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 Nature in Focus: Redback Spiders

 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.
Darren Meehan, 25yrs, was attacked by the Redback spider while sleeping in his bed in Alice Springs. He believes he may have trapped the spider in his jeans during a visit to an outside toilet and it then crawled into his bed. Mr. Meehan now holds the record for the most antivenom ever injected into a person in Australia.  He was still getting shots of antivenom on Monday, as the effects of the huge amount of poison in his system were so severe.
The head of Alice Springs Hospital's emergency department said it was the worst Redback spider bite ever recorded in Australia. Emergency physician, Dr Elizabeth Mowatt said it was the biggest bite she knows of, on record. The most serious Redback bite recorded in the past only required eight doses of antivenom.
Mr Meehan said he slept through the attack and it was not until the next morning that he found more than 20 angry, red bite marks on his right buttock. 48 hours later, he was doubled over in extreme pain. Mr. Meehan is now recovering from his ordeal in hospital.

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. 
At first the bite is only as painful as a minor insect sting, after a few minutes it becomes intense and spreads to other parts of the body.  Fortunately the serious affects of the venom take several hours or even days to develop, so there is plenty of time for treatment with antivenom.

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. 
Bites by this spider represent the commonest poisonous bite that is treated in Australia, particularly over the summer months. More than 250 cases receive antivenom each year. Perhaps ten times as many cases are mild or not recognised, and don’t receive antivenom. Although less than 30 percent of the hundreds of bites reported each year require antivenom treatment, it is wise to be informed about Redback Spider habits and behaviour, because the bite can be dangerous.

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. 
Redbacks usually hide in rubbish, leaf litter, under pot plants or in sheds. They can crawl into toys, clothes, washing - especially footwear, or anything left undisturbed around the house, especially but not always outdoors. However, most bites occur when the spider is trapped against the skin e.g. when someone puts on clothing that contains a spider, or picks up rubbish in their garden.

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.