not stackable, which can be a bit inconvenient for those with several slings who want to conserve space.

Plastic dram vials used to house small slings.

Plastic dram vials used to house small slings.

Plastic spice jars: These are becoming more popular due to their convenient sizing (small jars are great for the tiny slings) and availability. They come in the same general sizes as the dram bottles, but the softer plastic used makes them much easier to ventilate on the sides. Just heat up a needle on the stove top or use a thumb tack to make a few rings of holes around the top half-inch or so. Many folks have these already in their cabinets, so one can be emptied, cleaned thoroughly, and used in a pinch. They are also readily available online from places like Amazon. Even better, many have little hatches in the lids that make feeding very convenient; just pop the little tab, drop the feeder in, and close it back up. Done.

Tip: Spiders are escape artist and can slip through holes and crevices that seem impossibly small. When making your vent holes, always make sure that they are smaller than the carapace of the T. If you slip up and make a hole that you think might be too large, stick a piece of clear tape over it.

Plastic spice jars make wonderful sling enclosures.

Plastic spice jars make wonderful sling enclosures.

Deli cups: Deli cups are an especially popular enclosure used by hobbyists to house their young spiders. They are very readily available, cheap, stackable, usually quite clear, and easily ventilated. Many keepers get them for free or for less than $1, and I’ve heard of more than a few stories of folks hitting the local deli for some soup or potato salad mostly for the cup. For those with large collections, you can buy them in batches of 50 for about $20. For those looking to house terrestrial slings, the 16 oz size is perfect, offering plenty of substrate depth for burrowers. As for arboreal or fossorial slings, the 32 oz version offers the extra height for climbers and substrate depth for diggers respectively.

Venting these is simple, as they are quite thin and the plastic easily perforated. Just heat up a nail on the stove top, grip it with pliers, and use it to make two or three rings of ventilation holes around the top. I usually space mine about 3/4″ inch apart in a  3/4-1″ band.

A couple simple deli cups.

A couple of simple deli cups.

Tip: For tiny slings, try using the 2 oz plastic souffle cups. These are usually crystal clear, secure, and much smaller than their 16 oz counterparts. They can also be bought or procured from delis or restaurants.

Amac boxes: These have become very popular in the past couple years, especially for folks who are handy and have some tools. They are crystal clear, very secure, come in a number of sizes, and are easily found at stores like the Hobby Lobby or online at the Container Store. For slings the 2 5/16″ x 2 5/16″ x 4 3/16 size is perfect. The plastic is quite thick on these, so burning holes in can be a bit of an issue. Most folks choose to either drill a series of vent holes with a drill or use a dremel tool to cut a large round hole and add an aluminum mesh vent.

Amac boxes, if modified and vented, can make good sling enclosures.

Amac boxes, if modified and vented, can make good sling enclosures.

These boxes can be a bit pricier than the other options, and the ventilation is a bit more difficult to accomplish. That said, they look gorgeous on a shelf. For an excellent tutorial into how to turn Amac boxes into tarantula habitats, click this link. Hobbyist Casey Peter does a great job of walking folks through it with step-by-step instructions.

Tip: If you’re using a new Amac box, try opening and closing it several times before you set if up for the spider. The tops can fit on quite tightly until they are loosened up a bit. This will make it much easier to open when you have your tarantula in it. 

And for those who don’t feel handy enough to make their own, Jamie’s Tarantulas sells pre-made ones with all of the fixings. It cost a bit more, but they work great and are ready to use right out of the box.

Three sling enclosures from Jamie's tarantulas. I have a dozen of these, and I love them.

Three sling enclosures from Jamie’s tarantulas. I have a dozen of these, and I love them.

Setting up the enclosure

Now that you’ve got your enclosure ventilated and ready to go, how do you set it up? What other materials do you need? Personally, I find setting up enclosures to be one of the most enjoyable aspects of the hobby. That said, it’s important to remember that when slings are involved, the correct setup is paramount to the aesthetic of it. Let’s look at what you’ll need.

Substrate – There are many types of materials you can use for substrate, including coco coir, peat, and plain top soil.  For a detailed description of the pros and cons of each, click the link to read “Choosing the Right Substrate for Your Tarantula“. Any of these, or a combination of them, work just fine, although the coco coir is quite popular with many hobbyists.

Water dish – For slings 1/2″ or larger, I strongly encourage the use of a water dish if one will fit (more on this in a bit). For deli cup enclosures, the small bottle caps from bottled water work great. If using a smaller enclosure, spraying or drizzling water on the substrate is always an option. Still some folks have gotten quite creative by using things like small single block Legos and golf Ts for water dishes. Don’t be afraid to experiment.

Cork bark – Spiderlings are nervous and reclusive creatures. After all, you have to figure that in the wild, the more they are seen, the better the chance they are preyed upon and eaten. Therefore, it’s always good to give them a place to hide. A small piece of cork bark can provide them with much appreciated cover and security.

Sphagnum moss – Sphagnum moss not only looks pretty in an enclosure, but it serves a couple valuable purposes. First, it holds moisture, so a keeper using spraying or dribbling to keep his pet hydrated will soak down the sphagnum to give the T a drink. Second, if cork bark isn’t available, it can serve as a makeshift hide for the slings, as many will crawl under it for cover.

Plastic/silk plant leaf – Again, another accessory that has more purpose than just the aesthetic. A plastic leaf can provide security for the tarantula as well as moisture. If you want to water your T but don’t have a water dish, spraying the plastic foliage is a great way to give your sling the opportunity to drink. For smaller enclosures, you can just lay the leaf on the substrate. For larger enclosures, most folks like to use hot glue to affix the leaves to the cork bark.

A piece of cork bark with a leaf hot glued onto it.

A piece of cork bark with a leaf hot glued onto it.

Now, unfortunately, some of the components will have to be purchased in “bulk”, as sphagnum moss is sold in bags and plastic leaves are usually plucked off of much larger plastic plants and vines. That said, this hobby is incredibly addictive, so just think of that bag and that plastic vine as a future investment.

Now that you have all of the components, here’s what you’ll need to do:

  1. Make sure that you have enough ventilation in your enclosure. You can’t drill or burn holes once the tarantula is inside, so if you think you might need more, add them now. If possible, make sure you have good cross-ventilation by putting the vent holes on the sides and not the top.
  2.  Add the substrate. If housing a terrestrial sling, you’ll want to fill at least two-thirds of the enclosure with packed down substrate. Although slings are lighter and less prone to injury from falling, you want to makes sure the height from the substrate to the top of the enclosure isn’t too high. A fall from too high, especially onto something hard like cork bark or a dish, can be fatal to a T. Also, notice the key phrase “packed down”. There is no need to leave the soil loose and fluffy; they can easily dig through it if they want. For an arboreal species, you don’t have to use quite as much substrate, but you still want to include enough to allow for burrowing (an inch or so is usually sufficient).
  3. Add a starter burrow or cork bark hide.  Personally, I like to use a utility knife to trim the cork bark a bit so that it fits neatly into a corner. For terrestrials, I will also use the handle of a paint brush to create a starter burrow beneath it. Most slings will scramble beneath to hide once being housed. For arboreals, I lean piece against the side of the enclosure at an angle. Fossorial, or burrowing species, will usually only need a starter burrow down the side of the enclosure. I use a pencil or the back of a paintbrush to make the tunnel straight down, then I pack the substrate good and tight around it. When I slip the brush or pencil out, the hole that remains is perfect for a shy little sling.
  4. If the leaf is not attached to the cork bark, add it now. In smaller setups, I’ve seen the leaf just planted in the substrate. This is fine, although if your little guy/gal is a digger, the fake foliage won’t stay up for long.
  5. Place a few pinches of sphagnum moss around the den.  Again, if you’re not able to include a hide, this is a great way to provide some security for your sling. If you go this route, create a starter burrow down the side of the enclosure for the sling.
  6. Finally, add and fill the water dish.  Nothing to this step; just push it down into a corner and fill it up with water. Viola…you’re done!

Arborial-vs-terrstrial

Tip: If using coco coir, especially damp, be sure to pack it down as tightly as you can. When it dries. coco fiber loses a lot of its volume. An enclosure with four inches of moist substrate to start will likely have only a couple of inches or so by the time it dries and settles. 

