On the New South Wales Central Coast, David Whitley discovers the grizzly truth about where antivenom comes from

 

On the New South Wales Central Coast, David Whitley discovers the grizzly truth about where antivenom comes from

 The funnel web spider is clambering around a little too freely for my liking. It may be surrounded by a Perspex square that’s too smooth for it to climb up, but nonetheless, I’m not getting any closer than I have to.

Kayleen, however, seems considerably braver. One of the professional venom milkers at the Australian Reptile Park on the New South Wales Central Coast, she is prodding the tips of its legs with a pipette. It’s attached to a suction system, so she’s effectively using it like a vacuum cleaner, sucking up the venom.

The Sydney funnel web spider is not to be messed with. Kayleen says a bite can kill an adult human with 76 minutes, and a child within just 13. “But we’re pleased to say that there’s been a fatality rate of zero since we started our programme.”

That programme involves a roomful of highly dangerous spiders in plastic tubs being milked once a week. The venom is collected, then sent to a biopharmaceutical firm called CSL in Victoria, where it is used to make antivenom via the medium of rabbits.

Antivenoms, it turns out, are not made using chemistry sets. They come about via a six month process of injecting the poor bunnies with increasingly high doses of the milked venom. They gradually build up a resistance to it, and then their blood is centrifuged – the red blood cells go back into the rabbit, and the resistance-carrying white blood cells become the key ingredient in the antivenom that’s injected into humans. A similar process is used with snakes – although the taipans, tiger snakes, death adders, eastern browns and black snakes have their fangs pressed into plastic film covering a shot glass, and horses are used instead of rabbits.

The Australian Reptile Park has a substantial snake milking operation behind the scenes, but it’s the spider milking that’s on public view – they hold special displays every day that less arachnophobic visitors are welcome to gawp at.

 

 

The problem, however, is getting enough male spiders to milk. “We rely on people handing them in, but a lot of people are so terrified of them that they don’t get this far,” says Kayleen.

The males are smaller than the females, but six times more venomous – and that makes them better for milking. “But part of the problem is that they – and we – don’t know they’re males until they’re two-and-a-half years old. They only live for a year or two after that – and their life is spent hunting a female to mate with.”

So while the females are happily burrowed in the ground, the males are crawling around trying to find them. The boys, when they’ve found a likely sweetheart, will twang away at her web until she thinks she’s caught some prey in it. He’ll then hold back her fangs, do what grown-ups do when they love each other very much.

Once they finish, he’s stupid enough to walk away. She then attacks him, kills him and feeds him to her children. Who said romance was dead?

 

 

 

 

Handily, you can get Australia included as a stopover (plus get another 9 around the world) on a Navigator RTW We also love Australia (Go Aussies!) and sell very well priced breaks in Coastal New South Wales

 

by David Whitley