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Some Australian Spider History

The contents of this page are intended to provide a brief review of the important events that have occurred in Australian spider research since this country was first colonized by Britain in the late 18th century. It has two distinctly different sections to it, the first dealing with the naming of the spiders of Australia and the second involving studies of Australian spider venoms, their toxic actions on mammals, and their potential uses as insecticides.

A BRIEF REVIEW OF THE HISTORY OF AUSTRALIAN SPIDER TAXONOMY

The indigenous peoples of Australia undoubtedly were aware of many of this country's spiders and may even have included drawings of some of them in their rock paintings. They presumably had names for the more obvious species but these were never written down and were not based on the Linnaean nomenclature system used by Europeans. Hence, the collection and naming of Australian spiders is generally considered to have started in 1770 when Joseph Banks collected the araneid Gasteracantha fornicata at Cooktown, Queensland, while Captain James Cook's ship, the Endeavour, was being repaired there. However, although he was very keen on the study of living things it appears that Banks did not formally describe and name this species. That honour is now attributed to a Dutchman, Johan Fabricius, who lived in Java and actually named this spider Aranea fornicata in 1775. According to the World Spider Catalog Gasteracantha fornicata is only found in Queensland but this is probably not correct and it is a reasonable possibility that Fabricius actually got his specimen from Java or some nearby island.

It is difficult to be sure which Australian spider was the next to be formally named. One likely candidate is Nephila edulis which was allegedly described in 1799 as Aranea edulis by Jacques Labillardiere then renamed Nephila edulis by Charles Walckenaer in 1841. Walckenaer is also credited with naming Missulena occatoria in 1805 and since this species is believed to be unique to Australia it is possible that it was the third Australian spider to be formally described. However, awarding the 'bronze medal' to Missulena occatoria is problematical in that former Queensland Museum arachnologist, Valerie Davies, has reported that the specimen used by Walckenaer was part of a collection made in Australia by naturalists from a French ship in 1802 and this same collection probably also contained the sparassid Delena cancerides and the zodariid Storena cyanea since Walckenaer formally named all three species. If this was indeed the case it illustrates the fact that many Australian spiders were actually described and named long after they had been collected.

Many other Australian spiders were given scientific names during the 19th century. It appears that most of these were first collected or maybe just described by Europeans although at least two notable British arachnologists, Octavius Pickard-Cambridge and Henry R. Hogg were also involved. Hogg started collecting spiders in Australia about 1873 but apparently did not publish any formal spider names until after 1900. Cambridge named a variety of spiders, including species of the thomisid Amyciaea, the araneid Celaenia, and the theridiid Argyrodes, as well as the famous Sydney funnel-web spider, Atrax robustus. It might be assumed that during the 19th century European spider experts travelled all over Australia collecting and naming spiders no one had ever heard of before. While this could be at least partly true it is also likely that many undescribed species were simply placed in preservative fluid by unnamed people and taken to Northern Hemisphere museums for classification by expert arachnologists. In addition, some spider species that are now common in Australia are also found in countries north of the Australian mainland so in some cases the holotype specimen (the one used to describe the species) could have been collected elsewhere, bearing in mind that Ferdinand Magellan passed through the East Indies during his 1519-1522 circumnavigation of the earth and the Portugese and British were enjoying Chinese tea as early as the 16th and 17th centuries.

