The proper name for the black widow spider is Latrodectus mactans, which is Latin for "biting" and "to kill." The shiny black body has an hourglass-shaped red marking on the underside of the abdomen. The female leg span is one-half to two inches, and males are much smaller. Black widows live in South, Central and North America. The black widow's web is considered the strongest natural fiber according to Dr. Randy Lewis at the University of Wyoming in an article in "High Country News."
Poisonous spiders like the black widow strike fear in humans, but spiders are not aggressive and react only to an imminent threat. When they do bite, they deliver a neurotoxin through their fangs. Latrodectus is a genus of spider that includes the widow and redback varieties. They like to nest near the ground and close to human habitation. They can be found under outbuildings, logs, toys left outside and debris. Both types of spiders capture insects in their webs but catch an occasional small bird or lizard.
Black Widow Spiders
The closest relative to the black widow endemic to Australia is the redback spider, Latrodectus hasselti. The genus is the same, but the species is different from the black widow. The female has a red hourglass marking on its lower abdomen just like the black widow, but a reddish orange stripe also on its dorsal, or top, side of its pea-sized abdomen. Redback spiders prefer to live near human housing and proliferate during warmer months. They are poisonous, but an antivenom exists and people no longer die from their bite.
A bite from a black widow usually causes pain only at the bite site, but more advanced symptoms include abdominal pain, severe muscle cramps and spasms, difficulty breathing, convulsions and shock. A bite from a redback spider causes pain and the skin to sweat at the bite site, itchiness, muscle weakness, nausea and vomiting. Applying an ice pack is the best way to treat a bite; a pressure bandage is not recommended because the venom is slow-moving. If more severe symptoms arise, seek medical attention immediately. Children, elderly and health-compromised people are more susceptible.
Males and Myths
The name "widow" for this spider comes from the belief that the female kills the male after mating. This has happened when the spiders are observed in captivity, but when in open range the male spider simply leaves without being eaten.
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