Up to 99% of exotic arachnid species traded as pets are taken from the wild

While the Tiger King has drawn our attention to the exotic pet trade of big cats, invertebrates have gone relatively unnoticed. This includes spiders and scorpions, which are both in the Class Arachnida. As wildlife trading is one of the major drivers of biodiversity loss, the impacts of the exotic arachnid pet trade have been explored in an international collaborative study published in Communication Biology.

The study group compiled a list of over 1200 arachnid species that are currently part of the exotic pet trade. The majority of species traded online were not registered with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), or with the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Law Enforcement Management Information System (LEMIS). This indicates that most arachnid pet trades are going unmonitored.

Of the 1264 species compiled across 66 families and 371 genera in the study, over one million emperor scorpions were imported into the US alone, as well as more than 600,000 Grammostola tarantulas, including the Chilean rose tarantula, the most common tarantula species available in pet shops in America and Europe.  

Arachnid, pet trade, spider, tarantula
Birupes simoroxigorum is a striking species which typifies the threats faced by arachnids. The first photos of this then undescribed species were used to track it down, illegally export it, describe it, and now it is in high demand for trade, despite almost no knowledge on its natural history. Credit: Chien Lee

One of the report’s most concerning aspects was the source of these exotic pets. Of the millions of individuals traded, 67% were caught directly from the wild; in some genera those wild caught reached 99%. Only individuals from the scorpion genus Mesobuthus were largely from captive breeding (89.2%). Three countries are the main sources of import into the US: Ghana (722,685 individuals/98% wild caught), Chile (688,756/90.2%) and China (1,182,441/38%).

The lack of species assessment by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which is regulated by CITES, might be a barrier to arachnid trade monitoring. Of the million or more known invertebrate species, less than 1% have been assessed by IUCN, and only a fraction of the arachnids traded are regulated by CITES – just 39 out of 52,060 known species.

This research highlights how the lack of monitoring and regulation of arachnid and invertebrate species has left them vulnerable. Improving knowledge of the distribution and conservation status of wild species is essential in understanding how trading wild-caught arachnids is going to impact natural populations and biodiversity.

Perhaps a ‘Scorpion King’ TV show spinoff would raise the profile of endangered arachnids?

Arachnid, pet trade, spider, tarantula
A summary of some of the major findings of the study. Credit: Ben Marshall

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