Oct. 29, 2019

AUSTIN, Texas — Matt Steffenson, an arachnologist and assistant professor of Biological Sciences at St. Edward’s University, might approve of hunting spiders but not killing them.

As part of his field research, Steffenson and his students track down and study the behavior of wolf spiders, which are among the most diverse spiders in the world, inhabiting every continent except Antarctica.

In honor of Halloween and these creepy crawlers, St. Edward’s asked Steffenson about some common spider myths, his fascination with wolf spiders and what to do with spiders found inside the home (set them free).   

Question: What are some common spider myths?

That's a great question because there are so many false ones. I think the most common one that I hear is something along the lines of, "Daddy-long legs are the most poisonous spider in the world, but their fangs are too short to bite through your skin."  This one drives arachnologists nuts for three reasons:

  • Daddy-long legs aren't spiders! They are arachnids, but they're in a different, but related Order called Opiliones, or the layman's term "harvestmen."
  • There's no such thing as a poisonous spider, but there are tens of thousands of venomous ones. Poison is something that you come into contact with or you ingest, while venom is something that is injected into your bloodstream. So there are no poisonous spiders, only venomous ones.
  • Daddy-long legs are herbivorous and eat vegetation, so they don't even have fangs to bite you.

Question: Should we kill the spiders we find inside the home?

Absolutely not. The vast majority of spiders in the United States, with the exception of black widows and brown recluses, aren't dangerous to humans. But, they are great at eating other insects like pests. One of the best ways to protect your home from termites and carpenter ants without spraying pesticides is to have spiders around. Spiders on Earth collectively eat more biomass than any other group of terrestrial animals. So it's not wolves, or lions, or any large mammal that alters the food web of the ecosystem the most, it's actually spiders and insects.

Question: What's a wolf spider and why do you study it?

A wolf spider is a type of spider in the Family Lycosidae. They get their name from the way that they hunt. Unlike web-building spiders, wolf spiders are cursorial. This means they crawl around and actively hunt for prey. The people who named them thought the behavior they used when stalking prey was similar to how wolves hunt, thus their name. I study them because their one of the most diverse groups of spiders, inhabiting every continent except Antarctica, they have a bunch of cool foraging behaviors, and frankly, they're just fun to work with.

Challenge: If you could challenge the public to do something that would benefit spiders, what would you ask them to do?

Try to not be afraid of spiders. They're critically important to our environment and without them, we'd be overrun with pests, many of whom carry diseases like flies and mosquitos. Rather than kill them when we find them in our homes, use a cup, capture them, and let them go safely outside.