Life as a falconer, insect systematist, and double Masters Student (or a look into the mind of someone who is questionably sane).

21 March 2009

What were they thinking?

The alleged Brazilian wandering spider in Tulsa is a great example as to why we need collections (and taxonomists to work in them). A brief summary of the story: spider found in banana section of whole foods in Tulsa, OK. Manager is concerned its dangerous and commits mistake number 1- taking it to University of Tulsa. Now I'm sure U. of Tulsa is well known for something, but trust met arachnid identification is not it. Once there the spider is shown to the animal facilities manager- mistake number 2. I'm not exactly sure what animal facilities managers do but I expect their knowledge of exotic spider taxonomy is rather limited. Rather than sending the manager off to an actual expert he gave an ID. I'm not sure what his id was based on but whatever the case he made an identification as a Brazilian wandering spider. To be fair if you don't know what something is (and you've made the decision somehow to still answer the question) I guess its safer for all involved to go with it being the more dangerous option rather than saying its not dangerous and finding out the hard way it was (like the assumption an unidentified snake is venomous until it is identified as otherwise). After the determination was made mistake number 3 occurred. According to the new articles after identification the specimen was destroyed at urging of an administrator at the school making it impossible to figure out what species the spider actually was. Based on photos and videos of the spider in question various scientists are questioning the identification.

Although the first two mistakes caused the problem in the first place (taking the specimen to a diagnostic lab at major university or the USDA would have allowed identification by either a trained personal or if that was not possible sent to a specialist for determination) they are not the biggest problem. That distinction goes to mistake number 3. The first two mistakes could have been easily fixed if the specimen was available for study. Destroying the specimen compounded the previous errors by preventing a formal identification by experts. Instead they are stuck watching videos trying to look for distinguishing characters, a process which would take seconds with the specimen in hand.

Incidents like these highlight the need for taxonomists and collections. One of the cardinal rules of taxonomy is always keep the specimens. If the spider had been shown to a taxonomist of any flavor be it spiders or sea-slugs the importance of keeping the specimen in good condition would have been known. Related to the retention of specimens is the need for well maintained collections. If the manager of Whole Foods had taken the spider to Oklahoma State it could have been compared to known specimens held in the collection, making identification (even by someone with limited spider knowledge) more possible.

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