“Anteroom” is a funny name for the area that senior aquarist Dan Lorbeske and I have just entered. Standing in a dark hall between two locked, gasket-sealed doors and bathed in the eerie glow of cool-blue bug zappers and a red warning light, we’re about to go into Shedd’s arthropod containment facility, better known as the bug room.
There’s nothing funny, however, about the ants, spiders and other crawling critters on the other side of the second door.
At any given time, the bug room is home to new or additional invertebrates for the Amazon Rising exhibit. Many are venomous; some are potential agricultural pests whose presence at Shedd is regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Dan unlocks and opens the second door, triggering a little blast from an air curtain that would push a loose bug away from the threshold.
The wedge-shaped area—carved out of a decommissioned reservoir—has the charm of a utility room and, at perhaps 125 square feet, it’s not much bigger. But the high-security finishing touches are fascinating.
The walls are painted with a cream-colored bug-proof epoxy. The wall and floor joints are specially sealed and everything—light fixtures, outlets, wall switches, sink, pipes—is seamlessly caulked. Drains and faucets are covered with ultrafine-mesh screens. Explosion-proof fluorescent bulbs prevent maxi-mandibled bugs from chewing or boring into the light fixtures and escaping through the electrical conduit.
Despite its sterile look, the room has a tropical feel—77 degrees, 78 percent humidity—and an earthy tropical smell. Dan attributes the latter to the high humidity and the soil that everything lives on or in. He notes that he wears the summer-uniform khaki shorts year-round.
Dan has worked at Shedd for 8½ years, all of them in Amazon Rising, and he’s the lead aquarist for the bug room. His enthusiasm for these denizens of Amazon’s underworld is palpable, and his knowledge of them is impressive; his words tumble out so fast they sometimes run together.
In this room of odd and toxic creatures, Dan gives “worst venom” award to the 6-inch-long Venezuelan sun tigers (Psalmopoeus irminia), which make up one-third of a trio of tarantula species here and upstairs in Amazon Rising. The sun tiger has an attractive orange-and-black rib-cage pattern on the abdomen and long, dark legs marked with orange at the tips. The markings say, “I am dangerous.”
While not typically lethal, this spider’s bite is definitely something to avoid. Analysis of the venom of a related species showed a molecule similar to capsaicin, the “hot” component of hot chilis, that triggers sensory cells to send pain signals to the brain. While sun tigers would rather retreat to their webs, if startled they will react defensively, biting several times in rapid succession. “And they’re fast,” says Dan. “They take off like a rocket when they go.”
Despite their common name, sun tigers are nocturnal. During the day, a spider conceals itself in a large, opaque funnel web constructed on a tree. After dark, it emerges through a hole at the top of the funnel to hunt. “These being active hunters,” Dan says of the two sun tigers, and the purple pinktoe tarantulas as well, “we feed each one two live crickets twice a week. They need to see something or feel something moving around before they’ll hunt.”
The purple pinktoes (Avicularia purpurea) construct larger funnel webs—one looks like a mass of cotton candy that takes up a quarter of a large locking “pet keeper,” which serves as a habitat. A hole low at ground level is the entrance and exit of this thick silken tube. Dan says a pinktoe (pictured at the top of the page) can complete a web overnight. “But this massive one, she’s been working on it for a while.”
Goliath bird-eating tarantulas (Theraphosa blondi) are the biggest spiders in the world and prey on large insects, small lizards and frogs (but seldom birds). Although Shedd’s two goliaths are the same age—and came from the same breeder—the one in the exhibit has a 6-inch leg span while the one in the bug room stretches only about 4 inches, leading Dan to think the smaller one is a male.
In the venom rankings, the goliaths are a little less potent than the sun tigers. But they are just as feisty, and they have an irritating habit of flicking abdominal hairs, descriptively called urticating bristles, at anything that bothers them. “And they are very prone to using them,” Dan says. From personal experience, he says they feel like fiberglass. “When I’m cleaning the habitat, bristles in the soil get into the undersides of my arms, and it’s really itchy.” He continues, “You can imagine, when a tarantula flicks them into a predator’s eyes, it would be incredibly irritating.”
The goliaths are burrowers that ambush their prey from their dens. “The goliaths build a little bit of a web, but you can’t really see it because they make it close to the ground. It acts like a tripwire, so as soon as something hits it, that’s a trigger to jump out.” To provide as natural a hunting experience as possible, twice a week Dan drops crickets, wax worms and an occasional pinky mouse on the web for the spider to pounce on.
“That’s probably how people get bitten,” he says. “They see a hole in the ground, investigate and hit the web. Boom!” Other than that, the goliaths are real homebodies. “Once they’re comfortable someplace, they have no desire to leave. This one is rarely out of its little den”—a Quonset hut-like shelter made from half a large yogurt container.
While you can’t tour the bug room, you can see Venezuelan sun tigers and purple pinktoes in displays under and around the low-water house in Amazon Rising. The goliath bird-eating tarantula peers out from its hollow-log den in a focus habitat across from the house, in the forest exhibit.
—Karen Furnweger, web editor