What Does A White Tail Spider Look Like?

White-tail spider bite

Although a white-tail spider bite can be painful and cause temporary skin irritation and inflammation, experts now say it’s very unlikely that the white-tail spider is responsible for the hard-to-treat skin ulcers and slow-healing wounds attributed to the spider over the past 30 years. It appears this particular spider’s reputation is undeserved and greatly overestimated.

Symptoms of a white-tail spider bite

A bite from a white-tail spider usually results in temporary symptoms at the site of the bite. This can include:

  • Irritation or a red mark on the skin (including visible puncture marks);
  • Pain or discomfort that is generally mild-to-moderate in severity;
  • Swelling; and
  • Itchiness (either immediately or several days later).

The average duration of symptoms tends to be around 24 hours, but the time taken for symptoms to disappear can vary. Some people only experience symptoms for an hour or two, whereas others may have symptoms (such as a painful red mark on the skin) that last for up to a week.

More rarely, white-tail spider bites may cause:

  • Severe pain (in just over one-quarter of cases);
  • Nausea, vomiting, headache or feeling unwell (in around 10% of cases).

There are thought to be more than 10,000 different species of spiders in Australia. But with the exception of several highly venomous ones – like the redback spider and funnel-web spider that can cause serious illness and possibly death – most spider bites in Australia generally cause relatively minor symptoms.

Do white-tail spider bites really cause a ‘flesh-eating’ wound?

The white-tail spider has often been blamed in media reports and on social media for the development of nasty ‘flesh-eating’ skin wounds that take a long time to heal, or sometimes never completely heal. Some reports even suggest that being bitten by the white-tail spider results in wounds so severe that amputation of an affected body part is necessary. This phenomenon goes by the complicated name of ‘necrotic arachnidism’, which is another way of saying that a patch of skin dies (a process known as necrosis), possibly due to a bite from a spider (which is an arachnid).

However, spider experts now strongly question whether the white-tail spider is the guilty party in these cases of severe skin ulcers. The initial theory several decades ago was that the venom of the white-tail spider resulted in the death of skin tissues. However, later experiments have confirmed that white-tail spider venom is quite weak and does not result in the death of skin cells in laboratory tests.

Support for the innocence of white-tail spiders also comes from the largest study of its kind looking at 130 Australian cases confirmed to be caused by white-tail spiders (proven by capturing the offending spider and having it identified by a spider expert). Although all victims experienced pain and discomfort following the bite, there were no cases of skin ulcers or persistent skin wounds in any of the 130 cases.

So the good news is that – on the basis of the currently available evidence – spider bites of any kind in Australia are very unlikely to cause skin ulcers or slow-healing wounds.

What else can cause slow-healing skin wounds?

Anyone with skin wounds that don’t heal should seek medical attention and be investigated for other causes of skin ulcers and wounds. This can include problems with blood circulation, skin ulcers due to diabetes, secondary infections with bacteria, fungi or viruses, drug reactions, burns (especially chemical burns), physical injury to the skin, some inflammatory skin diseases, and some types of cancer.

How common is a bite from a white-tail spider?

Although the available evidence appears to clear white-tail spiders as the culprit when it comes to skin wounds, it seems that the general public has an unnecessarily high level of anxiety about this particular spider. In a survey of 663 calls made to the Victorian Poisons Information Centre for suspected spider bites, calls about white-tail spiders accounted for more than a quarter of all calls over the course of the year. This is unusual considering that white-tail spider bites generally cause only minor effects. Phone calls about the more dangerous redback spider accounted for almost 70% of calls.

Where do white-tail spiders live?

White-tail spiders live throughout Australia and are often found indoors, so the majority of white-tail spider bites occur indoors, particularly during warmer months (September to April). The spider is most active at night, and in the Australian study of 130 confirmed white-tail spider bites, 75% of bites occurred between 4 PM and 8 AM, primarily from spiders that were in caught up in bedding or on towels and clothing. Around a quarter of white-tail spider bites occurred on the lower arms and hands or lower legs and feet.

What should I do if I think I’ve been bitten by a white-tail spider?

It can be difficult to tell what type of spider has bitten you unless the spider has been seen at the time the bite occurs. If the spider can be safely captured in an escape-proof container, this may help later identification by an expert.

Unlike many types of spiders that look similar to each other, white-tail spiders are easier to identify because of a distinctive white spot on top of the end of their abdomen. The abdomen is also longer (almost cigar-shaped) compared to some other spiders, such as the redback spider, that have a round abdomen.

