Zookeepers at the Chester Zoo in the UK are the proud foster parents of 200 baby Montserrat tarantulas, all born to a single spider. The BBC reports that the rare spider species can only be found in the wild on the Caribbean island of Montserrat, and the newborns are the first to be successfully bred in captivity.
While the idea of hand-feeding insects to hundreds of baby tarantulas might make most of us squeamish, zookeepers have been waiting a long time for this moment. They spent the last three years attempting to breed the spiders at the zoo, but the different maturation rates of male and female spiders—as well as the female spiders’ penchant for turning rejected males into a meal—made the feat difficult to achieve.
But a few months ago, the zookeepers observed three pairs of spiders successfully mate. The females then burrowed into the ground, disappearing for the duration of their pregnancy. The zookeepers waited with bated breath until last week, when the first brood burst forth from the soil. Curator of lower vertebrates Gerardo Garcia told the BBC that "spiders started popping out of the Earth like crazy. From one single burrow, one female, we had about 200 tarantulas—tiny spiderlings."
Garcia said the several-month wait for the baby tarantulas to emerge was painfully suspenseful for the zookeepers, who had no way of checking up on the pregnant spiders. “They literally dig a burrow in the ground, and they're gone," he said. "They don't feed, they don't show up, we don't know what's going on. You just have to leave it for several months and see what happens.”
The brand new cluster of tarantulas will not only increase the rare species' population, but allow researchers to study the arachnid’s full life cycle for the first time. Researchers also hope that by learning more about the behaviors and mating habits of the Montserrat tarantula, they might be able to help another endangered species: the mountain chicken frog. The rare species, which is considered a delicacy and has been over-hunted, has been observed feeding on Montserrat tarantulas. By saving the frog's food source, researchers hope to save the frogs as well.
“Hopefully these tiny tarantulas will uncover more secrets about the behavior, reproduction and life cycle of the species,” Dr. Garcia said in a statement. “Importantly, the skills and techniques the team has developed with this new breeding success will now be transferred to other threatened species.”
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