This poster created by a pest control company claims to show dangerous American spiders. It is full of bad information. Half of the species on this chart don’t even occur in the USA. Please, don’t share it anymore!
Please don’t rely on this chart for meaningful information about American spiders. This chart is the result of a clever company re-purposing something they put together for Australia. Seriously; the Australian spider chart is exactly the same! And, frankly, the info isn’t all that accurate for Australians, either.
This post will address the parts of this poster that are wrong (pretty much all of it), and then suggest some resources for accurate information about American spiders.
Info that is completely wrong on the poster:
- Mouse spider: does not occur in the US. Mouse spiders are not aggressive, and often “dry bite” when disturbed. In other words, most of the time they don’t even inject venom!
- Black House Spider: does not occur in the US. Also, known to be timid and not dangerous.
- St. Andrew’s Cross Spider: Does not occur in the US. Harmless.
Info that is mostly wrong on the poster:
- Hobo spider: the species pictured does not occur in the US. We have some spiders called hobo spiders, but they are not the same species as the Australian one with a scary bite. Introduced hobo spiders in the US don’t seem to have venom as toxic as the rumors. In fact, a recent study of the introduced hobo species found they were fairly harmless.
- Brown Recluse: This is actually a complex of up to 6 different species of spider, and they do not occur in all areas of the US. There is a complex mythology about the bite of the brown recluse. Research suggests that the bite, while not pleasant, is not a pathway to nasty necrosis. A lot of other things cause necrosis of the skin, which is often blamed on a hapless spider.
- Wolf spiders: Lots of wolf spiders occur in the US, but they are of minimal medical importance. No serious medical consequences of a wolf spider bite has been reported, and their bite is not painful or toxic.
Information that is slightly right on the poster:
- Garden orb-weaving spiders do occur in the US, and are beneficial and harmless.
- Huntsman spiders: the species in the photo does not occur in the US. We have some huntsman spiders, but they are much more modestly sized than the Australian and tropical versions. Harmless unless provoked, and even then pretty harmless.
- Trap Door spiders do occur in the US, although not the species pictured. They are harmless and fascinating!
- Black Widow Spiders do have a toxic bite, and do occur in the US, but that’s about as far as the correctness goes. There are 5 different Widow species in the US, and Black Widow bites are not lethal to humans. In fact, as of 2011, there are no known reported deaths from black widow bites in the US. Black widow spider bites can cause muscle cramping and abdominal pain in some people; pregnant women and children are most at risk.
To sum up: This poster is unhelpful and mostly filled with bullshit with regards to US spiders. Don’t rely on it, and don’t share it.
How can you know what information online about spiders is good information?
Easy! Go to your local Extension website. In the United States, every single state has an Extension service (or did until state budget cuts a few years ago, anyway).
“Each U.S. state and territory has a state office at its land-grant university and a network of local or regional offices. These offices are staffed by one or more experts who provide useful, practical, and research-based information to agricultural producers, small business owners, youth, consumers, and others in communities of all sizes.”
The Extension Service is charged by the USDA and each state government with producing factual, well-researched information for consumer use. You can tell you are on an Extension website because it will be affiliated with a land-grant university, and have a .edu web address. So, for example, searching for “Nebraska fact sheet spiders” gives me this information specific to that state (and also some tips about keeping a wolf spider as a pet!).
There are amazing, free resources available to you. Use them! And look for that .edu web address. Don’t listen to stories of a friend who knows a friend who lost their Aunt Gertie to a giant toxic banana spider that was in a pack of underpants. Seek out reliable information.
Some actual helpful, authoritative resources about American spiders:
- Spiders do not bite. Some common sense about spiders from an expert. A Must Read!
- Real, peer-reviewed info about American Spiders
- Common spiders of the East Coast
- Seriously, you weren’t bitten by a brown recluse
- How to identify a Hobo spider (PDF)
- Sac spiders don’t really make webs in your scrotum.
A personal note:
I just finished a move across country. As part of this move, I had to clean out the space behind my washing machine. I was hunkered over shelves, trying to wipe things off, and when I stood up I’m fairly sure that my entire head was covered in cobwebs. I…may have let out a sound of a frequency last produced by Little Richard hitting one of his high notes.
I mention this to let you know that even bug people get the heebie jeebies around spiders sometimes. It’s ok to not like spiders as long as you remember the vast majority of spiders are your friends. You don’t have to kill them! They are valuable (and free!) pest control for your yard and garden. Unless there is something seriously wrong with your personal hygiene, spiders have no interest in living on you or in you. Try to live and let live.
