You've probably already read the alarmist headlines: Joro spiders parachute from the sky, millions could spread across the country, not to mention, they're huge.
To break down what's true and false in the latest terrifying invasive species news cycle (looking at you, murder hornets), NBCLX talked to someone who, by his own admission, has held more Joro spiders than anyone else in Georgia. That's where the spiders, native to Southeastern Asia, were first spotted in the U.S. in 2013 and are spreading from. Athens, home to University of Georgia, is the epicenter.
Here's what Ben Frick — an undergraduate researcher at the University of Georgia and co-author of a recent study investigating the Joro spider's ability to survive cold and spread — had to say. This interview has been edited for clarity.
Where are Joro spiders showing up on the East Coast in the U.S.?
Over the course of this past season [from spring to early winter], we saw the Joros moving more into Tennessee. We could expect them move into North Carolina and possibly even Virginia this coming season. It depends on where, how and when people transport them. For example, a UGA grad student accidentally transported a Joro from Athens to Oklahoma on the back of her car. It's likely we're going to see Joros over a fairly large portion of the East Coast within the next decade or so.
There are probably places on the East Coast that don't know they have Joro spiders right now, but will be really surprised this coming summer when a bunch of Joro spiders show up out of nowhere because they've been there for several years, building up their population numbers, and they're just now noticeable. It's entirely possible the spiders are already anywhere on the East Coast, and we are simply playing a waiting game until they explode in population numbers.
Will Joro spiders reach the Midwest or the West Coast?
The Midwest region of the United States doesn't have a whole lot of forest and cover, so the Joros probably aren't going to do quite as well there. We imagine the Midwest may pose a barrier for Joros, but if they manage to get to the West Coast, then they're going to be there to stay.
The spread of the Joro is happening very quickly, and the more spiders there are, the more likely that spiders are going to be transported to other places in the country. It'd be reasonable to assume the Eastern side of the United States is going to be covered before any of the Western part, but it's too soon to tell.
For every spider that you're able to see that you've transported, there are at least 10 others that you don't see. They're going to be transported probably pretty ubiquitously across the country, given enough time.
How big are Joro spiders?
The largest female that I saw has a leg span about the size of my palm, so 3 to 4 inches maximum. They're pretty large spiders. Imagine a neon-yellow Nerf football with gray stripes on top and a bunch of black legs. They also build a very voluminous web, about a meter in diameter or so.
Why do Joro spiders fall from the sky?
This is a common strategy where the little spiderlings, when they hatch out of their little egg sacks, will have a thread of silk that is very long relative to their body size. These are very small spiders, smaller than a grain of rice, so the spiders take this long piece of silk, and the wind catches it, and they parachute where the wind will take them, and then they can move around from there. It's a mechanism to get away from the parental spider because they want to disperse.
Are Joro spiders really friendly?
The spiders themselves are very timid. We have behavioral data to back up that Joro spiders are one of the least directly competitive spider species present in the southeastern United States. In a direct confrontation with another spider, the Joro spider will always run away. They're wusses.
Do Joro spiders usually bite humans?
The thing about these spiders is that they are always going to want to run away before they go to bite you. I've been bitten maybe three times over the course of holding several hundred spiders.
Even if they do try to bit you, their fangs are so small that in many cases they're not going to be able to break your skin. None of the three bites that I received actually broke my skin. They just felt more like pinches. The spiders really don't pose any threat to people or pets unless the person is actively antagonizing the spider.
What do Joro spiders eat?
Insects. We have this one stinkbug from southeastern Asia that's actually present within the Joros' native range, and we've seen Joros are acting as a biological control for those bugs because they're adapted to already eat them.