The endangered Katipō

The Kaitpō.  Photo Copyright Steve Attwood 2014.

The Kaitpō. Photo Copyright Steve Attwood 2014.

Kaitorete Spit is the 25km-long barrier that separates Te Waihora/Lake Ellesmere from the ocean. This windblown, largely uninhabited finger of land is home to a surprising number of rare and unusual species. One of those is the endangered katipō, a member of the genus Latrodectus, which is native to New Zealand and is related to the North American black widow spiders and the Australian red back spider (which has also established small colonies in New Zealand).


Katipō is a Māori name which means ‘night-stinger’ and like most members of this genus, the katipō has a reputation for delivering a significant and sometimes deadly bite. The bite produces a toxic syndrome known as latrodectism, with symptoms including extreme pain, fever, shaking, abdominal cramping and potentially systemic effects such as hypertension, seizure or coma. Katipō bites however, are rare and no deaths have been reported in New Zealand since the 19th century. It is also worth noting that only the female of the species is capable of biting humans, as the male’s fangs are too small.

In the South Island, the small to medium female katipō has a black, pea-sized body with a distinctive bright red flash bordered by white stripes. (In the upper North Island this red stripe is absent and is instead, pale, yellow or replaced by cream-coloured blotches). The male of the species is smaller and is predominantly white with small black and red markings.

The katipō likes to live among grasses, sedges, driftwood and flotsam on sandy beaches throughout New Zealand. They like to make their irregular, tangled webs at the base of beach grasses and other vegetation and they typically survive on ground-crawling insects such as beetles.

Nationwide, the reclamation of sanddunes for agriculture and forestry, along with the introduction of sand-binding plants like marram grass and lupins, have deprived the katipō of much of its ideal habitat and today it is classified as Absolutely Protected under the Wildlife Act.

Red katipō have their last South Island stronghold on Kaitorete Spit in Canterbury. This site contains the most significant coastal sand dune system in New Zealand, both in terms of its size and condition, and its diversity of invertebrates. Although native plants such as the sprawling broom (Carmichaelia appressa) and pingao are the natural sites for red katipō snares and retreats, previous surveys have noted a tendency for red katipo to utilise human debris such as metal objects for shelter and construction of their snares. They also appear to like living in discarded rusty tins.

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