Toronto

Why is the ROM milking spiders? All in the name of scientific research, of course

The Royal Ontario Museum is milking spiders and scorpions as part of a research project. Spider wrangler Gil Wizen says the act of milking a venomous arachnid is something that is done in “labs around the world” for scientific research into how the various compounds can be used by humans.

Venom has been tested for use as painkiller, pesticide and cancer medication

The Royal Ontario Museum's spider wrangler, Gil Wizen, extracts venom from a dock spider. (Mathieu Simard/CBC)

Gil Wizen loves his job working with insects and arachnids, even if it means getting stung and bitten every once in a while.

"I'm still here, so I guess it's not that bad," he jokes, while standing in a temporary exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum called Spiders: Fear & Fascination — an exhibit which is all about showcasing the lives of spiders.

However, the entomologist insists he's never been bitten by one of the hundreds of live spiders he takes care of in the exhibit.

"We keep it under control here," he said.

The fact that one of the venomous spiders — or scorpions — at the museum has never stung him is surprising, given that he milks the animals for their venom twice a day in front of a crowd at the ROM.

The dock spider's legs are pinned out of the way of the fangs. The pins do not go through the skin of the spider. (Mathieu Simard/CBC)

Venom tested for use in medicine, pesticides

The act of milking a venomous arachnid is something that is done in "labs around the world" for scientific research into how the various compounds can be used by humans, Wizen explains.

A compound in scorpion venom has been isolated and reproduced to use as a pest control for crops, said Julie Tome, an educator at the ROM. The deadly secretions are even being tested for use as medicine for humans.

"The medical uses are mostly to control pain in humans because the venom tends to paralyze if you have too much of it," she said.

The Dock Spider, also known as a Fishing Spider, is one type of animal the ROM gathered from Ontario in order to milk its venom. They will be released back into the wild in the spring. (Sean McCann)

Wizen described one recent study in which "strong venom from a deadly spider" was used to successfully kill cancer cells. He quickly points out that it will take years before research like that could be verified and approved.

The venom, collected a drop at a time at the ROM, is from much less deadly animals, like dock spiders. And the research lab it's sent to in Utah only tests "to see if they find anything interesting," Wizen said.

We're not part of the active research, but we'll know if they find something cool," he said.

Some spiders collected in Ontario

The act of milking is done by placing the arachnid in a clear container and spraying it with carbon dioxide in order to knock it out. Wizen has about five minutes before it will wake up again, and sometimes they wake up in the middle of a demonstration, which can be a surprise for the public.

Then the spider wrangler will put the sleeping animal onto a flat surface and strategically pin its legs down. The pins will not pierce the skin, but are only meant to clear the legs in order to get a good view of the fangs.

Gil Wizen milks the arachnids twice a day in front of a crowd at the ROM. (Mathieu Simard/CBC)

A slight electric shock is given to the arachnid, stimulating the venom which is then collected into a plastic tube and frozen.

The spider recovers quickly, but the museum allows the animal two weeks of rest and rejuvenation before it is milked again.

The museum uses about 30 spiders and 20 scorpions. They are mostly from the exhibit, but some spiders were collected from around Ontario and will be released back into the wild in the spring.

The exhibit, and milking demonstrations, will be at the ROM until Jan. 6.