What Does a Tarantula Eat?

Tarantulas are carnivorous arachnids that catch and eat any animal they are able to subdue. They are “generalist” predators and do not focus on one single source of food. In the wild, tarantulas will most commonly feed on other invertebrates that they encounter, but they may also eat smaller vertebrates such as lizards or rodents when the opportunity presents itself.

How Do Tarantulas Hunt?

Life can be dangerous for a tarantula. They’re a big, juicy meal for many larger animals. As a result they tend to try and keep themselves safe, hiding away in burrows, under logs or in silken retreats in trees. Very rarely will tarantulas in the wild go out and seek out prey to consume; they tend instead to lie in wait for suitable food to come within easy striking distance.  

Many tarantulas build extensive carpets, matts or strings of webbing, stretching out from their hide for some distance. When a suitably-sized animal wanders across this web it acts like a messaging signal, indicating that there is prey nearby. 

If hungry, the tarantula will then dart out rapidly, surprising the prey item. The tarantula impales the unfortunate creature with it’s pair of sharp fangs, and drags it back down into the spider’s retreat where it is eaten at leisure.

Depending on the size of the prey item, it may take a tarantula anywhere from a few hours to an entire night to fully consume the prey item.

Tarantulas don’t eat the entire body of their prey; instead they inject digestive juices into the body of the captured animal, then suck out the rich nutritious liquid. This typically leaves the dry, sunken, dehydrated outer shell of the animal, which is rolled up and disposed of. In the pet hobby this is often known as a “food bolus” and should be removed to prevent the build-up of fungus or bacteria in the cage. 

What Do Pet Tarantulas Eat?

Pet tarantulas will eat almost any animal they are capable of catching and subduing. That said, there are some important considerations to take into account. A few of the most crucial elements when choosing food for a pet tarantula are:

Danger to your pet – Despite their fearsome reputation, tarantulas can still be injured by some prey items. Some potential food items can fight back, while others can harbour harmful chemicals or parasites. You don’t want to feed prey that could cause harm to your pet.

Ease of sourcing – Some food sources are much easier to obtain than others, and different options may vary significantly in price. Increasingly, tarantula food can be ordered online and delivered to your door in a matter of days. 

Tarantula lifestyle – Some prey types may be more suitable for tarantulas than others due to their lifestyle. For example, prey items that burrow into the substrate of the cage may quickly disappear from view before your spider finds them.

Cleaning requirements – Your tarantula cage should be kept clean and hygienic at all times. This is easier to accomplish with some food types than others, as we will discuss below.

Let’s now take a look at some of the more common foods that pet tarantulas will eat…

Cockroaches

Cockroaches have developed quite a bad reputation over the years. They’re seen by many people as dirty and unhygienic, and are capable of infesting houses. The idea of buying some cockroaches – often known as “roaches” – and willingly bringing them into your home therefore seems like insanity. 

Fortunately there are a range of roaches available to exotic pet keepers, many of which won’t lead to infestations if they get out. Two of the most popular options are Dubia roaches and Giant Hissing Cockroaches. 

There are numerous benefits to roaches as tarantula food. The adults get nice and chunky – suitable for even the largest of tarantulas. The youngsters are much smaller, making them perfect for younger tarantulas. They’re easy to care for in the home, and can be bred for an almost endless supply of free food. 

Crickets

Crickets are the “classic” live feeder insect, having been fed to tarantulas and other exotics for decades. They come in a range of different types; here in the UK the two most common are brown house crickets and black field crickets. 

Crickets may be popular, but they also have a range of weaknesses when it comes to tarantula food. Firstly, a tub of crickets can smell pretty bad. Secondly, adult male crickets “chirp”, which can become quite annoying. Even large adult crickets tend to be less of a meal than a decent-sized roach. Worst, though, is that crickets are omnivorous and will eat almost anything they come into contact with. This includes moulting tarantulas. 

A cricket accidentally left in your tarantula is therefore a risky proposition, and one that I prefer to avoid unless absolutely necessary. 

Personally I use tiny crickets (pinheads up to instar 2) as the main source of food for spiderlings, but quickly move them onto less risky prey as soon as they’re large enough to take it. 

My larger tarantulas aren’t given crickets, and it seems to cause them no issues at all. 

Fruit Flies

Fruit flies are tiny, and really only suitable for hatchling tarantula spiderlings. They can be bought as “cultures” from some exotic pet stores and breeding facilities, and can be easily bred at home if you so desire.

