The redback spider is a venomous spider that lives in Australia. The female is larger than the male. The female’s body is about 1 centimetre long and the male’s body is about 3 millimetres long. The adult female spider is usually black and usually has a red stripe on its back. The female likes to live in warm sheltered places and makes a web to catch insects and other small creatures.
The spider’s bite can be very painful and dangerous to people, because it can inject a venom through its fangs. An antivenom injection is available, which can help to restore the health of people who have become very ill after being bitten by the spider.
A juvenile female, showing typical white banding
The adult female redback has a body around 1 centimetre (0.4 in) long, with slender legs, the first pair of which are longer than the rest. The round abdomen is a deep black (occasionally brownish), with a red (sometimes orange) longitudinal stripe on the upper surface and an hourglass-shaped scarlet streak on the underside. Females with incomplete markings or all-black abdomens occasionally occur. The cephalothorax is much smaller than the abdomen, and is black. Redback spiderlings are grey with dark spots, and become darker with each moult. Juvenile females have additional white markings on the abdomen. The bright scarlet red colours may serve as a warning to potential predators. Each spider has a pair of venom glands, one attached to each of its chelicerae with very small fangs. Small compared to the female, the male redback is 3–4 mm (0.12–0.16 in) long and is light brown, with white markings on the upper side of the abdomen and a pale hourglass marking on the underside.
Another species in Australia with a similar physique, , has been termed the “false redback spider”, but it is uniformly black (or plum), and does not display the red stripe.
Female in its web
The redback is mainly nocturnal; the female remains concealed during the day, and spins her web during the night, usually remaining in the same location for most of her adult life. Classified as a gum-footed tangle web, the web is an irregular-looking tangle of fine but strong silk. Although the threads seem random, they are strategically placed for support and entrapment of prey. The rear portion of the web forms a funnel-like retreat area where the spider and egg sacs are found. This area has vertical, sticky catching threads that run to ground attachments. The vertical strands act as trip wires to initially alert the spider to the presence of prey or threats. They also snare and haul prey into the air when weaker horizontal strands that hold them down, known as guy lines, break when prey thrash around. These webs are usually placed between two flat surfaces, one beneath the other. The female spends more time in the funnel and less time moving around during cooler weather.
Female with a lizard it has captured
Redbacks usually prey on insects, but can capture larger animals that become entangled in the web, including trapdoor spiders, small lizards, and even on rare occasion snakes. One web was recorded as containing a dead mouse. The woodlouse is a particularly common food item. Developing spiderlings need size-appropriate prey, and laboratory studies show that they are willing to consume common fruit flies, mealworm larvae, muscoid flies and early nymphs of cockroaches. Food scraps and lighting attract insect prey to areas of human activity, which brings the redbacks. Once alerted to a creature becoming ensnared in a trap line, the redback advances to around a leg’s length from its target, touching it and squirting a liquid glutinous silk over it to immobilise it. It then bites its victim repeatedly on the head, body and leg joints and wraps it in sticky and dry silk. Unlike other spiders, it does not rotate its prey while wrapping in silk, but like other spiders, it then injects a venom that liquefies its victim’s innards. Once it has trussed the prey, the redback takes it to its retreat and begins sucking out the liquefied insides, generally 5 to 20 minutes after first attacking it. Redback spiders do not usually drink, except when starved.
Commonly, prey-stealing occurs where larger females take food items stored in other spiders’ webs. When they encounter other spiders of the same species, often including those of the opposite sex, they engage in battle, and the defeated spider is eaten. If a male redback is accepted by a female, it is permitted to feed on the victims snared in the female’s web. Baby spiders also steal food from their mother, which she tries to prevent. They also consume sticky silk as well as small midges and flies. Spiderlings are cannibalistic, more active ones sometimes eating their less active siblings.
Spiderlings hatch from their eggs after about 8 days and can emerge from the egg sac as early as 11 days after being laid, although cooler temperatures can significantly slow their development so that emergence does not occur for months. After hatching they spend about a week inside the egg sac, feeding on the yolk and molting once. Baby spiders appear from September to January (spring to early summer). Male spiders mature through five instars in about 45–90 days. Females mature through seven–eight instars in about 75–120 days. Males live for up to six or seven months, while females may live between two and three years. Laboratory tests have shown that redbacks may survive for an average of 100 days, and sometimes over 300 days without any food, those starved at 10 °C faring better than those kept without food at 25 °C. Spiders are known to reduce their metabolic rates in response to starvation, and can distend their abdomens to store large amounts of food. Redbacks can survive temperatures from below freezing point to 40 °C, though they do need relatively warm summers, with temperatures of 15 to 25 °C for two to three months, to survive and breed.
Redback spiderlings cohabit on the maternal web for several days to a week, during which time sibling cannibalism is often observed. They then leave by being carried on the wind. They follow light and climb to the top of nearby logs or rocks before extending their abdomens high in the air and producing a droplet of silk. The liquid silk is drawn out into a long gossamer thread that, when long enough, carries the spider away. This behaviour is known as ballooning or kiting. Eventually, the silken thread will adhere to an object where the young spider will establish its own web. They sometimes work cooperatively, climbing, releasing silk and being carried off in clusters. Juvenile spiders build webs, sometimes with other spiders.
Female (right) with egg sac, note the male at left (
The female spider eats the male spider after mating. A female spider may lay four to ten egg sacs, each of which is around 1 cm (0.39 in) in diameter and contains on average around 250 eggs, though can be as few as 40 or as many as 500. She prepares a shallow concave disc around 3 mm (1⁄8 in) in diameter before laying eggs into it over a period of around five minutes before laying more silk to complete the sac, which becomes spherical, the whole process taking around one and a quarter hours. She can produce a new egg sac as early as one to three weeks after her last.