Receiving and unpacking  your sling

When slings arrive, they are usually safely cocooned in moist paper towel or tissue inside a plastic vial or, for the tiny ones, inside a piece of straw with paper plugs in each end. Because slings are very fragile and tiny, and it can be very difficult getting the paper towel lining out, extreme caution is needed when attempting to get the sling out of its travel packing and into its new home.

To remove the slings from the straws, simply pull the plug from both ends and set the straw in the enclosure. You can either let the sling come out on its own, or gently blow in one end to get it to come out.

For removing slings from the travel vials, I recommend using tweezers or tongs. Startled slings will sometimes bolt out, and you want to keep your finger away from them. Next, it’s time to carefully extract the packing material with the spider inside.

  1. First, pull the paper plug covering the hole if there is one (sometimes folks just fold over the paper towel to cover the opening.
  2. Next, get a grip on the edge of the towel while being very careful not to catch the spider or its legs.
  3. Once you have a really good grip, you want to very carefully pull out the entire cylinder of lining material at the same time. If the towel doesn’t come out in one chunk but instead starts to form a cone-like shape as the layers stretch out STOP IMMEDIATELY. If you continue to pull the towel you can constrict the tarantula, crushing it. It’s best to stop trying to extract it and instead let it come out on its own at this point.
  4. Once the paper towel or toilet paper is out, place it on the substrate and find the edge of the towel (it’s usually a flat piece rolled into a cylinder). Now, slowly start rolling it open. The unrolled paper towel can become quite long and cumbersome, so I will sometimes use scissors to carefully snip away sections of it as I unroll.
  5. When the spider is exposed, use a paintbrush to carefully guide it off the towel, or leave the small piece of towel it’s standing on behind and remove it later when the sling is exploring. Either works.

The video below shows the process many times (skip to 4:15 for the actually rehousings). Again, the key is to take your time and work very carefully around the fragile T.

If it’s too difficult to safely remove the packing and the sling, and if the enclosure offers enough room, your best bet is to place the opened vial inside and to let the animal come out on its own. Most will venture out if left in over night. Some vendors actually recommend that you use this method to rehouse the sling.

Tip: If your sling’s legs are curled or if it looks lethargic when you receive it, try putting it in a small container with some moistened paper towel and setting it aside in a warm corner of your home. Travel can be very stressful for Ts, and if they were not properly hydrated before their trip and the weather is warm (or, if it was too close to a heat pack), they can become dehydrated. Sometimes a good drink is all they need to spruce back up. Also, after being shipped in very cold or very warm temps, I like to unpack mine and let them adjust to my home’s temps for an hour or so before rehousing.

How long should you wait to try feeding it?

A lot of vendors will ask that you wait to feed your new slings for a couple of days or so after receiving them to let them acclimate and settle in. That’s actually a very prudent practice. After spending hours being bounced around on planes and trucks, they are suddenly deposited into brand new and alien environments. One would think they might need some time to calm down and adjust.

I have to admit, however, that I try feeding most of mine the same night to get a small meal in them after their shipping ordeal. I’ve found that tarantulas are incredibly resilient, and most will eat that same night.

Keeping your slings hydrated

One of the reasons slings are more susceptible to dehydration is that they lack the waxy coating on their exoskeletons that their juvenile and adult counterparts have. This layer helps the tarantula retain moisture and protects it from drying out. Until this coating develops, usually after several molts, it is much easier for a sling to die from desiccation. Although the so-called arid species are much more resistant to dry conditions, the slings can still run the risk of drying out. This can be a particular danger in the winter time when furnaces and fireplaces are heating homes and severely drying out the air. It’s important that all slings, even those who supposedly thrive in dry conditions, stay hydrated.

But how to do it?

Start by using water dishes. I use water dishes in just about all of my sling enclosures that I can fit them in, and I strongly advocate that others use them as well. Unfortunately, there is a persistent rumor that says that tarantula slings can drown in water dishes. Well, long story short, that’s just not true (for a more in-depth explanation, please check out the article Tarantula Controversies – Should I Give My Tarantula a Water Dish). And the benefit they add by affording a source of drinking water and extra humidity make them invaluable, in my opinion. Many keepers will often overflow the water dishes to also give the spiders a moist spot of substrate as well.

As for what to use for water dishes, the lids for plastic water bottles work fantastically well. They are small, blend into the enclosure well, and can be recycled if they get soiled. For spiders less than .5″, I’ve heard of folks getting quite creative. Some examples are:

  • Golf tees –  Chop off the spike to length, plant them in the substrate, and fill the top with water.
  • Legos – Apparently, the tiny round single-peg pieces make for good dishes!
  • Plastic pill capsules – You know those little plastic blister cards that you have to pop your pills out of? Well, some hobbyists carefully trim each of those little recessed disks off and use them as dishes.

The fact is, for a keeper who wants to make sure her slings have water at all times, there are many options.

A 32 oz deli cup arboreal setup with a bottle cap water dish.

A 32 oz deli cup arboreal setup with a bottle cap water dish.

Tip: It’s often easier to toss than to clean tiny water bowls, so it’s good to have many on hand, even with smaller collections. A good way to get a bunch quickly is to buy 12 packs of bottled water, either for personal consumption or to use for watering your spiders. 

Another common way to provide moisture to slings is by spraying or misting.  This is an age-old method that has probably been around as long as the hobby. It’s also fairly simple to do.  Open the top, spray a few squirts on the side of the enclosure, the plastic foliage, and the corner of the substrate — done.  Those who put sphagnum moss in their enclosures will also want to spray that down as well, as the moss will retain moisture for longer.

A spray bottle with an adjustable nozzle is a handy tool for misting and filling water dishes.

A spray bottle with an adjustable nozzle is a handy tool for misting, soaking substrate, and filling water dishes.

It’s important for keepers that use this method to come up with a regular schedule, as sprayed water can evaporate quickly leaving a small window for raised humidity and the availability of drinking water.  In the warm summer months or during the winter when the furnace is running non stop, it may be necessary to spray more often. For those who choose this method, the trick is to add some water without saturating the entire enclosure. Enclosures that are too moist and stuffy can be a death trap for slings. It takes experimentation and practice, but it can be an effective water delivery system.

Tip: As an alternative to spraying and misting, some keepers will instead “make it rain”. Instead of just spritzing the inside of the enclosure, some will instead sprinkle water over all or part of the substrate to simulate a rain shower. The water is then allowed to soak into the substrate, keeping it moister and providing humidity for much longer. This can be done by poking holes in the top of a plastic water or juice bottle and using it as a watering jug.

Some keepers choose to keep all of their small slings on moist substrate. The theory here is that all slings, due to their lack of that waxy layer, can benefit from a moist environment. Whether it be a traditional moisture-loving species like H. gigas or an arid species like the G. rosea, keepers who favor this method make sure they all have a moist and warm home. Then, as the more arid species  molt toward maturity and develop that protective coating, they allow the cages for those spiders to dry out.

Keeping all or just part of the substrate moist for all species means a more humid environment with less spraying. For keepers who are concerned about their Ts drying out, this leaves a much larger margin for error. If a keeper forgets to spray for a bit, the moisture that is slowly evaporating from the substrate can keep the humidity up so that the spider doesn’t become dehydrated.

My own practices

First off, almost all of my slings get water dishes. I’ve personally seen many of them drink, and I like the extra defense against dehydration they afford me. With most species, I will also overflow the dish, giving them a moist spot of substrate. For the two that don’t currently have them, I keep a portion of the substrate moistened and dribble water on the sphagnum and fake leaves for drinking once a week or so. As soon as these two are rehoused into larger enclosures, they will get dishes.

For my moisture-dependent species like O. violaceopes, H. gigas, T. stirmi, and C. lividum, I provide deep moist substrate, keeping the bottom layers moist at all times. To do this, I start with moist substrate in the enclosure, then I use the “rain” method (using a water bottle modified with several holes in the top to periodically simulate a rain shower) to re-wet it when it starts to dry out. I generally only have to do this a few times during the summer months, and once a month or so during the winter.  Ideally, you want the water to filter down the sides and deep into the substrate to keep the bottom levels moist.