If there is a possibility that a spider bite is due to a redback spider or a funnel-web spider, you should seek immediate medical attention. Bites from these spiders can be serious and potentially deadly. You may require treatment with anti-venom (particularly for bites from a funnel-web spider).

In contrast, the venom of white-tail spiders is weak, so for bites from this and many other species of spider, temporary treatment of the symptoms may be all that is required. This can include simple remedies such as:

  • Cleaning the affected area with a disinfectant or antiseptic;
  • Applying a cold pack or ice wrapped in a towel to the bitten area;
  • Taking a pain reliever to reduce pain, inflammation and swelling – such as paracetamol (Panadol) or ibuprofen (Nurofen); or
  • Taking an antihistamine to relieve itchiness.

In the Australian study of confirmed white-tail spider bites, only 21 of the 130 patients visited an emergency department or a local doctor, and none required admission to hospital.

In the very unlikely event of skin wounds that are slow to heal after a suspected white-tail spider bite, a doctor may take a sample of tissue from the wound and conduct a full health check to look for other possible causes. Antibiotics may be necessary if the skin becomes infected with bacteria. Very occasionally, skin grafts may be used to help heal chronic skin ulcers.

See also:  What Spider Has A Violin On Its Back?

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Last Reviewed: 15/07/2016

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References

1. Isbister GK, Gray MR. White-tail spider bite: a prospective study of 130 definite bites by Lampona species. Med J Aust 2003; 179 (4): 199-202.
2. White-tail spider bites – An overview of best practice. Accident Compensation Corporation Review 42 (April 2009). Available at: http://www.acc.co.nz/PRD_EXT_CSMP/groups/external_providers/documents/guide/prd_ctrb109760.pdf (accessed 11 July 2016).
3. Sutherland SK. Australian spider and insect bites (updated 23 April 2016). Available at: http://www.acc.co.nz/PRD_EXT_CSMP/groups/external_providers/documents/guide/prd_ctrb109760.pdf (accessed 11 July 2016).
4. Women’s and Children’s Hospital Adelaide. Clinical Toxinology Resource. Australian white tailed spiders. Available at: http://www.toxinology.com/about/white_tailed_spider_bites.html (accessed 11 July 2016).
5. Australian Museum. Spider facts (updated 30 October 2015). Available at: http://australianmuseum.net.au/spider-facts (accessed 11 July 2016).
6. Australian Museum. White-tailed spider (updated 30 October 2015). Available at: http://australianmuseum.net.au/white-tailed-spider (accessed 12 July 2016).
7. Braitberg G & Segal L. Spider bites – Assessment and management. Australian Family Physician 2009; 38: 862-867.
8. Tibballs J. Spider bites – An update on management. Medicine Today 2004; 5: 27-32.

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The biting truth about white-tailed spiders

White-tails are blamed for lots of nasty symptoms, and have developed something of a bad reputation, but is it deserved? Bug expert Phil Sirvid sorts fact from fiction.

White-tailed spider. Te Papa

How painful is a white-tail bite?

A study of 130 verified white-tail bites from Australia found they were always very painful, although the authors did not find much in the way of other effects beyond local redness and swelling. So, treat white-tails with caution because the bite will hurt, but you shouldn’t expect much in the way of other consequences beyond minor local symptoms if you look after the bite wound.

None of this stops the white-tail being blamed for a variety of conditions even when there is no proof of a spider bite at all. Examples of such misdiagnoses have been reported in the medical literature. This is not to trivialise the very real symptoms people may be suffering, but nobody is helped by blaming the wrong culprit.

How venomous are white-tails?

White-tails are blamed for a lot of nasty symptoms, particularly in relation to the skin. However, studies have shown that there is nothing in white-tail venom that’s of particular concern for humans.

It’s theoretically possible that some people might be especially sensitive to white-tail venom, but there’s no evidence that this is true for the majority of the population at large.

Secondary infections (i.e. infection present in the environment entering a wound at a later time) are sometimes blamed on white-tails, even if no spider is seen. These can happen with any skin breakage, be it a bite, graze, or sting. In some cases this may be serious, but the risk of infection can be greatly reduced by keeping skin breakages clean.

