24 March 2006

Tales of white-tails

She caught my eye as soon as I walked into the kitchen. Perfect curves; long, slender legs. Poised; athletic. Utterly motionless, yet ready to sprint in an instant. I think what attracted me also was a frisson of danger—treat her without respect and she’d bite back, hurt you.

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


Duncan said...

An interesting post Pete, the white-tail is a very common spider over here of course, but I was unaware that there was more than one species. The NZ climate must suit them, the largest I've seen would only be about 25 mm at the most, and I reckon it was a big female full of eggs. Generally they are much smaller, and as you point out they are speedy little fellows. Comforting to know that they may not be the definite cause of ulcers, but I still don't trust 'em!

Tracy Hamon said...

Gee, I'm sure I'll sleep better after reading this post! ;-)

(Good thing it's still winter here, and most of our spiders are...here in the basement of my computer room I think...oh, did something move?)

Anita Daher said...

Pete, this is a post that could give some of us the heeby-jeebies, given the subject matter. As in all your posts, however, it reads more like a love story than horror. Your passion for your subject matter is infectious! (though I'm glad there are no fast, biting spiders in my vicinity. At least, I don't think there are...)

Anonymous said...

Hi Duncan, Tracy, Anita. I have to confess that, despite my entomological training, my appreciation of most spiders is still one of respectful admiration — from a distance. My initial reaction on discovering a spider close at hand (or on hand) is not...er,... to get closer. Unlike you, Duncan, picking spiders up and putting them outside is not something I can bring myself to do easily, unless they're either small or one of the ultra-cute jumping spiders (which I love sharing the house with).

Nice to hear from you all. Sleep well!

Anonymous said...

wonderful photos of this beautiful species- I never kill spiders and always move them outdoors if I find them inside..
their webs give me heebie jeebies if I walk through them, because I'm never sure if I have a spider on my head (or elsewhere) but for the most part I find them fascinating. I'm glad you do too :)

Anonymous said...

Cindy: Yes, I have a similar reaction if I walk through a web. Totally irrational, of course, as we have no spiders that are any risk to a healthy person (our katipo, related to the black widow and Australia's redback, is strictly coastal, increasingly rare, and so unlikely to endanger anyone that an encounter should be regarded as a buzz, not a fright).

Anonymous said...

Wonderful photos, Pete. She's quite an impressive looking creature. Those forward pairs of legs look quite powerful.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Bev. These spiders have a distinctive way of moving: usually slow and careful, an exploration of what they might encounter; they use those front legs almost like antennae. When alarmed, however, they're quick. Very quick.

The youngsters are really beautiful — distinctly marked in black and white. The white markings disappear as they grow, but they always retain the putty-coloured tip of the abdomen (hence the name). If I find some hatchlings I'll try for some photos, but they're very small.

Anonymous said...

Interesting about the spiderlings having very different markings. You do see that occasionally up here too. Do you think the markings have a particular purpose -- say, to make the young spiders looks like another mature spider that predators might not bother with?

Adagio said...

Reading your account of the grey house spider's demise reminded me of a wonderful documentary I once saw. It was about the fascinating and gruesome ways in which spiders catch their prey. Of course, I was looking at magnified images, which increased the gruesome nature of the sport. And the fact that it was narrated by Vincent Price simply exaggerated this aspect further. I love to see a large spider's web, in the early morning, covered in dew, attached between two fence wires. Brilliant!

Schwelmo said...

Hi Pete! I still like the white tails on your pictures more than the ones in our house. Especially the on which fell out my underpants when I was about to put them on. In this case I wouldn't give a f** about the bite debate. I don't want it to bite me there...not even being there. You know I am a bit picky with females.
But do you know if they actually produces their own poison. I heard quite often that they take over the poisen of their pray and it is actually the daddy long legs poison which hurts you. I find it a bit hard to belief though.

Anonymous said...

Bev: If the juvenile markings do have a function, my best guess would be that it makes them less visible, i.e. it may be a form of camouflage. The banding on the legs and body breaks up the apparent outline.

Adagio: You're right — some capture methods are fascinating (e.g., the bolas spiders and net-casting spiders). Ah, Vincent Price as narrator: perfect!

Schwelmo: I don't want to think about it: getting bitten there; and certainly not your underpants {shudders}. Anyway, white-tailed spiders do have a venom of their own, but it appears not capable of causing the necrosis so often attributed to bites by these spiders. The urban legend that daddy longlegs spiders are extremely venomous but their fangs are too weak to puncture human skin is not based on any known facts. Moreover, Pholcus seems to be only rarely taken by white-tails, so it's hard to see how they'd manage to obtain enough venom; and I'm not aware that any spider does this. It seems extremely unlikely that there's any truth in the assertion that white-tails sequester Pholcus venom.

Schwelmo said...