I’ve also found a way that works for me to keep the moisture in the enclosure up for arid species while avoiding overly moist enclosures. When I pack the substrate into a new sling enclosure, I start with an inch or two (depending on the depth of the container) of moist sub mixed with a bit of vermiculite. I pack this down well, then fill the cage up the rest of the way with dry sub. Next, I make a starter burrow down the side of the enclosure for the new occupant. This keeps the top level dry, and allows the sling to use its instinctual burrowing behavior to dig down and find the humidity level it needs.

I first tried this technique with an Aphonopelma anax sling that was not settling in well after a couple of months in my care. The poor sling cowered in the corner, did not dig, did not eat, and didn’t seem to be thriving like my other slings. Even when I moistened a corner, the sling didn’t show a preference for it.

One night, I made a little trench down the corner of its enclosure to the bottom and poured water in, allowing it to moisten just the lower 1/2″ of dirt or so. The next day, I was shocked to discover that the sling had dug all the way down to the bottom and constructed a burrow in just a few hours time. Encouraged by this development, I dropped a roach in to see if it would eat. Within five minutes time, it was enjoying the first meal it had eaten in my care.

I’ve used this technique with several slings now, and I’ve had Brachypelma, Grammostola, and Aphonopelma species burrow down to take advantage of a moister burrow. When I add water to the substrate, I use the back of a paint brush to create a series of furrows down the side of the enclosure, then I carefully pour water down the side and allow it to drain through to the bottom. In fact, this is the same technique I use to keep the substrate in my moisture dependent species’ enclosures damp.

Keepers should use their discretion to come up with a system that works for them. Many will employ all three methods — moist substrate, water dishes, and spraying — in various measures to ensure the best possible care. For example, one might give their sling a moist spot of substrate AND a water dish. Or, I’ve heard of folks that keep arboreal species giving them water dishes on the ground and an occasional spritz on the top of the enclosure to let them grab a drink up high. The trick is to make sure that your tarantula remains properly hydrated without creating dank and potentially dangerous conditions.

Tip: In the winter, the furnace and wood stoves can really take the moisture out of the air, leaving humidity levels in your home very low. One way to protect your slings’ enclosures from drying out too quickly is to make a “sling nursery”. To do this, take a large plastic container with a lid and vent it around the sides. Place folded paper towels on the bottom, and then a smaller open container of water inside it. Now, place your sling containers around this water container and put the lid on. The water in the center reservoir will evaporate out, keeping the humidity inside the nursery higher than the outside. This will keep the moisture from evaporating out of your sling cages too quickly, thus protecting your Ts. 

An example of a sling nursery.

An example of a sling nursery.

Temperatures

Many folks like to keep their slings at higher temperatures, whether it be to encourage growth or because they believe that they will suffer health issues if kept cooler. I’ve read many care sheets from hobbyists and dealers alike that indicate that tarantula spiderlings must be kept in the 80s due to their fragility and need for more heat than their adult counterparts.

There are a couple of issues with this. First, most species don’t come from regions where it is always 80° or higher all year round. They come from areas where the temperatures can fluctuate a great deal. Even many of the so-called tropical species experience weather in the 60s. Then, if you factor in their burrowing, which has them underground where temps can be much cooler, and you see how this sweet spot of 80° or higher is likely an arbitrary number.

It’s also important to consider that the higher the temperatures, the more likely the chances of the spiderling dehydrating. Hotter air can mean faster evaporation, which can lead to a desiccated tarantula. In this scenario, the warmer temps would warrant more spraying and more filling of the water bowls. Definitely something to keep in mind if you’re keeping slings at higher temps.

Many keepers new to slings will immediately panic if the temps drop into the 70s and resort to alternative heating methods, like heat mats, to jack up the “dangerously low” temps. Not only is this usually completely unnecessary, but it can be dangerous to the slings as well. It’s very difficult heating a tiny enclosure safely, as heat lamps and mats can quickly overheat and dry out an enclosure.

Here’s the deal; most slings will do just fine at room temperature. I’ve personally raised dozens of slings, and it rarely hits 80 in my tarantula room. Furthermore, in the winter, temperatures usually hover between 70-72° during the nights, with an occasional drop into the high 60s. I’ve had no issues with slings dying from the temps or with my growth rates. Most continue to molt and eat right through the winter, albeit at a slower rate than they do in the warm summer months.

Does this mean it’s wrong to keep them at higher temps? Absolutely not. If a keeper has a way to safely maintain higher and consistent temps with his slings, then he or she can certainly do so. Some folks actually have tarantula rooms that they can heat separately from the rest of their homes, often with a space heater regulated by a thermostat. This is a safe and effective way to elevate temperatures consistently, and these keepers then can enjoy faster spider growth.

However, it is not a necessity.

Plenty of folks keep their slings in a range between 68-75° with no issues or deaths. The majority of species do just fine. The nice thing about sling enclosures is that they are small, so if one room is a bit too chilly, it’s not too difficult to find a warm spot in the house and keep them there.

Although It’s also important to remember that keeping slings at room temperature will not cause adverse affects, it should be mentioned that sustained temperatures in the cooler range can lead to lower metabolisms. So tarantulas consistently kept in low temps may experience the following:

  • Slower growth rates
  • Decreased appetites
  • Seasonal fasting

Of course, all species of tarantulas experience seasonal shifts in the wild, so this would be quite natural for a good majority of them.

My animals are all kept 70-75° in the winter, and 75-80° in the summer months. On occasion, the temps may dip to 68 for a night or two in the winter, or rise to the mid 80s in the summer. However, these two extremes are quite rare. A nighttime drop in temperature is also quite natural and not an issue.

Tip: If the temps in your home are just too low and you need to use an extra heat source, do NOT try to heat sling enclosures individually. If possible, use a space heater to heat the entire room. They’re relatively inexpensive, reliable, and deliver even heat that can be controlled by built-in thermostats. If you can’t use a space heater, anther way to go is to use a heat mat with a rheostat to heat a larger enclosure, like a 10 gallon aquarium, to ensure even heat inside. Then you can just place the sling enclosures inside this larger heated one. Folks who use this method carefully monitor the temps inside and will use a rheostat with a thermometer attachment to make sure the interior temps stays consistent. Those who go this route will often include a large open bowl of water inside as well to keep the air from drying out. As the water in the bowl evaporates, it will keep the humidity inside this “incubator” up.  A plastic cover with vent holes, not the common wire mesh ones sold at pet stores, will be needed for the large tank to maintain this micro-climate. 

Feeding Tarantula Slings

Now that you have your enclosure all set up and your new little acquisition inside, it’s time for the next major cause of anxiety — feeding. Perhaps your sling is so small that you’re afraid that you can’t find prey small enough. Or, maybe you’re staring at your 1/2″ spider wondering if it can possibly subdue and eat the 1″ cricket you just purchased from the pet store. Or, you could be standing in the reptile aisle at the pet store trying to figure out which of the five varieties of prey insects for sale would be appropriate for your little ward. We’ll now tackle some of the common and stressful questions a new spiderling keeper may have.

What do I feed my sling? The answer to this may seem obvious at first, but there are a lot of feeders available and a lot of misinformation out there about which feeder insect is best for your tarantulas. The fact is, any and all of the commonly available feeder bugs can be an appropriate feeder for your new spider. Commonly used insects include crickets, mealworms, super worms, B. dubia roaches, and B. lateralis (“red runner”) roaches. All of these will make a great meal for your tarantula. (for a more in-depth examination of this topic, check out “Tarantula Feeding — What, When, and How Much to feed”). For those really tiny slings, flightless fruit flies is also an option.

I’ve heard folks argue that certain feeder bugs are more “nutritious” for spiders than others, but I honestly find this a bit silly. I have a hard time believing that scientists actually studied the ideal nutritional requirements of spiders — heck, they haven’t even properly identified most species yet. If you’re worried that your prey item might not be the healthiest alternative for your T, then feel free to mix it up with other bugs and give it a variety of feeders. I like to mix it up myself, using crickets, mealworms, dubias, red runners, and hissers at different times.

