Nature in Focus: Redback Spiders
English Level: Intermediate
English teacher Cerri Gallant tells us all about redback spiders. Redback spiders are found throughout Australia in the bush and built-up areas.
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On Wednesday, 11 July, 2001, The Brisbane Courier Mail reported news of a man in Alice Springs who was bitten on the bottom more than 20 times by a Redback spider and needed 16 doses of antivenom to survive. Antivenom is a drug to treat a poisonous bite. A different antivenom must be developed for each poison.
Although it injects only a tiny amount of venom, a Redback bite can cause serious illness and before an anti-venom was found in 1956 several people died. The venom is unique - it can attack all the nerves of the body. In a serious case it may lead to death.
In Australia, hundreds of people are bitten by Red-back spiders every year in summer. About 600 bites are recorded each year. The Red-back spider is the only dangerous spider found Australia-wide. From 1963 to 1976 over 2000 Redback Spider bites were recorded at the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories, however, many more bites treated by doctors and hospitals were probably not recorded. Before the introduction of the Redback antivenom in 1956, 13 known deaths were caused by its bite.
Redback spiders are related to the black widow spider species. The male is only about one-third the size of the female and is considered harmless to humans because his fangs are so small. His markings are not as bright as the female, although her stripe is not always red, and may be orange, pink or even light grey. After mating, the female eats the male. She then spins up to 8 round balls of web for her eggs. These may contain as many as 300 eggs. Unlike the Sydney Funnel-web which can jump 18 inches, the Redback spider is not aggressive. Instead, if molested Redbacks will usually fall to the ground, curl up and pretend to be dead. If disturbed while guarding her eggs, or cornered, or even when sat upon, the female will bite the intruder with her small but effective fangs. It may feel like a small pinprick.
If a nest is found, insect spray should be used around the area and any eggs should be burned or disposed of in sealed garbage. Many people, who don’t know about Redbacks, believe 'urban myths' (or untrue stories) about them. Very few people are seriously injured as not all bites inject venom into the victim. Also the venom moves slowly inside the body allowing time to get medical attention. Pressure bandages are not recommended for Redback bites, but cold packs or cold water may help relieve pain. Medical attention should be sought if a bite is suspected.