Brown recluse spider

A brown recluse spider. Image by user Ladyb695 on Wikimedia Commons, used via Creative Commons license. 

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The death of a Three Forks boy has sparked some people’s fear of spiders, but a Montana State University spider expert says they should put those fears to rest.

Laurie Kerzicnik has talked to more people in the past few days than in the nine months since she became the urban insect specialist at MSU’s Schutter Diagnostic Laboratory.

Part of her job is insect identification, and spiders are her specialty.

So she’s concerned about rumors that a brown-recluse spider might have caused 10-year-old Keith Pierce’s death because brown-recluse spiders aren’t found in Montana.

The territory of the brown recluse is limited to the southern states of the Midwest, from Kentucky and Tennessee across to Oklahoma and down into Louisiana and Texas. Only on rare occasions do people unknowingly transplant a few spiders when they move to a new residence

“I’ve received lots of calls; lots of confusion out there. It’s a state of panic. My role has been to try to get the facts out there,” Kerzicnik said. “It’s extremely unlikely that any spider bite around here would be from a brown recluse.”

Keith Pierce died early Monday morning in a Billings hospital after undergoing surgery on Sunday.

Before that, he had been treated at Bozeman Deaconess after his leg started to swell last week.

Gallatin County Undersheriff Dan Springer said investigators were sticking with the results of an initial autopsy, which hypothesized that the boy died from severe sepsis – inflammation throughout his body caused by severe infection – initiated by a spider bite.

But the investigation is continuing, and Springer said investigators couldn’t confirm the cause until the Montana State Laboratory analyzed the blood samples.

Springer couldn’t say when that analysis would be complete.

It’s possible that the swelling was a response to the bite from another spider or insect, but the boy’s inflammation was a response to a bacteria infection, Kerzicnik said.

In Montana, people regularly mistake brownish hobo spiders, which present little threat to humans, for brown recluse spiders. A number of native spiders have similar appearances.

“I don’t know who did the diagnosis, but I didn’t receive any spiders or any questions about the situation. If it’s not identified by a trained entomologist or arachnologist, the actual confirmation of the species is very skeptical,” Kerzicnik said. “Spiders often get blamed for these bacterial rashes and they have nothing to do with spiders. The venom itself does not cause infection.”

University of California researcher Rick Vetter said doctors blame spiders as the cause of many dermatological wounds, but in almost every case, there is no evidence of the spider.

For example, in a 2003 study, four arachnologists were contacted in regard to 216 brown recluse spider bite diagnoses made in California, Oregon, Washington and Colorado in 41 months. But, they could verify only 35 reports of brown recluse or Mediterranean recluse spiders in the four states.

Kerzicnik said people fear the reputation of the shy, nocturnal spider because of all the hype on the Internet over its venomous bite. So it’s often blamed for causing problems.

But although the bites can cause problems if left untreated, brown recluses rarely bite people and the bites aren’t fatal.

Even the bite of the distinctive black widow results in death in less than 1 percent of cases and only when the bite isn’t treated.

Kerzicnik pointed out that spiders are beneficial and get rid of a lot of flies and mosquitos. They tend to mind their own business if left alone.

Kerzicnik herself keeps one black widow spider and one tarantula as pets.

If anyone comes upon a spider that worries them, send a photo of the spider to Kerzicnik and she’ll do her best to identify it. Send the photo to lauren.kerzicnik@montana.edu.

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Laura Lundquist can be reached at llundquist@dailychronicle.com or at 406-582-2638.

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