The truth about spider bites: “Aggressive” spiders and the threat to public health

This post was written with Chris Buddle, and originally appeared on his blog Expiscor at Scilogs.com

Misinformation about spider bites is everywhere

Spiders are polarizing: people tend to be fascinated or fearful, and for some, Arachnophobia can be quite serious. However, spiders are often feared unnecessarily. They are quickly blamed for almost ALL unexplained bites or lesions!

It doesn’t help that there is an incredible amount of misinformation and fear-mongering related to spiders in the popular media and all over the internet. What’s worse, misinformation about spiders also appears in the medical literature. For example, the journal Emergency Medicine recently published an article on bites and stings that made the following claims:

“The [hobo spider] is considered aggressive and tends to bite even with only mild provocation. The clinical presentation, inclusive of systemic reactions, is similar to that of the brown recluse spider.”

This got us all riled up, and we decided to set the facts straight:

1. The hobo spider is not aggressive.

Here I am, holding an “aggressive” hobo spider. Photo S. McCann.

Exhibit A (photo, right): the allegedly aggressive hobo spider. This female hobo was minding her own business on her webuntil being rudely removed to a human hand and made to pose for photographs.

As for its supposed tendency to bite when provoked, Samantha Vibert, an arachnologist at Simon Fraser University says,

“During my PhD, I’ve studied the ecology and courtship behaviour of the hobo spider, Eratigena agrestis. This work entailed surveying dense populations of the hobo spider in the field and conducting experiments in the lab. Over the course of several years, I’ve handled hundreds of hobo spiders. I am always puzzled when I hear the hobo spider described as an “aggressive” species. Their one and only strategy when disturbed is to run away. The only mildly disturbing thing about them is the speed with which they bolt! When they feel threatened, they’ll abandon their web and make a dash for the nearest dark corner. I can only assume that their bad reputation stems from 1) a misunderstanding of their scientific name (agrestis means “of the field”, and not “aggressive”) and 2) their appearance. For people who dislike spiders, their relatively large size and long legs are not endearing. In fact, this spider is very meek and gentle but sadly misunderstood!”

2. The evidence that hobo spiders cause dermonecrotic lesions is poor and largely circumstantial.

Hobo spiders are European, but they were introduced to North America in the early 20th century and have since become established in the northwestern US and British Columbia, Canada. Hobo spiders live peacefully alongside humans in Europe, where nobody seems to be all that concerned about them. A 2001 study found no support for the hypothesis that the venom of North American hobo spiders differed from that of their European counterparts in its ability to cause necrosis. Most of the evidence tying hobo spiders to dermonecrotic lesions in medical case studies is weak and circumstantial. For example, the mere presence of this species in the house or even the neighbourhood where the supposed bite victim lived has been used to implicate hobo spiders. There only seems to be one case reported in the medical literature with reasonably incriminating evidence – the dead spider was found crushed under a pant cuff. But even in this case, the person had a pre-existing medical condition and did not seek medical attention for more than 2 months after the bite, casting doubt on whether the spider’s venom was actually responsible for necrosis.

hobo

A female hobo spider. Photo by S. McCann.

3. Spider bites are extremely rare, and often misdiagnosed.

It is disappointing to see these myths about spiders propagated among some doctors and the public, but more importantly, it is dangerous. Here is a list of some of the actual conditions that have been misdiagnosed as resulting from spider bites:

  • infections (bacterial, viral, and fungal)
  • cancers (basal cell carcinoma and lymphoma)
  • poison oak and ivy
  • burns
  • Lyme disease (resulting from tick bites)
  • vascular disorders
  • pyoderma gangrenosum

Arachnologists Robb Bennett and Rick Vetter advise doctors that,

“The criterion standard for spider-bite diagnosis should be a spider caught in the act of biting or otherwise reliably associated with a lesion (and properly identified by a qualified arachnologist). Unless this standard is met, a working diagnosis of a spider bite should not be considered. Any of the above conditions are more likely.”

