Sighted only twice in In­dia since its dis­cov­ery in 1899, the pea­cock spi­der is in huge de­mand as a pet in the West

Down to Earth - - CONTENTS - ATULA GUPTA

Popular as a pet in the West, the pea­cock spi­der has been sighted only twice in In­dia since its dis­cov­ery in 1899

IN JAN­UARY 2013, a team of re­searchers study­ing the bio­di­ver­sity of the Se­shacha­lam Bio­sphere Re­serve in the East­ern Ghats of In­dia came upon an un­usual sight. They found a dead spec­i­men of a spi­der, which their trained eyes could im­me­di­ately recog­nise as an un­usual find.The spi­der was a mem­ber of the taran­tula fam­ily known for its of­ten hairy and very large size.But this spec­i­men had an eye-catch­ing metal­lic sheen, blue in colour with patches of in­tense orange-yel­low, black and white. The re­searchers took the spec­i­men to their lab and on fur­ther in­ves­ti­ga­tion it be­came clear that they had made a spec­tac­u­lar dis­cov­ery. The taran­tula they had stum­bled upon was so rare it was only the sec­ond time since its dis­cov­ery in 1899 that it had been seen in the wild in In­dia.It was the Gooty taran­tula, also known as the pea­cock taran­tula or metal­lic taran­tula be­cause of its at­trac­tive irides­cent coloura­tion.

The chance dis­cov­ery of this arach­nid by wildlife bi­ol­o­gist Bubesh Guptha from the Bio-Lab of Se­shacha­lam Hills, Wildlife Man­age­ment Cir­cle,Tiru­pati,and his col­leagues was note­wor­thy for another rea­son: the place where the spi­der was found.A cen­tury ago, the taran­tula was dis­cov­ered by Bri­tish re­searcher Reginald I Po­cock in a sin­gle lo­ca­tion less than 100 square km (sq km) in the re­serve for­est be­tween Nandyal and Gid­dalur in Andhra Pradesh.The re­cent

spot of dis­cov­ery was near Chit­toor and Kadapa dis­tricts of Andhra Pradesh, more than 150 km from the orig­i­nal habi­tat. Clearly,the taran­tula had a wider home range than be­lieved.

There had been quite a con­fu­sion re­gard­ing the orig­i­nal habi­tat of the taran­tula even when it was dis­cov­ered and de­scribed for the first time. In 1899, it was found in a rail­way tim­ber yard in Gooty, Andhra Pradesh.The name ‘Gooty’stuck,but ex­perts were of the opin­ion that the place was never the spi­der’s orig­i­nal home.It had been found in a pile of tim­ber in the rail­way yard and had, there­fore, trav­elled with the wood pile to Gooty.

An elu­sive arach­nid

Crawl­ing crit­ters are not al­ways the most like­able life forms from the hu­man point of view.Nev­er­the­less,a spi­der as stun­ning as the Gooty taran­tula is hard to miss.This pea­cock of the spi­der world does not only have a mam­moth size but also a no­tice­able blue lus­tre that makes it quite easy to spot.Why was it then that this par­tic­u­lar arach­nid could con­tinue its Hou­dini-like act and re­main hid­den for a 100odd years, its ex­is­tence ver­i­fied only twice in the long his­tory of life on Earth? It might be be­cause it never wanted to be found.

“In na­ture they are found in xeric or mesic mon­tane forests and plan­ta­tions. Live in silken re­treats in hol­lows of dead and alive trees and other cover­tures,as a rule,lo­cated above the ground nat­u­ral re­treats,” wrote Po­cock, de­scrib­ing the habi­tat of the then new species Gooty taran­tula ( Poe­cilothe­ria me­tal­lica) in the Bri­tish Mu­seum where the spec­i­men was kept.