Hurray! The cinematographer extraordinaire of tiny dancing spiders, Jurgen Otto, has posted a new peacock spider video! Remember, these adorable little spiders are usually less than 6mm in size.
I was going to write a post for you about peacock spiders, but it turns out that GrrlScientist already did that–so why not cruise over there and read her full story?
One of the most common phobias in the world is arachnophobia, the irrational fear of spiders. But there is one sort of spider out there that is so cute that even arachnophobes may like them.
I am talking about those diminutive jumping spiders (Family: Salticidae). Not only are these spiders very small, but they are generally colourful and they have keen eyesight — essential for stalking and quickly jumping upon their prey since they do not spin webs to ensnare insects…
But to my eyes, the most remarkable of all jumping spiders are those in the genus Maratus. Although only eight species have been formally described so far, at least 20 species are known, and all of them are found only in Australia.
Last year I wrote a post about Spider-man, and how his anatomy may not be…err, as PG as one might wish. In less than 500 words, I tried to write an entertaining post about how actual spider anatomy is not analogous to Spider-Man the superhero’s anatomy.
I did not expect to enrage Fanboys all over the internet quite as much as I did, but over all counted it as a science communication win. (I will confess to occasionally forgetting-on-purpose to hyphenate SpiderMan in this post because it makes them even madder, though. I am a bad person.)
And THEN: Scientifically Accurate Spiderman: The Video.
This video is marked as ADULT, so you might have to go to YouTube and sign in to view it. The video takes some elements of what I wrote and puts it in a blender to make a cartoon that is… interesting? Really, if you haven’t seen it, go watch it just for the sheer WTFery of it all.
I transcribed some of the more puzzling lyrics of the song here:
Vaguely Scientifically Accurate:
- “His web erupts from out his ass”: Closer to the truth than actual Spider-Man, although technically webbing would erupt from spinnerets located near his taint. Technically. In an imaginary universe where Spider-human hybrids don’t immediately DIE.
- “Four pairs of eyes”: While this isn’t true of all spiders, it is correct for most.
- “His dick falls off”: How they got from “spiders don’t have a penis like a human” to “his dick falls off multiple times, and usually ends up in someone’s food item,” I’m really not clear. As a side note, I’m impressed that the penis in the video apparently has its own, separate Spider-man costume. I always just assumed Spidey tucked left in the leotard.
Not Even Close to Scientifically Accurate:
- “It’s a science fact spiders are gay” WHUT?
- “There are 250 spiders on your skin” WHUT WHUT?
- “Spiders produce milk.” This could the most hilarious misunderstanding of transgenic goats that produce spider proteins ever. Alternately, they might be thinking of milking spiders for their venom. Which…still makes no sense, because why does ‘Scientifically Accurate Spider-Man’ have nipples?
This is a video made for humor and shock value. I see nothing wrong in this. But where did the strange “facts” in this video come from?
It turns out there’s a lot of extremely bogus spider facts online. The top result for “Fun Facts About Spiders” is this list. Two (Completely False!) examples from that site:
“A single strand of spider web has more potential energy than the bomb dropped on Nagasaki… Because spiders do not naturally exist in areas of high fusion, there is little danger to the average person.”
“The average human autopsy procedure in Chicago, IL will reveal roughly 250 small spiders living at points throughout the endocrine and circulatory systems. In New York, NY the average is upwards of 800.”
Those [BG edited: COMPLETELY FALSE FACTOIDS!] are pretty hilarious. Except.
When I posted a couple of these on Twitter (because, again, hilarious!), lots of people did not know they were false. They saw someone that looked vaguely authoritative tweet:
“Did you know that spiders with hair on them are mammals, and thus produce delicious (and unusually cold) milk?”
And they went along with it. They have all been taught that mammals have fur and produce milk, so…“Hey! Spiders are furry, aren’t they? Who knew they also had milk? Damn, I learn so much from Bug Girl! Spiders are involved in the dairy industry!”
Those of us with expertise in an area tend to forget that not everyone has the same background base of knowledge we do. FAIL on my part for not making it clear enough that those were bogus factoids, and assuming that everyone else would get the joke.
