Blog

Alert, not alarmed

By: Lisa Robinson, Category: Museullaneous, Date: 22 Oct 2014

As the weather warms up and we spend more time outdoors, be aware of the other creatures getting out and about – snakes and spiders.

Funnelweb Spider, Atrax robustus

Funnelweb Spider, Atrax robustus
Photographer: Sue Lindsay © Australian Museum

Snakes, spiders and other creepy crawlies are emerging after winter, resulting in some well-publicised media stories, but what’s the real risk?

The NSW Ambulance Service says it’s already had 27 emergency calls for suspected snake bites and 55 calls for suspected spider bites (including 11 from funnel-web spiders) since July 2014.

Rather than being alarmed, I’m thinking about all the times I’ve seen a snake or spider in suburban Sydney; I can count them on one hand (not including garden spiders, daddy-long-legs and huntsmen, but I consider them to be part of the furniture).

And the closest I’ve come to a snake in the wild was last year with a stunning green (non-venomous) tree snake chilling in the backyard of a holiday rental house in Byron Bay.

In the spider collection

Graham Milledge, the Arachnology Collection Manager at the Australian Museum, says spider numbers fluctuate from year to year depending on environmental conditions, and they always increase in the warmer months.

‘But you’re unlikely to come in contact with dangerous spiders in Sydney because redbacks rarely leave their webs and funnel-webs only wander at night,’ says Graham.

I’m interviewing him in the Museum’s Arachnology Collection, surrounded by half a million spider specimens and the largest collection of funnel-web spiders in the world.

I’m fine with this because they’re housed in jars of ethanol which line the row upon row of shelves.

Mostly collected by the Museum’s scientists, the specimens include the one responsible for the first recorded funnel-web spider death back in 1927.

There are also some overseas specimens including the Goliath Tarantula from South America, the biggest spider in the world.

Graham is quick to point out that nobody has died from a funnel-web spider bite since antivenom was developed in the 1980s. Redback antivenom goes back even further, to the 1950s.

He suggests checking your shoes and gloves before doing the gardening because these can be great hiding places for spiders.

Legless

And what about those giant red-bellied black snakes we’ve been hearing about in the news?

Search & Discover, the Museum’s hands-on enquiry centre, receives photos or specimens of snakes from people who are keen to identify the creatures they see in their backyards.

Steve Vogel, who helps with identification, says that most of these turn out to be non-venomous.

‘Despite Australia’s reputation for having the most deadly snakes in the world, you generally won’t encounter them because they tend to avoid people.’

Snakes were back in the spotlight recently after a Western Australian man died after being bitten and not seeking medical attention; then in separate incidents, two children survived bites after being treated.

Australia has almost 200 species of snakes, but only 25 are considered to be potentially deadly.

‘Snakes won’t bite if you respect their space and stay clear of them’, says Steve.

And that’s exactly what I’ll continue to do.

Lisa Robinson, Communications Intern

Further reading

Contact Search & Discover at sand@austmus.gov.au

Visit our fact sheets on spiders and reptiles.