Fun with funnel-webs

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by Colin
Publish date
21 November 2011
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Bugs Alive! highlights not only the highly venomous Sydney funnel-web spider (Atrax robustus), but also the diversity of Australian funnel-web spiders. There are currently 35 known species in Australia, and it is likely that more await description. Many southeastern Australians may not be aware that they too may have funnel-web spiders living in their backyard. Don't panic, aside from the Sydney Funnel-web, the majority of Australian funnel-web spiders do not pose a threat to us. In fact, most spiders are harmless. Of the estimated 10,000 species (only about 3000 have been named) that are native to Australia, only two pose a serious threat to human life.

The Australian funnel-web spider family Hexathelidae belongs to the primitive infraorder Mygalomorphae, which includes the trapdoor spiders, mouse spiders, and the large theraphosids (better known as tarantulas). Mygalomorphs can be distinguished from other spiders by having paraxial or parallel fangs (chelicerae), and an extra pair of book lungs.

funnel-web burrow A typical funnel-shaped entrance to a funnel-web spider burrow.
Image: Colin Silvey
Source: Museum Victoria
 

To keep our spiders healthy and stress-free, we rotate them off display so that each individual is on show only one month per year. To do this we must collect spiders from the wild to ensure that we have enough to keep the rotation flowing smoothly. Chloe wrote in April about a previous spider-hunting trip. Last week we went to the Nariel Valley in northwest Victoria, Violet Town in central Victoria and the Central Highlands (Narbethong-Acheron Gap, Victoria) to collect three different species of funnel-web spiders.

Alpine Wolf Spider Not all burrows contain funnel-web spiders. This one we dug up was occupied by this beautiful Alpine Wolf Spider (Lycosidae).
Image: Colin Silvey
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Our first stop was the Nariel Valley where we searched for the mighty Alpine Funnel-web (Hadronyche alpina). This is a newly-described species that is found, you guessed it, in the alpine environments of Victoria and N.S.W. They are impressive spiders with big black hairy bodies, and a mean temper to boot!

After collecting our quota of H. alpina, we drove west towards Violet Town, near Benalla, in search of the Central Victorian Funnel-web, H. meridiana. We had heard reports that a resident in Violet Town had found some in her backyard, and upon contacting her, she agreed to us collecting them. After lifting some old carpet lying on the ground, we found burrows galore! It didn't take us very long to collect all the spiders we needed before setting off to track down our third target species H. modesta.

man digging up spider burrow Exciting stuff! Live Exhibits keeper Adam Elliott excavating a burrow belonging to H. meridiana.
Image: Colin Silvey
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Funnel-web spider in burrow Funnel-web spider (H. meridiana) about to be removed from her burrow.
Image: Colin Silvey
Source: Museum Victoria
 

funnel-web spider threat display Hadronyche meridiana showing off her threat display. If you look closely you might be able to see the paraxial chelicerae that define the mygalomorph spiders.
Image: Colin Silvey
Source: Museum Victoria
 

H. modesta, or the Southern Victorian Funnel-web can be found around Victorian cool temperate sclerophyll forests ranging from just north of Melbourne, to the eastern end of the Strzelecki Ranges in South Gippsland. Unfortunately, after much searching, we failed to find any H. modesta. We are always on the lookout for any reports of glossy black spiders that burrow, so, if you live in the eastern or northeastern suburbs and see this spider around, let us know and we might come pay you a visit!

Further reading:

Walker, K.L., Yen, A.L. & Milledge, G.A. 2003. Spiders and Scorpions Commonly Found in Victoria. The Royal Society of Victoria. (Beginner)

Grey, M. R. 2010. A Revision of the Australian Funnel Web Spiders (Hexathelidae: Atracinae). Records of the Australian Museum. Vol. 62: 285–392. (Advanced)

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Kaye Proudley 11 December, 2011 01:17
I think I have your Hadronyche modesta living in my garden - can send a pic if you give me an address. I live in the foothills of the Strzelecki's on the Hedley Range at Binginwarri.
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Discovery Centre 11 December, 2011 09:25
Hi Kaye, Museum Victoria has a free Identification Service. We'd be happy to verify the spider species you have in your garden. You can attach images to our online Ask the Experts form or post them to us at: Discovery Centre, Melbourne Museum, GPO Box 666, Melbourne, VIC, 3001.  
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