My undies were clean, fresh from the shelf and very sexy... I heard . I just wear them to stop spiders ...anyway lets not go there

Anonymous said...

Yeah, yeah, I'll believe you, so I don't have to think about the topic. And I have absolutely no intention of going there. Nor anywhere remotely close.

See you at the Celtic next week.

Adagio said...

The Celtic? Pub? Sounds like a ready source of guinness on tap to me.

butuki said...

Browsing through my daily visit to Via Negativa I came upon your blog. All I can say is I was so delighted and excited that I had a hard time taming my desire to read everything in the first ten minutes of discovering this post about spiders. Your wonder and fascination with nature, your walks, your eye through the camera, your fairness and reflection... it's exactly what I seek in blogs. And from New Zealand no less. I've been desperately looking for people writing about the Land and how they fit in it in places other than the States (I live in Japan), not because I don't respect or love some of the sites I've found from there, but because I want a wider view of the world. So this is a gem and has given this golden day that much more shine. I'll be stopping by often.

Two weeks ago I came home from work late at night and my wife turned to me and quietly announced, "We have a visitor." I glanced arund and saw no one so I asked her what she was talking about. "She's a little shy. Likes hiding in the corners. I've seen her off and on for the past week."

She was referring to a Huntsman, with long, hairy legs as wide as an outspread hand and quick as lightning if you so much as tap your toe on the tatami mat. I haven't seen her yet, but hope that the warming spring days will coax her out of hiding. And even though I love the elegant form and will do my best to photograph her, I'm sure her speed will send the goodebumps marching up my spine.

Anonymous said...

That's very astute of you, Adagio... certain people (hi Schwelmo) also refer to it as "The Winchester" — a reference to "Shaun of the Dead". I have no idea why... ;^D

Butuki: Those are very generous comments and I'm greatly honoured. Thankyou! Not a bad blog you've got there at Laughing knees, too; like some other blogs, it makes me restless, fires up the wanderlust. I loved the very brief time I had in Japan.

isabelita said...

Swell photos of the spider. Although I don't go around picking them up or encouraging them to stroll upon my skin, I admire and respect arachnids. It strikes me as strange and awful that so many people hate them, and even worse, kill them indiscriminately. In fact, I find that people who hate them and destroy them are usually people I want nothing to do with.
A litmus test of sorts. Sad but true. A sister in law of mine once saw us looking at a wolf spider carrying her babies on its back - a sight to marvel at - common and large down in the southern part of the US. SIL yelled, and backed over it with her truck.

Anonymous said...

Nooooo!! That's awful! I understand very well the loathing many people feel for spiders, but it's quite possible to feel that way and still admire and respect them, as you say, Isabelita. I reckon the important thing is to demonstrate to kids that although you might be leery of them (the spiders, not the kids!), you still appreciate them as wonderful, fascinating animals. Actually, I think that's probably quite easy to do, as people who treat spiders as wonderful are still regarded as freaks by many people — and that gives kids a chance to be special among other kids. Mind you, I'm no psychologist, let alone when it comes to kids... but I hope I'm right.

Mary said...

Hi Pete, this is great. I tried to post a comment yesterday but Blogger or Fate wouldn't let me. And I think you are right - the phobia of and the respect for spiders can and should go hand in hand. And looking at your photographs objectively those spiders actually are beautiful.

I can now bring myself to do the glass and piece of card technique for catching them and putting them outside. Mind you, over here we don't have to deal with poisonous ones .... that's something else again.

Do you have any theories as to why so many humans have a spider phobia?

Anonymous said...

Hi Mary,
I think the usual explanation offered by (evolutionary) psychologists is that because some spiders are dangerous, arachnophobia is simply an adaptation that keeps you out of danger. It sounds plausible, but I'm not entirely convinced by it, given that few spiders are actually venomous enough to cause serious harm. Although maybe that doesn't matter? Whatever the answer, I suspect it's somewhat deeper and more complex than that. So, the short answer is no, I don't have any theories that stop me wondering about the same question.

Hmmm... now you've got me wondering. Thanks!

robin andrea said...

Pete-- Here in the states everyone thinks they've seen the brown recluse, and it's been assigned the responsibility for the necrosis of skin punctures, in places where the browns simply don't live. I've had very close encounters with black widow spiders. I had one living under my desk at work. Imagine my surprise when I bent down one day to retrieve some inter-office memo envelopes and finding a fine nest, eggs, and momma all securely attached to one. I'm a firm believer in catching spiders when they are indoors and putting them outside. Unfortunately the black widow could not be handled safely enough for me to do that. I cannot stand the thought of a spider in the bedroom. I've woken too many times with spider bites to let their presence go unchallenged. Interestingly, my husband never gets bitten, they always go after me.

Anonymous said...

