Dear Straight Dope:
All my life I've heard that the Daddy Long Legs spider is the most poisonous spider in the world — but his mouth is too small to bite you. Now I'm beginning to take flack from my buddies in defense of this theory. What can you tell me?
SDStaff Dogster replies:
Craig. Buddy. Pal. When Cecil slipped this one in my direction I was all pumped to help you put your buddies in their place. See, I’d heard this one too, had even read it recently in an article about a former baseball player-turned-coach who is suffering the effects of an unknown spider’s bite. So I eagerly cracked open my Grolier’s, my OED, my web search engine … and I did find out some extremely interesting facts about our spindly-legged friend, the Daddy Longlegs (I’m going to skip the differentiation between ‘poisonous’ and ‘venomous’). F’rinstance, you’re correct about its mouth size — too small to bite humans. It feeds on small insects or the corpses of larger ones. It has a penis, which makes it different from spiders. In fact, the Daddy Longlegs is not technically a spider, although it is an arachnid. I even learned its mating dance. But what I didn’t learn was the answer to your question. I ran out of new source material. Despair loomed. Failure before Cecil’s eyes is damning indeed.
Then, in the distance, a glimmer of hope. I had visited a slew of arachnid websites, drawing blanks. In desperation, I E-mailed various names from the sites. Just when all seemed lost, Herman Vanuytven came forth from the Arachnology Home page (http://www.ufsia.ac.be/Arachnology/Arachnology.html) [link now defunct]. Herman’s response:
“The problem with the ‘Daddy Longlegs’ is that the name is used for several kinds of animals, 2 of them arachnids:
1) The family Phalangiidae (a part of the opilionids [harvestmen], a different order than spiders)
2) a spider: Pholcus phalangioides
Number one doesn’t have poison glands. Number two has poison glands but as far as is known in the scientific world, nobody has ever been bitten by one of them. It’s not sure if the poison has ever been investigated since there was no need for it.”
Thanks, Herman. You’re a lifesaver.
Hmmm. Craig, ask for a draw. Claim that the conclusive proof has yet to be determined (hey, it’s true), and then buy the next round as a distraction. Meanwhile, I’m going to see if this mating dance works on my date.
Send questions to Cecil via firstname.lastname@example.org.
STAFF REPORTS ARE WRITTEN BY THE STRAIGHT DOPE SCIENCE ADVISORY BOARD, CECIL'S ONLINE AUXILIARY. THOUGH THE SDSAB DOES ITS BEST, THESE COLUMNS ARE EDITED BY ED ZOTTI, NOT CECIL, SO ACCURACYWISE YOU'D BETTER KEEP YOUR FINGERS CROSSED.