What size should I feed them? Let’s start by looking at the size of the sling you are trying to feed. Slings less than 1/3″ can be difficult to find suitable live prey for. One appropriate and readily available option is flightless fruit flies. They are about 1/16″ long and are usually sold in cultures that would feed a few of the tiniest slings for quite a while.

Flightless fruit fliesBut what if you can’t find flightless fruit flies? Well, in the wild, most slings will resort to scavenge feeding, meaning they will feed off of larger prey that something else killed.  The good new is, they will readily do this in captivity as well, meaning that feeding a tiny sling can be quite simple. Can’t find a small enough prey item? No problem! Just take a small cricket, roach, or meal worm, pre-kill it, and drop it in. If the items are overly large, you can use a knife to cut them up into smaller pieces. For example, a large cricket leg would be a great meal for a 1/3″ sling. Is it gross? Yes. But for smaller slings, it’s an easy and effective way to make sure that they feed (and, it’s a lot easier than dealing with the fruit flies!).

For larger slings, 1/2″ or larger, dubia or red runner nymphs or pinhead crickets work great. Personally, I use small red runners for my smallest slings, as they are quite small and run around, making for a tempting meal.

As how to gauge what size to feed, I’ve heard quite a few “rules of thumb” on how to select a prey item. For most tarantulas, it’s best to feed them items that are shorter than the total length of their bodies. The majority of species will have no problem subduing prey items this size, and you’ll run less of a risk of the animal getting spooked by the size of the prey. It also never hurts to start much smaller, then try increasing the size of the prey if need be. I will often start my slings on very tiny prey to make sure they get a couple of meals in them, then increase the size after a few feedings.

Tip: Are there species that buck this rule? Sure. I’ve noticed that Phormictopus, Pamphobeteus, Theraphosa, Hapalopus, and Poecilotheria species seem to have no difficulty hunting prey larger than their bodies. However, to start out, it’s always best to go smaller. Let the tarantulas get a few meals in them before experimenting with a larger size. Larger prey can spook some species and put them off feeding. 

FEEDING-CHARTIllustration © 2016 Tom Moran

How much and  how often should I feed? A huge debate currently wages on over what constitutes “power feeding” and whether or not it is harmful to the spider. I’m not going to wade into that here, but those interested in hearing my take on it can read the article “Power Feeding Tarantulas”.

In the wild, slings will eat whenever they can. After all, in this tiny stage, they are more vulnerable to weather and predation from other animals, so it behooves them to put on size as quickly as possible. In our homes, a similar situation applies because their fragility makes them more vulnerable to husbandry mistakes. As we’ve already determined that slings are a bit more delicate than their adult counterparts, many keepers choose to get them out of the “sling” stage as quickly as possible. If this is the route you want to take, then feeding them small meals 2 or even 3 times a week is a great way to go. With this schedule, some of the faster-growing species like Lasiodora parahybana, the GBB, Hapalopus sp. Colombia large, and Phormictopus cancerides will be safely in the juvenile stage in no time.

Just keep in mind that if you choose to practice a more ambitious feeding schedule, you’ll want to make sure you have warmer temps to support it. Temps in the low high 60s to low 70s will slow a tarantulas metabolism, often affecting appetite and growth rate. Ideally, you’d want temps in the mid 70s or more for such an aggressive feeding schedule. Also, some species, like those in the genera Grammostola and Brachypelma, might not take that many meals regardless.

Most keepers that feed this often only do so until the tarantula hits about 1.5-2″ or so. At that point, they will shift to a once a week or even a bi-weekly schedule. The idea is to get the spider out of the delicate sling stage quickly, not to rush it to maturity.

Do I have to feed my tarantula that often?  The fact is, Ts have evolved to go without food for long stretches without experiencing ill effects. In the wild, some species likely go weeks or even months without food. Now, does that mean you should withhold food from your animal for that duration? No. But it does mean that they do not need to be fed as often as other pets. Many hobbyists feed their slings once a week or bi-weekly, and their animals are quite healthy.  Also, if you’re feeding your specimen prey on the larger side, you might want to consider feeding less often. A keeper can use her discretion to come up with a feeding schedule that works for her.

What happens if it doesn’t eat? 

Now, on occasion a sling may not eat. Although this may be cause for alarm, it is often a normal behavior. Here are some reasons why a sling  might not eat.

It hasn’t settled in. Although most tarantulas will eat soon after a rehousing, some take time to adjust to their new homes. If your sling is cowering in a corner with its legs pulled up over its body, it might be too stressed to eat. Give it time to burrow or web and you’ll likely have better luck.

It’s fasting. Many species, including Aphonopelmas, Brachypelmas, and Grammostolas will fast when their instinct or internal clocks tell them the cooler winter months have begun. When this happens, there is nothing you can do but make sure they have fresh water and try offering them something once a week or so to gauge their appetite.

It’s in premolt. When tarantulas have eaten enough to trigger the beginning of the molting process, most will stop eating. If they’ve been eating great only to suddenly show no interest in food, especially if their abdomens are plump, dark, and/or shiny, then a molt is likely imminent. Make sure that they have water and keep a corner of the substrate moist and wait for the molt. After the molt, be sure to give them several days to a week to harden up before offering food again.

They are intimidated by the size of the prey. Occasionally, small slings can be spooked by the live prey you drop in. When this happens, the tarantula can throw up its first two pairs of walking legs in a threat pose or even run and hide from the prey. If you suspect this is the issue, it’s best to try feeding it something smaller. Or, offer it pre-killed prey to see if it will eat.

They don’t like the particular prey item being offered. Although most tarantulas seem to eat crickets no problem, I’ve had some specimens that wouldn’t touch other prey items like roaches or mealworms. If your T isn’t eating what you’re offering, try switching up the type of feeder you give it.

The conditions aren’t right. If your spiderling is still not eating and you’ve ruled out the other possibilities, then it’s possible that the setup conditions aren’t right for it. You should ask yourself the following:

  • Is it too hot? Too cold?
  • Does it have a hide?
  • Is the setup correct?
  • Is it too moist or dry?

If you’re still not sure what the issue is, try asking a more seasoned keeper for a second opinion. Sometimes it just takes a second set of “eyes” to figure out a possible issue.

Maintenance for Slings

Because they are so small, maintenance for slings is usually quite simple. Here’s the simple routine I practice and recommend. For each feeding, do a quick spot check that includes the following:

Check for boluses — These are the little white, jagged, crusty remnants of the tarantula’s last meal; the compacted, desiccated remains of its prey. For slings, boluses can be quite tiny and difficult to spot. However, many specimens will stack all of their boluses in a particular corner or in their water dishes. When you can find them, use a pair of tongs or plastic spoon to remove them. They are relatively harmless in most cases, but if they get wet, they can be a source of mold and can attract gnats.

Two boluses - look for the little white and crusty balls left behind after a T eats.

Two boluses – look for the little whitish and crusty balls left behind after a T eats.

Clean and fill the water dish — Tarantulas are notorious for sullying their water dishes, so although filling them with clean water might be easy, keeping them clean is another story. Some use them as toilets and some seem to think that they are dumpsters. Others just appear to enjoy heaping mounds of substrate in an on top of them. When dropping in a feeder, make sure that the bowl is full and, if need be, pluck it out to clean or replace it.

Remove any molts (only if possible) — If your spider has molted recently, and you have easy access to the molt, you can carefully pluck it out. Be careful removing it, however, as they are often caught up and webbing and can pull a lot of substrate and webbing out with them. DO NOT try to pull it out if the freshly-molted spider is still sitting on it; this will disturb and possibly injure the animal. Also, if the molt is in a burrow or stuck in the webbing, as might be the case with an Avicularia species, leave it for the time being. Contrary to popular belief, there is no rush in getting the shed out. In fact, some fossorial species work the pieces of their molts into the walls of their dens. In these instances, you may never see a molt. Don’t worry; they pose no danger to the spider, and they will not rot or mold.

