Communal Project Part 3: First Week’s Observations

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. This is the third installment in the series; the first part is “Communal Project Part 1: An Enclosure by Brooklyn Bugs.” and the second part is “Communal Project Part 2: Nine M. Balfouri Slings” .


How will they adapt to the communal setup?

Now that the nine M. balfouri slings were housed in their new enclosure, it was time to let them settle in and to observe their behaviors. Although I had read plenty of accounts that should have assured me the risk for casualties was minimal, I still worried that that the tiny little slings would somehow turn on each other as they staked out territory and fed. After hearing for years how cannibalistic tarantulas were, it was very difficult for me to subdue the nagging feeling that this wasn’t going to work out.

However, I would soon learn that my fears were completely unfounded.

Within 24 hours, I started to see signs that my new wards would indeed be able to live peaceably. The following details my observations over the first week, including any details I thought were important or interesting.

DAY ONE: The evening they arrived, I decided to offer food right away. For the first meal, I dropped in 10 tiny B. lateralis pinhead roaches. I won’t lie; when I woke up the next morning, I rushed down to check on the communal partially expecting to find signs of spiderling cannibalization. Instead, I discovered that the little ones had been busy the night before, and fine curtains of webbing now covered some of the den entrances and cork bark.

Even cooler, four of the slings were bustling in and out of one burrow opening. Despite having shot off in several directions upon being housed, it seemed that the slings really had started to gravitate to the same den.

I also watched nervously as two slings encountered each other in another corner of the enclosure. At first, I was convinced that the larger of the slings was going to attack and kill the smaller. As they met, he froze, then reached out carefully with his first set of walking legs, almost as spiders do when they sense a prey item nearby. However, the other sling quickly reciprocated by putting out his fist sets of the legs. The two entwined for a bit, much in the same way males and females do when mating, as they continued to feel each other out. Then, about a minute later, they both walked off in different directions.

No attacks.

No bites.

No devoured sling.

I was amazed by the encounter; it appeared that they could differentiate between one of their own species and a prey item. There was no friction whatsoever. After watching many spiders reflexively pounce on anything that moved in their enclosures, I couldn’t help but to feel a bit mind-blown by this development.

As for feeding, I wasn’t sure if any of the roaches were devoured, and there still appeared to be several of them running around the enclosure. The slings either didn’t notice or didn’t care as they continued working on their den. I decided to give it another day to see if I could catch one or more feeding.

DAY TWO: Having seen a few of the roaches I dropped in still roaming around without a care in the world. I worried that some of the slings might not be eating. Remembering that the M. balfouri mothers often kill prey for their young, I killed a large cricket, mashed it up a bit, and dropped it in front of the den entrances. My hope was that I could catch some of this group feeding I had read about.

I popped in to check on the little guys before bed, and was floored by what I saw. Several of the slings were feeding on the cricket at the same time. Even more interesting, there was no fighting or friction between the feasting tarantulas. They very calmly approached the cricket, tore off a chunk of meat, and simply ate their meals.

I also observed that at least FIVE of the slings now occupied the same burrow. They really were purposely gravitating to the same burrow despite having enough space to stake out their own homes. This was true communal behavior I was witnessing, not just a bunch of spiders sharing space because they were forced to.

DAY THREE:  I crept down late at night to see what my communal was up to (darned insomnia), and I discovered that all nine slings were apparently sharing the same den. For a full five minutes, I watched as they moved in, out, and around the single den entrance with at least four of the slings laying down webbing. They weren’t just living together; it appeared that they were cooperating with each other to build their home. AMAZING.

DAY FOUR: Failing to capture the group feeding on film the first time, I dropped another cricket in on the third night hoping that I might be able to get the next meal on video. I awoke early the next morning to discover several of them eating off of the same cricket. Like a buffoon, I sat their ogling this for bit before remembering to record it. By the time I grabbed my phone, a couple of the spiderlings had toddled off. Still, I managed to catch a few of them eating in the video below. Again, there were no spats or fighting to speak of, and the slings obviously recognized the difference between the prey and the other spiders.

