I’d intended today to post on my Arizona-themed Magic deck (mentioned here), but something happened last night that changed my mind.
Wednesday we hosted a presentation on venomous creatures of northwestern Arizona — the talk was about the A-listers with poison, such as Western diamondback and Mohave rattlesnakes, Gila monsters* and scorpions.
That night (last night), while I was watching MythBusters (a rerun but I hadn’t seen it the first time around), I noticed motion in my peripheral vision.
There was a spider crawling slowly up the wall.
Not at all unusual, actually. My apartment is hardly sealed from the elements — the screens are a little loose, and I regularly keep the door open to let some breeze in at night — so I occasionally get visitors. Whenever possible I like to trap my little guests and put them back outside, where they are quite welcome to dine on roaches, crickets and so on.
I upended the candy dish — actually the container that a Specialized cyclocomputer was sold in — and trapped the spider under it, tipped it into the canister and lidded it. Looking the spider over, though, I realized it wasn’t what I was expecting to see, a small wolf spider. It was definitely a wandering style of spider … but the cephalothorax and abdomen seemed too small in relation to the legs.
Photos after the flip, as well as the rest of the story.
Just to give you a sense of the size of this thing, here it is inside the dish I trapped it in, with a pen nearby for scale.
As you can see, it’s really small. You might surmise too that it’s a good climber — after all, it made it to about chest height on my apartment’s wall before I spotted it. It’s perching here on a plastic notch inside the container, I think because it’s the only thing the spider can really grab onto.
The spider did not go to my office in its uncovered state — I lidded it and kept it lidded when I caught it the night before, particularly after my suspicion grew to something approximating certainty.
While many webless spiders have a similar body plan, I’m familiar with the wolf and huntsman variety (and I’ve kept tarantulas), so I knew I wasn’t looking at any representative of those types. I got my cheesy magnifier out and looked closely at the spider and saw something like what you see in the following photograph. (BTW, all the images here were taken with the Nikon D50 I use at work.)
I’m not sure, but given the structure of the violin shape on the cephalothorax, as well as the faint lines radiating out to the legs, I think the darkening we see here might represent nerve clusters or bundles that centralize near the eyes and chelicerae. If I recall correctly spiders’ blood is generally transparent, so I don’t think this is a mass that represents blood vessels or a heart location. In fact I seem to recall that spiders have their hearts in their abdomens.
With the contrast enhanced slightly, it’s pretty obvious what I have here. I did some poking around online last night and came away with two things:
- About 95% certainty; and
- A pretty substantial case of either the heebies or the jeebies.**
Today I confirmed it. This is an Arizona brown spider — what in other parts of the US is called a brown recluse. It’s possessed of necrotizing venom capable of doing substantial tissue damage; in some cases amputations are required. Deaths have been reported as well. It shares, with the widow/black widow spider, the distinction of being the most poisonous arachnid in the United States.
I brought it to work today to consult our local expert; he concurs with my identification. In addition to the violin shape on the cephalothorax, distinguishing characteristics are long legs, prominent pedipalpi, tan coloration and three pairs of eyes arranged symmetrically around the forepart of the cephalothorax. (Most spiders have eight eyes, often along a centerline on the cephalothorax. The browns and recluses have only six, set in a semicircle. It was the eye count and arrangement that was the clincher for me, since the Arizona browns’ violin shape is quite indistinct under most lighting conditions.)
In addition to the identifying traits for this spider, you might take note that this specimen is missing two legs, one from either side of its body. This leads me to think it was, until fairly recently, an outdoor-dweller. While I can’t say for certain that I’ve tracked every instance of wildlife in my home, I’m fairly sure that there’s nothing inside which could take the legs off a brown spider.
Although I’m not particularly delighted to have discovered this type of spider in my home, I’m not going to kill it. At the moment it’s extremely well controlled; it’s in a plastic container with a secure lid that’s been taped in place, so it poses no threat to me or anyone else. This evening I’ll take it out into the desert, a decent distance from people’s homes, and let it go.
I just thought it was a pretty striking convergence — first my post on our wildlife, then the seminar on venomous local animals; now this.
One other thing. The carpet in my apartment is a sculptured hi-lo shag of a mottled sand-and-tan shade that would provide almost perfect camouflage for this spider — and its friends the scorpion and the solifuge. It might be time to consider asking the landlord for it to be swapped out in favor of a less-concealing color and pattern.
* These lizards are dangerous to humans if you pick them up, spend about five minutes pissing them off and then stick your finger in their mouths and ask, politely, to be bitten please. They’re slow, sluggish and not even remotely aggressive.
Anyone who has been bitten by a Gila monster probably deserves to die, just for being such a useless idiot to have successfully managed to goad the lizard to bite him in the first place. A safe assumption is that if someone has been bitten by a Gila monster, sobriety was not a factor in the event.
Unfortunately, their bites are pretty much never lethal. Hence the Survival of the Dimwittest, and Bush’s 28% approval rating.
** Or, possibly, both. I’m not afraid of spiders, particularly, but browns and widows do disturb me somewhat. One of the very few times I ever saw the late Steve Irwin get visibly nervous handling an animal was when he was showing a widow spider. Bites from these creatures can be extremely serious.
UPDATE: The release was successful. I took it into a remote area and let it go near a decent patch of low brush. It vanished against the ground cover almost instantly.
Most people I spoke to Wednesday believed I should have killed it, but I didn’t see a reason and still don’t. From the moment I’d trapped it in the secure canister its potential for danger to me or anyone else was entirely neutralized.
I learned something, too. Brown recluse spiders are delicate, apparently quite fragile, surprisingly mild-mannered — this spider was not even remotely aggressive — and they’re so small as to be translucent. I suppose that’s why they hide most of the time; they have about the same possibility of constitution and strength as a daddy-longlegs (which, by the way, does not have the most potent venom in the world, despite rumors to the contrary; its venom is barely toxic at all). I suppose the potent venom is mostly to make up for their relatively weak bodies in their natural environment as predators.
I’m much more creeped out by (venomless) solifuges, in fact, than I am by brown recluses. That’s not to say I want brown spiders around or that I don’t have respect for them; but I’m not spooked by the thought of them any more. That twenty-four hours I spent with one in reasonably close interaction turned out to be quite instructive, and I’m glad I had the opportunity to see one alive and set it free — at a good distance, of course, from anyone’s home.
That said, I should note that brown/recluse spider bites are extremely serious. If you think you’ve been bitten by a brown — or a widow — you must get medical help immediately. There’s no reason to panic, since early treatment will stop the worst effects, but the very last thing you want to do is “watch it for a few days and see what happens”.
The necrotic effects of a brown’s toxins are sufficient to kill off a lump of flesh inside your body roughly the size of a tennis ball if the bite goes untreated. Even with a delay of just a day or two, you could extend your recovery time to months or years rather than just days or weeks.
Bite reactions start with a white blister that expands in an angry, red sensitive ring that looks like a bull’s eye, and tend to happen in thinner skin areas like the webbing between fingers, or where the spider has been constricted against your skin by clothing or perhaps in bed.
Other symptoms include feelings of having the flu, stomach cramps and vomiting. If you’ve been bitten and you have any of these symptoms, get to a doctor right away. Don’t make an appointment for next week. It’ll be too late and, depending on where you were bitten, you could be in rehab while you regrow a substantial amount of muscle — or you could lose a limb.
Ask my grandmother sometime, or my boss, both of which women were very lucky to have survived bites with no lasting deleterious effects on their well-being. Or ask my dad’s tough-as-nails firefighter friend who lost a leg when he was bitten behind the knee … and ignored it.
Brown spiders all.
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