Zoo Med’s Excavator Clay! It’s Not Just For Reptiles Anymore!

I would like to welcome fellow blogger and tarantula enthusiast and best friend Dave Fuentes to my site. Together we own and operate the blog site TERROR FROM BEYOND THE DAVES, which can be seen HERE!

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Let me start by saying I’m no tarantula expert and just started the hobby a little over a year ago. I currently have three spiders, all of them purchased as slings; Brachypelma albopilosum, Grammostola pulchripes, and Brachypelma vagans. They may not be the flashiest species but I was told by good authority (like the guy who runs this site) that they’re the perfect choice for a novice like me. Ideally, I wanted to purchase adult spiders but economics and availability dictated otherwise. Looking back I’m glad I did it this way as it’s been pretty amazing watching them molt and transform.

Of course different species grow at different rates and, after a year, it became obvious that “Austin” (my B. albopilosum) was ready to graduate from his critter carrier to something a bit more permanent. For the purpose of story-telling, I’ll be referring to Austin as “him” though it’s still too young to be sexed and may very well be an “Austintina” for all I know.

I’m a big supporter of accredited zoos and love seeing animals in naturalistic displays. I know the spiders probably don’t care but, since I only have three, figured I could afford to spend some time making things as ascetically pleasing as possible. After reviewing various YouTube clips featuring vivarium products, I came across Zoo Med’s Excavator Clay. The best spider products seem to be created for reptiles and this was no exception. What drew me in was the creativity it could afford me while also being reasonably priced and (hopefully) easy to use.

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It’s basically a bag of special sand/dirt that you add water to before molding into whatever design you want. I’m going to share how that experience went as well as the pros and cons of using this product while I was creating Austin’s new home.

First I made sure I had all the supplies I needed for my plans. These would include…

  • A custom tank purchased at my local reptile shop (Chicago Reptile House) that I felt offered me enough room to be creative while also being shorter than your average aquarium since this was for a terrestrial tarantula.
  • 10 Lbs. Bag of Excavator Clay
  • A water dish.
  • Realistic looking plants.
  • Rock/driftwood
  • Substrate

The first thing we did was prepare the clay. This is the most important step because you need to make sure to use the EXACT measurement of water indicated with the instructions. Too much and you end up with useless mush. After you initially start pouring you may not think you’re using enough but, trust me, you are. Also, we chose a 10 pound bag which required a large plastic bowl for mixing. If you go for a larger bag then you better make sure you have something equally large to mix it in.

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After the clay was prepared we began building a cave. We set down a soda can and started putting the mixture all over and around it so that only its top was showing. After packing the clay tight we gently removed the can.

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Unfortunately, our attempts at firming up the cave backfired and it quickly fell apart. That’s when we learned the importance of laying down a thick foundation before setting up the cave.

6Foundation First!

Just remember, if things collapse you can simply start over as the clay is 100% recyclable. So should you decide to change things up at bit months/years down the road, all you need to do is add water to break it back down. For this reason, I recommend the product for DRY climate tarantulas only, as moisture and humidity will likely compromise the structure.

I’ve seen people dig away the back of cavern so you can see inside the glass on the other side. We started that but later decided to fill it in since it wasn’t that deep and we were worried about another cave-in.

7Excavator clay allows for indoor viewing)

After the cave was prepared we created a ledge on the other side of the enclosure, utilizing a red rock I’d taken during a visit to Arizona. It worked out pretty well since the clay has a pink hue to it.

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Normally I’d prefer using real plants but these tarantulas are easy to care for and I didn’t want to complicate matters by having to add a grow light or do any kind of watering in lieu of the clay. I went to Hobby Lobby and found some realistic desert succulents that I liked (Michael’s also has a great selection). I bought a couple of different sizes and hung on to the receipt just in case.

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Since Austin was famous for flipping his water cap, we decided to use the clay to hold his new dish in place.

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After the clay hardened I added substrate.

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With everything in place, it was time to introduce Austin to his new domicile. I lifted the enclosure to its shelf and was reminded that I definitely added 10+ pounds to it. Be advised that if you’re working with a larger tank the clay will add a LOT more weight to it.

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For the first couple of days he sat on top of the cave, surrounded by some webbing he’d spun for himself. That first week every time I came home from work I’d check in on him and he’d be sitting in that same spot. I was, however, encouraged by substrate clearly being disturbed all over the tank as well as flecks of it in his water dish. Then one night I got up to use the washroom and saw him sitting in the middle of the tank (of course by the time I returned the little stinker was back up on the old spot).

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Soon he could be seen all over the place except that darn cave. I swear I’d built the thing just to give the crickets a safe zone. Then, very recently, I saw him inside. I dropped a cricket inside that tank and he came out and snatched it from darkness like a movie monster (for people who own tarantulas…feeding time is most fun part of the hobby). Of course that shouldn’t imply that he was 100% satisfied with my excavating skills. Austin no sooner learned to enjoy the cave before making his own renovations. He dug out some of the clay in one corner and carried it over to the cave entrance and built a pile to help close off the entrance. Gee, maybe I should have used a smaller Red Bull can instead of soda.

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Regardless, it definitely answered my question about whether or not the hardened clay is too tough for a tarantula (in this case a juvenile one) to dig in. In the end Austin made it pretty clear that no matter how good we tarantula keepers are at building a house, it’s ultimately the spider that’s gonna make it a home.

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