As It Happens

This 'Megaspider' was anonymously donated to a nature park — and it could save lives

The Australian Reptile Park received an anonymous package this month that might make some people scream if they opened the box.

The Australian Reptile Park has been collecting funnel web spiders for decades to milk them for anti-venom

A funnel web spider, pictured here on a ballcap, was anonymously donated to the Australian Reptile Park. (The Australian Reptile Park)

Story Transcript

The Australian Reptile Park received an anonymous package this month that might make some people scream if they opened the box.

Inside was a venomous female funnel web spider that the park says is the biggest its ever received in its 40 years of accumulating the eight-legged creatures. They've named it Megaspider for its "gargantuan size and massive fangs." 

"We actually collect funnel web spiders in order to milk their venom," Jake Meney, a keeper and reptiles supervisor at the park, said.

A bite from some funnel web spiders can be deadly, but the venom collected by the park is used to make antivenom — and saves lives. 

Meney spoke with As It Happens host Carol Off about the tantalizing gift. Here is part of their conversation.

You've dubbed it Megaspider and described it as what nightmares are made of. Just describe it for us, if you would.

Funnel web spiders are relatively common in our local area and throughout New South Wales. But this spider is probably about twice to three times the size of the normal funnel webs that we typically see. 

OK, so somebody captured this creature.... How did they get it to you?

They actually managed to catch it up and get it into a small plastic container. And then it was carefully delivered to us. 

We've since moved it into a larger enclosure and it's living here now amongst probably another 200 or 300 of its friends. We have a very large collection of funnel webs here.

Jake Meney, the reptiles supervisor at Australian Reptile Park in Somersby, Australia, holds the eight-legged creature in a cup. (The Australian Reptile Park)

You got an eight-centimetre long deadly spider that arrived in a Tupperware container, basically?

Yes, exactly.

How does one go about catching one of these things?

Well, the obvious answer is very carefully.

Whilst these funnel web spiders that we work with are so dangerous and potentially quite large like this individual, they're actually quite a slow spider and they can't jump and they can't climb.... It is actually quite easy to encourage one into a Tupperware and get it to us here.

How deadly is this spider?

Certainly the most deadly spider in Australia. 

We've only ever had two spiders which have caused deaths in humans. And the funnel web spider [was] certainly one of those, prior to the anti-venom ... [which] became available about 40 or so years ago. There was quite a number of funnel web spider deaths.

How do you milk it for its venom?

We ...  encourage the spider to get defensive, and it will basically almost stand up and raise its front legs and expose its fangs. Then they're actually so grumpy that they'll begin to produce venom just on the tip of the fang.

We can visibly see the drops.... Then we will go along with a small glass pipette and move those drops of venom into the pipette. And then [when] we've collected it safely ... the spider will go away and we will give it a feed. 

But that venom that we collect, we then send away and then the process of the anti-venom production begins.

The deadly funnel web spiders common throughout New South Wales. According to Meney, the newly donated one, right, is two or three times the size of an average one, pictured on the left for comparison. (The Australian Reptile Park)

How big are these fangs that you are milking?

The fangs on this particular one are about two centimetres long. Typically, the funnel web spider fangs are about one centimetre long. So even on an average-sized one, the fangs are very, very large and scary.

And so what do you now do with that milk that you got from the fangs?

We send it to another state in Australia, and then they will take that venom that we've supplied and they will actually inject a very, very tiny amount of it into a rabbit. 

The rabbit isn't overly affected by the venom, but what it does is it actually starts to slowly produce antibodies within its body. And then they will actually draw some blood from the rabbit and separate out those antibodies.... and they'll process those antibodies into ... a drug that can be given to humans if they're bitten by a funnel web.

How often, say in a year, would you need to use that anti-venom in Australia?

The funnel web spiders are quite common, particularly along the east coast, which is our most populated region of Australia. So each year we might see between 20 and 30 funnel web spider bites. 

Many of those would have proven fatal without the anti-venom. In fact, if you're bitten by a male funnel web spider, which is the more toxic of the two, it's almost a 100 per cent fatality rate without the anti-venom being administered. So it is very, very important to save lives.

So whoever delivered the spider to you, this Megaspider, anonymously, that person probably saved some lives.

Anyone that donates a spider to us is directly contributing to that anti-venom program — and we've been involved with that right from the very beginning.

So over 40 years now, we've been milking the funnel web spiders here at the Australian Reptile Park.

Written by Mehek Mazhar. Interview produced by Katie Geleff. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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