Tarantulas have been kept as pets for numerous years. I’m not sure anyone can definitively say when this began. I imagine it’d be somewhat similar to how human primates began keeping reptiles as pets. A scientist, studying one aspect or another of the Theraphosidae family began looking at their charges as more than just a subject of study. Being knowledgable of their preferred environment they began keeping them as pets. Maybe somewhere in the world, someone brought one to their home from the wild and they passed on the information they gleaned to others and so forth. Either way, the tarantula is today ensconced within the world of herpetoculture to the chagrin of some of my esteemed colleagues.
Tarantula Natural History
Being somewhat of a natural history enthusiast, I suppose you could go so far as to say an amateur naturalist. I’m always interested in where and how the creatures be they squamate or otherwise came to be ‘known’ as they are. Tarantula as a name has been around since about the early seventeen hundreds. The Swiss naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian is attributed as being the first to show Europeans a painting of a tarantula (Avicularia spp.) The Pink Toe tarantula (Avicularia sp.) she’d painted and then shown (to what I presume were colleagues) had taken a bird.
The scientific name Avicularia when broken down translates to Avi referring to ‘bird’ and cularia referring to ‘eat’ so we have bird eater. The common name of Bird Eater often refers to (Theraphosa blondi) or Goliath Bird Eater which of course looks nothing like the Pink Toe Species (Avicularia spp). This is a perfect example of why when we’re speaking with colleagues and or peers we must always use the scientific names of the species we’re discussing.
According to Samuel D. Marshall published by Barron’s wrote, ‘perhaps Jonathan Steadman a British Adventurer and mercenary in 1770 whilst in Suriname, spoke to native persons about a large brown spider which was “misnamed tarantula by the Surinamese.”
At the time according to the author the only spider known as tarantula was the Lycosa tarantula. Today we understand this species to be a wolf spider which is in the Araenomorph or True Spider family and not related to Theraphosidae at all except distantly. The Lycosa tarantula according to the etymological history I’ve found is identified as the True Spider responsible for the common name of Tarantula being applied to the larger and much hairier Myglamorph species kept today.
The common name of Tarantula comes from the Tarantella dance that was used in order to expel the venom from the (Lycosa tarantula) spider bite. There was also a ‘Dancing Plague’ where during the thirteenth century in southern Italy persons were thought to be envenomated the ‘tarantula’ and therefore were ‘forced to dance’ which may have been frowned upon the church at the time. I would propose that the traditional spinning dance used for courtship was perhaps too much for the church. Therefore the people found an excuse to dance perhaps? For a truly in-depth examination please see the link above.
What Identifies a True Spider?
We’ve got to get a little scientific for this part. All tarantulas as they’re known belong to the Myglamorphae infraorder. They’re ‘different’ from True Spiders araneomorphs by their articulated chelicerae or jaws. This type of jaw structure allows for a downward strike versus the sideways pincer like movement of True Spiders known of course as araneomorphs.
For more on identification please see the British Tarantula Society by Richard C. Gallon.