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What Is the Katipo?

By Meg Higa
Updated May 17, 2024
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The katipo is an increasingly rare venomous spider native to New Zealand. In 2010, they were declared endangered, and protected by the government. Its scientific genus and species name is Latrodectus katipo. Like other animals endemic to the island nation, the spider shares characteristics with other related species such as the North American and European “black widows” but has evolved uniquely to isolation and adaptation. Its common name is a contraction of New Zealand’s native Maori words kakati meaning “to sting,” and po for “night.”

They are most closely related to the Australian redback spider, and a common English name for them is the New Zealand redback spider. It has also been demonstrated that a male Australian redback can mate with a female katipo to produce hybrid offspring. When the reverse is attempted however, the male katipo is immediately attacked and eaten. The two were once classified as simple subspecies, but significant anatomical and behavioral differences dictated their separate designations.

The same confusion of classification occurred between katipo living in northern New Zealand and those which inhabit its southern island. The female of the latter has an orange or red geometric stripe, thinly outlined in white, down the center back of its round, black abdomen. Females of the northern island do not have this marking, and were once separately designated as the black katipo. This difference in color, however, was proven to be the simple result of a respective average temperature difference during an egg’s incubation period. Due to colder temperatures, they are absent, unable to breed, in the southernmost coastal regions of New Zealand.

Male adult katipo were also once assumed and classified as an entirely different species. They are about one-sixth the size of a female. The head and thorax are brown. The abdomen is white. Its back is marked with a series of red-orange diamonds, outlined by irregular black lines.

The adult female is a relatively medium-sized spider, about 1.3 inches (about 3.3 cm) in diameter inclusive of her legs. Her silky, velvet-black abdomen is proportionately over sized. Its underside is also marked by a triangularly shaped red patch.

The restricted habitat of the katipo is a unique, very narrow niche — coastal sand dunes. They spin their lairs, a haphazard tangle of adhesive webbing, by anchoring it to seashore plants and debris on the dune’s leeward side. Crawling insects, many of them blown into the trap by onshore wind, are its main diet. When one is entrapped, it is quickly bitten with venom as well as sprayed with additional, immobilizing silk.

Its venom is a neurotoxin believed to be very similar in most species of its genus. Bitten humans will experience extreme pain, redness and swelling spread from the punctures. It generally persists for a few hours to one day. Uncommonly, if the venom spreads, symptoms can expand to include: vomiting, chest pain, headache and muscle tremor. Respiratory failure, seizures or a coma are extremely rare, as the anti-venom developed from the Australian redback can be administered as a preventative measure.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a Katipo?

The katipo is a venomous spider native to New Zealand, belonging to the genus Latrodectus, which includes the infamous black widow. It's recognized by its small size and distinctive red or orange stripe on its black body. The katipo is a protected species due to its declining population, primarily caused by habitat loss and introduced species.

How dangerous is the Katipo spider to humans?

While the katipo's venom is potent, bites are extremely rare, and the spider is generally non-aggressive towards humans. Symptoms of a bite can include pain, sweating, and difficulty breathing. However, antivenom is available, and there have been no recorded fatalities since the 19th century, making encounters with the katipo dangerous but seldom life-threatening.

Where can you find Katipo spiders?

Katipo spiders are found in coastal areas of New Zealand, preferring sand dunes and beach environments where they can camouflage and hunt. Their habitats are often marked by the presence of driftwood and beach grass, which provide shelter and nesting grounds. Due to conservation efforts, their habitats are protected to prevent further decline.

What does the Katipo spider eat?

Katipo spiders primarily feed on small insects that they capture in their delicate, irregular webs. Their diet consists of beetles, flies, and other small arthropods that stumble into their webs. The katipo's hunting strategy relies on its venom to immobilize prey quickly, ensuring a steady food supply in its coastal ecosystem.

How does the Katipo reproduce?

Katipo spiders engage in a delicate mating ritual where the male must approach the female with caution to avoid being mistaken for prey. After successful mating, the female lays eggs in a silken sac, with hatchlings emerging after about a month. The young spiders are independent from birth and receive no parental care.

What conservation efforts are in place for the Katipo?

Conservation efforts for the katipo include habitat restoration and protection, public education, and research. New Zealand's Department of Conservation classifies the katipo as a threatened species, and activities that could damage their habitats, such as beach driving and development, are regulated. These measures aim to stabilize and increase the katipo population in the wild.

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