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Calm down, arachnophobes

16 Mar

I couldn’t ask for a better poster spider for launch week. A fresh wave of worry about the brown recluse has just washed over the blogosphere, apparently because of a scary tale about a Texas woman bitten by a recluse who then posted lavishly gross pictures of her ailment online. This happened last year, not sure why it took so long to get about.

I’m going to write more about those reckless recluses. There are a lot of fascinating things about Loxosceles, some of them in the folkloric vein and some in the scientific (did you know the Binford Spider Lab in Portland, Oregon, focuses on the recluse and related species? All kinds of research coming out of there). But for today, I’ll point out with minimal comment how the words “brown recluse” trigger a most predictable response in humans, and I’m not talking about rotting flesh or horrible death. I’m talking about hyperventilation.

The Texas woman was bitten on the neck in one of the unusual cases where a spider (any spider) was actually caught in the act. Yes – most of the “spider bite” cases we hear about and read about involve a species (to be profiled later) I call Aranaeus invisibilis, the North American stealth spider, and no, I never learned Latin so please school me on a better name. A sore erupts; people blame a spider they never saw. I don’t trust news and blog reports of the Texas case far enough to know whether the spider was actually a recluse, though that is plausible, given their range. The original report suggests it was identified in the emergency room, which usually sets off some warning bells because few doctors can ID a spider on sight, and even when they’re mistaken their “spider bite” diagnosis is taken as holy writ. Loxoscelism is the actual term for a reaction to a recluse bite, but physicians chalking up a mystery sore to loxoscelism is like saying “I know it was a brown recluse because this is a brown recluse lesion.”

Penny for your thoughts?

But even if the Texas spider is provably a recluse, such necrotic bites are not common. No recluse bites are. Then there are dry bites (no venom), and non-symptomatic bites. And as for the spider being “deadly” … no. [Read all about it at the Burke Museum in Seattle, where Rod Crawford, curator of arachnids, takes on this myth.]

It’s laughably easy to post gory pictures on the Internet and say they came from a spider. People believe you immediately when you say it was a brown recluse, even if you acquired the wound hundreds of miles away from any recluse habitat. Even if it happened under circumstances (such as being in prison) that cry out for a more rational explanation, such as MRSA, or drug-resistant staph, which is far more dangerous than any spider. MRSA: now that’s an evil bug.

By the way, the Texas woman rapidly got better. The bloggers panting that the spider almost made her go blind – well, the bite caused one side of her face to swell up and close her eye for a while. There’s been nothing reported about any threat to her vision.

“Hyberbolic media crap!” pronounces the estimable spider expert Rick Vetter of UC Riverside, who’s talked himself hoarse trying to set the public straight on the recluse and other spiders. When such stories hit, reporters not too lazy to do a bit of research call up Vetter and get some bracing counter-quotes like this one. Everybody else just goes with the hysteria.

This story seems to have erupted in the Daily Mail in excitable Olde England, where spiders hardly ever get a break. It got an even bigger push when people dragged in a recent study suggesting that climate change is going to change the recluse’s distribution in the United States and then … radically misinterpreted that part, too! Shouts and alarums: the recluse is on the march! Coming to a gardening glove near you! When what the study said was that a warmish shift might … MIGHT … cause the recluse to spread north from its accustomed Midwest/Southeastern range but also to VANISH from parts of its existing range.

Oh. Where’s the fun in that? And the irony is that the public widely, devoutly believes that the brown recluse is already swarming across the country, biting coeds’ necks wherever it can find them. Heck, there’s that vampire slander again. That’s also cognitive dissonance, believing that 1. The recluse is spreading to new turf and 2. The spider is already everywhere in teeming masses. Just par for the course for Loxosceles reclusa.

 

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