Science - Nature
By: - at August 15, 2013

Top 15 Spider Myths

spider and webDifferent people have different opinions of spiders. Some people just accept them as a part of nature. Others go running off screaming at the sight of one. Still others seem fascinated by the allure of a dangerous creature, seeing them as one of those creatures that's beautiful but deadly. But are they really so dangerous?

Spiders are certainly creepy-looking and some of them do have a nasty bite, so it's easy to imagine what horrors might exist. Spiders have been fuel for the imagination for centuries and probably millennia, from folklore to horror films. We're all familiar with the spiders in movies that breed like wildfire, kill in minutes, and quickly overtake a city. But what does reality look like? Here are a few common myths you probably never realized were not true.


Myth 15)  “Arachnid” is Just a Big, Fancy Word for Spider
A spider is only one type of arachnid. There are several other types of creatures that also fall under that heading, including scorpions, mites, and ticks. Arachnids have hard exoskeletons, jointed legs, and bodies with as little as one and as many as thirteen segments. And of course, they all have eight legs, divided into four pairs so each leg-bearing segment has two legs on it. They are part of the arthropod group, making them very closely related to insects.

Arachnid Battle
A scorpion (left) fighting a solifugid (right)

The Encyclopedia Britannica defines a spider as a type of arachnid that has a body that is divided into two parts. Under this definition, the Harvestmen, more often referred to as a “daddy-longlegs,” isn't a spider at all, since it only has one body segment.


Myth 14)  The Average Person Swallows About Eight Spiders Every Year by Accident
This one is a pure urban legend. We're probably all glad about that, too. After all, how many people want to think about having swallowed a bunch of spiders in their sleep? And to look at it another way, how many spiders really want to think about being swallowed by a human?

Don't Swallow Spiders!

It was actually created as a hoax. In 1993 a columnist named Lisa Holst commented on how people would find lists of “facts” on the internet and immediately believe some ridiculous things with no credibility behind them. She offered up her own list of completely ridiculous facts, one of which was taken from a 1954 book of insect folklore that listed common misconceptions. That's where this particular myth about spiders came from. It was apparently a common misconception in the 1950's, and ironically thanks to Lisa Holst's article, it managed to circulate and become a common misconception all over again.


Myth 13)  Spiders Like to Bite People
Actually, spiders rarely bite people. They feed on insects, so it doesn't make sense that they would have much interest in biting humans. Also, most of them are even more afraid of us than we are of them. Think about it. We're about a thousand or so times their size. What creature wouldn't be afraid of something like that?

Lynx Spider Capturing Fly
Lynx Spider Capturing Fly

Most spider bites happen only because the spider was startled and felt the need to defend itself. So you might want to be a little careful about sticking your hand in a dark crevice that hasn't been touched in a while, but really only because you might accidentally frighten its inhabitant. Otherwise, spiders really won't go out of their way to bite. And even if they do, the majority of spiders have venom that's only toxic to insects, not humans. In most cases, the worst you might be is a little itchy.

Actually the number of spider bites reported is as high as it is only because people are paranoid about it. Most things that people think are spider bites are actually caused by something else. A study done in Southern California showed that of 182 patients hoping to have their “spider bite” treated, only 3.8% actually had spider bites. 85.7% were suffering from infections that probably didn't have to do with being bitten by anything, much less a spider.


Myth 12)  Most Spiders Just Can't Bite People Because Their Fangs Are too Small
This myth is so widespread that even knowledgeable sources, including the article mentioned in the section before this, promote it. But Rod Crawford, renowned spider expert at the Burke Museum, says otherwise. Some spiders, like crab spiders, have incredibly small fangs, and a few other types of spiders are just very, very tiny. So in those cases, the statement might be true.

Crab Spider
Crab Spider

On the other hand, there are documented cases of bites from spiders as small as 3 millimeters across. That's pretty tiny, and most of the spiders you've ever seen are sure to be bigger than that. Of course, those tiny spider bites didn't cause any ill effects.