FAMOUS AUSTRALIAN ARACHNOLOGISTS

One person who stands out as having played an incredible role in the classification of Australian spiders in the latter half of the 19th century was Ludwig Koch. An extraordinary number of Australian spiders are listed by the World Spider Catalog as having been formally named by him. This is illustrated in the following list of spider family names, each with just one example of a genus examined by Koch within each family (Note: the generic and even the family name listed may be revised ones adopted long after Koch's death):

    1. Araneidae (Arachnura)
    2. Arkyidae (Arkys)
    3. Clubionidae (Clubiona)
    4. Corinnidae (Nyssus)
    5. Deinopidae (Deinopis)
    6. Desidae (Badumna)
    7. Eutichuridae (Cheiracanthium)
    8. Gnaphosidae (Hemicloea)
    9. Hersiliidae (Tamopsis)
    10. Lycosidae (Tasmanicosa)
    11. Miturgidae (Miturga)
 
    12. Nicodamidae (Nicodamus)
    13. Oxyopidae (Oxyopes)
    14. Pisauridae (Dolomedes)
    15. Salticidae (Astia)
    16. Segestriidae (Ariadna)
    17. Sparassidae (Heteropoda)
    18. Tetragnathidae (Tetragnatha)
    19. Theraphosidae (Selenocosmia)
    20. Theridiidae (Theridion)
    21. Uloboridae (Uloborus)
    22. Zodariidae (Storena)
If you have a reasonable familiarity with Australian spider families you must surely conclude from the above list that Koch saw and described examples of virtually every significant spider family that exists in Australia. Volker Framenau in a 2017 overview article of the lycosids of Australia claimed that Koch actually described a total of 43 Australian wolf spider species and we can presume he was equally prolific in naming multiple species from many of the other more successful spider families. And all of this work by Koch was included in a publication called Die Arachniden Australiens over the period 1871-1883, with some later help from another well known arachnologist, Eugen von Keyserling. The Australasian Archnological Society has kindly made Koch's document accessible on the internet but sadly for most of us it is in German

But does this mean that Koch and Keyserling spent large amounts of time on numerous visits to Australia to collect and classify our spiders? On the contrary, the available historical evidence, though limited and uncertain, strongly suggests that neither arachnologist ever actually visited Australia. They had no need to. In 1861 a wealthy German shipping magnate named Johann Godeffroy established the Museum Godeffroy in Hamburg to house zoological and other specimens his ships brought back from Australia and some South Seas countries. Having a keen interest in nature Godeffroy apparently placed on each of his ships people who knew how to collect and preserve spider specimens in alcohol and who were requested to search for specimens at each foreign port their ship entered. These specimens gradually accumulated in his museum and were there for Koch and others to describe and name. This greatly reduced the need for them to go off on extended spider searches of their own.

Other arachnologists to create names for some common Australian spiders during the latter part of the 19th century were Octavius Pickard-Cambridge (commonly just shown as Cambridge), the Swede Tamelan Thorell, and the Frenchman Eugene Simon. However, during the last decade of the 19th century and for the first 19 years of the 20th century one person who stands out as an arachnologist heavily involved in describing Australian spiders was William Rainbow. Although born in England and raised in New Zealand Rainbow spent most of his life in Sydney and was very active in describing new species of spiders. More will be said about him in the next section.

For several decades after these early spider taxonomists published their work the further discovery and naming of Australian spiders was piecemeal and limited and not much information about Australian spiders was made available to the general public. However, most people probably didn't care much about spiders anyway because they were too busy surviving two World Wars and the Great Depression. Perhaps the one noteworthy exception that became available to the general public during this period was Spider Wonders of Australia published by Keith McKeown in 1936. A few research papers on Australian spiders were published during the first two decades after the end of World War II but by the mid-1960s the nation was shaking off their post-war lethargy and developing a reasonable level of affluence. Nature study clubs started to become common and the ability of the members of these clubs to identify spiders they found in the field was greatly enhanced when in 1964 a young university graduate named Barbara York Main (that is actually her married name) published a pocket guide for the recognition and classification of common spiders that can be found throughout Australia. The taxonomic keys Main offered in her booklet weare very limited and seriously inaccurate when compared with the Australian arachnologists of today have at their disposal but they were appropriate for that time and played a part in the subatantial increase in the amount of spider taxonomy that over the next half century.

