Studying spiders as medicinal venom factories


Studying spiders as medicinal venom factoriesOn the North coast of Arnhem Land is an indigenous community called Maningrida. An hour’s drive from Maningrida is an outstation called Kolorbidahdah, nearby a river called Cadell, and standing in this river is Dr Robert Raven, an arachnologist with the Queensland Museum.

He is surrounded by a group of local Maningrida high school science students, explaining that around him could be up to 300 species of spiders, never before studied. The excitement in Dr Raven’s face is contagious. He has devoted his life to the study of spiders, despite being chronically arachnophobic.

His pupils charge off into the bush under instructions to gather as many species as possible. "Careful guys, we want them intact," calls Dr Raven.

The Maningrida Community Education Centre has invited Raven and his lizard-catching associate, Dr Andrew Amey, to assist the senior boys with their high school science project. It’s all part of the Year 12 Contemporary Issues in Science subject, in which students are studying the diversity and abundance of spiders in burnt and bush environments.

The connection between Dr Raven and Maningrida began in 2005, when the school created a science class for senior students. With no science facilities or resources, teacher Mason Scholes decided to use what was at hand—the outdoors, and the boys’ natural inclination to collect creepy-crawlies.

Despite previous jobs in the National Parks system, Scholes didn’t know a lot about spiders, so he called the Brisbane-based Dr Raven. Excited by a school that was finally encouraging the study of things that can kill you, the good doctor furnished him with details of how to catch and keep samples, and offered to identify the genus, gender and attributes of what they found.

Studying spiders as medicinal venom factoriesMonths later, the astonished Dr Raven was informing the boys they had discovered 18 new species of spider.

He remembers the moment clearly. "It was so exciting, I couldn’t believe it ... This is a new world here. These guys are real discoverers. This is like exploring; we’re breaking new ground. Where has this spider fauna come from? Is it Asian? Is it Australian? Is it a mixture of both? Our pet ideas could go out the window in a flash."

So little has been collected from this area that just about everything Dr Raven and the boys find is, in some way, new. He is intrigued by the process of drawing out the story of the land, through the kind of common spiders and the geographic separations within species.

He slowly begins to assemble this story during the days he spends with the boys scouring tree trunks, bird nests, caves and ground cover for the hairy, eight-legged nasties that excite and terrify him. Dr Raven’s theories cover redback spiders (they’re not native), geological history, social theory, agriculture and weather prediction (watch out for floods in Brisbane if funnel-webs migrate).

Spiders are older than dinosaurs and usually very territorial, so their presence signals a deep connection with that place and other areas it may also inhabit. It can prove or disprove the theories of geologists, physicists and palaeontologists, and lead to new ways of thinking about when and how our planet developed.

"See, look at this," calls Raven, as he dives into a small cave. "This is a strange kind of water spider. It doesn’t necessarily associate itself with the water and it builds a web, but … yeah, it’s a water spider," he says, with the sparkling eyes of an obsessive.

We’ve reached the river and the doctor continues. “See here, we have one kind of wolf spider in these bushes, as we get closer on the rocks we have a different kind and down on the water’s edge we have these little ones with slightly different markings. As scientists we ask about what happens to these little ones and the ones up higher when the water rises. How do they find each other to mate?”

Studying spiders as medicinal venom factoriesWithin minutes the boys are calling to him from everywhere and he’s scurrying back and forth, filling sample jars and explaining what’s been found. He holds up another mighty rough-looking beastie by its thorax, its legs and fangs jutting out trying to mask what must be a slightly humiliating circumstance, with all the aggressive bravado it can muster. “Be careful with this one boys, it can produce coronary … errr … issues."

He places it in a plastic bag, which the spider promptly bites through, its fangs clearly visible, stuck in the bottom of its plastic cave. Dr Raven appears a little taken aback for a second. “Wow, that’s pretty impressive.”

It is generally believed within arachnology that the 3000 known species of spider are about a third of what’s out there. The importance of the study by Mason Scholes’ Year 12 class could be incredible.

“People can get really creeped out by the idea of having 6000 species of unidentified spiders, but you gotta realise these guys are venom factories and every species has a different venom," Dr Raven says.

"Venom can be a very constructive thing in the pharmaceutical industry in a variety of ways and can be used as insecticide. Venom molecules are like origami, it has lots of strange twists, bumps and turns. They look at shape of the molecules from organisms that cause problems. If they can get the drug to map onto the molecules of venom, it makes the drugs much cheaper and more effective. Venoms can be used on an amazing number of things,” he adds.

To reap the rewards of discovery will require intense and methodical laboratory work. Luckily a lot of this work will mostly involve a bunch of young blokes aged 18 to 60, stalking around the Arnhem Land bush chasing creepy-crawlies. Sometimes, curiosity and good science can be enough.

All photographs courtesy of Jake Nowakowski.



submit a comment

Existing comments

How completely gross and fascinating.

Aurora Lowe | 12 December 2006  

I love spiders and bats i want to know all i can about them, but i did not finish school so I am trying to learn what i can off the comp. So my thing is i would like to know if u can send me thangs about spiders so that i may learn all that i can.

Tiffany M Lambert | 06 March 2009  

Similar Articles

An insider's view of Labor's sea change

  • Ursula Stephens
  • 23 December 2006

A NSW Labor Senator predicts that Kevin Rudd’s leadership of the ALP will be sophisticated and incisive in identifying the trigger points that will defeat the Howard government.


Arnhem Land vision for sanity in the city

  • Jonathan Hill
  • 23 December 2006

After a visit to Ngukurr in Arnhem Land, a return home to Sydney and the horrifying reality of a culture that measures progress by the extent to which humans can destroy the land.



Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up