Meet ‘Big Boy’ the funnel-web spider

By Amelia Caddy February 2, 2016
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An enormous Sydney funnel-web spider has been handed in to have its venom ‘milked’, to help with the production of anti-venom.

AUSTRALIA’S ONLY PROVIDER of funnel-web spider venom has received its biggest spider, a male Sydney funnel-web – the deadliest in Australia – dubbed ‘Big Boy’.

A member of the public handed Big Boy into a Newcastle hospital so his venom could be used in the Australian Reptile Park’s venom-milking program. At 10cm wide when fully spread, Big Boy is the largest funnel-web the park has ever seen.

“The biggest funnel-web we had prior to Big Boy was 7.5cm, so that gives you a rough idea of just how big this spider actually is,” said Billy Collett, venom program supervisor at the Australian Reptile Park, located on the NSW Central Coast, about 50km north of Sydney.

Male Sydney funnel-webs needed for anti-venom

Generally, bigger spiders produce more venom, and only the venom of male Sydney funnel-webs such as Big Boy can be used to make funnel-web anti-venom.

This is because Sydney funnel-webs are the deadliest of the 43 known funnel-web species, and males are six times deadlier than females.

“We can’t use the venom from a male of a different species that’s less toxic to make funnel-web anti-venom, because the anti-venom wouldn’t then cover for the Sydney funnel-web,” explained Billy.

New Australian dinosaur

Big Boy is the Australian Reptile Park’s biggest funnel-web spider to date, measuring 10cm fully spread out. (Image: Australian Reptile Park)

Billy and his team collect funnel-web venom by vacuuming it off their spiders’ fangs through a glass pipette – a process called milking.

The park must milk 500 to 700 spiders each week in order to have enough venom to support anti-venom production.

“It might be that 100 milkings go into one vial of anti-venom, if not more – it just depends on the size of the males and how much venom they’re producing,” said Billy.

However, male Sydney funnel-webs have a short life span, so the park relies on public drop-offs to maintain its collection of spiders.

Public encouraged to hand in funnel-web spiders

Liz Vella, head curator at the Australian Reptile Park, said funnel-webs are most active, and hence most likely to be seen, in the summer months.

“January and February are the peak times when male funnel-web spiders are out trying to find females to mate, and given that only males can be milked we really encourage local communities to hand them in,” she said.

They’re usually found in cool, sheltered and shady spots throughout Sydney, the Illawarra, Newcastle, and the Central Coast.

Drop-offs can be made at several NSW locations, which are listed online along with an instructional video and guide explaining how to catch and transport the spiders safely.