White-tails may have a potential role here in that they are capable of breaking human skin with a bite, thus creating a potential entry point for infection to enter the body. However, there is no evidence to suggest these spiders directly transmit bacteria or other pathogens in the act of biting.

But even if their venom is not dangerous, white-tails deserve respect because of how mechanically strong their bite is.

Where do white-tails come from?

Some people think white-tails are a relatively recent arrival in New Zealand, but they’ve been recorded here since the 1870s.

They come from Australia and almost certainly arrived via the trans-Tasman transport of goods and people. They can go several months without feeding so a short sea voyage to New Zealand wouldn’t be difficult.

How many species of white-tail are in New Zealand?

We have two species currently recorded here. In the North Island we have Lampona murina while in the South Island we have L. cylindrata.

While it’s entirely possible that both species have been transported over Cook Strait, I’ve yet to actually see these spiders in the ‘wrong’ island. They’ve also reached more far-flung parts of New Zealand such as the Kermadecs and I’ve seen them in the Chathams.

Both species are very similar in appearance and you’d need a good microscope to separate them. They also have quite similar habits as specialist hunters of other spiders.

Where do they live?

By day they like living in cracks and crevices, something we humans provide in abundance with our homes.

They also like living under loose bark in tree species we’ve imported from Australia.

What do white-tails eat?

White-tails are helped to prosper by the presence of two other Australian species long-established in New Zealand, the black house spider, and the grey house spider (respectively Badumna insignis and B. longinqua). As their common names suggest, these like to live around homes and white-tails are quite happy to feed on them.

These are not the only spiders they prey on, but their abundance means these two species are a frequent food source.

When and how do they hunt?

The best time to see white-tails at work is after dark. The white-tail will very slowly and carefully enter a web. It starts plucking threads, trying to entice the web’s owner to come within attack range. Once it does, the white-tail strikes hard and fast. It needs to kill such dangerous prey as quickly as it can. Forcefully deployed fangs delivering venom ensure this happens. However, if the other spider attacks first, the white-tail will end up as prey rather than predator.

The myth about white-tails and daddy long-legs

One of the enduring myths about white-tails is that they are not especially dangerous to people unless they eat daddy long-legs spiders and co-opt their venom.

See also:  What Do Granddaddy Long Leg Spiders Eat?

Daddy long-legs spider. Te Papa

The story goes that the daddy long-legs is particularly toxic to humans, but its feeble fangs means it can’t bite people. This is all – to put it mildly – complete rubbish.

We know the daddy long-legs can bite and the venom is not dangerous. Even if it was, white-tails have no ability to transform their own venom by taking on the venom of another species. It would be a neat trick if they could.

It’s also worth noting the daddy long-legs is one of the white-tail’s more formidable opponents. That’s because the daddy long-legs is incredibly attuned to what’s happening in its web. No matter how careful it is, it’s virtually impossible for the white-tail to avoid being noticed. Once detected, the daddy long-legs will rain sticky silk down on it. In no time at all, the white-tail is wrapped in silk and is being hauled up by the daddy long-legs for lunch.

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31 Comments

Thanks for the article Phil dispells alot of the information I was originally given. Can you please clarify some more for me please. Is it true that only the females are venomous and that they are only venomous during certain months of the year i.e Summer time and that they are the only spider whose exoskeleton does not grow with it and therefore has to shed its skin several times during its life. The exoskeleton comment rings true I’ve seen sometimes quite big pink fleshy type spiders. Might they have been white tails that have just lost thier exoskeleton.

I’ve copped two bites a month apart. Had swelling around eye with first one but the second one has given me extensive swelling. Was at eye clinic a couple of weeks ago and my doctor told me that they can affect the eyes. Has anyone else found this

I have just been bitten 4 hrs ago, its dam aching sore & hand stiffening up ! i am a beekeeper, wasp hunter & this is worse & much longer lasting hurt! & getting worse! Its a whitetail alright I saw it..too late! would be nice to have a few tips on treatment ! bloody hurts.