Distribution and habitat
A distribution map of the records of redback spider specimens reported to the Atlas of Living Australia as of September 2013.
The redback spider is widespread across Australia. The current distribution reported by the World Spider Catalogue includes Southeast Asia and New Zealand. Colonies and individuals have been found elsewhere, including Japan, England, Belgium, the United Arab Emirates and Iran. It was believed at one time that the redback may have been introduced to Australia, because when it was first formally described in 1870, it appeared to be concentrated around sea ports. However, an earlier informal description (1850) from the Adelaide Hills is now known, and names in Australian Aboriginal languages also show that it was present well before European settlement. Its original range is thought to be a relatively small arid part of South Australia and Western Australia. Its spread has been inadvertently aided by modern buildings, which often provide habitats conducive to redback populations. The close relationship between the redback and the New Zealand katipo also supports the native status of both in their respective countries.
Outside urban areas, the redback is more often found in drier habitats ranging from sclerophyll forest to desert, even as harsh as the Simpson Desert. It became much more common in urban areas in the early decades of the 20th century, and is now found in all but the most inhospitable environments in Australia and its cities. It is particularly common in Brisbane, Perth and Alice Springs. The redback spider is commonly found in close proximity to human residences. Webs are usually built in dry, dark, sheltered sites, such as among rocks, in logs, tree hollows, shrubs, old tyres, sheds, outhouses, empty tins and boxes, children’s toys or under rubbish or litter. Letterboxes and the undersurface of toilet seats are common sites. Populations can be controlled by clearing these habitats, squashing the spiders and their egg sacs, and using pesticide in outhouses. The CSIRO Division of Entomology recommends against the use of spider pesticides due to their toxicity, and because redbacks are rapid recolonists anyway.
Spiders in the French territory of New Caledonia in the Pacific were identified as in 1920, based on morphology. Their behaviour differs from Australian redbacks, as they do not engage in sexual cannibalism and are less prone to biting humans. The first recorded envenomation in New Caledonia was in 2007.
The redback spider’s affinity for human-modified habitat has enabled it to spread to several countries via international shipping and trade. Furthermore, its tolerance to cold means that it has the ability to colonise many temperate countries with a winter climate cooler than Australia. This is concerning due to the risks to people being bitten who are unaware of its venomous nature, and also to the conservation of local threatened insect species that the redback might prey upon.
Redback spiders are also found in small colonies in areas of New Zealand. They are frequently intercepted by quarantine authorities, often among steel or car shipments. They were introduced into New Zealand in the early 1980s and now are found around Central Otago (including Alexandra, Bannockburn and near Wanaka) in the South Island and New Plymouth in the North Island. Authorities in the United Arab Emirates warn residents and visitors of redback spiders, which have been present since 1990. Colonies have also been established in greenhouses in Belgium, and isolated observations indicate possible presence in New Guinea, the Philippines, and India. Some redbacks were found in Preston, Lancashire, England, after a container of parts arrived from Australia; some may have escaped into the countryside before pest controllers could destroy them. One redback was found in a back garden in Dartford in Kent. Two females were discovered in the Iranian port city of Bandar Abbas in 2010.
There is an established population of redback spiders in Osaka, Japan, thought to have arrived in cargoes of wood chips. In 2008, redback spiders were found in Fukuoka, Japan. Over 700 have been found near the container terminal in Hakata Bay, Fukuoka City. Dispersal mechanisms within Japan are unclear, but redbacks are thought to have spread by walking or by being carried on vehicles. In September 2012, after being bitten a woman was hospitalised in the Higashi Ward of Fukuoka City. As Japan previously had no dangerous spiders, signs warning about redback spiders have been posted in parks around the city.
Predators and parasitoids
The black house spider, the cellar spider and the giant daddy-long-legs spider are known to prey on the redback spider, and redbacks are often absent if these species are present in significant numbers. , a spider wasp, is a parasitoid of the adult redback. Other wasps of the families Eurytomidae and Ichneumonidae parasitise redback eggs, and mantid lacewings (Neuroptera and Mantispidae) prey on redback eggs.
Bites to humans
In a corner of a garden deck
The redback spider has been historically responsible for more envenomations requiring antivenom than any other creature in Australia, however by 2017 the spider was blamed for only 250 envenomations requiring antivenom annually.
Estimates of the number of people thought to be bitten by redback spiders each year across Australia range from 2,000 to 10,000. The larger female spider is responsible for almost all cases of redback spider bites. The smaller male was thought to be unable to envenomate a human, although some cases have been reported; their rarity is probably due to the male’s smaller size and proportionally smaller fangs, rather than the male being incapable of biting or lacking potent venom. As the female redback is slow-moving and rarely leaves her web, bites generally occur as a result of placing a hand or other body part too close to the spider, such as when reaching into dark holes or wall cavities. Bites often also occur when a hidden spider is disturbed in items such as clothes, shoes, gloves, building materials, garden tools or children’s outdoor toys. Children can be educated not to touch spiders.
Images for kids
A sculpture of an impossibly large redback climbing on an outhouse, one of Australia’s big things, was built in 1996 at Eight Mile Plains, Queensland. The spider’s head is not anatomically correct.
Deadly Cousin: The Redback Spider | National Geographic
Related to the black widow, Australia’s redback spider is dangerous like its North American counterpart.
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Deadly Cousin: The Redback Spider | National Geographic