However, Barbara Main was by no means the only person who was publishing books on spiders in the period 1960 - 1980. John Child's 1965 Spiders of Australia deserves a mention here because it seems to be the first freely available Australian spider book that included colour photos of many of the common spiders. For a very different reason Densey Clyne also played a major role in spider promotion in this same period. Densey had a much wider range of wildlife that she thought the public would be interested in but she is remembered mainly because she also produced many excellent colour movies of Australian animals, including spiders.

But the person who played the greatest role in making information about Australian spider available to everyone was undoubtedly Ramon Mascord. Mascord published two spider books, one in 1970 and the other in 1980, and these were so popular that some people are still using them in 2020 even though they are now long since out of print and badly inaccurate and out of date. It appears that Mascord was not a university-trained arachnologist but his expertise was such that he was held in high regard by the spider experts in all of the State Museums. It is sad that his career as an arachnologist ended so soon.

To detail the work of all of the arachnologists who have played a significant role in the identification and classification of Australian spiders since 1980 is to create an account that is excessively long. For this reason only a small number of people will be mentioned here and these will be ones who have a very long and extensive role as spider taxonomists. An apology is due to everyone else who has done good work in this field because they have all contributed significantly to our overall knowledge of Australian spiders and deserve praise for their efforts and an apology for their omission in this account.

But mention must be made of at least the following people: Professor V.V. Hickman is considered to be the 'father' of Tasmanian arachnology but by 1980 he was nearing the end of his career. David Hirst (South Australian Museum) comprehensively studied the Australian Sparassidae. At the Western Australian Museum Barbara York Main concentrated on the Idiopidae, Volker Framenau did much to resolve the complexities of our lycosids and some araneids, and Mark Harvey researched both local spiders and some of their 'cousins', notably the pseudoscorpions. At the Australian Museum in Sydney Michael Gray had a particular interest in funnel-web spiders but also led a team that included Graham Wishart (idiopids) and Helen Smith (theridiids). And finally, the senior arachnologist at the Queensland Museum for many years was Valerie Davies, supported and eventually replaced by Robert Raven, who in turn worked with Barbara Baehr and Michael Rix. All of these Quensland Museum scientists were prolific researchers of multiple spider families.

LISTING AND COLLATING OF AUSTRALIAN SPIDERS

Formally describing and naming Australian spiders would have limited value if no one other than the person doing the naming knew about their work. Of course, it has always been normal practice to publish details of each newly described spider in a scientific journal but it is also very helpful to be able to peruse a list of all of the species that have been described, the families into which they have been placed, the person who has named each one, and the place where information about it has been published. William Rainbow claimed, probably correctly, that he was the first person to make a comprehensive list of the known Australian spider species. This was published in 1911 in Volume 9 of the journal Records of the Australian Museum and it included a remarkable 285 genera in 24 families with a total of approximately 1200 species. Rainbow even showed who had named each species and where it was found, details which even today is useful information to have. But unfortunately Rainbow made what is now a major taxonomic error: he named his list A Census of Australian Araneidae but it included both araneomorph and mygalomorph species so the list was actually of Australian Araneae (the true spiders), the term Araneidae now referring only to a single araneomorph family. This was a curious error because Rainbow did recognize the existence in Australia of a family of web-weaving spiders but he used the term Argiopidae as their family name rather than Araneidae, which everyone uses now.

In the years that have followed Rainbow's time several people have attempted to produce comprehensive lists of the known spiders of Australia. In 1985 Valerie Davies generated the contents of a Government publication with the title Zoological Catalogue of Australia, Volume 3: Arachnida and this was an excellent effort in that it listed all of the genera and species in each Family along with references to the papers in which each species was descibed. This volume also a secion on some of the 'cousins' of the true spiders compiled by Mark Harvey. However, the main failing of this volume was the Davies only listed the families of the Mygalomorphae and just some of the Araneomorphae, many of the latter families being left for a second volume which in the end was never produced. Almost no one other than State Museums and perhaps a few Universities purchased this Catalogue which soon became obsolete because of the large amount of new taxonomic work on spiders that has happened in Australia over the last 35 years.