RD: when I was searching for info on white-tailed spider bites I came across quite a lot of information about how brwon recluse spiders have been unfairly blamed for necrotising arachnidism. Seems to be a case of people getting a bee in their bonnet about the issue? ;^D

The New Zealand study lists many other possible causes of this sort of necrosis — so many, in fact, that it's surprising any of us survive daily life.

It's been great to see the interest in this post, and particularly the appreciation of spiders as wonderful animals.

Anonymous said...

I truly believe that fear of spiders is cultural. I'm very fearful of spiders, though like other folks commenting here, I value them and try to catch and release them outside. I was imbued with that fear by my mother. However, where snakes are concerned, my brothers countered the indoctrination and I'm not fearful of them.

I did witness instinctive fear of snakes in a dog I once had--when he was six months old, we were at a picnic where someone showed up in snakeskin boots. My dog freaked out, his hackles went up and he barked at and backed away from the guy's boots.

So my there is an element of instinct, which can be oeverridden or augmented culturally?

Anonymous said...

So my there is an element of instinct, which can be oeverridden

In English, that would read: So maybe there is an element of instinct which can be overridden...

Anonymous said...

Hmmm... you might be right, CC. Snakes don't bother me, not that I've encountered many (we have none in Aotearoa, other than an occasional sea snake or a stowaway in a shipping container). I remember years ago fielding a phone call from a woman who wanted some advice about her 8 year old son, who loved spiders and often played with them. These weren't little white-tails, either: these, as far as I could determine, were the big funnelwebs (Porrhothele). While they're not dangerous like the Sydney funnelwebs (Atrax), a bite would be pretty painful, if for no other reason than the sheer size of the fangs. However, apparently he used to get bitten frequently ("all the time," she said) but it didn't seem to bother him. Even allowing for exaggeration, I was still impressed. I suggested it wasn't a good idea for him to get bitten, as there's always the chance of an allergic reaction or infection, but I encouraged her to try not to make him afraid of spiders. If what she said was true, I can't imagine his developing an arachnophobia.

It's ok; I guessed what you meant. As well as English, I also speak gibberish ;^)

Anonymous said...

That's a beautiful spider. So... substantial looking. I like the daddy long legs too--so poisonous looking.

Interesting that this is the name of a spider. In North America (and elsewhere?)we have an arachnid called daddy long legs (or harvestman) that is not a spider.

Anonymous said...

Pamela: The cephalothorax of that daddy long-legs (that's the bit the legs are attached to) is only about the size of the head of a pin. They're all legs and not a lot else. As far as I'm aware, no one knows just how toxic or otherwise the venom is, but that hasn't stopped the urban legends, which are not based on any known facts.

Here, harvestmen, particularly the introduced european one, are also called daddy long-legs. It's also the common name for crane flies (Tipulidae). Nicely confusing

KSG said...

Pete - you write beautifully. Enuf said.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, KSG

Anonymous said...

hi pete
im quite interested in wat u wrote
hmmm do daddy long legs regulaly kill white tails???
from the Anonymous
/\ Little man!

Anonymous said...

Hey pete its Anonymous again
i caught a white tailed spider eek!
from Anonymous

Anonymous said...

Hi anonymous... sorry, I missed your comments; blogger didn't email them through as it should. Oh well, I hope a late reply's better than none.

"Regularly"? I don't know. Depends on what you mean by "regularly", I suppose. All I can say is that I've seen it several times over the years: maybe half a dozen examples? That sort of frequency. From what I've seen, Pholcus (the daddy longlegs) will try for anything unfortunate enough to encounter the web — for example, the little househopper spiders sometimes fall prey to daddy longlegs.

Hope you enjoyed the closeup look at the white-tail, then liberated it?

The local newspaper here just a few days ago published an article about white-tails. It was clearly light-hearted, but unfortunately perpetrated almost every urban myth about white-tails and added a few extra errors, just to be sure. Sigh...

Anonymous said...

Quite a unique spider indeed with sweet set of attributes considering it size.

Been bite by white tails on two occassions results in 1 bite on the inner thigh the first incident and two bites on the scalp the second time.

Both incidents occurred at night while sleeping. On both occassions I managed to swat them on my body and mame them enough to caputre and in the last occassion kill the poor thing. The two bites on scalp resulted in a localised infection and necrosis, which flared up on and off for years.

I did go to me GP the next morning and even took the culrpit along. Since the bite in 1998 I've used hydracortizone, anti-bac cream, have had liquid nitrogen freezing, surgical excession at the GP and finally this year plastic surgery in Wellington to remove the effect areas completly, which in itself is a painful process. (BTW: The bites hurt like fxxk too!)

I'm no spider hater, far from it... I had a pet female Tunnelweb when I was kid. But I have the upmost respect for the whitetail. If you've found one inside, "Capture and Release" it outside.

Anonymous said...

does anyone know what the white tailed spiders climate is.