DAY SEVEN: It’s official: all of the slings have adopted the center den as their home, and all are living communally in a single den. The amount of webbing in this area has increased with all lending a hand (or their webbing) to the construction. There are now several entrances including the main one, and the slings spend much of their day going in and out of them.

So, I can cross one of my questions off my list.

  • Will the slings all gravitate to one burrow?

Yes, they sure will…and cooperate to build it apparently.

Having raised three M. balfouri slings to adulthood that were kept alone, I do have a couple observations:

  1. I’ve noticed that these slings are out in the open MUCH more than my specimens kept separately ever were. Although I’d catch mine out and about every so often, they were very skittish and would spend the majority of their time hidden in their burrows. Perhaps my communal subjects will display more of that secretive behavior as they become more mature, but so far they seem to be much bolder than my last specimens. Could this be because they feel more secure when kept communally? I’m not sure.
  2. My first batch of slings were very finicky eaters, often going weeks without eating and often refusing prey one week only to indulge the next. They would also be intimidated by normal sized prey items, and I’d have to feed them crickets that were smaller than what I would usually feed slings that size. As a result, they grew slowly often taking several months between molts. These new slings, however, have been eating like machines. I drop a cricket in and they are on it in minutes. Now I’m wondering if these slings will eat more and grow faster in the communal setting.

With these latest developments, I would have to revise my list of question I wanted to answer.

  • Will the slings all gravitate to one burrow? An enthusiastic YES for this.
  • Do they really eat together and without friction? (I want to catch more feedings)
  • 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?

As I move ahead, I’ll look to answer these questions and will post updates whenever I observe, photograph, or film something of interest!

Next up…M. Balfouri Communal Project Part 4: How Many M. Balfouri Slings Does It Take to Eat a Large Roach?

 

Communal Project Part 2: Nine M. balfouri Slings

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. This is the second installment in the series; the first part is “Communal Project Part 1: An Enclosure by Brooklyn Bugs.”


After a couple of years of research and daydreaming, I will finally be setting up my first communal.

I’ve been fascinated by communals since I first saw photos of H. incei setup on a forum several years ago. I had always known tarantulas to be cannibalistic, so I was intrigued by the idea that a group could live together harmoniously without it turning into a survival of the fattest bloodbath. Since then, I’ve read articles and blogs, watched YouTube videos, and even spoken to a couple keepers who have tried it. I’ve researched the many species said to tolerate a communal living situation, including Poecilotheria species, Heterothele villosella, Neoholothele incei, Pterinochilus murinus, and of course, the Monocentropus balfouri.

Although all of these species have demonstrated the ability to co-habitate with other members of their species without immediately resorting to cannibalism, the level of true “communalism” can vary greatly. Every keeper would love to witness a true tarantula community where members actually benefit from living in close proximity to each other, possibly hunting and even eating together. But the fact is, many of these species are forced to live closely together in the wild due habitat constraints; they don’t naturally prefer it. Therefore, when they are forced to live together in an enclosure, the relationship between the inhabitants more closely resembles a fragile tolerance than a strong communal bond.

As a result, many keepers who have tried to keep communals have found the need to abort the projects upon discovering that their ten lithe specimens had suddenly become five portly ones. With many of the communal setups,  cannibalism is a constant threat, and the thought of needlessly loosing often expensive Ts is enough of a deterrent for many keepers. Personally speaking, I love my spiders and pride myself on not having many deaths in my collection. The possibility that by creating a communal I might putting a group at risk of unnecessary death was a tough concept for me to get by.

One species has always stood out for me in the communal list…

One of the species that seemed to demonstrate some legitimate communal tendencies was the Monocentropus balfouri. I had discovered early on that this beautiful tarantula had some of the strongest motherly instincts of any species, and a quick Google search of “M. balfouri mother with slings” brings up some amazing photos of this maternal spider seemingly nurturing its young. This is an animal that keepers have witnessed killing prey to feed its spiderlings, as well as standing guard over them like a protective parent. Hobbyists that have kept this species communally report slings huddling together in the same burrow, even when given space, and feeding on the same prey…together. I have read several accounts by folks who have set up more than one balfouri in an enclosure, and it seems that it doesn’t matter the size of the specimens that are introduced together, they all live quite harmoniously.