On a worldwide basis the first noteworthy attempt to list and categorize the world's spiders (including the known Australian ones) appears to have been the Katalog der Araneae by C.F. Roewer. This was published in two volumes, the first in 1942 and the second in 1954. For various reasons there were some disputes as to the accuracy of Roewer's catalogue and in due course it was effectively replaced by a catalogue initially created by Paolo Brignoli and later improved by Norman Platnick as the World Spider Catalog. This is now freely available on the internet although Platnick is no longer managing it, and it is updated every time details of a new spider species is published anywhere in the world. The World Spider Catalog is an invaluable asset to anyone wanting to know the scientific name(s) of a spider, where in the world it can be found, the person(s) who named it, and the publications in which details of it can be found. Not everyone has total faith in the accuracy of the World Spider Catalog because many spider species suffer name changes and/or the family in which they are currently placed. The people who presently maintain the Catalog are taking a non-critical approach and will accept any changes that are indicated in a newly published research paper provided the paper has been peer-reviewed. This means some of the world's most highly credentialled arachnologists will disagree with some of the changes to a spider's listing and will attempt to initiate further changes.

METHODS FOR SPIDER IDENTIFICATION BY THE GENERAL PUBLIC

If you are a person who has found a spider you don't immediately recognize and you have no arachnological skills what can you do? Well, you could just kill or release the spider but what if you think it might be a dangerous species and it seems likely to invade your home? Perhaps you already have a published spider book. If so, you probably will flick through its pages hoping that by chance you will find a photo that seems to contain a matching spider. But even if you apparently successful can you be sure you haven't just found a spider photo that looks like a match but is actually a different but superficially similar species? Or maybe the book you have consulted is so old its contents are no longer reliable? Clearly, it is better to find an expert to consult, which is one of the reasons why websites such this one exist.

But for those with more confidence and initiative it might be possible to obtain and use the identification system known as a spider key. A typical spider key is a series of numbered questions about anatomical or other characteristics of spiders, each with a pair of alternative answers, this usually being called a couplet. The first alternative answer may give you a particular spider name or lead you to another couplet while the second alternative always directs you to yet another couplet. The key ends when the two lines of the final couplet finish with two species names. The Spider Identification Guide page of this website contains a modified version of a couplet key but when arachnologists publish a paper describing or revising a spider genus they normally use a smaller and more condensed key with no attached photos, although they may refer the reader to one of the figures included in the paper.

However, the reality is that for Australian spiders no really comprehensive compendium of spider keys has been published. In 1986 Valerie Davies prepared the Queensland Museum booklet Australian Spiders, Collection, preservation and Identification and this contained a couplet key that covered all of the spider families but only to Family and for each Family there was usually just one line drawing of a common genus that belonged in that family. Further keys to genus and species were not provided. Then in 2002 Robert Raven, Barbara Baehr and produced an interactive CD that was intended to allow the user to go through a series of couplet steps and eventually identify a spider to Family. This CD was not very easy to use and consequently was never very popular. And finally, mention should be made here of the suggestion made by several people that it should be possible to design a database system in which the user, when trying to identify a particular spider specimen clicks on the appropriate choice for each of a long list of spider characteristics and the presses a 'run' button and the computer processes the choices and ultimately states the only species that specimen could be based on the information punched into the computer. This concept has very little hope of being successful except when the database covers only a very small part of the total collection of known spiders is involved because a very large number of steps would be needed to get to the final answer and also because the total number of species to be included and their current names and family connections is constantly changing.

