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Tarantulas do not have a sense of smell in the traditional sense of the word, but they do detect chemical cues from their environment via specialized hairs. However, tarantulas do not develop bonds with or acclimate to their keeper, so keep handling to a minimum. In cases whereby you must move your pet, use tools rather than your hands.
The Science of Scent
Animals process two basic types of information: chemical and physical. Vision, touch and hearing are senses that rely on physical stimuli, such as light, pressure, temperature and sound waves. Animals use other senses such as smell and taste to detect chemical stimuli from their environment. The sensory pathways of animals differ widely, and many collect information using very different anatomical structures than mammals do. Tarantulas don't have nostrils. Nevertheless, tarantulas do detect chemical cues from their environment.
Tarantulas learn about their surroundings through visual, tactile and chemical stimuli. Most of these senses make use of specialized hairs on their appendages and bodies, though these hairs can also serve a defensive purpose. Tarantulas do not have ears, but they detect sound waves via the hairs on the legs. Likewise, tarantulas lack a sense of “smell” or “taste” in the strictest sense; instead, they detect chemical stimuli from their environment using hairs on their legs, on their pedipalps and near their mouths.
A Tarantula Never Remembers
While tarantulas are fascinating animals with more centralized brains than most other arthropods, scientists suspect that tarantulas are not particularly intelligent. Though some may develop unique behavior patterns that approach the definition of “personalities," they do not learn to recognize their keepers or alter their behavior based on who is holding them. Accordingly, your tarantula will always consider you a potential predator, regardless of how gentle you are and how often you handle him.
Handling Without Your Hands
Because your tarantula will not acclimate to handling and he is capable of delivering a venomous bite, you should avoid handling him. From time to time, however, you will need to move him so you can clean his cage. For calm species, you can try to use a long-handled spoon or hand shovel; try to encourage the tarantula to walk into the spoon and gently move him to a temporary container. Use a long stick or tools as a “tickler”; by gently touching -- not poking -- your tarantula with it, you can get him to move where you want him to move. Touch him on the opposite side of his body as the direction you want him to move. For example, if you want him to move forward, gently tickle the rear of his abdomen or one of his rear legs. For fast or aggressive species, cover the creature with a clear plastic cup and gently slide an index card under the cup to contain him.
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- University of Washington: The Chemical Senses and Transduction
- The Tarantula Keeper's Guide: Comprehensive Information on Care, Housing, and Feeding; Stanley A. Schultz and Marguerite J. Schultz
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- Duncan Smith/Photodisc/Getty Images