After reading several accounts by keepers who had tried communal setups, it seemed that the chance of casualties was low…ridiculously low. I only found one instance where one of a group of about a dozen disappeared, but there was nothing to indicate it didn’t just die a natural death (and not at the fangs of one of its cage mates). Even more promising were the many photos of juveniles and adults living and even feeding together peaceably.

It seemed like if I was going to attempt a communal setup, M. balfouri would be the species to do it with. However, although the prices on these gorgeous Ts have continued to drop over the years, they still run about $60 or so for slings. It would be quite an investment to get one of these going, especially if I wanted to start with more than just a handful. For a little while, it seemed like it would remain a bit of a pipe dream.

Enter Tanya from Fear Not Tarantulas

After my last fantastic experience buying from Fear Not Tarantulas, I got to chatting with Tanya about spiders, the blog, and her breeding projects. It’s been fantastic conversing with someone who is not only knowledgeable, but also thoroughly entrenched in this amazing hobby. During one of our conversations she made an amazing offer; she would hook me up with enough M. balfouri slings to finally start that communal I had been pondering for years. To say I was ecstatic would be an understatement.

The original plan was to start with five or six specimens, so I had to go ahead and set up an enclosure that wouldn’t be too large for the .75-1″ slings, but that would also allow for plenty of room for growth (for more on the enclosure, click here!). Once the enclosure was ready, I gave Tanya the go ahead to ship my tarantulas. I had shared my photos and ideas for the design of the enclosure with Tanya, and when it arrived I explained that it was a little larger than my first idea, but I thought that it would work out well. After texting me with updates on the packing (as well as a photo of the A. amazonica I was was also getting), Tanya informed me that she was actually sending nine M. balfouri. NINE. I was absolutely floored. The extra space would definitely go to good use.

She shipped them promptly and they arrived expertly packed, labelled, and in fantastic shape. As a picture is worth 1000 words, I’m guessing that a video is worth even more. Below is the video of the unpacking along with the rehousing of the nine M. balfouri slings into their new homes (the rehousings start at about 3:32). I will admit to feeling just a bit of apprehension as I started loosing the slings into their new enclosure together. A part of me really worried that they might turn on each other or I might capture friction on camera.

It soon became apparent that my fears were unwarranted as the rehousing went off without a hitch and the nine little slings scuttled to the pre-formed burrows without a single incident of aggression. Even better, when I checked on them later in the day, a few of the slings had actually taken residence in the same burrow.

I’m finding the communal setup utterly fascinating, and I’ve been checking on them constantly to see how they are getting along. So far, so good. As these little guys continue to make this new enclosure their home, I will continue with updates including my observations and video/notes on any behaviors of interest. A few questions I hope to answer are:

  • Will the slings all gravitate to one burrow?
  • Do they really eat together and without friction?
  • 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.

Next up…M. Balfouri Communal Project Part 3: First Week’s Observations (and Video of Group Feeding!).

* A very special THANKS to Tanya at Fear Not Tarantulas who made this whole project possible! 

 

M. balfouri Feeding Video

Look who stepped out for a bite!

Of all the species I currently keep, my little M. balfouri juveniles have been some of the more quirky and reclusive. After all three buried themselves for several months during the cold of winter, they emerged in the spring with better appetites and slightly less coy dispositions. I now see all three regularly, and I’ve even been afforded the opportunity to see two of them eat. That’s a pretty big deal considering that, from November to March, I didn’t even SEE them at all.

Well, after its recent molt, one of my M. balfouri juveniles has become extra bold, often coming out of his den to hunt, and remaining in the open even when I jostle his cage while feeding him. My first attempt to catch him feeding on film proved to be an epic failure as I ended up catching only the cover of his cage. However, I fared much better with the second attempt, and managed to catch him gently grabbing a cricket I tossed in (sorry, no brutal take-downs in this one). Although it starts off a bit blurry, I do adjust the framing several seconds in.

For anyone who wants to read more about this species, click here!

Now, onto the video…

Monocentropus balfouri Husbandry

A cream and blue beauty!

