First, the good news: Since the antivenin for the Sydney funnel-web spider, Atrax robustus, was introduced in 1981, there have been no recorded deaths from that type of arachnid, which is considered one of the deadliest, if not the deadliest in the world. Now, the bad news: The Australian Reptile Park in Sydney, the only place that collects the spider venom used to make the antidote, is running low on the spider juice, Reuters reports. And they are asking for the public's help to collected the deadly arachnids so they can be “milked.”
Tim Faulkner, general manager of the Park tells Reuters that a recent heat wave in the area has made the spiders more active than usual, which has led to more bites, and the Park's venom stores from last year aren't enough to keep up with demand.
“We rely on community support to keep this program alive,” Faulkner says. “We have tried to catch enough spiders ourselves, and we just can’t.”
It may seem odd to encourage the public to capture one of the world’s most dangerous spiders, but this is how it's been done for decades. To capture the precious liquid, the park rangers use a pipette, directly sucking the venom from the aggressive spider’s fangs (a process visitors are invited to watch). A vaccine maker then turns the venom into antivenin. Spiders collected by the public can be dropped off at certain hospitals or directly at the Reptile Park. “With an appropriate jar and a wooden spoon, you can flick the spider into the jar so easily,” Faulkner tells Reuters. “We’ve been doing this for 35 years and no one’s been hurt.”
That wasn’t the case before the antivenin came into circulation. According to the park, there are 13 recorded deaths from Sydney funnel-web spiders before the antidote was synthesized. The Australian Museum reports that humans and monkeys in particular are susceptible to a compound called Robustoxin (d-Atracotoxin-Ar1) found in the venom, which attacks the nervous system.
Robert Raven a spider expert at the Queensland Museum, tells Joshua Robertson at The Guardian that the funnel web spider is traditionally considered the world’s most deadly spider because it kills so quickly. “In terms of speed of death, in Australia we say funnel web, 15 minutes, no sweat,” he says. “With a funnel web bite to the torso, you’re dead. No other spider can claim that reputation.”
However, Raven points out that the red-backed spider, which the Reptile Park also collects venom from, has a more powerful venom. These spiders have killed the same number of people though their bites are more common—at one point they nipped 10,000 people in a year.
This year, the weather is causing both spider species to come out in droves. Raven tells News.com.au that intermittent rain and warm days are leading to a boom in plant growth, which is encouraging the insects to emerge. “In the past we’ve had early rain and nothing. Just really dry summers. But this summer, the rain is allowing the whole system to crank up again,” he says. The rain in turn, pushes the emerging spiders indoors. “They can’t survive outside so they go inside because they have sensitive leg hairs. So when the rain comes, houses can be full of spiders.”
He suggests that worried Aussies check their towels for spiders when getting out of the shower and to check for webs of red-backed spiders on gutters and downspouts.
In late December, a woman in New South Wales was bitten several times on her torso and arm by a funnel web spider. She was administered several vials of antivenin and spent several days in the ICU.
Raven tells News.com.au that he himself has a fear of spiders. “If you want to control your fear of spiders, look at peacock spiders,” he says. “They are little fluffy things and will soften your heart.”
But for all those not afraid of arachnids and wanting To do something for the greater good, get those wooden spoons and jars ready and head on over to Sydney.