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Dancing with Spiders

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When a respected friend and mentor wrote from the Philippines many years ago saying that she had lived through encounters with a tarantula and a cobra in the same week, I was in awe of her survival skills and humorous retelling of the encounters. Her bravery in allowing the tarantula to traverse her head, crawl down her chest and legs, and exit the outdoor shower in which she was standing elevated my respect for her. Putting the lid on the stew pot in which she found the cobra and carrying it outside where she released it caused me to consider her sanity.

Little did we know at the time that the tarantula was relatively harmless; believing, instead, the myths surrounding tarantulas and their supposedly deadly bites. The cobra, of course, is another story although quite fascinating.

Critter Column – Dancing with Spiders Part II

Tarantulas are found in tropical climates throughout the world including the Caribbean. There are some 800 species of tarantulas and they are also known as monkey spiders, horse spiders, bird spiders, baboon spiders, and bird-eating spiders. They are mainly nocturnal, spending daylight hours in burrows in the ground, under rocks and fallen limbs, and in tree canopies; habitat dependent, of course, upon the species.

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People living in tarantula-inhabited areas sometimes find the large, hairy spiders in their homes as have we. After catching them and repatriating them to the outdoors as they docilely allowed us to move them I remembered my friend’s letter and all the dire warnings regarding fatal tarantula bites I’ve read and heard over many years.

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There has never been a documented case of anyone anywhere dying from a tarantula bite. All tarantulas possess two formidable fangs and venom used in killing their prey, i.e., insects, other spiders, amphibians, and sometimes small birds. The purpose of the venom is to start the digestive process as it dissolves the prey’s tissues and powerful jaws crush bones and flesh.

While this venom does cause irritation and sometimes pain when a human is bitten; that human generally must provoke the tarantula. Even then, New World (western hemisphere) tarantulas often give warning when they rear up on hind legs and threaten to eject special hairs on their abdomens. These hairs are called urticating hairs and they are barbed and tipped with a mild venom. The urticating hairs are used not only in defense but also as a means of marking territory when the tarantulas rub them off along their territorial boundaries. If a human provokes a New World tarantula and finds himself with urticating hairs under his skin, or worse, in his eyes, he will experience some discomfort and, especially if the eyes are involved, a trip to the doctor will be necessary; however, a fatality is not imminent.

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The myths concerning the deadliness of tarantula bites appear to have developed many centuries ago in a small Roman farming community in Italy called Tarantum. Living in the fields there was a hairy spider that did inflict sometimes fatal bites. It is now believed that this dangerous spider was the Mediterranean Black Widow. Because both spiders were hairy they became know as tarantulas…spiders from Tarantum. As the centuries passed and people began to migrate, the myth of the deadly tarantulas accompanied them as they dispersed around the world. Many people today still call any hairy spider a tarantula although we now know that true tarantulas are only remotely related to the deadly widow spiders and other wolf spiders.

Nonetheless, the myth of the deadly tarantula continues. During the 16 th century in Italy an epidemic of allegedly deadly spider bites occurred. A popular idea promulgated at the time was that a tarantula bite caused a condition called tarantism wherein the victim became extremely fidgety and excitable before dying and that the only cure was wild, uncontrolled dancing; this being at a time when the prevailing religion forbade any form of dancing. Touted as the only cure for these fatal spider bites, a form of dance evolved known today as the Tarantella. While dancing was forbidden by the church, dancing the Tarantella was apparently accepted by the powers in the church as a medicinal cure rather than a sin. In a time when having fun, taking a break from the back-breaking field work and the drudgery of maintaining a home, and separation of the sexes except for purposes of procreation it’s no wonder there was an epidemic of fatal spider bites.

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Next month’s column will provide further information on some of the species of true tarantulas found in the Caribbean. In the meantime, should you see a large, hairy spider, appreciate it and don’t fear it. If it’s in your home carefully nudge it out the door with a broom. You won’t have to learn a new dance step and you’ll be doing the environment a favor since the tarantulas are another of Mother Nature’s bug controllers.

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Becky Bauer is a scuba instructor and award-winning journalist covering the marine environment in the Caribbean. She is a contributing photographer to NOAA.

So Caribbean you can almost taste the rum...

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