Gather round, arachnophobes. We've got just the right dose of exposure therapy: 200 tiny but perfectly formed Montserrat tarantulas, freshly hatched at England's Chester Zoo.

The miniature arrivals are no small victory for the facility – in fact, this is the very first time that these rare and unusual arachnids have ever been bred in captivity. 

"Breeding these tarantulas is a huge achievement for the team as very little is known about them. It's taken a lot of patience and care to reach this point," says Dr Gerardo Garcia, the zoo's curator of lower vertebrates and invertebrates, in a press release.

The clutch represents a welcome population boost, but the Chester Zoo team is also hoping that the spiderlings will teach them more about the species. Native to the Caribbean island from which they get their name, the tarantulas are mostly a mystery to scientists, and we know very little about how they live out their lives on the island's rocky terrain. As the new residents grow, the team will be observing them closely, hoping to learn more about their behaviour, reproduction and life cycle.

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The spiderlings are spending their early days in individual pots, fattening up on a hand-fed diet of tiny flies. Image: Chester Zoo

The zoo first acquired Montserrat tarantulas back in 2013 – and it's taken three years of work and careful coordination to get them to breed. "We know that males have a very short life span when compared with females and gauging their sexual maturity to select the best possible time to put them together for mating is vital to the breeding process," explains Garcia.

Of course, the females' penchant for eating their mates doesn't make for happy unions. "The female can take it as a prey, rather than a partner," Dr Garcia tells the BBC. "There were a lot of sweaty moments."

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Image: Chester Zoo

After finally mating successfully, three pregnant females left anxious keepers waiting when they disappeared underground. Months with no sign of them followed, until 200 hatchlings from just one clutch burst from the soil earlier this month – the others might still follow. 

With the breeding success now behind them, the team will be applying the lessons learned to their work with other threatened species.

Fanged, hairy invertebrates don't exactly inspire panda-level protectiveness, but Montserrat tarantulas deserve our attention – not least because their fate is tied up with that of another threatened species on the island. The spiders are a source of food for the critically endangered mountain chicken frog, whose population has declined by 80% in the last ten years. 

"It's successes like this which really highlight the work that zoos are doing behind the scenes to conserve a range of endangered species, including the smaller, less known species that contribute to the world's biodiversity," says Garcia.


Top header image: Screengrab/Chester Zoo