In spite of there being no brown recluses in Canada, it is common to hear about people who have been diagnosed with brown recluse bites here. Most of these folks never saw a spider or felt a bite, but had their mysterious lesion diagnosed as a spider bite by their doctor, who they trust as an expert. This comic nicely sums up why the vast majority of the time, it is safe to assume that a spider did not bite you.

male_recluse_Matt_Bertone

The poor brown recluse is always getting blamed for unexplained lesions. Photo by M. Bertone, reproduced here with permission.

Even where there are brown recluse spiders, they hardly ever bite people. There was a family home in Kansas that had 2,055 brown recluse spiders collected from it over a 6-month period, and no one living in the house got bitten. Still not convinced? In Florida, medical professionals diagnosed 124 brown recluse bites over 6 years. That’s 124 people who accidentally got near enough to the alleged spiders to be bitten, while going about their everyday business (only one of them ever produced an actual brown recluse for identification). Arachnologists – we’re talking people who actively go around seeking outspiders in likely spots – found only 5 brown recluses in Florida over the same 6-year period and a total of only 70 brown recluse spiders over 100 years. The numbers simply do not add up.

Did we mention that spiders hardly ever bite people?

Sometimes spiders do bite people, and a few species are legitimately considered medically significant. In North America, black widows as well as brown recluse bites are serious and certainly may require medical attention. However, black widows in particular have an undeserved bad reputation. They are not aggressive, rarely bite, and even when they do, they often don’t inject any venom. Most news articles about black widows refer to them at least once as deadly – often in the headline. According to the American Association of Poison Control Centers, 2,246 black widow bites occurred in all of the United Stated in 2012 (that doesn’t mean they were verified as actual black widow bites, just that they got reported, so this is almost certainly an overestimate). Only 21 of these reported bites resulted in major, but non-lifethreatening, symptoms, and no one died. Compare those zero deaths with the 36,166 traffic fatalities in the US in 2012. Cars are not regularly described as deadly but perhaps they should be. It would be more reasonable to fear automobiles than black widows. Arachnophobia is of course a legitimate condition, but there really are a lot of worse things to worry about.

A black widow, photographed by S. McCann.

4. There are serious consequences of spider bite misinformation and misdiagnosis

Assuming every unknown lesion is a spider bite can prevent accurate diagnosis, and delay proper treatment. Inappropriate treatment based on the misdiagnosis may be ineffective or worse, harmful. Overzealous diagnoses of spider bites can also lead to arachnophobia and reckless, unwarranted attempts to rid homes of spiders. Unnecessary exposure to pesticides is probably much riskier than sharing your home with spiders.

In sum, we hope this post is seen as a “Public Service Announcement” (or better yet, a “Public Spider Announcement”) and that we can help dispel some myths about spiders. We should be celebrating their incredible biology and natural history, and we should look to spiders as our allies in controlling pest insects, or taking down mosquitoes.

We should look at spiders in awe, rather than in fear.

 

 

What happens when you poke, prod and pinch black widow spiders? You might be surprised…

This post originally appeared on Chris Buddle’s blog Expiscor at Scilogs.com.

BW_female

A stunning female western black widow (Photo: S. McCann)

People seem to have a particular fear mixed with fascination when it comes to venomous animals, and whenever I talk about my work with black widows I am invariably asked questions like, “have you been bitten yet?” The answer is, of course, no. Spiders almost never bite people. I’m always quick to relate that in my experience black widows are not aggressive, even when I go around poking and prodding them with my bare hands.

Replicated experimental results always carry more weight than anecdotes, however, so I am delighted to share this recent paper: Poke but dont pinch: risk assessment and venom metering in the western black widow spider, Latrodectus hesperus.

Hey look!! An actual peer-reviewed research paper about the poking, prodding, and pinching of black widows, confirming that they are reluctant to bite, even when threatened. Not only that, but the study provides some cool data suggesting that these spiders are capable of assessing risks to make decisions about how to defend themselves.

Here are the details:

David Nelson and his coauthors wanted to know if black widows change their defensive behaviour depending on the level of threat they are faced with. To find out, they used gelatin ‘fingers’ to place spiders in three different threatening situations: a ‘low threat’ attack was a single poke with one finger, a ‘medium threat’ was a series of prods simulating a more persistent attacker, and the ‘high threat’ was three a series of long pinches of the spider’s entire body between two fingers, as might be experienced if being grasped by a predator.