Myth 11)  Spiders Are Easily Identifiable Just by Looking
Another note from Rod Crawford—spiders are not easy to identify. Most people assume that there are only a few species of spider in any given area and that you can easily tell them apart by looking at them. But the truth is that there are over 50,000 species of spiders in the world, and no matter where you are, probably a few hundred of those live in your local area. It can be hard enough to identify even what family a spider comes from, much less its specific species.

Black Widow
Black Widow

Even spiders with recognizable markings aren't always going to be what you think they are. When scientists classify groups of spiders, they look at their body structure. They define families based on how the eyes are arranged, how many claws they have, where the spinnerets are, and other structural details. Color patterns can vary within a species and multiple species can have approximately the same coloring. For example, a black widow isn't the only spider to have a red hourglass on its back, and a brown recluse isn't the only one to have a violin shape. Trying to identify a spider by looking is a bit like trying to identify the make and model of a car when all you know is its color.


Myth 10)  Spider Bites Leave Two Distinct Puncture Wounds
Crawford also points out the problems with the idea that spiders always leave two puncture wounds when they bite. There is a kernel of truth to the statement because spiders do have two venom-injecting fangs and they usually bite with both. On the other hand, people usually call on this idea when they find two irritated spots on their skin close together.

Spider Bite?
Example of a Spider Bite

Most spiders' mouths are so small that there wouldn't be any noticeable difference between the bite locations, and most spiders fangs are so thin and sharp that they wouldn't leave any noticeable wound. If you have two “bites” close together, the most likely culprits are an insect that decided to bite you twice in a row, or a skin infection that's manifesting in a couple of places.





Myth 9)  You Can Save a Spider by Putting It Outside
Some people don't want to kill spiders, so they trap the spider and put it outside. They think they're doing the spider a favor by putting it out where it won't be stepped on or slapped at by the other resident humans, and it can go about its business as usual. The problem with this is that the spiders people find inside their houses usually aren't meant to live outside. Sure, they came into the house from somewhere, but usually it was a crack in the wall or a passage to some other hidden away interior space. The only way to keep these spiders out of your living space is to make sure any possible cracks in the wall are sealed, and that's pretty hard to do. Fortunately, the vast majority of indoor spiders aren't harmful.

House spider
Wall spider in the bathroom

Unfortunately, if you don't want to kill them, there isn't much to do about them once they're there. You can't put them “back” outside, because that isn't where they came from. They aren't equipped to live there, so it's just a slower way of killing them.


Myth 8)  You Can Mail a Spider in a Standard Envelope to Have It Identified
There are places that accept spiders being mailed in for identification. Monmouth College, home of the Brown Recluse Project is one of them. Of course, they strongly advise against using a standard mailing envelope. The point of sending in a spider to be identified is that you send them an intact sample. Think about how much wear and tear a normal envelope can get just going through the postal system. It gets dropped in a bin and squished together with other envelopes, and when it finally got to the spider place, you'd just probably just end up with an unidentifiable mass of spider goo. That really doesn't help the scientists who wanted to look at it.

Brown Recluse Spider Building Web
Brown Recluse Spider Building Web

Monmouth College, and other places like it, recommend putting the spider in a tightly sealed uncrushable container before mailing it. That can be something like a pill box or a film canister, and even then they recommend taping down the lid of the canister you use, just in case. Then that can be safely put into a box or a padded envelope. That way the spider should still be nicely intact when it gets there. Another important thing to note is that the spider should be dead before you send it. The US Post Office prevents people from sending live venomous spiders in the mail.


Myth 7)  Spiders Suck the Blood of Their Prey
Most people believe that spiders eat their prey by sucking out its blood, or whatever the insect equivalent is. It's another one that's so widespread that even some scientists believe it. But Rob Crawford points out that's not really what spiders do. He notes that part of the process is actually visible to anyone who wants to see how it works.

Brown Legged Spider
Brown Legged Spider

Let's assume we're talking about a spider with an orb web in someone's yard. That spider would get an insect caught in its web, then bite it and inject venom so the insect dies. The next thing the spider does is spit digestive fluid all over it so the insect starts to get partially digested and ready to eat. You could think of this as the spider equivalent of cooking its meal. The spider then chews off whatever is soft enough for it to chew, and then spits out more digestive fluid if need be. So while it's true that what the spider eats need to be soft and mostly fluid, it isn't in any way sucking out the insect's “blood.”


