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Pollitos And Their Predators: Part 1 – The Human Kind

I cave in, I went for a spin / And know what did I find? / A little tin full of tarantula skin / 1

SANTIAGO – If the Chilean recluse spider, araña de rincón, is feared and loathed, the Chilean Rose tarantula, araña pollito, is welcomed and beloved. And what’s not to like? The name evokes a fuzzy baby chick (pollito being the diminutive for pollo, chicken); the furry body, a plush toy; and the docile, sometimes “moody” nature, an old cat. But are we loving them to death?

Pollitos “are found throughout most of Chile, from the desert of the Antofagasta Region to the rainforest of the Los Lagos Region,” as La Hora notes.

They usually live in burrows in the ground and tend to be solitary, except when they’re looking to mate. They also generally keep a low profile during the day. When they venture out at night, however, they are excellent (albeit inadvertent) pest managers: they love to devour insects and other arthropods that damage crops and homes, including cockroaches, beetle larvae, and grasshoppers.

A “Superb Pet”

Male pollitos live up to 10 years in captivity and females twice that long. According to various pet sites like The Spruce Pets, “For the spider lover, this species makes a superb pet, as its docile demeanor and low maintenance upkeep requires very little effort from its keeper.”

It’s also fascinating to watch them molt. It’s a bit like watching a tiny eight-legged gorilla take off… a gorilla suit. But in slow motion. Very slow motion. Like over the course of several hours. Up to 18.

If you’re curious to see what it looks like, but feel it’s too forward or suggestive to ask your friends if you can watch their “tarantula molt,” there are numerous (dare we say, “too many”?) timelapse videos available online, including a particularly “good” one of Rosie (see video included). If you prefer male molts, check out Otis.

Young tarantulas molt every few months or so. Older ones only do so every couple of years.

But A Few Words Of Caution

The words of caution about pollitos are few but important.

  • More in common with Humpty Dumpty than you thought

For one, take care not to drop a pollito or the impact could cause its abdomen to split open, resulting in death. In fact, just “hanging out in the top of the cage is a dangerous feat for this species for the same reason,” warns The Spruce Pets.

  • When it starts to rear up, back off

When a pollito starts rearing up its front legs, its warning you that a bite is coming, so stop doing whatever it is you’re doing that’s bugging the spider (no pun intended).

Take comfort though: the spider’s bite is only somewhat painful and seldom deployed—it usually has to be “severely provoked” to bite, as an NBC News tip points out. On the other hand, this means that on top of being bitten, you should also feel ashamed that you “severely provoked” your little buddy.

Alro read:

The Chilean recluse spider: common and venomous

  • The eyes have it . . . but don’t want it

Consider wearing eye protection when handling a pollito. It has urticating abdomen hairs that can be launched when it feels threatened. These mini missiles are trouble because they contain venom. Although only mildly irritating to the skin, they can be problematic for a handler’s eyes.

NBC News/LiveScience tell the story of a “creepy case of a man who got tarantula hairs stuck in his eye”

According to the story, a 29-year-old man showed up at the hospital “after enduring three weeks of a red, watery and light-sensitive eye. A dose of antibiotics for what was presumed to be conjunctivitis didn’t clear the symptoms.”

The article’s description of what followed is too good to summarize:

“When we looked at this guy’s cornea, the clear window covering the eye, we saw these little whitish spots and a little black hairy-like thing at the center of each,” [retinologist] Zia Carrim told LiveScience. There were about a dozen hairs protruding from the cornea, a couple of which had gone all the way through the eye’s thin covering.

The doctors let the patient know of the hairy findings.

Ah-ha, the patient immediately recalled an incident right before he started having eye troubles in which he was cleaning the glass tank of his pet, a Chilean Rose tarantula (Grammostola rosea). While focused on cleaning a stubborn stain, he sensed movement in the terrarium so turned his head. That’s when the tarantula flicked a “mist of hairs” that hit him in the eyes and face.

If you can tear your mind away from trying to solve the unexplained mystery of a “stubborn stain” in a tarantula tank, you are probably thinking that next you will read that modern medicine, leveraging the collective wisdom of the ages, and perhaps aided by whatever quackery is currently in vogue, was able to remedy the situation. Not exactly.

“[T]he hairs were too small to be removed even with tiny forceps.” Instead, the best that doctors could do was treat the eye with topical steroids.

Six months later, the patient still had mild discomfort and intermittent visual floaters. And the hairs were still stuck in his cornea as of the date of the article, almost a year after their “deployment” by this “superb” pet, and doctors still weren’t sure what to do.

