What Eats White Tailed Spiders?

You probably have them in your bedroom. But they’re not the flesh-eating monsters you think they are

White-tailed spiders may be Australia’s most misunderstood animals, caught in a tangled web of myth and hysteria. We take a closer look.

February 5, 2019

You’d be forgiven for believing Australia’s white-tailed spider is a flesh-eating monster, such is the (rotting) tissue of lies it’s been caught in.

Its bad reputation was amplified last year when a western Victorian man, who had his legs amputated after developing a supurating wound, blamed the spider. Months later, doctors pointed to the arachnid when a Melbourne woman almost lost her toe.

For decades, similar news articles have taught us that one quick bite from the spider, commonly found hidden in the nooks and crannies of our homes, can lead to the victim losing a limb.

The truth is that’s nothing more than tall tales, with experts proving long ago that white-tailed spiders are about as harmful as bees (for those not allergic to bees) and recent studies indicating that something else is to blame for the flesh-eating wounds.

But this doesn’t make white-tailed spiders any less interesting. They are complex creatures, from the tops of their hairy pincers to the dab of camouflage white on their «tails».

Let’s take a look under the microscope.

So where do you find these spiders?

This won’t come as good news to arachnophobes: white tails love to lurk in our homes as we sleep.

Largely nocturnal, they prefer warm and dry climates, making our houses their perfect residences. They enjoy being outdoors too, under tree bark, mulch, leaves, rocks or logs – but one of their favourite spots is our bedrooms. They are more likely than other spiders to be found where we sleep, with experts believing this could be due to the increased heat from our bodies.

Mating can be a dangerous game for male white-tailed spiders. If they approach it the wrong way, they could end up as their interest’s dinner.

Males approach females from the front and wait until they get a signal that she accepts. If they don’t wait, the female can pounce.

If mating is successful, eggs begin to hatch in spring and peak in summer. You’re more likely to see white tails in the warmer months as cold air immobilises them, with many dying in winter – most don’t make it through a year.

And while white tails might not be deadly to humans, they certainly use a clever trick to lure black house spiders to their deaths. As web spinners, black house spiders can’t see very well, with their sight undeveloped beyond sensing night and day.

White tails play this to their advantage, using their legs to “strum” black house spiders’ webs, mimicking the movements of their prey. When the house spider runs blindly towards what it thinks is its dinner, the white tail pounces.

Another myth about white tails is that they eat daddy long legs spiders and co-opt their venom. You might have been told daddy long legs venom is toxic to humans – only they can’t bite people, due to their long legs and feeble fangs.

Also, daddy-long-legs are more likely to eat white tails.

But white tails also enjoy eating their own species. This is simply because they can’t tell they belong to the same spider family. To them, another spider is just another food source.

So why are white tails blamed for flesh-eating diseases?

The first lies spun about the white-tailed spider were in the early 1980s when they were named as the so-called mystery spider responsible for a spate of necrotic lesions, or flesh-eating ulcers, in southern Australia.

It seems our collective fear of spiders has led to mistaken identity – victims and sections of the medical community still assume that white tails are to blame for these conditions.

The myth was first busted in a 2003 landmark study of 130 white-tailed spider bites, where an expert had caught and identified the spider afterwards. The study found that not one white tail had caused an ulcer or infection.

Experts Geoffrey Isbister and Michael Gray concluded that white tail bites caused only mild pain in most cases or a painful, itchy red lesion in almost half.

Fewer than one-third of cases involved severe pain (which is classified as greater than or the equivalent to a bee sting).

Another study a year later investigated nine patients whose ulcers had been blamed on white tails or other spiders, with all found to have been misdiagnosed.

What do you do if you’re bitten?

We spoke with one person who believed she was bitten by a white tail in bed – three times across her back – in February. Her daughter, who was sleeping beside her, was bitten under the arm. She says at first it felt like a mosquito bite, but «it’s itchy and then if you scratch it, it feels a bit like a nettle sting».

