The Mexican Red Leg tarantula, Brachypelma emilia, is a chunky, slow-moving and docile tarantula.
Closely related to the Mexican Red Knee, Brachypelma emilia is an undeniably stunning spider. The combination of glossy black background, highlighted with bright on the carapace and legs, makes this one of the more colorful species.
Combine this with their reasonably easy-going temperament and ease of care and it’s little wonder this species has become so popular.
Sadly, this popularity has historically led to high levels of collecting for the pet trade. In response, the Mexican Red Leg is now listed on Appendix II of CITES. This means that no more wild collection is possible, and all specimens available as pets are now captive bred.
When combined with their slow growth rates, Brachypelma emilia tends to be one of the more expensive tarantula species for hobbyists to purchase.
The Mexican Red Leg tarantula was originally described by White in 1856, making it one of the early tarantula species to draw the attention of scientists. It is considered the most northerly species of Brachypelma tarantula, and is found in Western Mexico, primarily to the west of the Sierra Madres Occidental mountain range.
They can be found in a wide diversity of habitats, from dry coastal forests to more typical tropical areas inland.
Brachypelma emilia is a fossorial species, meaning that it creates burrows in which to keep safe. In the wild, studies have found these burrows to vary enormously in length, depending on the size of the spider and the ease of digging.
Typical burrows extend to between 20cm and a metre in length, and may have one or two additional “refuse chambers” built in, where sloughed skins and leftover food items are stored. The burrow entrance is notable because it rarely shows any silk, and is typically concealed beneath fallen trees.
Due to their Mexican origin these tarantulas tend to enjoy a warm environment, typically quite a bit drier than the many popular rainforest species.
Housing Brachypelma Emilia
Mexican Red Legs – also known sometimes as the “Mexican Painted” – are a relatively undemanding species in captivity. Growing to a modest 5-6″ in legspan they are a mid-sized tarantula, and are not known for their speed or high activity levels. As a result a modest-sized tank measuring some 8″ x 12″ is acceptable.
I like to use Exo Terra vivariums for my specimens. These tanks, while not cheap, afford an excellent view of my specimens, while allowing for excellent control over humidity.
The front of the cage opens out on hinges, which makes routine maintenance simple, yet these doors can be locked when shut to prevent escapes.
Alternatively, a range of other items may be utilized. Specially-built tarantula tanks may be purchased from exotic pet shops or at reptile shows. These are typically made of glass or perspex, and have a solid, close-fitting lid.
If these cannot be sourced then it is possible to use anything from a small fish aquarium to a suitably-sized tupperware box.
The keys here are to ensure a tight-fitting lid which prevents escape, and enough ventilation that the air inside the cage does not become stale and stagnant. Under such conditions mould and mildew can grow; hardly a suitable environment for a tarantula.
While adult Mexican Red Legs may dig long burrows in the wild, this is hardly practical in captivity. That said, it is wise to provide a healthy depth of substrate in which your spider can burrow. For larger specimens a depth of 4-6″ is reasonable.
A range of different tarantula substrates are available, though coco fibre or peat-free potting composts tend to work best. These both hold the necessary moisture to prevent a “wet” cage, while simultaneously allowing the construction of burrows.
Alongside this substrate I like to include an artificial “burrow” for my spiders. This way, there is always a solution if would rather hide away from view, as many will during daylight hours. A curved piece of cork bark works well, as does a partially buried plant pot, carefully placed on it’s side to create a “tunnel”.
While tarantulas will absorb much of the moisture they require from their food, and from regular mistings (see “Humidity” below) it is best practise to always include an open water dish in adult cages. These should be shallow to avoid the risk of drowning.
Water bowls – like all tarantula equipment – should be regularly scrubbed and cleaned with a reptile-safe detergent. Water should be replenished every 24-48 hours to keep it fresh, and avoid the risk of bacterial growth.
The last “must have” pieces of equipment are a hygrometer for measuring humidity, and a thermometer to keep an eye on warmth. A range of options exist, and some models offer both hygrometer and thermometer in one handy unit.
The cheapest and most popular option are those with dials, though my personal preference is for digital models. Once installed, these sensors will allow you to carefully monitor conditions in the cage, ensuring that they are optimal for your spider.
While this is what I consider to be the “essential” tank decor items, some tarantula keepers opt to add a range of other items to the cage as “dressing”. Artificial plants, additional pieces of bark and even artificial skulls can all add interest to the cage, both for the spider and owner alike.
Let your creativity run wild to enjoy creating as naturalistic a design as possible.
