The venomous brown recluse spider, whose bite can cause reactions ranging from minor irritation to flesh-killing necrosis and even death, may be finding in Michigan a more comfortable home than previously thought.
A homeowner in Davison, just east of Flint, discovered a pair of the spiders earlier this month in the family's detached, unheated garage, said Michigan State University entomologist Howard Russell. It's the sixth confirmed discovery of the brown recluse in Michigan since 2011.
The spider's body can reach just under a half-inch in length, but with its spread legs, it's about the size of a quarter. It often has a violin-shaped marking on the top of its torso.
Nine times out of 10, a person bitten by a brown recluse will react as they do to any spider, bug or mosquito bite, experts say.
But to those who have a more adverse reaction, a brown recluse bite can be devastating, even deadly. A bite from the spider killed a healthy, 58-year-old woman, Betty Ann Strickland, near the rural Osceola County village of Tustin in July 2014. And a Jackson truck driver, bitten this January from a brown recluse he likely brought north with him in his tractor-trailer from southern states, spent six weeks in the hospital, losing large portions of flesh on his upper leg and buttocks.
The Davison discovery is intriguing to MSU's Russell. The garage has not stored items from the spider's more typical U.S. range, from southern Nebraska east to southern Ohio, and south to Texas and the Gulf of Mexico, Russell said. Cold winter temperatures are thought to be a limiting factor on the spread of the brown recluse.
"In the case in Davison, it appears brown recluse spiders survived the winter of 2016-17 in an unheated garage," he said.
"Does this indicate transported populations (from the South), or is this evidence of range expansion? That's the question, and I don't know."
The man who literally wrote the book on brown recluse spiders, retired University of California-Riverside research associate Richard Vetter, said they don't disperse easily.
"If you get them in a garage, and the house is 25 feet away, you're probably never going to get them in your house," he said.
The spiders seem to be somewhat reluctant biters.
"A woman in Kansas collected over 2,000 recluse spiders in her house over six months," Vetter said. "It took 11 years for somebody in that house to get bitten by a spider."
Brown recluse bite reactions "will range from a little, mosquito-bite type of thing to, potentially, a nasty lesion" in which the flesh surrounding the bite dies, known as necrosis, he said.
"Ninety percent of recluse bites do virtually nothing and heal by themselves," Vetter said. "Ten percent of the time, it can develop necrosis. The minor ones aren't news; the really horrible reactions are what get into the news."
Like Gaylord Brooks' reaction.
Brooks, 58, from Jackson, never felt the two brown recluse spider bites he received around his buttocks and the back of his upper thigh in January. The spider was likely picked up as he was driving a tractor-trailer up from runs into southern states in the spider's natural range.
Over days, the bites became increasingly painful, inflamed and dark, and Brooks felt worse and worse, he said. On Jan. 20, he walked into a hospital, and blacked out at the counter.
Brooks was taken into surgery, with doctors removing large areas of necrotic flesh from his lower buttocks, hamstring and a portion of his thigh.
"They took all of the flesh, muscle and meat," he said. "I have big, athletic legs, and they were only a half-inch from my femur. I thought, 'I'm never going to be able to use my leg again.'"
Brooks spent two weeks in an intensive care unit, and an additional 31/2 weeks in the hospital. He's had four additional surgeries on his leg, as doctors realigned and reconstructed his remaining leg muscles, and did plastic surgery because "it looks like I was bitten by a shark," he said.
Brooks continues to recover, and is re-learning how to walk. His doctors tell him he may now always have pain.
"Please be careful around this spider," he said. "I so badly want to show the world what the damage and outcome of what they can do to the human flesh. But it's so horrifying to see."
Those who think they've discovered a brown recluse spider can send photos and location information to Russell at firstname.lastname@example.org.