Tryst with a Tarantula

The old telephone rang. (Yes…back then, it was the real thing and the only thing! Today it is one of the many ring tones to choose from on the mobile phones and goes by the name Old Telephone.)

I picked up the handset and the voice at the other end of the line asked for me. I answered in the affirmative. Once he knew he was talking to the right person, the man’s voice suddenly showed signs of excitement and a sense of urgency.

He went on to say that he was calling from SPCA (Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) and that someone had rescued a hairy creature that had 10 legs and that it was BIG. He wanted me to go over to his office and see this creature. I was curious – 10 legs, hairy, big…

A short walk to the bus terminal, a half hour bus ride and another short walk saw me standing at the entrance of the SPCA office. I walked in tentatively and asked for the gentleman who had taken the trouble of locating my telephone number and calling me. On hearing his name, he looked up and took a couple of steps from behind his desk towards me. Even as we exchanged pleasantries, my eyes were wandering to catch a glimpse of the animal in question.

Noting my impatience, he excused himself and came back quickly with a plastic visiting card box. He extended his hand towards me to hand over the box. Instead of showing me the big, hairy 10-legged creature, he was handing out a palm-sized box to me. I was confused. However, I accepted the box and almost simultaneously asked him to show me the creature that had been rescued. To that he said, ‘’You have it in your hands’’.

Wondering as to why anyone would call anything that would fit into a small box (about 3.5x2x1 inch) ‘big’, I opened the box. Though I was disappointed, I still exercised caution when doing so. I was surprised at what I saw when the lid was off. It was hairy for sure, definitely had 10 appendages (8 legs and 2 pedipalps) and was big. Yes. It was big for a spider – a Tarantula it was!

I quickly and gently closed the lid so as to not alarm the spider. That done, I got talking and asked several questions. I learnt that it came from one of the busiest and congested business hubs of Bangalore. A tarantula in Bangalore and one that was out of the ordinary!  I thought that the spider must have arrived there most likely as a stowaway and then escaped. More so, because this spider lives in tree holes.

Even before I could ask as to what they intended doing with the tarantula, there was a request for me to take it away.I was unsure as to what I should be doing. I did not know an awful lot about tarantulas to take care of one.Nevertheless, I decided to take it with me. I put the box in my bag and got back home.

I made a call to Madras (now Chennai) to the person who had initiated me into spiders. A long distance call those days was an expensive affair – calls were charged by the second; this was late 1980s. I knew my dad was not particularly happy with me calling long distance for the sake of a spider but he said nothing. The silence meant a lot to me. I hung up soon after I understood what I should be doing with my ward.

I quickly found a flat cardboard box, sprinkled some sand in it, added a couple of dry leaves, twigs and finally placed a large stone in a corner.  I was satisfied with what I saw and it was now time to help the spider into its new home. I slowly opened the box in which the spider was handed over to me and gently coaxed the spider out of its congested environs. The spider crawled out unhurriedly and only then did I realize how BIG the spider really was! It was bigger than any spider I had ever seen until then. As the spider moved about the larger box, I noticed a thread tied to its waist. This took me by surprise and concern! Whoever managed to put the spider on a leash had done a very good job of it. The thread sat in the constricted region between the cephalothorax and the abdomen and was loose enough not to slip out. I did not want the spider on a leash – I wanted it to be free.To undo the knot, I had to get the spider to be still. After a couple of attempts, I managed to release it. The spider looked beautiful as it moved about slowly and tentatively, exploring the new space. Before I closed the lid, I ensured that I made small holes in it.

Phew! That was some achievement. The next challenge was to find food for this large spider. With prior knowledge that spiders do not have to eat every single day, I was not unduly stressed. That night before getting to bed, I went in to the bathroom one last time when a large adult cockroach ventured out from behind the bathroom mirror. There, I had found my answer! I knew that this cockroach could keep the spider alive.

With a deft move, I managed to turn the cockroach on its back. This gave me time to find a way to get the roach to the tarantula’s temporary home.I opened the lid of the box and put the roach in. I quickly closed the box and switched off the lights. However, out of curiosity, I stood next to the box,anticipating some action.

Silence.  Just when I was about to call it quits, I heard a rustle and there was silence again! I could not stop myself from switching the lights on and peeping into the box. Was I rewarded? Yes, indeed… what I saw surprised me! The tarantula in one quick move had captured the cockroach,with the fangs holding the prey firmly. The spider sat still. The antennae of the catch slowly waved about.  I put the lid back in its place, knowing that the spider will not go hungry.

The next morning, I opened the box. The spider alone was sitting in a corner. On careful observation, I noticed something new in the box the previous night. I picked it up and realized that it was the remains of the cockroach. The spider had fed upon most of the cockroach and the remains neatly wrapped in silk and put away. (Is there a lesson for us to learn here?)

Let us remember – most spiders cannot feed on solid food. They inject venom into their prey and once the innards are digested by the action of the venom, they suck the prey dry. In this case, the spider had had its fill, and only the mangled remains were discarded.

Once every few days, I would feed the tarantula with a cockroach. Each time, I would wait to hear the rustle. The remains of the prey were dealt with in a similar fashion each time.

On one occasion as I opened the box, my hand slipped, the box shook and almost instantly the spider raised its forelegs and displayed the chocolate brown and yellow bands on the underside of its legs. I had not noticed the colouring on the underside until now. This, I realised, was a threat display!

One morning, I opened the box just to check on the tarantula. I noticed that there was something amiss. The spider was motionless. There was not the slightest movement. I was very uncertain as to what was happening. I let it be and revisited it after about an hour. As I opened the box, I noticed that there was a crack in the skin. It was near the eyes and at the rim of cephalothorax. I decided to sit watch to understand what was going on.

By now, I had an inkling of what was going on – the spider was moulting! The crack widened as time went by until it opened like a hatch. The spider pulled out one appendage after another – centimeter long fangs, pedipalps, all the legs and finally the abdomen.

Eventually, the tarantula with a fresh look crawled out, leaving behind the moult. Even before the moult could dry, I quickly stuffed some cotton wool inside it and closed the hatch. But for the strands of cotton sticking out of the tear in the exoskeleton, one could not make out that it was just a moult!

I had called my mother when all this was happening. She also sat with me and watched the whole process that lasted over an hour. This was truly a once in a lifetime opportunity.The only unfortunate thing was that I did not have a camera those days to document the incident. In the years that have followed, I have seen tarantulas many a times, but never moulting.

Many years later, I saw a dead one in a large garden along a path – possibly killed by people who must have been scared of a large unknown creature. Only then did it dawn on me that the spider possibly occurred in Bangalore naturally too. Since then, I have seen these beautiful creatures occasionally in Bangalore, reconfirming that they indeed belonged here.

My ward was under my care for about a month before it gave me the slip one day, I had not closed the lid of the box completely due to oversight and there was a gap. The tarantula must have decided to go exploring for when I returned later in the day to check on it, the box was empty! I never saw the chap again.

This whole episode of bringing home a rescued tarantula gave me an opportunity to see the tarantula moult. It also helped me appreciate these beautiful creatures, learn a little about their behaviour and respect them. Looking back today, after some three decades, the sense of awe for tarantulas still remains, and is if only, much deeper and stronger.

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