as there are by now more than just one Phoneutria species available, at least here in Europe, i guess it´s time to go into details, regarding the differences and similarities of the different species.
I want to give you a brief overlook here, about the genus in general and later on, a bit more detailed, about the species which are actual available here.
Before I get into this, one thing first:
I don´t recommend keeping of Phoneutria spec. as a “pet” at all! These are not your everyday “pet-spiders”! Phoneutria are quite toxic, this is true for all species!
If I talk about “less toxic” later on, this doesn´t mean they´re harmless, remember! A bite of any species will at least be extremely painful and will make you wanna see your doc, if not the hospital, immediately.
If I talk about “calmer species” here, remember, I compare this always to Phoneutria standards. Even a calm Phoneutria is much more likely to attack than a pissed of Cupiennius or such.
If you haven´t experience with other fast hunting spiders like Heteropoda´s or Cupiennius, i´d just advise to stick with these first, before you get into Phoneutria.
For the educated, experienced or for the folks who just can´t keep their hands off these spiders, regardless what I say, I hope to be of help with this post to make an educated decision about their species choice.
Phoneutria are medium to extremely large semi-arboreal wandering spiders, sometimes called hunting-spiders, too. They´re distributed from south Mexico on trough central to south-america. By now, there are five species recognized, the presence of some more species is known, but they aren´t yet described. The five known species are:
Phoneutria bahiensis (Brazil)
Phoneutria boliviensis (Central- & South-America)
Phoneutria fera (Ecuador, Peru, Brazil, Surinam, Guyana)
Phoneutria nigriventer (Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay, Argentina)
Phoneutria reidyi (Venezuela, Peru, Brazil, Guyana)
Phoneutria belong to the family of Ctenidae, like the genera Ancylometes and Cupiennius, too. Nevertheless, they have some kind of “freak-status” within the big family of the ctenids. Here is why:
Together with Ancylometes, Phoneutria displays some of the largest hunting spiders of the American continent. Contrary to nearly all other researched ctenid species, Phoneutria can, at least with some species, be extremely toxic to human beings.
Contrary to most other spiders, that are capable to put a human in life-threatening condition with their bite, Phoneutria´s are in general not too reluctant to bite.
I won´t call them “aggressive” here, as this just wouldn´t fit in my experience as a general description. However one thing can clearly be said: if you get into the way of a Phoneutria you run a much higher probability to get an aggressive reaction, than with most other species. Note, that I say “with most other” species: i´ve personal kept another small unidentified ctenid from Peru once, that made the Phoneutria´s look like Grammostola´s by it´s behaviour…
Phoneutria are kept as “pet-spiders” by several individuals now and have been in the past. There have since years rumours been going on, about how hard to keep these spiders and, the most important point, how impossible to raise slings were. What´s true about this?
I´ve yet to meet a person, that´s telling me he (or she) found adult specimen hard to keep alive. Once adult, Phoneutria are extremely hardy spiders that are quite easy to satisfy in captive care.
With slings, there were and are different opinions around. When I got into Phoneutria´s, by the end of the 90´s, there had three species been available in germany: P. keyserlingi (then a valid species by its own, now P. nigriventer), P. nigriventer and P. fera.
As the saying went, P. keyserlingi was quite ok to raise, of course, there had been losses, but one could at least manage to keep enough alive for further breeding. P. fera was said to be quite easy to keep alive, losses all in all around 50% to be expected.
P. nigriventer was indeed said to be next to impossible to keep alive.
I have kept an adult WC P. fera female then, a juvi P. keyserlingi and three P. nigriventer slings. The former two species proofed to be quite easy to maintain, however, I lost all my P. nigriventer slings to no apparent reason. They had been doing fine for some weeks, eating, molting, everything was ok. Then they just stopped eating and died one after the other.
What else to expect.
Years passed by, since some time they are around again, many people have raised slings of P. nigriventer without too much troubles, what has changed?
