Australia Set To Experience Boom Of Deadly Spiders Following Fires
If there’s two words I never, ever want to hear scrabbling around together in the same sentence it’s ‘spider’ and ‘bonanza’.
I’m the sort of person who lives in a constant state of fear at the prospect of having to get my special spider cup out of the cupboard and chase an eight-legged squatter across the living room.
Sometimes the only way I can soothe myself to sleep after such instances is to gently remind myself that at least I live in England, where most spiders are fairly petite and not too bitey. At least, I reassure myself, I don’t live in Australia…
Behold, the funnel-web spider; a creature from my darkest nightmares and yet all too real. There are a reported 35 species of funnel-webs in Australia and – although you wouldn’t want to encounter any of them – there is one furry-legged subspecies you really, really don’t want in your slipper.
The Sydney funnel-web spider (or the Atrax robustus, to give it its Sunday name) is found in both suburban and bushland areas, and has the gulp-worthy honour of being the world’s deadliest spider.
Although these aren’t the biggest spiders in Australia – sizewise, the possum-devouring huntsman spider takes the hairy crown in this department – the Sydney funnel-web spider is a formidable beast, with fangs big and tough enough to pierce through human fingernails.
Ranging from shiny, dark brown to glistening black in colour, Sydney funnel-webs can display aggressive behaviour if threatened, baring their imposing fangs to potential aggressors. Sydney funnel-webs usually have a size range of around 1.5cm to 3.5cm, but there are some true monsters out there.
The biggest funnel-web ever to brought to the Australian Reptile Park is the aptly named ‘Colossus’, who was brought to the park in 2018 with a leg span of 7.8cm, breaking the record previously held by 7.5cm-wide ‘Big Boy’.
And who knows what titanic ticklers will emerge in what is being hailed as a spider ‘bonanza’? After a series of extreme weather conditions throughout various parts of the country, funnel-web spiders are currently faring very well indeed. Flourishing in fact.
Funnel-webs are found throughout southern Queensland right up through coastal New South Wales, as well as in the Australian Capital Territory, Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania. The particularly scary Sydney funnel-web is native to eastern Australia.
UNILAD spoke with Kane Christensen, a Spiders Supervisor at Australian Reptile Park, who explained how the current weather has created the ideal environment for these eight-legged creepers to get down and jiggy with it:
We have had a long, dry spring and early summer, and now the recent rain has made the [very humid] conditions excellent for the male spiders. Male ground dwelling spiders go out in search for females at night.
It’s not only funnel-webs that are out and about at this time – a lot of spiders enjoy these conditions. It’s also a good time for high insect activity, which is good for spiders as they feed on the insects.
With a bite that can kill a human in 15 minutes flat, you are not going to want to pick a male Sydney funnel-web up in your hand. Their venom – which is six times more potent than their female counterparts – possesses a neurotoxin component that attacks the human nervous system, and can be fatal.
Although there hasn’t been a reported funnel-web related death since the 1980s, experts at the Australian Reptile Park are urging people to remain vigilant during this current beastie boom.
Christensen told UNILAD:
They are one of the most venomous spiders in the world. Male Sydney funnel-webs have been responsible for 13 fatalities in recorded history.
However, there have been no deaths since the advent of antivenom in 1981, which the Australian Reptile Park was heavily involved in creating.
We are still a part of this program and are the only place in Australia that milks funnel-web spiders’ venom to make into lifesaving antivenom. Every summer is peak funnel-web season. As long as people are aware there are funnel-webs about at night and take measures like wearing shoes at night, it shouldn’t be anything to worry about.
Every year there is a number of people who are bitten and receive antivenom treatments at hospital. Only in the past few years, a 10-year-old boy was bitten by a male funnel-web spider and had to receive 12 vials of antivenom, a record for a Sydney funnel-web bite.
Funnel-webs prefer to make their home in ‘cool, sloping ground and shady environments’, and have previously been found lurking in shoes or inside piles of clothes.
According to the Australian Museum website, funnel-webs are in the habit of strolling into backyards and tumbling into suburban swimming pools, where they may well survive for hours. They can also sometimes enter and become trapped in houses.
Fortunately, the rumour that they jump on or chase people is reportedly just a spooky urban myth. As is the idea that they live inside houses. In reality, they only enter houses if they’ve been unsuccessful in finding a mate and need shelter, where they can wait the day out and nurse their bruised egos.
Christensen told UNILAD:
Most people misidentify other spiders like trapdoor spiders and mouse spiders for funnel-web spiders. A lot of people don’t know they actually have funnel-webs on their property as they are quite shy and reclusive.
They spent most of their life in their burrows and it is only during breeding season (the season we are in now) that the males wander looking for a mate. It is hard to stop them colonising an area if conditions are good for them.
The Australian Reptile Park is asking for any collected male funnel-web spiders to be brought to the park or one of their drop-off points, providing leggy participants for their life-saving antivenom program.
Of course, this collection should only ever be done by responsible adults, and under circumstances where it is safe and feasible to do so.
Instructions on the Australian Reptile Park Facebook page advise keeping your hand about 20cm away at all times, using a tool such as a spoon to push the spider into a smooth surface object like a glass jar. They should also ensure this object has a lid that can be tightened to contain the spider.
To make sure the spider stays hydrated, the brave individual should make sure there is a bit of damp soil or a cotton bud with a little bit of water inside the jar.
A bite from a funnel-web spider should always be treated with extreme seriousness, and victims should seek immediate emergency help without hesitation.
Christensen told UNILAD:
The biggest thing is just don’t try to touch it with your hands. If someone is bitten by a funnel-web they should apply the pressure and immobilisation first aid technique.
Pressure bandages should be applied and patient should be kept as still as possible and an ambulance called. Medical treatment should be sought as soon as possible.
To prevent a nasty bite as best you can, Aussies have been advised to avoid leaving clothes, shoes, and towels on the floor, and are being encouraged to check their shoes before popping them on.
Walking about at night without footwear is also a no-no, as is handling spiders which appear to have drowned in pools or buckets. Keen gardeners are also advised to wear gloves while tending their gardens.
If you’re brave enough to turn your spider-catcher on a funnel-web, you can check out the full list of spider drop off points here.
If you have a story you want to tell send it to UNILAD via [email protected]