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Category Archives: Myths and Calumnies

Swatting down the angry spiders of Assam

Three and even more cheers for the level-headed journalists of India! who took that crazy spider story in Assam and dragged it into the cold light of day. You might have read those tales about big, huge, ENORMOUS dark-colored spiders being spotted in large numbers where they hadn’t before. Biting people, disrespecting cultural festivals, sending a few people to an early grave. First stories indicated they were giant (photos indicate otherwise) or called them “tarantulas” (again, photos are unclear), and cooked up a stew of overreaction seasoned with muddy facts.

No U.S. news outlets parachuted into the spider zone, so who knows what the arachnids would have done when confronted by Anderson Cooper and his accusing baby blues. So all we heard at first from this remove were tales from an echo chamber. Given the way these stories usually play out, how delightful to see how aggressively the Indian media smacked down the misinformation:

No evidence of spider swarms. Two people who died were swiftly cremated and evidence indicates one was bitten by a snake, and the other might have had an adverse reaction to the folk treatment inflicted on him. Arachnologists identified the supposed baddy as a common enough spider, not medically significant. The government even handed out pamphlets urging people not to panic, and pointing out that any “aggressiveness” on the spiders’ part was probably due to their being more noticeable at breeding time while on their nuptial stroll. A handful of people reliably reported as suffering spider bites (“I picked it up,” one admitted to the camera) were simply treated and released.

I liked the coverage on one website dedicated to covering “the marginalized areas of India.” TwoCircles.net pointed out that frightened people were killing spiders on sight, which was likely to harm the ecosystem. That’s a germane point your average breathless rumormonger rarely makes. Wipe out spiders and you’ll give free rein to crop pests, malaria-carrying mosquitoes, and who knows what other invertebrates and nasties.

(That site wants to be a “voice of sanity” for regions where good reporting is hard to find. Not perfectly objective or comprehensive, but a source of reliable information for intelligent decision-making. Wow. Missed the Web 2.0 version of online news in a big way, didn’t they?)

The India spider panic began more than a month ago, and I’d call it a Rorschach test for spider phobia if the term “Rorschach test for . . .” weren’t so overused and abused. (Same with “tabula rasa.”) Let’s just call it a great example of how spider fear can amplify and twist stories, and keep skepticism at arm’s length because when you’re talking about spiders, of course they’d do exactly that, wouldn’t they? The Times of India, which unlike its compatriots did not acquit itself well, even used the phrase “eight-legged freaks.”

And, oh god. One guy thinks spider swarms mean Gaia is fighting back. A blogger on NPR confidently asserted: “Assram state doesn’t have any poisonous spiders.” Uh, Assram? No venomous spiders? What do the spiders of Assam inject, Sunny Delight?

The crack news team at the Long Island Press illustrated their story with a picture of a fake spider from the “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” movie. Note to crack news team: spiders don’t scowl.

Meanwhile, HuffPo thinks there are vampire spiders.

Mamma mia, if it's-a not-a one-a stereotype, it's another! Whattaya gonna do.(Lycosa tarantula photo © J. Coelho, Creative Commons)

Spider hysteria has been kind of quiet lately. The Assam story echoes the folk fears that inspired the tarantella, the dance craze based on the belief that one had to boogie down and shimmy out the venom of the field spider that inspired the word “tarantula” (the spiders of Taranto, Italy, were probably not tarantulas but wolf spiders). I bet the tarantella has launched a thousand dissertations about medicine, mental health, and bacchanalian behavior. I only note that a spider—not an ant, not a bee, not a beetle, not even a rabid dog—kindled such a strange belief. Ancient or medieval or modern, people are always quick to tremble over the small dangers presented by spiders, even when they should be worrying about the large dangers of MRSA or viruses or much bigger animals with much bigger teeth. Or, if you live in Assam, cobras.

Also I think of those cohorts of schoolkids (typically girls) who develop strange speech patterns or tics or bruises en masse, blaming a purported toxic dump or a funny smell or a locally defamed creepy animal, only to miraculously recover. Watch for a fifth-grade class somewhere to be pursued by an army of recluses with a sudden appetite for ankles. And squeeeee! . . . off they go.

