Native to East Asia, Jorōs are one of many so-called golden orb weavers, named after the shiny silk they use to spin webs (which can be a whopping 10 feet wide, by the way). The spider was first spotted in the US by scientists in Colbert, Georgia, in 2014, though local accounts suggest it may have been around for a few years prior. Colbert is near a hub of warehouses and distribution centers, making it likely that the spider arrived by unintentionally hitching a ride on an international cargo ship.
In 2020, the Jorō population skyrocketed. Scientists believe they’re primarily dispersing via a technique called ballooning: Baby spiderlings climb up high, shoot out silk, and glide along the air currents to their next destination. That’s when the spiders first caught the media’s attention. A second wave of news came with the discovery that, unlike native orb weavers, Jorōs can tolerate colder climates. Some articles referenced palm-sized parachuting spinners that would soon fly up the East Coast. Others painted them as a positive—perhaps Jorōs would prey on harmful invasive species, like stink bugs, and keep them at bay. But neither of these have been proven true.
“There’s a strong temptation to label them as a good or bad thing,” says University of Florida arachnologist Angela Chuang, a coauthor of the paper. “But we just don’t know enough yet to say.” Chuang’s previous work found that 47 percent of all spider news is inaccurate, containing misidentified images or factual errors about their anatomy and venom toxicity. In addition, 43 percent of articles are overblown, exaggerating spiders’ size or hairiness and associating them with trigger words—like terrifying, nightmarish, and deadly—that can spur arachnophobia.
Negative coverage contorts perceptions about the risk spiders pose to humans and shapes people’s decisions about wildlife protection efforts. At worst, sensationalized accounts lead to a loss of money and resources: Spider sightings have caused unnecessary school closures and have driven people to extreme measures of eradication. Increased usage of pesticides (which are but a temporary solution, Coyle says) can hurt both homeowners’ finances and nearby flora and fauna.
On the other hand, Coyle says, overly positive coverage is also disingenuous, because it can lull the public into a false sense of security before scientists have thoroughly assessed a new species’ environmental and economic effects.
The reason it’s so difficult for scientists to predict the future is because spider invasions are largely understudied. Unlike insects, they’re not agricultural pests, so monitoring invasions is of low economic priority. Most are also harmless. “The vast majority of spiders don’t pose a threat to humans and do a lot of good work,” says Catherine Scott, a behavioral ecologist at McGill University. They’re essential predators that help maintain equilibrium in nearly every terrestrial ecosystem.
But most experts acknowledge that the Jorōs must be having some effect, especially because of their rapid population growth. Today they span an estimated 46,000 square miles (120,000 square kilometers), most densely concentrated in northern Georgia—though a few have been spotted as far north as Washington, DC, and as far west as Oklahoma. “There’s just no conceivable way that they’re seamlessly slipping into the ecosystem without causing some ripples,” Coyle says. His hunch, based on some preliminary survey work, is that Jorōs will likely push out smaller native spiders, which might have a cascading effect further up the food chain. There’s also the lesser chance they could deplete pollinator populations that are critical for high crop yield if too many bees and butterflies get caught in their webs.