Myth: A gigantic, rare, endangered and (of course) "venomous" spider lives in tunnels under Windsor Castle.
Fact: On 19 June 2001, British news outlets were awash with a story about telephone engineers finding "swarms" of giant spiders in utility tunnels extending under the royal residence Windsor Castle. A number of wild statements were attributed to a "world renowned entomologist" who shall remain nameless here (and whom I personally have never heard of in any other context). Why couldn't they find an arachnologist, I wonder?
"It's an extremely exciting find because they are probably a new species or a species that we thought had been extinct in this country for thousands of years," he said. A remarkable thing to conclude when the species had not yet been examined by anyone who could identify even the commonest spider! "We've taken around a dozen samples so that we can make a positive identification and establish whether or not it is a new species. But we don't even know if they're fully grown." The most elementary and obvious fact about any spider is whether it is adult, Mr. Entomologist. "In any case they will probably be a protected species." Again, quite a remarkable conclusion when you don't have a clue what they are!
The news stories cited the legspan of the spiders at 9 cm - a typical "arachnophobia size estimate" of twice the real size (see figure). The hapless entomologist, clearly beyond his depth, went on to say "There could be literally thousands and thousands of them ... The species is certainly venomous and the jaws are strong enough to penetrate human skin," so naturally journalists throughout the kingdom were raving about "swarms of giant, aggressive, venomous creatures." At least one story suggested the spiders would be sought out by "electronic mole cameras" and transplanted, one by one, to some unspecified safer location!
Once photos of the spiders emerged, arachnologists quickly identified them as Meta menardi, an orbweaver found in dark caves and tunnels throughout Britain and much of Europe. Not rare or endangered or dangerous, and only half as big as claimed. But not one of the news web sites that spread the original story ever published a correction or retraction. About 20 of them are still online as this is written, 4 years later. Click here to see the BBC version. How to start an urban legend: just get your news quotes on spiders from someone who knows nothing about them!