The “facts” in this video turn out to have a similar explanation. When you look at the “references” listed on the video, the list contains info from the Annual Review of Entomology, Biology Letters,….and the video creators included several of these “Fun Facts About Spiders”.
Critical Evaluation of Online Information Fail.
But this whole series of miscommunications brings up a lot of really interesting questions about the internet and science communication.
Look, no human-spider hybrid will ever really be viable. If Spidey develops book lungs, for example, he’s going to collapse and die from lack of oxygen. Spiders don’t have capillaries, veins, and arteries like we do, and a large animal–with or without red spandex compression tights–just doesn’t work very well without a circulatory system.
Who cares? It’s science fiction.
I love science fiction! I’m all about willing suspension of disbelief–IF the magic hand-wavey timey-wimey bits are clearly not real. I don’t really care that Spider-Man is not anatomically correct. I tried to connect spider anatomy with pop culture in order to get readers. I focused on the web spinning and penile aspects of Spider-Man to get readers. Sadly, very few people are going to post a technical story about spider spinnerets on Facebook. “OMG check out the cribellum on this Araneomorph spider!! Wicked Cool!”
The problem for those of us trying to communicate science online is that we forget not everyone is in on the joke. The Onion is a well known news parody site–to nerds like me on the internet. But The Onion doesn’t make it obvious to people seeing it for the first time that it’s a parody. It’s not real. But people mistake it for real news on a fairly regular basis. How do we make sure that everyone knows a joke is a joke? Without completely killing said joke because we explained it?
Part of the challenge I give myself with this blog is to try to make insects and their spineless relatives fun and interesting, and not be dry, technical and pedantic. That also means I cut some corners.
At the same time I was trying to be relevant and bring in new readers, I also was getting pushback from spider experts for oversimplifying spider pedipalps. Male spider pedipalps really are amazing sexual organs–and they really do break off during sex. Is a copulatory palp the same as a penis? Depends on who you ask.
Male spider pedipalps are modified, paired mouthparts involved in reproduction. Frankly, I’m rather sad that I didn’t think to suggest that Spider-Man’s penis would migrate up his abdomen to his chin and duplicate itself.
I don’t know how to walk that line between fun and technical accuracy perfectly–this whole blog is a performance piece. Done on the internet, with everyone watching and commenting. No pressure!
I think that the overall goal of getting more people to know something about spiders–even if it’s freaky genital factoids–balances out some of my not 100% accuracy in terms of specialized terminology.
And here is where I ask you to write the rest of the post.
How best should we deal with misinformation on the internet like fake spider “facts”?
Is not being detailed about technical science items the same/different than the fake factoids? Does it matter?
- Common Myths about Spiders
- No Follow: how to keep bogus sites from getting Google juice when you link to them
- Possibly the best evolution video ever. With not quite science facts
- Details of spider copulatory organs with no snark and just science
- Actual Research about misinformation and public perceptions of science (alas, behind a paywall)
Some tips from that publication about trying to correct misconceptions:
- Provide an explicit warning before mentioning misinformation, to ensure people are cognitively on guard and less likely to be influenced by it.
- Consider what gaps are created by your debunking and fill them with an alternative explanation.
- There’s a risk of a backfire effect when original misinformation is repeated and made more familiar.
- To avoid making people more familiar with misinformation (i.e, risking backfire effect), emphasize the facts you wish to communicate rather than the myth.
Heather is a hapless grad student that is also a bit of a klutz… and ends up infused with spider DNA. The results are far more pleasing to an entomologist than Spider-Man’s neutered and white-washed anatomy.
This? This is EXACTLY what would happen if I was bitten by a radioactive spider:
I was on a panel a few weeks ago discussing mutations, and what they can and cannot do. Spider-man was one of the topics, because the sad truth is that the Comics industry has conspired in a G-rated cover-up to hide his terrible, terrible affliction.
Spider-man’s spider webbing talent isn’t what you think it is. Sure, male spiders do have special appendages on the front of their bodies–they are really noticeable ”boxing gloves.” They actually can be up to 20% of a male spider’s body weight.
Those are not, however, what spiders shoot silk or webbing out of. These pedipalps have one function. SEX.
That white, sticky stuff Peter Parker is shooting out of his wrist? Um. Yeah.
There is a reason that people freak out when he shoots a big blop of splooge at them.