The Assam spiders surely were there all along, minding their own business in the woods and fields, until somebody trod on a few burrows or tipped over the wrong hollow log. Poke ’em with a stick and they display “aggressive behavior” toward the huge mammal that can crush out their life. Wouldn’t you?


 

 

Meet the spider: Steatoda grossa

Spider-Man, I made you!

It’s almost summer, and that means superheroes. A torrent of them, a plague of them! Not unlike the grim spider army that homeowners report to their local newscasters whenever they see something brown that skitters. This time there’s a big hairy blockbuster movie among the big hairy intruders: “The Amazing Spider-Man.” I’m not a comic book fan, so all this talk about a “reboot” leaves me cold (spiders, the real kind, shiver when you say “boot.”). It opens July 3, so I might as well let my online searches overflow with Andrew Garfield this, Emma Stone that, not to mention “Turn off the Dark” (the Broadway show), until the wires go back to their usual chatter about Invisible Spiders that stalk the unwary sleeper.

Still, I must take note of one rumored change in the Spider-Man backstory. You might recall that one character prominent in the Tobey Maguire version of the “Spider-Man” franchise was a spider. It bit Tobey and made him what he is. Apparently the spider was radioactive, which is one of those fun, wacky 1950s conceits that don’t really scan today … radioactivity leading in fact to death, not superpowers. At the start of that first film, which I saw in pursuit of a Big Dumb Summer Movie, the spider landed on Peter Parker and nipped him. The bite was just Method acting, but the spider was real. It was even wearing spider makeup and carrying a tiny Equity card. The actor was, however, false: a false black widow, or Steatoda grossa.

Fanboy rumor says this year’s Peter Parker gets endowed not by a radioactive spider bite but by something from a lab … genetic tinkering or some such. And I bet they don’t even use a live spider this time, computer graphics having progressed so far. Dang. One more out-of-work actor, and in this economy. Guess it’s back to the back lot for Steatoda grossa, which is probably where the spider wrangler for the 2002 movie found her in the first place.

This common species occupies the margin between medically significant spiders and the innocent, ain’t-hurt-nobody garden varieties. Steatoda grossa practically defines garden variety. The places she likes to live are all over the typical yard (basement, too). She hides under the terra cotta saucer, in the space between shed and fence, in a sawdusty nook by the car, perhaps in the finger of your garden glove—pretty much anywhere you might expect to see a black widow (Latrodectus), except she isn’t one. False widows seem to favor damper places than the true widow, such as the crawlspace under my house where moisture from the clothes drier lingers. Real widows, like Marilyn, like it hot. When I catch Steatoda she usually plays dead, which makes me feel bad, so I let her go, then she ever-so-slowly unshrivels and stumbles away.

Without her makeup on, but still ready for her closeup. (Univ. of Wisconsin, Dept. of Entomology)

Her coloration is variable but the ones I see most often are glossy dark brown with a pale dot or two on her dimpled abdomen. She (or her male counterpart) might be marbled like halvah. If you look close you see she has oddly glittering eyes, gleaming with Hollywood ambition. The posterior median ones, I think. They sparkle like flecks of glass in the flashlight beam—and not just from the front, like the usual spider eyeshine. (You don’t know about eyeshine?! One of the wonders of spider watching. More on that later, if I can get decent pictures.)

It’s funny how many people think any old brown spider is a recluse, but I can’t blame people for thinking Steatoda is a black widow; they are relatives, after all, in the big happy Theridiid family, and favor the same look and the same turf.

In Britain they go all barmy over a cousin called Steatoda nobilis, a mildly medically significant non-native creature that’s got everyone’s rugby shorts in a bunch. “The most venomous spider in Britain!” Oi, you’d think it was the Blitz. And most of the tabloid cases quote Wallace or Gromit saying, you guessed it, “Never saw the little bugger who bit me,” and even the visible buggers are usually identified by the nearest Cockney chimneysweep and not by anyone who’d actually know. Still, there are a few confirmed Steatoda bites here and there. This isn’t one of them (hint: Steatoda nobilis, like Peter Parker, lacks the power of invisibility).

