A long-standing urban legend tells a story of a new poisonous spider in the US, which has been found in airplanes - namely under toilet seats. Is this story true?
It’s not true.
This story is known to have been circulating via email for many years, in varying incarnations, recently making the jump to social media websites such as Twitter and Facebook. There is no evidence that any of these events ever occurred. Further, this spider – which is real – is not considered venomous.
Let’s take a look at the story:
A spider bite…please read………… And you thought the brown recluse was bad!
Three women in North Florida, turned up at hospitals over a 5-day period, all with the same symptoms. Fever, chills, and vomiting, followed by muscular collapse, paralysis, and finally, death. There were no outward signs of trauma.
Autopsy results showed toxicity in the blood. These women did not know each other, and seemed to have nothing in common. It was discovered, however, that they had all visited the same Restaurant (Olive Garden) within days of their deaths. The health department descended on the restaurant, shutting it down. The food, water, and air conditioning were all inspected and tested, to no avail.
The big break came when a waitress at the restaurant was rushed to the hospital with similar symptoms. She told doctors that she had been on vacation, and had only went to the restaurant to pick up her check. She did not eat or drink while she was there, but had used the restroom.
That is when one toxicologist, remembering an article he had read, drove out to the restaurant, went into the restroom, and lifted the toilet seat. Under the seat, out of normal view, was a small spider.
The spider was captured and brought back to the lab, where it was determined to be the Two-Striped Telamonia (Telamonia dimidiata), so named because of its reddened flesh color. This spider’s venom is extremely toxic, but can take several days to take effect. They live in cold, dark, damp climates, and toilet rims provide just the right atmosphere.
Several days later a lawyer from Jacksonville showed up at a hospital emergency room. Before his death, he told the doctor, that he had been away on business, had taken a flight from Indonesia, changing planes in Singapore, before returning home.
He did not visit (Olive Garden), while there. He did, as did all of the other victims, have what was determined to be a puncture wound, on his right buttock.
Investigators discovered that the flight he was on had originated in India.
The Civilian Aeronautics Board (CAB) ordered an immediate inspection of the toilets of all flights from India, and discovered the Two-Striped Telamonia (Telamonia dimidiata) spider’s nests on 4 different planes! It is now believed that these spiders can be anywhere in the country. So please, before you use a public toilet, lift the seat to check for spiders. It can save your life!
And please pass this on to everyone you care about.
The Two-Striped Telamonia is more commonly called the Two-Striped Jumper, or Telamonia dimidiata. It can be found in the rain forests and tropical environments of Singapore, Indonesia, Pakistan, India, Bhutan. And, as stated earlier, it is not considered poisonous.
Over 10 years ago, University of California, Riverside professors debunked the story, and actually contacted the person who created the rumor years earlier. They wrote that the man created the false story for the following reasons, “…to show that 1) people are gullible, 2) that the internet is a frighteningly fast way to spread misinformation, 3) that people forward on information without checking the veracity of the information.”
They also point out that the urban legend started around 1999 and originally included completely bogus information. The story evolved by 2003 to name a real spider in the narrative, Telamonia dimidiata.
The professors conclude that “there is no reason to suspect (the spider) is dangerous.”
A July 2001 article from the New York Times addressed false stories of poisonous spiders lurking under toilet seats. At that time, the name of the spider connected with the phony story was the arachnius gluteus. The article includes several quotes from a clinical psychologist, Dr. Jennifer Taylor. She suggests that many Americans are distrustful and culturally deficient in regards to current medical knowledge, two possible reasons for the widespread perpetuation of such rumors. She was quoted as saying, “I think that people don’t know how to evaluate what is possible from what’s totally outlandish.”
In May 2013, the story resurfaced, and Jacksonville’s WJCT posted an article debunking the rumor. It was pointed out that the spider is neither deadly, nor in Florida, as the rumor suggests. WJCT also noted that the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office said there had been no reports of any incidents involving deadly spiders hiding in toilets.
In May 2014, the “two-striped telamonia” hoax saw yet another surge in social media sharing. The picture and narrative above were circulated, virtually unchanged.
The Two-Striped Telamonia is not considered poisonous, and there is no evidence that the narratives which have circulated for 15 years ever happened. In fact, many of these false narratives have evolved from an internet hoax which first circulated in the fall of 1999.
Updated December 16, 2014
Originally published September 2012