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Photo of a tarantula.

This Socotra Island Blue Baboon (Monocentropus balfouri) captured top honors at this year's British Tarantula Society exhibition.

Photograph by Peter Kirk, British Tarantula Society

Roff Smith

for National Geographic

Published May 21, 2014

This is the big one, the prestige event, the oldest and best-attended show of its kind anywhere in the world. A trophy here can make a breeder's reputation.

As ever, the judges were looking for perfection: a glistening coat, an alert, active demeanor, correct proportions, coloring, and conformity to type. Stance is important too. The legs—all eight of them—should be upright and perfectly poised. That's right. You heard correctly. All eight.

Welcome to the 29th Annual Exhibition of the British Tarantula Society, the Crufts of the spider world, held on May 18 in Coventry, in England's West Midlands, and attended by more than 30,000 tarantulas and their enthusiastic keepers.

The winner of this year's Best in Show was a Socotra Island Blue Baboon spider owned by Mike Dawkins, a relative newcomer to the tarantula-keeping community who had entered the competition for the first time.

"It was my first entry," said a delighted Dawkins, who started keeping tarantulas in 2011 and has already built up a menagerie of about 60. "I was very surprised to win Best African Species, let alone the Best in Show. That really shocked me."

Dream Spider

What makes a prize-winning tarantula? "A freshly molted adult offers the best opportunity for winning, as the colors tend to be brighter and more prominent," said Pete Lacey, a breeder who won Best New World Arboreal and Best Old World Arboreal at this year's show.

"The abdomen shouldn't show signs of overfeeding but be lean and rounded," Lacey added. A full head of hair helps too.

Lacey took Best in Show in 2010 with his Bahia Scarlet Bird-Eater and again in 2013 with his Brazilian White Knee. "Winning doesn't make your spider more valuable," said Lacey, who has entered the show every year since 2008. "The value is in kudos, respect, and pleasure in showing off a certain species in its prime."

"When we judge a tarantula, we're judging its keeper as well," said Ray Hale, a veteran judge at the show.

This year's winning entry stood out for its vibrant good health, with a few added points thrown in for rarity—there aren't ever many Socotra Island Blue Baboons in the running.

"You just looked at it and knew this was the one," Hale said.

Hale has been a judge since 2005 and a British Tarantula Society member for more than 20 years. This all started out as a bit of fun, he said. "But people take their tarantulas seriously, and we soon realized we had a genuinely competitive show on our hands—in its own way quite a bit like Crufts. We've had people come from all around the continent and as far away as America and Hong Kong."

Watch: World's Largest Spider

A Way of Life

The show has long outgrown its village hall roots and these days is held in a convention center. "I'm not sure what the booking people thought when we hired this place," Hale said, laughing. "When they heard it was for the British Tarantula Society, I think they were expecting maybe a couple dozen people might show up. Instead we had queues stretching out the door."

They weren't just society members (who range in age from 4 to 86) but a large and curious public—something Hale and his fellow tarantula lovers are keen to promote.

"We particularly like to see kids get interested in them," said Hale, who acquired his first tarantula when he was in his early teens and has been keeping them as pets ever since.

"You just never know where these sorts of interests can lead. We had one very keen boy who became a member when he was 14, came to all the lectures, and took lots of notes. Today he's head of natural history at the Berlin Museum."

Theraphosidae—the Latin name for the tarantula family—are a way of life for Hale. Now 52 and retired from his job as a health and safety officer in the construction industry, he and his artist wife, Angela (also an enthusiast), spend much of their year researching, writing, and lecturing in schools and on cruise ships. They often travel to Malaysia and Borneo to photograph tarantulas in the wild.

The Hales keep 150 tarantulas, representing 30 different species, at their home on the Sussex coast. The spiders live in separate glass tanks in a room that doubles as Ray's office and research library.

"There's a perception that people who keep tarantulas as pets must be a bit odd," he said, "but really, if you looked through the ranks of our members, you'd see we're all pretty normal."

Indeed, two-time Best in Show winner Pete Lacey works in advertising in London.

Nor are tarantulas just a "guy thing," Hale added. Far from it. The split between the sexes in the tarantula-keeping community is fairly even, with young women in particular increasingly buying them as pets.

The Ideal Pet? You Decide...

"Tarantulas really do make an ideal pet," Hale emphasized. "They're easy to keep, they don't smell, they carry no diseases that are communicable to man, and they can live up to 30 years."

They don't require much space either, being quite content to live within the confines of a modest aquarium. "In the wild, they stick very close to their burrows and seldom stray," Hale said. "An aquarium for them is just about the right size. This myth of tarantulas creeping through the jungles is just that, a myth."

They come in a rainbow of colors too—red, blue, green, brown, black, spotted, striped, and multicolored. The Socotra Island Blue Baboon spider has tawny hairs on its body and iridescent, blue legs. The Chilean Rose, on the other hand, the most commonly kept pet tarantula, is brownish but with a scattering of the distinctive pale pink hairs that give it its name.

Pete Lacey's personal favorite is Poecilotheria metallica, a spectacularly iridescent blue tree-dwelling species from India. But he's also partial to the Green Bottle Blue tarantula—a New World species from Venezuela that as it matures changes colors and patterns from a tiger-striped spiderling to an orange adult, with an aquamarine carapace and blue legs.

Comely and exotic though they may be, tarantulas are no playthings. With larger species having fangs up to three-quarters of an inch long, their bite can be painful and unpleasant, although their venom isn't lethal to humans.

