Special Sub-Topic: Fearsome Funnel-Web Spiders
|In what regions of Australia can you find a funnel-web spider?|
East coast from Queensland to Tasmania, including South Australia. Funnel-webs live along the eastern coastal fringe of Australia from Queensland to Victoria, over to a portion of South Australia and also Tasmania.
|Where do funnel-web spiders make their homes?|
In the ground and in trees. There over 30 species of funnel-webs. Some of them live in hollows in the ground lined with their web, hence the name. They lay strands of silk radiating from their lair which alert them to the presence of prey. There are funnel-webs that live in ferns, tree stumps and up in trees, sometimes as high as 30m (100 feet) off the ground.
The funnel-webs we mostly fear are ground dwellers who come out when looking to mate or when their homes are flooded in heavy rains. Its name is the Sydney funnel-web spider and is essentially only found in Sydney and its outskirts. We Sydney-siders are on the lookout for them between September and April when they are the most active. If you live in a funnel-web area it's a good habit to check your shoes before putting them on and shake out your clothes (if they not been hung up) before dressing, especially in the warmer months.
|What does a funnel-web spider look like?|
The adults have a body 3-5cm (1-2 in) long with a black or dark brown colouring.. The appearance of a funnel-web is fairly unmistakable once you've seen one. They are a very deep, shiny black or dark brown colour. The spinnerets are very prominent at the rear of the abdomen. We do have large spiders here in Australia but the funnel-web doesn't stretch to 20cm across. The male Sydney funnel-web spider has a body about 25mm (one inch) long and the female is a little larger. Other species may be slightly bigger or smaller.
In Australia there is a black spider with a red stripe on its abdomen. In our traditional Australian way of calling things as we see them, we call it the redback spider.
Occasionally a light brown huntsman spider will find a home on the ceiling of my house. They can be up to 20 cm across or even larger but they won't hurt you if you don't hurt them. I let it live on my ceiling until it moves back outside. This may take a week or more. They eat insects and other spiders so I consider it natural pest control. There is no way on Earth I'd let a funnel-web live in my house!
|What sort of diet do funnel-web spiders enjoy?|
Carnivorous. Funnel-webs aren't figure conscious. They love eating beetles, small lizards, insects, small frogs and the like. They are carnivores and you won't see them munching on a lettuce leaf.
|Is it the male or female funnel-web spider that can be lethal to humans?|
Both male and female. Both sexes produce venom but it's usually the male that bites. It wanders more therefore coming into contact with humans on a more regular basis. The male roams searching for a female with which to mate. The female tends to stay in her home trapping prey as it wanders past. She will stay in the home raising the children (perhaps a hundred of them) while the male wanders around looking for food or another female. The male will entice the female out of the burrow for mating and then the female returns inside to attend to domestic chores.
That's the general rule as most funnel-webs don't have a wide difference in venom toxicity between the sexes. When you're talking of the Sydney funnel-web however, the male is much more toxic. The male has an extra chemical in its venom which the female doesn't. Add the extra chemical to its wandering habits and you have a deadly arachnid on your hands.
|How far can a funnel-web spider jump?|
They can't. It's an urban myth. Just like elephants and white men, funnel-webs can't jump! It's an urban myth. I've been told several times that they can but while they rear up on their hind legs and appear to prepare to jump, they don't actually jump. Nevertheless, they are a fearsome sight when they are preparing to bite.
|OH NO! You want to go for a swim in the pool but there is a funnel-web at the bottom of the pool. Is it dead?|
Maybe - funnel-webs can live for 30 hours in an air bubble at the bottom of a swimming pool. Another myth about funnel-webs shattered. If you live in funnel-web territory (as do a fair proportion of the Aussie population) and you have a pool, it's a good practice to check the pool for the little blighters before diving in. If a funnel-web falls into a body of water some air gets trapped around it due to the hairs on the body and legs. This lets the spider survive for quite a while after submersion. This has led to the myth that they can swim. No, they won't do laps of a pool with you but they will bite if still alive and you disturb them in their aquatic slumber.
|What sort of animals can the venom of a funnel-web spider kill? |
Humans and primates only. Here's a little peculiarity of evolution. Despite humans not posing a threat to these spiders and primates not being found in Australia natively, their venom is lethal to only humans and primates such as chimpanzees. Dogs, cats, chickens, any other type of animal can be bitten by a funnel-web and not suffer any ill effects. Chickens and other poultry can help keep your yard safe by eating funnel-webs and then recycling them into eggs for breakfast.
It is important to note that not all species of funnel-web spider are poisonous. If you're unsure what spider has bitten you it's always safer to assume it's a dangerous one and seek treatment. I know sitting in a hospital is boring when you're well but there are times when it's better to be safe than sorry.
|What is the scientific name for the Sydney funnel-web spider?|
Atrax robustus. Yes, the funnel-web spider is Atrax robustus. Crocodylus porosus is the saltwater crocodile native to Australia and some other tropical regions. It's the largest reptile in the world. He'll give you a nasty bite at best, drown and eat you at worst. The Oxyuranus microlepidotus is the box jellyfish or sea wasp. It can be lethal within minutes of a good sting and there are reports (possibly apocryphal) of people dying in the water as the venom acted so quickly they didn't have time to get to shore. The sting is incredibly painful so the victim(s) would have known they were bitten. Spiderus scaricus is a name I made up but if you've ever seen a funnel-web I'm sure you'd think they were scary too.
Perhaps I shouldn't get a job promoting Australian tourism. Now that I've scared everyone silly with thoughts of lethal animals roaming the land and sea around Australia you'll never want to come here. Somehow we manage to survive but we're aware of the dangers. If you're coming to Australia it won't hurt to read up about our dangerous creatures, especially if you're going exploring. For example, never camp by a river bed in the tropics. Salties (the saltwater crocs) can swim upstream and find a tasty human meal on the river bank. Yes, it's happened. Some common sense and a wee bit of knowledge should steer you safely through this magnificent country. :-)
|After all this talk of the lethal funnel-web venom you'd think there would be an antivenin to treat it. Is an antivenin available?|
Yes, it's been available since the 1980s. As I write this quiz it's 2011. The last death due to a funnel-web bite was in 1981, thirty years ago! Growing up in Sydney we were all aware of their danger a bite could bring. I'm sure that anyone bitten by a funnel-web would promptly ring the ambulance service and very quick treatment in a hospital would ensue. Three cheers for modern medicine.
So what do you do someone near you is bitten by a funnel-web? A compression bandage should be put on. This decreases movement in the limb and therefore decreases passage of the venom through the body. Stay calm and encourage the bite victim to stay calm. Sure, not so easy to do but the calmer you are the calmer the victim will be. Ring the emergency service. The number is 000 in all regions of Australia. If possible, safely catch the spider for identification.
Remember that despite the horrific stories of funnel-web deaths there have only been 13 recorded deaths from funnel-web envenomation in the last 200 years. I found that statistic hard to believe. My memory and the memory of people of my age seems to be that we had 1-2 deaths a year from funnel-web bites. Perhaps we were thinking of the bites and hospitalisations involved rather than mortality statistics? Certainly many people who are bitten do not die, even in the days before the anti-venene. I still wouldn't be taking a risk. If you think there has been a bite ring 000 STAT!
The funnel-web isn't the world's most deadly spider. That 'honour' goes to the Brazilian wandering spiders, native to South America. The funnel-web isn't very far behind it on the deadly list.
Did you find these entries particularly interesting, or do you have comments / corrections to make? Let the author know!
Send the author a thank you or
Submit a correction