Ac­cord­ing to Guptha, “The genus Poe­cilothe­ria be­longs to the fam­ily Ther­a­phosi­dae and is made up of ar­bo­real species of spi­ders, which are known to oc­cur in In­dia and Sri Lanka. The genus is rep­re­sented by eight species in In­dia and seven in Sri Lanka.”

The dis­tinc­tive fea­ture of th­ese spi­ders is their abil­ity to re­main hid­den inside tree hol­lows or un­der rocks. Since no one went look­ing for them, they re­mained elu­sive, bliss­fully sur­viv­ing in their tree re­treats.

In search of the In­dian gi­ants

Sci­en­tific study of th­ese gi­ant spi­ders is rel­a­tively re­cent and be­gan after mea­sures to curb il­le­gal trade of the species were taken in the late 1990s. To pro­tect the spi­der, Sri Lanka,one of the main sup­pli­ers,and the US, the main mar­ket, pro­posed to in­clude the genus Poe­cilothe­ria un­der the Ap­pen­dices of the Con­ven­tion on In­ter­na­tional Trade in En­dan­gered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (cites). But cites did not agree as there was no in­for­ma­tion on the spi­der.As a re­sult,var­i­ous bod­ies got in­volved in study­ing the spi­der. In 1998, the Species Sur­vival Com­mis­sion Wildlife Trade Of­fice in Cam­bridge con­tacted the In­ver­te­brate Con­ser­va­tion Net­work of South Asia (icinsa) for in­for­ma­tion on taran­tula spi­ders in the wild. To this end, a survey was or­gan­ised by icinsa. But dur­ing the course of the survey it be­came clear that there was not a sin­gle taran­tula ex­pert in In­dia or Sri Lanka.Much of the in­for­ma­tion gath­ered on the dis­tri­bu­tion of the spi­der came from ques­tion­naire-type sur­veys and in­ter­views of tribal peo­ple and for­est guards. To make amends, three taran­tula ex­perts—An­drew Smith, Peter Kirk and Rick West—were in­vited for a five-day field study in In­dia in 2001. This led to more In­dian sci­en­tists tak­ing up the chal­lenge of study­ing the gi­ant arach­nids. Manju Sil­li­wal, San­jay Molur and B A Daniel from Coim­bat­ore-based Zoo Out­reach Or­gan­i­sa­tion were part of the study team and de­serve credit for bring­ing the species in fo­cus through their work.

Re­searchers would be­gin their day armed with lad­ders and den­tal mir­rors. They would scale trees and use the mir­ror to check for spi­der silk inside tree holes, hop­ing to catch a glimpse of the gi­ant arach­nid. The Gooty taran­tula was seen again dur­ing this field study. An­drew Smith re­marks how even for sea­soned spi­der-hunters like them­selves it was no small ac­com­plish­ment to find the tree-loving spi­der.

The hard work paid off and based on this pri­mary as­sess­ment, the In­ter­na­tional Union for Con­ser­va­tion of Na­ture (iucn) cat­e­gorised the species as crit­i­cally en­dan­gered.

The sci­en­tists warned in their re­port, “The habi­tat where the species oc­curs is com­pletely de­graded due to lop­ping for fire­wood and cut­ting for tim­ber.The habi­tat is un­der in­tense pres­sure from the sur­round­ing vil­lages as well as from in­sur­gents who use for­est re­sources for their ex­is­tence and op­er­a­tions.”

The re­port also says there is a de­cline in the “qual­ity of habi­tat” of the spi­ders who seek cav­i­ties and deep crevices in old forests. It says that the spi­ders have been cat­e­gorised as crit­i­cally en­dan­gered be­cause their range is re­stricted to a less than 100 sq km lo­ca­tion.

While years of iso­la­tion saved the pea­cock taran­tula from the con­stant hu­man glare, it also al­lowed ruth­less de­struc­tion of their habi­tat. In the past the sight­ing of the spi­der might have been rare be­cause it kept hid­den, but at present its num­bers are small due to its re­duced habi­tat.