Fun fact! Scarlett Johansson is neither black, nor a widow. She is actually a divorcee.

After Steatoda grossa had her big moment in “Spider-Man,” lots of people were surprised to learn that the spider wasn’t computer-generated. An insect wrangler had supplied the false black widow and dolled her up in red and blue to make her look sinister. Although Steatoda has the right figure for the part (sleek, glossy, tapering, and can I mention Scarlett Johansson as the Black Widow here? No? Aw), she can’t do radioactive without having some work done. National Geographic ran a fun story about the bug boss who cast Steatoda for her big part.

You can induce Steatoda grossa to bite you, not that I have, using the technique of rolling over on her or trapping her in clothing. I’ve never found any indications that the bite is worse than a bee sting. This is the usual pain yardstick that’s meant to reassure people but kinda doesn’t, given how much we all enjoy being stung by bees. Reported symptoms include “blistering” and “malaise.” Once in a blue moon a bite creates significant medical problems, and at least one study has shown that antivenin developed for bites of the redback spider (Australia’s native widow) works for Steatoda as well. But you takes your chances: people have fatal anaphylactic reactions to antivenin, too.

The false widow is neither hero nor villain in her contacts with the human world, falling into the category of small animals that should be acknowledged but not feared. As with most spiders it’s quite obvious what kind of business she’s about: not stalking people (although do shake those garden gloves) or pursuing evildoers, but rather pursuing bugs for dinner, spinning her sloppy yet effective web, lying low, making more of her kind.

She doesn’t have any superpowers, and I do wonder why her bite made Peter Parker shoot silk out of his … wrists. Is the moviegoing public not ready for an anatomically correct Spider-Man? Bet Howard Stern could have fun with that.

Some relatives of the false black widow do have special talents beyond scaring British people. They can live together without killing each other. These are among the social spiders—like social butterflies, I guess, but with fangs and venom. Life in the spider colony is sure lively, what with prey-capture cooperation, shared egg-sitting, and occasional mass emigration. How they work it out is a mystery, though the uncommonness of this arrangement suggests to some scientists that pallin’ around with your fellow cannibals might not be the best idea for spiders in the long run.

As for long runs, let us prepare for a summer of super spiders and bats and men in black, leading perhaps to new impressions in the Hollywood Walk of Fame, though if there’s a spider there in the concrete you can guarantee it was stepped on. Fame is the ultimate false mistress, poor Steatoda grossa.

 

 

Put down the comic books. This is science

Huffington Post, how do I hate thee? Let me count the ways … OK, just one for now. But it’s a big one. It’s your “coverage” of science. Sciiiience. You know—the topic that has to be reported really carefully, and where you really have to get the words right, and it can’t be goosed up by inaccurate headlines?

“Tarantula silk could shoot from spider’s feet like Spiderman, scientists say,” brays the headline. But they don’t. And it doesn’t. And the initial tease—that silk can be extruded from a spider’s foot—appeared more than a year ago, to be followed by a couple of thundering rebuttals by heavyweight spider anatomists who had studied and published for decades. And even the first story didn’t say silk could “shoot” anywhere, only that it could be dabbed here and there to help a big spider keep its footing in a precarious place.

That’s a cool thing to explore. Evolution may have equipped ancient spiders with different silk capabilities than they have now. But the hypothesis that tarantulas employ silk-producing “spigots” amongst their toes has already been elegantly rebutted in the Journal of Experimental Biology, the place where the first paper appeared. The scientists challenged the hypothesis by covering the tarantulas’ spinnerets, the organs at the tip of the abdomen that are the only known places where a spider secretes silk, with wax. Traces of silk on the feet vanished. Ergo, the silken slippers had come from the spinnerets all along.

