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Cramer discovers brown recluse spiders in local garage

Barry McNamara
09/06/2011
Monmouth College biology professor Ken Cramer can vouch for how reclusive the brown recluse spider actually is. Cramer, a.k.a. “Spider Man,” has conducted research on the venomous arachnid for several years, but he’s been frustrated by the unavailability of local specimens. Of the local leads he’s followed on possible spottings, he’s only had “two separate one-spider incidents.”

All that changed last month.

While socializing with a colleague, Cramer picked up a spider from his folding chair, which he quickly determined was a brown recluse.

“I said, ‘Get me a baggie, would you?’” said Cramer. “Then I asked, ‘Where’s this chair from?’”

It had been brought out from a spacious garage, so Cramer went inside to investigate, poking around a woodpile and other areas. He resolved to come back after dark with a headlamp, and he was immediately rewarded, finding two right by the front door.

“I had 30 vials with me, and I filled them in about half an hour,” he said. Again, he resolved, “I’ll be back,” and that led to filling even more vials at a similar rate. The current count in Cramer’s lab in the Haldeman-Thiessen Science Center: 128 brown recluse spiders.

“The last time I went, I wasn’t able to fill the vials as fast,” he said. “I think I’m starting to make a dent.”

Cramer will use the spiders to study the temperatures they tolerate, and he is also using natural, non-toxic repellents to study what will keep the spiders out of an area, but not kill them.

“I’m going to try to get a freshman involved in the research,” he said. “Now that I’ve got a local supply, it makes the research easier.”

He said the spiders in the garage are living in masonry mortar and cracks in the concrete, and he will be curious to see if they “overwinter” in their current location.

“I’m also curious about whether there are other brown recluse spiders in Monmouth and the surrounding area,” said Cramer, who is still interested in hearing from local residents. “If you look very closely, you can see the fiddleback in their midsection. But the best diagnostic approach is to get a hand lens and check their eyes. Brown recluse spiders have three pairs of eyes, or dyads. Most spiders have eight.”

Further help with identification is available at http://department.monm.edu/biology/recluse-project/index.htm.

Although brown recluse spiders are venomous, Cramer explained that “only about 10 percent of bites require more than basic wound care. Those bites lead to necrosis,” the death of body tissue.

“Once the wound is gone, it’s gone,” said Cramer, referring to recurring skin abnormalities being incorrectly diagnosed as brown recluse spider bites. “Actually, it’s pretty hard to get bit by them. It might occur if you put on old clothing that has been in storage for a while, or some old work gloves.”

He concluded, “These spiders really are reclusive. Who knows what got them there?”