As a victim. of a white tail bite, I beg to differ on its potentiality,I’ve been bitten by redbacks, twice, a a Huntman, wasps, bees, with little effects, however, I was bitten on the shin by a white tail, I cleaned the bite area, it still swole and was extre.Ely itchy, I took an antihistamine, within eight hours my lower leg had swollen, by the next morning I couldn’t walk on it, I wss taken to Kiama .Medical Centre (NSW Aust.)
Because of my condition being so serious they tried to contact an anesthesiologist to no avail, they said that It needed it to be lanced open immediately, I I had to sign a amputation form permitting if it was required to save me, they strapped me down and proceeded, my screams were heard 3 wards away from theatre, they drained 2 litres of pussy liquid from the hole inside my leg, my heart stopped twice, for the next three weeks my leg was drained, cleaned, and packed until it had healed over.
That White Tail nearly killed me, so the assumption they are not deadly is a myth, a spider expert in Sydney told me, the danger is in the fact that The White tail is feral and does not always clean its fangs, which then transmit bacteria that infect and eat the flesh, I have heard since the same.e thing happened to others.

I have been bitten by a white tail in bed at night out the back of Henderson surrounded by bush. It has caused me no end of problems. Started off as a small painful like pimple (bright red – lump wasn’t there when I went to bed) I plastered over it and thought nothing more of it. Within 12 hours I was having to be assisted walking and spiked a fever of near 40 degrees. It left me with MRSA (hospital superbug) dead flesh and muscle and long term reactive arthritis along with a permanent scar on my right calf the size of an old 50c peice. Good or not all spiders I see now die

I think I might have been bitten by a spider – sharp pain like a needle in the back of the leg when I got into bed. Couldn’t see a spider but had about four small square bumps leading from what looked like a small red pimple and the leg was pink in the surrounding area. However I was in Lower Hutt over Christmas where an elderly man in the street was bitten by a white tail and had to spend two nights in hospital. He also mentioned an elderly relative who was bitten by a white tail and died. So maybe it has a worse effect on the elderly.

Been confused for a while about exactly what a daddy long legs is.There’s those ones in the garden that just run about and make no web and there’s those ones you find often in the laundry that make webs.Are they both daddy long legs?

I have just been told the daddy long legs “myth”! Thanks Phil! So glad I found your blog. Can’t wait to put that particular myth to rest with the person concerned

@Marina Graham if you were bitten by a spider at the beach with those symptoms its actually more likely that it was our own native Katipo. They have a potent neurotoxin and an extremely painful bite, though bites are extremely rare due to both their shy nature as a member of latrodectus (widow spiders) and due to their small populations (they’re endangered). Their primary habitat is beaches, specifically the long grasses near the beach. Its very difficult to establish which spider has bitten you from looking at the bite, hence the whole issue with people claiming spider bites for many common infections from cuts and the like.

I have also been bitten by a White Tail and had a very nasty reaction that need intravenous antibiotics to treat. It was not only extremely painful at the time but the pain lingered for at least a week and the wound that the bite left went fluro green and putrid!! I’m not saying that they effect everyone the same way but I truly believe that some people are more sensitive to the venom than others and that I am one of them so i now refuse to go anywhere near the horrible little things.

Would the author of this article be interested in submitting themselves to a scientific experiment? To be bitten by a whitetail and treat it as if it was just a general abrasion, no antihistamines, no antiseptics. I’d love to see the results

Hi Jason, I’m not sure what your point is. We have a good study of 130 genuine bite cases. From that we know the bite hurts (which is why I’m not volunteering!) and other symptoms are minor. A single new data point is unlikely to tell us much.

See also:  How Long Do Spiders Live Without Food?

I’m not sure why you would advise not looking after the wound if I was bitten for the sake of experimentation. As with any skin breakage, the potential for infection to enter the wound later is there. I suggest good wound care is wise regardless of the source of your skin breakage, be it a general abrasion, a spider bite or something else. I had a couple of general abrasions turn very nasty by not following my own advice and have the scars to prove it!

Thank you for you well written and easily understandable article. My daughter, when a teenager took a great interest in all insects including spiders and would regain me with stories of white tail spiders, as I had never heard of them before, I was very skeptical. There doesn’t seem to be much information available about them. Your article has shed some very welcome ‘light’ on the subject.

Thank you for the article but as someone who has been bitten – and have the scar on my lower leg to tell the story… I am a bit wary of them now. It hurt and became red and swollen and then infected. It took weeks of district nurse dressings and antibiotics (that did nothing) and finally it got smaller and less deep with manuka honey!

Thank you for the article but as someone who has been bitten and has the scar to tell the story – it got red; swollen and infected that took swabs/dr’s visits/ antibiotics (that did nothing) and weeks of dressings from the district nurses … manuka honey finally worked it’s magic but as I say – I have the scar left on my lower leg. Am very wary of them now.

