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February 16, 2005

Adventures In Journalism: Redback On The Toilet Seat

Very few Americans know Slim Dusty. If they do recognize him, it's probably as the fellow who closed out the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney, strolling around the massive stadium in his battered hat, stumming his guitar and singing "Waltzing Matilda," or, as is more likely if the American is the parent of a young child, as the elderly fellow singing with the Wiggles in "I Love to have a Dance with Dorothy."

Slim Dusty is known for some of the most poignant songs in country music--though they were hardly ever heard in the States--but one of the most popular songs attributed to him was actually performed by another Australian Slim, Slim Newton. It's about a spider, the deadly Down Under relative of North America's Black Widow; Latrodectus hasselti, aka, the Redback. Utter confusion as to who actually performed the tune has accompanied it ever since.

Redback On The Toilet Seat (Lyrics are appended at the end of the post. As with all of Hraka's sound files, the two above will only be available for a short time.)

Like its American relative, the Redback is one of the most distinctive spiders on the planet.

Almost too familiar to need description, mature female redbacks are jet black spiders with a variable red stripe on the back of their spherical abdomen. Their tough, untidy webs are usually near the ground with the spider hiding in a shelter in a corner, often guarding her round woolly egg sacs.

It's one of the most common spiders in Australia, and yes, it has bitten someone on the ass.

An Alice Springs man who was bitten on the bottom more than 20 times by a Redback spider needed 16 doses of antivenene to survive.

Darren Meehan, 25, believes he may have caught the spider in his jeans during a visit to an outside toilet. It had then crawled into his bed.

Mr Meehan now holds the record for the most antivenene ever injected into a person in Australia. He was attacked by the Red back spider as he lay sleeping in his bed in Alice Springs last month., but he was still getting shots of antivenene on Monday as he has been unable to shake off the effects of the huge amount of poison in his system.

Eery Aussie knows what a redback looks like. There are even poems about them.

And they are always described as red and black.

Which brings us to Reuters, and the photo used to illustrate this arachnophobe's nightmare; Hot and Bothered Australian Spiders Head Indoors.

Scientists say Australia's hot, humid and wet summer has had a bad effect on common, but potentially deadly, redback spiders.

Normally found in outdoor sheds, gardens and under roofs, the cantankerous creepy-crawlies are seeking shelter indoors in tropical Queensland and New South Wales, two of Australia's biggest states.

"There has been rain and winds which push falling leaves into the roof gutters, destroying their web. This leaves them no other option but to come down into the house," said Queensland Museum arachnologist Robert Raven.


A female redback spider climbs on a web-covered stick at Taronga Zoo in Sydney February
11, 2005. Scientists say Australia's hot, humid and wet summer has had a bad effect on the
common but deadly redback spiders and they are beginning to seek shelter indoors in tropical
Queensland and New South Wales. REUTERS/Tim Wimborne

This is not a red and black spider. This is some sort of orange and possibly brown thing.

I was immediately suspicious, as Reuters, along with other news services, has something of a history when it comes to misidentifying the fauna photos that accompany their news stories. The other two pictures in the series did nothing to ease my mind, as the spiders in both remained orange, and possibly brown.

But try as I might, I could not identify the species. In desperation, I attached the photo above to an email and sent it off to Graham Milledge, Arachnology collection supervisor for the Australian Museum.

Here's what he wrote back;

Hi Bigwig*,

It's not like any redback I've ever seen either, although it may well be a species of Latrodectus, of which there are about 30 described species worlwide. The typical redback clour pattern can be seen here:

Cheers - Graham Milledge

While it's always nice to not be treated as a crank, especially when one spends his days and night wandering about on the outskirts of Cranktown, muttering to oneself and peering at spiders, I was still no closer than before to an identification. Indeed, I was beginning to wonder if the Reuters spider was even an Australian species at all. My final, slim, hope was the media relations department at the Taronga Zoo. When in doubt, go to the flacks for the original source. Off went another email.

For two days, nothing. Then, finally an email appeared in the inbox, from Warrick Angus, author of Habitat use and feeding ecology of the redback spider, Latrodectus hasselti, Senior Invertebrate Keeper at the Taronga Zoo, and burgeoning spider media star.