Some of the sensory organs of a solifugid, or "camel spider" (an arachnid but not in fact a spider). ©Journal of Arachnology

I’m just an amateur, but even I’ve read enough about spider morphology to recognize the structures that this correspondent had never seen before, these purported spigots. They’re chemoreceptors of some kind. The esteemed spider researcher Rainer Foelix, one of the aforementioned heavyweights, is the godfather of the spider textbook (yes, quite a specialized field). His works are filled with astonishing electron micrograph images of such structures, which look like a long, slender thorn or hair with an opening at the end. Spiders’ bodies are covered with thousands of these tiny biological instruments, along with others even stranger, with names like slit sensilla and lyriform organs. They form a neural network that tells the animal about its orientation, the position of its limbs, the physical load on its body, and its environment. The purpose of some of them is mysterious. These organs are the reason that an animal that is essentially blind, despite its abundance of eyes, can maintain such a sophisticated understanding of its surroundings: prey, moisture, dangers, weather, mating opportunities.

These are deep wonders, part of the reason I appreciate spiders so much. What we see from our human heights is a small, obscure being, going about its business with a stony disregard for us (oh, except for its lying awake at night, plotting to bite innocent schoolchildren, but that’s just insomnia. They don’t have late-night TV or Ambien). Of all animals they may be the ones most often seen through a glass darkly. But the view from a book like “A Spider’s World: Senses and Behavior,” by arachnologist Friedrich Barth, is vivid and literally otherworldly.

(Barth, by the way, works extensively with Cupiennius salei, a chunky tropical spider that sometimes hitchhikes in fruit shipments and is often accused of being Phoneutria fera, a much scarier individual. Cupiennius isn’t big and bad, it’s just big. But watch how fast a British grocer can scream that he’s found “the world’s deadliest spider” lurking in the bananas! It’s probably poor Cupiennius, chilled to the spinnerets.)

Foelix and Barth explore the wonders—not just anatomy but spider behavior, another planet alien to us—and lead science forward micron by micron. These books are never easy reading, and much of the science is beyond me (sometimes I just look at the pictures), but ultimately the diligent arachnologists run with the Carl Sagan pack, the Stephen Jay Goulds, who stress that wonder is out there. Not found by stretching human understanding and schemata over the universe like some sort of shabby cloak, but by letting these alien worlds of stars and animals and physics press their stories on us, and on our philosophies and gods.

So HuffPo, you shabby cloak, stop treating science like some throwaway bulletin about what the Hollywood hormones did today. Don’t you want another Pulitzer? You got the first one by nailing a story, getting it right the old-fashioned way. You won’t get another by spotting Spider-Man in the bananas. Don’t make Cupiennius come over there and bite you.


 

 

Meet the spider: Pholcidae

We three Dads

The cellar spider has a wonderful gothic, childlike, shivery myth attached to it. Have you heard? Omigod, the daddy long-legs has the most poisonous venom ever discovered! but, like, its little fangs can’t penetrate human skin so nobody even knows, so you could be totally killed by it, but nobody ever is.

This wacky idea actually seems to be dying out, even among the swaggering schoolchildren who answer most Internet queries. “Mythbusters” got around to addressing it a while back (yes, Adam got bit. No, he didn’t die. Maybe he exaggerated a bit about the bite, which he didn’t even show, but how long can a camera show nothing happening?). It probably takes a hit Discovery program to begin to turn the tide of Internet nonsense, especially when it comes to such a durable and colorful tale.

The cellar spider, one of several dudes dubbed “daddy,” looks like something made out of mini-marshmallows and pipe cleaners. A spindly, fragile thing that offers the most florid display of timidity in nature: if you touch its web, it trembles. Think of that, you “Lord of the Flies” schoolkids with your misspelled boasts about pulling off its legs, one at a time. It just shivers and waits for you to go away.

Who’s your daddy, long-legs? Now about that name. You have to brush past the stiff angry online Commenters who shout that the daddy long-legs is NOT a spider or else the daddy long-legs is TOO a poizinus spider and one bit my cusin and her elbo fell off and get to the place where it’s clear that “daddy long-legs” means three different animals:

 

GOOD VIBRATIONS: a cellar spider.

1. A spider. Two common species (very common, actually) of the family Pholcidae that live in my area are Pholcus phalangioides and Holocnemus pluchei, the latter known as the marbled cellar spider. Neither belongs here; they’re among those pushy Eurotrash species that arrived at some unknown time, eclipsing the native spiders. And they really like it here.

