Forget sharks and crocodiles: the real menace at this time of year, at least for surburban Sydneysiders, is a backyard spider whose bite can kill you in the space of two hours.
Insect experts have warned that the city is being invaded by funnel-webs, considered one of the world's most aggressive and poisonous spiders. A reptile park north of Sydney where people can drop off captured specimens, and where they are milked of their venom to make antidote, has received more than 40 males in recent weeks. Males are deadlier than females.
A lengthy dry period, followed by unseasonable downpours and high humidity over the Christmas break, is blamed for the plague. "We've had a long spell of very warm weather combined with rain," said Mary Rayner, general manager of the Australian Reptile Park. "They are starting to come in thick and fast."
The Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, has also reported unusually large numbers of the feared arachnids this summer. Rex Gilroy, who runs a dangerous spiders hotline in the area, told the Sydney Morning Herald: "I think climate change might have something to do with it. This season there's more moisture and coolness, and the spiders have been able to breed up... [The numbers] are definitely up from the previous year, and I think it's not going to get any better."
Several people, including a 12-year-old boy in the Blue Mountains, have already been bitten this summer, but not fatally.
Unlike most spiders, which scuttle away when disturbed, funnel-webs – which can grow to up to two inches long – may rear up and bare their fangs. They make burrows in moist, dark places, such as garden sheds, outdoor laundries and shrubberies.
Ms Rayner warned parents to keep a careful eye on young children. "People should always shake their shoes, never leave washing on the ground or out overnight, and really be careful around laundries and other dark, damp places," she said. "It's important that [parents are] very vigilant about children's clothing and shoes, and where they play."
Last year, a two-year-old boy had to be flown to hospital after being bitten by a funnel-web which had crawled into his gumboot. He displayed the classic symptoms, including vomiting, convulsions and breathlessness, but recovered after being given the anti-venom.
Thirteen people, including seven children, have died from funnel-web bites over the past 100 years, but none since 1981, when an antidote was developed. Still, the experts warn, it pays to be cautious. One species, the paperbark funnel-web, has a bite so lethal that one victim required 17 ampoules of anti-venom.
The spiders are most active in the breeding season, which is normally in February, but weather conditions such as those seen recently can bring them out earlier. Found mainly in eastern Australia, they are said to be able to leap 18 inches, and their fangs can penetrate soft shoes and fingernails.Reuse content