Spider myths and misconceptions

Australia is blessed with more spiders than most people know how to deal with. Add that to our propensity to tell tall tales to impress visitors, our media’s love of lurid headlines and our gradually increasing ignorance of all of our wildlife, and we have a fertile breeding ground for arachnophobia.

It needn’t be like that – really! Spiders, in general, are harmless, timid and predictable, posing far less of a threat than city traffic or even the average rose bush. Let’s look at some of the myths.

Bird-eating spiders

Some of our largest orb-weaving spiders, the Golden Orb-weavers (Nephilidae), do occasionally catch birds in their webs – small birds, since big ones would just crash through, wrecking the web in the process.

I wrote about our Golden Orb-weavers only two months ago, so I won’t repeat myself except to link to the photos on Arachne.org of a Nephila edulis eating a bird.

Tarantulas

The other spiders known as ‘bird-eating’ are tarantulas and they don’t normally do it because they live in holes in the ground and couldn’t catch a bird in the first place. The Qld Museum’s fact sheet says …

Australia’s tarantulas make a fine hissing sound, hence their other name, Whistling Spiders. They have been called “Bird-eating spider” but that is incorrectly modified from “Bird Spider” which was given because the giant South American spiders resemble a fluffy bird chick.

… although this BBC article describing the world’s largest spiders provides an alternative explanation for the origin of the ‘bird-eating’ myth.

As for their size, Arachne.org says:

Phlogius crassipes Queensland Whistling Tarantula

The species name crassipes is Latin for “fat leg” referring to the relatively fat front legs. This spider can attain legspans of up to 22 cm, normally a big adult is about 16cm. Its body length, from eyes to the rear of its abdomen, measures between 6 and 9 cm, making it the largest Australian tarantula. This species is quite shy and normally does not wander far from its burrow.

But what about his photo? Photos don’t lie, do they?

bird-eating-sp

If that’s a man’s hand, the spider would have a body length of 20cm or so. Even the largest South American species seems to reach only(!) 12cm, with a 28cm leg span. Photos do often lie but this one isn’t even a photo: beware the photoshopped image!

Tarantulas are venomous and need to be treated with due caution, but they are very rarely encountered (holes in the ground, remember) and are, anyway, very timid. When people talk about seeing ‘tarantulas’ in or on buildings they are nearly always talking about huntsman spiders.

‘Tarantulas’ (Huntsman spiders)

Huntsmen (some prefer ‘huntsmans’ but I can’t stand it and wiktionary reckons ‘huntsmen’ is okay) are large and hairy but not as large and hairy as tarantulas: body length is up to about 2.5 cm and leg span up to 15 cm. In nature they live under bark and in crevices, which is why they have flattened bodies and sideways-moving legs, and why they are so comfortable behind furniture in our homes. They are sit-and-wait ambush hunters, which is why they are so fast, and primarily nocturnal, which is why we often see them on the wall when we turn the light on at night.

The meter-reader's excuse
The meter-reader’s excuse

Meter boxes are also good retreats for them, and the meter reader who left the note which is now circulating on facebook (left) probably encountered a huntsman, and probably imagined the ‘red fangs’.

He was perfectly safe, however: huntsmen are not at all aggressive, and not very venomous. Under “Danger to humans and first aid” the Australian Museum’s fact sheet says, “A cold pack may relieve local pain. Seek medical attention if symptoms persist,” i.e. a bite may hurt for a while but there’s no need to panic.

grey spider
Grey huntsman in electrical switchboard

The Redback on the Toilet Seat

There was a redback on the toilet seat,
When I was there last night.
I didn’t see him in the dark,
But boy I felt his bite.
I jumped up high into the air,
And when I hit the ground.
That crafty redback spider,
Wasn’t nowhere to be found.

A redback on the toilet seat is actually not too unlikely in a bush dunny, but the rest of the story is a bit fanciful, let’s say. The Australian Museum fact sheet does, however, take the bites seriously:

Danger to humans and first aid

Redback bites occur frequently, particularly over the summer months. More than 250 cases receive antivenom each year, with several milder envenomations probably going unreported. Only the female bite is dangerous. They can cause serious illness and have caused deaths. However, since Redback Spiders rarely leave their webs, humans are not likely to be bitten unless a body part such as a hand is put directly into the web, and because of their small jaws many bites are ineffective. …

Common early symptoms are pain (which can become severe), sweating (always including local sweating at bite site), muscular weakness, nausea and vomiting. Antivenom is available. No deaths have occurred since its introduction.

Apply an ice pack to the bitten area to relieve pain. Do not apply a pressure bandage (venom movement is slow and pressure worsens pain). Collect the spider for positive identification. Seek medical attention.

But let’s allow Slim Newton to have the last word.

One thought on “Spider myths and misconceptions”

  1. An hysterical headline in the Examiner: Spider plagues take over after Tasmanian floods
    The article didn’t make much sense when first published, either, but it has been improved (they tracked down someone who knew a bit about spiders) and there are some interesting photos. In reality, of course, there is no plague: there can be no more spiders after the floods than there were before, they are just more visible.

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