SOME HISTORICALLY SIGNIFICANT AUSTRALIAN SPIDER VENOM RESEARCH PROJECTS

Ever since the story of Little Miss Muffet's spider incident became a well known fable people have treated spiders as potentially dangerous creatures, at least in Australia. This instinctive fear was exacerbated during the early decades of the twentieth century because of news reports of severe adverse effects of bitings by several common spiders. One of the earliest spiders to induce such concern was the redback spider, Latrodectus hasseltii , but in the 1965 - 1980 period some other spider species had frequent mentions in the popular media and the following sections of this page will outline three noteworthy examples of this.

THE SEARCH FOR AN ANTIDOTE FOR FOR FUNNEL-WEB SPIDER ENVENOMATION

The redback spider has long been recognized as a source of serious spider bites in Australia because it likes to establish its webs under ledges around houses and also under leaves in vegetable patches such as pumpkin fields. People envenomated by this spider suffer severe pain at the bite site followed by significant disturbance of the body's breathing and circulatory muscles. Fortunately, most victims recover spontaneously after a day or two but the discomfort typically caused by a redback bite was considered to be bad enough for the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories (CSL) in Melbourne to proceed to create an antivenom for administration to victims of redback bites. This project was successfully completed in the mid-1950s but by that time medical authorities had become aware of the need for an antivenom against the venom of males of the Sydney funnel-web spider Atrax robustus. This spider and all of the closely related Hadronyche funnel-web species normally lives harmlessly in a burrow in the ground. However, in the breeding season funnel-web males wander above ground, especially on damp evenings, in search of burrows containing females so people get bitten either because they did not notice a male funnel-web on a walkway or because the spider had chosen to hide in shoes or clothing left on the ground overnight.

Funnel-web venom induces very strong stimulation of the heart, blood vessels and skeletal muscles so the victim suffers irregular heart and breathing rhythms and spontaneous skeletal muscle contractions. In addition, blood capillaries become unusually permeable so the tissues develop oedema and the victim can asphyxiate as the lungs fill with fluid. And, worst of all, in 1965 the medical fraternity had no antidote or other effective treatment for funnel-web envenomation so severely affected patients were likely to die even after several days in an intensive care ward. And so from about 1958 to 1980 CSL worked on the development of an effective funnel-web antivenom. For most of that period the leader of this project was Dr Struan Sutherland.

The author of this website became interested in the search for a funnel-web antivenom at the start of 1980 while working as a university academic in Toowoomba, Queensland. He had heard the rumour that all common vertebrate animals other than man and other primates seemed to be immune to the effects of bites by male funnel-web spiders so he decided to use an isolated frog nerve-muscle preparation to see if the rumour was indeed accurate. His first tests quickly showed that the venom of the Toowoomba funnel-web spider, Hadronyche infensa causes the same spontaneous muscle stimulation that Atrax robustus venom does but that this was completely blocked if the venom was premixed with a small amount of blood plasma from a laboratory rat. Also significant was the observation that anaesthetized rats would exhibit some signs of envenomation when relatively large quantities of funnel-web venom were infused into their blood stream but this stimulation soon waned. Another important discovery was that blood plasma from mice, dogs, pigeons, rabbits, pigs, sheep, cattle and horses also blocked the action of funnel-web venom on the nerve-muscle preparation although they varied somewhat in potency from species to species. Only when the source of the plasma was a newborn animal did this effective blockade fail to occur adequately. These results strongly suggested that these various animals developed a spontaneous immunity to the active component of funnel-web even without the need for an initial immunisation. But human blood plasma did not display significantly block the action for the funnel-web venom when tested in the same system and it is a curious fact that even 40 years later no one has come up with a convincing explanation as to why most if not all vertebrate animals but not primates have this natural immunity to the funnel-web venom toxin, bearing in mind that very few of these kinds of animals will ever have been in a locality where funnel-webs can be found.

