I found an empty container and encouraged her into it, closed the lid and placed the pottle on the table. She crept up the smooth sides and settled near the lid, apparently not overly disturbed. I left her resting quietly there.
The next day I photographed her, gently, trying not to alarm her. She was quick, though. Several times I had to fence her in as she ran for the edge of the table. Mostly, however, she cooperated, remaining motionless while I composed and focused. I began to grow fond of her.
Late in the afternoon I took her outside and watched her disappear into her new home among the timbers stacked under the lean-to by the shed. It’ll be a good home for her — plenty of places to rest safely, an abundance of food. My kitchen wasn’t really suitable and she would eventually have made her way to other parts of the house. As much as I liked her, I wasn’t ready to share my bed with her or let her get into my pants. I wonder what she was thinking as she left to explore her new home? Perhaps something like, “Typical bloody male — use you then show you the door.”
I hope she wasn’t thinking that.
New Zealand has two similar-looking species of white-tailed spiders: Lampona murina, the predominant (perhaps the only) species in the North Island, and L. cylindrata, found in parts of the South Island. Both were unintentionally introduced from Australia in the 19th century.
These spiders don’t build webs; instead, they roam, seeking prey in the form of other spiders. In New Zealand, they prey particularly on the grey house spider, Badumna longinqua, but will take other spiders. Years ago I saw a white-tail kill a grey house spider. I’d noticed the grey house spider crouched in its raggedy web outside the tunnel-like retreat, and I looked closer. Inside the retreat, I saw the front of another spider; enough to see it was a white-tail. Neither spider moved. I shifted a little closer for a better view, but the movement must have alarmed the house spider. It ran back towards its retreat, only to be seized in a flash by the white-tail. The sheer speed was astonishing, but what was more remarkable was the effect on the house spider. On being grabbed and presumably bitten, it must have died instantly. I never saw it move again, from the moment the white-tail captured it.
Ironically, white-tails occasionally fall prey to other spiders. I’ve seen a common daddy long-legs wrapping an unlucky whitetail in swathes of silk; when I returned later in the day, the white-tail was nothing more than a tightly wrapped bundle.
White-tailed spiders have had a bad press, here and in Australia, being blamed for sometimes horrific injuries—putative bites ulcerating, failing to heal, and causing extensive tissue damage which occasionally leads to amputations. The medical term for these injuries is necrotising arachnidism, and media coverage, often sensationalised, has led to a folklore that white-tailed spiders are dangerous and nasty. It’s common now for any substantial infection and necrosis resulting from a minor skin puncture to be attributed to a white-tailed spider bite, regardless of whether the spider was seen biting—or even seen at all. At the local climbing gym a couple of years ago, a young woman told me how she’d had a white-tail bite which had caused nasty symptoms. She hadn’t seen a spider, nor felt the initial wound, just noticed the rapidly spreading ulceration. Apparently, it was the doctor who treated her at the hospital who told her it was a white-tailed spider bite. He also told her the spider lays its eggs under your skin. There’s a word for that sort of information.
Studies in Australia and New Zealand suggest a very different picture, concluding that bites from white-tailed spiders rarely, if ever, cause necrotic ulcers. Moreover, if you are bitten, you’re likely to notice it and probably see the spider, as bites are typically painful—sometimes severely so. By far the most common consequence (other than the pain) is an itchy, reddened lump that lasts a week or two, but in roughly half the cases, this itchiness and swelling lasts only a few days at most.
You can find a good summary about white-tailed spiders in New Zealand, including the consequences of bites, on the Landcare Research page.
Photos 1 & 2: This is her. I forgot to get her vital statistics, but she would've been about 30 mm (±5 mm) from the tip of her front legs to the end of her abdomen.
Photo 2: This is the daddy long-legs, Pholcus phalangioides.
Photos and words © 2006 Pete McGregor