Monday, February 15, 2010

Spiders, the stuff of nightmares?

EEEEKKKKKK!!!!! It's ATTACK of the GiAnT SpidErS!!!!

OK...just kidding, but you can see by this closeup of a common wolf spider how movie makers made that leap from harmless garden variety spider, to giant scary monster. For more years than many of us can recall the film industry has had a hey-day creating an unreasonable fear of anything 8-legged, furry and in their summation creepy. While I do agree spiders are not exactly cuddly, they are far from the evil masterminds that perpetrate all sorts of woes against mankind. In fact the exact opposite is true, spiders should be considered a friend to humans.They are insect eating machines and have devised all sorts of unique ways for capturing those nuisance bugs. Many spiders build easily recognized webs that often times hang from the eaves of our homes, or perhaps from the plants in our gardens. Many other spiders stalk their prey, much like a cat stalks a mouse. Pouncing on their victim at the last possible second, and subduing them with great speed and dexterity. Still other spiders build "trap doors" in the ground and pull their victim into their lair to meet an untimely death. There are even spiders that use "lures" to trick their prey into biting, only to discover too late that predator is about to become prey. 

(Wolf Spider)
Spiders come well equipped for hunting, most species possess eight eyes, giving them incredible eyesight. There are a few species, such as the brown recluse that only have six eyes, but this does not deter them in the slightest where hunting is concerned. Almost all spiders have venom, and can deliver this toxic brew through fangs often times much larger than would seem necessary for the job. Look at the fuzzy yellow fur covering the fangs on this girl! Most, but obviously not all spider venom is harmless to humans. The venom is only deadly if you are six or eight legged creature deemed worthy of dinner for one of these master hunters. In fact most spiders have fangs too weak to bite through human skin. Some of the larger spiders would be capable of biting us, but rarely do unless mishandled. Exceptions to this in Missouri would be the Brown Recluse and the Black Widow. 

                 (Brown Recluse)
 Brown Recluses have been given a bad rap for many years. Yes, they do possess venom that can potentially cause necroses (skin rotting).  If left untreated these wounds can become infected and cause a life threatening situation. This would be in EXTREME CASES! Most recluse bites go unnoticed by people, their fangs are so sharp that the bite is generally not felt. The venom typically causes skin irritation and itching at the sight of the bite and nothing more. In about 2-3 % of the cases a severe reaction will occur and medical treatment will be required. The bite itself is not fatal, unless you happen to be incredibly allergic to their venom. It is the secondary infections from leaving the bite untreated that could result in death. My advise when it comes to these spiders, look but don't touch. If they are in your home or somewhere you do not want them to be, try to scoop them into a cup or container and relocate them outside far away from their original location. One key to identifying these spiders is the "violin" shape on the back of the head (cephalothorax). The tricky thing is....not all specimens have this violin. In Missouri I've seen many of these spiders and in each case they have all had the violin shape on their head. Perhaps in Missouri this holds true for most specimens. I know in Missouri they are often called the Fiddler Spider.
Black Widows are the bad girls of the spider realm (at least in Missouri). There are several different species that call Missouri home and they are a secretive lot. They build messy little webs in the rafters or corners of buildings, basements, cellars, under rocks, in wood piles, even in the holes on golf course greens. The bite from one of these spiders is a nasty experience. It is said that their venom is ounce-for-ounce more toxic than a rattlesnakes. I know of no deaths that have occurred in Missouri as a result from a bite of one of these glossy black beauties, but I've heard tales of many painful encounters.
(Black Widow---Photo By: Steve Scott)
The poison of the black widow spider affects nervous system function. The bite causes severe pain in the vicinity of the bite, accompanied later by dizziness, nausea, blurred vision and breathing difficulty. A physician should be contacted immediately. Black widows rarely leave their web, preferring instead to let food come to them. Bites to humans typically occur when coming into direct contact with the web or pinning the spider against your body. Black widows are predominantly a nocturnal species and will rarely be seen during the day, unless you happen to turn over a rock or log and find one. I've only ever encountered one in my lifetime. It was a small female found under a rock while walking and exploring the glades at Truman State Park near Warsaw, Missouri. While moving rocks and trying to corral her for a photo I accidently killed her. I felt terrible....not only had a I killed a beautiful spider that wasn't hurting anyone, I missed a great photo opportunity! I was just a bit too overzealous and excited!

(Ant Mimic Spider)
With over 300 known spider species in Missouri, there is no shortage of interesting and incredible eight-legged creature to study. Spiders can be found most anywhere, and are probably the most encountered of all the arthropods with exception to flies and mosquitoes. I find them in my basement and admittedly used to be scared to death of them and smashed everyone I saw. Fortunately for the spiders I overcame this unreasonable fear and now let them be. I instead appreciate the service they are providing, for free I might add, by killing all sorts of unwanted creatures that make their way into our basement. 
I remember when I was a small girl my grandfather found a very large spider in his basement. He had no idea what the spider was, so he took it to the local college and had the professors look at it in the biology department. They informed him that it was a harmless wolf spider and that he should go place it back in his basement and let it do what they do best, eat bugs. Dutifully my grandpa returned home, and quietly retreated to the basement and secretly let this spider go. Winking at me, he said, "this will be our little secret". Knowing full well if my grandma got wind of there being a spider the size of a silver dollar in the basement, he would never have clean clothes to wear again. I figure my grandpa had the right idea. So all of you borderline arachnid-phobes out there; try not to buy into what the movie producers what you to believe. No giant flesh eating monster spiders are going to attack you while you sleep. You are safe. For now.


  1. Great spider overview, Shelly.

    Brown Recluse: They are fairly common around our place. All I've ever had a close look at had the fiddle marking.

    Black Widow: The mature females I've found tend to stay well hidden up in those messy webs. Getting a good photo has been very difficult for me.

  2. Thanks Marvin, We been fortunate enough to not have seen any brown recluse or black widows around our place. I'm certain they are here, I just haven't found them yet. Steve Scott took the picture of the widow on this post, I think it is a fantastic image. He has contributed many of the photos in my book.