Having completed these tests and produced a crude extract of the antibodies in rat blood the author then went to the University of NSW in Sydney and in cooperation with staff from that University infused some of the extract into the blood streams of a small number of anaesthetized macaque monkeys which had already been dosed with male Atrax robustus venom. This crude antivenom preparation was only moderately effective in reversing the effects of the venom, probably because we still had to learn how big a dose of antidote was needed to totally reverse the actions of the venom. However, the results of these tests were sent to Struan Sutherland and just 2-3 months later CSL announced that they had finally produced an effective funnel-web antivenom using a purified antibody preparation made from the blood of rabbits that had previously been 'vaccinated' with funnel-web venom. This was good news because CSL had the facilities to prepare an antivenom product of a quality such that it was suitable for administration into a human funnel-web victim. And less than 12 months later special permission was given for the CSL product to be infused into a seriously ill human funnel-web victim at the Royal North Shore Hospital in Sydney. This patient quickly recovered. And hence in due course CSL produced enough of their funnel-web antivenom product so that it is now stocked in hospitals in all districts where funnel-web spiders are known to be present. Since 1981 that same CSLproduct has been administered on quite a few occasions and no one has died from a funnel-web spider bite since then. Surprisingly, the same antivenom preparation also saved the life of a young girl near Gatton, Queensland, who had been severely envenomated by a male mouse spider (Missulena bradleyi)

RESOLVING THE WHITE-TAILED SPIDER MYTH

At least as early as the 1950s people in some parts of the USA were aware of the ability of bites by the fiddle-back spider (Loxosceles species) to cause long-lasting and quite extensive skin ulceration. However, because that kind of spider is almost non-existent in Australia this potential spider bite problem was of no interest to Australians until in 1987 Struan Sutherland published in the Medical Journal of Australia an article with the provocative title "Watch out Miss Muffet!" and this caught the attention of the popular media. But the spider Sutherland was referring to as being dangerous to people like Miss Muffet was neither a fiddle-back spider nor a funnel-web spider. It was actually the white-tailed spider, Lampona species. This is a species that is very often found in and around Australian homes and the 'white-tailed' title was coined because the spider has a body that is nearly black but with a white spot over the rear of the abdomen. In 1987 that trivial name originally referred to just one species, Lampona cylindrata, but in 2000 the American Norman Platnick revised the Lampona genus and created the Family Lamponidae with approximately 200 species, most of which are very similar in appearance to Lampona cylindata. Sutherland's article implied that white-tailed spider bites could induce skin lesions like those caused by Loxosceles reclusa in America and this caused a high level of anxiety within the Australian community. It was for this reason that in 1989 the author of this website began searching for an explanation and a treatment for this 'necrotizing arachnidism' phenomenon.

Collecting white-tailed spider venom was not easy because the spiders are so small but it was possible to induce the release of venom by anaesthetizing the spiders in a carbon dioxide atmosphere then stimulating them across the ventral cephalothorax with fine wires from a small electical stimulator. This technique was effective but unfortunately had the disadvantage that it also caused the spiders to expel some digestive fluid from their midgut. Hence, venom samples collected by this method were usually contaminated with digestive enzymes from the spider's midgut. However, when a small volume of this venom was injected into the skin of some lab mice it produced a small hole at the injection site over the next 6 hours. But this skin lesion soon healed up completely and did not continue to spread over the next few days as was often seen in America in instances of fiddle-back spider bite.

