As if you needed one more reason to want a hard reset on 2016, zookeepers in Great Britain report that some 200 baby tarantulas have just burst forth from the Earth. But it's not quite as horrific as it sounds. Whatever your personal feelings are on the birth of a couple hundred spider hatchlings, this unprecedented event could help save a rare species or two.
The hatchlings are Montserrat tarantulas (native to the Caribbean island of the same name), and they're the first ever bred in captivity. Very little is known about this elusive species — its formal description is based on a single male specimen found over a century ago — but we do know that the spiders serve as a food source for another island native, the mountain chicken frog. The mountain chicken frog has the unfortunate quality of tasting like — well, you know. And its longstanding status as a delicacy has threatened its survival. Even if you're not sentimental about spider welfare, the last thing the poor mountain chicken needs is to lose another resource. That's exactly the kind of cascading food web disruption that conservationists want to avoid.
Breeding Montserrat tarantulas in the Chester Zoo in England can obviously help expand the living spider population, but it's also providing scientists with their first observations of the spiders' behavior. In the three years that zookeepers have kept a dozen spiders in captivity, for example, they learned that males reach sexual maturity — and die — much quicker than females do. As a result of this difficulty in matching up life cycles, they ended up with just three males that they could try to breed.
"We know that males have a very short life span when compared with females and gauging their sexual maturity to select the best possible time to put them together for mating, is vital to the breeding process," Gerardo Garcia, curator of lower vertebrates and invertebrates, said in a statement.
Every time they introduced a potential pair for mating, the zookeepers had to hope that the encounter wouldn't end with the female eating the male — something common across many spider species — and leave their breeding pool even smaller. Even after the spiders successfully mated, the researchers were nervous. The three pregnant females burrowed under the ground and disappeared while the spent males died.
"They literally dig a burrow in the ground, and they're gone," Garcia told the BBC. "They don't feed, they don't show up, we don't know what's going on. You just have to leave it for several months and see what happens."
With that kind of anticipation, you can't blame Garcia and his colleagues for being elated when hundreds of hatchlings emerged from the dirt. This first burst of hatchlings came from just one of the pregnant females, so there could be more to come.
The spiders have been separated into individual containers, where zookeepers are hand-feeding them tiny insects as they grow. In a couple of years, the newly hatched males can be used in the breeding program. Meanwhile, the researchers can finally observe the species' life-cycle in its entirety, which could help them figure out how to protect the arachnids on their native island.