They Mite be Giants

The thought of small little animals running around our face cause most people to squirm a bit. As much as I do like the small animals like spiders and beetles, if I think I feel one crawling on my face I’ll very quickly try to brush it off. It’s not them, it’s me.

Now we are going to get into the stuff that makes me squirm. There’s a great skit from Kids in the Hall about the joke of saying – “Hey, there’s a spider on your back!

In the skit, it starts out as an author writing a book called Hey, There’s a Spider on Your Back, which consist of only that line. And every time anyone reads it they think there is a spider on their back. This makes it a best seller and leads to the audio book. But there really are arachnids on your face. Right Now! There are face mites. Like all arachnids they have 8 legs. Different species of mites live in your hair follicles (Demodex folliculorum) and in your sebaceous glands (Demodex brevis), where oil comes out. And at night, after you go to sleep, they come out, mate, and lay their eggs on your face. Are you squirming now? And the next thing you’re trying very hard not to think about is what happens when they poop? Well there you can rest a little easier. They don’t excrete waste the same way we do. They hold it in till they die and then it decays in their body.

You might be wondering why we study these things. Well first off we don’t know a whole lot about them. We think we know what they eat (dead skin and oils), but we’re not sure. More importantly they can help us learn about human migration patterns. D. brevis is Asian population is genetically distinct from its American cousin. But D. folliculorum is the same in both populations.

And that’s just what’s living on the outside of us. Inside we are a fully ecosystem of predators, prey, and parasites. And they’re important to our health. Come join us on November 9 for a lecture on More than Genes: Predators, Parasites and Partners of the Human Body by Dr. Robert Dunn sponsored by the Leakey Foundation. Dr. Dunn is a biologist with the Department of Biology at North Carolina State University.

Crawlies, Un-creeped: the Truth Behind Your Arthropod Phobias

Here’s a task for you: try to rid your audience of their phobias by taking up-close photos of some of the creepiest bugs in our collection. Some are venomous, some do bite, but as usual, none of them want to hurt humans. Any bite or sting in the world of arthropods is an act of self-protection. Unless, of course, you’re prey…

Let’s start with insects. Take a look at this guy (or girl, rather).bug12

This is a female giant Asian mantis, Hierodula membranacea. With her spiny forelegs used for catching prey and her habit of devouring other bugs alive (not to mention her tiny pupils that look right at you), she seems pretty creepy. And she’s big at about five inches long and flies! But she’s not poisonous, doesn’t bite, and is practically harmless. In Asia, mantises are revered for their patience and hunting prowess, and are kept as pets. Creep factor: 4. Real danger: 0.

Now how about this big beetle?bug10

Size alone might keep you from allowing the Atlas beetle, Chalcosoma atlas, to crawl all over you, but it’s a beautiful and fascinating species. Its elytra or wing sheaths on its abdomen are incredibly strong and have a green iridescence. Its inch-long horns pose no threat to humans, but the beetle does use them to fight other beetles for mates. The front horn is attached to its head and is mobile, while the hind pair are attached to its thorax and remain still. Creep factor: 2.5. Real danger: 0.

Now let’s look at some roaches.

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I’ll be honest. These are my great phobia. Madagascar hissing cockroaches, Gromphadorhina portentosa, emit a sound when threatened, but they are harmless. In spite of their creepiness, they are some of the oldest and most vital insects on Earth, acting as a clean-up crew that will eat just about anything, turning waste into nutrients that plants can use. Roach species keep themselves immaculately clean and will not hurt you, and these ones don’t even fly. Cockrell Butterfly Center Director Nancy Greig finds these little guys cute and cuddly, and I’m trying hard to see them through her eyes. One day, Nancy. One day… Creep factor: 6.5 (according to Jason). Real danger: 0.