Microsoft Word - yanbe_19993_Figs_1_2.doc

Figure 1 from Nelson et al. 2014

They found that the spiders engaged in several distinct defensive behaviours during these experimental attacks: retracting the legs toward the body, moving (often retreating), ‘silk-flicking’ (drawing sticky silk out of the spinnerets with last pair of legs and flinging it toward the attacking finger), ‘playing dead’ (curling up into a ball), and biting.

During low-threat, single pokes, no bites occurred. Most spiders were completely non-confrontational, simply moving away, and only rarely flicking silk.  When the threat level escalated to persistent prodding, the spiders changed their defensive behaviour: roughly half of them flicked silk, some played dead, and only one spider (out of 43) attempted to bite the offending finger. Silk-flicking is much safer than biting for a black widow – she can maintain her distance while flinging sticky silk to subdue or slow down her attacker. Biting, on the other hand, requires getting up close and personal with the assailant in order to pierce it with her tiny fangs, making her much more vulnerable to injury.

BW&fly

See the red tips of this black widow’s puny fangs? It’s a lot safer for her to keep her distance in threatening situations than get close enough to use them (Photo: S. McCann)

Only when the spiders were being pinched between two fingers (with the mouthparts already positioned right up against their ‘attackers’) did biting start to become a more common, last-resort tactic: 60% of the spiders bit the fingers as a result of being squeezed for an extended period of time, delivering on average 2.7 bites each. Pinching also resulted in silk-flicking by about half of the spiders, and a few played dead.

This is all great information, but when the spiders did bite the gelatin fingers, there was no way of knowing how much venom they injected, if any at all (sometimes venomous animals deliver ‘dry’ bites). The next question the researchers wanted to answer was, do the spiders control whether and how much venom they inject when biting? In particular, they wanted to know if the amount of venom injected would vary depending on the type of threat (in this case either pinching a leg with forceps, or grasping the abdomen with gloved fingers).

For this experiment they came up with a clever method to collect the venom: a small vial with a thin membrane over the opening was presented as a target for the spiders to bite. If a spider did bite, her fangs would pierce the membrane (the number of holes would indicate how many times) and any venom she expelled would be collected in the vial so the volume could subsequently be measured.

It turned out that more than half of all bites were dry (no venom was detected in the vials). The black widows delivered more bites per target when they were pinched on a leg than on the abdomen, but more venom was released with each bite when the abdomen was pinched. Being grasped by the body is a high-risk situation for a black widow because her abdomen is unarmored and vulnerable; a strong squeeze or puncture can be deadly. Pinching a single leg, on the other hand, represents a non-life threatening attack. Spiders can autotomize (drop) their limbs and survive without significant ill effects.

The team also found evidence that the spiders delivered more venom per bite when repeated threats were spaced 5 minutes apart than 5 seconds apart. Attacks after the longer intervals might have been interpreted as coming from new assailants, each requiring a larger dose of venom than a second or third bite to the same persistent attacker.

The results all indicate that black widows have fine control over how much venom they inject when biting. First, they can decide whether or not to use venom at all. Some spiders gave dry bites, then wet bites, as well as vice versa, demonstrating that dry bites were not simply a result of running out of venom. Furthermore, they can vary the amount of venom they inject during individual bites and in response to different kinds of threats.

Both silk and venom are metabolically expensive to manufacture, so it makes sense that spiders would be selective about when and how much of these resources to deploy in defense. This study suggests that they are able to assess risks and adjust their responses accordingly, only dipping into their reserves of silk and venom as the threat level escalates towards a life-or-death situation.

What does this all mean for humans? Grabbing and pinching spiders is generally not a good idea – they might get injured and could bite defensively. This is just good sense and didn’t require a scientific study to confirm, but the new data suggest that even if a black widow does bite, she’s not necessarily going to inject any venom. It’s also important to note that in the experiments where bites did occur, the spiders always had a ‘finger’ or target placed in direct contact with their mouthparts.

