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Category Archives: Netlore

A spider insider

Wayne Maddison is the jumping-spider man of the Internet. His courtship videos of Salticids are amazing and touching and hilarious just by themselves (what rollicking little Travoltas these jumping spiders be) but people in Netland have been setting them to music for ages, too. Salsa, disco, anything with a beat that seems suitable for flashy duds and the tricky wooing-slash-groveling that the male jumper indulges in. I’ve always wanted to meet Wayne Maddison. But not today, not just because he works in British Columbia but because according to his blog he’s off in Borneo, literally beating the bushes for undiscovered species and probably having a high old time. Here’s something he recently sent back. It’s a Salticid that looks as if it were made out of lemon hard candy. The thing to notice: you can see right through it, watching as those big telescope-like anterior median eyes sweep across their environment. This one is from Ecuador.

 

 
 

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