Rain has recently brought welcome relief to parts of Australia, at least temporarily shrinking historic bushfires that have raged across the continent for months. At the same time, however, the rain may have also brought something much less welcome to some areas of Australia: a surge of deadly spiders.
The arachnids in question are Australian funnel-web spiders, a family of about three dozen species (not to be confused with funnel-weaver spiders, a separate family that's mostly harmless to humans). Many are venomous, but the main threat to people comes from one in particular: the Sydney funnel-web spider, one of the most venomous spiders known to science. A boom in this species is unnerving, of course, although it's less dangerous than some recent headlines suggest.
The Sydney funnel-web spider is native to New South Wales (NSW) in eastern Australia, living mostly within a 160-kilometer (100-mile) radius of its namesake city. It's "probably the most notorious of all spiders," according to the Australian Museum, due to its large body, long fangs and potent venom. Males pose the greatest risk, both because their venom is reportedly six times stronger than that of females, and because they periodically wander around in search of mates. That tends to happen in warm, humid weather, which is why the spiders are in the news right now.
Down came the rain
While Australia has a fire season every summer, this one is much worse than usual, already scorching more than 10 million hectares (24.7 million acres) and killing at least 30 people as well as millions of wild animals. This is largely due to months of severe drought, which created tinderbox conditions in many forests and other habitats across Australia. The lack of rainfall likely hindered funnel-web spiders, too, since even unburned forests may have been too dry for males to seek mates.
Now, however, the heavy rains followed by hot weather "have created perfect conditions for funnel-web spiders to thrive," according to a recent warning from the Australian Reptile Park (ARP), a zoo in Somersby, NSW. That may sound scary, but it's welcome news for the ARP, which has run a venom-milking program for 50 years, collecting spiders and snakes to produce life-saving antivenom. To the ARP, more spiders offer more chances to collect venom.
The Sydney funnel-web spider is certainly dangerous, especially the males, and people living in their habitat should be cognizant of them. Their venom has led to at least 13 recorded deaths since 1927, although the risk is now significantly lower than it used to be. No one has died from a Sydney funnel-web bite since the early 1980s, when the ARP first developed an antivenom for the species.
Being bitten by any spider is relatively uncommon, since they can't eat a human and are more likely to survive by fleeing or hiding than by confronting us. They may bite if they're trapped or frightened, though, and some species are feistier than others. Sydney funnel-web spiders are known for aggressive behavior when they feel threatened, such as rearing up and showing off their large fangs.
The males tend to be more aggressive, but despite the real danger they pose, they're also the subject of some unfair myths. They do not chase people or jump onto us, the Australian Museum explains, which makes sense, as they'd have nothing to gain from doing so. And while they sometimes wander inside, they only live outdoors, ideally somewhere with a cool, humid climate, like a forest. They look for logs, rocks or other shelter, then create a burrow underneath, using it to ambush prey such as beetles, cockroaches, snails or small lizards.
Still, people are more likely to be bitten in certain situations. If you're in funnel-web spider habitat, it's wise to check your shoes before putting them on, especially if they've been left outside. Don't walk outside at night without footwear, the ARP warns, and wear gloves if you're doing any gardening or other outdoor work, particularly if you'll reach into spaces where spiders might hide.
A man recently learned that lesson in Faulconbridge, NSW, when he was bitten by a funnel-web spider while cleaning a drain at his home on Jan. 26, Australia Day. The spider was still clinging to his finger when he pulled it out, the Blue Mountains Gazette reports, and he ended up needing six vials of antivenom to recover. "Stupidly, I should have been wearing gloves, which I will from now on," he said.
If a person is bitten by a funnel-web spider, the ARP recommends applying a pressure-immobilization bandage to the bite site and the adjacent limb, then further restricting movement with a splint. Seek emergency medical attention right away, since antivenom may be necessary. Although it's possible to be bitten by some spiders and not immediately realize it, that's unlikely with funnel-webs, since their large fangs reportedly deliver a painful bite and often leave visible marks.
'Very, very easy to catch'
The expected boom in funnel-web spiders does pose some risk to humans, as the man in Faulconbridge can attest. But the wandering males are looking for mates, not trouble, and they'd almost certainly rather avoid a fight with creatures of our size. We can usually avoid conflict with spiders by giving them space, and when we leave them alone, spiders often repay the favor by feeding on pest insects.
That said, since funnel-web antivenom is so important, the ARP has also issued a surprising request: If any members of the public see a funnel-web spider, the park is asking brave souls — adults only — to capture the spider and donate it to the antivenom program. That may be terrifying to imagine, but as long as it's done carefully with the method described below, it's reportedly safer than it sounds.
To create more antivenom, the ARP needs more male funnel-web spiders, as zookeeper Dan Rumsey explains in a recent video (see below). "Just by donating a spider to the Australian Reptile Park, you are contributing to saving people's lives," he says. For anyone who decides to capture one, Rumsey advises keeping your hand at least 20 centimeters (8 inches) away from the spider at all times. (Again, only adults should attempt this, both because of the precision needed and because the venom can be more harmful to children.)
"Funnel-web spiders are potentially quite dangerous, but they're very, very easy to catch," Rumsey says. They're ground-dwelling spiders, and unlike many other species, they lack the ability to climb up smooth surfaces like glass or plastic. Rumsey suggests using a smooth-sided container with a lid, like a glass jar or plastic cup, and a metal spoon or other tool to coax the spider inside. Tighten the lid that came with the container (rather than trying to improvise a lid), and take the spider to the ARP or one of its drop-off locations.
While these spiders are not to be taken lightly — and many people likely still recoil at the idea of capturing one, however easy it might be — they are not monsters, either. Like all spiders, they're just animals trying to stay alive, and they're key members of ancient ecosystems we too often take for granted. But even aside from that, this surge of funnel-web spiders pales in comparison to much greater threats already roiling Australia, as spider expert Rod Crawford, curator of arachnids at the Burke Museum in Seattle, tells The Washington Post.
"Australians have a lot more to worry about right now than spiders," he says.