These same venom collection techniques were used on several larger and equally common spider species, notably the golden orb weaver Trichonephila edulis, the garden orb weaver Eriophora transmarina, the large huntsman spider Holconia immanis, the wolf spider Tasmanicosa godeffroyi, and the black house spider Badumna insignis the results of subsequent tests were surprising. When both mouse and human skin samples were exposed to spider venoms for 6 hours in aseptic tissue culture conditions subsequent examination of stained sections of the skin samples revealed that the cells of the dermis and even of the hair follicles had dissociated. This could only mean that the collagen fibres that normally bind the epidermal and dermal cells together had been digested away and the enzyme collagenase was therefore strongly implicated as the reason for the skin ulcers seen when the venoms were injected into the skin of living mice. Also very important was the fact that the most potent venoms were those of Trichonephila edulis and Holconia immanis, Eriophora transmarina and Tasmanicosa goedffroyi venoms being somewhat less potent. In addition, Lampona venom acted only very wealy in these skin culture tests and redback and black house spiders venoms produced no obvious skin cell distruption at all. Furthermore, the venoms of species of funnel-web, a trapdoor and a false funnel-web spiders, all of which were large enough to have fangs from which venom could be collected without midgut contamination, caused no skin damage. And finally, some testing of extracts of venom glands macerated into saline after being dissected from several spiders also produced no instances of skin cell dissociation, this demonstrating that if collagenase was causing skin cells to dissociate it was coming from the midgut. This makes good sense when it is remembered that spiders do most of their digesting extracorporally, only liquified food being drawn into the digestive system.

Confirmation that collagenase was the cause of the cutaneous tissue disruption that was seen in these experiments came when some of the more potent spider venom preparations were premixed with cysteine, an amino acid known to block this action of collagenase, the skin cell dissociation that had previously occurred in cultured tissue samples did not occur. It is a curious fact that earlier experimental work carried out in the USA using fiddle-back spider venom seemed to show that for that kind of venom sphingomyelinase D was the enzyme primarily responsible for the skin damage seen after a biting but the reality is that characteristics of the necrotizing arachnidism phenomenon seen in America is rather different from that seen in Australia. Perhaps the most important difference is that the American lesions usually persist and enlarge whereas the ones induced in the laboratory in the Australian experiments described above seemed to be self-limiting. The involvement of the enzyme sphingomyelinase D in American fiddle-back spider bites may explain the persistence and expansion of the American necrotic lesions that was not seen when Australian spider venoms were tested in laboratory conditions.

In the years that followed the author's skin experiments a team of clinical physicians led by Geoff Isbister examined the details for every Australian instance of apparent necrotizing arachnidism that were on record. This team could find no instance of a spider-induced skin ulceration phenomenon that was unquestionably caused by a bite of a white-tailed or any other kind of spider. The conclusion drawn by this team therefore was that the popular belief that white-tailed spider bites can lead to severe skin ulceration is an unjustified myth.

The lab experiments described above logically lead to the same conclusion but the fact remains that even today a few people still do seek medical help because of large and persistent skin ulcers on their legs. What could be causing these if spiders bites are not involved? Well, there are actually a variety of medical disorders, including diabetes, as well as simple ageing, that can make the skin of the legs unusually fragile and slow to heal but another possibility is that a small breach of the skin by a spider bite or even something as simple as a splinter under the skin could allow the entry of opportunistic bacteria which could proliferate and persist and thereby cause a progressive enlargement of the damage area at that site. For a short time the bacterium Mycobacterium ulcerans was being suggested as a pathogen likely to be involved in secondary infections of this type. However, while this microbe is present in the soil in parts of Australia and can indeed produce long-lasting skin lesions it takes a much longer time to generate extensive skin ulcers than that taken by fiddle-back spider venom and the overall appearance of the lesion is also different.

SPIDER VENOMS AS INSECTICIDES

Many details relating to this topic are covered in the Spider Venoms page on this website and do not need to be repeated here. What will be described in more detail on this page is the history of the development of potential insecticidal preparations from funnel-web spider venoms.

