CHESTER, England, Tuesday August 16, 2016 – Three years after British scientists took a dozen Monserrat tarantulas from their Caribbean island home, about 200 of the arthropods have hatched at the Chester Zoo, marking the first time the rare species has been bred in captivity.
Now, the scientists are looking forward to studying the mysterious creatures, which are only found in Montserrat, for the very first time.
“Breeding these tarantulas is a huge achievement for the team as very little is known about them,” Chester Zoo’s curator of lower vertebrates, Gerardo Garcia, said in a statement. “It’s taken a lot of patience and care to reach this point.
“It’s kind of a race against time, whether you can synchronise the sexual maturity between individuals,” he added.
According to BBC News, part of the problem is that male Montserrat tarantulas live for about 2.5 years at the most, whereas the females live much longer and develop more slowly.
The few males collected in Montserrat were therefore a precious resource. There were nervous moments for the team when they started “match-making,” since the encounters were risky for the males.
“The female can take it as a prey, rather than a partner,” Dr Garcia told the BBC. “There were a lot of sweaty moments.”
Garcia and his colleagues observed a very tentative courtship ritual, in which the male tarantula drums out an elaborate rhythm on the female’s web, which is spun on the ground near her burrow.
Even after three apparently successful encounters, there was another anxious wait. All three pregnant females disappeared.
“They literally dig a burrow in the ground, and they’re gone,” Garcia said. “They don’t feed, they don’t show up, we don’t know what’s going on. You just have to leave it for several months and see what happens.
“Then eventually… spiders started popping out of the earth like crazy. From one single burrow, one female, we had about 200 tarantulas – tiny spiderlings.”
Those babies, just a few millimetres across and the first spiderlings of their species to be observed by scientists, are now being handled with care.
“We’re keeping them in small, individual pots,” Garcia said. “A member of staff is feeding them one-by-one with small flies, at the beginning. Then we’ll go for bigger prey like crickets.”
In a year or two, these spiders will in turn become part of the breeding programme.
There are no males left in the small colony of adults; they die after mating.