Myth 6)  Camel Spiders in the Middle East Attack People and Eat Their Flesh
This is another one we can all be glad isn't true. Pawnation.com looked into it and fully debunked this myth. First of all, while camel spiders are arachnids, they aren't spiders. They're actually more closely related to scorpions. Other names for them include sun spider, sun scorpion, and wind scorpion. The camel spider got its name from living in deserts where people use camels to travel, not—as some people believe—because it would leap onto a camel and lay eggs in the camel's stomach. The largest thing a camel spider might commonly attack is a rodent or a small bird.

Camel Spider
Camel Spider

They are large, ranging from three to eight inches in length, and they do move fast at top speeds of 10 miles per hour. On top of that, they are also aggressive. So people do have considerable reason to be freaked out at them. But they aren't the screaming banshee bugs people make them out to be, nor do they attack sleeping soldiers and chew off chunks of their flesh. They don't make any screaming sound, and the flesh eating idea is just impossible. The theory goes that the camel spider stuns people with powerful venom that knocks them unconscious and leaves the camel spider free to chew as much as it wants. In truth, camel spiders have no venom at all. They have to rely entirely on their physical abilities to catch their prey, which is part of what makes them so aggressive. Like most spiders, they eat their food by spitting digestive fluid, and also like most spiders, they aren't particularly interested in humans.


Myth 5)  Hedge Apples Can Be Used to Repel Spiders
Hedge apples, also known as Osage-orange fruit, are a round green fruit that comes from the Osage-orange tree. Many people will insist that hedge apples make a good repellant for insects and spiders. In this case, the credit for debunking the myth goes to Iowa State University. They had heard that places hedge apples around the foundation of a house or inside the basement would keep spiders and insects away, so they investigated.

Hedge Apple
Hedge Apple
Photo by Bruce Marlin

During the experiment, they extracted compounds from the hedge apples. When they compounds were concentrated enough, they did, in fact, work as a bug repellant. That said, the concentration found in a normal hedge apple fruit wasn't nearly enough to cause the same effect. So if you have the fruit around your house as a fall decoration, it's unlikely to have any effect on the spiders one way or the other. In fact, the juice in the fruit of the orange can be an irritant to human skin, so it's possible the fruit will be more offensive to you than it would be to them!


Myth 4)  You're Never More Than Three Feet Away from a Spider
We already covered how there are thousands of species of spiders and probably hundreds just wherever you live, but what about how many there are individually? Are they really everywhere, all the time? The myth would have you believe that there is absolutely nowhere you can go where you won't be within a few feet of a spider, except maybe if you live in a fumigated, sterilized bubble. And there is some merit to it since there are a huge number of spiders in the world, and some of them do like living in things like walls. But that doesn't mean there's always one within three feet of you.

Spider on Sexy Woman

The myth was started by an arachnologist named Norman Platnick, who in 1995 claimed, “Wherever you sit as you read these lines, a spider is probably no more than a few yards away.” The statement got shared around, warped, and rephrased until that estimate had shrunk down to a few feet instead of a few yards. Not only that, but the concentration of spiders is going to vary depending on the area. If you're sitting in the middle of a field where lots of bugs are flying around, there could be more than one spider standing within three feet of you, getting excited about all the nice little meals buzzing by. But if you're standing on the top of a building, the nearest spider might be a couple hundred feet away.


Myth 3)  All Spiders Spin Webs
A spider web is one of the most iconic images we can come up with when talking about a spider. They're intricate, fascinating, and sometimes downright beautiful. But when you take a closer look at the wide and varied world of spiders, you'll begin to notice that not all spiders build webs. In fact, not even most of them do! Webs are only one method that spiders use to catch their prey. BBC Nature lists several other categories.

Jumping Spider
Jumping Spider

Jumping spiders form the largest family of spiders, and some variation of them can be found almost anywhere in the world. As the name implies, they ambush their prey by jumping on top of it. In doing so, the spiders are capable of jumping over 50 times their own body length. Spitting spiders are found outdoors near the tropics and indoors in other parts of the world. They feed on mosquitoes, flies, and other common insects, which they trap by spitting a sticky mixture of venom and glue that immobilizes and kills their prey. Trapdoor spiders are found in various parts of Asia and live in underground burrows hidden by a cover. They do make webs, but only as tripwires to alert them when an insect walks over the cover of their shelter. When that happens, they spring out and grab the insect before it can get away.