Premolt and Molting

In order to grow, tarantulas must periodically shed their old exoskeletons. Once the molting process is triggered, the tarantula will enter premolt. During this time, the spider may display the following signs:

1. The tarantula stops eating — This is probably the most obvious and common sign. You’ve been feeding your specimen regularly for several weeks, and suddenly it stops eating. Most species will stop feeding during their premolt period (although there are exceptions) as they prepare their bodies for the arduous process.

2. The tarantula has a fat shiny abdomen — Most tarantulas ready for premolt will sport nice, plump abdomens up to 1.5 times the size of their carapace (or even larger for an over-stuffed specimen). If your tarantula has a nice, bulbous booty, and she has stopped eating, chances are she’s in premolt. As the flesh around the area stretches, the abdomen may also appear to be shiny.

The shininess is often more evident in slings than their older, much hairier counterparts. My little G. pulchripes, G. rosea, and L. parahybana slings all get “shiny hineys” whenever they are entering premolt. My P. cancerides slings and juveniles look like little grapes ready to pop when they are in premolt.

G. rosea sling in premolt. Notice the large, shiny, and dark abdomen.

G. rosea sling in premolt. Notice the large, shiny, and dark abdomen.

3. The tarantula’s abdomen and overall color darken — As the new exoskeleton forms under the old one, the spider will often darken up a bit. This is particularly evident on the abdomen where new hairs can be seen through the stretched skin here. Many of my slings will have a dark spot on their abdomens when in premolt, and it will continue to grow the closer they get to the actual molt.

4. The tarantula becomes slower and more lethargic — Not all of the indicators are physical; an observant keeper should notice some behavioral changes as well. Besides not eating, most of my tarantulas that are in premolt become less active and often more secretive. Keep an eye on your tarantula, and along with the physical signs listed above, look for a change in behavior. Some of my most hyper species become noticeably sluggish when they are in premolt. For example, my GBBs tend to be fast little buggers who are constantly moving around their enclosures. However, when in premolt, they often become much more sedentary, sitting in one spot and often tucking themselves away behind their cork bark. Speaking of secretive…

5. The tarantulas has buried itself in its den — Many tarantulas will retreat to their burrows and close of the entrances when entering a premolt period. My LP slings, M. balfouri slings, and G. pulchripes slings all bury themselves before a molt. Some things to consider if your T buries itself due to premolt.

They are not in danger.

They will not suffocate.

They have not been buried alive.

They do not need to be rescued.

The tarantula is just looking for some privacy and security during this vulnerable period. The tarantula will reopen its den once is has molted and hardened up. DO NOT freak out and try to dig the poor creature out; you only run the risk of distressing the animal and possibly interrupting its molt.

For a more detailed explanation of molting and its signs, check out the article How Do I Know My Tarantula is In Premolt?

6. The tarantula has constructed a hammock-like web “mat” in its enclosure — This web is referred to as a “molt mat”, and it is where the tarantula will flip over on its back when it molts. You may catch your premolt T laying layer after layer of web in a small area, and some of the new world species will actually kick hairs on the web as a form of protection. If you see this behavior, it means that your tarantula is about to molt very soon, usually within a day. For arboreal species, they will sometime build elevated “hammocks” off the ground for their molt mats or seal themselves in their funnel webs. This behavior serves the same purpose.

When you think that your tarantula is in premolt, make sure it has a full water dish, moisten a corner (if the substrate isn’t damp already), and wait it out. If your spider is refusing food, wait a week before trying again, and don’t leave the food in overnight as a cricket can actually attack and kill a molting T.

If you ever find your spider on its back, DO NOT touch it. It is molting and needs to be left alone to finish the process in peace. Never poke, prod, spray or blow on it, and NEVER try to flip it over. Interrupting the process can injure or kill the tarantula.

Once the tarantulas completes the molt, it will need several days to harden back up. During this time, the fangs are still soft, so it will be unable to hunt and eat. Do not offer food for at least four days to a week to make sure that it is fully ready to eat.

How often do they molt?

It honestly depends on a lot of factors, including:

  • The species — Some species are much faster growers than others.
  • The size of the specimen — The larger tarantulas get, the more time you can expect between molts.
  • The feeding schedule — Spiders fed more often will likely molt more often.
  • Temperatures — Higher temps speed up the spider’s metabolism, leading to a faster growth rate.

For many slings, expect a molt every six weeks to two months or so. Again, this is just a very rough estimate; some may molt faster and some might molt much more slowly.

How long will it take my tiny sling to look like an adult?

This question comes up quite a bit as it requires a fair measure of patience to raise a tarantula from a spiderling to an adult. It is also an incredibly rewarding experience to raise one of these animals to maturity. However, for those who want a big hairy spider to show off, the wait can be difficult. Unfortunately, the only truthful answer to that question is, “It depends.”

First off, different species grow at different rates. I have a Brachypelma albopilosum sling that has grown approximately 1/2″ in almost two years time. On the other hand, I have a Theraphosa stirmi that went from a 1.5″ sling to a 7.5″ adult in roughly the same amount of time. Truth is, some species can mature in just over a year, and others can take several years to reach maturity.

There are so many other factors that can contribute to a tarantulas growth rate like the specimen’s genetics, the temperatures it’s kept at, and the feeding schedule. In reality, there are just so many variables, that it’s difficult to make generalizations. If you’re truly curious as to how long it will take for your particular specimen to mature, speak to some keepers who have raised the species and ask about their experience with it.

Finally, some behaviors you may observe

Finally, I offer a brief FAQ featuring some of the common questions new sling keepers have asked me about.

Why is my tarantula climbing the walls? Tarantulas can take some time to acclimate to their new surroundings, and many will take to exploring their new environments upon being rehoused. This can often lead to climbing or hiding up in the top corner of an enclosure. If the tarantula is terrestrial or fossorial, it should eventually come down. If it doesn’t, then there is a possibility that the substrate is too moist or, in some cases, too fluffy.

My sling is burrowing … is there something wrong with it? Easiest question to answer ever. NO. Seriously, this one gets asked all the time, as burrowing slings can really cause those new to the hobby serious anxiety. Burrowing is a very natural behavior for most species of slings as, in the wild, it behooves them to stay out of sight. Burrows can also protect them from inclement weather conditions. Many slings will spend several molts underground, only to eventually emerge after they’ve put on some size.

Tip: If your tarantula burrows, don’t dig it up or shove prey down the den opening; drop the prey on the surface and let the spider find it. You don’t have to worry about the tarantula not knowing the cricket is up there; they are adept at sensing the slightest vibrations from above. If they are hungry, they will come up and eat. If you’re still concerned that your T might have missed the meal, leave a pre-killed item at the mouth of the den. 

My sling has covered up/webbed up its burrow … is it okay? When a tarantula webs up or buries the opening of its burrow, it is not in any danger. In fact, that is your spider’s way of basically saying “do not disturb.” For many species, this means they are entering the premolt stage and want security and privacy for their molt. For some, like Aphonopelma species, it may mean that they are secreting themselves away for the cold winter months. This is natural behavior and unless it has been a very extended period of time (I’m talking a month or more here for slings), keepers should never dig them up.

Why is my tarantula hanging out over the water dish? Most likely because it’s too dry. When a tarantula camps out over its water dish, it’s a sign that it’s craving moisture. Whether it be because the animal is in premolt or the humidity is dangerously low your home, action is needed. Your best bet is to moisten down a portion of the substrate with water to give your T more moisture and humidity.

What are these strange white dots on the walls and/or in the water dish?  If they are hard and smear when wet, then congrats…you’ve just seen your first spider poop! This is a common question, as most of us probably didn’t give much thought to what tarantulas turds would look like. When they deposit them into a water dish, they can look like tiny little white stones, which can really be disconcerting to some folks.

My sling isn’t webbing … is there something wrong with it? Some species will blanket their enclosures with thick white webbing. Others will produce barely any. If you have what is considered a heavy-webbing species (P. murinus, GBB, A. versicolor, etc.) that isn’t webbing, it just might not be settled in yet. Some species take longer than others to get started, and it can take a spider several weeks or more to lay down the thick webbing that you see in photos. And, there’s always the oddball who may never web. It usually doesn’t meant that there is anything wrong with the animal.

 

Tarantula Controversies – Should You Give Tarantulas Water Dishes?