Hi Phil
I’ve been bitten by white tails many times – usually just put betadine and bactroban on the site and have only once had a reaction I couldn’t ‘control’ with these two agents (plus occassionally a hystamine tab to assist if the reaction calls for it). I encourage ‘Daddy long legs’ in my sleepout to lessen the numbers.

I was under the impression that although their bite wasn’t particularly venemous, they are what is called a ‘dirty mouthed’ spider….much like the Australian Blue Tongued Lizzard, not having a venom that effects us, but that they can have nasty bacterium in their mouths (even necrotising)…is this NOT the case?

Is there any truth to the notion that their venom is necrotising? (Not sure I’ve used the right term there) ie there is something in the venom that acts to break down cells and prevents wounds from healing?

Hi, was just wondering if you are more likely to be bitten at night if you like your warm water bottle very much. I was bitten 3 times during sleep, the only one in the family and I think this could be the only explanation. Did not see the spider but I think it could be only that, I mean what else in New Zealand can organize you a blister overnight? Like a stage 2 burn? I might be sensitive but symptoms can be stronger and take longer to dissapear.

I thought the issue with white tail bites was the risk of serious complications.

The mason bees are doing there collecting as usual each summer. But we have noticed that at our back door we have a large colony of rather large white tails that seem to be feeding off the spiders placed by the mason bees. They are getting through a window into our daughters room by the tens. and they are never small. They look like a black and white wasp with legs! We don’t want to get bitten so will be bombing the back door soon unless you have other suggestions!
Cheers!

Thanks for this extremely interesting article. While not particularly dangerous to humans, Is it true that white-tail venom is particularly dangerous for household pets like cats and dogs? Do pet owners need to exercise caution when it comes to white tails in the home?

So in other words…… Keep all the Daddy Long-legs you have in your house to help keep the white tails at bay? Also for the last few years we’ve noticed that every year in March is when we seem to get our yearly does of White tails inside the house. Is there anything about March or is that just a coincidence? We also get them come in, in pairs .

Great article dispelling a few myths. So, if it’s not Whitetails causing those nasty wounds that are the subject of (frequent) media articles… what is it? I’m satisfied that Whitetail “venom” isn’t the problem but clearly some people have a nasty reaction to something. Any ideas?

I had been bitten by a spider on the beach in Petone right in the foot. The bite was painful as I would step on to a thick needle. The foot become numb and the pain got stronger. In a couple of hours the foot swallowed and there were obvious two little holes of the bite. My kiwi husband recognized the bite as a White tail bite and we kept watching the symptoms. I put aloe Vera for a few hours and by the next morning the edema got less. The pain lasted for three days and then the foot become itching. The skin necrosis lasted over a month.
I feel Aloe Vera helped me a lot to soothe the pain during these times.

I also appreciate this. My question is are there any special considerations for children, especially small ones? I tell people that white-tails aren’t dangerous and they say that it’s worse for kids because of small body size. From what you have just said (pain of bite issue aside) it sounds like body size has nothing to do with it, but it would be good to know if the study you mention included young children.

I was once bitten by a white-tail and it was like a bee sting, except slower: I could feel the venom creeping under my skin, which was disconcerting. But the pain and swelling went down fairly quickly, leaving me with a large bruise-like mark which disappeared after a day or so. No lasting ill effects.

This is a great article. Its really good to set the record straight about white-tailed spiders and debunk some very common myths about spiders.Thank you.

Thanks Phil. The truth will out! I can’t wait for my two daughters to get home from school so I can read this to them in an irritatingly told-you-so tone. They actually love bugs, and we once had a great time watching a whole spider’s egg sac hatch on their bedroom ceiling. But every now and then a blood-curdling scream of ‘ARRGHH – IT’S A WHITE TAIL. ’ echoes through the house.

No more excuses for not helping to collect the wood in winter.

PS If any parents out there want to turn very young arachnophobes into arachnophiles (is that a word?) I can recommend a gorgeous picture book called Sophie’s Masterpiece. The author’s name is Spinelli, I kid you not.

Sophie’s Masterpiece is gorgeous and I add my recommendation!

That was a really enjoyable and informative post Phil. I was one of those idiots who believed the daddy long-legs story. I can stop running away from them now.

Thanks for this. Lots of people are very scared of white tailed spiders so its great to get an article like this written about it. The information about the other spiders was very interesting as well.

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