Most bites require no treatment, but victims can clean the area and apply an ice-pack to reduce swelling if needed.

Panadol can be taken to reduce pain if necessary and tetanus shots should be up to date, as with any bite or wound.

What does cause flesh-eating ulcers?

It is believed many of the cases attributed to white tails are in fact Buruli ulcers.

The gruesome open sores are caused by a bacterium called Mycobacterium ulcerans. Scientists are now investigating whether it is spread by mosquitoes and possums.

If left untreated, these ulcers can cause extreme pain as the bacteria corrodes skin and capillaries, all the while releasing a toxin that suppresses the immune system and leads to gangrene. Some extreme cases have led to limb amputation.

Health experts have sounded the alarm as the number of cases continues to grow without evidence of how it’s being spread.

Data from Victoria’s Department of Health and Human Services shows there were 339 cases of the ulcer in the state in 2018, up from 65 in 2013. Incidences are also spreading geographically from the Mornington and Bellarine peninsulas.

A $3 million state- and federal-funded research project is looking for answers.

So, Australia, it’s time to stop blaming our white-tailed little friends.

Thanks to Ken Walker, senior curator of entomology at Museums Victoria; Dr Robert Raven at Queensland Museum; and Associate Professor Bill Nimorakiotakis at Epworth Hospital.

www.smh.com.au

White-tailed spiders: Your questions answered

A recent blog about white-tailed spiders by spider expert Phil Sirvid prompted a flood of questions from our readers. Phil answers some of these and attempts to alleviate your fears.

White-tailed spider , 2004. CSIRO. Photo by David McClenaghan via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA Gen 3.0

Dirty mouths

Question: I was under the impression that although their bite wasn’t particularly venomous, 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? Joanne.

Answer: While we can never say never, Joanne, there doesn’t seem to be anything to suggest that it’s normal for these spiders to do that. It’s also worth remembering we all have plenty of bacteria on the skin and some of these can cause problems if they enter wounds.

See also:  How To Find A Spider In Your House?

Necrotising venom

Question: 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? Holly.

Answer: The answer is no. Most people bitten by one of these spiders will find it annoying and painful but that’s about it. In theory it’s possible that some people might be more sensitive to white-tail venom. However, there is nothing to suggest necrosis is one of the more extreme responses. Even if some individuals might have unexpectedly strong reactions, the Australian study of 130 verified bites suggests these spiders are not going to cause serious problems for the population at large.

Bites and children

Question: 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. Kate.

Answer: To answer the second part first, the study recorded 25 individuals as under 15 years old. In this case, there doesn’t seem to be any particular reason to worry more about children, although perhaps a young child might be a bit more sensitive to pain. However, bites from particularly venomous species such as black widows and redbacks can be worse for small children or the elderly.

Complications and confusions

Question: I thought the issue with white tail bites was the risk of serious complications? Steve.

Answer: There’s no reason to believe white-tail bites are particularly prone to complications, but later infection of bites or any other wounds can potentially be an issue.

Question: So, if it’s not white-tails causing those nasty wounds that are the subject of (frequent) media articles… what is it? I’m satisfied that white-tail “venom” isn’t the problem but clearly some people have a nasty reaction to something. Any ideas? Andy.

Answer: The picture is a bit cloudy. A large part of the problem is correct diagnosis. We know of cases where white-tail bites have been assumed by doctors and it’s turned out that there was another medical explanation for what happened. Over the years I’ve seen many media accounts where white-tails are blamed even though no spider was seen. As you can imagine, this only confuses things. Many of these accounts also mention treatment for infection. However, it’s usually not clear what happened to allow infection to enter the body and each case may be very different.

One thing’s for sure though, and that’s if you see a story where a white-tail is blamed even though the bite wasn’t felt, it was almost certainly something else.

Daddy long-legs and autumn numbers

Question: Should I keep all the Daddy long-legs 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 dose 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? Jaimee.