Check this out.bug13

The white-eyed assassin bug, Platymeris biguttatus, is the first on the list that can harm humans. It injects venomous saliva into its prey, moves quickly, and flies. They stalk other insects, pounce and bite in a flash, then suck the fluids out of their victims. Assassin bugs are true bugs in that they belong to the insect order Hemiptera and are mainly characterized by their mouthparts which are modified for piercing and sucking. Their bite is more painful than a bee sting. Pretty creepy, but what you don’t touch can’t hurt you. I’d say they’re more awesome than scary. Creep factor: 4.5. Real danger: 2.5.

As they say, go big or go home. Take a look at this!

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This strange-looking fella is a giant jungle nymph, Heteropteryx dilatata. No lie, it’s big. About eight inches of spiny legs, long antennae and small wings. When you touch its back, it fluffs its wings, emits a noise that sounds like a ratcheting wrench, and arches its abdomen like a scorpion to make itself appear larger. Here’s an example:

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While the insect is harmless, this display can be intimidating for those unfamiliar with the species. Creep factor: 4.5. Real danger: 0.

Here’s another big guy.

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This female spiny devil, Eurycantha calcarata, is less aggressive than the male of her species, which has pronounced spines on its back legs. When disturbed or seized by a predator, this seven-inch-long insect thrashes its abdomen back and forth, using its spines to injure its enemies. Since our skin is much softer than its exoskeleton, the spiny devil can inflict a nasty puncture wound without biting or stinging. Creep factor: 3.5. Real danger: 1.5.

Now let’s move on to arachnids.bug9

Boom. Burn the house down. If you’re arachnophobic, there’s nothing more frightful than the goliath bird-eater tarantula, Theraphosa blondi. This tarantula, named Birdie, is locally famous for her size — about seven inches across, much larger than the palm of your hand — and her feistiness. Like many tarantulas, when threatened, Birdie scrapes tiny barbed hairs from her abdomen which can irritate and blind the eyes of mammals and other predators. She has venomous fangs, eight legs and two pedipalps for snatching her victims. You wouldn’t want to pick her up. However, she is a beautiful specimen with her mocha-colored fluff, and her athleticism as a predator is remarkable. This girl lives up to her name and can occasionally prey on birds in the wild. And like any spider, she won’t hurt you if you don’t mess with her. Creep factor: 9. Real danger: 4.

While we’re on the subject of tarantulas…

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How about this well-fed Costa Rican curly-hair, Brachypelma albopilosum? Unlike the goliath bird-eater, the curly-hair is much more docile, but no less efficient at catching and envenomating her prey. I wouldn’t pick one up in the wild, but our entomologists handle this spider, named Peanut, on a regular basis with very little trouble. Creep factor: 8. Real danger: 2.

Last tarantula, but certainly not least… 

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You arachnophobes are probably like, jeez, how many tarantulas does the world need? This Chilean rose-hair tarantula, Grammostola rosea, is more docile than the curly-hair. In the right light, the fur on her cephalothorax glows with a red iridescence, plus she’s cute and cuddly. She still has fangs, though. Always respect the fangs. Creep factor: 7. Real danger: 2.

Now for some little guys.

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Size isn’t a factor with this famous creep-tastic black widow spider, Latrodectus mactans, but her bite is potentially deadly to humans. Symptoms of a black widow bite can include localized pain and swelling around the bite, muscle cramps, tremors, abdominal pain and vomiting. If you think you have been bitten by a black widow, seek medical treatment. The red hourglass shape on the underside of her abdomen is an advertisement for danger, but it also allows us to easily identify the spider if a bite does occur. These shiny, black arachnids hide in crevices away from humans, but can occupy places like barns and sheds and can be aggressive around their egg sacs. I’d say the danger here outweighs this spider’s creepiness. But yet again, they are good at what they do, have evolved a powerfully efficient venom, and won’t hurt you if you don’t disturb them. And she’s like a little black pearl with legs. Creep factor: 6.5. Danger: 9.

Let’s look at another small-but-deadly spider.

