Do not approach – fanged and dangerous
Toughened glass, several different locks, and video surveillance: our European black widow is just one centimetre long and yet she is the most heavily guarded creature in the whole of Aquarium Berlin – perhaps even in the entire city.
European black widow Tessa has been on display since the summer. Because the female of this spider species has such a venomous bite, Zoo Director Dr Andreas Knieriem decided to put stringent security measures in place. “Visiting the Aquarium should be an exciting experience,” said Knieriem, “which is why we’re pleased our visitors get to see a black widow. But security is our top priority, as a bite from this spider is no laughing matter.”
The black widow lives in a terrarium made of toughened glass. Only the section’s head keeper Robert Seuntjens and a few of his staff have access to the terrarium. Inside is a second box, which is the actual home of our leggy black widow Tessa. “The small separate box is there so we can better display the spider,” says Seuntjens. “Otherwise our visitors would never be able to find such a small creature. And the same would go for the staff, too. It would only be a matter of time before somebody got bitten.”
Tessa lives surrounded by exotic insects and spiders from all over the world on the third floor of Aquarium Berlin – high above the reptiles and past the unique jellyfish breeding area. A video camera records which keeper enters the terrarium when (the camera does not film the visitor area). In addition, a close record is kept of every time the box is opened. Why all this fuss over such an incy-wincy creature?
Although the venom of the European black widow is not as toxic as that of its more southerly relatives, a bite from Tessa and her ilk should not be underestimated. Muscle rigidity, increased blood pressure, rapid pulse, severe sweating, stomach cramps and headache are just some of the symptoms caused by the bite of a female European black widow. The venom is very rarely fatal, but there have been instances of death by respiratory paralysis. The black widow is not an aggressive species and does not attack unprovoked – only if she feels threatened or trapped.
Black widow habitats
Black widows live in relatively dry areas such as steppes. The European variety is at home anywhere with sparse vegetation – chiefly in Spain, France (especially Corsica), Italy, Croatia, Bulgaria, Romania and the Black Sea coast.
Black widows spend their lives close to the ground, where they feed primarily on beetles and other insects that get caught in their webs.
She’s a man-eater!
The black widow got its name from its deadly mating ritual. After copulation, the female may consume the far smaller male – thus making a “widow” of herself. Although in actual fact, only around 12 percent of male black widows meet this fate.