The case even made the renowned medical journal, The Lancet, where someone obviously could not resist having fun with the entry’s title, calling it “Spiderman’s eye.” The entry has a paywall, but The Lancet was generous enough to share pictures of the affected eye (and of a pollito for good measure).

The original NBC News/LiveScience article stressed that the “take-home message for owners of pet tarantulas” is, “Avoid handling the tarantulas at close range. If they do handle them at close range, they should wear some type of eye protection.” Indeed.

The spider, very common in Chile, is one of the most venomous spiders in the world. Its bite can cause death, in some rare cases.

Posted by Chile Today on Tuesday, December 11, 2018

  • Wait—did you also say they were “Moody”?

As The Spruce Pets article also notes, the pollito has a “reputation” for being “calm and submissive,” but “the moody nature of this arachnid sometimes makes it appear otherwise.” We’ll pause here to let that sink in: a moody tarantula.2

Attributing such emotions to a tarantula appears to be a bridge too far until further advances in the study and science of arachnid emotions, even if “provocative experiments suggest that insects have something like an emotional life.”

On the other hand, one might ask, “How could a captive pollito not be moody?” Just imagine being one, adapted to scrabbling along in the moonlight (perhaps even humming Debussy), only to be reduced to captivity in a glass box, with its funhouse refractions of late-night Netflix binges, and forever at the mercy of your owner3 to drop you a cricket or two. You might occasionally sulk too. Even more so if you are among the many snatched up by the illegal wildlife trade.

You might be interested in:

How a ‘thrifty Hollander’ introduced California quail to Chile over 150 years ago

Pollitos And Predators: Poachers

As National Geographic reported last October, the “illegal market for tarantulas is hairy business.” The article does not specifically address pollito poachers, but, in general, when it comes to tarantulas, “Smuggling is rampant—its widespread globally,” according to the conservation biologist quoted in the article, Sergio Henriques, chairman of the spider and scorpion specialist group for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

The illegal tarantula trade is a little known corner of the black market in wildlife, a multibillion-dollar industry that’s harming animal populations around the globe,” and “growing commercial interest in exotic animals, more people traveling to areas that have tarantulas, and greater awareness through social media” are among the reasons for the uptick in tarantula-takings, as noted in the article.

A big problem is that “[t]arantulas are especially vulnerable to poaching because they’re long lived… and females reproduce late and infrequently,” as also noted in the article. “It takes them quite a while to recover from a harvest event,” Henrique said, as further quoted in the article. “They don’t bounce back quickly.”

It is therefore recommended that people interested in pollitos as pets obtain them only from verified breeders with the necessary permits and licensing.

Also read:

Urban Invaders: Monk Parakeets

In fact, as La Hora  also reported, since 2015, it has been illegal, under Chile’s Hunting Law, to capture pollitos (and several other species of tarantulas) without special permission.

Milenko Aguilera, biologist at the Department of Zoology of the Faculty of Natural and Oceanographic Sciences of the University of Concepción, told La Hora, “I think it’s okay to be able to export or sell [a tarantula] as a pet, but with mitigation plans and in a hatchery. What is wrong is that they take them out of nature for this purpose. They do not let these species naturally proliferate and increase their populations. It must be taken into account that females are suitable for reproduction between 5 or 6 years and males a little earlier. If you extract an adult female you have to wait for the other juvenile females to reach adulthood in order to reproduce. But normally they take everything out, they do not discriminate.”

According to statistics from Chile’s Office of Agricultural Studies and Policies that are listed in the La Hora article, in 2016, for example, 30,800 pollitos were sent abroad with proper declarations. It is the “clandestine figure,” the one that doesn’t appear in the official records, that has experts worried, especially to the extent poachers are not content to take just one or two or even a dozen at a time.

In one bust alone from that same year, as reported by Chile’s Agricultural and Livestock Service, a poaching ring in the Valparaíso region was caught with 1,900 pollitos; and it appeared that the containers used to house these spiders had repeatedly been used in the past.

Coming up in part 2 of this 2-part series: there is one predator that loves pollitos even more than humans do. Can you guess what it is?

__________

1 Hearn, K. (2017). Dusty Rooms [recorded by Barenaked Ladies]. On Fake Nudes [Apple Music]. Toronto, Ontario: Raisin’ Records.

2 At this point you might seriously be questioning the initial premise that a pollito is a “superb pet.” If you reread the review above, however, you’ll see that the primary factor there is “low maintenance.” Apparently, to The Spruce Pets that overrides everything else when it comes to choosing a pet spider.

3 Substitute “parent” if you prefer a more anthropomorphic term.

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