Monday, 30 July 2007

Mythbusting Monday IV: Daddy Longlegs are the Most Venemous Spider in the World OMG!!!!11!1

This week's myth is one that I heard frequently as a kid from other kids. It was usually told breathlessly and with a touch of bravado. Hey, be careful with that - don't you know the daddy longlegs is the most venemous spider in the world?! It's teeth are too small to bite you -- unless it can get to that little web of skin between your fingers - then you're DEAD!

Ok, where to start with this one? First of all, the name Daddy Longlegs refers to 3 different species groups, and only one, the least commonly used reference, is a spider. The most common reference in North America is to any number of species (6,400+ to be specific) of harvestmen. They often live in cellars, caves, and shady spots. Although they are arachnids like spiders (eight legs) they are as distantly related to spiders as they are to scorpions. This is a harvestman here to the right. They look like little balls with big stick-like legs. Their bodies have one segment (spiders have two) and they are not venomous.

In the UK, the name Daddy Longlegs refers to a flying insect, the crane fly, of which there are 14,000+ species. These are not related to spiders in the least (they've got big wings! How can you confuse that with a spider?) I'm not sure how long the name daddy longlegs has been used to refer to crane flys, but it may predate the reference to harvestmen. The earliest reference I can find is the poem The Daddy Longlegs and The Fly by Edward Lear published in 1871. Given that Lear was all about creating nonsensical yet descriptive words, Daddy Longlegs seems quite fitting. Again, no venom.

In some parts of the northeast US, Daddly Longlegs refers to the cellar spider. This is a spider, and all spiders have some kind of venom. But it's venom is very weak, weaker than a single ant bite. It is of roughly similar size and appearance to harvestmen, but still distinctive enough that it would be difficult to confuse the two.

Ok, so we know we're talking about three species groups here, only one of which is a spider, but none of them pose any threat to humans. To me, the most ridiculous part of this myth was always the if it bites you between your fingers your're DEAD aspect. Why? That makes no sense! The skin between your fingers is not even particularly thin. I can think of many places in the body with thinner and more sensitive skin than that. Why not the perineum? Now that would be a fun myth to test.

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