The Sydney funnel-web spider is a species of venomous spider native to eastern Australia, usually found within a 100 km radius of Sydney. It is a member of a group of spiders known as Australian funnel-web spiders. Its bite is capable of causing serious illness or death in humans if left untreated. Their fangs are large and powerful, capable of penetrating fingernails and soft shoes.
The first recorded fatality was in February 1927, when a young boy died after being bitten on the hand after playing with a big black spider on the laundry steps of his home in the Sydney suburb of Thornleigh. He fell gravely ill and died later that evening.
The Australian funnel-web spiders are now recognized as a separate family. The primary range of the Australian funnel-web spiders is the eastern coast of Australia, with specimens found in New South Wales, South Australia, Victoria, Tasmania and Queensland. The only Australian states or territories without members of this family are Western Australia and the Northern Territory (which some may say are the lucky states).
Due to the variation in the look and size between males and females they were thought to be different species up until 1988. Australian funnel-web spiders are one of the most medically significant groups of spiders in the world and are regarded by some to be the most deadly, both in terms of clinical cases and venom toxicity.
Six species have caused severe injuries to human victims:
- The Sydney funnel-web spider,
- The northern tree-dwelling funnel-web spider,
- The southern tree-dwelling funnel-web spider,
- The Blue Mountains funnel-web spider,
- The Darling Downs funnel-web spider,
- and the Port Macquarie funnel-web spider.
While some very venomous spiders do not always inject venom when they bite, these spiders most often do. The volume of venom delivered to large animals is often small, possibly due to the angle of the fangs, which are not horizontally opposed, and because contact is often brief before the spider is brushed off. About 10 to 25% of bites are claimed to produce significant toxicity, but the likelihood cannot be predicted and all bites should be treated as potentially life-threatening.
The spiders burrow in sheltered habitats where they can find a moist and humid climate; for instance under rocks, logs or borer holes in rough-barked trees, in rockeries but rarely in lawns.
Apart from one fatality from the northern tree-dwelling funnel web, bites from Sydney funnel-web spiders have caused 13 documented deaths (seven in children). In all cases where the sex of the biting spider could be determined, it was found to be the male of the species. There are no recorded fatalities from other species.
The Sydney funnel-web is medium to large in size, with body length ranging from 1 to 5 cm. Both sexes are glossy and darkly coloured, ranging from blue-black, to black, to brown or dark-plum coloured. The average leg length for the spider in general is six to seven centimeters. . Another characteristic are finger-like spinnerets at the end of their abdomen. The shorter-lived male is smaller than the female, but longer-legged. Sydney funnel-web spiders are mostly terrestrial spiders, favouring habitats with moist sand and clays.
Since the antivenom became available in 1981, there have been no recorded fatalities from Sydney funnel-web spider bites. Stocks of antivenom can run low, and members of the public are asked to catch the spiders so that they could be milked for their venom. One dose of antivenom requires around 70 milking’s from a Sydney funnel-web spider.
What if I find a funnel web spider?
The Australian Reptile Park accepts male and female funnel-webs for its venom-milking program. They collect the venom for serum laboratories to make antivenom. They also accept all native spider species for education purposes.
There are several drop-off points in Sydney, Newcastle and the Central Coast.
In January 2016, they received a male Sydney funnel-web with a 10-centimetre leg span. The spider was described by the park as the largest specimen that it had ever seen
How to catch a funnel-web spider?
Remember funnel-webs are deadly venomous and only adults should attempt this. To catch one safely, reduce the risk of a bite by wearing gardening gloves and long trousers tucked into socks with sturdy shoes or boots.
- Find a glass jar with a wide mouth.
- Remove the lid and pierce it with air holes.
- Invert the jar over the spider. Take care as funnel-webs are highly defensive and may strike; however, they cannot jump or climb glass.
- When the spider is within the jar, slide a piece of heavy cardboard or solid plastic under the opening to completely cover it.
- Invert the jar, keeping the top covered.
- Check the spider is in the bottom, carefully drop a moist cotton bud into the jar with the spider, then put on the lid.
- Keep it away from direct sun and heat.
The Bite – What to expect?
When threatened or provoked, funnel-web spiders will display aggressive behaviour, rearing up on their hind legs and displaying their fangs. When biting, the funnel-web spider maintains a tight grip on its victim, often biting repeatedly. The lethal dose of venom in humans is not known.
Sydney funnel-web spider venom is highly toxic for humans and other primates, and their bite is regarded as a medical emergency requiring immediate hospital treatment. .
The bite of a Sydney funnel-web is initially very painful, with clear fang marks separated by several millimetres. The size of fangs is responsible for the initial pain. In some cases the spider will remain attached until dislodged by shaking or flicking it off.
Physical symptoms can include
- Copious secretion of saliva,
- Muscular twitching,
- Breathing difficulty,
- Disorientation and confusion,
- Possibly leading to unconsciousness.
What do you do if you, or someone gets bitten?
Don’t forget – if you or someone you know is bitten follow these rules.
- Check the person’s breathing and circulation. If unconscious follow DRABC plan – Danger, Respond, Airway, Breathing, Circulation.
- Calm the person and keep them STILL.
- Dial 000 for an ambulance. It’s important to get the victim to a hospital, preferably by an ambulance that has resuscitation facilities and antivenom for funnel-web spider bites.
- Apply a broad pressure bandage to the entire limb immediately, especially over the bite site. If bitten on hand, bandage as much of arm as possible, starting just above fingers; if bitten on foot or leg, bandage entire leg from just above toes.
- Apply a splint to the limb, to keep it STILL.
- DO NOT remove the bandage — this will result in spread of the venom into the bloodstream.
- Antivenom is given to people who have symptoms following a funnel-web spider bite.