Dangerous Spiders in Australia: A Very Brief Guide

ANZ-April2014Having broken the silence a couple of articles back to start talking about Australia’s Bag Things in my column for Australia and New Zealand magazine, I found I could no longer stop. I was singing like a bird, which reminds me, I must tell them about the cassowary.

Anyway, after opening the can of worms with an article about Australia’s five deadliest, and then following that up with a piece on snakes, I decided to move swiftly on to spiders. This article appeared in their April edition this year and they called it…

Scary spiders

spiders ANZThe itsy bitsy spider climbed up the waterspout. Down came the rain and washed the spider.…

No, actually, we don’t much have that nursery rhyme around here, probably because we get whopping great big spiders. Nobody wants to start misinforming their kids when they’re still just toddlers, do they?

Australian spiders are probably the second most feared critter to concern those considering a move down under, pipped only by snakes who we spoke about last month. The three spiders responsible for the most media inspired nightmares are probably the Redback Spider, the funnel-web spider and the Huntsman spider.

How scary are they in reality?

Let’s clear that up in one simple sentence. Nobody in Australia has died from any kind of spider bite since the introduction of antivenom which, for the Redback Spider was in 1956 and the funnel-web in 1979. There is a twist to that though, which I’ll get to in a minute.

Let’s take a closer look at each of these three spiders.

The funnel-web, sometimes also referred to as the Sydney funnel-web, is not just found in Sydney. Funnel-webs can be found everywhere here except Western Australia and Northern Territory.

Funnel WebI live in an area where they do hang out and I saw a very, very ugly spider in my first couple of weeks here. He looked like he worked for the spider riot police and appeared to be wearing a shiny black armoured bodysuit.

A funnel-web?

I don’t know, but it did look like one. If it was, it’s the only one I’ve ever seen. Despite their fearsome reputation though, the last time they toppled a human here, Racey were topping the charts with “Lay Your Love on Me”.

The Redback Spider may have an even more fearsome reputation than that of the funnel-web. Before I moved here, a friend of mine who had spent some time in Australia told me that a Redback Spider could not be killed by stamping on it when wearing thongs, or flip-flops as we prefer to say.

redback spiderHe told me that at the site of the descending summer footwear, the canny spider would tilt up its fangs and they would pierce right through those thong soles plunging straight into the bottom of your foot. The only way to kill a Redback, he told me, was to smack it with a telephone directory.

A wonderful story, but absolute rubbish and a great example of how the powers of these spiders have been greatly exaggerated. As for its reputation as a ‘killer’ spider, turns out only a very small percentage of people bitten by this critter suffer a bad reaction. Which brings me to that twist that I mentioned earlier.

Apparently the antivenom for the Redback Spider bite doesn’t work; never has. Scientists only discovered this around November 2013. Successful treatment actually revolves around steroids, antihistamines, adrenaline and pain relief.

That just leaves the Huntsman spider; big, scary, but not venomous. If it bit you, you probably wouldn’t like it, but biting humans is not really its thing. They are very timid. They prefer eating other small and more irritating critters which sometimes might include cockroaches. So the Huntsman is our friend, probably a good idea to keep one around the house.

I bet you don’t though.

Brown Huntsman Spider

Antivenom doesn’t work update:

Since writing this article for the magazine, I have interviewed Professor Julian White on a couple of occasions and he has his own views about the recent suggestion that antivenom doesn’t work. You can read what he has to say in my post.

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