Black widow common, but rarely seen

A black widow spider and its nest
recently found in a private home in Cayman Brac has reminded residents in the
Cayman Islands that they may have more species of spiders in their midst than
previously thought.

According to Mat Cottam, manager of
the terrestrial ecology unit at the Department of Environment, “We have had
black widows here for a long time. They are quite common in the Cayman Islands,
though they are not seen often.”

He added that although these
spiders have a reputation because their bite is venomous, the black widow is a
fairly docile creature and people only need to be concerned if the spider feels

“For instance, if one is in your
shoe and you inadvertently step on it, that might be the kind of scenario that
might illicit a bite. For the most part, it is highly unlikely that you will be
bitten and if you are, it does not mean that the spider has injected you with
venom. There are dry bites as well as bites with varying amounts of venom
released, and a bite for one person does not mean the same thing for another.”

Mr. Cottam noted that though bites
from the black widow can be fatal, the effects vary from person to person. He
said some individuals could be more susceptible to the spider’s venom,
especially in cases where they were allergic. He added that this is similar to
the scenario with bee stings, only amplified to an extent because of the potency
of the Black widow’s venom.

Mr. Cottam said it is unusual to
see these spiders, but when they breed there are 50 to 60 of them gathered at
one time, making them more conspicuous. He added that if you do see them, it is
a good idea to call in a professional bug sprayer or, alternatively, a can of
commercial insect repellant would work.


No reports of bites

There have been no reports of bites
by a black widow spider in the Cayman Islands. It is possible that people may
not have gone to the hospital after being bitten, said Mr. Cottam, and some may
not even have known they were bitten. He cautioned against people becoming
fearful of the spiders, as we have been living among them in Cayman for longer
than we may think.

Brown widow spiders also call the
Cayman Islands home. Though they, too, are venomous, Mr. Cottam said their
venom is less potent than that of the black widow, but it is still advised that
anyone bitten by this spider see a doctor as well.

The huntsman spider can also be
found in the Cayman Islands. People may recognise it as a slightly large brown
spider that jumps moderately high. However, there are several other species of
jumping spiders here that are considerably smaller, said Mr. Cottam.

“We do have a very rich
invertebrate population inhabiting the Cayman Islands and there haven’t been
many scientific examinations or collections of the many species of spiders
here. They have not been well-researched here, and it is an excitingly interesting
area of research that is there for the taking,” he said.

People may or may not be aware of
the fact that Cayman is home to tarantulas. They are usually found underground
and are not particularly venomous, said Mr. Cottam.


How spiders arrive on island

Spiders that are not native to the
Cayman Islands may be transported here in various ways, as they are light and
compact and can fit in very small spaces, making grass and other imported items
that offer cover ideal for their travel.

Some spiders have evolved the
capacity to spin from silk some kite-like apparatuses that are able to capture
wind and transport them thousands of miles over land and sea, referred to by
scientists as ballooning. Against such modes of transportation, there is no
defence, authorities say.

“We have got at least 50 species of
spiders on the Island right now, and it is fairly expensive to get the right
kind of expertise for this type of job,” said Mr. Cottam. “However, as part of
what is called the Visiting Scientist’s Programme, legitimate requests are made
from those who want to do certain studies in the Cayman Islands. We simply
decide whether the undertaking is worthy of adjudication, and as part of the
conditions, they leave a duplicate, labelled sample behind for us.”

Some research was
done on the spiders in the Cayman Islands after Hurricane Ivan, which discovered
several new species.


One of the Black Widow spiders found in Cayman Brac.
Photo: Submitted