 

 

WALK ON BY: a harvestman.

 

2. An arachnid called a harvestman. Strange little striding bug, it looks like the invader vehicles you imagined the first time you read “War of the Worlds,” with a tiny gondola suspended at the vertex of eight immensely long, thin legs. Not a spider, not venomous. It eats everything in the garden but can’t bite you. Defends itself by making a funny smell.

 

 

COME FLY WITH ME: a crane fly.

3. A crane fly. California has more than 400 species of this bug, which turns from a grub in the ground to a flying insect. Harmless, though it resembles a giant mosquito. Scientists identify a larva by looking at its rear end, through which it breathes, and which is decorated with eye-popping, grotesque patterns that look like Mardi Gras masks (below). In my family we called crane flies gallinippers, a name I thought my own daddy made up because he has a knack for wordplay (big mosquito = gallon nipper), but I learned that not only is this a folk name, but “gallinipper” is also used for an actual huge bloodsucking mosquito and not just the innocent crane fly.

This is one crane fly’s southern exposure! Aw, I’m gonna have nightmares now. (Nephrotoma virescens illustration © Chen Young)

Also it’s a bluegrass band, one that proudly proclaims “The Gallinippers is on Facebook!” And so they is.

Also, there’s a silly poem:

. . . Then Mr. Daddy Long-legs

And Mr. Floppy Fly

Rushed downward to the foamy sea

With one sponge-taneous cry;

And there they found a little boat,

Whose sails were pink and gray;

And off they sailed among the waves,

Far, and far away.

(Edward Lear, “The Daddy Long-Legs and the Fly”)

The cellar spider is the dad I know well. It lives in a world of dim sunlight, sawdust, splinters, old storage smells. Your basement, attic, or garage. Or, if you’re casual about housecleaning, the no-dad’s-land behind a desk or sideboard or bookcase. The spider makes a messy web that it’s agreeable to sharing with fellow spiders, where they all hang upside-down, snagging flying bugs, vibrating like little cell phones when disturbed.

Even the pest-control folks, always eager to suggest ways of annihilating local fauna, have nothing bad to say about the cellar spider except that the webs are “unsightly.” It was still worth several people’s time to write about the best ways to keep those dirty dads under control, though (hint: vacuuming and judicious use of pesticide).

The only thing I dislike about Daddy is that he poops in corners. Any nook occupied by a cellar spider is going to have dark-and-light spatters on the floor or shelf below. It’s not the easiest of spooges to clean up, either, and it makes the surroundings look drear and grimy. The cellar spider, not the tarantula or widow, is the spider that should have the role of Halloween gloom-meister, since its presence indicates a place disused or abandoned or otherwise atmospheric. Otherwise it’s about as spooky as a kitten.

It’s not scary and (unlike a jumping spider) it can’t dance—in sharp contrast to Fred Astaire, title character of the silky 1955 musical “Daddy Long Legs.” Watch as the grand old hoofer ensnares young Leslie Caron in a web of dance, for which she is grateful and adorable and extremely French. Sweet story. It surprised me to learn how many versions of that film were made in the last century, with different actors as the daddy. Sometimes the leggy leading man—harmless, never venomous—snares Mary Pickford, sometimes Janet Gaynor, once an anime orphan, once even (gasp) Shirley Temple, though in that version (“Curly Top,” 1935) Daddy does the nuptial dance with the moppet’s grown-up sister, not Shirley (*whew*).

What do those old movies have to do with cellar spiders? Nothing, though for once it’s nice to associate a spider with a silly fable not having to do with gangrene. And by the way, I’d take Leslie Caron (“Daddy Long Legs”) over Theresa Russell (“The Black Widow”) any day.


 

 

Meet the spider: Latrodectus hesperus

Ladies of the night

The widow tends her parlor.

