Ranger Mick – Sydney Funnel-web

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At last count, Ranger Mick had done over 33,000 talks over the 20 years he’s been resident ranger and talks person at the Australian Reptile Park … we caught up with Ranger Mick to demystify some urban myths about the Sydney Funnel-web.

Summer is Funnel-web season. What should people be aware of?

Oddly enough, summer is Funnel-web ‘bite’ season. It’s not that Funnel-webs are dramatically more active; in fact, they don’t tolerate direct sunlight or elevated temperatures at all … a Funnel-web on the black asphalt driveway is a dead one. Funnel-webs thrive in damp, dark and moist conditions. What tends to happen is that in summer, humans tend to be in the environment where Funnel-webs are more active such as in the backyard with bare feet.

Shoes are the perfect home for the Funnel-web?

That’s right, and in that scenario it tends to be the male who is the far more toxic one. If he’s caught outside a burrow when the sun comes up, he’s fundamentally dead, so this is when any Funnel-webs that are out and about and on the move find somewhere to spend the day. Shoes are an attractive second option to the back of a burrow. A garden glove would be another attractive place for a Funnel-web, or a towel or clothing – any place for them to hide.

Spider cannibalism exists in a lot of spider species, with the female killing and then eating the male … although, the male is the dominant sex in Funnel-web land, isn’t it?

Many species do practice cannibalism and in many species, the female is certainly the larger spider – and part of the reason for this is so she can easily overpower the male. In the case of Funnel-webs, the male has much stronger toxin.

People pour kerosene, petrol and boiling water down Funnel-web burrows, but an alive Funnel-web is better than a dead one – tell us why?

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.

In the case of Funnel-webs, we would milk between 70 and 110 spiders in order to gather enough venom to secure an ampoule of anti-venom.

Is one ampoule sufficient to treat a Funnel-web bite?

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.

Can Funnel-webs jump?

It’s a bit of a fallacy. When I was a kid, we were told that Funnel-webs jump six feet and bit through steel cap boots – but they can’t jump. What they do is rear onto the hind legs and strike forwards and down. The only thing they can do is stand up and fling themselves down quite violently in a strike.

If people see a Funnel-web, what should they do if trying to catch them?

If the spider’s walking along – say it’s been dislodged from its burrow in the garden – grab a clean, wide-mouthed glass jar from the kitchen. Place the jar lying down on the ground in front of the spider and it will walk into the jar, thinking it is a burrow. You may need to scoop it into the jar with a stainless steel spoon.

You then put a little bit of soil into the jar (the soil provides its requirements of being damp and wet), to enable the spider to construct a bit of a burrow and spin a web and make itself as comfortable as possible. Without the damp soil in the jar, its life expectancy will be an hour-and-a-half, tops, in the shade … then place a couple of air holes in the lid, and take it to your nearest hospital.

If the spider is in the laundry or in the house and if it’s rearing at you, that means it’s unlikely to move in this position (it’s unable to walk and has to come down from this position to do so). Again, grab a jar, invert the empty glass jar over the spider, and slide a piece of stiff paper, plastic or cardboard under the jar and under the spider. The spider, with a bit of encouragement, will walk onto the cardboard. Reinvert the jar and drop it off to your nearest public hospital.

How do you detect a Funnel-web burrow?

They’re usually a hole in the ground about an inch-wide, with radiating webs. They can be on the edges of rockeries, gaps and crevices. The one thing that’s generally indicative of a Funnel-web burrow is that the sun won’t pass directly over the burrow-mouth at any time during the day. If there is a hole in the middle of the day with sun shining on it, it may well be a Trapdoor or a cicada hole. If it’s radiating webs and not in a sunny spot, that may well be a Funnel-web.

One final question … they’re not necessarily black – are they?

No, not all Funnel-webs are black – although they’re predominantly black. They’re always a uniform colour, but they can be a tan colour. The most common colour other than black is rufus, or a dull reddish colour … between the black and rufus ones, that would account for the majority of them.

They can also have ghostly white tinges, which means they’re in the process of shedding their skin.

Thanks Ranger Mick.

Disclaimer: Ranger Mick is an expert in dealing with Funnel-web spiders. Extreme care should be excercised if any spider species are encountered. If bitten by a spider, seek immediate medical assistance. 

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