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The brown recluse, Loxosceles reclusa, prefers dark places to hide in, similar to the black widow, and their venom is just as formidable, though they are non-aggressive and only bite when threatened, usually when pressed up against a victim’s skin. Their venom, used to catch their prey, contains enzymes that break down skin, fat, and blood vessels in humans, leading to localized necrotic tissue if left untreated, serious medical conditions and eventually death. If bitten, seek medical attention. You can recognize a brown recluse by the violin shape on its cephalothorax, which is pretty cool if you ask me. For this reason alone, I’d call the brown recluse the classiest and most musical of spiders. Who else garbs themselves in classical instruments? Creep factor: 6. Real danger: 7. 

Finally, and most creepily, look at the adaptations on this guy!

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To my eye, whipscorpions, Mastigoproctus giganteus, are about as creepy as it gets. It’s big at around four inches in length, has eight legs and a pair of pinchers, and a whip-like tail in place of a stinger. They are carnivorous, feeding on millipedes, slugs, and even cockroaches (which makes them my friends, of course). While some species of whipscorpions can exude an acidic compound when threatened, which smells like vinegar, they are harmless to humans. Plus, look at how awesome they are! They’re like the Indiana Jones of arachnids! Creep factor: 10. Real danger: 0.

Visit the Cockrell Butterfly Center to see these creepy arthropods in action and learn more about their unique and fascinating adaptations.

#ChillsAtHMNS

 

A spider in your fruit? Unlikely, and less likely to hurt you.

This year we’ve seen a rash of negative publicity about “deadly” spiders hitchhiking in fruit from Central and South America, causing arachnophobes everywhere to, well, be super paranoid! In fact, spiders have not fared well in the media at all this year. Just check out some of these headlines:

Woman jumps from car after seeing spider, causes crash

Loose tarantula prompts Delta to call off flight

Man sets fire to gas pump trying to kill spider

So what’s the deal? Are spiders rising up against us by invading our fruit, vehicles, and homes? No. People are overreacting and the media is having a field day! We wanted to shed some light on what’s really happening and what you should do if you’re ever faced with a similar situation.

red faced banana

The redfaced banana spider, Cupiennius chiapanensis, from Central America is a harmless spider often misidentified as a potentially deadly spider from the Amazon in South America. Photo by: Rick Vetter.

Spiders hitchhiking in fruit — should we be concerned? Absolutely not; this is nothing new. Spiders and other arthropods have been accidentally hitching a ride in produce since it started being imported into the United States. Bunched fruits such as grapes and bananas make excellent hiding places for small insects and arachnids. Banana plantations, orchards, and vineyards attract plenty of insect visitors, both beneficial pollinators and detrimental pests. All of which make an easy meal for hungry spiders, so these are wonderful places for them to call home.

This can be a great thing for us because the spiders help control the pests, which can greatly reduce the amount of pesticide used on our food. But, obviously, when these fruits are harvested, it can bring them into our supermarkets and even our homes. The good news is that in the unlikely event you find a spider hiding in your fruit basket, it’s probably not a harmful one, according to arachnologist, Rick Vetter, who has been studying and identifying spiders brought into the country this way since 2006.

Most of the spiders that appear in banana shipments from Central and South America are either the pantropical huntsman spider (Heteropoda venatoria) or the red-faced banana spider (Cupiennius chiapanensis). Both are large spiders that can be misidentified as Brazilian wandering spiders, and both are harmless.

There have been several reports this year, mostly from the United Kingdom, of “deadly Brazilian wandering spider” eggs being found in banana shipments. The articles detailing these accounts have so many problems, it’s just mind boggling to me that they’re published and taken as any sort of reliable or accurate information. One article states that a woman purchased a bag of Tesco bananas and found an egg sac. After searching through Google, she saw an image that looked similar to hers, so she determined herself that they must be Brazilian wandering spider eggs. Hmmmm, interesting, wow, Google really can tell you EVERYTHING!