Myth 2)  There's a Dangerous Spider That Lives Under Toilet Seats
Maybe this one has died down by now, but about a decade ago, there was all sorts of news floating around about a deadly spider that had been accidentally imported from South America. The symptoms were as terrible as they were mysterious. People were reported to unexpectedly come down with a fever, chills, and vomiting, which progressed to eventual paralysis and then death. The culprit? A bite on the bottom from the South American Blush Spider, which had gotten to them by hiding under public toilet seats. There were rumors that the spiders had accidentally been brought in on a plane, and by the time the warning emails were sent out, they had spread across the entire United States.

South American Blush Spider
South American Blush Spider

Snopes investigated it and determined the story to be very much false. For one, the original email in 1999 warning about the spider was fairly obviously a hoax. To give it an air of authority, it invoked several organizations, including the Civil Aeronautics Board, which had been dissolved in 1984. But some people believed it, and other recirculated it with slight changes to the story to make it sound even more plausible. The organizations involved were changed to ones that existed in the present day, and the spider was changed to the Two-Striped Telamonia, which is an actual spider found in Asia. Of course, the real Two-Striped Telamonia is a non-venomous spider with no toxic effect on humans.

So the whole thing was a hoax and originally a fairly obvious one, but it did cause a bit of a fright, and it does make for a good story. Probably the funniest part of the whole fake scenario is the original scientific name given for the South American Blush Spider, Arachnius gluteus, which literally means “butt spider.”


Myth 1)  Some Spiders Are Deadly (And the Worst Ones Live in Australia)
Yep, you read that right. There is no such thing as a deadly spider. That's not to say that no people have ever died from spider bites, but there are no spiders whose bites are deadly even as much as 10% of the time. And that's when the patient in untreated. Since the invention of antivenom, the number of deaths worldwide due to genuine spider bites has reached an all time low, meaning it almost never happens. When he made that claim, he received all sorts of retorts from people in Brazil and Australia reminding him that they host some of the world's deadliest spiders. So here are a few statistics.

The Sydney Funnelweb Spider is often called the world's deadliest spider, but medical information recorded in the spider's native Australia leads to a different conclusion. Since antivenom was introduced in 1980, there have been no deaths related to the Sydney Funnelweb Spider despite records of 30-40 bites every year, and 90% of cases aren't serious enough to require treatment with antivenom. In the 50 years before that, there were only 13 or 14 deaths, which amounts to less than 1% of all the people who had been bitten. Most serious spider bites in Australia come from the Redback, which is a relative of the Black Widow. A recent study tracked 56 Redback bite victims. Of those, only 37 had any kind of serious effects, and only 6 were thought to require antivenom. No one has died from a Redback bite in several decades. In fact, not a single person in Australia has died from a spider bite since 1979. The supposedly deadly spiders from Brazil yielded similar results.

Sydney Funnelweb Spider
Funnel Web Spider

So the truth is the world's deadliest spiders aren't so deadly after all. And when you consider that the worst spiders in the world haven't killed anyone in over three decades, the whole bunch can start looking just a little less scary.


Conclusion
In short, spiders are absolutely great fodder for horror movies. They look creepy, they hide in remarkably common places, and they catch their prey using all sorts of inventive methods that would be terrifying if you were a bug. It can be fun to stay up late at night in the dark scaring yourself in the dark over the things that might be lurking just around the corner. Of course, it's not so much fun if you suffer from arachnophobia and plenty of people are. But whether you're afraid of spiders for fun or whether you just can't help it, I think there's a bit of comfort to be found in this myth-busting. Spiders are creepy-crawly, and there are probably a lot of people who will never be able to get past it no matter how harmless they are. That's how phobias work. But at least we can all take comfort in the fact that the chance of a spider actually sneaking up and killing any one of us is even less likely that being struck by lightning.



 

 

 

 

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