The Dangerous Blush Spider

 

(This column was first published in the April 2, 2001 Buffalo News.)

 

An Internet message, initially posted in August 1999, passed from reader to reader and was soon widely distributed across the country. Here it is, slightly edited:

 

"This Is Not A Joke: It Concerns The Blush Spider

 

"An article by Dr. Beverly Clark, in the Journal of the United Medical Association (JUMA), solves the mystery behind a recent spate of deaths. Three women in Chicago turned up at hospitals over a 5 day period, all with the same symptoms: fever, chills, and vomiting, followed by muscular collapse, paralysis, and finally, death. Autopsy results showed toxicity in the blood. These women did not know each other; it was discovered, however, that they had all visited the same restaurant (Big Chappies, at Blare Airport) within days of their deaths. The health department descended on the restaurant, shutting it down. The toxicologist, remembered an article he had read, went into the restroom, and lifted the toilet seat. Under the seat, out of normal view, was a small spider. The spider was captured and brought back to the lab, where it was determined to be the South American Blush Spider (Arachnius gluteus), so named because of its reddened flesh color. This spider's venom is extremely toxic, but can take several days to take effect."

 

When the source of the spider was identified, the message continued, "the Civilian Aeronautics Board (CAB) ordered an immediate inspection of the toilets of all flights from South America, and discovered the Blush spider's nests on 4 different planes!" Readers were warned: "It is now believed that these spiders can be anywhere in the country. So please, before you use a public toilet, lift the seat to check for spiders. It can save your life!" And they were urged to "pass this on to everyone you care about."

 

The message was, of course, a hoax that played on our widespread fear of spiders -- arachnophobia. (I use the word "our" in that statement advisedly as I share that fear.). I offer the story as this year's day-late April Fool lesson.

 

Richard S. Vetter and P. Kirk Visscher, entomologists at the University of California, Riverside, learned of the hoax and in September 1999 set up a website that debunked it, pointing out the many errors in the original posting. (This column derives substantially from their entertaining follow-up essay in the Winter 2000 issue of American Entomologist.)

 

The errors included, for example, that Civilian Aeronautics Board. There was once a Civil Aeronautics Board but even that was dissolved in 1984. No blush spider exists. Neither do the Chicago restaurant, the doctor named, the medical journal nor Blare Airport -- a transparent take on Chicago's O'Hare Airport. The species name, gluteus, translates not as blush-colored but as buttocks.

 

Despite the errors the message had spread like wildfire. An indication is the number of visits that rapidly accumulated at Vetter and Visscher's website. Within two weeks 49,000 people contacted the site and four months later it still received 50 visits per day. Arachnophobes who left messages told of relief and anger at the originator. One had been prepared to cancel a flight to South America. Another response described the many calls for information about the spider received by a health center. But readers also told of informing the person who had sent them the message, thus counteracting the hoax in reverse order.

 

I agree with Vetter and Visscher: "Although this is an example of the misuse of the Internet, the Internet also served as a powerful medium for rapidly spreading information to debunk the hoax."

 

But meanwhile, how many toilet seats are being carefully examined?-- Gerry Rising