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A Tarantula is any member of the spider family, Theraphosidae. Of the approximately 35,000 known species of spiders, some 800 are classified as true tarantulas. Members of this species are most common in the southwestern United States, Mexico and tropical American regions.

In NORTH AMERICA, tarantulas are considerably smaller than their tropical relatives, commonly measuring less than 2 inches, with a leg span of 3-4 inches. This species of tarantula is found in dry, warmer parts of southern California and ranges in color from tan to reddish brown.

The DESERT TARANTULA grows to 3 inches long and is gray or dark brown. It is most common in the desert areas of Arizona, New Mexico and Southern California.

Creating a natural sense of fear in humans, the tarantula is known and identified by its long, hairy legs and mouse-like body fur. Contrary to popular myth, the tarantula is not interested in humans, and is not poisonous to man. Though the tarantula can jump, it can't move more than a few inches at a time.

Unlike others in the spider family, the tarantula does not spin a web to trap prey. Rather, it catches food by running after its prey and then, killing it with its venom. Common tarantula prey include small insects like the grasshopper, beetle, sow bugs and other small spiders. By making a wound with their fangs, the tarantula injects an enzyme from its mouth, which slowly breaks down the victim's external body. The prey is eventually reduced to a fluid consistency, which the spider then sucks into its stomach, where it is absorbed and digested.

In nature, tarantulas are long-lived creatures, with some females living to the age of 25 years. At the age of 10 years, the female reaches sexual maturity and its body turns from black to brown in color. After mating, the male lives only a short time, often begin eaten by the female. Once this has taken place, the female spins a large sheet of webbing, on which she deposits fertilized, pearly-looking white eggs. She then covers the eggs with a second sheeting, and tightly closes the edges. The female will guard the egg sac or cocoon for 6-7 weeks, or until the eggs hatch. Baby tarantulas will stay with the mother for approximately one week, after which time they leave and establish dens of their own.

The most common species of tarantula sold as pets is the Chilean Rose. This is a ground dwelling species that prefers to burrow during daylight hours and emerge at night to feed. Keeping a tarantula as a pet requires that you provide certain necessities for their well being, including a lock proof home that can retain humidity.

Are tarantulas dangerous pets? According to veterinarians, no. While tarantulas will inject humans with venom, it is non-toxic to people, and little more than irritating and itchy.

There are literally thousands of containers that can be used to house a pet tarantula, though an aquarium is the preferred method. Tarantulas are superb climbers, so no matter which type of home you choose, it needs to be made escape-proof. A glass locking cover works well on aquariums.

Once the spider home has been made escape proof, most experts agree that you'll need to provide a bedding for your new pet. Placing an inch or two of sterile, damp vermiculite, potting soil, or a mixture of sand and soil at the bottom of the cage is a must. This will help to maintain a proper humidity level and provide your spider with a place to nest and sleep. You should spray the bedding with water once a week to retain proper moisture levels. NEVER spray the spider with water.

Adding rocks, artificial plants and branches to the home is not necessary, though you may do it. Many pet store experts advise new tarantula owners to place a small flower pot on its side to provide your spider with an easy place to hide and rest. Most species of spiders will then live well at normal room temperature, 70-75 degrees. It's important never to allow the spider's environment to dip lower than 70-degrees. Spiders must be kept warm in order to survive. During colder, winter months, it may be necessary to add a heating pad and heat rocks to your spider's home. A UV fluorescent light can also be installed, to keep your spider warm and healthy.

Being a natural predator, the tarantula will eat almost any living animal they can capture and kill. Most often, owners choose to feed their spider crickets, beetles, grasshoppers, earthworms, moths and other small animals. Tarantulas need only be fed once a week. Unlike other animals, tarantulas do not overeat, so it doesn't matter how much food you provide your pet with.

You'll also need to give the spider access to fresh water on a daily basis. A small, plastic lid makes a good dish or you can purchase a commercial spider watering bowl. Placing a small piece of sponge inside the water will make it easier for your spider to get water and also, to help keep humidity levels up inside the aquarium.

If you choose to handle your tarantula, it's best noted that you are of far more danger to him, than he is to you. By placing your hand inside the cage and laying it flat on the floor, allow the spider to crawl into your hand. Spiders are skittish, so any sudden burst of air or movement, may cause the spider to jump and fall, injuring himself. If the spider is not willing to crawl into your palm, it's best to leave the spider be.

Like all spiders, tarantulas molt out of their old exoskeletons and into new ones. During this process, the spider stops eating and lies on its back. The old exoskeleton splits, and the spider then works it off and flips its body right side up again. A new exoskeleton enlarges and hardens over the course of the following week. Your spider should not be handled during this time.

Though a tarantula bite will do nothing more than cause a minor irritation, it's always advised that you clean your hands thoroughly after handling your spider. Soap, water and antibacterial creams can be used to treat tarantula bites or skin irritations. The underbelly of the spider is lined with what's known as "itchy hairs." During times of fright when being handled, spiders often drop these hairs into the palm of their owners. Washing and drying hands generally relieves the itch immediately. Any irritation that follows can be treated with over the counter cortisone creams or antibacterial ointments.

Depending on the species and sex, spiders live to varying ages. Female tarantulas often live 20 years or more, and males live just one year after becoming an adult.