Is It True That Scientists Discovered a Winged Spider?

In 2012, an image went viral purporting to show that scientists had discovered a spider with wings. The very notion that spiders might take flight and attack from the air must give nightmares to arachnophobes, but if you are one of those so afflicted you can rest easy—the image is bogus, as is the caption. No such discovery was made, and no such critter is known to exist.

The fake image was created by doctoring an actual photo of a common fishing spider found on 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. And most importantly, they don't have wings.

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 albotriangulusand more commonly known as the orb weaver spider). But don't panic. The spider's so-called "wings" are only decorative markings. This little creature can't fly, nor is its venom particularly toxic.

However, it isn't strictly strictly accurate to say that spiders never fly. There's a documented phenomenon known as "ballooning" wherein some small 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. Furthermore, baby spiders can't bite humans, though that may not be much consolation to true arachnophobes.

Reports of Winged Spiders

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."

In 2014, a revamped version of the flying spider hoax appeared online, this time subjecting 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. It's probably no coincidence that the site has since shut down.