Tarantula-controvesies-3

Recently, I sat down to write an article about some of the divisive, hot-button topics that dog the tarantula hobby and often ensnare uninitiated keepers in heated debates. These are subjects that new hobbyists are often interested in learning about, but an internet search or an innocent forum query produces two equally heated and opposing answers. My hope with this feature is to present both sides of these gray-area arguments so that keepers can develop their own informed opinions and make equally informed decisions. For the third installment, I’ve decided to take on the topic of using water dishes with tarantulas.


Background

Just recently, a popular YouTube enthusiast posted a video about a “sick” Psalmopoeus that he had found in a semi-death curl. After plucking the poor creature out and putting it into a tarantula ICU with plenty of water, the animal quickly perked up. Whew…his quick thinking saved the day and miraculously cured the animal of its mystery malady! However, while the crux of this particular post was how he valiantly saved his pets life by using a tarantula ICU, there was a much more important and overlooked lesson to be gleaned from the experience. Many commenters were quick to point out that that his spider was kept on bone dry substrate and didn’t have a water dish. The poor animal was obviously suffering from dehydration. If the keeper had only taken the time to make sure his T had access to fresh water the entire time, he wouldn’t have found it in such a precarious state.

The root of the issue seemed so obvious to me, and to many.

But amazingly, none of this was really addressed by the keeper in the video, and he actually sounded dumbfounded at the end as to what could have caused the issue, even though he did mention dehydration as a possible cause. I’m not sure if this was an isolated issue and the keeper did normally supply water dishes (although I think that he might have mentioned that he mists). The fact that he didn’t immediately have an AH-HA! moment and publicly express regret or understanding over his husbandry mishap was a bit mind-boggling.

Even more confounding to me was some misinformed souls responding to the “pro water dish” crowd with comments like, “Most Ts don’t drink from dishes, get informed”, and “Tarantulas can drown in their water dishes”.  Even when others tried to explain why just misting wasn’t enough and how tarantulas absolutely will drink from dishes, one poster didn’t relent in his/her misguided attacks.

This recent event reminded me that the debate over tarantulas and water dishes still raged on.

Drinking-T-YouTube-New-fina

And the debate rages on…

 

This question is a fairly simple one; should keepers give their tarantulas water dishes, or are they useless accessories?

Although the issue seems pretty cut and dry, discussions over it can still lead to some rather heated and nasty debates. Having raised and cared for animals for years — including goats, sheep, snakes, cats, dogs, among others — I always understood that there was at least one husbandry requirement for all of them…

…they all need water to live.

Therefore, when I first got heavy into the tarantula hobby, it seemed obvious that I would have to provide moisture for my spiders. And, when it came down to it, the easiest way to do it seemed to be by using a dish. But after doing some reading, I discovered that folks were split on how necessary they were.

Many argued that adults didn’t need dishes because they got all the moisture they needed from their prey or from light spraying. Others argued that using dishes with slings was dangerous as they could easily drown in them. A few even indicated that tarantulas wouldn’t use dishes, so it was a waste of time to supply them.

On the other side were the pro-dish folks who believed that good tarantula husbandry included water dishes, as conscientious keepers would ensure their pets always had access to water. They argued even the tiniest slings could benefit from them, as the idea that they could drown was preposterous. Furthermore, they point to that fact that water dishes can have benefits even if the spider doesn’t drink from them, including raising the humidity for moisture dependent species.

So, which side is correct? Do all tarantulas, including slings, benefit from having water dishes? Or is giving a T a water dish a waste of time? As always, the answer might be somewhere in the middle. Below are the arguments and counter arguments and how they usually break down. For clarity, stances supporting the use of water dishes will be in GREEN; stances against will be in RED.

Let’s start with the slings...

Slings should not be given water dishes as they are drowning hazards. Mention giving water dishes to slings, and you’re likely to have plenty of well-meaning keepers tell you that you are putting your pets at risk. They argue that giving a tarantula under 1.5-2″ a water dish is much like leaving a baby unattended in a bath tub (read: a recipe for disaster). I’ve had folks tell me stories about how friends’ tarantulas have drowned in their water dishes, or they stopped using them after repeatedly losing slings to them. In a couple stories, the ill-fated T attempted to molt in the water dish, and died as a result. Although many will concede that incidences of supposed sling drownings are hard to find, they question any keeper who would want to take the chance and risk it.

Folks in this crowd will advocate spraying  as a way to keep your T happy and hydrated without risking an accidental drowning. They believe that misting the sides of the enclosure a few times a week is sufficient and much safer. Folks in this camp often stick to a scheduled misting/spraying routine of two or three times a week to keep their wee ones hydrated.

Contrary to popular belief, healthy slings are not at serious risk of drowning.  Let’s get this out of the way; is it physiologically possible for a tarantula spiderling to drown or suffocate in water? Of course. However, is it likely? NO. Here’s the deal: slings float. Not only do they have little hairs that serve to repel water, but they are so light that they don’t break through the surface tension of the water and sink. Do enough research, and you’ll find many photos of baby tarantulas floating and skittering atop of large bodies of water. Couple that with the fact that they require very little oxygen to survive and can go without breathing for quite some time, and it becomes very apparent that you would basically have to hold one under water for hours to drown it (and, there are some species that will sit underwater for hours and still be fine when they emerge). Older specimens are even able to create air bubbles around their book lungs to protect them from suffocating in water. There have even been some keepers who have experimented with what happens when a sling is put in a larger body of water; the results show that the animal really isn’t in much immediate peril.

When the subject of water dishes comes up, the pro-dish crowd is quick to point out that having a constant available water source is even more important for slings. Small slings are much more fragile due to that fact that it takes them a few instars to develop the protective waxy coating that helps them retain moisture and prevents dehydration. Although misting supplies a water source for up to a couple hours after the act, it does not give the the slings a permanent water source. Therefore, a keeper who sprays twice weekly is only giving his/her sling access to water a small percentage of the time. Using water dishes, on the other hand, allows the T to drink whenever it needs to, eliminating the much more serious and realistic potential of it dying from dehydration.

Tarantulas don’t have water dishes in the wild, so they don’t need them in captivity.  This is an argument that comes up quite a bit. Some keepers will point out that, in their natural habitats, tarantulas don’t have the luxury of water dishes. And, as many come from harsh, hot, arid regions with little rainfall, their is no need for supplemental water sources. These are not mammals that require water daily to survive; most of these creatures are like little arachnid camels, with some able to survive indefinitely with no water source.

Those who don’t use dishes will also point out that many tarantulas have demonstrated the ability to subsist on the moisture they obtain through their prey items. Folks who insist on including dishes are just cluttering their enclosures and wasting their time. If a keeper is worried about the T getting a drink, a couple squirts from the mister will do the trick.

Sure, they don’t have dishes in nature…but they have rain, puddles, streams, etc.  It’s absolutely true that tarantulas do not have little plastic dishes or ceramic dishes of water in the wild. However, comparing captive life to life in the wild is like comparing apples and softballs. For example, in the wild they don’t live in glass or plastic cages with regulated temperatures and giant humans that consistently drop food in for them.

In their natural environments, many of these animals have access to plenty of water sources. Even some of the most arid regions get rain on occasion, and rain forest and tropical species get plenty of rainfall, leaving puddles and dripping foliage full of water behind. The fact is, they do have access to water at various times.

Also, although they may be able to subsist on getting moisture from their prey, it would be difficult to argue that this is ideal for many of them. And, of course, this begs an important question; namely, are we trying to provide them with their natural conditions or the closest to ideal conditions we can in captivity. In nature, these animals must deal with harsh temperatures, drought, flooding, and the threat of predation. In many instances, these animals have adapted to their harsh environments by being able to survive without water. Does this mean they they wouldn’t benefit from having water whenever they want it? No. Unless a keeper is going through unusual (and possibly, cruel) lengths to ensure his setup is 100% authentic, then it makes sense to give them the most comfortable setup possible. This means access to fresh water whenever they need it, and what better way to do that than a water dish.