I don’t worry about the widows. They’ll be fine. Putting aside the question of whether I should be worrying about them, I know they’re a resourceful bunch. Ever since the first bulbous lady of the night appeared along the property-line fence, spinning her tough, ratty web as I walked past with the flashlight on garbage night, the black widows have endured. Now that the builders next door are about to demolish the fence and build a new one, it’s very likely that the widows will just colonize that one, too. I won’t bring it up with the new neighbors, at least not right away. They’ll think my sympathies are misplaced.

The widows who haunt the fence haven’t been there long. When we bought the house 11 years ago most of the spiders in the nooks and crannies of the yard were Steatoda grossa, false black widows. They scare the unwary, because they’re petite, dark-chocolate replicas of the widows and they hang out where you’d expect a widow to be. After a little research and a lot of familiarity I saw them as chums, and now salute the false widows as they fumble away from the broom. But then Latrodectus appeared—not actually glistening in the light of the full moon, though that enhances my mental picture—and suddenly Steatoda grew scarce. This new species bore watching.

I thought about wiping them all out before they got too entrenched, but never had the heart. I caught and relocated a few. I kept a couple others in terraria out of curiosity, but when they spun egg sacs I questioned the wisdom of the project and relocated them, too. And now they’re part of the landscape: invisible by day, out on their lines by night, always ready to scoot back into a downspout or between the slats if they detect something amiss.

And that’s why, I think, I let them be. The western black widow and her more notorious Theridiid relatives are nothing to mess with. I won’t dandle them or coo at them. But nor are they coming to get me and my children. Having tried many times to catch them, I tell you it’s not easy: they’re wary and will retreat from the slightest suspicious vibration. Even if I plowed through their triplines while taking out the trash, they wouldn’t charge me; rather, they’d do their clumsy best to sprint back to safety. It would take me jamming a finger into their lair or picking one up with my bare hands to get bitten.

By now, the widows are like neighbors. The ones who don’t keep up their yard, whose taste in Christmas decorations runs to the tacky, who got the F-150 on blocks in the driveway, sit on the porch in the evenings, don’t make eye contact. They probably keep a handgun in the nightstand. It’s enough to know their name; no need to be overfriendly. Still—it’s their neighborhood, too. If they go away of their own accord I’ll be relieved, but in the meantime I don’t feel threatened.

The black widow is a medically significant spider, no doubt. The human body’s response to her neurotoxic venom is called latrodectism, something I don’t want to experience. (You know you’re famous when somebody names a whole disease after you: benign Linsanity, deadly Snookiism.) Latrodectism is an agony of clenching muscle pains, often with nausea, headache, copious sweating, and accelerated heartbeat. Medical sources repeat like a mantra: death is rare, although risks are higher for children, the elderly, and people with compromised cardiovascular systems. Antivenin works but usually isn’t necessary, and it can make things worse.

The widow isn’t “lethal,” forget what the Internet says. I sought a hard number for this, not the moldering Netlore people toss back and forth. Here: the latest report of the American Association of Poison Control Centers (AAPCS) tallied 2,168 widow spider bites in the US in a year. No one died from them. Even if you added in the 3,345 “unknown spider/insect” bites (including my pal the Invisible Spider and anything else that crawls, visibly or not, across the national epidermis) … still zero deaths. Only 13 widow cases were even considered major. The largest category of outcome: “minor.”

Now, there is that “Case 1259,” the middle-aged asthmatic hospitalized for a black widow bite. Thirty-six hours later, he’s dead—but of anaphylactic shock. Triggered by the antivenin itself, not the bite.

Bee/hornet/wasp stings were three times as numerous as spider bites—with two fatalities. Other villains:

  • Car antifreeze, seven deaths
  • Toilet-bowl cleaners, three
  • Hearing-aid batteries, two
  • Liquid laundry detergent, two
  • Good ol’ “ethanol (beverages),” a raucous twenty-one.

(Interestingly, the report cites a single death from “other spider bites and/or envenomations,” but since widows, recluses, and Invisible Spiders were already tallied separately, it’s a mystery. Perhaps it’s the unfortunate Case 1259.)

