As it turns out, there’s this little spider, Oonops domesticus, from somewhere in the south of England. It seems it made it’s way over here by one channel or another, as vermin do, probably quite a very long time ago, and eluded detection, otherwise how do we explain what happened? I bring this up only by comparison, because it seems a newly discovered species, or should I say, emergent species, has made an appearance from coast to coast here in the US. Its discovery was inevitable. Its history, however, has been elusive thus far. It has been dubbed Oonops ridleyus, much to the chagrin of many in the field of biology.
What we’ve managed to guess is that there must have been some hitherto undetected spread of O. domesticus, the tiny house spider, to the US long enough ago that O. ridleyus would derive from an ancestor on these shores. Otherwise, we’d have to assume that they originated from the UK recently, with no way to explain either how they’ve been unreported there, given their characteristics, or how they became so widely and thoroughly distributed here. Researchers are still struggling to determine what must have happened to cause such radical differences between O. ridleyus and O. domesticus.
What we know is very limited by comparison. The first known report of O. ridleyus was actually in a tabloid newspaper of all places. HORRIBLE, spider erupts from hole in woman’s leg! While this turned out to be no Bat Boy, unfortunately, they did play up the facts quite a bit for the story. The cover photo must have been pieced together from stock photography, and looks utterly horrifying, more so for an arachnophobe, I’m sure. A huge, hairy, 8-eyed monster looks menacing as it clambers toward the camera over the edge of what looks like torn skin, as seen through a macroscope. In all reality, this little devil is only about 1 mm long, but that’s the larger male. Females only get about 0.5 to 0.7 mm, as far as we know.
The woman was actually in an ER, in Robichaux, Louisiana, deep in Cajun country, to be treated for a wound on her thigh sustained in a car wreck. She was driving along, an itchy boil she’d had for weeks going mad as hell all of a sudden, when it distracted her just long enough for her to rear-end the guy ahead of her. While she was talking to the doctor as he was getting everything in order to stitch up the 2-inch cut just above her knee, she asked him about the boil. As Dr. Gilead tells it, while he was palping the boil to get an idea of its size and tenderness, the skin across the top of what must have been a ½” cyst ripped open a bit and what he thought was a small dark plug of sebum started to emerge, along with a bit of clear discharge. Just an ingrown hair that got out of hand, he thought, or a clogged pore.
Except that that first tiny little bit of dark matter wasn’t wax and dirt. It was the first of what turned out to be dozens of tiny spiders. Freakish and odd, of course, perfect tabloid material. For that matter, hobbyist debunkers came out of the woodworks citing Snopes, again and again, “there’s no such thing!”
The story made it around the Internet, as urban legends do, and soon there were copycats. Another story came out the next week, this time it was a guy. This time it was Chicago, in the Health section of a local paper there. The week after, there were three more stories, one from just outside Portland, Oregon, one from San Diego, one from Boise. The week after that? 17 stories from around the country, and it got national attention from NPR. An oddity, a curiosity, with which to feel entertained and edified simultaneously if NPR is your thing. Monday following, the NY Steward ran a piece that got picked up by just about every news aggregator online. By the end of that week, the Robichaux photo was the latest social networking meme-craze, with phrases like, “Wanna see my defense mechanism. Killl me,” and “Bring back lifeform. Priority one.” The scientist that had the honor of naming this new menace must have been aware of the meme.
Also by the end of that week, the cases were pouring in, the CDC made a vaguely-phrased announcement about it being too soon for alarm, and to rest assured that they had not yet detected any threat from these pests greater than itchy cysts, but that it was important to get them looked at as soon as possible upon detection, to help prevent spreading. Spreading? Well of course, they were already located from one end of the country to the other, as far north as Seattle, as far south as Miami. Since it was the summer months, nobody knew for sure what would become of them in northern climes once winter set in.
But that’s not what the CDC meant about spreading. Some patients were presenting with several dozen. The worst case was 72 cysts, scattered all over the patient’s body, andelderly chap that had been confined to bed. For over a week, his sister thought he had been complaining of bedsores.
As of yesterday, additional inspectors from many federal agencies are coordinating with the CDC to try to determine their source and the manner in which they are spreading. To date, no supply or distribution chain accounts for the pattern of their emergence over time. They are reported in major cities as well as small towns. Pest control companies are reporting increased business from every income level.
Ridley Scott fans have now taken to calling it Necronom, after the name of the H. R. Giger print in which Scott’s famous alien first appeared. Sillier sorts are calling it Necronomnomnom. The trend has caught on well beyond the Internet now, with most people just calling them Necros.
Image credit: Jose Ferdinand Fajarda, licensed under Creative Commons.