When entomologist Nancy Hinkle arrived in Georgia, she was surprised at the level of angst generated by brown recluse spiders, the much-feared arachnids that can inject flesh-rotting venom into their victims.
Based on the claims of concerned residents, the spiders seemed to be lurking all over the state, poised to attack unwitting victims and leave them with gruesome wounds, she said.
"Everybody I ran into seemed to know somebody who had been bitten by a brown recluse," said Hinkle, who moved from California.
As a veterinary entomologist with the University of Georgia Extension Service, her specialty is lice, fleas, ticks and mites. But she also sees her share of spiders, many of them thought to be brown recluses.
As a scientist, Hinkle decided to gather some facts on the brown recluse threat in Georgia, her home since 2001.
In the six years since her arrival, she and her university colleagues have examined hundreds of spider samples, but only 14 confirmed brown recluses, Hinkle said. They found another 12 by checking the records of Georgia spiders turned over to museums. That brings the total to 26 that she was able to verify for her study.
She plans to publish a scientific paper on the spider's distribution in Georgia later this year and still is collecting spider samples.
Her conclusion so far is that the brown recluse lives in sporadic locations mostly in northwest Georgia, including the northern part of metro Atlanta. It had been thought to live in all 159 counties, but she has confirmed it in only 26 counties.
She said she can't identify the counties until her paper is published.
"More people are going to die in auto accidents in Georgia this weekend than have ever seen a brown recluse spider, much less been bitten by one," she said. "Their fear can be more productively spent fearing things that present real risks, such as automobile accidents, bad diets and other risky behaviors."
The heaviest concentration of brown recluses is in the Midwest, particularly the state of Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma, said entomologist Rick Vetter, an expert on the spiders at the University of California at Riverside who verified all the recluses in Hinkle's study.
There also are heavy populations in northern Alabama, northern Mississippi, as well as Memphis and Nashville, Tenn., but the density thins farther south, he said.
"They don't like the Gulf Coast," he said. "Georgia is just the tip of the distribution so they're very sparse."
Vetter said there is no reliable count of actual recluse bites because 90 percent of the bites produce no serious symptoms that require medical treatment. Those don't get reported, and skin problems that do get reported often can't be scientifically linked to recluses, he said.
"There's 60 different things it could be," he said.
Nevertheless, there's widespread fear of brown recluses, even in some unlikely locations, such as Alaska and Canada, he said. In rare cases, recluse venom can cause large lesions that require skin grafts to close.
"It's a psychological situation," he said. "People like to blame spiders. If you have a wound and don't know what it is, people go, 'It must be a spider bite."'
Brown recluses are nocturnal and like to live under rocks, tree bark and in the clutter of houses and old barns, he said.
Hinkle said a big reason for the study was to help physicians differentiate between recluse bites and a serious bacterial infection that can also cause skin lesions.
Health officials say methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), which can produce pimples, boils, blisters and even life-threatening blood disorders, is often misdiagnosed as a spider bite and has become a growing problem among athletes, children in daycare and people in crowded environments, such as prisons and jails.
Patients might not get proper treatment if either condition were diagnosed incorrectly, she said.
She's trying to help the medical community rule out recluse bites in areas that don't have the spiders.
"A diagnosis of a brown recluse bite in Savannah is highly questionable," she said.