Tarantulas won’t use water dishes. I’ve actually heard this one quite a bit lately. I spend a lot of time on YouTube watching videos by other keepers, and occasionally someone will point out that a keeper should think about giving his or her wards dishes. Responses from other commenters in defense of the keeper are often along the lines of, “Tarantulas can’t drink from bowls” or “Not all tarantulas will use them.” Some use the theory that they’ve never witnessed one of their spiders drink, therefore, they must not use the bowls. Others even insinuate that no tarantula can use an open water dish as they are just incapable.These folks feel that supplying these artificial water sources is ridiculous and pointless. 

Why, yes…YES they will. As they say, a picture is worth a 1,000 words (and I’m way past 1,000 words already), so allow me to retort on behalf of the pro dish crowd.

A very special thanks to Jesse Thibodeau for these amazing photos!

All joking aside, many tarantulas have no problem using dishes. Just because you don’t see them using dishes, doesn’t mean they are drinking from them. Although we keepers spend a lot of time observing our pets, we can’t be there 24/7. And, considering most tarantula species are nocturnal, only becoming active when the lights are off and we’re in bed, it’s safe to assume that many take some late night swigs. Are there some individual that just won’t drink from a bowl? I’m sure that it’s possible. However, how can you tell…and do you really want to take the chance? Besides, how do you know if your tarantula won’t drink from a bowl until you actually try it?

They just fill them with dirt and waste, so it’s too much of a bother. It’s definitely true that, when presented with a standing water source, many tarantulas seem to neglect using their dishes for their rightful purpose and instead use them as trash receptacles or toilets. Many folks report their pets immediately filling their bowls with dirt or, even worse, using them as a place to deposit boluses and feces. Others will immediately web over the dishes, which can quickly lead the moisture wicking out, resulting in a bone dry dish. It seems that some species of tarantulas see a water source as a means of waste removal, likely due to instincts they developed in the wild. It’s possible that, in nature, rainfall brings tiny streams that they use to perform a little spring cleaning? Who knows what goes on in those amazing little brains sometimes. Keepers who’ve spent time providing water dishes only to repeatedly find them horribly sullied the next day quickly come to the conclusion that they are not worth the effort. 

If an animal that has survived millions of years decides it doesn’t need a dish, who are we to argue?

See, the idea of providing a water dish is that, unlike spraying, it gives the tarantula access to a permanent source of clean water. However, if the tarantula fills it with dirt the first day, then what have you gained? Nothing. Fed up with the constant attention and time required to keep their dishes dirt and waste free, many keepers have sworn them off completely. 

Good husbandry for any pet takes time and involves cleaning.  For many of the pro dish folks, cleaning out the water dishes is simply part of good animal husbandry. Sure, it can be frustrating to have to clean out bowls, especially shortly after you filled them, but it’s little to ask for a creature that only needs to be fed once in a week and doesn’t need to be walked, groomed, or taken to the vet. Tarantulas are one of the most low-maintenance pets a person can have, so withholding a water dish because  you don’t want to clean it is just, well, lazy.

My $0.02

When I first came up with the idea for the Tarantula Controversies series, it was with the full intent of keeping these articles as unbiased as possible. I spent a lot of time reading through forum responses and hearing what other keepers had to say about the issues so that I could thoroughly present both sides of the arguments. Although I reserve this section at the end of each article to give my take on the topic, I tried to keep my final thoughts from being the decisive word on the subject.

The issue of whether or not tarantulas need water dishes was supposed to be the second topic in the series, however, I’ve repeatedly shied away from it due to my heavy leanings in one direction. How could I walk the line on an issue I have very strong feelings about? However, a couple recent events, as well as discussions with a different keepers, convinced me that I needed to visit this topic and try to my best to cover both sides.

Let’s get the obvious question out of the way. Do all tarantulas require water bowls in captivity to live? Well, if that were the case, then any T kept without a water dish would die, and there wouldn’t be need for this article. The fact is, most tarantulas species are incredibly hardy, and millions of years living in often changing and hostile environments has allowed them to evolve and adapt to weather and climate conditions that would kill other less rugged creatures. It’s also true that many species can subsist on prey for moisture and go long periods of time without needed an supplemental water source.

And that, in a nutshell, is why this question will forever remain a gray area.

The fact is, many seasoned hobbyists and breeders don’t give their tarantulas water dishes, resorting instead to spraying and sometimes just prey as a system for moisture delivery. These are not folks just getting into the hobby and doing it out of ignorance or laziness either; they are experienced keepers and breeders who are leaning on years of experience to tell them bowls are just not needed.

Perhaps then, it’s best not to deal in absolutes and instead look at the whether or not one side offers a clear benefit. Personally, I believe this is where the scales are tipped toward the pro dish side.

We can conclude that many folks successfully keep tarantulas without water dishes, so we can’t say that they are 100% necessary. Great.

However, do they provide other benefits, including a valuable backup if spraying fails? YES.

Let’s take the example from the YouTube keeper mentioned above. This man has been keeping tarantulas for at least three years and is looked up to by many in the hobby. He keeps a variety of specimens besides tarantulas, and it appears as if they are all healthy and thriving. If it’s true he doesn’t use dishes, then he’s seemingly had a great bit of success without them.

However, in the example given above, his P. vittata nearly died…of dehydration. The fact that it perked up so quickly after being given water makes that point pretty obvious. Although he mentioned that he sprays his enclosures “usually” every morning, and that might have worked in the past, it didn’t in this occasion. Although misting is great for offering a quick blast of moisture for drinking or raising humidity, it quickly evaporates. This means that a thirsty T might only have a window of an hour or two to drink before the water is gone. A shy or nocturnal spider might not venture out in time to reap the benefits of that misting. And what measures might have been taken to ensure that this spider would never have this issue?

That’s right; he could have included a water dish.

This is a prime example of why water dishes can be such an integral part of tarantula husbandry, even if they don’t “need” them. I currently keep 15 pokies, and they all have water dishes, even as slings. I’ve personally witnessed many of them drink, and that’s enough positive reinforcement for me to make sure that they will always have bowls.

Perhaps, we shouldn’t be asking if tarantulas NEED water dishes, but instead whether they can benefit from them.

And what of my arid species that supposedly don’t need water? Well, the tarantula I’ve caught drinking the most would be my Grammostola porteri, a species widely recognized as thriving in dry conditions. So, if she occasionally wants a sip of fresh H2O, wouldn’t it stand to reason that my other Ts might as well?

Can it be a pain in the posterior to keep them all clean and filled. Sure it can. I have several Phormictopus species that just love to fill their up to the top with dirt, and my H. pulchripes and M. balfouri both love to cover their with webbing. However, I’ve made it part of my feeding and maintenance routine to clean them out and fill them up once a week. And what about my pokies who just love to dump their boluses in theirs, fouling them up? In some cases, I’ve resorted to using two disposable cups, one inside the other, so that I can just pluck the top cup out and replace it with a fresh one. I can then either throw away all of the old ones, or clean them out all at once saving some time.

Another point to consider is how important dishes can be for moisture-dependent species. As mentioned earlier, misting only raises the humidity temporarily, as the water quickly evaporates. A large water dish, on the other hand, will allow water to constantly evaporate into the air, naturally raising the humidity inside the enclosure for much longer. I’ve actually heard accounts by folks who successfully keep moisture-dependent species on dry substrate with large or multiple water bowls. This avoids any potential mold and fungus issue in the substrate while ensuring the tarantula still has the optimal conditions to thrive and molt successfully.

A word about slings.

Although this would likely be impossible to prove, I have a feeling that many sling deaths can be attributed to dehydration. I know it’s happened to me, and I’ve been privy to many other instances where a lapse in husbandry lead to a desiccated spiderling. That’s why I now try to make sure that all of my slings get water dishes. Without that wax coating to protect them and keep them from drying out, slings are extra susceptible to dehydration, much more so than their older counterparts.

But sadly, this is where the water dish discussion often gets most intense, as people are still convinced that their slings will drown. Well, if it helps, I’ve now raised approximately 75 slings, some less than 1/2″, with water dishes. And how many have drowned?

Zero.

