Yes, exploding spider babies are real

One of my favourite things to do in Australia is ask people for their spider stories.

Everyone who’s lived here has at least one good one. I wrote about a few of them, including one of my own, in How to Be Australian.

After nearly 10 years in Australia, I started to think maybe there wouldn’t be many new spider stories left to discover. I’d heard about spider encounters in moving cars, in beds, in swimming pools. I’d heard about people who had limbs turn ‘the colour of dead flesh’ after being bitten by a white tail. I’d even heard about monstrous spider-wasps flying through open windows with flailing huntsmans in their mouths.

I thought I’d heard everything.

I was wrong.

Out for dinner with two Canadian expats who moved to Sydney in 2019, the topic of spider stories came up. This couple’s story is a frontrunner for Spider Anecdote of the Year 2020, and possibly Spider Anecdote of All Time.

Here’s the scene: they spot a biggish spider in their apartment. The husband happens to have a long umbrella in his hand. He reaches out and, with perfect aim, manages to smush the spider with the umbrella tip.

THOUSANDS OF SPIDER BABIES EXPLODE FROM THE SQUASHED SPIDER, RUNNING IN ALL DIRECTIONS IN THE APARTMENT.

The next day at work, the wife relates this horrifying experience to one of her coworkers, a local.

“Oh yeah,” the coworker says, “that’s why you should never squash a spider in Australia. Better to use bug spray or catch it will a bowl.”

That’s why you should never squash a spider in Australia?? I’ve lived here 10 years and have talked about spiders with a lot of Australians. You could say cataloguing spider anecdotes has been part of my life’s work. And I’ve never heard this advice, or heard about exploding spider babies.

“Wait,” I said to the couple, “don’t spider lay eggs? Why would a spider have thousands of spider babies with it?”

It wasn’t that I doubted their story. The horror on their faces as they recalled it was genuine. I was simply confused about the biology.

Turns out I’m not the only one. Australian Geographic ran an article about this exact topic: ‘Wolf Spider Squashed, Hundreds of Babies Emerge‘.

I don’t want to alarm you, but there are 2888 species of wolf spider, and they’re found throughout the world. According to my very minimal research (I can only look at websites with photos of spiders for so long), all species of wolf spiders carry their egg sacs with them.

When the ‘spiderlings’ hatch, they live on the mother for a number of weeks. (Imagine that, ladies! Clambering around for weeks with several hundred babies clinging to you!)

So it seems my Canadian friend’s coworker is correct: you should never squash a spider in Australia, unless you know definitively that it’s not a female wolf spider. And even then, you’re still risking gross spider innards oozing all over. (Readers of How to Be Australian know my prefered spider-prepardeness plan is a vacuum.)

Got spider anecdotes for me? You know I want them!

Spider Anecdote of the Year 2019

When I lived in Mexico, a game people sometimes played, generally over drinks, was to share their stories of getting mugged. Everyone had one, eventually even me. My experience was banal, but a Swedish colleague had a fantastic story that has stayed with me over a decade. She lived in one part of Mexico City and worked in another, across town. She took public transit to work every day. One morning she got off the bus near her work, and a man stopped her, flashing a knife. As she handed over her wallet, she exclaimed that she lived all the way across the city, and if he took all her money, she wouldn’t be able to get home that evening.

The knife-wielding man reached into his pocket and gave her enough change to catch the bus home. Turns out he was a mugger with a heart of – well, not gold. Bronze, maybe.

Asking about mugging stories in Mexico always resulted in a lively conversation. I don’t know what the Canadian equivalent to this would be. Probably something to do with getting your vehicle stuck in the snow.

In Australia, if you want to hear dramatic, horrific and sometimes hilarious anecdotes, you ask about spiders. Everyone has at least one good spider story. I’ve written about Australian spider stories before, sharing some of the best anecdotes I’ve heard, as well as my own.

Recently I had dinner with a group of Australians. We’d all just met each other, so I asked about their spider stories. There were a few standards. Someone told a story about a huntsman in a pillowcase (yes, they do bite!). Another recalled the time a huntsman laid its eggs in the sideview mirror of her car. She discovered this as she was driving down the highway, when the huntsman decided to run across the windshield. She tried to fend it off with the wipers. ‘Then I heard it run across the top of the car. I had to go to a service station to get help.’

I thought that maybe, after nearly a decade in Australia, I’d heard the gamut of spider stories.

And then someone started talking about the spider wasp.

It came in through a living room window, a huge orange and black wasp flying erratically. Its head was tremendous, its mouth fur-covered, with a wildly waving set of pinchers.

Except it wasn’t a set of pinchers at all. The wasp had bitten into a huntsman (which are gigantic and furry, like tarantulas) and was flying around with the still-live spider in its mouth.

The wasp flew into the window pane, dropped the twitching huntsman on the sill, and took off out the open window.

When she recovered from the shock enough to look it up online, the startled victim of the spider delivery learned the Australian spider wasp’s tactic: it paralyses its prey, then flies off with the spider (which is much larger than the wasp), and lays its eggs inside the spider, for the hatching baby wasps to consume from the inside out.

In case you’re feeling queasy, here’s a koala.A koala in a gum tree in Australia that does not plan to kill you
It’s still early, but the spider-wasp story is a strong contender for Spider Anecdote of the Year 2019.

In other news, I’m at Better Read than Dead in Newtown this week to talk about my book on Thursday, July 4, 6:30pm. You can find out about more upcoming events, and possibly read more spider anecdotes, in my monthly author newsletter.

xo
Ashley