Tarantula ownership is an awesome hobby that’s very rewarding and comes with a lot of great experiences and benefits. However, it can also have some caveats that can cause a bit of worry and stress in keepers of all experience levels.
One of the most prominent problem areas is the concept of “death curls”. Just browsing a tarantula forum will lead you to dozens of threads made by frantic keepers fearing the worst for their tarantulas that are in a supposed death curl.
The aim of this post is to put to rest a lot of the misconceptions that owners have about the tarantula death curl. It definitely exists, but it’s a lot less common of a problem than people may think.
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What Is The Tarantula Death Curl?
A death curl is essentially the position that a tarantula enters when they’re in the process of dying/have died. Contrary to popular belief, tarantulas don’t flip onto their backs when they’re dying. This is simply a tarantula preparing for a molt — something that will be elaborated on later in this post.
Instead, a death curl looks like a tarantula that’s right-side up with its legs curled up underneath it, touching or nearly touching in the middle. Sometimes it will accidentally flip over on its back, but it’s much more common that it dies right-side-up.
Why Do Tarantulas Die In A Death Curl?
If you’re wondering why tarantulas die in this position, there’s actually a fairly interesting reason behind it. If a tarantula experiences a death curl, it’s either because they’ve grown very weak or old, sustained an injury causing the loss of a substantial amount of hemolymph, or they’re dehydrated.
These health conditions result in the tarantula having difficulty maintaining the pressure needed to keep its legs straight and outstretched, causing them to curl inwards. This curling of the legs typically won’t cause the tarantula to flip over, so you’ll commonly see them in an upright death curl.
The owner of this tarantula saw a few of its legs tucked underneath it and assumed it was entering a death curl. Fortunately, this is just the tarantula resting in a strange position.
Behavior That Looks Like A Death Curl
One reason behind why the death curl is such a difficult topic is that tarantulas love to pose in weird positions. With 8 legs, they’re not always going to be the most graceful creatures. This can result in them getting into positions that resemble a death curl and can send keepers into a tizzy wondering why their poor tarantulas are on death’s doorstep.
If you think that your tarantula is entering a death curl, you need to immediately ask yourself these following questions:
- Is the tarantula injured? – A tarantula accidentally losing a limb or falling from a moderate height can be extremely dangerous and even fatal for tarantulas if untreated. Bad molts can also cause injury. Take a long look at your tarantula and see if there’s any signs of hemolymph leaking from its body or joints. This looks like a milky white fluid and is essentially the tarantula’s blood. If this is the case, the best thing that you can do is to clot the wound with corn starch and leave the tarantula to heal.
- Is the tarantula dehydrated? – Dehydration is a very common cause of death in captive tarantulas. This is either because of unexpected changes in the environment or because of an owner being unaware of their species’ particular needs. Slings are particularly susceptible to dehydration as they lack the wax on their epidermis that helps to keep in water. If you believe that dehydration is the cause, immediately bring moisture into the enclosure. Spray the substrate with water, fill a water bowl with fresh water, and place the tarantula near the bowl with its mouth in the water. This will typically be enough to help a tarantula bounce back.
- Is the tarantula old or a male? – Tarantulas do live for a surprisingly long time, but they do get old and naturally die. It’s also important to note that male tarantulas do not live for a very long time once they reach maturity. Males typically live about 3-4 years while females can easily live 10+. It’s also common for people to buy supposed female tarantulas from pet stores, only to have them die “prematurely” and find out that they were ultimately males. While it’s shocking to see a very healthy specimen die out of nowhere, it’s simply a natural part of their life cycle.
Below we’re highlighting some of the most common behaviors that owners confuse with the dreaded death curl. Take the time to observe your tarantula thoroughly to make sure that they’re not simply exhibiting one of these behaviors.
While tarantulas may make their enclosures look like a complete mess, they’re actually surprisingly clean animals. Tarantulas constantly make sure that they’re kept clean and healthy through various different methods. Aside from washing themselves in their water bowl (much to the dismay of their keepers), they also may use their mouth to clean their legs.
When a tarantula does this, it will tuck one or several legs under its body in a way that’s similar to a death curl. This may make owners think that their tarantulas are about to enter a full death curl, but that’s almost never the case. When a tarantula death curls, it almost entirely stops moving and all legs curl in at about the same time.
If you see your spider with one or two legs tucked under it, give it a couple of hours to finish what it’s doing. It’s very likely that it’s just doing a bit of spring cleaning.
Cowering In Fear
Although tarantulas give off the appearance of a scary and fearless animal, they’re actually quite cowardly. In fact, making sure that your tarantula always feels comfortable and safe is a huge part of tarantula husbandry. In order to appreciate the full beauty of these tarantulas, you need to make sure that they’re fully comfortable in their environment.