Since I started giving my smallest slings dishes, I’ve personally witnessed many drink. Obviously, there isn’t just one way to do things in this hobby, and plenty of folks have had success using moist sub and spraying. Heck, I used this technique myself in the past. For me, however, the dishes provide me with extra security and peace of mind knowing that if I forget to spray or there is a particularly hot day, my slings are safe.

For a bit of a rant on water dishes, check out the video above!

Final thoughts.

It’s my belief that those new to the hobby should always start out by offering their animals water dishes. Most people who are just starting out have small collections anyway, so it shouldn’t require much extra effort to keep water dishes clean and filled. Although tarantula keeping can often appear to be rather simple on the surface, there are many nuances that can only be recognized and appreciated through practice and experience. Whether or not a tarantula needs water is definitely one of these areas. As a keeper gets a better handle on basic husbandry and, more importantly, the specific needs of his or her individual specimens, then I would concede that some experimentation could be in order.

Are there instances where providing a water dish just isn’t feasible? Certainly. For those keeping very tiny slings, the small enclosures necessary to raise them are often too small to make it practical to include a dish. I currently have 130 specimens, and all but three have water dishes. Two I got as tiny slings and therefore started them off in dram bottles that didn’t offer enough room to include one. Both will be rehoused now that I’m phasing the bottles out.

The other is my OBT, who has webbed up and buried a record FIVE water dishes. That said, I DO pour water onto her webbing for her to drink (and due to the water proof qualities of the webbing, the puddle usually remains for a day or two). She is also due for a rehousing soon, and when the time comes, she’ll get a larger enclosure and a heavier dish.

Do I get why an experienced keeper might tire of cleaning and refilling a Ts water dish every time the animal decides to bury it? Heck, yes. And do I fault that keeper for using his or her experience to make the decision that keeping the dish full is just a waste of time? No way. In this instance, the keeper is relying on his/her experience to make an informed decision about the husbandry needs of the animal. If I’m being honest, I have two G. pulchripes juveniles that flip or fill up their water dishes so much, I’ve stopped worrying about keeping them filled. Although I still clean out and fill the bowls on occasion, it’s must less regularly than I do with my other Ts. Would I fault a keeper for giving up entirely in a similar situation? As long as the tarantula was thriving, no.

Video of a young A. versicolor drinking from an open dish. Thanks again to Jesse Tibodeau!

When it comes down to it, I’m a “better safe than sorry” type of guy though, so I’ll continue to clean and refill mine. Although I recognize that it’s definitely possible to raise healthy tarantulas without water dishes, I also know that they’ll use them. Am I insinuating that those who don’t use dishes are wrong and should immediately repent and change their way? Absolutely not. Those folks have a system that works for them, and I have mine. I raised enough slings successfully in the past using misting, so I appreciate that it can work.

That said, I do think that folks who are just starting out need to do their research, talk to some experienced keepers, and consider the perks these terrarium “accessories” can offer. I also implore experienced keeper who choose not to use them to remember that impressionable newcomers likely lack the experience and skill to immediately follow their lead. Perhaps a little explanation of their experience level, observations, and technique would be in order.

 

Communal Project Part 4: Sling Buffets and Spider Piles

The Communal Project series will document my setup of a Moncentropus balfouri communal, starting with the planning and acquisition of both the enclosure and tarantulas and continuing through as they mature. You can read the other installments of this series by clicking the following links: “Communal Project Part 1: An Enclosure by Brooklyn Bugs.” ; “Communal Project Part 2: Nine M. Balfouri Slings” ; and “Communal Project Part 3: First Week’s Observations” .


As time has passed, I’m still finding myself completely captivated by the feedings.

At first, I watched my slings eat with equal measures of apprehension (I couldn’t help but to worry that one would attack another) and fascination (They WEREN’T attacking…they were getting along just fine!). Years of keeping tarantulas had me hardwired to think that any spider-to-spider contact would inevitably result in only one fat spider. And, having personally observed thousands of feedings, I had a great appreciation of just how powerful a tarantula’s feeding response could be. I’ve seen spiders launch themselves at the slightest vibration on their substrate.  How would they be able to override their hard-wired prey response in time to recognize the difference between prey and a hungry sibling?

However, now that we’re deep into month two, it appears that my fears are completely unfounded. I’ve now witnessed about a dozen feedings, and there hasn’t been any friction. The most “contentious” episode I witnessed involved two sling that were feeding on the same piece of roach. After a short tug-of-war over the carcass, they both broke pieces off, then calmly sat and ate their meals. Many times, I’ve caught up to five, legs intertwined, peaceably feasting on the same prey animal. It’s something I wouldn’t have believed if I didn’t see it myself.

These little guys are eating machines!

One thing that has truly impressed and surprised me is just how much these little guys and gals have been eating. I’ve been offering them three pre-killed red runner roaches or crickets three times a week. Although I’ve tried introducing live prey into the enclosure in the form of red runner roaches, they’ve shown no interest in them. If I drop a prekilled roach or crickets in front of the burrow entrances however, they are usually on it within the hour. I know that, in the wild, the mothers prekill prey and leave it for their spiderlings to eat, so I’m left to wonder if this is an instinctual behavior for them.

Although the three times a week feeding is obviously an ambitious schedule, I wanted to make sure that the slings were well fed to prevent any possible cannibalism. It was also a bit difficult to discern at first what size and portions to offer nine .75″ slings. I began by offering one large roach, which they decimated in less than an hour. I then started giving them two. Both were gone the next morning.  For the past couple weeks, I’ve been giving them three, and that seems like it will work for the time being. However, they’ve all just molted, so I’m assuming that I might have to increase the amount I give them soon.

It should be mentioned that it’s been a rather warm summer, and temps in the tarantula room have routinely been hitting 80° and slightly above, so this might have jacked up the little guys’ metabolisms. That said, the last three specimens I kept and that were in separate enclosures didn’t eat well even during the hot summer months, so I have to consider that the appetites might be partially due to the group dynamic. Unfortunately, all I can do is speculate.

Balfouri-SLings-NEW

My first scare…

As I’ve had the fear of cannibalism in the back of my mind, I’ve been pretty obsessive about counting the slings every time they are all out. Well, starting two weeks ago, I was only able to count eight at any given time. At first I just suspected that one was always hiding in a burrow, which made it appear that there were only eight. However, as more time passed and I failed to ever catch all nine out, I worried that the ninth had possibly died. I honestly didn’t suspect cannibalism, as I had never witnessed any friction between the slings. I did, however, worry that there might have just been a weak sling that wasn’t destined to make it.

Well, shortly after posting a YouTube update on the communal and mentioning that I was missing one, I caught all of the slings out and about again. This time, I there were clearly nine present. Apparently, they were all still doing just fine.

All nine balfouri slings out and about

All nine balfouri slings out and about

Introducing, the “spider pile”

Another unique behavior I’ve witnessed is something I’ve been referring to as the “spider pile”. Many times when the slings emerge to sit on the surface, they huddle together into one large tangle of bodies and limbs. It’s really something to see, and I was fortunate enough to catch one of these events in the video below (it’s after the footage showing all nine of the slings).

Now, they don’t always assemble into a spider pile when they are out; often, they all just sit next to each other along the wall on the top edge of the webbing. I’m not sure what purpose this behavior serves, but I’ll definitely look forward to seeing if it continues as they mature.

Takeaways

With some of these latest developments, I feel comfortable answering a couple of the questions on my list.

  • Will the slings all gravitate to one burrow? An enthusiastic YES for this.
  • Do they really eat together and without friction? Although I’ll continue to monitor the interactions as they mature, I’m comfortable in saying that YES, the slings do eat together without conflict or issues. I’ve personally witnessed a dozen feedings and I’ve seen no aggression between the slings. 
  • Is their any difference in behavior in M. balfouri slings kept communally as apposed to kept individually (I raised three from slings previously)
  • Will their ability to get along change as they mature?
  • Do M. balfouri slings kept communally eat more and grow fast than those kept alone?  Right now, the answer appears to be a YES. The new slings have already molted at least twice in my care, and they have been eating as much as I’ll give them. This is in sharp contrast to the first three I kept that were very finicky and sheepish eaters. 

As always, I will continue to make updates and post whenever something interesting occurs!