See, spiders have a very odd reproductive system. Male spiders don’t have a penis. (I don’t know if a side effect of Mr. Parker’s radioactive spider bite was his penis falling off, but that might explain his perpetual whiny attitude. Even if if he did manage to initially retain his penis, it probably broke off later during mating with Mary Jane.)
Pedipalps are modified appendages at the front of a male spider. They use these to insert sperm into a female’s body. To get the sperm out of his gonads in the rear, a male spider creates something called a “sperm web” that he limbos underneath and deposits sperm onto.
He then turns around and “loads” the sperm into his pedipalps, and sets off to find a female and hook up. Pedipalps are the spider equivalent of a turkey baster.
Don’t see the parallel? Let’s review how Mr. Parker’s “slingers” work. His arms are modified appendages at the front of his body. He has to “load them” with “fresh wet-fluid.”
NOW YOU KNOW THE TRUTH.
“But, Bug Girl!” You say. “You don’t understand the story!” Ok, let’s suppose, for your collective mental sanity, that Mr. Parker is actually shooting spider silk, not nocturnal emissions, at villains.
Is that….an improvement? I can certainly see why Spider-man would prefer to gather up the silk and dispense it from a gizmo on his arm, rather than have a little flap in the back of his leotard.
If you would like to look at male spider pedipalps in action, check out this video. The naughty part begins at 2:35 — note that it really is very much like a turkey baster in function!
Rejoice! Jürgen Otto has released a new Peacock spider video!
Male Peacock spiders (jumping spiders in the genus Maratus) have a pair of colourful abdominal flaps which they extend during courtship to attract a female. I can’t watch the two males displaying to each other and not think it’s the spider equivalent of “flipping the bird.”
“This video is about courtship, mating and male-male contest in the Australian peacock spider Maratus vespertilio. This species occurs in drier parts of southern Australia. If you are wondering about the noise at 5:07, this noise is real. The female must have hit the male so hard that the camera microphone picked it up.
The male-male contests, shown here, was only discovered during the production of this video, purely by accident. It has since been described in a paper.”
You can see more of Jurgen’s amazing work on his Flickr stream. This photo gives you a sense of the tiny scale that this drama takes place on (and the level of skill that is needed to photograph it.)
What do you do if you are textile artists in Madagascar and want to promote traditional Malagasy weaving techniques? You make a scarf and a golden cape spun from spider silk. Using half a million dollars of your own money.
The story has been making the rounds lately, but these videos about its creation were so captivating I had to post them! A team of people labored for years to capture spiders, and then persuade them to produce enough silk to weave a garment. It’s a rather mind-boggling process:
“The spiders are harnessed … held down in a delicate way,” Godley says, “so you need people to do this who are very tactile so the spiders are not harmed. So there’s a chain of about 80 people who go out every morning at four o’clock, collect spiders, we get them in by 10 o’clock. They’re in boxes, they’re numbered, and then as they get silked, about 20 minutes later, they get released back into nature.” (NPR interview)
The Madagascar Golden Orb Weaver Spider is the spider-goose that laid the golden…er, thread. It’s estimated that 1,063,000 spiders contributed silk. The color of the silk is amazing–I had no idea! The embroidery is also beautiful, with a spider motif.
This second video has more info about the history of trying to make textiles out of spider silk, footage of the apparatus they used to collect the spider silk, and some natural history information about the orb weavers.
I also scored a copy of the book Spider Silk:Evolution and 400 Million Years of Spinning, Waiting, Snagging, and Mating, so I’ll be posting a review soon.
There is a fair amount of swearing, so you might not want to play this at work. Otherwise, enjoy!
The jumping spiders have always been one of my favorite groups. Even the most hardened arachnophobe usually will admit they are kinda cute. And now there is wonderful footage of some jumping spiders gettin’ it on down under. (In Australia, you pervs!)
This wonderful video of the Australian peacock spider (Maratus volans) was created by Jurgen Otto.
At 3:01, suddenly everything goes disco and FABULOUS. Dance, little dudes! Dance!
You can also see a photo set of these spiders at Flickr.
Things are rather dramatic* in my life right now, so how about a little linkage?
You know how I love Taxonomy FAIL, and Roberto finds a doosy: Exxon Photoshoppage Fail
The Bug Lady discusses poison spiders in Brazil
Lovely photo of a crab spider at Ugly Overload
Arg! I will be out of town for the Insect Fear Film Festival!
Don’t forget to pledge to blog about a woman in technology or science whom you admire on Ada Lovelace Day, 24th March 2010