Another article states that a family “fled their home” after finding an egg sac on bananas from Aldi and an “expert,” some guy who runs a wildlife sanctuary, told them that “on the balance of probabilities, it was probably eggs from a Brazilian Wandering Spider.” Wait… what? That sentence doesn’t even make sense, come on, people!

huntsman

The pantropical huntsman spider, Heteropoda venatoria, is a harmless spider found in many tropical locations around the world including Florida and Hawaii. Photo by: Rick Vetter.

The main problem here is the lack of an actual expert to identify the suspected eggs. Many trained entomologists cannot even correctly identify the actual spider, let alone their egg sack. Anyone who is not an entomologist or arachnologist is definitely not going to get it right!

Another major problem is with the media automatically labeling something as a “deadly Brazilian wandering spider” or “the deadliest spider in the world,” which creates so much hysteria. It makes people think that if they find a spider or eggs in bananas, it must be this kind, it will bite you, and you will die. But let’s look at the facts.

Brazilian wandering spiders are actually a genus of spiders (Phonuetria) found all over Central and South America. Each species in this genus has a different geographical range, size, behavior, and venom toxicity. The species reported to have the most toxic venom, Phonuetria fera, is restricted to the Brazilian Amazon and two similar species, P. nigriventer and P. keyserlingi, are restricted to the Atlantic coast of Brazil. The two latter species are the ones usually involved in envenomations of humans in Brazil, as P. fera is usually far from banana plantations and not likely to come into contact with people or get into banana shipments. Furthermore, most banana shipments these days come from places like Ecuador and Costa Rica, not Brazil. This is not to say that other species in this genus found in Central America don’t occasionally get into shipments, because they can, and have. But these species are usually smaller and have less toxic venom.

The toxicity of the venom is always exaggerated as well. In a study of 422 bites from Phoneutria spiders in Brazil, only 2.3 percent of them had to seek treatment with antivenin, and only one death occurred. Most people had minor symptoms that resolved on their own. This is true when it comes to any spider considered “dangerous” like the black widow, brown recluse, or Brazilian wandering spider. Most spiders only bite in response to a threat they cannot escape from, such as being trapped.

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Brazilian wandering spider.

If you succeed in doing this to a spider, the bite is a defensive one, which may not even result in envenomation. Most types of spiders, especially from North and South America, are capable of saving their venom and delivering a “dry bite.” If venom does make it into your system, it is most likely a very small amount that will cause no reaction or a very minor reaction. People who are sensitive may experience unpleasant symptoms and may even need to be treated at a medical facility to control these symptoms, but death is highly unlikely. The groups of people most susceptible to venom are small children, the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems. Obviously those in any of these categories should be protected from spider bites, but knowledge and education are the best way, not overreaction and hysteria!

So if you do happen to bring home fruit and find a spider lurking there, don’t do what these people did. Don’t flee your house or try to sue the supermarket. (It’s not really their fault!) Don’t call the media or 911. First, try to contain the spider or eggs by placing the bananas in a sealed plastic bag or box of some kind. It’s important to keep it intact for proper identification, a smushed spider is very hard to identify! If the spider drops to the counter or the ground, try throwing a cup or glass over it and slipping a piece of paper underneath to trap it inside. From there you can preserve it in the freezer, which will kill it, or the refrigerator which will slow it down until you can get it to someone for a proper identification. It’s not a bad idea to give the store at which you purchased the fruit a call, just to let them know you found a spider in their produce and you’re trying to get it identified.

banana spider

Finding a spider in a food product can be jarring, but don’t freak out. It’s most likely harmless. Report the spider to grocery store personnel or call an entomologist to be sure of the species.

Next, find an actual expert to identify the spider. Stay away from pest control companies, they don’t always have an actual entomologist on staff, but they will be happy to give you a wrong answer and then tell you that your house needs to be sprayed for extra precaution. Call a university or museum and ask for an entomologist. If they don’t have one, they will know where to find one.