Mexican Red Leg Heating & Humidity
Like all tarantulas, Brachypelma emilia hails from the warmer parts of the world. For this reason, some form of artificial heating is necessary in all but the warmest months. This is most easily provided with a reptile heat mat of a suitable size. These are both cheap to purchase and to run, and tend to be very reliable indeed.
As Mexican Red Legs will often burrow in captivity it is wise to attack the heatmat to the side or rear wall of the cage. This ensures the heat is able to move freely through the cage, rather than being blocked by a thick layer of substrate, as would happen if placed under the cage.
A temperature of 24-28’C is optimal for this species. As with all tarantulas, however, a temperature gradient is important. This means that one area of the cage should be warmer than another. This is easily achieved by placing the heat mat on the side of the cage, where the other end of the tank will naturally be cooler.
As a side note, while heatmats can be used without a thermostat this is generally not recommended. A thermostat helps to control the temperature of your heat mat more accurately, preventing overheating. This is especially important in spring, as ambient temperatures start to rise.
There is little more annoying than trying to decide whether to leave the heater on or turn it off, and such difficult decisions can also impact the health of your spider. Using a low-cost thermostat designed for heat mats (unsurprisingly known as “matstats”) ensures optimal temperature throughout the year.
Alongside this artificial heating it is also wise to keep an eye on the humidity inside your Mexican Red Leg cage. The tank should be sprayed gently when necessary to maintain a humidity of around 70%. Between sprayings the cage should be allowed to dry out gently, thus keeping the substrate in good condition and preventing mould growth.
When spraying the cage aim to use lukewarm water from a houseplant spray gun. Spray only gently and avoid your spider, which may be startled by such a “downpour”. The aim is to raise the humidity to a suitable level without causing any annoyance to your pet tarantula.
As stated previously, humidity can be monitored easily with a low-cost hygrometer.
Feeding Mexican Red Legs
Like many Brachypelma species, Mexican Red Legs are long-lived and slow growing.
Well-known tarantula expert Stanley Schultz claims to have purchased a fully-grown Brachypelma emilia in 1972, which finally passed away in 1991. This makes her at least 20+ years old, and likely considerably more.
Unlike some of the faster growing species like the Indian Ornamental or Salmon Pink you’re unlikely to find your Mexican Red Leg eating each day. More likely a feed once or twice a week will be more than sufficient.
Mexican Red Legs will eat all the standard insect prey fed to other spiders; from crickets through to locusts and roaches.
My own personal preference is for locusts, which are available in a wide range of sizes and are typically much easier to handle than crickets. Additionally, crickets can cause damage to tarantulas when they moult (read more about tarantula moulting here) so avoiding crickets limits that risk.
Note that any live food you provide to your tarantula should be removed if it is uneaten the following morning. Note also that Brachypelma emilia may go off food for periods of time, which is nothing to worry about so long as your pet does not lose condition.
Handling Brachypelma Emilia
Brachypelma emilia is considered one of the more docile species of tarantula, very rarely attempting to bite. Instead, they prefer to either kick off urticating hairs if harassed, or make a run for it. On occasion these spiders can be rather skittish, therefore, so care should be taken with handling.
That said, these chunky spiders are considered one of the better species for handling. They can be gently coaxed onto a flat hand and held quite safely.
It is important to note that in general, and in contrast to the many YouTube videos showing quite the opposite, it is generally considered best to avoid handling any tarantula if possible.
The main reason is that dropping a tarantula from a height can result in a ruptured abdomen and, most likely, death. Instead, many experienced tarantula keepers gently coax their spider into a plastic container and attach the lid firmly when the spider needs to be moved.
If you do opt to handle your Brachypelma emilia then it is wise to do so over a soft surface, and to maintain a minimal distance between the surface and your spider. In this way, should your spider fall the damage should be minimal.
Lastly, take note of the urticating hairs that the Mexican Red Leg possesses. If kicked off, the cloud of hairs can cause severe irritation.
On the hands, they can lead to red spots and persistent itching for some days afterwards. If the hairs get in your eyes or are inhaled the result can be far less pleasant.
As a result, when handling any tarantula with urticating hairs keep your face well away from the spider. If you come into contact with any irritating hairs you are advised to seek immediate medical attention.
Mexican Red Leg Moulting
Before closing it is worth mentioning one rather interesting factoid. As you may know, most adult tarantulas moult annually, however there is some evidence to suggest that the Mexcian Red Leg tarantula may miss moults on occasion.
In the Tarantula Keepers Guide (a recommended resource), Stanley Schultz reports that “adult females of Brachypelma emilia may begin skipping molting every second year as a matter of course within only a few years of maturity”.
Consequently, if you find that your adult has not moulted for over 12 months this may not be anything to worry about, and should be considered quite normal for this species.