One tarantula defense mechanism is to flick its barbed body hairs, or bristles, at a potential attacker—something that can happen if the spiders are handled or interfered with too much.

They're also quite fragile: Drop a tarantula, and it can easily die of its injuries. "That's why we as a club discourage handling tarantulas," Hale said. In fact, anyone seen handling a tarantula at the show is disqualified and asked to leave.

Tarantulas, Hale concluded reverently, are to be looked at and admired and appreciated for the marvels they are.

"As a child I had a phobia about spiders, and then one day, just as in the nursery rhyme, I looked up and saw a spider that had dropped down beside me. Looking at it, I realized that it was beautiful. Its colors, markings, and the way it moved fascinated me, and that was it. I was hooked. Forty years later I still am."

25 comments
Abigail Borgo
Abigail Borgo

Although I'm afraid of spiders, i have to say that they are amazing animals of nature


Mark Ruijgrok
Mark Ruijgrok

Wow, they can live up to 30 years. That's quite a commitment! Do tarantulas actually eventually acknowledge your existense? Do they recognize you as the "cricket-guy" that delivers the food after a few years taking care of them? I don't expect to play fetch with a spider, but would like to know if they at least get used to their keeper.

Cynthia Clinton
Cynthia Clinton

They fascinate me, I think they are beautiful. I don't own one don't no how to care for them. 

Michael Barrera
Michael Barrera

This is so cool! I wish we had one here in the states. Does anyone know of one similar here in  the states? Thanks

Mike

Snakes at Sunset

Mckayla Nunley
Mckayla Nunley

this spider might be posin and i might be scared of spiders but this spider is reallyprety cool

Ray Hale
Ray Hale

As the organiser of the British Tarantula Society Exhibition I would like to say thanks to National Geographic for this great article. The BTS is the Worlds oldest tarantula society formed in 1984 and still going strong. We have members all over the World. If you keep spiders then this is the society for you

Ray Hale

BTS Vice Chairman

www.thebts.co.uk

Ray Hale
Ray Hale

As the organiser of the British Tarantula Society Exhibition I would like to say thanks to national Geographic for this great article.

Ray Hale

BTS

www.thebts.co.uk

Nej P.
Nej P.

A few years ago, I had zero interest in spiders let alone a tarantula.. Now i have 11 adult females lol. Really practical pets for so many reasons

Pete Lacey
Pete Lacey

Great to see an accurate article on our little, and large, creatures. Well done to the author for seeking reliable information as spiders so often get bad press.

I think many of those in the hobby of keeping tarantula once were afraid, but quite often, when faced with a large tarantula, the fear subsides a little, and gradually that fear turns to curiosity. 

My own curiousity has led to keeping nearly 800 of these fascinating creatures.

LINDA JENKINS
LINDA JENKINS

Having a "pet" spiders in the kitchen and closets doesn't bother me.  They only bother my guests if they make an appearance.  They are a better and safer bug control than Raid.

My favorite Tarantula resides at the L.A. Zoo.  I have many photos of that beauty.

Vickey Batschelett
Vickey Batschelett

One of the fans of spiders said "I used to hate spiders, until I learned that together they consume the equivalent of the world human population's weight in insects each year".   That is a big statement and assuming the majority are bad insects like flies and not honey bees,   then as long as they are not in my home I can deal with them.    Poisonous spiders, yes they must go no matter where they are at in my book.

Fiskani Nyirenda
Fiskani Nyirenda

I have always loved spiders but I felt a bit weird about it so it's nice to see all these  people appreciate them for the amazing creatures that they are

Benoit Vaillancourt
Benoit Vaillancourt

I used to hate spiders, until I learned that together they consume the equivalent of the world human population's weight in insects each year. We'd be in big trouble without them! They still freak me out a bit (I blame evolution), but I have a new found respect for them.

Toni Lewis
Toni Lewis

My brother and I used to catch tarantulas when we were kids when we lived in the country.  I doubt any of my kids would with how freaked out they are with moths and other small spiders

lorrie ecker
lorrie ecker

this is the coolest thing i've ever heard about i love spiders they deserve more respect than they get.

Kelsey Nowakowski
Kelsey Nowakowski

30,000 tarantulas in one city? You could film Arachnophobia 2 there! 

Pete Lacey
Pete Lacey

@Mark Ruijgrok no, I don't think there's any acknowledgement, arguably apart from instinctual patterns.

Pete Lacey
Pete Lacey

@Cynthia Clinton Tarantula are very easy to care for, infact its common for new keepers to be anxious about how to keep them because so little is required. Room temperature is fine, a secure enclosure, some substrate and some furnishings. Most only need feeding once a week but they can go without food for much longer.

Graham Mudd
Graham Mudd

@Vickey Batschelett aslong as your not eating them a poisonous spider cant harm you.
Almost every species of spider is venemous, every tarantula is. But no tarantula bite is going to kill you 

Jeremy Webb
Jeremy Webb

@Toni Lewis  You have a responsibility to teach your children to love and respect the natural world and all of its inhabitants.  You are doing your children a disservice by encouraging/allowing them to be terrified by something as beautiful and fascinating as an insect.  Developing a curiosity for the natural world is important to cultivating the type of mind necessary to succeed in science and other academic disciplines.

Lisa Muecke
Lisa Muecke

@Jeremy Webb @Toni Lewis  Sometimes it takes years for kids to develop an interest in the natural world, it is wrong of you to judge someone's raising of their children by a small comment on an article. 

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