OK, here it is – one of the most renowned beasties in the whole continent – the dreaded redback spider. The picture above is quintessentially Australian, showing one sitting on top of a Sherrin AFL ball in our garden – that’s Aussie rules to my UK readers, which is universally known as football here, or more usually just footie. This video shows some of the key differences between the two codes. Back to redbacks – yes, this is the infamous spider that lurked under the toilet seat and bit Slim Newton’s bum. They’re pretty much the same thing as the American black widow, the New Zealand katipo and other similar spiders around Southern Europe and the Pacific.
So yes, this is one of only two spiders in the whole of Australia you really do need to be a bit careful of. The other is the Sydney funnel web, but that’s a very localised New South Wales speciality – apparently they occur increasingly frequently in line with the cost of the real estate! The various other Australian spiders can certainly give you a nasty nip, but none are potentially deadly. But how deadly?
Well, last year in 2016 there was possibly the first fatality in over 60 years. It’s not clear whether the bite itself was fatal or not – in this sad case there were other issues as well – but it certainly didn’t help. This would be the first fatality since antivenom was introduced 50 years ago, although there are some questions about the efficacy of the that. But given that 2,000-10,000 people are estimated to be bitten each year, you’re far more likely to survive than not. Here’s a great account of being bitten by the inimitable Bob in Oz – and if that’s not enough, do read his comments where there are hundreds more experiences.
Bob’s tale illustrates several typical issues with spider bites – firstly he’s not certain it was a redback, although it does seem pretty likely. This happens a lot with bites and stings of any kind, whether from snakes, spiders or anything else – positive identification of the culprit is often tricky. Unlike, say, crocodiles! When I started looking into spider bites I was amazed to find how little is known about exactly which spiders do what damage – for example white tails have a nasty reputation but may be in the clear.
Secondly he got bitten in a classic way – having his hands somewhere he couldn’t see them. Don’t stick your fingers in any holes you find in Australia! Historically many people were bitten on the genitalia, due to outside toilets being ideal homes for redbacks. Happily since the general demise of the outdoors dunny this is not so common – but not entirely unknown!
Finally he didn’t die, or indeed go to hospital although he did sensibly seek medical advice. You should definitely take care though, and especially with children or anyone who isn’t quite 100%. Trust professional medical advice, and not something you found on the internet (even this blog!).
So where do you find redbacks? They’re not uncommon pretty much anywhere across Australia, and they like dry, dark and sheltered sites. Garden sheds, mailboxes or underneath barbecues are ideal redback habitats. We used to keep various sports balls in an old esky outside, but after we found the second redback in there we decided it probably wasn’t the best place to keep them. Here’s one from that esky – slightly brown this time, but definitely a redback on another AFL ball:
When I say ‘not uncommon’ I actually mean comparatively unusual. We’ve probably seen about 10 in the three years we’ve been here. This has almost always been outside – I found one indoors once, but it was by a brush that I’d just used to clear a lot of cobwebs off the windows, and I strongly suspect I brought it back in on the brush. Elliot’s seen a couple at school, where the teachers invariably squash them – much to Elliot’s concern.
Originally when I started planning this post I didn’t have many pictures of redbacks, so I went out to try to find one (the things I do for you, dear readers). I put some gardening gloves on, and poked around the garage and garden. Eventually I found this fellow under a log:
I thought this was a redback with slightly different colouring (ie no red back!) – it was the same size, shape and that distinctive glossy black. As you can see they’re not huge – the dollar shown here is a very similar size to a pound coin or a euro. However on investigation it seems that this was actually a cupboard spider – certainly similar, but nowhere near as dangerous as the redback. So even when you go looking for them you can’t always find them.
Our local football (soccer) team are called the Eltham Redbacks, and it is widely used for a variety of sport and company names across Australia. There’s even a redback beer, although I haven’t tried it. I think many Australians are actually quite proud of their deadlier native companions.
Just check under that toilet seat next time you go…