Answer: I wonder if the spiders you’re seeing in March are males. As we head towards autumn, males of many spider species reach maturity and wander about in search of females to start the next generation with. While I know first-hand that daddy longlegs spiders can catch and eat white-tails, I can’t guarantee what effect they’ll have on your local white-tail population!

Food thieves – an unusual observation

Question: The mason bees are doing there collecting as usual each summer. But we’ve noticed that by 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 daughter’s room by the tens, and they’re 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! Gus.

Answer: I’ve never heard of this before, but given those stolen spiders from the bees are very much alive but paralysed, I’m sure white-tails will find them to be quite tasty. Even better for the white-tail, unlike their normal prey, these spiders can’t even fight back. I’m quite astounded to hear you are seeing so many white-tails though. If they’re coming in via a window, have you considered some sort of mesh if you want to keep it open?

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10 Comments

I’m really interested in the white tail spider, mostly because i’ve had several bites. I know they are spider bites because there are 2 distinct puncture marks each time.

Have you any pictures of white tail spider bites? I’ve tried taking some, but too awkward!!

In the space of 3 months I had 5 of these markings and twice found a dead spider nearby.

My arm and leg blew up and i used ice to cool down while scratching feverishly, this lasted almost 2 weeks. My boss said I should be at A and E, and I hoped like mad I wouldn’t be accompanying my daughter down the aisle with all this going on.

That was a few years ago, now living rurally I think I’m attracting them lol, thanks to those familiar markings and that burning, scratching sensation. I believe I’m growing an affinity for them so glad to hear they’re not gonna kill me

Do whitetail spiders live on their own or in colonies.

I have a large spider that looks like a white tail but without the white bit
It’s the size of a fifty cent piece
Can I send a pic ?

As a pest control technician, I get called to a lot of White tailed spider bites. Some are really nasty. The funny thing is that I’ve worked around them for over decade and never had a problem with them myself. They are fast and do seem aggressive too but touch wood I have had no problems yet.

Great Q and A – thanks for that. I think my reaction to white tails is so violent (kill on sight) because of the way they are so overtly aggressive in their manner. Most spiders will run away if they see any human coming towards them, especially when they’re holding something to squash them with. I find that white tails, even tiny ones, tend to come towards you with their fighting form on. I know this must be inbuilt but it’s somewhat off putting!

Thank you for all the interesting information about white tails.

Thanks Phil, this has been revelatory and I am starting to feel quite guilty of my fear of white tails. However, one thing I need to clarify (that I’ve been told by my husband who happily kills white tails because he believes himself to be protecting native spiders), do white tails kill native spiders?

They most often eat the black or grey house spiders (Badmuna spp.) and like the white-tail, these are also Australian. These two house spider species (especially the grey house spider) are likely to be the commonest species seen on most house exteriors. However, I’ve seen them hunting native species too, so your husband is correct.

See also:  What Do Spider Bites Look Like On Your Skin?

While Australia has been called a land running in venom, we in NZ have no poisonous spiders, no snakes, no scorpions. You could walk barefoot anywhere but for the broken glass. But because we arent familiar with nasty biting creatures we are frightened of them. There is a kind of national arachnophobia that lends credence to the misinformation about the white tailed spider.

We actually have one native venomous spider, Ginger, and that’s the katipo. Most people will never see one though. Some parts of the country also have it’s Aussie cousin, the redback. It’s interesting that in the case of white tails, a lot of the unnecessary panic came from Australia. However, a lot of the research showing they’re more nuisance than dangerous has come from there too.

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Are White-Tailed Spiders Really That Dangerous?

News reports from a few years back alleged a man had both his legs amputated after being bitten by a white-tailed spider have again cast this spider in a negative light. Experts have since said amputations may have been wrongly blamed on a spider bite, and authorities now consider a bacterial infection to be responsible for the man’s injuries. Despite this, the damage to the largely harmless white-tail may have been done.

