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The Sydney Sue Instruction Manual



I love watching veterinarian shows. My personal favorite is Dr. K's Exotic Animal ER. Mrs. Gartman is a fan of Dr. Jeff: Rocky Mountain Vet. And now that Dr. T: Lone Star Vet has her own show, I can now spend an entire weekend binge watching cute bunnies, lizards and ferrets.

It recently occurred to me that missing from the doctors' menagerie of patients are tarantulas. Pet spiders are as common as pet snakes and pet hedgehogs—and those critters are regular visitors to exotic pet hospitals. What do you do if your tarantula gets sick?




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As it turns out, some vets specialize in invertebrate husbandry (which is fancy talk for "they work with bugs"). Recently, a tarantula named Spidey escaped from his enclosure and got his legs stuck to a piece of duct tape. The owner was concerned that trying to remove the tape would pull off Spidey's legs, so they rushed him to the Newark Veterinary Hospital in Newark, Ohio. Dr. Jodi Houser and her staff used an adhesive remover to free Spidey's legs. They posted a video of the un-sticking on Facebook:




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Kudos, Dr. Houser! Thankfully, Spidey went home without any injuries. His predicament teaches us an invaluable lesson: it is a tarantula keeper's responsibility to understand a spider's behavior in order to provide them with a safe home. This is easier said than done so us "newbies" rely on experienced hobbyists for guidance on proper husbandry techniques. They share that information with us in a document called a care sheet. Care sheets provide a wealth of information about a species' native environment, food and water needs and—most importantly—their temperament.

For the past few months, I have been working on my own care sheet with Sydney Sue's behavior being my source material. I'm excited to finally present to you The Sydney Sue Instruction Manual.

Sydney Sue is excited too. So excited, in fact, he decided to take a nap:

  Click on the photo for a larger version.  

The Sydney Sue Instruction Manual
A care sheet for Grammostola pulchripes—The Chaco Golden Knee tarantula


Grammostola pulchripes

Pronounced Gram-MOST-oh-la POLE-cruh-peas.

Grammostola comes from the ancient Greek "grámma" meaning writing or drawing and "stóle" meaning dress or robe. Pulchripes is derived from the Latin "pulchra" meaning "beautiful" and "pes" meaning "foot".

Chaco Golden Knee tarantula

Most experienced tarantula hobbyists do not condone the use of common names as it is too easy to misidentify a spider's species. Nonetheless, I usually refer to Sydney Sue as a "Chaco" because it's easier to type than Grammostola pulchripes.

The Gran Chaco, South America

Grammostola pulchripes reside exclusively within a region of South America called the Gran Chaco. The Gran Chaco encompasses most of Bolivia and Paraguay and extends into northern Argentina and western Brazil. It's virtually identical in terrain and climate to the Texas Hill Country: hot and dry in the summer and hot and dry in the winter.

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The name Chaco comes from a word in Quechua, an indigenous language from the Andes and South American highlands. The Quechua word chaqu, meaning "hunting land," refers to the rich variety of animal life once present throughout the entire region.

Sadly, much of the Gran Chaco is being deforested to make room for farm land. According to the conservation news website Mongabay, much of the native flora and fauna—including Grammostola pulchripes—are listed by the IUCN as "endangered."

Preferred Temperature & Humidity

According to Mike's Basic Tarantula website, Chacos are best kept "at 78° degrees and the humidity at 65%." Sydney Sue did not get this memo. He loves cold weather—60°F to 65°F is where he's most happy. The lower the humidity the better. Also note that he prefers his ceiling fan on "medium" and the blinds closed with the slats in the "up" position.

We live in Houston; therefore, our air conditioner runs eleven months of the year. To combat the artificial dryness caused by the A/C, I keep a water dish in Sydney Sue's house. Its intended purpose is to provide moisture as the water evaporates.

Naturally, tarantulas instinctively loathe standing water. Stagnate water attracts mold, mildew and parasites that could make a tarantula sick. Sydney Sue and I have negotiated a water bowl armistice but many tarantulas flip over their water dish to spill out the water:

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Sydney Sue lives in a plastic terrarium. It measures 8" x 6" x 14"—about the size of a large shoe box. The terrarium consists of a clear box with a removable green lid that is vented to allow constant air flow. The lid has a built-in door that provides access to the interior of the terrarium for changing out the water bowl and dropping in tasty crickets.

The terrarium is filled with coconut coir which is a by-product of the commercial coconut industry. The discarded husks are ground up and sold to exotic pet keepers as a substitute for dirt. It's eco-friendly and naturally resistant to mold and mildew. It does not smell like coconuts.

Inside the terrarium is a tubular piece of bark from a cork tree. This is Sydney Sue's burrow. In the wild, tarantulas will find a crevice in a fallen tree and use it as their home for their entire life. He eats and sleeps (and sleeps and sleeps) inside his burrow and maintains it obsessively. My rule is that the burrow is his Fortress of Solitude. I never put anything inside of it or attempt to take him out of it. It's his safe place and I respect it as such.

Here he is doing work on the "front porch" of his burrow:

  Click on the photo for a larger version.  

