Radio-Tagged Tarantulas

THE THOUGHT of studying tarantulas up close causes most people to shudder as images of gigantic, hairy monsters flood their imagination.  But a more accurate picture, according to Steven B. Reichling of the Memphis Zoo, is that of a fascinating animal providing an invaluable service to conservation research. Reichling and veterinarian Chris Tabaka have radio tagged 75 individuals of two common tarantula species to document the rate and result of deforestation at the Lamanai Archaeological Reserve in northern Belize.

Tarantulas make effective bio-indicators because they can live to be 20 years old, they are identifiable, and they stay in one area. By monitoring tarantula survivor rates, Reichling will be able to document the impact of agricultural trends in Belize.

Historically, farmers planted crops on small plots of land for a few years and then cleared a new area. This “slash-and-burn” farming allowed the land to rest and recover. But modern farming techniques create large clearings that are left fallow briefly or not at all. Large-scale farms cultivate the land continually, and once all the nutrients in the soil are used up, the farm becomes cattle pasture. The behavior of Reichling’s two study subjects, the Lamanai tarantula—a resident of open fields—and the redrump tarantula—a dense forest dweller—will provide insight into how other species of flora and fauna are affected as well.

The first challenge the researchers faced was how to identify an animal that sheds its exoskeleton on a regular basis. They decided to use some kind of internal tag. Because tarantulas have an open circulatory system and no clotting ability, Reichling says, “It’s a lot like trying to insert a grain of rice inside a water balloon.” Tabaka and Reichling developed a technique to surgically implant miniature radio transponders into the spider’s abdomen without harming the animal. These long-lived archachnids will generate valuable scientific data for years to come.

—Chris Hardman

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