The venom from the white-tailed spider is listed as non-lethal. It has not been shown to cause necrotic ulcers, which could result in the need for amputation. And there has never been any clear evidence necrotising arachnidism – the name give to a syndrome where the skin blisters and ulcerates following spider bites – has been seen in Australia.

There is currently no clinical test to determine if you have been bitten by a spider. And there is no blood or swab test that can be performed to positively identify what spider it is if a bite is suspected. Whether it is a bite from a spider or another insect, the management is the same – most will get better without any medical treatment.

Spiders in Australia

The majority of spiders in Australia are voracious predators of insects. For the most part, they play a useful role in lowering insect numbers.

The venom transmitted through bites of some Australian spiders can cause harm to humans and even be life-threatening. The better known of these are the redback spider (Latrodectus hasselti), and the funnel-web spiders (genera Atrax and Hadronyche). Antivenom is available for both spiders.

Redback spider venom can cause a lot of pain. Advice would be to go to hospital if pain lasts for longer than a few hours and simple pain relief is not helping. Funnel-web spider venom can cause local swelling in addition to increasing heartbeat, salivation, muscle spasms and respiratory distress (trouble breathing).

Without appropriate first aid, quick access to hospital and antivenom, these bites can be lethal. For the “big black hairy” funnel-webs, appropriate first aid needs to be applied and it is advisable to call 000.

The redback spider is considered one of the most venomous to humans in Australia. [Image: graibeard/Flickr, graibeard/Flickr]

Other spiders that have concerning bites include the trapdoor, whistling, sac, ground, orb and huntsman spiders. These may cause milder symptoms such as headache, swelling and pain, which does not last for a long time.

The white-tailed spider

White-tailed spiders (Lampona sp.) can be recognised by their cylindrical body shape and a white or grey spot on the end of their abdomen. They are found in eastern and most southern areas of Australia and New Zealand.

These spiders are active hunters, preying on other types of spiders and insects. They may transiently roam inside houses, especially in warmer weather, where they may be found in bedding or clothing that has been left on the floor.

One study of over 70 spider bite cases in which white-tailed spiders were identified showed patients experienced only a mild localised reaction, such as swelling, local pain or headache. To date clinical research has not been able to associate tissue loss with the venom of these spider bites.

Flesh-eating bacteria

The man at the centre of the recent story linking amputations to a white-tail spider bite was said to have a “flesh eating” infection. But there is a very low probability of an association between spiders and necrotisisng fasciitis (commonly known as flesh-eating disease).

Of course, any injury that causes a break in our skin leaves the capacity for bacteria to enter our body. Therefore be sure to keep an injury area clean. Questions have been raised as to the possibility of a spider introducing infections, but again, despite it being theoretically possible, it is unlikely.

Contributing factors to infection are if people have conditions such as diabetes or take medications, such as steroids like prednisolone, that lessen the body’s ability to fight infection.

How to prevent spider bite

  • Leave them alone
  • wear gloves if gardening
  • humanely remove spiders from your home and limit hiding spaces where possible inside the home
  • knock out shoes before putting them on; these are nice quiet homes for spiders.

For first aid after a spider bite, please see the Australian guidelines. Many bites don’t result in envenoming and death is very rare, so it is important to remain calm. But seek medical attention if there are concerning symptoms such as those described above: difficulty breathing, increased heartbeat and pain lasting longer than an hour.

This article was originally published on The Conversation and has been updated since its original publication.

Comments

How to prevent spider bite
*Leave them alone
*Leave them alone
*Leave them alone
*Leave them alone
*Just leave them the fuck alone a’ight.

Want fewer bugs in your house? Leave the spiders alone. They are nature’s pest control.

How to prevent spider bite
*Mortein
*Mortein
*Mortein
*Mortein
*Just keep spraying until they explode a’ight.

