Did anyone else watch The Secret Life of the Zoo on Channel 4 earlier this year? Set in Chester Zoo it followed the behind the scenes lives of the keepers and how they keep everything running smoothly as well as aiding the wider world of conservation. Perhaps one of the most notable stories was that of 20 year old Tyrone and his efforts to get the Montserrat tarantulas to breed in a world first. Unfortunately he did not manage this whilst the programme was filming however last Friday Chester Zoo announced that their Montserrat tarantulas had successfully reproduced.
The spiders which have never been bred in captivity are extremely rare. They exist on just one Caribbean island and little is known about the species. Obviously this lack of knowledge makes breeding them even more difficult but the team at Chester were undeterred after a keeper brought back a dozen individuals after a field trip in 2013.
“It’s kind of a race against time, whether you can synchronise the sexual maturity between individuals,” said Chester Zoo’s curator of lower vertebrates, Gerardo Garcia. By any stretch of the imagination this species has a rough courtship. Like most invertebrate species, there is always the risk the male might get eaten by the female; “The female can take it as a prey, rather than a partner,” Dr Garcia told the BBC. “There were a lot of sweaty moments.”
Montserrat tarantulas have an elaborate courtship ritual. The male drums out a rhythm on the females web which she has spun on the ground near her burrow. After keepers witnessed what they assumed were three successful matings, the keepers had a nerve-wrecking wait as the spiders dissapeared into their burrows for months. “They don’t feed, they don’t show up, we don’t know what’s going on.” Garcia told the BBC. “Then eventually… spiders started popping out of the earth like crazy. From one single burrow, one female, we had about 200 tarantulas – tiny spiderlings.”
These 200 spiders will become an important part of Chester Zoos collection as the keepers will use them to study the elusive species. These are the first spiderlings of the species to ever be seen by scientists and as such they are now getting the VIP treatment. “We’re keeping them in small, individual pots,” Dr Garcia said. “A member of staff is feeding them one-by-one with small flies, at the beginning. Then we’ll go for bigger prey like crickets.”
Not only will they become an important part of the breeding programme at the zoo but they will also give a key insight into the species entire life cycle. The Montserrat tarantula has only been formally identified as a species from a single specimen caught 100 years ago so any knowledge that can be gained from these captive individuals will be invaluable.
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