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Tarantulas Habitat and Food

Tarantulas are found across the world, and are abundant in all six populated continents. Read on to find out more about the characteristics of their habitats, and how it affects them.
Marian K Feb 10, 2020
For those who love spiders, including yours truly, tarantulas are fascinating and mystifying creatures. In the general populace, they bring out emotions of horror or repulsion typically associated with all kinds of spiders, although to be fair to the scared percentage, tarantulas are among the scariest and most menacing creatures out in the wild.

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While most of us are conditioned to be afraid of these spiders, in reality, tarantulas are fairly harmless. In fact, despite their ill-fame, their venom is not even fatal to adult humans!
In fact, much of the notoriety of tarantulas has stemmed from being confused with other spiders that are capable of killing human beings. The most notable example of this is the Brazilian wandering spider, which, though not a tarantula, is often mistaken for one.
That said, it is still inadvisable to handle or treat tarantulas flippantly. Though not fatal, tarantula venom can yet be excruciatingly painful for days, and can cause -- depending upon the particular species -- severe muscle injuries, sporadic spasms or, in the case of the African Pelinobius muticus, even hallucinations!
Tarantulas constitute a family of spiders known as Theraphosidae, consisting of about 100 genera and more than 900 species.

Habitat and Distribution

As can be seen in the adjoining illustration, tarantulas are spread all over the world -- in tropical, subtropical, and arid regions. 
They can be found in Africa and Madagascar, southern Asia, parts of the Middle East, the Indo-Pacific region, Iberia and parts of southern Europe, Australia, the Caribbean, northern New Zealand and some Micronesian Islands, all of Central and South America, and a large part of the United States.
Most theraphosids live in burrows in the ground. However, they may also live in burrows or crevices located on cliff faces, under tree bark, among rocks, or between tree roots. Terrestrial species line their burrows with silk, whereas some arboreal species live in silk structures known as tube tents.
The wide variety of regions inhabited by these arthropods means that tarantulas have been successful in inhabiting virtually every biome: they are found in deserts, tropical rainforests, savannahs and grasslands, shrubs, mountains (below the snow line), coastal areas, deciduous forests, and scrublands.

Physical Description

The various species of tarantulas show varying dimensions and colors. Most grow to a length of 1-4 inches, while their leg spans can consequently vary between 3 and 12 inches.
Unlike other animals with a large global range, tarantulas display minimal physiological and behavioral variation between species found in different regions and biomes.
For instance, tarantulas found in deserts look, behave, and hunt just like tarantulas found in rainforests. They may look different, but the difference is not a result of an adaptation in order to be able to exploit their specific habitat, and mostly the variation is just in the color and size.
The only major classes -- regarding appearance, not taxonomy -- among tarantulas are Old-world tarantulas, and New-world tarantulas.
New-world tarantulas, found in the Americas, have urticating hair that are used as the primary mode of self-defense, whereas Old-world tarantulas, found in Europe, Africa, Asia and Australia, lack urticating hairs (although they have normal hair).

Feeding and Predators

Tarantulas, unlike the popular conception about spiders, don't weave orbs out of their silk, but instead hunt by ambushing their prey, which includes flies, insects, lizards, small mammals, such as rats, mice and shrews, and even frogs and toads. Some, like the goliath birdeater, prey on small snakes and birds, although the latter is rarely the case.
Despite their venom and threatening appearance, tarantulas are not the apex predators in any ecosystem. Tarantulas are especially targeted by the Pompilidae family of wasps, known colloquially in the US as tarantula hawks. Other larger arthropods, such as giant centipedes, also prey on tarantulas.

Tarantulas as Pets

While a tarantula isn't a conventional pet, it is catching on in the exotic pet trade. If you are considering buying a tarantula, you must be well-equipped to care for it. Pick a species that is not too aggressive and venomous. Tarantulas can be kept in terrariums or other such structures.
More than 3 inches of Eco Earth or bed-a-beast is needed to house these animals, as well as a cave-like structure, and a few rocks and plants. The size of the enclosure should be between 8-10 gallons; 5-6 is too small, and while the arachnids won't mind having a larger playground, more than 15 gallons is simply unnecessary.
The tops of the enclosures should be sealed by a semi-transparent but strong covering, such as a wire mesh. Tarantulas are relatively clean pets, since their excrement dries out and leaves no smell. Tarantulas should never be kept in pairs, since like many spiders, they can be cannibalistic.
Tarantulas have conquered a wide variety of habitats all over the world and thus are relatively untroubled by the human expansion into hitherto untouched territories.