Women have proposed marriage, so taken are they with Warrick Angus's ability to temper the eight-legged beast.

But the spider expert, who in his Taronga Zoo garb resembles something of an arachnological Steve "Croc Hunter" Irwin, says it wasn't always so.

Warrick was the bearer of bad news, in that I owed Reuters an apology.

Hi Bigwig*,

Thanks for your email. You're right, the redback in the photo does not share the characteristic colourations of L.hasselti or L.mactans, however it is in fact a redback spider(L.hasselti). More and more frequently I am discovering redbacks with the brown abdomen and a lighter orange stripe as opposed to the red. I have several ideas as to why the variation in colour exists but have not tested any of these theories. I am looking at starting a PhD on redback spiders latter this year and may be able to address this question more rigorously.

Interestingly, I have found different colour morphs of redback spiders living within a meter of each other in the same habitat. This suggests that perhaps the variation is genetic rather than environmental.

Let me know if you have any other further questions, and thanks again for getting in contact with us with this query. It's always great to hear from people who are interested in spiders.

Sincerely

Warrick Angus

Perhaps a small, niggling apology, since the news that, for reasons unknown, red and black are sometimes replaced in the Redback by orange and brown seems to me altogether more important than the "rain makes spiders look for dry places" angle chosen by Reuters for their piece. I realize that "Hot and Bothered Australian Spiders Head Indoors" is an attempt to scare people into reading the story, but to my mind "Deadly Mystery Spider Mutants Appearing in Suburbs!" is a more effective screamer.

But at least I'll be able to sleep at night, now that I know for sure which species of eight-legged beastie I was looking at. I'm everyone else out there will, too.

Many thanks to Graham and Warrick for their help in my quest. If either ever makes it to the States, or I manage to wangle my way Down Under, I owe them a beer.

A Redback, of course.

Redback On The Toilet Seat

There was a red-back on the toilet seat
When I was there last night,
I didn't see him in the dark,
But boy! I felt his bite!
I jumped high up into the air,
And when I hit the ground,
That crafty red-back spider
Wasn't nowhere to be found.

Chorus:
There was a red-back on the toilet seat
When I was there last night,
I didn't see him in the dark,
But boy! I felt his bite!
And now I'm here in hospital,
A sad and sorry plight,
And I curse that red-back spider
On the toilet seat last night.

Rushed in to the missus,
Told her just where I'd been bit,
She grabbed the cut throat razor blade,
And I nearly took a fit.
I said, "Just forget what's on your mind,
And call a doctor please,
'Cause I've got a feeling that your cure
Is worse than the disease."

I can't lay down, I can't sit up,
And I don't know what to do,
And all the nurses think it's funny,
But that's not my point of view.
I tell you it's embarrassing,
(And that's to say the least)
That I'm to sick to eat a bite,
While that spider had a feast!

And when I get back home again,
I tell you what I'll do,
I'll make that red-back suffer
For the pain I'm going through.
I've had so many needles
That I'm looking like a sieve,
And I promise you that spider
Hasn't very long to live!

*No, he didn't call me Bigwig

Posted by Bigwig at February 16, 2005 11:37 PM | TrackBack
Postscript:
First time visitor to House Hraka? Wondering if everything we produce could possibly be as brilliant/stupid/evil/pedantic/insipid/inspired as the post you just read? Check out the Hraka Essentials, the (mostly) reader-selected guide to Hraka's best posts, and decide for yourself.
Comments

PDF: Analysis on the Dispersal Pattern of Newly Introduced Latrodectus hasseltii .. in Japan.
Apparently redbacks were first seen in Osaka in 1995.
Another Australian Redback.

Posted by: rdb at March 10, 2005 03:07 AM

Thanks, rdb. I was unaware that they did not spread via ballooning.

Posted by: Bigwig at March 10, 2005 09:55 AM

From my experience (at least with the journos down in Vic), I believe that, in order to be a canonical Australian screamer, it would need to be along the lines of "Deadly Mutant Spider Chaos!".

Posted by: Michael Rathbun at March 14, 2005 01:06 PM
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