I finally found a use for Google+. Science writer extraordinaire Ed Yong (rhymes with "song") wondered aloud (as it were) about the following:
1) Are arachnophobes also scared of scorpions? What about mites? They're not scared of insects, right? Crabs?
2) If they're only scared of arachnids, could you use their degree of fear for classification purposes? Are arachnophobes unknowing closet taxonomists?
3) Some spiders mimic ants very well (http://is.gd/pvriwj). If you showed an ant-mimicking spider to an arachnophobe, and they thought it was an ant, would they suddenly freak out if you then told them it was a spider, or would they be okay? Is it the knowledge that something is a spider, or the spidery appearance that's scary?
Aside from the sheer brilliance of the question, it made me think back to various arachnid-related issues. While I was up north last week, I had a number of eight-legged encounters. This guy, for example, showed up on a piece of felt my daughter was playing with:
It's just a dog tick, but it has a big "ick" factor. The ick factor would have seismically multiplied had it been attached to PalKid rather than a piece of felt.
It seems to have been a banner year for Dolomedes as well. These guys were all over the place. I don't like them. Not one bit.
Despite my revulsion, "dock spiders" are pretty successful predators, snacking on ubiquitous "water skeeters" (striders), and producing many, many offspring. In all my years hanging around these guys (despite my attempts to avoid them) I've never been bitten, nor have I met anyone who was bitten. They just aren't that aggressive when it comes to big, hairy (bipedal) predators.
In my practice, patients frequently come to me with "spider bites". Clinically, these are usually a red welt that is larger than a typical mosquito bite. That seems to be the sole criterion for calling something a "spider bite". I cannot recall how old I was when I first heard this little piece of folk knowledge but it was common knowledge on the elementary school playground. My mother pooh-poohed such bubbe meisehs; "Spiders are our friends," she would say musically as I cowered in a corner of my room waiting for someone to KILL IT!!!!
Despite this widespread belief, most "spider bites" in my part of the country aren't caused by spiders, and probably aren't bites at all. (The feared "brown recluse" does not live naturally in my part of the country, although importations have been reported. They do not generally survive through the winter.) The distinction is important for a few reasons. First, many of us are guilty of wanton arachnicide propelled by our unwarranted fears. Second, many "bites" are probably bacterial infections and should be treated properly. Finally, there's my own bias that we shouldn't assume things that aren't so.