A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Do poisonous spiders lurk under toilet seats?

March 18, 2003

Dear Straight Dope:

I recently received the following e-mail and was wondering whether this is just another hoax junk mail or if some person somewhere is stupid enough to not worry about any spider bite on the their butt! Please help save the teeming millions.

This is a deliberate permutation of an openly-confessed hoax. The original version (in which the poisonous arachnid was called the Blush Spider, Arachnius gluteus, and was found at a restaurant in Chicago's "Blair Airport"; a web search on "Blush Spider" will reveal all) was a deliberate experiment started by someone who wanted to see how far an easily-debunked urban legend could get, and who 'fessed up shortly after it became evident that it had gone way too far. The current version is obviously someone's idea of payback for a bad dining experience at a place called Olive Garden in north Florida, designed to scare people into avoiding the restaurant. In a perfect world Olive Garden could trace the &@*$% that sent this out and sue their ass, but I wouldn't hold my breath.

Here's a rundown on some of the fraudulent details in the story: 

Hoax claim: The article about four people being killed by the spider was published in the Journal of United Medical Association (JUMA). 

Reality: There is no such journal listed in the publication List of Journals Indexed in Index Medicus. This book lists nearly all the medical journals in the world, 244 pages of journals, 3 columns to a page, 20 journals to a column. Over 14,000 medical journals and not one Journal of United anything. The name is an obvious takeoff on the Journal of the American Medical Association, commonly referred to as JAMA. 

Another obviously phony aspect of the story is that the warning was published in a peer-reviewed medical journal. If you know how any medical or scientific publication takes place, you realize that in order for a manuscript to be published, it must be submitted, then reviewed by a panel of reviewers, sent back to the author with editorial comments, resubmitted with changes, sent to the printer, page proofs printed up and returned to the author to check for typos and such and then published. This process typically takes about a year. If there were poisonous spiders killing people in the U.S, do you really think that the medical community would sit on this information for more than a year before making it well known? In addition, , journal articles aren't written in the gossipy, casual style evident in the story. 

Hoax claim: The spiders are found under airplane toilet seats. 

Reality: The chemicals used in airplane lavatories are not compatible with spider survival. 

Hoax claim: The hoax mentions the Civilian Aeronautics Board (CAB). 

Reality: There is not now and never was a Civilian Aeronautics Board. There was a Civil Aeronautics Board, but it was abolished in 1984 in the wake of airline deregulation.

One final tidbit, if all else is not convincing: The author of the original hoax did indeed confess to intentionally starting the hoax. His name is Steve Heard, and he was in San Francisco at the time he initiated the Arachnius gluteus story (and is now in San Jose). According to snopes, the Telamonia dimidiata variant first appeared in October of 2002, and Steve has personally communicated that he had nothing to do with the new incarnation. Telamonia dimidiata, incidentally, is a real species of jumping spider from India, but its venom is harmless.

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