Science

Scientists Try To Discover 'Which Spider Delivers Which Bite'

OPB | Sept. 6, 2007 9:22 a.m. | Updated: July 17, 2012 1:19 a.m. | Portland, OR

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By Kristian Foden-Vencil

Oregon is home to hundreds of species of spiders. Some love hanging around the garden, others prefer the spaces between the floorboards.  But while humans and spiders have been cohabiting for millennia, apparently scientists still don’t have a good understanding of which creepy crawly delivers which bite. 

Consequently, the Oregon Poison Center kicked off a new study Thursday. Researchers want  anyone who’s been bitten by a spider – and still has the offending arachnid – to call them up and send it to them in the mail. Kristian Foden-Vencil reports.




Hobo SpiderYou know the feeling.
You’ve just slipped-on a T-shirt and there’s a tickling under your armpit.

[SOUND -– screaming]

You don’t have to be an arachnaphobe to get the chills — and do a crazy dance to get it out from under your shirt.
So usually, when people are bitten, they don’t know which species was involved. And, says Sandy Giffin, the director of the Oregon Poison Center, that can be problem.

Sandy Giffin: “Generally we get about 1,000 calls a year of spider bites and it’s always a challenge for the staff because oftentimes the person hasn’t seen the spider but makes an assumption that they have a legion and there’ve been a lot of spiders around.”

Giffin says the Poison Center gives callers instructions about treatment, but it's not always clear a spider was involved at all.

Doctor Rob Hendrickson is the spider study director.

Rob Hendrickson: “Our main concern is that there are many cases where someone was diagnosed with a spider bite, but unfortunately they had something that was much more serious. Some examples of that are lime disease and skin cancer and in fact one of the patients in 2001 who had coetaneous anthrax, was actually diagnosed with a spider bite, initially.”

Consequently, Hedrickson is conducting a one-year study to pin down, once and for all, which spiders deliver which bites.

Rob Hendrickson: “What we’re looking for people to call us, even if they feel well after they’ve been bitten by that spider. We will send them a package to put the spider in to send it to us and we will preserve it and have it identified by an expert.”
Kristian: “There is one way that you could find this all out, which is to get a spider, put it on your arm and let it bite you. Have you thought about that?”
Rob Hendrickson: “We have thought about actually, what we’re really interested in is what type of spiders are biting people in Oregon.”

Hendrickson says they’ll be looking at the black widow and the brown recluse spiders, both of which are native species. 

But of particular interest is the much-maligned hobo spider. Folklore has long held the critter as a source of ulcers and skin infections, but  Hendrickson and others aren’t even sure if it bites.

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