The world's deadliest spider is a notorious Australian land-dwelling animal called the Sydney funnel-web spider. It's venom can kill a human in just 15 minutes.
There are 35 species of funnel web, a number of which are found from New South Wales to Queensland along Australia’s eastern coast – however, only one holds the title of world’s deadliest spider.
The Sydney funnel-web (Atrax robustus) is generally found in both suburbia and bushland in an area bound by Newcastle to the north or Sydney and Illawarra to the south.
They are relatively large spiders – one male affectionately named ‘Big Boy’ by the Australian Reptile Park, reached 10cm stretched out – and have large, rearward-facing fangs capable of piercing through fingernails.
A member of the public handed Big Boy into a Newcastle hospital so his venom could be used in the Australian Reptile Park’s venom-milking program. At 10cm wide when fully spread, Big Boy is the largest funnel-web the park has ever seen.
Billy Collett, venom program supervisor at the Australian Reptile Park, stated...
“The biggest funnel-web we had prior to Big Boy was 7.5cm, so that gives you a rough idea of just how big this spider actually is.”
Why are Funnel Web Spiders so dangerous?
The good news is that not all species of funnel web spiders are known to be dangerous, but several are renowned for their highly toxic and fast acting venom. The male of Atrax robustus, the Sydney Funnel-web Spider, is probably responsible for all recorded deaths (13) and many medically serious bites.
The venom of the male Sydney Funnel-web Spider is very toxic. This is because male spider venom contains a unique component called Robustoxin (d-Atracotoxin-Ar1) that severely and similarly affects the nervous systems of humans and monkeys, but not of other mammals.
This remarkable spider has become a part of Sydney's folklore and, although no deaths have been recorded since the introduction of an antivenom in 1981, it remains an icon of fear and fascination for Sydneysiders.
Almost four million people live in the Sydney region, the centre of the distribution of the Sydney Funnel-web Spider. This makes the likelihood of human encounters with this spider much greater than in less urbanised areas like the Blue Mountains.
During the warmer months of the year (November-April) male funnel-webs wander about at night looking for females in their burrows. Males wandering in suburban gardens may sometimes become trapped inside houses or garages, especially those with concrete slab foundations where entry points under doors are easily reached.
Also, shoes and gloves, which are left on the ground, make ideal shelters for the spiders trying to get out of the sun. A lot of funnel web bites occur when donning these items. That's why it's always a good idea to check shoes and shake out gloves before using them. Also, it's not a good idea to walk around bare-footed.
Dr Robert Raven, curator of arachnids at Queensland Museum, says the atraxotoxin protein contained within funnel web venom is responsible for its severe effects on the nervous system – shorting out the synapses in the nerves and halting the relaxation cycle.
This causes constant firing of the nerves – or fibrillation – resulting in a number of symptoms including rapid heart rate, increased blood pressure, breathing difficulty and numbness around the mouth.
“People know within minutes that they’re going to die or are in deep deep trouble – death has occurred with funnel webs in 15 minutes,” Robert says.
“The most dangerous place to get bitten is the torso because no tourniquet can be put on it.”
Funnel Web Spider Venom Milking Programme
Billy Collett, from the Australian Reptile Park, and his team collect funnel-web venom by vacuuming it off their spiders’ fangs through a glass pipette – a process called milking.
The park must milk 500 to 700 spiders each week in order to have enough venom to support anti-venom production.
“It might be that 100 milkings go into one vial of anti-venom, if not more – it just depends on the size of the males and how much venom they’re producing,” said Billy.
However, male Sydney funnel-webs have a short life span, so the park relies on public drop-offs to maintain its collection of spiders.
Liz Vella, head curator at the Australian Reptile Park, said funnel-webs are most active, and hence most likely to be seen, in the summer months.
“January and February are the peak times when male funnel-web spiders are out trying to find females to mate, and given that only males can be milked we really encourage local communities to hand them in,” she said.
They’re usually found in cool, sheltered and shady spots throughout Sydney, the Illawarra, Newcastle, and the Central Coast.
Michael Tate, known as 'Ranger Mick', from the Australian Reptile Park has done over 33,000 talks over the 20 years he’s been resident ranger at the Australian Reptile Park
We need the anti-venom. The biggest asset for safety is education; we all need to be aware of Funnel-webs and kids need to be educated. Living with Funnel-webs isn’t quite as life threatening as it was in the ‘40s and ‘50s. The anti-venom does a remarkable job and if I don’t have adequate numbers of Funnel-webs, I can’t produce enough venom.
We don’t make anti-venom at the Australian Reptile Park. We produce the raw material itself from the spiders, which is then taken to CSL (Coordinated Science Laboratory) in Melbourne, where it is turned into the antidote.
When asked if one ampoule sufficient to treat a Funnel-web bite, Ranger Mick responded...
Sometimes yes … it depends on the intensity of the bite, and if the spider was male or female. It also comes down to the ‘victim’ and their age, weight and lifestyle. All these sorts of things contribute to the volume of anti-venom required. If we’re lucky, one ampoule is enough.
National Geographic video on the deadly Sydney Funnel Web Spider