Food Consumption

Captive tarantulas can be fed a variety of invertebrates. Popular feeder bugs include Darkling Beetle larvae (commonly called "super worms"), the Dubia Roach (Blaptica dubia) and, of course, the common house cricket. Most tarantulas love super worms as they have a high fat content. They are to Theraphosidae what bacon is to Homo sapiens. I have read stories that some tarantulas will refuse to eat anything but super worms once they've tasted them.

Dubia Roaches are popular with tarantula keepers that have a large collection. A colony of these flightless bugs is easy to establish and maintain. Having access to an endless supply of free tarantula food is fantastic when you have dozens of mouths to feed. Unlike their vile cousins, the German Cockroach, Dubia Roaches are very clean creatures. Some people even keep them as pets!

I feed crickets to Sydney Sue. They're cheap, nutritious and easy to acquire—they're sold in almost every pet store. I "gut load" the crickets before feeding them to Sydney Sue. This ensures that he gets all the nutrition he needs to stay happy and healthy. At his size and age, we give him one large cricket every four weeks. This may sound like too little food, but his metabolism is extremely slow. He is fat, sassy and very well taken care of.

The crickets are alive when given to Sydney Sue. He is a natural hunter and fells his prey in a fast, furious blitz. Between the blinding-fast attack and Sydney Sue's powerful venom, the crickets are dispatched almost instantly. The following 2 minute video accurately depicts the intensity with which Sydney Sue subdues his prey:

  This video may not be appropriate for young children. Viewer discretion is advised.  

Age & Size

Grammostola pulchripes are one of the larger species of tarantula. Female Chacos can attain a leg span—measured from her front left paw to her right rear paw—of 7 inches. Females tend to have a stocky build and a large opisthosoma (science speak for "booty"). In captivity, she can live for twenty years or longer. There are stories that one keeper had a female Chaco that lived to age 50!

Depending on how frequently she molts, she will reach sexual maturity around 7 years of age. Females produce eggs that develop inside an egg sac she makes from her silk. The egg sac can contain as many as 700 eggs. Here we see a proud Cyriopagopus lividum—the Cobalt Blue tarantula—and her freshly-hatched clutter of spiderlings:

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Sydney Sue turned 6 years old in December. He has molted 5 times in the past 5 years with the longest time between molts being 2 years and 28 days. His leg span is around 4 inches. Based on his current growth rate, he will reach sexual maturity in another five or six years.

Compared to a mature female, mature males have a much smaller opisthosoma and long, spindly legs:

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Chacos will live in their burrow for most of their life. It's not until the male becomes sexually mature that he abandons his home to find a mate. In the wild, a mature male Chaco will search for a female (or females, time permitting) without stopping to eat or drink. Within a year, having mated as many times as possible, he will no longer have the energy to continue his pursuit and will die of starvation.

And so it is.

Behavior & Disposition

Grammostola pulchripes are often referred to as "gentle giants." They have an extremely laid back and sweet-tempered personality—half Cary Grant, half Jeff Spicoli. In the five years he's been a part of our family, he has never been aggressive, threatening or attempted to bite. Quite the contrary: he's shy and slightly skittish with a high level of intelligence and curiosity. Here he is watching me rearrange my sock drawer:


Sydney Sue sleeps most of the day and night. If sleeping were an Olympic event, he'd be a gold medalist. He sleeps on top of his burrow, on his front yard, in his secret tunnel—pretty much everywhere. He's nocturnal during the winter months, spending most of his day deep inside his burrow. When the sun sets, he emerges to stand guard at the entrance of his burrow keeping a watchful eye over his domain.

He's extremely active in the late spring and early summer. Summer is when he spends his days fastidiously maintaining his burrow. At night, he crawls the perimeter walls of his enclosure laying strands of silk across the vents. I'm not sure what purpose this serves, but he's quite diligent in making sure it's accomplished nightly.

Like most terrestrial tarantulas, Sydney Sue is an avid digger. It isn't uncommon for him to spend several days digging a hole only to refill it a few weeks later. It's not just random digging though—it's a carefully orchestrated process. He lays down strands of silk on top of the dirt and rolls it into a ball. Then he uses his fangs and pedipalps to carry the ball out of the hole where he piles it into a small mound. Here we see an Aphonopelma seemanni—the Costa Rican Zebra tarantula—demonstrating the technique:

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Final Thoughts

No one really knows why we are afraid of spiders. Some say it's a response passed down by our ancient ancestors to a long-extinct predator. Others say it's an irrational reaction perpetuated by myths and movies. As someone who was once deathly afraid of bugs and spiders, I can assure you there is absolutely nothing to fear. They're tiny animals that are as harmless as a house cat. You have a greater chance of being sucked into a Sharknado than you are of being bitten by a deadly spider.

It's exhilarating to see a large tarantula up close. They are hundreds of millions of years old—modern day dinosaurs older than almost every other living creature on Earth. But they're delicate and easily stressed, especially with humans encroaching into the lands they've called home since the last ice age. If you get a chance to see a tarantula, enjoy it. If you find one in your house or your yard, remember that it's a living being no different than a koala bear or baby deer. It's one of God's creations and is just as deserving of respect as the Black Rhino and the Kemp's ridley sea turtle. In other words:

Be nice to spiders :)

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Handle With Care
Photographing the Wild Tarantula

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