Three of Great Britain’s top experts on tarantulas – Andrew Smith, Stuart Longhorn and Guy Tansley – recently paid a visit to the Ecological Center of Pinar de la Venta, where naturalist Rodrigo Orozco is raising 6,000 tarantulas in captivity with an aim to ending poaching of these spiders in Mexico.
Smith was deeply involved in taxonomy in his younger days but now dedicates his time to making documentaries telling “the cracking stories behind many species of tarantulas.”
I asked for an example of one of these stories and Smith told me that perhaps the most beautiful tarantula in the world (“breathtakingly beautiful,” was how he put it) is the Mexican redleg, Brachypelma emilia. When Adam White first described this delightful creature for the Zoological Society of London in 1856, he stated it was “a spider from Panama, hitherto apparently unrecorded.”
Why in the world had the eminent White placed this Mexican spider in Panama? While you and I might merely have scratched our heads, Smith and Longhorn set themselves to study the log of HMS Herald which had brought the first specimen of this spider to England. Discovering that the ship had docked for a few days in San Blas, Mexico, before sailing for Panama, Smith and Longhorn headed for Nayarit.
“The log shows that two officers were dispatched to Tepic while the ship was at San Blas,” says Smith, who then set out on the old trail to Tepic where local people told him “Sí, sí, when it rains we see that rojo y negro spider, as big as your hand.” And there, indeed, the researchers found the lovely emilia.
Having confirmed that the redleg lives in these rocky hills, the tarantula experts reconstructed what must have taken place.
“The exploring officers,” Smith told me, “found the tarantula and handed it over to the ship’s naturalist, Thomas Edmondston, who put it into a jar of alcohol and placed it on a shelf. Then, about a month later, there’s an accident. Someone is climbing aboard the ship and his musket accidentally goes off, killing Edmondston. So now the specimen is there on a shelf unlabeled. The ship now goes off to help search for Sir John Franklin who had disappeared while exploring the Northwest Passage. Meanwhile, the ship’s new naturalist, Dr. Berthold Seemann, ends up stuck in Panama waiting for the ship to come back. When it does, he finds this jar with a big spider in it and he’s got no idea where it came from. But while wandering about Panama he had seen a species that somewhat resembles emilia. So he writes ‘Panama’ on the jar and off it goes to the British museum, where Adam White sees it and thinks it is breathtakingly beautiful. So he names it after a girl named Emily. To confuse things even more, the original specimen then vanishes and all that is left is an excellent painting of emilia by a Miss Spooner of Canning Town, which has so much detail that there can be no doubt – for a good arachnologist, of course – that the tarantula came from Mexico and not Panama.”
Smith said he became interested in tarantulas when, while working as a young science teacher, he found a tarantula in a pet shop and decided to read up on them.
“But all I could find was an awful book by an American. Also, it dawned on me that my spider had not been captive-bred, but had been shipped from far away. I soon discovered that the characters selling tarantulas had no idea how to look after them.”
This interest blossomed and eventually led to Smith becoming involved in the creation of the British Tarantula Society around 30 years ago.
“The whole idea of that society was to encourage captive breeding and to look at the pet trade,” he said. “The most serious problems were in the Mexican trade because those were the spiders everyone wanted. They are absolutely gorgeous and very gentle and we soon discovered they were being shipped illegally in huge numbers, of which many, many would die.”
Smith explained that raising tropical spiders in captivity in Europe is difficult because of the additional costs of heating.
“When I heard about Rodrigo Orozco’s captive-breeding program in Mexico, I thought it was absolutely brilliant. Here you can captive-breed the tarantulas’ food (crickets) as well, without the high costs of heating. The London Zoo had a captive-breeding tarantula program years ago, but it was nowhere as large as what Rodrigo is doing here. This project is huge!”
If tarantulas interest you even slightly, you must visit Smith’s lively and engaging website: Lovetarantulas.com. Here you will find downloadable documentaries and books on a wide range of subjects from raising and caring for tarantulas to Scorpions of Medical Importance. Most of the films can be downloaded for £UK2 ($US2.60), including Smith’s latest documentary, “1640 Brazil – The first Tarantula Spider.”
The ebooks on the website include rare, out-of-print classics, such as Smith’s own “Tarantula Spiders: Tarantulas of the USA and Mexico,” which you can download for £UK3 ($US4).
“I wrote that book 25 years ago and today second-hand copies sell for 350 dollars,” Smith said. “But I want to keep the cost of all these books low so students can afford them. You can’t buy a packet of cigarettes for three pounds, but you can buy a book that took me eight years to write!”
Equally well worth a visit, is Tansley’s website, Giantspiders.com, famed for having the best tarantula photo galleries on the internet, and his utterly fascinating Bugsnstuff.com.