Doctor’s web of intrigue on spiders in the North East

DON’T like very big spiders scuttling across the floor of your home?

DON’T like very big spiders scuttling across the floor of your home? Well Geoff Oxford does. In fact, he goes fishing for them.

Geneticist Dr Oxford has a particular interest in large house spiders.

The North East is already nationally important as a stronghold for red squirrels and on the Tyne has the furthest inland nesting colony of kittiwakes in the world.

Now Dr Oxford’s research has revealed that the region is also tops nationally for populations of one large house spider, Tegenaria Atrica – Teg for short – which can measure 6cms in diameter from leg to leg.

Today, Dr Oxford will be giving a talk on Teg at the North East Wildlife Recording conference at the Great North Museum in Newcastle.

Teg is considered to be rare in England and Wales, although it is widespread on the Continent.

Previously, it tended to be found spasmodically only in locations such as ports, post offices and garden centres where it was thought to be imported on packages.

But five years ago David Smith, a member of the British Arachnological Society which studies spiders, found Teg in his home in Burnopfield in County Durham.

It was identified by Dr Oxford, who says: “ He clearly had a viable, living and breathing population at his home.”

They expanded the search and found more Tegs elsewhere in Burnopfield and also in Stanley, Pelton, Whickham, Blaydon and Ryton.

A sweep this year has revealed Tegs in Newcastle, Gateshead, Longbenton and Whitley Bay.

They are found not only in homes but also garages, outhouses, sheds and places like graveyards.

“To catch the spiders we use a technique called fishing,” says Dr Oxford.

This involves dropping a live maggot on to a web and when the spider dashes out of its hiding place to investigate, it is captured.

“I catch the spider with my bare hands and pop it into a tube so it can be identified, “ says Dr Oxford.

“If it is immature I take it home and rear it up, feeding it two maggots a week, until it can be identified.”

There are two other species of large house spider, widespread in England and Wales, called Gigantea and Saeva.

They began moving North in the 1960s.

“It is nothing to do with central heating as they are also found outside homes,” says Dr Oxford.

But in the North East these advancing species appear to have moved around the concentrations of Tegenaria Atrica.

“Atrica seems to be the only species present,” says Dr Oxford.

Two species of large house spider were found by naturalists in the Newcastle area in 1887 and Dr Oxford believes these could have been Teg.

“It may have established itself before 1887 and spread out gradually,” says Dr Oxford.

“These are the species which run across people’s floors. They are totally harmless and eat flies and moths.”

Males live for around 18 months and females for up to two and a half years.

“In and around our homes are between 20 to 30 species of spiders,” says Dr Oxford.

Many people, especially women, recoil from spiders.

“Big house spiders can give some people the creeps,” says Dr Oxford.

“There is some evidence that chimps don’t like spiders either, so it may be some sort of innate reaction.

“But I think spiders are fantastic creatures which are beautiful to look at and I would encourage people to look kindly on them.

“Rather than backing away, they should spend time looking at them.

“If parents are windy about spiders, children will probably grow up to behave the same, which does a great disservice to spiders.”


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