To study the Sydney funnel web spider, one researcher tags along from a distance with the help of tags the size of a grain of rice.
After four or five minutes of breathing carbon dioxide gas, Caitlin Creak’s eight-legged subject is fully unconscious. Working quickly—she has less than a minute before the spider, named Harold, starts to wake up—Creak pins the creature’s legs under a foam doughnut, leaving the shiny black body exposed. Using an especially strong super glue, she attaches a tracking device, barely larger than a grain of rice, to his back. The next day, she’ll release Harold near where she found him on the outskirts of Sydney, Australia, and study his movements as he continues on his all-important journey to find mates.
Harold and the other participants in Creak’s research are Sydney funnel web spiders, the most venomous spider in Australia, a country that certainly does not lack for venomous eight-legged beasties. In children, a funnel web bite can be fatal in as little as 15 minutes. Typically measuring less than three inches long, including legs—record-holder “Big Boy” topped the charts at nearly four inches—the funnel web spider certainly isn’t Australia’s largest, but it’s one many people from cooler regions of the world would likely describe as intimidating, and impressively chunky instead of delicate and spindly.
“These spiders certainly have impressive-looking fangs and very strong bites. They rear up in impressive threat displays and actually drip venom from their fangs, which is very unusual—most spiders try to conserve their venom,” says Samantha Nixon, a spider venom researcher at the University of Queensland. Nixon says funnel web spider venoms are some of “the most chemically complex venoms on the planet, containing over 3,000 peptides.” Researchers are even studying some of the venom peptides from another species of Australian funnel web spider as potential treatments for stroke, epilepsy, and certain types of pain.
But while their venom is well-studied, Creak says relatively little is known about the spiders themselves. “They’re a very understudied species,” says Creak, a PhD student at the University of New South Wales who originally considered becoming a vet before getting hooked on spiders during an invertebrate biology course in university. “We know how many ways they can kill a person, or a rat, which is great, but we don’t know anything about their life history. It’s such an iconic species; I think it’s really important to uncover more.”
My wife brought me one home from a business trip to Oz, safely encased in Lucite.