Whoa! Did Scientists Discover a Winged Spider?

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A Spider with Wings?

Winged Spider
Viral image purports to be a scan of a newspaper clipping confirming that a scientists have discovered the existence of a "winged spider". Viral image

Description: Viral image / Hoax
Circulating since: Dec. 2012
Status: Fake

Analysis: The very notion that spiders might take wing and attack from the air must give give nightmares to arachnophobes, but if you are one of those so afflicted you can rest easy in this instance because the image is bogus, as is the caption. No such discovery was made. No such critter is known to exist.

The fake image was created by doctoring an actual photo of a common fishing spider (Dolomedes sp.) found on this website: North Carolina Spider Photos. The original is credited to Will Cook of Duke University. Fishing spiders, so called because they usually live near water, are similar to wolf spiders in size, shape and color. They do bite, but their venom is relatively harmless to people who don't have special sensitivities to spider venoms.

Can spiders fly?

While the alleged discovery touted above is a hoax, be aware that there is such a thing as a "winged spider" (scientific name Araneus albotriangulus, more commonly known as an orb weaver spider), but don't panic. Its so-called "wings" are only decorative markings. It can't fly. Nor is its venom particularly toxic.

I regret to report that it isn't strictly accurate to say that spiders never fly, however. There's a documented phenomenon known as "ballooning" wherein some smaller arachnid species use strands of their own silk to glide long distances through the air on breezy days — sometimes hundreds of miles.

In an incident that occurred in May 2015, witnesses in Goulburn, Australia described seeing baby spiders "raining from the sky." Experts attributed the phenomenon to many mothers in a large population of spiders giving birth at the same time, plus favorable weather conditions — mainly warm, rising air currents — that sent thousands of newly hatched baby spiders and their webs aloft. Mass ballooning events like this aren't unheard of, but they are fairly rare, the experts said. They also pointed out that baby spiders can't bite humans — as if that would give solace to a true arachnophobe.

An anomalous incident in the 19th century

The following incident was reported, without explanation or follow-up, in the January 1894 issue of Entomological News:

Newport, Ky., August 3. -- A deadly insect has appeared about the electric lights. People stung by the insect suffer intensely. A sudden swelling and a peculiar somnolent condition follow the bite. Michael Ryan was stung Saturday and died last night. Judge Helm, of the Circuit Court, is laid up with his neck swollen to twice its normal size. Harry Clark, another victim, is in a precarious condition. Local entomologists describe the bug as a sort of winged spider.

Update

Early Summer Threatens UK with Volat-Araneus (The Flying Spider) - This humorous March 2014 revamp of the winged spider hoax subjected readers to a double dose of trickery. After reporting that scientists had confirmed that a large number of flying spiders were expected to migrate to England that year to feed on a burgeoning population of their main food source, false widow spiders, the article went on to admit it was all just a hoax designed to attract traffic to the website.I'm sure it's no coincidence that said website is no longer accessible by the general public.

Sources and further reading:

'Scientists Discover Winged Spider!' What a Headline! And What a Picture!
Insect House, 9 January 2013

North Carolina Spider Photos
Carolina Nature, 21 April 2013

Dolomedes Sp. - Fishing Spider
Florida Nature, 13 May 2002

Winged Spider - Araneus Albotriangulus
Brisbane Insects and Spiders, 18 March 2010

Leap Forward for 'Flying' Spiders
BBC News, 12 July 2006