Jeff Seale was almost certainly not killed by a black widow spider
, experts at Colorado State University and the Denver Museum of Nature and Science said Friday.
"I'd say zero chance, not likely at all," said Dr. Paula Cushing, the museum's curator of invertebrate zoology and a past president of the American Arachnological Society. "I think it's tragic that he did die so young, but it's extremely unlikely that this is the cause."
The 40-year-old Seale died July 17 in his Erie home. His sister, Stephanie Baum of Longmont, said he reported finding 19 bites on his left foot around July 2 and believed they were from a black widow. He saw a doctor two or three days later, she said, but did not seek out medical treatment again before his death.
The Boulder County Coroner's Office has not released an official cause of death and is not expected to for at least four weeks.
Human deaths due to black widow poisoning are rare, usually occurring in the very young, the elderly or those with compromised immune systems. Seale was a former star pitcher for Fairview High School and still in good shape, his sister said, aside from high blood pressure.
Both Cushing and entomologist Whitney Cranshaw of Colorado State University said several details make a black widow unlikely to be the cause of death. Both first noted the number of bites -- a black widow typically bites once if it feels threatened and then tries to get away. It doesn't hang around for a second bite -- never mind a 19th -- unless it has nowhere to go, such as a spider trapped in a shoe.
"But if you had it in your shoe, you'd know it," Cushing said.
That's because a bite isn't subtle. It's painful, Cranshaw said. The venom is a neurotoxin, a poison that interferes with the nervous system, whose symptoms set in within about 30 minutes.
"It feels like someone's kicking you in the stomach over and over again," Cushing said.
If it wasn't one spider 19 times, could it have been multiple ones? Again, unlikely, the experts said. True, it's not uncommon to see several black widows in a barn or crawl space, Cushing said, but to invite a bite, you generally have to be pressing against the spider or threatening its web or egg sac. And though spiders are predators, they're not pack hunters.
"They don't gang up on people," Cranshaw said.
The two experts also found the timing odd. According to the National Library of Medicine, severe symptoms from a black widow bite start to improve within two to three days, though milder symptoms can hang on for a month. According to his sister, Seale initially matched that pattern: a couple of days of pain early on, followed by improvement with some flu-like symptoms afterward. But the pain he felt on the day he died two weeks later didn't fit.
"Sunday morning, he said his whole body was in excruciating pain," Baum said. "He couldn't get up to do anything."
Both Cushing and Cranshaw agreed that a two-week-old black widow bite shouldn't be lethal.
"The fact that it was two weeks later that these symptoms started appearing, that alone says (the cause of death) was not a black widow,
" Cushing said.