Personally, I don´t know. What I do know is, yeah, they can be raised, even from smallest sizes on. One has just to keep some simple things in mind: with offspring amounts of more than 1000 slings in one sac, losses and even very high losses, are to be expected regardless what you do.
I´m a private keeper and breeder, so I have no need to raise some hundreds or even thousands of specimen, I go for two digit numbers just to maintain a breeding stem. If one starts out with fresh hatched slings, do yourself a favour and buy more than you want to get to adulthood. Chances are high, regardless how good you care for them, some will just not make it.
For breeders, keep some hundreds and let them just cannibalize at each other, till you have the number left you want. Might sound cruel but you´ll be rewarded with just the strongest, biggest and fittest specimen. Those will indeed proof to be hard to kill by “wrong keeping” and can tolerate heavy fluctuations in their environmental conditions. Natural selection, so to say.
It has to be stressed, that there are indeed differences in raising between the different species. From the species I got slings of in the very past, all proofed to be raisable, but problems occurred, however, in different regards with the different species.
I will go into details, in the description of the species.
As general rules of keeping can be said the following:
They can tolerate temps from 10° C till 40° without taking damage. Ideal range is between 25°C and 30°C. Note, the warmer you keep them, the faster and more agile your specimen will be.
Temperatures seem to play a quite interesting role while incubating a sac. Phoneutria sacs are said to hatch in something like 6 to 8 weeks, which is quite long for “true spiders”.
I had a sac this summer, which had quite high temperatures here. Over the daytime hours I had temps around 40°C and with the night time hours of still some 33°C. I was extremely worried about the sac, perhaps it might dry out?
Well, this wasn´t the case, it took another, quite unexpected effect: the sac hatched after exact 17 days. Talk about adaptive…
The other sac built be the same female but in late fall, which means much lower temps, took 6 weeks to hatch.
Temperatures can also be used in rather “hot situations”, e.g. if one has to catch out large specimen out of their enclosure. Such operations can sometimes even for experienced keepers be quite (errrr…) “interesting”, depending of specimen.
Low temps can be quite useful then. I had to catch an adult P. reidyi male this fall to send him to a buddy for breeding. The spider was kept at 25°C and was quite active and nervous. He had nearly 6 inch (14cm) legspan and a big enclosure, where he had enough room to manoeuvre me out easily. Not a too nice task.
I just put his enclosure out in the garden for some 15 minutes, where were temps around 18°C then. After that 15 minutes he was just calm as one could wish, no running, jumping, nothing.
As a rule of thumb, one could say 80%. However, to my experience, the spiders can tolerate quite some fluctuations.
In one single case it was apparently temporarily needed, to keep slings at a drastic lower humidity level, to make them accept prey again. As this observation was species related, I will cover this, when I go into species details.
How to keep a Phoneutria by environmental conditions is a somewhat pointless story, to my opinion, if we don´t go through a short talk about how to keep them in a safe manner.
Every now and then questions showed up, about the need of wearing a hazmat suite or about the need of special training, skills or such. Voices are given in nearly every country, that these spiders should only be kept by “experts” (what´s that?), scientists and so on.
Well, I had my fair share of communication with the pro´s (scientists), but have yet to meet one who can tell me, he got specially trained to keep and maintain Phoneutria during his studies.
So, what´s needed? To my opinion, the best answer to this question is already given by Lelle on his article about P. nigriventer:
“….demand not much except a big dose of common sence and much respect.”
This is it. In an ideal world, add some experience with other fast hunting spiders, but i´m the wrong guy, to advertise this too loud, as i´ve kept my first specimen with just one year of experience with tarantulas under my belt.
What does this mean for the practical dealing with this spiders?
They´re quite easy to keep in a safe manner, as long as you just respect them for what they are and need. They just want to be left alone. As long, as you follow this simple rule, you won´t get in any troubles with them. Just let them be.
Most important is to give them some retreat. With next to all specimen from all species i´ve kept, this will do for a somewhat relaxed keeping. Usually you won´t see your spider during the daytime hours, it´ll just rest in its retreat.
