The online spider market is massive—and crawling with issues
A new study shows the enormous extent of the global arachnid trade, one that might be undermining wild populations.
“These are species for which trade is completely legal, but there’s no data on how sustainable it is,” says Alice Hughes, an author of the study and an associate professor of biological sciences at the University of Hong Kong.
Hughes and her colleagues developed an algorithm to scan websites that sell spiders and scorpions online, including those that represent brick-and-mortar pet shops. Then they compared those to existing trading databases compiled by the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). The researchers found that from 2000 to 2021, 77 percent of one species known as the emperor scorpion were collected from the wild, with 1 million imported into the US. More than half of the existing species of tarantulas are being traded, including 600,000 Grammostola tarantulas, a group that includes the Chilean rose tarantula, which is commonly found in pet stores. The study estimates that two-thirds of spiders and scorpions that are traded commercially were collected from the wild, rather than captive-bred.
“When people go into a pet shop, they see an animal and they assume that it’s probably raised in captivity,” Hughes says. “What we now know is that for small animals like the arachnids, over 50 percent of the individuals you see in pet stores have actually come from the wild. And that’s before we even properly account for mortality, because of course, if they’re being shipped over from Africa or wherever, a large number are probably going to die on the way.”
Researchers like Hughes, who conducts field studies throughout southeast Asia, still do not have enough information about the abundance of arachnids worldwide; her study notes that there are more than a million invertebrate species on the planet that have been identified by biologists but fewer than 1 percent have been assessed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as to their population status. And commercial trade is putting arachnids at risk before scientists can learn much about them. While spiders and scorpions may seem dangerous, they are usually not so if left alone. Arachnids also keep insect pests in check, and spider venoms have been found to contain antimicrobial, painkilling, and cancer-fighting compounds, making them potential candidates for new drug development.
Not everyone agrees with the dire figures presented in the new report. Collector Richard Stewart has more than 110,000 subscribers on his Tarantula Collective YouTube channel and raises 120 tarantulas representing 80 species in his home in Wheeling, West Virginia. Stewart believes that most tarantulas and scorpions sold in the United States are captive-bred, and that the growing hobby of owning them increases the public’s knowledge of arachnids, as well as the conservation threats they face in their home countries. He says that tarantulas face much greater risks from deforestation and governments that don’t do enough to protect their native habitats.
Stewart says public interest in spiders and scorpions has exploded as people realize they are actually low-maintenance pets that don't need walking three times a day and can be kept in apartments or small homes without a backyard. “They’re fascinating creatures, and they’re beautiful,” says Stewart, who has been collecting them for the past 20 years.
That said, he agrees that international spider trading can be a problem because unethical collectors can decimate wild populations. “We don’t just like tarantulas because they look cool,” Stewart says. “We’re more fascinated by them and want to preserve them in the wild, so you don’t want to buy a wild-collected tarantula. Now it almost makes you a pariah because you’re part of the problem.”
Stewart doesn’t breed tarantulas himself—he says he buys them from reputable dealers—but he says it’s just a lot cheaper to breed them than to import them from the wild. “Importing tarantulas is a very expensive and time-consuming process,” Stewart says. “There’s a lot of red tape you have to go through. You have to get permits from the US Department of Agriculture and the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Even collectors have to prove that these are ethically sourced and that they were taken out of the wild with correct permits just to get them imported into the country.” Stewart advises people to avoid dealers who can’t identify the source of their arachnids, and to research dealers on chat groups such as Arachnoboards.
Still, without any kind of international certification program, it can be difficult for a tarantula-lover to actually know the creature’s origin—is the seller a legal breeder here in the US or a collector who plucked it from its nest in a tropical forest and smuggled it out of the country? In 2019, just weeks after scientists in Malaysia discovered a new species of tarantula, later named Birupes simoroxigorum, a trio of collectors from Poland went on an expedition and sent several of them to the United Kingdom without proper permits, according to a report in the journal Science. Members of that same rare species, which is also commonly known as the neon blue leg tarantula, are currently being sold online in the US. While no US law prohibits the purchase of this particular species, international and US laws do protect certain tarantulas from Sri Lanka, making it illegal to import them into the US or transfer across state lines unless they are gifted to a zoo or a university, according to Stewart.
Overall, most regulations fall on suppliers, not customers. Each country requires its own permits to collect wildlife. And in the US, federal permits are required to import tarantulas and other exotic pets, but not to purchase them.
Currently, each state also has its own laws governing the ownership of exotic pets, although new legislation that has passed the House of Representatives would ban the sale of non-native exotic pets across state lines. The proposed legislation is in the form of amendments to the anti-wildlife-trafficking Lacey Act and is currently before a Senate committee. The proposal is designed to crack down on invasive species entering the US, but some veterinary groups say the legislation will make it more difficult for owners of exotic pets to get veterinary care.
Still, Sérgio Henriques, invertebrate conservation coordinator at the Indianapolis Zoo, says that even legal sales boost demand for colorful and rare spiders and scorpions, putting an increasing strain on wild populations. Even legitimate breeders often purchase wild specimens to boost the genetic diversity of their captive stock.
“I would just invite people who love these animals and care for them to find out how those species are actually faring in the wild,” says Henriques, who also co-chairs the IUCN’s spider and scorpion specialist group. “If you love these animals, let them thrive in the wild. And let’s not be in a position where they are available now for you, but they will be gone for the next generation.”