An unaggressive female black widow takes a stroll across my hand. Although I never grab spiders to pick them up, coaxing them onto my hands and letting them wander around on their own steam has never been a problem. (Photo: S. McCann)

The most exciting thing this study tells us is that spiders can make decisions about how to respond to threats (which sometimes include humans) – further evidence of their incredible sophistication. Perhaps more importantly for the arachnophobic, it suggests that black widows would much rather conserve their valuable venom for use in dispatching their next meal than waste it on a human who is of no interest as prey!

Spiders in general are amazing creatures worthy of our admiration and respect. I hope that this new information about black widows might convince some that there is more about them to be fascinated by than to fear!

References and related reading:

Nelsen, D. R., Kelln, W., & Hayes, W. K. (2014). Poke but don’t pinch: risk assessment and venom metering in the western black widow spider, Latrodectus hesperusAnimal Behaviour89, 107-114. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.anbehav.2013.12.019

Vetter, R. S. (1980). Defensive behavior of the black widow spider Latrodectus hesperus (Araneae: Theridiidae). Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology7(3), 187-193. doi:10.1007/BF00299363

W. Cranshaw (2014). Western widow fact sheet: http://www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/insect/05605.html

Dinner or date?

A comparison of the vibrations transmitted by courting males and ensnared prey in two web-building spider species.

Today, I am excited to publish my first blog post about some of my own spider research! Our paper, “A meal or a male: the ‘whispers’ of black widow males do not trigger a predatory response in females”, has just been published in Frontiers in Zoology (freely available online).

This study is part of the PhD work of my friend and collaborator Samantha Vibert. In fact, we did some of the data collection and analysis for this paper during my very first semester in our lab, when I was working as an undergraduate research assistant. That was when I first began to really look closely at spiders and their incredible behaviour. My experience working with Sam that summer sparked my passion for the complexity and beauty of all of the various aspects of the private lives of spiders, which so often go unnoticed by humans.

Here is a plain-language summary of the paper, written with Samantha Vibert, and with photos by Sean McCann:

Spiders are fascinating but largely overlooked creatures, with sophisticated signalling systems involving chemical, vibratory, tactile, and in some species visual communication. A spider’s web is essentially an extension of her exquisitely tuned sensory system, allowing her to quickly detect and respond to vibrations produced by entangled prey. Not only is the web a highly effective prey-capture device, but it is also the dance floor on which prospective mates must demonstrate their desirability. The first moments after a male spider steps onto a female’s web may present a great risk, since spiders are often cannibalistic. We were interested in how a dancing male spider avoids a potentially deadly case of mistaken identity. One way that he might deal with this challenge is by transmitting vibratory signals that are very different from the vibrations produced by ensnared prey.

webs are good for this

Spider webs are highly effective prey-capture devices, so how does a courting male avoid the fate of flies like this one?

Our study species were the western black widow and the hobo spider, which are both found in British Columbia.

widow web

A western black widow (Latrodectus hesperus) hanging from her tangle-web under a log at Island View Beach on Vancouver Island.

Black widows are in the family Theridiidae, and build complex, three-dimensional tangle-webs, while hobo spiders (family Agelenidae) build dense sheet-webs. Female black widows are much larger than males, while hobo spider males and females are closer in size.

Hobo web

A hobo spider (Tegenaria agrestis) female on her sheet web at Iona Beach, in Richmond, BC.

The purpose of our study was to describe some of the vibratory courtship signals of males in these two species, and to determine which aspects of these vibrations might allow females to discriminate between prospective mates and their next meals.

First, we recorded the vibrations transmitted through the web by courting males in both species using a laser Doppler vibrometer. At the same time, we video-recorded the male’s courtship behaviour. This allowed us to describe and analyze the different kinds of vibrations that were transmitted through the web during specific behavioural elements of each male’s courtship display. We then recorded the vibrations produced by the struggles of two types of common prey insects (house flies and crickets), on both black widow and hobo spider webs.

