By Andrew Sheeler Ketchikan Daily News
KETCHIKAN, Alaska — Nobody is quite sure where the wandering spider came from, but its travels ended Monday in a pool of alcohol.
All 6-year-old Isabelle Tavares wanted Sunday night was a snack. Instead, what she found was a spider belonging to Ctenidae family, which includes the widely feared Brazilian wandering spider, rated deadliest on Earth by the Guinness Book of World Records in 2010.
To Isabelle, it was just “Venomous Red-Fanged Jake.”
“I like my spider,” the Houghtaling student said Wednesday, as she held the deceased spider in a Petri dish. Still, she preferred it when it was alive and kicking. Her mother, Jennifer Tavares, felt differently. She said she was still in shock from finding the spider.
“I thought that there was absolutely no way this was real,” she said.
Tavares said Isabelle went to grab a banana from the fruit bowl when she came running back to her mother, screaming.
Isabelle wasn’t the only one shocked.
“(The spider) was pretty upset at first,” Tavares said. When she saw the spider, which measured a few inches wide, she said she could barely muster the courage to capture it. “And usually spiders don’t scare me.”
She did capture it, in a plastic container, which was wrapped with copious amounts of tape. Tavares’ brother-in-law, Roman Davis, looked the spider up online and, with the assistance of Tavares’ other children — Trevin and Natalie — tentatively identified it as the deadly Brazilian wandering spider.
Such spiders are known to infiltrate shipments of fruit, most often bananas, from time to time, ending up in grocery stores across the world.
Tavares said she’d purchased the bunch of bananas in which the spider was found Sunday morning. She said she was disturbed by the fact that family members had plucked bananas from the bunch a couple times during the day without disturbing the hidden arachnid.
She refused to say where she purchased the bananas, but said she did alert the store and the Ketchikan Medical Center.
The spider spent the night in its plastic jail, but Tavares said that did little for her family getting much sleep. She took the spider to the Daily News Monday morning. By Monday afternoon, it was in the hands of Scott Walker, a biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Walker’s no specialist, but he said he’s looked at enough spiders in his time on the job to be able to identify most kinds.
“I get people coming in about four or five times a year,” he said.
The vast majority of spiders brought in are just abnormally large common house spiders. Sometimes people bring in spiders they’ve crushed beyond recognition. Others simply provide him with grainy photographs.
“Venomous Red-Fanged Jake” was a special case. The spider was alive and reasonably healthy when Jake unwrapped the tape from the container and took a first look at it. As light reached it, the spider began to rapidly move around.
Walker euthanized the spider by squirting isopropyl alcohol into the container. The spider took several minutes to die. Once he was reasonably sure of its death, Walker examined the spider with a microscope.
“It has six eyes,” he said. The number of eyes, and the way they are arranged, can be an effective way to tell a spider’s family. Walker had a number of graphic aids to help with his search, but the spider was uncommon enough that it still took him a day to determine with confidence that yes, it was a wandering spider.
“But not a Brazilian (Genus Phoneutria),” he wrote in an email Wednesday. Walker said there were roughly 200 members of the wandering, or Ctenidae, spider family. Some are venomous to humans, others aren’t. He couldn’t say which category “Venomous Red-Fanged Jake” fell in. Other details that remained unknown included “Jake’s” sex and age.
Most importantly, Walker stressed, there’s no telling where the spider came from or how it got to Ketchikan. It could have come from South America, or any number of port cities that ships pass on the way to Ketchikan. It’s even possible the spider hatched in Ketchikan, though Walker said this was the first such sighting of the spider he’d seen.
Walker presented the dead spider, suspended in a vial filled with alcohol, to Isabelle and her family Wednesday. Jennifer Tavares said the spider had a spot reserved on her shelf. Even two days later, she said she was creeped out. She said she still can’t eat bananas.
“I’m going to rip apart every single banana before I put them in my cart from now on,” she said.