Thursday, January 27, 2011

Creature Feature: Sydney Funnel-web Spider.

Remember when we said that Australia had too much extant badass for a scorpion that shoots salad dressing out of its rear? That is because everything in Australia is equipped with something that can put a man in the hospital without difficulty. Even when we brought puppies over, they evolved to have an appetite for human babies. When the ecology is enough to turn a domesticated dog into a baby-killer in a relatively short span of time, you know something is hardcore about that place.

Everything in Australia is trying to kill you. Every. Living. Thing. The 'average' creepy-crawlies over there are no exception.

Look up any "world's deadliest spiders" list and the Sydney funnel-web spider  (Atrax robustus) will definitely be on it- probably at the top. The name says a lot: It's native to the area around Sydney, one of Australia's biggest cities, although it has gotten as far as England (likely thanks to imported goods). The spider lives in a special silk-lined burrow, thus "funnel web."

Sydney funnel-webs are medium-large spiders and look almost like Halloween decorations: Large, black, huge fangs, and would look darn scary dangling from a piece of twine. There are no special markings to tell you "don't touch this spider." All one has to know is that it, like everything else in Australia, is out for your blood.

Those giant fangs are not just for show. Unlike most arthropod pincers, they are designed to pierce. To use them, the funnel-web spider rears up, then strikes repeatedly at whatever is threatening it, injecting a lot of venom.

The male funnel-web's venom, atracotoxin, is a powerful neurotoxin that fucks with the sodium gates in the nervous system. It specifically attacks motor neurons, causing the twitch mentioned in the video. The spider gains no benefit from attacking humans except a killer reputation; this venom was originally intended to harm insect prey in the same way.

Seek medical attention immediately if bitten. Symptoms include tingling around the mouth, muscle spasms, excessive salivation, and, eventually, respiratory failure. A single bite can kill in 15 minutes, but if an antivenin is administered, it is not even a threat. They have gotten good at curing that deadly bite down under.

The good news is, once you know what a funnel-web looks like, they are easy to pick out and hit with a newspaper (or avoid). The bad news? They're everywhere around Sydney and Canberra. The males will wander during the warmer months of the year to find a mate. Their attraction to water often leads them to swimming pools; they can survive being drowned, and will bite if taken out of the pool by hand. One site said that the female sucks a little bit of the male's brain out during mating, which would make him a real-life zombie spider. Way to go, Australia: You've found a way to make the undead.

Tomorrow: It's a dinosaur! It's a bear! It's...neither of the above, but it has HUGE teeth!

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