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Comparison of Brown Recluse & Wolf Spiders

By Laura A. Garren ; Updated July 27, 2017

The bite of the brown recluse spider can cause serious health problems, including death, especially in children, the elderly and people in poor health. Typically, the result is a large, painful wound that grows as the affected tissue dies. The wolf spider, of which more than 200 varieties exist, also is poisonous and can inflict a bite that is painful, but rarely serious unless an allergic response follows. These arachnids are similar in appearance, but there are ways in which to tell them apart.

Range, Distribution and Habitat

If you find a spider that you suspect might be a brown recluse or a wolf spider, first consider the range and distribution of each. According to the Entomology Department at the University of California, Riverside, the brown recluse is found almost exclusively in the south central Midwest, including all of Arkansas, Missouri, Louisiana and Mississippi; most of Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, Oklahoma and Kansas; and parts of Texas, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa and Georgia. If you live in any of these states, your spider might be a brown recluse.

This spider is called a recluse for good reason: it likes to keep out of sight.

"if you see a brown spider in a web, it's not a brown recluse," according to Rick Vetter of the University of California, Riverside.

The brown recluse often lives indoors, making its web in hidden places, such as the backs of closets, inside furniture and behind doors. Sometimes a brown recluse may fall into a bathtub and become trapped, unable to climb the slippery sides; many people who have been bitten by this spider have been bitten while taking a bath.

Wolf spiders are found throughout North America. Most varieties hunt at night, are very shy and do not spin webs. This terrestrial spider can be found in the woods or in human habitations, where they like to hide in doorways, under potted plants, in window sills and in basements and garages.

Color and Identifying Marks

The brown recluse spider has a backward-pointing, violin-shaped marking on the part of its body where the legs are attached. The spider's color may range from cream to brown, but always is uniform. If the spider has more than one color on the abdomen, it's not a brown recluse. Wolf spiders are brown or gray with various markings and lines on the body.

Legs

The brown recluse may have fine hairs, but no spines, on its legs, which are uniform in color with no stripes or bands. According to Vetter, if the spider has more than one color on its legs, it's not a brown recluse. The wolf spider has long, hairy legs of varying color. The male has what looks like an extra pair, his pedipalps, which he waves to attract females.

Eyes and Size

The brown recluse is a small spider, about three-eighths of an inch long. It has six eyes, one pair in front of the head and the other two pairs on the sides. Vetter says that most spiders can be eliminated as brown recluses by using this criteria because most spiders have eight eyes. The wolf spider is much larger -- up to 1.5 inches -- and has eight eyes of unequal size. Above two large eyes are what look like two arched brows, which actually are another pair of eyes; underneath are four more.

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