When folks try to tell me that there there is no such thing as a “beautiful tarantula”, I have a few go-to species that I will immediately Google. Besides the P. metallica and C. cyaneopubescens, I also pull up photos of the tarantula featured in this blog, the M. balfouri. These gorgeous spiders sport creamy tan bodies, metallic blue/silver carapaces, and blue legs, and are a stunning representation of just how striking blue coloration on a T can be.

My female M. balfouri, now a young adult.

My female M. balfouri, now a young adult.

This gorgeous spider comes from a group of islands off the coast of Africa of which Socotra is the largest, hence its common name of Socotra Island Blue Baboon. Although they’ve become much more established in the hobby, they are still in demand, commanding premium prices. I got my juveniles for $60 each as part of a newsletter promotion. Expect to pay up to $100 for the same size elsewhere. I’ve seen females of this species selling for $300, so this can be a pricey pet.

This 2" juvenile is starting to show some of its blue coloration. I'm hoping to see more blue on the legs after its next molt.

This 2″ juvenile is starting to show some of its blue coloration. I’m hoping to see more blue on the legs after its next molt.

M. balfouri care

I housed my three 1,75″ juveniles in medium (5″ x 6″h x 8″l) critter keepers with about four inches of bone dry cocofiber substrate. I provided all three with small water bowls, which they usually fill up with dirt or web over. This species will burrow, creating a maze of underground tunnels with several entrances. They are also prolific webbers, and all three of mine have laid down a thick, silky carpet over much the substrate. As  this species comes from a semi-desert environment, I do not mist the enclosure or moisten the substrate; the water bowl is sufficient.

Now that my female is about 3.75″ DLS, she will be getting a rehousing very soon. The next transfer will likely be the final one, and she will be getting a 3-4 gallon Sterilite enclosure with about 6″ of substrate (60/40 mix of dry top soil and peat).

A top down view of an M. balfouri's enclosure. Notice the thick webbing.

A top down view of an M. balfouri’s enclosure. Notice the thick webbing.

The growth rate for my M. balfouris has been medium, with all three molting five times in my care over a 19-month period. Between molts, they picked up around .25 – .5″ of size or so. During their first two winters, when temps in my tarantula room were mid 70s during the day and dropped to low 70s at night, they mostly stayed in their tunnels as they fasted for a few months. During these periods, I rarely saw any of them, and I would drop a small cricket in once every two weeks and remove it if it wasn’t eaten by the next morning.

When the temps warm up (low 80s during the day, high 70s at night), and their metabolisms are more active and they eat great. I have noticed that they seem to prefer smaller prey, and I was feeding two small crickets or meal worms twice a week when they were juveniles. Now that they are sub-adults, they get two medium crickets a week. They refuse food when they are in premolt or during the slightly colder and drier winter months. During this time, they retreat to their tunnels and surface when the molt process has been completed or when the weather has warmed up.

Too much reading? Check out my husbandry video below!

This species is generally recognized for having a calmer, less defensive temperament, which could make it a good starter Old World species. Although they are more shy and reclusive than many their baboon cousins, they can still, in theory, deliver quite a bite.  Mine generally bolt into one of their many tunnel entrances at the slightest disturbance, and not one has shown any defensiveness. However, that can always change with age, and temperament differs from specimen to specimen. Always use care when working with old world species.

Although I’ve read of instances where this species can become a “pet hole”, spending the majority of its time in its den, mine are are actually visible quite often. Usually late afternoon, I can look forward to my three juveniles creeping out of their dens to sit on the surface for a while. They only seem to stay submerged when in promolt or during the colder winter months.

This juvenile is showing some of the gorgeous blue on its legs after a recent molt.

This juvenile is showing some of the gorgeous blue on its legs after a recent molt.

Although I’ve yet to try to breed any of my tarantulas, the M. balfouri is high on my list when I do. Unlike most other Ts, M. balfouri mothers will actually nurture their spiderlings, killing prey and dragging it into the den to feed them. A search of balfouri breeding and parenting will bring up some fascinating stories about M. balfouri mothering, and most breeders have more success when they leave the sacs in with the mother. It doesn’t get much cooler than that.

Those looking for a gorgeous old world tarantula with beautiful coloration and relatively simple husbandry requirements should look no further than the M. balfouri. Their calmer temperaments also make them a good, if pricey, introduction species for those new to old worlds.