When a tarantula is scared or feels threatened, it tends to pull its knees up over its body to cover its face and carapace. This pose is essentially an inverse death curl, but it can confuse owners and make them think that their spiders are sick. Owners will then take precautions to help “save” their tarantulas, which then stresses them out further.
What would cause a tarantula to cower like this? The most common cause is moving it into a new enclosure, which is a very stressful time for any tarantula. This is when most owners observe this behavior.
However, it also happens to tarantulas that have been in the same enclosure for a good amount of time. If an enclosure lacks a sufficient amount of places for a tarantula to feel safe and secure, it could eventually result in them making this pose. To address this, make sure that the enclosure has an adequate hide and is big enough for a tarantula to move around freely.
Also, when interacting with your tarantula, move very slowly and deliberately. Never blow on your tarantula, spray it with water, or knock on the walls of their enclosure. It definitely pays to take the “look don’t touch” approach.
This tarantula, L. parahybana, isn’t in a death curl. Instead, it’s covering its body with its legs in an attempt to hide. Its enclosure does not contain a hide, so it’s gotten stressed out and scared, resulting in this strange behavior.
While tarantulas don’t sleep in the same way that you and I do, they still have periods of rest in which they essentially shut down for periods of time. Most of the time, tarantulas will stand still in a perfectly normal fashion with their legs outward.
However, a tarantula may occasionally curl one or several of their legs inward while resting, causing panic among owners.
This can be scary because a tarantula with a few legs positioned strangely and not moving for hours at a time may give the appearance of a tarantula entering a death curl. However, once the rest period is over, the tarantula will quickly return back to its normal and active self.
Once again, this drives home the importance of giving a tarantula in a weird position a few hours to situate itself to make sure that you’re not interrupting a totally natural process.
Perhaps the most common activity that’s confused with a death curl is the very natural process of molting. Molting is essentially when a tarantula sheds its exoskeleton in order to grow into a bigger tarantula.
There are many characteristics of molting that can make a tarantula appear sick, and the molting process looks very similar to a dead spider.
Let’s elaborate a bit more on what molting is and how you can determine whether your tarantula is entering a molt or is in a death curl.
Death Curl Or Molting?
If a tarantula is on its back, it’s almost guaranteed that the tarantula is molting and is not in a death curl!
If you observe your tarantula on its back, there are several things that you need to be absolutely sure that you do in order to ensure its well-being.
- Leave the tarantula alone
- Don’t blow on, spray, or move the tarantula in any way
- Don’t throw away or bury a tarantula that’s on its back
Molting is a very natural process for tarantulas that is extremely taxing for them. The molting process is often compared to removing an extremely tight pair of jeans, but over the tarantula’s entire body.
It’s not an easy process! Tarantulas on their backs should be given about a week to fully complete their molt before you even think about interacting with them.
How can you be sure that a tarantula is molting, though? Fortunately, there are several signs to look out for.
First of all, leading up to the molt, you’ll see a change in your tarantula’s behavior. They’ll become more sluggish, start to change color slightly, and will stop eating altogether. This is them preparing for the molt.
Additionally, tarantulas often molt on something called a molt mat, which is essentially a web that provides a line of defense for the exposed molting tarantula. Seeing a small web underneath an upside-down tarantula is almost a sure-fire way of identifying a molt.
It also needs to be noted that after a tarantula is done molting, sometimes within hours, they may appear to enter a death curl. This is entirely normal! After a molt, tarantulas are still jelly-like as they develop their new harder exoskeleton.
This can cause them to enter strange positions, including curling up in a position that looks like a death curl. Don’t interfere with these tarantulas and simply let them adjust to their new skin!
My Tarantula Is In A Death Curl… What Now?
If you’re aware of all of the information laid out above and are still confident that your tarantula is in a death curl, there is not a whole lot that you can do.
At this point, the tarantula is very close to death and will require immediate action in order to save its life. However, this action is often not enough for tarantulas that have entered this stage.
A common piece of advice that I see across several forums is to move a dying tarantula into a tarantula ICU — essentially a separate enclosure that’s layered with damp paper towels and has a high level of humidity. This is done with the hope that the more damp environment will bring a tarantula back to life.
However, it isn’t recommended that a tarantula that’s in a death curl is moved into an ICU. Contrary to what’s told, an ICU can be extremely stressful for tarantulas since it’s a new environment that’s a lot less comfortable and requires lots of movement to get the tarantula into it.
Instead, if you believe that dehydration is a problem, gently place the mouth of a tarantula over a water dish so that it can drink as needed.
You shouldn’t touch a curled tarantula much more than that, though. You may work to address a wound if it’s noticeable and caught early enough, but that’s about all that you can do. You may need to wait for a few hours to see if your tarantula comes out of it or if it’s simply their time to go.