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This Is Northern New South Wales

New Flesh Eating Spiders from Mars?

Golden Orb SpiderThe spider pictured is harmless. Please see the final paragraph for details.

I read a very earnest Facebook message recently suggesting that a new spider the size of a huntsman is rampaging across our land, inflicting the unaware with necrotic, flesh eating misery. Photos of the large spider were included, along with a man’s ulcerated finger, with its massive wound straddling the entirety of his digit, while splitting along its centre. I replied to this dire warning with some simple facts, but I will broaden this here.

Wolf Spiders: As a student in the early 90’s, I was studying the biological adaptations of the platypus at the Australian Museum in Sydney. I met two biologists who were carrying out research on the white-tailed spider’s venom characteristics. They explained to me that there was absolutely no evidence that any of the spider bites around Sydney at the time, where necrosis had occurred, were due to the white-tailed spider’s involvement. The spider had been unjustly stamped as the villain. They believed that the culprit was in fact the wolf spider. In the 80’s, we used to see the white-tailed spiders around our floors in Cronulla, and I saw one in Auckland too. We used to call them ‘house spiders’. The real house spiders, commonly found within Aussie homes, live in funnel-like webs and are mildly venomous. Word on the street was that the white-tailed spiders were a new arrival to our shores, while the common wolf spider has been a longstanding resident. In years to come I furthered my reading on the debate between the two species- as to who was the real carrier of these necrotic bacteria. It was suggested that in all investigated sites where these bites had occurred, no white-tailed spiders were to be found, yet the wolf spider was.

Going in to bat for the Wolfies:
Now, I am going into to battle for the wolf spider. They come in many forms; some are the characters behind the beady eyes that light up your lawn at night …grab a torch and try this. Have they ever bitten you as you put the bins out on a summer’s night? I very much doubt it. Just the other day in a creek in the rainforest, I sat by a few water wolf spiders out near Wollumbin (Mt. Warning). They lay their snare webs out over the water; the bigger ones had leg spans to about 14 cm. They weren’t even remotely interested in my craving for cool relief from the humid heat. Like it or not, wolf spiders are part of your every day. They are to be found elsewhere too. In parts of southern Europe they call them tarantulas. Our tarantulas, the real ones, are found in places like Darwin. They live in burrows in the ground, and they too very rarely bother anyone.

Now, I do like to push the boundaries in life. I am a part of my natural surroundings and I refuse to lock myself away from nature. This is Australia, I don’t rush for the spray can, or fly squat to kill a huntsman as it waltzes across my walls. We were brought up in houses where huntsmans were welcome. That is until one bit my mum a few years back as she tried to remove it from her loungeroom. She must be a huntsman magnet, as summer drew to an end (has it yet?) one was heading for her feat in her living room. I sent it into a jar and put it outside. It was the largest tropical huntsman I have seen. Their venom carries more of a hit than their larger, lighter coloured cousins, those more commonly found in the Sydney region. With species on the move due to global warming, the tropical ones are probably on their way to Sydney now anyway. In the summer months we are bitten by spiders more often than we realise. In Darwin, a spider bit one of my nephews as he slept. We found the beastie; a huntsman. At first glance the tropical huntsman and the wolf spider look very similar. My nephew was fine. As for the wolf spider, very few people actually react with necrotic conditions to a wolf spider bite, but I do understand a parent’s fear when it comes to protecting loved ones.

I do draw the line on some things. I was helping a friend kick his car over with my electrical cables and he suggested I use them as nipple clamps! Not my idea of a fun day out, and I am still unsure as to why I used this as an analogy to be honest, but funnel web spiders, brown snakes, box jelly fish and saltwater crocs are a “No No!” Everything else to be shared time with I feel. While living in a rainforest barn style-cabin in the Byron Bay hinterland 12 years back, I had two resident temperate huntsmans with leg spans to 17 cm across. I called them both ‘Herman’. I also had two large carpet snakes, both named after musicians, they lived in the ceiling-less cabin with me; Neil Diamond would sit just above my bed at night. Dr Karl Kruszelnicki rang me at the time, concerned as to my welfare, which I thought was very kind. He described how in certain circumstances any large python can become dangerous. He is correct of course, though they do become somewhat tame. Yet, if they get themselves into a situation where they feel threatened, the ones less used to human behaviour can cause you problems.

I also allowed a small possie of five decent-sized wolf spiders to cruise about the floor of the cabin by evening. I was so accustomed to their humorous jostling around the joint that I sat at ease as they ran around my feet. I never knew they teamed up in a gang like that. Herman, however, disgraced himself one day, as he snuck down the wall behind the fridge and plucked a ‘wolfie’ from the floor and devoured him! Never did a see cockroach or rat though…except for the one poor ‘Fats Domino’ coughed up, before selfishly expiring in my roof. A foul olfactory experience indeed, but a saddening moment just the same, as I was very fond of this gentle 2.5m reptile, as was Neil Diamond.

Now back to that Facebook picture of the satanic spider causing so much grief to this nation. I am guessing it is a large wolf spider. Large ones should be avoided. I was a tad concerned though, as spiders are global drifters, and our red-back spiders can now be found in Japan after hitch hiking within shipping cargo such as pot plants. The red-back spider too could bite us more often than they do, they very rarely bother. Red-backs are part of the Widow family and are thought to have arrived to our shores in more recent times. So, when I saw the photo of the large necrosis-inflicting spider on Facebook, I did dread for a moment that it might be a Brazilian Wandering spider, which is the only other spider as dangerous as our funnel web spiders- who derive from an ancient lineage on this continent.

My good friend ‘snake artist’ Tony Nugent, used to remove problem snakes from folk’s homes in the Northern Rivers. He was bitten by a brown snake and almost died. While hangen with Tones recently, he casually pointed to the edge of the garden bed at his abode in Brunswick Heads to where an almost 2m brown snake was residing, showing absolutely no intention in biting us. It was more interested in a meal of lizard apparently. At the end of the day, we share time with many poisonous creatures here in Oz, but they are not out to get you. Yes, it would be horrible to have a flesh wound that refuses to heal, and when it finally does it decides to return from time to time when your immune system is lagging. I pity those who suffer this infliction, all we can do is modify our environment to suit our safety, and comfort, but limit pesticides, and enjoy and respect your wildlife. We live in jungle country and it is a privilege.

Tony Nugent's 'Python at Rest'

As for the spider pictured: It is a golden orb Nephila spider. I took this photo out near Wollumbin, and it features in my free online story ‘Children of the Big Scrub’. I have seen giant cousins of this species in the rainforests of Darwin and the Daintree, and one in Ubud- Bali…they had leg spans to around 22cm! They cause no harm. While living in Paddington- Brisvegus, back in 95, a golden orb would place his web across our back stairwell and clothes line, which was fine, at least until we came home half-boozed from the pub and ‘ol mate’ and web garnished one’s face!