How to prevent a spider bite (in order of manliness)
*pick them up with you bare hands and throw them outside
*squash them with you bare hand
*squash them with some form of utensil/tissue/shoe etc
*(not sure where this should go on the list) fry them with a spray can flamethrower
*use a bug spray
*leave them alone
*run around in circles screaming in a high pitch until they explode a’ight.

Leave them alone is the manliest. Just a little spider bro trying to be the best room mate he can.

i have two kids under 4, that option doesnt exist in my house hole UNLESS its a daddy long legs,

Heh. Your house hole =D
I have rules on which spiders can exist around the house. Redbacks and white tails are NOT on that list. I love the little jumpy spiders. They have free reign of the joint!

that’s where you were supposed to say «HOLE!? LUXURY! we grew up in the middle of a road under a sheet of newspaper and were thrashed to sleep with a broken bottle every night while our father put out his cigarettes on our bare skin»

Normally I have no problems with leaving a huntsman alone if they are inside, all others get the flick. but my hubby & daughter have both been bitten by redbacks, my daughter ended up in the hospital for several hours. A couple of years ago I woke one night with a really sore burning leg & you have no idea why, we got up & throw the covers back one squished spider, burning pain persisted, along with swelling, etc, I actually felt quite unwell, so made an appointment with the Dr turned out a bloody redback had bitten me. Put on Prednisolone & antihistamines tablets & if my breathing starts to become affected call an ambulance. So sometimes leaving them alone is not an option, especially when they climb into your bed. Late last year a friend’s baby was bitten on the little toe, poor little thing ended up in hospital & was nearly airlifted to Melbourne, they were not sure what bit it, possibly a whitetail given the signs & symptoms, the spider must have bit the baby in its cot.

See also:  What Do Spiders Eat UK?

nuke them from orbit.. its the only way to be sure

I have a theory as to how a white tail spider may possibly cause necrotising arachnidism but only under certain conditions.

When I lived in Tasmania in the 80’s I once squashed a white tailed spider, within a few seconds an extremely long and thin worm (compared to the spider) started wriggling out of the spider’s abdomen, I recall it was around 2 inches long which was probably 3-4 times the length of the spider. I have later discovered these are called gordian worms or horse hair worms.

What if the existence of this parasitic worm within a host spider is somehow related to what seems to be sporadic reported cases of necrotising arachnidism from white tails? Perhaps there is something additional in either the venom or saliva (do spiders even have saliva?) that is only present when hosting this worm?

Would like to discuss this further with Ronelle and Bill if possible to see if it holds water.

Edit: Not sure why my previous message was so slow in being moderated but am posting it again without the link to see if that helps.

Dude, go get a job at CSIRO. I think you’re onto something.
https://jobs.csiro.au/viewalljobs/

They do have saliva. They use it to liquify their meal as they can’t chew only drink.

Way to give me nightmares!

I was bitten by a whitetail once and ever since I have had eczema like rash on it. My ugly foot I like to call it.

Gordian worms parasitize lots of spiders, so you would expect the same effect to be attributed to spiders in general rather than a specific genus if they were responsible.

We eat on average 9 spiders in our lifetime while sleeping.
So just eat ’em a’ight.

As an FYI, that’s rubbish. It was a stat totally made up just to show how easily bullshit can spread without proof.

If it’s on Snopes it must be true.

As someone who lives in South East Qld, I was always taught, year after year, in professional first aid refreshers that there’s an alarming coincidink between white tail bites and necrotising fasciitis.
They did say that they weren’t sure whether the spider itself was responsible or whether it was bacteria from the rotting leaf matter where the spiders live getting in the wound; but if you get the former, watch out for the latter.
I do know at least one person who has a permanent necrotic wound they said came from a white tail bite.
As far as leaving them alone, it’s good advice, except that white tails live in mounds of rotting vegetation, so, if you are gardening, it’s kinda hard to see ’em coming. My solution? Bee-keeper suits for all trips into any part of Australia that isn’t inside your house. Even then I tend to wear one if it isn’t too hot. You get used to it.