Early in the 1990s the author of this website (while working as an academic at the University of Southern Queensland in Toowoomba) and Professor Merlin Howden (Deakin University, Geelong, Victoria) joined forces to research the insectidal components of spider venoms and especially of funnel-web spider venoms. Both were aware that funnel-webs and other kinds of spiders are insectivores and only bite humans as a defence mechanism. For this reason male Atrax robustus spider venom from which the peptide known to be lethal to humans had already been romoved was to be fractionated by high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) at Deakin University and the individual fractions obtained by this means tested for insecticidal activity. The author's role was to create a laboratory colony of the so-called cotton boll-worm, Helicoverpa armigera, and to inject small volumes of each of the venom peptide fractions into larvae that were only a few days from pupating. It was hoped that by this means the peptides with strong insecticidal properties could be identified. In due course this fractionation and testing was performed not only on Atrax robustus venom but also on whole venoms from females of the Toowoomba funnel-web Hadronyche infensa and the Blue Mountains funnel-web Hadronyche versuta.

To facilitate testing of each venom fraction newly hatched boll-worm larvae were placed in individual 30 mL pill cups each half-filled with a synthetic diet that this kind of larva was known to eat. In just a few days the larvae had grown to a size large enough to be able to be restrained gently and injected with a small volume of one of the venom fractions using a microsyringe. They were then returned to their pill cups and observed over the next three days. The results of these injections were immediate and remarkable. The HPLC column had separated each venom into about 20 fractions but only one or two of these from each venom interfered with the ability of the boll-worm larvae to pupate at the normal time. The larvae that were injected with all of the other peptide fractions or with saline as controls survived and pupated at the usual time. Those larvae that failed to pupate normally ceased eating their special diet after just a day or so and instead commenced a pattern of uncontrolled writhing which continued until they died without ever proceeding to pupation. This was an exciting observation because it suggested that if the active peptides could somehow be delivered to boll-worms in a cotton field the larvae would presumably stop damaging the cotton plants and die without maturing and producing the next generation of boll-worms.

The next step in this research project was to enlist the help of a commercial firm in Sydney known at that time as Deakin Research Limited. This laboratory had the facilities to determine the amino acid sequences of these insecticidal venom components, all of which were small peptides, and to synthesize the same molecules in the laboratory. In January, 1992, a patent was taken out by the two Universities involved in this project along with Deakin Research Limited and the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation (a Federal Government organisation that had provided most of the funding for this project). It was hoped that a commercial pesticide manufacturer would be interested in purchasing the rights to use this intellectual property to manufacture a product that could be applied to field crops. It seemed likely that many pesticide companies would wish to create new product lines that contained spider insecticidal peptides that had already been shown to be non-toxic to humans, other vertebrate animals and even to beneficial insects such as honey bees which do not eat plant tissues. Sadly, the patent ran its 17 year course without receiving a single expression of interest from pesticide manufacturers.

Why was this proposed new insecticide not immediately accepted for commercial use? Well, there were probably several reasons but a major one was that pesticide manufacturers always have to invest large sums of money into the development and licensing of all new products they wish to make so they preferred to go on supplying the pesticides that farmers had been using for many years even though these were quite toxic to both humans and domesticated animals. A second reason was that cotton plants were already being protected by the insertion of an insecticidal gene from the bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensus, into the plant genome so that insects eating any part of the cotton plants are liekly to poison themselves in the process. This seemed to work quite well but the same gene would have to be inserted into every agricultural crop that needed to be protected, making this a very expensive process overall. Of course, there was never any intention to spray whole spider venom or even solutions of insecticidal peptides from it onto agricultural crops but it was feasible to insert the gene for one of the funnel-web peptides into plants like cotton. And in fact a research group in Pakistan claimed in 2006 that they had indeed inserted a gene for an Australian funnel-web insecticidal toxin into some tobacco plants and found that Helicoverpa armigera caused much less damage to them than to unprotected tobacco plants. Meanwhile, at the University of Queensland Professor Glenn King was also researching the potential of funnel-web and other spider venom peptides to be used as insecticides and in 2016 an American organisation called the Vestagon Corporation and founded by Glenn King obtained permission from the US Food and Drug Administration to market an insecticidal product for use to control thrips in greenhouses in America. So it seems that the long road from those early 1990 experiments for the development of marketable products containing spider venom peptides is finally about to reach a happy conclusion.