Flightless varieties are available from some suppliers, and these can be a lot easier to deal with than their flying counterparts. All the same, I personally find fruit flies a real pain to deal with. For me, maintaining several hundred tiny spiderlings at any one time, hatchling crickets are a far simpler feeding solution. 

Locusts

Locusts are less popular than roaches or crickets as tarantula food, but are a mainstay of my feeding regime. They’re available in a huge range of different sizes, from tiny hatchlings just a few millimetres long through to large winged adults. 

Locusts climb, which can make them more easily-accessible to arboreal tarantulas than other invertebrates that may stay down low. They’re easily handled at all sizes. They won’t infest your home if they get out. The only real weakness is that they’re very difficult to breed at home, so you’ll need to continually buy new supplies from a breeding farm. 

Mealworms

Mealworms are the larvae of the flour beetle. Many tarantulas will readily take down a wriggling mealworm with ease. Mealworms are super-easy to care for. They can be kept in the fridge, where they will go into “suspended animation” for a period of time. This means that a single tub can last for weeks or even months, perfect for keepers with just a handful of tarantulas. 

Mealworms are also probably the easiest feeder insects of all to breed yourself at home. They require only the most basic of care to produce a never-ending supply of free tarantula food.

That said, mealworms do have a number of potential weaknesses as tarantula food. Firstly, they like to try and burrow down into the substrate, so can quickly disappear from view. Secondly, they’re not always the most active of prey items, so some tarantulas will pay them little attention.

While mealworms are a decent prey item, you’d be well advised to either put them in a bowl (to prevent burrowing) or to feed them directly to your spider to ensure they get munched quickly. 

Super Worms / Morio Worms

Super worms look like mealworms on steroids. They’re another (unrelated) beetle grub, and have largely the same pros and cons of mealworms, apart from the fact that they can be harder to culture at home. 

Other Tarantulas

Here’s an uncomfortable truth; many tarantulas won’t think twice about cannibalism. A tarantula will happily chow down on smaller specimens. This is most commonly observed when trying to breed tarantulas, where the female often takes down the male during courtship.

There are a limited number of cases where some species may live together in a colony. Monocentropus balfouri is probably the best-known example, though even here there is a risk of cannibalism, no matter how small. 

Generally speaking, therefore, keep your tarantula away from one another if you want to avoid accidents. 

Sweepings

As tarantulas will eat almost any living thing of a suitable size, some keepers in the past have offered wild insects to their spiders. Probably the easiest option is to use a “sweep net” through long grass or bushes, which will gather up dozens of insects in one go.

There is, however, an important consideration: pesticides. Wild invertebrates may well have come into contact with unpleasant chemicals, thanks to gardeners or farmers. These chemicals can pose a significant risk to your spider.

As there is no way to test wild invertebrates for the existence of chemicals it is safest to avoid them altogether. Focus instead on what can be bought from specialist suppliers and/or bred at home. 

Pinkies & Fuzzies

Some tarantulas will accept small defrosted rodents. Some years ago I offered a (dead) fuzzy to a Poecilotheria regalis and it was readily accepted. Some keepers claim that vertebrate prey like this contains a range of other nutrients and can lead to faster growth rates. 

My own experience of feeding pinkies and fuzzies, however, is that the mess and smell is simply not worth it! I essentially had to clean the entire tank out after my Indian Ornamental and dropped fluids all over the cage. 

So it is possible, but isn’t really recommended.

Adult Mice

Look on YouTube and you’ll find a few videos of goliath birdeaters readily catching and eating live adult mice. It’s not nice to watch. And I can guarantee you the cage will smell terrible afterwards.

However there’s an even more important point here: mice have sharp claws and teeth. They may try to fight back, which could pose a risk to your tarantula. The feeding of live rodents to tarantulas therefore cannot be recommended under any circumstances. 

Do Tarantulas Only Eat Live Prey?

Pet tarantulas are most commonly fed on live prey, as this helps to elicit a hunting response in the spider. That said, there is evidence that some tarantulas will scavenge when they find suitable recently-killed prey. 

One example where this is used is when feeding tiny baby tarantulas – typically known as spiderlings or slings. Depending on the species of tarantula in question the spiderlings can be absolutely tiny. This, in turn, can make it quite difficult to find prey items small enough. Furthermore, smaller invertebrate prey items are more challenging to keep alive than their larger cousins. These problems can be solved using “dead” prey items.

