Archive for Sunday, March 31, 2002

Researcher studying poisonous arachnids for doctoral work

March 31, 2002


When Jamel Sandidge brought a black widow spider to school in fifth grade, his teacher took it away and never gave it back.

Sandidge has been fascinated with spiders since.

Now a graduate student in ecology and evolutionary biology at Kansas University, Sandidge is researching another poisonous, eight-legged critter  the fiddle-backed brown recluse  for his doctorate.

"People definitely have a reason to be afraid of them," Sandidge said. "People might think I'm crazy searching in damp, dark places for spiders that could injure you."

Sandidge said many  if not most  houses in Lawrence are home to brown recluses. He's interested in why one house can have hundreds of spiders while the house next door has none.

"Almost every house I've been in, I've seen a sign of a brown recluse being there, having been there or being the type of environment where they would live," he said.

Unlike most spider studies that focus on bites and venom, Sandidge plans to research the spiders' mating habits to determine how  or if  populations in different locations mingle.

"People have studied many things about the spider, but they haven't studied the spider," he said. "Most people are looking at the effect. I'm looking at the cause."

To do that, he's seeking people willing to have their houses inspected for spiders. He needs both spider-infested houses and houses without spiders.

He plans to set out sticky traps to catch some spiders and mark others with fluorescent powders to track their movement.

Sandidge said his research could come up with better ways to manage the spiders than the chemicals used now.

Though brown recluses are traditionally known by their fiddle-shaped marking on their back, that can be misleading because other spiders have similar markings, Sandidge said.

The best way to tell is by counting the number of eyes  most spiders have eight, but recluses have six. Of course, seeing that requires close examination.

Brown recluse bites are rarely fatal  and when they are, it's usually among children and the elderly  but bites can produce painful open sores that have to be removed surgically.

Occasionally, a bite victim has a reaction to the bite that can cause nausea and cramps.

Dr. Scott Robinson, who staffs the emergency department at Lawrence Memorial Hospital, said the hospital sees about 15 to 20 brown recluse bites each year.

But determining whether a bite is from a brown recluse is difficult. They usually look like a typical insect bite at first and don't grow into larger sores until later.

Robinson said the best way to avoid spider bites is not to reach blindly into dark areas.

"These spiders don't go around looking for people to bite," Robinson said. "They're brown recluse, not brown social spiders."

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