The Sydney funnel-web spider is the world’s most venomous spider – one bite can kill. Spider hunter Scott Johnson has made it his mission to capture the dangerous animals in Australia.
Just a little plastic separates Scott Johnson from one of the world’s most venomous spiders. On his coffee table in the Engadine, Australia, there are several transparent containers in which Sydney funnel-web spiders sit on peat moss. Seen in this way, the animals with their long little legs don’t seem all that threatening, they easily fit on the palm of a hand. And yet: The dreaded Sydney Funnel-webs, as they are called in their homeland, can kill a person in less than an hour.
Johnson is a spider hunter in his spare time, specializing in this particularly feared species. When he carefully wants to move a specimen from one container to another with a metal stick, it suddenly becomes dangerous: the spider stretches, climbs over the edge – and escapes. But she lands in a deep plastic tub that Johnson uses for such maneuvers.
Dig up Sydney funnel-web spiders as a child
“Funnel-web spiders cannot climb smooth surfaces,” says the 42-year-old. “That’s why glass or plastic containers are best for storage – they just have to be tall enough.” It is best to use a long object, such as a spoon, to gently push the spider into the container. With some cardboard, this can be carefully turned over and then securely closed.
The Australian has always been fascinated by spiders and knows almost everything about them. Even as a child he digs Sydney funnel-web spiders out of the ground and hands them over to the responsible authorities. Since then he has been reading everything on the subject – also in order to be able to give the right tips to laypeople who ask for advice. Four years ago he finally started a Facebook page on which he spreads information about the dangerous spiders and offers people in the area to pick up the animals from them. He is also specifically looking for the eight-legged friends in the Australian bush.
Fatal within a short time without antidote
There are 36 species of funnel-web spiders. The male of the Sydney species (Atrax robustus), which occurs within 160 kilometers of the Australian metropolis, is the most dangerous – and together with the Brazilian wandering spider has made it into the Guinness Book of Records as the most poisonous spider in the world.
Anyone who is bitten notices it quickly: first the mouth tingles, then the tongue twitches, followed by severe sweating and muscle cramps. If no antidote is administered, the victim can die within a short period of time from a combination of high blood pressure, increased heart rate, and shortness of breath.
About 30 to 40 people are bitten by such a spider a year. So far, however, only 13 deaths have been linked to the species endemic Down Under. No one has died from a bite since an antidote was developed in 1981.
Spider Hunter Johnson on daily duty
Nevertheless, the spider species is not a popular house guest: When Leanne Paull from Heathcote in southern Sydney received a call from her 15-year-old son at work one morning, she dropped everything and drove home. A funnel-web spider has made itself comfortable in its living room. Mother and son don’t know what to do, panic reigns.
“I wanted to put a container over her, but I didn’t hit it. And then she got a little angry,” says the Australian. “Finally I asked a jogger outside if he could help me.” The man manages to capture the spider and tells Paull about the spider hunter Scott Johnson. He picks up the animal in the morning before he drives to his job as a car mechanic.
He is currently being messaged almost every day on Facebook – because the recent extremely rainy weather on Australia’s east coast is attracting many crawling animals from their hiding places. Most wanted to have identified the spider first. Because in about 70 percent of the cases it is not a Sydney funnel web spider. At best, Johnson can use photos to identify the species immediately: “Most spiders have eight eyes. You can almost always tell with certainty what species it is by looking at their arrangement.”
Males are milked for antidote
As soon as the Australian has collected about five to ten specimens of the poisonous spider species – about every two weeks – he brings the animals to “Reptile Park” near Somersby north of Sydney. Here, above all, the males are needed. They are five to six times more poisonous than the females – and their toxin is particularly suitable for the production of a so-called antidote, because this also works against bites from other species.
“We are very dependent on people giving us the funnel-web spiders,” said Tim Faulkner, director of the Reptile Park, in a recent statement. Without this help from the citizens, it would otherwise be impossible to save lives.
The Reptile Park is the only place in Australia where the males are milked for their poison – a delicate task: “The animal keepers need a very steady hand and maximum concentration,” said a spokeswoman for the German Press Agency. “They use a small aspirator with a glass pipette, tricking the spider into a defensive position.” Then the toxin is carefully sucked out of the fangs.
Spiders are kept as pets
The secretion is then sent to the manufacturer of the counter serum, Seqirus, in Melbourne. Up to 150 spiders have to be milked for just one ampoule of antidote. However, the males can only be milked for a maximum of one year, because then they die naturally. That’s why supplies are so urgently needed.
That’s why spider hunter Scott Johnson takes his job very seriously: “I bring all the spiders to Reptile Park personally.” He is constantly being asked on Facebook whether he also sells the poisonous animals to private individuals, because some people actually keep the spiders as “pets”. But Johnson refuses: he wants to help the community with his work and help ensure that no one has to die from a spider bite.