Oh dear, all this time I didn’t realise these little dudes were the actual White Tip that everyone refers to. Been picking them up with a tissue and even bare hands to get rid of them. Ocean: 1, Darwin: 0

My nuke them all from orbit comment earlier is still valid

I have been bitten with only mild pain as a result, but I have witnessed a friend being bitten and within 3 hour he had a large necrotising wound that appeared to be beyond painful. When attending the hospital with him the duty doctor advised that this was most likely cause by bacteria either on the spider or from the location where the bite ocurred, which was a pretty dank creek (we were chasing small fish for an Oscar to eat).

He had a nasty hole in his arm for a couple of weeks which is now a bright red scar.

Unfortunately most pest exterminators play on this myth to drum up business. This particular spider hunts other household spiders. It’s a shame that it will eventually be wiped out by ignorance and greed.

Had both my grandma (then 60) and friend (20) (in separate instances some 5 years apart) be bitten on the toe by a whitetail whilst in bed. Both had identified it as a white tail, both resulted in necrosis and both after the initial wound had healed (some six months) suffered recurrence of necrotic tissues at the bite site for respectively 5 and 4 years thereafter. Ages, sex, general health, geographical location were all different yet the result was exactly the same. Anecdotal perhaps, but strong anecdotal evidence I’d suggest.

And how did they determine it was a White tail? Because the wound turned necrotic? So we know white tail bites result in necrotic wounds because necrotic wounds are the result of white tail bites?

Maybe not that strong anecdotal evidence after all.

I’ve been bitten by one of these apparently harmless cuddly little non threatening fluffballs that crawled up my trouser leg and bit me repeatedly. and I can tell you. I want them nuked from orbit as well as anyone that thinks they are misunderstood little critters. Them too.

I am a First aid instructor & officer
First thing DO NOT catch the spider unless you want to cause mass pandemonium in the ER. Always follow DRABC plan – Danger, Respond, Airway, Breathing, Circulation.
Remain calm, call 000/112, if casualty deteriorates.

Redback spider bites signs & symptoms; sharp stinging burning pain, localized redness & swelling of the area, apply ice pack 15 minutes & rest & continue to observe. Watching for additional signs & symptoms of patchy sweating, headache, nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain, muscle weakness & or spasms, breathing difficulties, ring 000/112. The ice reduces the pain & may help reduce swelling.
Precautions if the person is a child/pregnant/diabetic or has other underlying medical conditions then seek medical attention.

Funnel-Web or Mouse spider bite signs & symptoms;
Copious amounts of saliva, muscular twitching and breathing difficulty, small hairs stand on end, numbness around the mouth, copious tears, disorientation, fast pulse, markedly increased blood pressure, confusion leading to unconsciousness.
Call 000/112, DO NOT wash the bite site. If the bite is on a limb, apply an elasticised roller bandage (10–15 cm wide) over the bite site as soon as possible. Apply a further elasticised roller bandage (10–15 cm wide), starting just above the fingers or toes and moving upwards on the bitten limb as far as can be reached. Apply the bandage as tightly as possible to the limb. Immobilise the bandaged limb using splints. Keep the patient lying down and completely still (immobilised). Stay with the patient until medical aid arrives.

Other spider bites
Burning sensation, swelling, blistering & rashes, etc
Wash the injured site with soap and water, apply a cold pack to the bitten or stung area for 15 minutes and reapply if pain continues, seek medical attention if the patient develops severe symptoms.

Remeber if in doubt call an ambulance

Redbacks get an instant death sentence with an Australian Safety Boot (a.k.a. thong) or a handy brick.

All others — leave them be to help control all the other pests.

If a family member refuses to brush their teeth or go to bed due to the presence of a spider — grab a shoe box and send it outside.

No chemicals required!

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