Close Encounters With The 8-Legged Kind

A reflection

by Chris Hibbard

Close Encounters With the 8-Legged Kind

So for several months in 2012, I was employed part time at a local Lethbridge liquor store called Andrew Hilton Wine & Spirits. ‘Twas a very nice job, as far as standard retail work goes, with nice staff discounts, a great variety of beverages to learn about and sample, as well as fun and friendly staff to work with.  One afternoon I showed up to work, only to notice a small glass turned upside down on the counter with a piece of cardboard carefully taped to its open end. Upon closer inspection, there was a small black spider trapped inside.  After asking some co-workers about it, they informed me that some preliminary online research had shown it to be a Red Back Spider, a very poisonous arachnid native only to Australia and New Zealand.

I felt guilty about it, but I shook the glass and flipped the glass and jiggled the spider around until I could clearly see a thick red stripe running from the middle of it’s upper back all the way under it’s abdomen until it met up with a more standard red hourglass shape. The red hourglass shape is not terribly uncommon here in western Canada, as it is the standard marking and ‘warning sign’, indicative of a Black Widow spider.

According to the always-wise Wikipedia, the Black Widow spider, or Lactrodectus genus, is a member of the greater family Theridiidae, which contains 32 separate recognized species.

Black Widow spider

Their more common name, Widow Spiders, is often applied to members of the Lactrodectus genus due to their observed behaviours in which the female of some species are known to eat their male counterpart after mating.  The Black Widow’s bite is quite dangerous, for it contains a powerful neurotoxin which can cause pain, necrosis or death of tissue, and if untreated, can lead to paralysis and even death. Typically only about a centimetre in length, the female black widow has unusually large venom glands and kills its smaller prey (including birds and rodents) very quickly. The male is substantially smaller, and less dangerous. As far as Canadian spiders are concerned, the Black Widow is one of our most dangerous spiders, as its bite can kill a human if proper medical treatment is not provided within the first 3-5 days. Again, while not very large, it is instantly recognizable for the red hourglass shape which usually (but not always)  appears on either its underbelly, or the back of it’s oversized abdomen.

Meanwhile, its counterpart from Down Under, which we managed to capture in our little liquor store, is considered one of the five most dangerous spiders in the world. The Red Backed Spider, (sometimes called Redback or Red Back) is also a member of that same genus, Latrodectus.

Red Backed spider

The female is easily recognisable by her black body with a prominent red stripe on the upper side (i.e. the back) of her abdomen, that apparently sometimes, like in our particular case, links to the more familiar hourglass shape in some manner. Like the Black Widow, it contains neurotoxic venom and can be fatal to humans, particularly the most vulnerable such as children and the elderly. However, the good news, is that like in Canada, an antivenom is commercially available and is common to most hospitals and clinics, and so no deaths have been directly attributed to Redback bites for many decades.

Having always been a curious person by nature, and also about nature I should add, I took a few extra steps in my investigation of this little spider that we had trapped under glass.  The simplest explanation (which according to the law of Occam’s Razor, is usually the correct one), would be that this spider hitched a ride to Canada in a box of Australian wine, many of which our store brought in each week.

After doing my own research to confirm that this was not our standard Canadian Black Widow, I attempted to find some local Alberta spider experts or arachnologists, thinking that they might be interested in adding a dangerous Australian spider to their own academic collections. My attempts were unsuccessful. The only spider experts currently working in Alberta are in Edmonton, a 5-hour drive from where I live, and they did not return my call. Several others had recently retired, and I was unable to convince them that we had indeed captured a Red Back, nor did they seem particularly interested in assisting me in finding someone who was.

Sadly, the spider merely sat there in his glass, unable to escape, nor even to spin a web or even climb the glass sides of its prison. For several weeks, I would show it off to friends and certain customers that seemed interested, until I came to my very last day working at the store.  I had made up my mind several days earlier that in one final act as an employee of Andrew Hilton Wine & Spirits, I would put our Red Backed prisoner out of her misery. It would be unwise to let it go free, as a) it was poisonous, b) it is winter time and cold outside, and c) it was non-indigenous to Canada, and could thereby mate with other spiders and somehow disrupt our local ecosystem.

I took the spider out back behind the store, apologized to it for what was about to happen, then smashed the glass – spider and all – with a brick found lying nearby. It wiggled several of its eight legs at me as though waving goodbye, before it died and lay still. Watching it carefully for several minutes to ensure it was over, I scooped it up with a piece of paper and buried it in the soil of a nearby planter. My close encounter with a deadly Australian arachnid had come to an end.  My co-workers thought I was overly sentimental and just being silly, but I couldn’t stand the thought of it just slowly starving to death for our amusement.  If that’s being silly, then so be it.

~ by Chris Hibbard on December 26, 2012.

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