The funnelweb that wasn't

So I popped out last night to switch on the tumble drier. It's been a bit rainy. It was quite late. I was barefoot. As I wandered, tired, out of my back door round to my laundry area, the flourescent light flickered into life. What I spotted near my feet brought me up short.

Within a few inches of my bare toes, locomoting along, was a spider. Maybe three to four centimetres in body length, with a relatively small abdomen, arched shiny carapace and the characteristic slow lope of a mygalomorph. Under the flourescent light, it glimmered black. When approached, it reared up aggressively. The stance and the leg configuration looked just like the picture I've wanted as a tattoo for, well... ages. It adorned the front page of my first ever blog, back in 2000.

Ohshit I nearly stood on a Sydney Funnelweb.

Now, I'm a bit of a spider nerd, so instead of engaging my mate WeezMGK's "Shit Pants And Run" protocol, I instead grabbed the nearest plastic food container, which I clapped over the spider, and ran off to find a lid. Or something else sturdy to slide under the container.

I opted against thin card, since funnelweb fangs can penetrate quite deeply, and instead grabbed a Wacom Graphire graphics tablet, which I now recommend as spider-catching equipment as well as an accurate Human Interface Device.

Anyway, I got it inside and went hunting for my spider reference books. I found nothing, so I did what any responsible internet user does. I tweeted that I had a funnelweb and "hey, what am I meant to do with it"? I was aware Commonwealth Serum Laboratories in Melbourne collected them, and I had an inkling that maybe the Australian Museum or Taronga Zoo acted as a collection point. While Twitter and Facebook sought the info for me, I went back to my spider and examined him a bit more closely.

Yes, he's threatening me. From the bottom of a container he can't get out of, he's asking for a fight.

He looked black and shiny. He it was, clearly a wandering male looking for a bit of spider lovin'. The small abdomen gave that away. I looked for the distinctive spurs on the forelegs that I remembered as a taxonomic giveaway for the Sydney Funnelweb. This guy certainly had prominent spurs on his forelegs. His palps (the mating organs like short 'arms' either side of the large fangs) were maybe a bit larger than I recalled from diagrams of Atrax robustus. Do they enlarge in the mating season? I wasn't sure and I couldn't find my books, also the internet was being sterlingly unhelpful in terms of decent anatomical descriptions. His chelicerae (fang bases) were large. I retested the aggressive stance I'd seen earlier by judicious application of a kebab skewer left over from christmas festivities. Yep, definite aggressive rearing up, in fact a downright scary snap into attack position. Again, and a bite on the kebab stick, which I could clearly feel vibrate through the wood. I don't mind saying I found it quite threatening, me a full-grown human primate being intimidated by a two-inch arachnid. The fangs that were revealed were definitely big, sharp and primed for action.

In gross anatomical terms, I felt I had a match. I wasn't 100%, but it was late.

 I found some guidance with the help of some Twitterfriends that my best bet was the Australian Reptile Park, and that I should container him up with some damp tissue paper to keep his air moist, punching a hole or two into the lid for circulation. It was late, I went to bed, happy that I'd finally met Atrax robustus in the flesh.

The next morning I called the reptile park to see what the procedure was. I'd containered him correctly, and I could drop him off at the park, or at a number of drop-off points in Sydney. They were also really enthusiastic to get more specimens because demand for antivenom is very high. Satisfied, I went to see if my charge was still happy, healthy and threatening my imminent death.

In daylight, he looked kinda brown.

Very brown, in fact. Not the shiny black you expect from a funnelweb. Not the black colour I'd seen last night under flourescent tubes in my kitchen. Hmmm.

I re-checked the internets, and found a post from the Australian museum on the Funnelweb.


Seems I misremembered the location of the leg spurs. A. robustus has spurs on its second pair of legs. My little friend had two spurs on each of his forelegs.

I didn't have a Sydney Funnelweb, clearly.

So, what did I have? Well, I trawled a bit more on the Australian Museum site and found a thread talking about identification of funnel webs. This was more like it. This led me in turn to identify my spider as a Sydney Brown Trapdoor Spider, Misgolas rapax, with the distinctive "boxing glove" palps and twin spurs on the foreleg.

Not particularly deadly, but in terms of gross morphology, very similar to A. robustus. To a colourblind oaf under flourescent lighting, that is. In my defence, these are often mistaken. They really are very similar and tricky little buggers to handle if you're unsure which species they are and want to avoid bites. And even if you're looking at the non-deadly species, you'd still end up, if bitten, with what Bill Bryson delightfully termed "a distinct disinclination to boogie".

So, protip to Sydneysiders in this wandering spider season: Don't count your chickens until you've seen them under natural lighting, and don't misremember the position of the spurs on the forelegs. But above all, don't employ the "Shit Pants And Run" protocol, or the SMFTB (stomp motherfucker to bits) protocol. And don't spray him with the nearest can of something deadly. If he is a funnelweb, he's wanted for lifesaving antivenom production, and if he's not, you can still have an exciting encounter with a fascinating arthropod and a fun taxonomic adventure identifying his exact species with the help of the internets.

As a closing note, we went to the Australian Reptile Park today, happy to hand over $50 entry fee to a park that produces so much valuable antivenom, in a process which I might post on later (it's broadly related to vaccine production). I also bought a copy of Bert Brunet's "Spiderwatch" to replace my missing literature (also by Brunet), so I can avoid further misidentification adventures. As a bonus, I saw a galapagos tortoise, an echidna, some wombats, some real funnelwebs, a big fuckin' crocodile and a collection of some of the world's most deadly snakes. Recommended, for bio-nerds who don't mind a slightly superficial treatment of the subject in exchange for a relaxing afternoon in Sydney bushland.

