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A GUIDE TO BUYING YOUR FIRST (AUSTRALIAN) TARANTULA​ - PART 2

Welcome back to our four part series on getting your first pet tarantula. Make sure you catch up on last post on permits and regulations if you haven’t already, because this week we’re picking up where we left off and diving straight into the world of tarantula names and varieties. Strap yourselves in, it’s about to get hairy.

Phlogius sp. - Kuranda - Alan Henderson, Minibeast Wildlife

Part two : Types of tarantulas

So you’ve made the decision to get your first tarantula – but which one? At this point, you’ll find out very quickly that Australian tarantula “species” are a swamp of bizarre names and numbers, of which no official or complete list exists (we’ll get to why). To break it down, there are probably around eight* different groups (genera) of tarantulas in Australia, with four most commonly kept as pets. There’s no “best” tarantula to keep, but they do all have differences in appearance, behaviour and growth rate which you will need to be aware of before purchasing.

Phlogius species

These are the big boys of the Australian scene, including the largest Australian species. They are widespread in the wild and go by common names such as Whistling Spiders, Bird-Eating Spiders (an exaggeration), and Barking Spiders. The barking/whistling refers a noise the tarantula can make by rubbing its mouthparts when it feels threatened, and other tarantula groups also make this noise.

You may also see these spiders referred to as “Selenocosmia” species. While this is currently their correct scientific name, it is well understood that they will eventually be formally changed to Phlogius. Spiders in this group live in burrows, but are opportunistic and will use spaces under logs and rocks in the wild to make their homes. In captivity they are quite happy to shelter beneath any secure object.

While years of complex taxonomic work continues on these spiders to determine how many species there actually are,  an array of unofficial names has arisen. Many of these are based on the locations where the various tarantulas were originally found. Phlogius sp. Sarina, Phlogius sp. Kuranda, and Phlogius sp. Proserpine are such examples. Others such as Phlogius sp. Goliath are descriptors of the spiders’ physical traits (although in this particular case, these spiders aren’t typically any bigger than many of the others variants). There are many of these unofficial names circulating, some of which may end up being classified officially as the same species. Regardless of this, most of the Phlogius sp. tarantulas are very similar in appearance and grow to similar sizes.

australian-tarantula
Australian tarantula - Phlogius sp. - Kuranda

Selenotypus species and Selenotholus species

Selenotypus plumipes, known as the Featherleg Tarantula for the long hairs on its back legs. They are from the dryer inland regions of Australia and in the wild live in burrows that protect them from extremes of temperature and dehydration. At present Selenotypus plumipes is the only species described in this genus, however taxonomic work is underway which may result in several more species being officially described. As with the Phlogius species tarantulas, there are many unofficial names for regional variations of these spiders. These include names such as Selenotypus sp. 1 – 4, Selenotypus sp. Wallace, Selenotypus sp. Banana and many others.  Again, some of these may end up being declared new species and some may be grouped together as the same species.

Selenotholus species are also spiders found in the dryer inland regions of Australia, and like Selenotypus species, there are many unofficial names with official species yet to be determined. 

In captivity they will excavate a burrow into the substrate and may not be visible for long periods of time, depending on how you set up the enclosure. These tarantulas grow much more slowly than the Phlogius species.

Selenotypus sp. Carbine, one of the many unofficial species variants of the this group of spiders

Coremiocnemis tropix

 

Known as the Brush Tarantula or Rainforest Tarantula, this is a stunning rainforest species from North Queensland that lines its burrow or retreat with massive amounts of silk, which can look great in captivity but also make the spider hard to see. Like Phlogius, they will often use existing spaces for their homes, and prefer humid conditions. In nature they can be found living beneath rocks, logs and other objects upon the ground. These spiders are medium sized tarantulas by Australian standards, and don’t grow as large as Phlogius, Selenotypus or Selenotholus species.

rainforest-tarantula
Coremiocnemis tropix - a species that creates expansive silken homes inside enclosures

What’s in a name?

Since there are only a few tarantulas that have been described by scientists, as mentioned above, most of the “species” names you see after the genus are essentially unofficial nicknames. Tarantula keepers use these nicknames to keep track of regions where certain tarantulas were found, or certain colours or characteristics they display. However, they don’t necessarily mean that one tarantula is a different species to another. 

This means that it’s possible for anyone to invent a name as a marketing tactic. Many of these tarantulas may turn out to be the same species under different names, so be cautious of falling for any sales tricks. At the end of the day, the genus (if known) and the geographic region of the original breeding tarantulas is the most useful thing to know. Everything else at this stage is just guesswork.

Another thing to consider is that many of the tarantulas circulating for sale (particularly those bought and sold in pet shops where there is often little spider expertise) may be of unknown origin. If the spider is being sold as just a tarantula or a ‘Bird spider’ or similar the best that you could hope for is having it identified to genus level (ie Phlogius, Selenotypus, Selenotholus etc). Identifying it further to one of the unofficial names simply by looking at it (or a photograph of it) is practically impossible. Unfortunately this does happen quite often (often via social media), so some people will be keeping and selling spiders which aren’t at all what they think they are. 

Does it matter if you don’t know exactly what you have? The short answer is – not really. Knowing the exact origin of an animal is certainly important for such things as endangered species breeding programs, where genetics are critical and re-release is a possibility. As permanent  pets, it’s not so important as long as long as that is conveyed to anyone acquiring the spider from you (to keep or breed with). As the genus can be determined quite easily, the correct care and husbandry can be provided, and it will be a healthy fascinating pet. At the end of the day, for many tarantula pet owners, that is all that matters.    

Ts and slings

In addition to seeing increasingly strange words added onto the ends of genera (Selenotypus platinum banana strawberry shortcake anyone?), you’re also likely to come across a bit of tarantula hobby jargon or scientific terminology. You don’t need to use these words, but it’s helpful to know what they mean.

  • T is a hobby shortening of “tarantula”
  • sling is a hobby contraction of “spiderling”, which itself is a hatchling spider
  • sp. is a scientific shorthand referring to a particular species, whereas spp. refers to many different species. For example, you might say that your tarantula is a “Selenotholus sp.“, which means a kind of Selenotholus, but you aren’t sure which one. You might also say you have several Phlogius spp., meaning multiple different species of Phlogius.
  • gravid means pregnant, but for spiders.
  • moulting refers to the process of ecdysis. When a tarantula looks like it might be about to go through this process, you may see it referred to as “premoult”.
  • instar refers to stages of growth. The first stage of spiderling is called “first instar”. When the tarantula moults, it becomes “second instar”, and so on.
1st instar Phlogius species tarantulas - also known as "slings" - Alan Henderson, Minibeast Wildlife
First instar Phlogius species tarantulas – also known as “slings”

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