Typically tarantula keepers will purchase a tub of tiny insect prey, then freeze the critters. At each feeding, a few of the preserved insects will be thawed out and fed to the spiderlings.

Alternatively some keepers cut up larger prey items, such as mealworms, and feed just one small segment to their baby tarantula.  

How Often Do Tarantulas Eat?

Tarantulas can vary significantly in how much and how often they eat. Some factors that can affect how often tarantulas eat can include:

Species of Tarantula

Some tarantulas grow much faster than others. For example, many arboreal tarantulas can reach maturity in just a couple of years, while slower-growing burrowing species may take four or more years to reach maturity. The faster-growing a tarantula is, the more often it will eat in order to fuel that growth. 

Size of Last Meal

Tarantulas will eat a surprising range of different live animals. A large adult tarantula, for example, might be just as happy accepting a mid-sized cricket versus a large roach or locust. Obviously, the larger the last meal, the longer it’s likely to be till your spider is thinking about food again. 

Proximity to a Moult

Tarantulas will typically stop feeding for some weeks before or after a moult. For adult tarantulas this can mean a month or more of fasting, during which they will eat nothing at all. Understandably once your tarantula moults successfully and it’s new exoskeleton hardens it’s likely your tarantula will be ravenous for the first few feeds. 

Cage Temperature

Broadly speaking tarantulas kept in warmer conditions will grow faster and eat more than the same spider kept at a lower temperature. Some keepers use this to their advantage, keeping female tarantulas that bit warmer, so they mature sooner, and are ready for breeding when males they’ve been keeping cooler are ready for business.

Age/Size of the Tarantula

I have found in my collection that tarantulas tend to eat less as adults. It seems that the same tarantula, that powered through one insect after another when rapidly growing from spiderling to adult, suddenly slows down at maturity. This makes perfect sense, as the spider has now obtained its adult size, so now just needs to maintain itself long enough to breed.

Broadly speaking most baby tarantulas will eat once or twice a week, while adults will happily take prey once every week or two. That said, each spider is unique and so are the conditions they are kept in, so be willing to modify this rough plan as necessary.

How Do I Know If a Tarantula is Hungry?

You won’t hear your tarantula’s tummy rumbling so how do you know that your spider is hungry?

The honest answer is that you generally won’t know until you offer them food. In some cases, however, there will be behavioral changes. 

To give you an example, I have a number of King Baboons (Pelinobius muticus) in my collection. I consider them a “pet hole” as I never see them. They spend 99% of their lives below ground, hidden in their deep burrows. Food is introduced in the evening, and disappears by the following morning.

A handful of times, however, I’ve stopped feeding them due to an impending moult. It can be difficult to tell when a burrowing tarantula has completed their moult, as the old skin is often left down the burrow out of view. I have found after a few weeks like this, however, the spiders will eventually come to the surface in their shiny new skin looking for prey. This is so uncharacteristic that it is a very clear sign of hunger.  

If you find your spider roaming unnaturally around their cage then this may therefore be an indication of hunger. 

Other than this, the only thing you can do is to offer your spider a prey item and watch how they react. If they grab the insect then great. If they ignore it – or even run away from it – then take out the insect and try again at a later date. I have found it helpful to keep feeding records for my spiders, so I can adjust my feeding regime as necessary. Such a record can also be useful for predicting forthcoming moults, where your spider will go off food for a while. 

Can You Overfeed a Tarantula?

Opinions are gravely divided on whether you can overfeed a tarantula. While some people claim that feeding a tarantula too much can shorten its lifespan, most keepers agree that the spider probably knows best. If the tarantula wants food then why not provide it?

Tarantulas generally don’t get “overweight”, though you will see the abdomen changing size over time. A recently-moulted tarantula may have a particularly small abdomen. Some adult male tarantulas also maintain a much smaller abdomen than their sisters. Of course, abdomen size can also vary between tarantula species too. 

The abdomen may expand over time, in response to regular feeding (and drinking). A gravid tarantula will also develop a fat abdomen as the eggs inside her develop. Indeed, if you notice that your previously-fat tarantula suddenly seems to have lost a lot of weight in a short space of time then it may be that they’ve laid eggs somewhere in the cage. 

Generally speaking get into a feeding routine with your spiders and just pay attention to any obvious changes that may indicate your feeding regime should change.

Richard Adams

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