We didn't take my Trapdoor Friend, as I released him down at the back of the garden, taking care to distract the dog and cat so he'd have a safe getaway. Hopefully he found a lady friend. That's what he wanted, after all. Even if she'd most likely eat him, he'd have died doing what he loved*.

*yes, I'm anthropomorphising. It's for effect, you pedants!

posted @ Wednesday, December 29, 2010 12:34 AM


Comments on this entry:

# re: The funnelweb that wasn't

Left by Tabs at 12/29/2010 7:47 AM
"But above all, don't employ the "Shit Pants And Run" protocol, or the SMFTB (stomp motherfucker to bits) protocol. And don't spray him with the nearest can of something deadly. If he is a funnelweb, he's wanted for lifesaving antivenom production, and if he's not, you can still have an exciting encounter with a fascinating arthropod and a fun taxonomic adventure identifying his exact species with the help of the internets."

You're F'ing mental. One of those in my house and it's getting killed! :|
You can go hunting them all you like to get some anti-venom... I'll continue hving a non-venomous spider household!!:\

# re: The funnelweb that wasn't

Left by Dave The Happy Singer at 12/29/2010 10:45 AM
Is 'happy anniversary' an appropriate comment?

# re: The funnelweb that wasn't

Left by Jason at 12/29/2010 6:45 PM
Thanks Dave,

Most appropriate indeed.

# re: The funnelweb that wasn't

Left by laursaurus at 12/31/2010 6:02 AM
I admit that I go into momma-bear mode when it comes to venomous intruders, just like Tabs. The worst arachnids I have dueled with here in So. Calif, USA, are black widows. They are relatively tiny in comparison. They are neither aggressive, nor have visible fangs. Although, they are also shiny and black. Their defining feature is a red hourglass-shaped marking on the underside of the abdomen. I usually grab whatever spray pesticide we happen to have on the nearest shelf and thoroughly saturate my foe.
The bite causes painful abdominal cramps, vomiting and diarrhea for a day or so, but seldom causes death in the average healthy adult. I hit the web after I killed my first female black widow and annihilated the large egg sac (or whatever the correct term is). It was back in the days before Twitter and my introduction to Wikipedia. Apparently, decades have passed since the last human death was attributed to a black widow bite. Sometimes, the victim can develop a secondary bacterial infection which is potentially fatal.
I think if I'd encountered the beast you captured, I would have turned and ran (hopefully without soiling myself). Then assign the task of dealing with it head-on to my DH.
You did an amazing job keeping your cool and your eye on the bigger picture! Even if it didn't turn out to be the treasure you'd hoped for, he was very lucky to have been captured by you. Hopefully he can fulfill his life's purpose by finding the female spider worthy of his ultimate sacrifice.

# re: The funnelweb that wasn't

Left by Jason at 1/2/2011 4:40 PM
The black widow as a Latrodectus species, related (if not identical) to Australia's Redback. No deaths from those since, IIRC, the 70s.

Did a blog post about those a year or two back, though the pics seem to be missing...

# re: The funnelweb that wasn't

Left by Jason at 1/2/2011 4:49 PM
Ah, here's the pics

just restored from backup

# re: The funnelweb that wasn't

Left by Andy at 1/3/2011 1:18 PM
Spider!?!? We had a 1.2m tiger snake in our back room last week! The bugger slid down inside a cardboard box full of junk when I saw him (her?).

All I could do was stare at the box while I contemplated my options. Eventually the box was tossed over the back fence (into a paddock) and fun then ensued as he (she?) decided he (she?) really didn't want to find a new home too far from the house.

They're SUPPOSED to go away from you if you make a lot of noise and bang on the ground. This one hadn't read the manual!

We could have called the local snake handler but he lives over 50km away and last time we called him out and told him we had a tiger under the doorstep, he told us it was probably eating frogs and living under the step - then charged us $50 and left, without the snake.

Beautiful creature though (the snake, not the handler). I can live with them as long as they don't take up residence too near the house.

# re: The funnelweb that wasn't

Left by Jason at 1/8/2011 1:44 AM

now snakes.... there's something we don't get much of here. I've met brown snakes out at Berowra, nearly run over red-bellied black snakes on my mountain bike in the Southern Highlands, and coaxed Diamond Pythons away from a building while fireproofing a property in the Blueys. But not aggressive tigers. And not in my house.

Spiders are a bit more accessible. And manageable.

# re: The funnelweb that wasn't

Left by RipleyP at 1/11/2011 11:45 AM
Up here in Gympie it’s been raining a little bit. Actually we are in flood and the town is cut off and also cut in two. The rain has been going for a month with only short periods of dry.

As a result many critters are seeking high ground. Alas a great place (and very happy for it) to build a home is on the high ground.

My house has now become a minor nature sanctuary with spiders, frogs and alas toads all coming in out of the wet. The cat has been gifting us with a dead rat every night to ensure the influx is only for appreciated guests.

The sheer volume of redbacks in the house as a result of the weather is astronomical. I ordinarily don’t kill my 8 legged friends as you can avoid them. However the number has made avoiding impossible and there has been a cull.

I must say when I was a kid visiting Sydney the trapdoor was something that terrified me. The Childs imagination thinking it was going to jump out and get me was quite a worry.

Pity I never saw one though. I had never considered the antivenin angle before and wonder if it applies to the snakes we get occasionally.
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