What Bit Me
Thank God, I am now fully recovered from the bite that I received two weeks ago and which led to my spending a night in hospital. Fortunately, blood tests showed that there was no cellulitis and no infection, despite the fact that my arm was disfigured from wrist to armpit. (Accordingly, the various antibiotics that I received intravenously, while prudent in case of infection, turned out to have been needless.) Nor was there any allergic reaction. In fact, aside from a few days of nausea, the only effects during the entire week was one day in which there was generalized pain in my arm. Nevertheless, I am very grateful for all the good wishes that I received, as well as for the Photoshop images that I put to use in the collage above.
But there is still the question of what actually bit me. I keep having to explain to people that it wasn't anything at the Biblical Museum of Natural History, notwithstanding the fact that I handle tarantulas and snakes there on a regular basis. Meanwhile, I wrote to a leading arachnologist (spider expert) in Israel, who wasn't sure how to explain it and referred me to another arachnologist. The second arachnologist was mystified and referred the question to other specialists at universities in Israel. There is no agreement as to what it was. But there is one explanation that, all things considered, seems most likely, or at least, least unlikely.
Two puncture holes are normally characteristic of snakebite, but there is no way that a snake bit me without my noticing. Centipedes have forcipules, two front legs that are modified into stingers that pierce the skin and inject venom, but such bites are painful, whereas I felt no pain at the place of the bite at any stage.
This is why I concluded that it must have been a spider. But which spider? Israel has one species of tarantula, which I sometimes find in my garden, but its bite does not generally have severe effects, and it is extremely unlikely that I was bitten on my arm by one. The only two spiders in Israel which have a bite that has severe effects are the Mediterranean black widow (Latrodectus tredecimguttatus, pictured here) and the Mediterranean recluse (Loxosceles rufescens). Of these two, it is the black widow which is generally said to leave twin puncture holes, which is why I initially presumed that I had been bitten by a black widow.
However, this explanation was problematic. First of all, while there are black widows in Israel - in fact, a colleague from the museum saw one in Beit Shemesh the other week - they rarely enter houses and even more rarely bite people. Second, the distance between the two puncture marks, three to four millimeters, seemed too great for the fangs of the black widow.
At this point I consulted an arachnologist at a US museum, who insisted that the widespread belief that highly visible twin punctures are produced by spider bites is a myth that has little basis in reality. Even big tarantulas have fangs that, while large, are very thin at the end, and do not generally leave visible holes. A small spider, like those in Israel, would not leave twin punctures from its two fangs.
So, what two-fanged creature bit me? Two people had an intriguing explanation. They argued that I wasn't bitten by a creature with two large fangs. Instead, I was bitten by a creature with two small fangs - twice, a few millimeters apart.
If that's what happened, then the rest of the symptoms are easier to explain. The two relatively large holes are the result of the skin immediately around each bite being affected by the venom. And the lymphangitis (the discoloration and swelling of my lymph channels up to my armpit) is consistent with the effects of a bite by a Mediterranean recluse.
The Mediterranean recluse, also known as the violin spider, is very similar to the infamous brown recluse of the USA. There are notorious cases of recluse bites leading to very serious necrosis (the internet has some absolutely hideous pictures). However, such cases are actually quite rare, and death is rarer still, with only a single case known.
Aside from their unusually toxic cocktail of venom which occasionally results in severe necrosis, the particularly novel aspect of recluse spiders is that their bite is usually painless. And interestingly, recluse spiders typically bite humans only as a desperate last line of defense as they are being crushed between the flesh and something else. This happens most frequently indoors, as a result of rolling over on the spider in bed, or putting on clothing which contains the spider. All this is perfectly consistent with the bite that I received, which happened unnoticed, and was on my arm, under my sleeve.
Still, this is far from a definite conclusion. It seems that recluses usually bite once, not twice. One of the leading arachnologists that I consulted said that it just didn't look like a recluse bite. And so it remains something of an enigma.
Yet the weirdest aspect of all this is not that I received a weird unexplained bite. Nor is the weirdest aspect that the person who receives a weird unexplained bite just so happens to be a person who runs a natural history museum with weird animals, which didn't bite him. The weirdest aspect, the very weirdest aspect, is something so utterly weird that I will devote the next post to it.
(If you'd like to subscribe to this blog via email, use the form on the right of the page, or send me an email and I will add you.)