Coming dusk you might see it roam through its tank, coming dawn, your lady will be gone again and that´s the cycle. With this, Phoneutria are much more boring than for example Cupiennius.
This is another point, why I take Phoneutria for bad pets for the general public. Many people seem again and again to be attracted by their “big name” and the bad rep, all for the wrong reasons. You won´t see too much from your Phoneutria if you keep it right. You won´t be the “big man” in the eyes of your silly-ass friends, as most of them won´t ever see your Phoneutria and if they do, chances are high they will be much more impressed by your tarantulas.
More general security advices involve things, that should be clear by the “common sense” Lelle mentioned: never, never, never open the enclosure, if you don´t have to. Never ever put your bare hands into the enclosure, never. Use tweezers, foreceps. Be safe here, too. You might piss your spider off, it might someday attack the tweezers and hurt itself. Put some kind of tube (plastic, rubber) over the tweezers, so if your spider should attack the tweezers it won´t hurt itself.
With every move you make inside the enclosure, expect to be attacked. This is mostly a very rare occurrence, but better to be prepared, than to get surprised….
If your spider sits in its retreat and you can´t see it, perhaps a mirror might help you to watch your moves and the spiders at the same moment. I use this method since years with good results.
If you have to do some cleaning in the tank, it might pay out, to feed the spider first. Feeding Phoneutria are quite occupied and generally don´t care too much about what´s going on around them.
If your spider keeps sitting at a “bad” location for what you want to do in its tank, you can try to motivate it to change location by either very careful blowing at it (CAREFUL, if you blow to strong, it will go nuclear…) or touching its third leg-pair with some kind of wire.
This manipulation is usually noticed as “minor disturbance” by the spider and won´t provoke any aggressive action. Rather it will try to avoid that disturbance by doing a few steps in moderate speed.
I found this information in a paper from TRETZEL from 1957 and find it extremely useful.
There are however some actions, that to my (and that of other breeders) experience can just performed “hot”, which means, that there is no 100% safe way that could be described here.
Such actions are the catching of adult specimens out of very big tanks (e.g. mating tanks) or the separation of mothers from their breed.
For such you´ll need patience, a steady eye and hand and preferably someone who can assist you and who knows, what he´s doing.
However, for now, most guys stick to “just” keeping, so I don´t see any extreme need to further expand this topic.
There ARE different risks, just a short run down.
There are so-called “risk-groups” of people, when it comes to a bite. Such groups are for example very small children, very old people or general people with a predisposition for certain diseases. These people will not only be in deep trouble if bitten, this persons run a realistic chance to actually die if bitten. This may even be true, if the anti-venom is given, as a study of several hundreds bites has shown.
There is another risk-group, that´s important for the captive-care of Phoneutria´s. The risk-groups in the keepers themselfes, I see two groups here at a specific high risk-level. First, beginners, they just can´t know what they´re dealing with until they see it for the first time. I could write a book about it and nevertheless you wouldn´t get the picture. Vice versa, two seconds confronted with a really pissed of Phoneutria will teach you more than two hours of listening.
I speak out of own experience here, I listened to the “good, old guys” who knew what they were talking about, before I got my first Phoneutria. I WAS warned, I WAS careful. I KNEW what I was dealing with, or better, I thought so.
Lived for six months with my Phoneutria´s and thought, I knew what they were capable of.
I was wrong. Drastically.
When I finally saw, what these spiders can do, I had several minutes trouble with realizing what had just happened in front of my eyes.
When I finally realized what had happened, fear set in and I was just amazed: nothing can be so fast, it´s just impossible.
I won´t the describe the speed here, as I don´t have the words for it and doubt, they are available in any language. Even if I had the words, it´d be wasted time, as you wouldn´t believe it.
Don´t mind, i´m not gonna blame anyone for this, as I understand it from my experience. I was warned, so are you. Take care.
The second risk-group among the keepers is the one I myself am in: experienced or advanced keepers. Guys who do this for quite some time and have seen “enough to know their spiders”.