Another report, from 2005, explored animal dangers to humans and calculated an average of six deaths from venomous spider bites every year in the United States. Curiously, it found almost as many deaths from “non-venomous arthropods,” and cited the anaphylaxis risk. And note: in this telling, hornets, bees, wasps, and ants were nine times as dangerous as spiders. (Curiouser still, isn’t it, how the AAPCS hasn’t found even one widow fatality since it began issuing annual reports in 1983?) Cows, horses, and mules go bad, too.

The widow’s reputation has clearly been besmirched. She isn’t always lethal even to her mate. It would make for a better episode of “Who the (Bleep) Did I Marry?” if she were, but the fact is lots of spiders are prone to husband-noshing, depending on hunger and other circumstances, and she’s not a standout.

The adult male widow is a skinny guy, with rather attractive marbling on his trim, brownish exoskeleton. (No one suspects him of being dangerous to humans, unlike his bride.) I see him lounging around the lady’s porch of an evening. Our widows get lots of gentleman callers.

And like another famous widow, Blanche DuBois, these femmes noires depend on the kindness of strangers. Me.

 

 

Calm down, arachnophobes

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.

 

Blame that spider!

Let’s start with a good round of blame. Blame the Internet! Blame ignorance! Blame visceral fears our species has been lugging around since we lived next door to the Flintstones! There, that felt good. I’m launching this blamefest because accurate information about spiders just doesn’t seem to get through, or to stick around, or to withstand its turbid journey through the online sloughs, and I’m sure there are reasons that don’t reflect badly on the hive mind but at the moment I can’t think of any.

Sure, spider information is better than it used to be. A decade ago, where were the smart arachnophiles swatting down myths and hysteria? Scarcer than a white black widow. Now you can find such smart people out there, patiently weaving their way through the intellectually toothless carnies in the midway called “Reader Comments.” There are scientists and wildlife experts, doctors, gardeners who like to know their microcosms and the inhabitants therein, and people just happy to see data driving out drivel. Still … it’s not an arachnophilic world. Dopey spider postings pop up every day. Like this one:

 

[A blogger dubbed “Reality Steve” dishes about an episode of “The Bachelor”]

Was given some inside information regarding the “extras” scene from this week. You know, the one where they showed Ben and Courtney on the temple and Terry the tarantula that they befriended. You see that thing crawling all up and down Courtney’s arm. Blech. I will have you know that my sources informed me the tarantula actually bit into Courtney pretty good and started sucking the blood right out of her, which immediately then had an ambulance on scene and things got messy with people being transported to the hospital. And it’s with a heavy heart that I have to be the one to break the news to everyone, but on the way to the hospital, Terry the tarantula passed away due to blood poisoning. He will be missed.

 

Zing! Actually pretty funny, you Reality Steve. I get it. Apparently Courtney Whoever occupies the coveted reality TV role of The Man-Eating Skank. But soon this gem was cross-posted on other entertainment sites by people who believed it. Yeah, the blood-sucking. Hospitalization. Death by poisoned blood.

How do I know? Reality Steve became Astounded Steve and said so:

 

As far as Terry the tarantula, now that caught me completely off guard. I’m shocked at how many people read that paragraph and thought I was serious that that tarantula sucked out Courtney’s blood then died from blood poisoning. I thought it was written so ridiculously and so sarcastically that people couldn’t possibly believe that was true. Guess I was wrong. People were emailing me cheering that they’d heard the tarantula bit her. Unreal.

 

A mixed bag, I guess. The foolish re-posters pulled down their ripped-off gossip, and Reality Steve sounds like he might have one foot in reality after all. The tarantula calumny vanished. But still, why did it jerk a knee? Who would have bit on that tale if it had been a dog bite or (much more plausible, given the sucking) a mosquito?

So that’s the thing. Harmless big spider gets accused of vampirism because it would if it could. Just like those black widows, lurking in grapes not because they got caught up in the harvest and kidnapped into a refrigerated shipping container and plopped into an English supermarket, but because they want to murder your children. Your fair British children. Not just malign intent, but malign fantasy powers—none of it plausible, but spiders are the creatures from whom everyone expects the worst. That’s one myth. Let’s bust it up.

 

 
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Posted by on March 14, 2012 in Myths and Calumnies, Netlore, Tarantulas