Nasty!!! The only thing on this planet I am allergic to is spiders. Holy arachnophobia Batman ... this is one of my worst nightmares.
potentially a new species
pounce at anything that comes near them
grabs on after it bites
‘Tarantulas’ invade Assam town, ‘kill’ two
Jintu Gogoi's neighbourhood in Sadiya, Upper Assam, is no longer friendly. Over two weeks ago, an army of eight-legged freaks invaded it. It all happened in the evening on May 8. Most of the inhabitants of Chaulkhowa Nagaon village had been to a Bihu function. When the programme drew to a close, swarms of spiders suddenly descended from nowhere and started biting the people. The festive mood soon turned into one of panic with people bumping into each other and tripping over empty benches in their frantic bid to egress. Jintu was bitten by one of these critters.
It all sounded like a scene from a Hollywood horror flick, but as Jintu showed his blackened, swollen finger, to TOI, it became clear that it was not some elaborate hoax created by some mischief-monger, it was something that happened for real. But the panic it triggered could have been certainly avoided had there been enough awareness among laymen and mandarins about arachnids.
Jintu spent a day at the Sadiya Civil Hospital after he complained of excruciating pain and nausea. When he returned home, he had more terrifying stories to tell. Terror was still writ large on his face even two weeks after the incident, but he thanked his stars for being alive. His neighbour,
Purnakanta Buragohain, was not that lucky. He died in the hospital after a spider allegedly bit him.
The events that unfolded in the next few days left everyone baffled. Scores of people arrived in the Sadiya civil hospital with spider bites, some even carrying their tormentors to the hospital. Amid all this, another person, this time a schoolboy, died of an alleged spider bite. And the district administration panicked. They sounded an alert across Tinsukia district and asked people to stay indoors at night-the time the unknown critters would swarm all over the place. They talked about fogging the place with DDT to kill the arachnids but couldn't find any effective solution. What's worse: they even let the two bodies to be cremated without conducting any autopsy. Yet the spider menace continued. None had any answer as to what kind of a spider it was and how it made such a sudden appearance.
Then on May 22, a team of life scientists from Dibrugarh University and Gauhati University arrived in Sadiya. Led by Dr L R Saikia, head, Department of Life Sciences, Dibrugarh University, the team camped in the trouble spot for two days and nights and collected specimens. "As of now, we cannot give a specific name. It's similar to the tarantula, but it could be a whole new species. There aren't any arachnologists in the northeast, so it will take us a while to identify it. But whatever the species, it is a highly aggressive spider. It leaps at anything that comes close. Some of the victims claimed the spider latched onto them after biting. If that is so, it needs to be dealt with carefully. The chelicerae and fangs of this critter are quite powerful; but it's too early to declare it a killer spider. In fact, we are yet to test its venom and find out the toxicity," says Dr Saikia.
"We cannot say for sure that the fatalities were due to the venom; it could have been because of allergic reaction to the venom, which triggered cardiac arrest in both the victims. But all the bite patients first went to witch doctors, who cut open their wounds with razors, drained out blood and burnt it. That could have also made them sick. Also, we didn't administer any antivenin dose, as we were not sure if the spider was venomous," says Dr Anil Phatowali, superintendent, Sadiya Civil Hospital.
He adds that the hospital is ill-equipped to handle crises due to manpower crunch, erratic power supply and equipment shortage.
Dr Ratul Rajkhowa of the zoology department of Cotton College, Guwahati, has seen the spider. In fact, one of the dead creatures has been preserved in the department laboratory. He echoes Dr Saikia's views but says it's too early to call it a tarantula. "It could be the black wishbone or a species related to it. Or may be a species related to the funnel-web spider.
Whatever it is, it is definitely new to the area. Assam doesn't have venomous spiders, it never had any throughout history, or there would have been some document, text or art that depicted this spider. People wouldn't have panicked like this; they are scared because they have seen something like this for the first time and don't know how to deal with it. They are used to the common house spider, which runs away when you even snap your finger close to it. But this spider attacks if you try to scare it off. Those who were bitten have said that when they tried to shoo it off, it leapt at them and buried its fangs."
If the spider is indeed the black wishbone, which is found in Australia, how did it come all the way to Assam? Or, if it is the funnel-web spider, how did it suddenly appear at a place that is not its usual habitat? These questions have baffled experts. "There is a lot of insect fauna that is still to be discovered. Therefore, this could be a big find. However, what is worrying is the way these arachnids surfaced all of a sudden and started biting everyone around. Its behaviour shows that it is not used to human presence; so, there is some ground to believe that this may have been accidentally or intentionally introduced to our eco-system.
Usually, animals and insects behave differently if they are introduced to a different habitat; many show an aggressive strain, especially after they have mated with local species. The hybrid ones become stronger and more aggressive. For instance, the Africanized bee or the 'killer bee', which resulted after 26 Tanzanian queen bees escaped from an apiary in Brazil and mated with local bees, was a hybrid species that also killed 1,000 people in Brazil alone. Today, it has reached up to central United States," says an entomologist on condition of anonymity.
He adds, "Sadiya is not alien to terror. The place was notorious for human sacrifice until the mid-19th century when the British stopped this barbaric practice. The place also suffered immensely during the 1897 and 1950 earthquakes. Then came insurgency. There were brutal gun battles in Dibru-Saikhowa National Park a few years ago between the Army and insurgents. Recently, four suspected Maoists were gunned down here. People so used to terror will not panic because of spiders unless there is something really scary about it. The government should delve into this issue and find out how these arachnids arrived here. Instead, they are doing blunder after blunder."
On May 28, the spider allegedly appeared in Nalbari, Lower Assam-a good 600 km away from Sadiya-and bit a woman. The woman not only trapped the spider, she was also sane enough to come to a hospital instead of visiting a witch doctor. When TOI contacted the deputy commissioner, Lalit Gogoi, on May 31, he informed that the woman took the spider back home after treatment. It didn't occur to the babus that the specimen should have been retained and sent for lab testing.
One thing that is unexplained is how the black spider appeared in swarms. "A certain anomaly in conditions may provoke an unusual surge in breeding populations. Swarms of spiders are rare, although they have been reported, usually after flooding when the spiders search for dry and higher ground," says British naturalist Dr Vejay K Singh, popularly known as Dr Venom. He has heard about the spider menace and says he would like to come down and check the spider himself.
TOI had showed him an image of the spider, to which he responded: "This is indeed a theraphosid spider or more commonly called tarantula. Most likely from the genus selenocosmia or lyrognathus, but more probably the former. The spiders are nocturnal, which explains why the attacks took place at night. The selenocosmia are aggressive spiders and will bite readily when provoked. However, they are not a social spider like the poecilotheria (tree spiders) which occur in south India and Sri Lanka. So a suggestion of swarms is puzzling. Perhaps, it is more likely to be a freak case of a population sprawl in the area. And although aggressive by nature, these spiders are not considered dangerous with regards to toxicity, and are unlikely to cause a fatal bite in a healthy individual."
Dibrugarh University has, meanwhile, sent spider specimens to Indian Society of Arachnology, Maharashtra, for identification. Their report pending and without any spider specialist visiting the region, the truth about the mysterious spider attacks in Assam continues to be covered by a cobweb.