I was extremely lucky, in getting to speak with a german pro before I got hold of my first Phoneutria. That guy is more than just knowledgeable, he was keeping Phoneutria for 10 years and told me about his experiences. In his 10th year he got tagged!
I didn´t understand that at that time, he had more experience than one could wish for, how could that happen?
To his own words, the major-mistake was to “know his spiders”, he was just sure, that he could predict their behaviour.
I now understand this very well, as I sometimes feel attempted to say or even worse, act, the same. This is a dangerous misconception with any spider, but can in the truest meaning of the words be a fatal one with Phoneutria.
To give you a picture: I wrote a thread here at the boards about my experiences with the raising of the former Phoneutria fera cf Oyapok (P. reidyi) and stated often enough, that I was quite surprised, how calm these spiders were. More like Cupiennius than Phoneutria, if you disturbed them, they just ran for hide. Threat displays had been an extremely rare occurrence at all, even if you touched them directly with an object.
I was often enough tempted to just reach into their tanks with my bare hands to do the maintenance, would have been much easier and faster. I resisted that temptation and felt dumber and dumber every time I wiggled with wires and tweezers and the spiders just stayed calm or went behind their bark pieces.
I had kept them for nearly 6 months and was very used to them, one could say “I knew my spiders”. Had just to clean out some prey remains, my subadult male resting on the front side of his bark, sitting relaxed as usual. I “really know” my spiders and I “really know” that resting position, if they keep sitting like this, they just won´t do anything, unless one directly touches them.
I was in a hurry and hard a time thinking, needless, all that wires and tweezers, I could have done it in just 20 seconds if I used my hand instead.
I shrugged it off and used the tweezers. While I was cleaning up, the male rested peacefully at his bark, until he suddenly jumped at the wire and bit into it twice.
I had never seen such behaviour with this species. Since long I had once again that strange tickling feeling at my back, that was close, that could have been easily my hand. I could now be in extreme pain going towards the hospital.
Be warned, advanced keepers, be warned experienced guys, regardless how much you´ve seen, you haven´t seen it all until it happens.
What´s next? Bottomline.
I´m not going to go through that toxin topic again here, as it has lost its relevance to me. I keep all my spiders, regardless if Phoneutria or anything else, a way that I just don´t get tagged. So why caring too much about their toxin.
I´ll give some basic info´s about some interesting facts in the detailed species accounts, though.
The written above is based primarily on my own, personal experiences and to a lesser degree, on that of other breeders i´m in touch with.
I explicitly welcome contributions from other keepers and breeders, even if you may have encountered other things, than I have.
However, one word of warning: if you should try to disregard my experiences, you better show up with your very own, no “hear-sayings”, no 70 year old “was once right” tellings from BÜCHLER, no “Butantan has this and that problems”, this is just not my topic.
My observations are based on the keeping of at least 4 different Phoneutria species and for comparison purposes, 3 different Cupiennius species, 4 different Ancylometes species and 4 different unidentified Ctenidae ssp., from South-America and Africa alike.
My observations are no stand outs, but can be confirmed more or less by other very experienced (many with much more than I have) keepers and breeders. If you have troubles in believing something of the written above, feel free any time you like to check back with me or even better, check back with one of the other breeders.
After years of keeping, raising, breeding different species in different genera and different families, I can only state one thing clearly:
There´re much more questions here, than I have answers.
Over the following days and / or weeks, i´ll update and expand this thread to cover the mentioned species details.
For 2007 it´s raising, raising and even more raising. Next to that is work with some WC´s, try to make them reproduce. Questions arised about the availability of P. fera, mainly from “wrong” persons, persons who´ve never seen such spiders and are just attracted by the “bad” name. From the persons I know of who have indeed a strong affection to the genus, such questions are in debate.
Below a short look ahead what´s next to come, enjoy.
Phoneutria boliviensis, adult female (WC)
Phoneutria nigriventer, adult female (CB)
Phoneutria reidyi, adult female (CB)