We found that male and prey vibrations differed more in the black widow than in the hobo spider. Hobo spider male vibrations contrasted with prey vibrations only in terms of their duration – the courting male moves around almost continuously on the female’s sheet web, while prey struggles are generally brief and intermittent. Black widow male courtship vibrations were also longer than prey vibrations on tangle webs (for the same reason), but they were also distinctive based on their generally lower amplitude and higher dominant frequencies.

To our surprise, we also found that most courtship behaviours in both species did not generate the kind of very stereotyped, complex and distinctive “songs” that have been reported in several other spider species. These species tend to court on substrates like leaf litter and plants, which most likely transmit vibrations quite differently than webs. Some male orb-weavers also produce highly rhythmic patterns during their vibratory courtship displays. So our finding leads us to wonder to what extent web architecture and complexity might constrain the transmission of the male courtship signals, and therefore the design of these signals.

One very interesting exception to the rule turned out to be the vibrations generated by the male black widow’s abdomen tremulations (an up-and down waggle of the abdomen, performed as the male hangs upside down from the female’s web). These vibrations were always very distinct from anything produced by prey: they were long-lasting and of very low amplitude, like a constant humming.

Here’s a short video of a male western black widow vibrating his abdomen on a female’s web (Supplemental File 1 from Vibert et. al 2014):

To learn more about these particularly stereotyped, ‘whisper-like’ male signals, we built our own custom web vibrator by modifying a loudspeaker. We were then able to play recorded vibrations of a male’s abdomen tremulation or a fly’s struggles back to females and observe their responses. Black widow females were much less likely to respond aggressively to vibrations played back at the “whisper-like” low amplitude of male abdomen tremulation, but attacked when we turned up the volume to levels typical of prey vibrations. This was the case regardless of which type of vibration we played. So we speculate that the males vibrate their abdomens either to avoid triggering a female’s predatory response, or even to turn it off.

Is it possible that the females that didn’t attack low-amplitude vibrations simply couldn’t detect them? We don’t think so. First, spiders are specialists when it comes to detecting even faint vibrations, and second, some females actually responded with courtship behaviour: abdomen ‘twitches’ which are similar to the male’s abdominal movements, but more emphatic. These abdomen twitches undoubtedly transmit their own vibrations through the web, and it would be very exciting to further investigate the female’s side of the vibratory ‘conversation’ during courtship.

Abdomen vibration seems to be a relatively common type of courtship behaviour and has been described in several spider families (‘abdomen wagging’ in an orb-weaver, and what has recently been described as ‘twerking’ in jumping spiders are a couple of examples). If indeed the “whispers” caused by these vibrations are involved in lowering female aggression, this might explain why such behaviour is fairly common among spiders.

The orb-weaver Argiope keyserlingi’s courthip also involves abdomen vibration, but in this species another vibratory signal was recently implicated in reducing the risk of cannibalism. The ‘shuddering’ of a courting male delays the female’s predatory response. One of the common features of black widow abdomen tremulation and these ‘shudders’ is that they are the first courtship behaviour performed by males after they enter a female’s web.

widow pair

A male western black widow courting a large, potentially dangerous female. Abdomen vibration is performed on and off throughout the male’s courtship display, starting just after the male steps onto the web, and featuring prominently during attempts to approach and mount the female.

Very little is known about the kinds of vibratory courtship signals that male web-building spiders transmit to females through their webs, except for in orb-web weaving species. We hope that this new information about vibratory communication in tangle-web and sheet-web building spiders will contribute to better overall understanding of the function and evolution of web-borne vibratory courtship signals.

References:

Vibert, S., Scott, C., and Gries, G. (2014). A meal or a male: the ‘whispers’ of black widow males do not trigger a predatory response in females. Frontiers in Zoology, 11(4).  doi:10.1186/1742-9994-11-4

Wignall, A. E., & Herberstein, M. E. (2013). The Influence of Vibratory Courtship on Female Mating Behaviour in Orb-Web Spiders (Argiope keyserlingi, Karsch 1878). PloS one8(1), e53057. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0053057

Wignall, A. E., & Herberstein, M. E. (2013). Male courtship vibrations delay predatory behaviour in female spiders. Scientific reports3doi:10.1038/srep03557