Nightmare fuel or ‘absolute gold’? Why these spiderlings are set to save lives

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For most, an egg sac bursting with offspring from one of the world’s deadliest spiders makes for absolute nightmare fuel.

But it’s cause for celebration for spider wranglers at the Australian Reptile Park, which is the only facility that undertakes the critical work of milking Sydney funnel-web fangs for the production of antivenom.

To mark a new batch of funnel-webs, the Central Coast park has captured rare footage of hundreds of spiderlings emerging from an egg sac donated by a member of the public.

“Egg sacs are absolute gold to us,” the park’s spider keeper Emma Teni said. “We always want more.”

Keepers must milk 150 male spiders to produce one vial of antivenom. The males also only live for a year, and their short lifespan means the park is constantly scrambling for more spiders.

The park will rear the baby spiders until maturity, when they reach between 1 and 5 centimetres long, with glossy dark-brown bodies and powerful fangs.

A funnel-web spider being milked of its powerful venom with a pressurised pipette.Credit: The Australian Reptile Park

Only about 120 adult males are part of the milking program at any one time. Their fangs are sapped weekly with a pipette, and then the venom is freeze-dried and sent to the Commonwealth Serum Laboratory in Melbourne.

As peak spider season approaches, the park has urged the public to hand in any egg sacs or spiders found in homes and backyards across Sydney to bolster the antivenom program. Several hospitals and vets across Sydney accept live specimens.

Due to dwindling spider donations, the park began breeding its own specimens in 2019 to ensure a steady flow of venom as Sydney suburbs encroach further into the bushland haunts of the funnel-web.

The northern beaches, Hornsby, Wahroonga and the Central Coast are all known hotspots for the spider.

The Australian Reptile Park will rear and more than 100 funnel web spiderlings from a donated egg sac, so the mature spiders can be milked of venom.Credit: Australian Reptile Park

There are 13 recorded deaths caused by funnel-webs, but no one has died from a bite since the introduction of antivenom in 1981.

The potency of the male’s venom surges once they begin wandering in the humid, hot period between January and March.

Recent research revealed their venom evolved to deter predators such as lizards, birds and rats – and in the process, humans got caught in the crossfire.

“Humans get nuked by funnel-web bites, we get absolutely crushed by their toxin, but it’s an absolute fluke we ended up being so sensitive to it,” University of Queensland’s Venom Evolution Lab expert Associate Professor Bryan Fry said.

The distinctive warning display of the extremely venomous Sydney funnel-web.Credit: Peter Rae

The funnel-web venom is lethal because it contains the neurotoxin delta-hexatoxin, which forces nerves to fire repeatedly. This can cause muscle spasms, a plunge in blood pressure, organ failure, coma and death.

But some researchers are turning around the spiders’ deadly reputation. Clinical trials are under way to test how a molecule found in the venom of the K’gari (Fraser Island) funnel-web spider could treat heart attacks and stroke.

The venom-derived molecule seems to block the signals that cause heart cells to die during a heart attack.

In another study earlier this year, 451 mating funnel-web pairs were filmed at the Reptile Park to reveal more about the spiders’ sex lives, which take place deep within burrows.

The research revealed the spiders have surprisingly safe sex lives. A spur on the males’ second pair of legs once assumed to protect him from the hungry post-coital female is actually used to stabilise the pair and extend mating duration. Sexual cannibalism, observed in redbacks, was found to be rare in funnel-webs.

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