In huge de­mand as pets

There is another world beyond the shores of In­dia where the Gooty taran­tula ex­ists in plen­ti­ful num­bers. De­spite its ven­omous na­ture, the taran­tula is one of the costli­est pets in the ex­otic pet trade.

How a spi­der so rare, na­tive to a re­mote lo­ca­tion in In­dia, found its way to the other side of the world is still a mys­tery, but many avid hob­by­ists in Europe, UK, US, Canada and South Amer­ica have been keep­ing and breed­ing the Gooty taran­tula as a pet.

Richard Turner of the US says he has kept four of th­ese spi­ders as pets since 2006. John Spinella, another enthusiast based in the US,says,“They are not easy to ac­quire and if you do find one,it costs about $150.Adult fe­males can cost as much as $400.”

Among th­ese spi­der en­thu­si­asts, the taran­tu­las are code named “pok­ies”and many are quick to sug­gest that th­ese are not a pet for be­gin­ners.A 23-year-old who has kept a Gooty taran­tula since 2012 says,“When you get into taran­tula own­er­ship, you will likely find it hard to keep just one. Just make sure this is not your first one. Un­less you like learn­ing through pain.”

Another hob­by­ist,who does not wish to be named, claims to be the first to have bred the Gooty taran­tula in the US. He says: “In 2002, there was a whis­per go­ing around among taran­tula en­thu­si­asts about a blue beauty of the genus Poe­cilothe­ria. At that time the spi­der seemed to share the same sta­tus as uni­corns and leprechauns,but then I re­alised it was more than fic­tion.”He says that when he looked into the ar­chives, he found that they did ex­ist. “De­scribed by Po­cock in 1899, this amaz­ing ar­bo­real taran­tula from South In­dia was now a suc­cess­ful breed­ing project by Hen­rik Wes­sell Frank of Den­mark.This news spread fast through­out Europe and the US and by spring of 2003 Frank Somma, a Staten Is­land, New York arach­nid im­porter, claimed he had ac­cess to a hand­ful of Poe­cilothe­ria me­tal­lica. Prices were in­cred­i­bly high for th­ese orig­i­nal im­ports,but I bought them any­way. Other taran­tula keep­ers also splurged on this beau­ti­ful spi­der and there­fore at this time sev­eral US hob­by­ists and breed­ers have them,”he adds.

Cap­tive fu­ture

It is, thus, a strange kind of ex­is­tence for this sap­phire spi­der. At one end, it bat­tles the ever-grow­ing hu­man pen­e­tra­tion into its only known nat­u­ral habi­tat, and at the other end it sur­vives in ar­ti­fi­cial glasshouses, cap­tive but breed­ing and grow­ing in num­bers.

Molur and Sili­wal con­tinue to study the taran­tula and have coined another name for them—the para­chute spi­ders—due to a re­mark­able be­havioural trait.They found that when the males are dis­turbed while sit­ting on a tree or on a wall,they tend to jump ei­ther to a neigh­bour­ing tree or, more of­ten, just para­chute down like a leaf to the ground.

Per­haps it is time to let a few of th­ese spi­ders para­chute back to their coun­try of ori­gin so that th­ese ex­otic crea­tures can thrive in their nat­u­ral home.The ex­per­tise of cap­tive breed­ers can for once be used not to cre­ate pets, but to re-in­tro­duce the species in the wild.

Atula Gupta is the founder and ed­i­tor of www.in­di­asen­dan­gered.com. She is also the Asia ed­i­tor-in-chief of Jeff Cor­win Con­nect, writ­ing on is­sues re­lated to con­ser­va­tion of en­dan­gered species of In­dia and the world

The dis­tinc­tive fea­ture of th­ese spi­ders is their abil­ity to re­main hid­den inside tree hol­lows or un­der rocks

Taran­tula World, a Bos­ton-based breeder and sup­plier of taran­tu­las, or­gan­ised a show in 2012 to sell the spi­ders as pets

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