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Australia Rains Bring Relief From Fires—and a Surge in Deadly Spiders

Encouraged by wet and hot conditions, male funnel-webs spiders are venturing out to find mates

The rain brought relief from fire, but coaxed funnel spiders from their hideouts. ( Avalon/Photoshot License / Alamy Stock Photo)
smithsonianmag.com

Heavy downpours in Australia recently offered some relief to the fire-ravaged country, which has been battling deadly blazes since last fall. But wet conditions have paved the way for another natural threat. As Amaani Siddeek reports for the Guardian, wildlife officials have warned that residents near Sydney could soon experience a “bonanza” of sightings of the funnel-web spider, an aggressive arachnid with a potentially deadly bite.

Funnel-webs are a family of more than 40 spiders, among them the notorious Atrax robustus, or Sydney funnel-web spider, which is native to eastern Australia. These critters, so named for the shape of their webs, burrow under logs and rocks, typically rushing out of their hiding spot to attack prey such as beetles, cockroaches and small snails. But the recent climate has prompted male funnel-webs to surface for another reason.

“Because of the recent rain, and now, the hot days we are now experiencing, funnel-web spiders will start to move around,” explains Dan Rumsey of Australian Reptile Park near Sydney. “In particular, male funnel-webs as they start to venture looking for a female funnel-web spider to mate with.”

Unfortunately, male funnel-webs are of particular concern; their venom is six times more potent than that of females, reports Daria Connolly of CBS News. In fact, these creepy crawlies possess “one of the most toxic venoms (to humans) of any spider,” according to the Australian Museum. They have been known to wander into houses or fall into swimming pools, where they can survive for many hours. But reports of the spiders chasing humans and living in houses are “urban myths,” the museum notes.

Jonathan Coddington, curator of arachnida and myriapoda at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., tells Ruby Mellen of the Washington Post that Australia typically experiences a funnel-web spider season, but it had been delayed by the recent fires.

“Now they’ve got a bunch of rain, and so the funnel-web[s] are coming out of the ground,” Coddington said, adding that “[s]piders like moist conditions.”

Though funnel-web bites have killed people in the Sydney area, no deaths have been reported since an antivenom was developed in 1981. Still, the spiders’ poison can be fast-acting, and the Australian Reptile Park encourages locals to take a number of steps to protect themselves. For example, wear gloves while working outside, don’t walk around at night without shoes, and don’t handle spiders that look like they have drowned in water.

The park also advises against leaving clothes and towels on the floor, and to check shoes before putting them on; male funnel-webs that go on the prowl for a mate at night will seek shelter from dry daytime conditions in any hiding spot they find suitable, including piles of laundry and footwear. If a person is bitten, a pressure-immobilization band should be applied to the site and to the adjacent limb, and the victim should seek immediate emergency care.

The Australian Reptile Park collects raw venom from dangerous spider and snake species, turning the deadly stuff over to the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories, a biotech company that manufactures the “only Australian antivenoms that save human snake bite and spider bite victims,” according to the park. Rumsey encouraged locals to catch male funnel-webs and bring them to the park or to a designated drop-off point—but only “if … they can safely do so.”

Though the spiders are potentially very dangerous, they are also “very, very easy to catch,” Rumsey noted. Funnel-webs are ground-dwelling creatures, unable to climb smooth surfaces like plastic or glass. Rumsey recommends scooping them into a sealable glass jar or plastic container with a ruler or spoon, always taking care to keep hands “about 20 centimeters away from the spider at all times.”

Some will undoubtedly prefer to simply run the other way. But for anyone who can stomach it, Rumsey points out that “by donating a spider to the Australian Reptile Park, you are contributing to saving people’s lives.”

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a freelance writer based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including NYmag.com, Flavorwire and Tina Brown Media's Women in the World.

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