Written by Sara-Jane Ponting (@SaraJanePonting), a self confessed arachnophile working towards invertebrate conservation and research.
Spiders in the news
Spiders. The mere mention of these creatures can send many of us into a frenzied panic, but how much of this is influenced by what we hear through the press?
Having a fear of spiders is natural, and is part of our innate survival instinct. However many innocent spiders are squashed everyday merely because their fourth cousin twice removed along the evolutionary line defended himself and happened to cause some damage.
All spiders are venomous, and all but one species carnivorous, however only a very small proportion of these are dangerous to humans. You wouldn’t think this after watching or reading the news though, a worryingly large number of articles turn out to be inaccurate, exaggerated, or just plain wrong.
The recent reports of false widow spiders (Steatoda nobilis) spreading further North in the UK has caused a mass flow of news articles, many of these unflattering.
Headings such as “I nearly lost my hand to Britain’s most poisonous spider” invoke fear and revulsion in the public, who often don’t get to hear the full story. Whether you are a fan of spiders or not, these articles certainly do not encourage the interest and fascination these creatures deserve, and many them are part of unnecessary ‘scaremongering’ used to grab attention and sell papers.
Of course, this isn’t the first time spiders have been cast the villain in the news. Numerous journalists sensationalise the danger of spiders to sell their story, and all too often this is based on inaccuracies.
“Tarantulas on the loose in Britain!”
It is not always the journalist to blame, at least not entirely. In this particular article an animal welfare inspector was quoted as wearing goggles as ‘these creatures can spit hairs which can blind you’. For those who know little about spiders, this sounds plausible and of course, scary.
Aside from the fact that some new world tarantulas throw urticating hairs from their abdomen (certainly do not ‘spit’), cases where hairs have made their way into the cornea to blind tarantula owners are incredibly rare and in the only case I have read, resulting from irresponsible husbandry. Indeed the only result of this defence I know to be true is terrifyingly itchy skin. Not to mention the connotations of an army of tarantulas getting loose, when actually it was relatively few who cannot survive in our climate for an extended period of time.
Now this may be an actual quote, a complete misinterpretation, or intentional dramatisation by the writer. Either way, this is misleading, albeit one of the less serious when compared to the deliberate fear mongering that some writers ascribe to.
As far as the false widow spider (Steatoda nobilis) is concerned, the reality is that this species is far from new or threatening. False widows have actually been resident in the UK for many years now, with the first recorded as far back as 1879 (British Arachnological Society’s Spider Recording Scheme), having recently begun to extend their range northward, possibly due to the change in climate.
So it seems pretty unreliable how the press have jumped on a supposedly ‘dangerous’ species which has actually been here for quite some time. Yes, they are Britain’s most venomous spider as deemed by the papers, but considering our wide array of harmless species, we’re not exactly on par with Australia. A lot of the so-called hospitalisations are not actually caused by spider bites at all, and those that were initiated by bites were most likely followed by a secondary infection which caused the real problem.
Luckily there are many organisations battling to get the facts through to the public. British Arachnological Society, Buglife, and some news sites have taken it upon themselves to be more objective in their presentation. So if you would like to know more about false widows, and even spiders in general, please pass on your knowledge the next time you hear some ridiculous rumour!
Sources and Further Reading
British Arachnological Society (wiki.britishspiders.org.uk)
BBC on false widows (bbc.co.uk)
“Tarantulas on the loose in Britain” (telegraph.co.uk)
Veggie Spider (bbc.co.uk)
“I nearly lost my hand to britains most poisonous spider” (dailymail.co.uk)
Featured Image by Lukas Jonaitis. Male jumping spider Evarcha arcuata. (see flickr.com for more macrophotographs of spiders and various insects)