Monday, March 23, 2009

Spider Scare in the News


Last week a news story broke about a potentially dangerous neotropical (New World tropics) spider that stowed away in a crate of bananas from Latin America and ended up in a grocery store in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Credit the media for sticking with the story and getting it right for a change, successfully quelling what could have been needless widespread public hysteria.

Two experts in the case contradicted each other’s identification of the arachnid, and because the specimen was dispatched, there was no way to verify its identity. There are several species in the spider family Ctenidae, collectively known as “wandering spiders” because they do not spin webs to catch prey. Their large size and often aggressive behavior is enough to intimidate a person, regardless of how venomous they may be. The genus Phoneutria includes at least some species that can, rarely, deliver a lethal bite. Species in the harmless genus Cupiennius, however, can be easily mistaken for their deadlier cousins.

Richard S. Vetter and Stefan Hillebrecht addressed this dilemma in the cover story of the summer, 2008 issue of American Entomologist, a journal of the American Entomological Society. The bottom line from the article is that without close examination of a specimen, it is unlikely that an individual spider can be correctly identified. The better news is that fatalities from bites of Phoneutria are very rare, even for “at risk” populations such as the elderly and infants. It is largely one’s immune system response, rather than the toxicity of venom, that determines whether a bite will result in no reaction, a mild response, or a severe trauma.

Many of the reader response comments on the Yahoo version of the story centered on the perceived failure of our government inspection services. Dangerously venomous tropical spiders do not routinely infiltrate our nation, however, and the large volume of foreign shipments to the U.S. precludes comprehensive inspections. It is the price we pay for a “free market” where goods pass unfettered across borders. Collectively, through our demand for tropical fruits and houseplants, we consumers have determined that risks like spiders are an acceptable hazard.

5 comments:

  1. Relative risk assessment isn't something most people do well.

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  2. "It is the price we pay for a “free market” where goods pass unfettered across borders. Collectively, through our demand for tropical fruits and houseplants, we consumers have determined that risks like spiders are an acceptable hazard."

    Thank you for making such a lucid point. So many people fail to understand the realities of the situation. People love cheap goods, but then some spider stows away in a crate and all of a sudden we hear cries of "Where was the government to protect us from this???" Of course, no one wants their cheap goods and exotic fruits to be less available. People want their comforts and when something isn't perfect they like to be able to blame someone, too, even when the problem is a simple cost related to their comfort.

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  3. Moe:

    Thank you very much for the compliment. I try not to be 'too' political, but...:-)

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  4. Thanks for another thought-provoking post! You have a genius for starting with a very specific point about some arthropod and relating it in a very logical way to some larger issue. Everything really IS connected, and you're a master of illuminating that fact.

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  5. I think a wise thing to do is to capture it and bring it some where that will take care of the spider. it's common sense to know things like insects and some small rodents and even bird stow away on ships. it's also human nature to panic over something stupid. There is a lot more then just spiders on our bananas; their are insect eggs in our rice and other such means that is passed by the FDA. And you're right; we like these foreign and home-grown foods. But we don't realize these foods will most likely always have bugs. so why get so panicky and cause an uproar over such a little thing? now if it was a bloody finger hidden in a neat bundle of 'nanners then we'd have something serious to talk about.

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