Deliver the spider and wait for an answer. Most likely the results will come back as a harmless spider of some kind. In some rare cases, it may be a type of Brazilian wandering spider or perhaps a black widow. (This has happened.) As long as you kept a cool head and caught and isolated the spider without picking it up with your hands, you were not bitten by it! Call the store and tell them what type of spider it was. Then, move on with your life.

And for goodness sake, if you see a spider on or near you, don’t jump from a moving car or try to set it on fire in the proximity of highly combustible chemicals. These other things will kill you, the spider will not!

#ChillsAtHMNS

What has eight legs and is coming to a school near you? “Awesome Arachnids” from HMNS!

In 2015, The Cockrell Butterfly Center will be making a couple of new outreach programs available to classrooms all over the Houston area. One of which was given to kindergarten students at St. Francis Episcopal School in December, and it was a hit, Awesome Arachnids!

For almost 10 years, we have been fascinating kids with “Amazing Arthropods”, a program that introduces students to members of the major classes of arthropods, mostly insects. We always include a tarantula to represent arachnids and can get quite carried away with talking about them. Unfortunately, we are only afforded about 5 minutes per presentation to do this. This frustrated me, as arachnids are one of the most feared and misunderstood classes of arthropods, but they are also SO COOL! So, the idea of Awesome Arachnids was born!

In this presentation, Entomologists from the Cockrell Butterfly Center will introduce you to some of our most interesting eight-legged creatures and explain the features that make them different from their six-legged cousins and other relatives.

Have you ever wondered what a tarantula feels like? Have you ever seen a scorpion change color right before your eyes? Can you even name any other types of arachnids? Don’t worry, that’s what we’re here for!

Here is a sneak peek at some of the stars of our show…

Ed Bugs 1

Rosie, a Chilean Rose Hair Tarantula, is one of two terrific tarantulas you can meet during the Awesome Arachnids program!

Rosie and Peanut, 20 and 10 years old, respectively, are two of our special tarantula ambassadors! They will help ease you into the world of spiders – one of the most feared types of animals on the planet. As many as 55% of females and 18% of males in Western society are estimated to have arachnophobia – a fear of spiders and other arachnids. Although spiders are venomous, and venom CAN cause people harm, more often than not, a spider is harmless to us. No one helps illustrate that point better than Peanut and Rosie, with their furry appearance and docile nature. We will teach you all about spiders; which ones are ok, which ones to avoid, and how they help us way more than they could ever harm us.

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Vinny the Vinegaroon may look scary, but he’s really a shy guy with a very unique defense mechanism!

Vinny is a bizarre looking creature, one that most people have never come across before! Vinegaroons, also known as whip scorpions, inhabit tropical and sub-tropical areas all over the world. They have no venom glands, so cannot bite or sting. They are very shy, spending most of their time underneath rotten logs or rocks. At night, they hunt for insects, worms, and slugs. They help us control cockroach and cricket populations. Why are they called vinegaroons? Well, you’ll have to meet Vinny to find out. Once you meet him, you’ll want to meet more bizarre looking creatures like him!

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Pinchy the Emperor Scorpion is one of the largest scorpions in the world!

Scorpions are another arachnid that most people fear, and for good reason! That intimidating looking stinger can pack quite a punch! Fortunately, the venom in their sting is formulated to act on other invertebrates, so it is USUALLY not dangerous to us, but can be quite painful! Emperor scorpions, like Pinchy, have very mild venom, no more severe than a bee sting. They are also more likely to pinch with their large, strong claws than sting, hence the name! Scorpions are incredible animals and have many characteristics that set them apart from other arachnids. Want to know more? We’ll be happy to share with you!

Children will be allowed to gently pet arachnids which pose no threat to their safety, such as the tarantulas. Necessary precautions are taken by the presenters to ensure the safety of the children and the animals at all times.

So there you have it! Hopefully we’ve whet your appetite for more fun facts and stories about these fantastic creepy crawlies! If you’re interested in bringing Awesome Arachnids to your school – just email us at outreach@hmns.org, or give us a call at 713-639-4758!