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Stolen Spiders?

Scientists push back against the illegal sale of wild tarantulas as pets

JEFFREY COOLIDGE/GETTY IMAGES

As you read, think about what tarantula pet owners could do to protect wild tarantulas.

Back in December 2018, authorities at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport came across a suspicious package. When they opened it, they found 250 live baby tarantulas! The spiders had been smuggled to the U.S. from Brazil to be sold as pets.

Every year, tens of thousands of tarantulas are poached from the wild and sold illegally online and in pet stores. Certain species can fetch as much as $1,000 per spider! This trade is hurting tarantula populations around the world. Some species are even in danger of becoming extinct.

A strange package was found at Seattle-Tacoma International in December 2018. Authorities opened it. Inside were 250 live baby tarantulas! The spiders had been snuck into the U.S. from Brazil. They were going to be sold as pets. 

Tens of thousands of tarantulas are poached from the wild every year. They’re sold illegally online and in pet stores. Certain species can fetch as much as $1,000 per spider! This trade is hurting tarantula numbers around the world. Some species are even in danger of going extinct. 

TED S. WARREN/AP IMAGES

Zoo managers with 250 tarantula s that had been trafficked through Seattle, Washington

Scientists are working to put a stop to tarantula trafficking. Biologist Gwen Pearson cares for insects and spiders at the Purdue University Bug Zoo in Indiana. She uses rescued tarantulas to educate people about poaching. Other researchers are investigating where tarantulas are bought and sold to try to stop smugglers in their tracks.

Scientists are working to stop tarantula trading. Biologist Gwen Pearson cares for insects and spiders. She works at the Purdue University Bug Zoo. It’s in Indiana. She uses rescued tarantulas to teach people about poaching. Other scientists are studying where the spiders are bought and sold. That could help stop smugglers in their tracks. 

Eight-Legged Friends?

Many people find tarantulas scary. But if you were to encounter one of the large, hairy spiders, it would probably run away, says Pearson. There are more than 1,000 tarantula species scientists know about, and most are not aggressive. Plus, the venom of tarantulas is usually harmless to humans.

Most wild tarantulas live in South America. But the spiders are found in deserts, forests, and grasslands on every continent except Antarctica (see Tarantulas of the World).

Tarantulas make their homes in holes called burrows. They build thick webs at their burrows’ entrance to help them catch prey. When these webs vibrate, it means an insect or another small prey animal is nearby. The tarantula pounces and injects its prey with venom. It also injects a substance that turns the prey to liquid so the tarantula can slurp it up.

Many people might find meeting a large and hairy tarantula scary. But this spider would probably run away from you, says Pearson. There are more than 1,000 known tarantula species. Most are not dangerous. Their venom is harmless to humans. 

Most wild tarantulas live in South America. But the spiders are found in deserts, forests, and grasslands too. They live on every continent except Antarctica (see Tarantulas of the World). 

Tarantulas make their homes in burrows. They build thick webs across the holes’ entrances. An insect or other small prey might walk nearby. That causes the web to vibrate. Then the spider pounces. It injects its prey with venom. It also injects a substance that turns the prey to liquid. That allows the spider to slurp it up.

ISTOCKPHOTO/GETTY IMAGES

Tarantulas build webs outside their burrows. When an insect shakes the web, the spider pounces!

Tarantulas’ diet helps keep crop-eating insects in check. But the tarantula trade threatens to disrupt this balance. Poachers can scoop up hundreds of spiders from the same habitat. This makes it hard for the wild population to bounce back.

Tarantulas’ diet helps keep insects that eat crops in check. But the tarantula trade threatens this balance. Poachers can scoop up hundreds of spiders from the same place. That can leave too few for the population to survive.

Tracking the Trade

Not all pet tarantulas are illegal. Some species bred in captivity by certified breeders are allowed. The laws about who can transport different species vary between countries and states. Poachers break these laws, sneaking spiders across borders in video game cartridges, drinking straws, and other unexpected containers.

Not all pet tarantulas are illegal. There are official breeders that are allowed to raise some species. There are laws about who can move different species from place to place. They vary between countries and states. Poachers break these laws. They sneak spiders across borders. They hide them in video game cartridges, drinking straws, and other odd containers.

Can tarantulas kill you?

Tarantulas typically bite only if they feel threatened. The bites may be painful, but their venom is not deadly to humans.

More than 300 tarantula species are sold around the world, says Caroline Fukushima. She’s a scientist who studies arachnids at the University of Helsinki in Finland.

Today, Fukushima is focused on tracking the tarantula trade. She scours records of trafficked tarantulas and searches social media to learn where people buy the spiders. Fukushima has also surveyed tarantula owners to learn about them and their pets. She hopes her research will bring attention to poaching so authorities do more to stop it.

More than 300 tarantula species are sold around the world, says Caroline Fukushima. She’s a scientist. She studies arachnids. She works at the University of Helsinki. It’s in Finland. 

Today, Fukushima focuses on tracking the tarantula trade. She reads records of traded spiders. She searches social media to learn where people buy the animals. Fukushima has also surveyed tarantula owners. She wants to learn about them and their pets. She hopes her research will bring attention to tarantula poaching. Then more can be done to stop it. 

COURTESY OF CAROLINE FUKUSHIMA

(Left) Spider scientist Caroline Fukushima searches for tarantulas in Brazil. (Right) Fukushima examines the underside of a wild tarantula, revealing its fangs.

Fukushima has found that people buy tarantulas online, from pet stores, and at trade fairs. It’s not easy to tell where a spider came from. Many people who answered the survey own more than 25 tarantulas! If a lot of these tarantulas have been poached, says Fukushima, “you can imagine how big the damage to tarantula numbers can be.”

Fukushima has leaned the places where people buy tarantulas. They include online, from pet stores, and at trade fairs. It’s not easy to tell where a spider came from. Many people who answered the survey own more than 25 tarantulas! If a lot of these spiders have been poached, says Fukushima “you can imagine how big the damage to tarantula numbers can be.”    

A New Home

As authorities investigated the smugglers caught at the Seattle airport, the rescued tarantulas were sent to several zoos. Pearson’s zoo received three of the spiders. The trip had been hard on them. One was so stressed that it had scratched its hair off. After a few weeks, it shed its exoskeleton and grew a new one, along with a new crop of hair.

At the Purdue University Bug Zoo, Pearson tells visitors about the spiders’ stories. She also teaches people about poaching. Pearson encourages people to ask sellers where tarantulas came from bore they buy one as a pet.

Research like Fukushima’s may lead to more laws protecting tarantulas. People can also help by learning about the spiders they take home, says Pearson. “That pet came from somewhere.”

Authorities investigated the smugglers caught at the Seattle airport. The rescued tarantulas were sent to several zoos. Three of the spiders went to Pearson’s zoo. The trip had been hard on them. One was so stressed it had scratched its hair off. It shed its exoskeleton after a few weeks. Then it grew a new one and a new crop of hair.

Pearson talks to visitors at the Purdue University Bug Zoo. She tells them the spiders’ stories. She also teaches people about poaching. Pearson wants people to ask questions before they buy a tarantula as a pet. Like, where did the spider come from? 

Research like Fukushima’s may lead to more laws. They could help protect tarantulas. People can also help by learning about the spiders they take home, says Pearson. “That pet came from somewhere.”  

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