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Funnel webs in Orange NSW?

posted Jan 20, 2021, 5:58 PM by Bruno Buzatto   [ updated Jan 21, 2021, 2:58 PM ]

Yesterday I was interviewed by Ewan Gilbert from the Breakfast program at ABC Central West NSW — it turns out a few people in Orange (New South Wales, Australia) are finding funnel web spiders in their houses and worried that the feared Sydney Funnel Web Spider could be making its way there. If you want to hear the full interview (about 8min), you can here

In the interview I don't know how clear I managed to be (it was 6am for me in Perth!) before a coffee, but these were my main points in an extended version:

1 - The Sydney Funnel Web Spider (Atrax robustus) is extremely unlikely to be in Orange, I'd give this possibility a 0.1% chance! BUT...

2 - There are currently 35 described species of funnel web spiders in 3 genera: Atrax (3 species), Hadronyche (31 species) and Illawara (1 species). No described species of Atrax should occur near Orange, BUT...

3 - There could certainly be new undescribed species of the genus there! This could be a mind-blown moment for you if you are not into invertebrates — there are literally thousands of new species of insects and arachnids yet to be described in 2021, especially from Australia. Even the relatively well-known Sydney Funnel Web Spider (Atrax robustus) is probably a complex of at least 3 different species (ongoing and still unpublished work by Danilo Harms, Ricardo Lourenço, Svea Frank, Braxton Jones and myself is pointing that way!), two of which in the process of being described.

On the left is a photo (From Gray in Records of the Australian Museum, 2010, 62: 285–392) of Atrax robustus. If you see this little 'apophysis' (basically a little stump) on the second pair of legs (indicated with the red arrow), then it's a male in the genus Atrax, otherwise you are probably looking at a species of Hadronyche. But if you DO see that apophysis in an animal in Orange, please get in touch with me (bruno.buzatto@mq.edu.au), as it's almost certainly a new species of Atrax. :) Only the males have an apophysis, but if you find a funnel web walking about in your garden/house, it's very likely to be a male wandering around looking for girls to mate with (girls very rarely leave their funnels)!

4 - A couple of described species of Hadronyche could in fact be in Orange, that is way more likely. And they are VERY similar to Atrax, don't you think? The photo on the right is a Hadronyche (photo credit to Greg Tasney, photo available on Atlas of Living Australia). Plus, looking for that apophysis requires you being more intimate with the spider than you want to be! Even though some described species of Hadronyche might be in Orange, there is also the possibility of undescribed species of that genus there. My expectation is that whatever is being seen in Orange recently is a described or undescribed species of that genus, and given the distributions of the described species I am leaning towards a new species, but obviously no conclusion can be drawn without looking at the specimens under the microscope.

5 - Even though the Sydney Funnel Web Spider is potentially the most venomous of them, and Hadronyche seems to have less potent venom, it is better to be safe than sorry, especially given that there could be undescribed species of Atrax in Orange. If bitten, follow the first aid steps recommended by the Australian Reptile Park:

The most important thing is to keep still (specially the bitten limb), trying to keep a low heart beat, and get someone to take you to the hospital immediately (call 000 immediately if by yourself). The Australian Reptile Park also teaches you how to collect spiders for them (here), at your own risk of course. To date only 13 people died of a funnel web bite in Australia, and the last one was in 1983, before the anti venom was developed. Lets keep it like that ;)

6 - On a positive note, I would like to point out that if you find a black spider living in something that looks like a funnel inside your house (say in the bathroom, near the window, or even in the rear mirror of your car), that is almost certainly a black house spider (Badumna insignis). This spider is black and lives in something like a funnel, but it's much smaller than a funnel web, completely unrelated, and harmless. As a rule of thumb, if it can climb the walls and is not found on the ground, it's not going to be a true funnel web. Let them keep eating annoying bugs in your house ;)

A black house spider, NOT a funnel web. Photo credit by Bill & Mark Bell, from Atlas of Living Australia.

To finish, I'll give my opinion on the question of why are people seeing more of these spiders in Orange recently. Firstly, I do not believe spiders are moving their distributions inland due to climate change, a question I have been asked in the interview. These poor spiders are very long lived (long generation time), terrible at dispersing when young, and their distributions only change very slowly, not something that would change dramatically from one year to the next. They are more likely to shrink their distribution due to climate change and human disturbance. It's more likely, in my opinion, that they are simply being seen in the city more due to land clearing and expansion of housing into what was their natural habitat before. But once again, we need more studies to find out whether this is indeed the case!