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Until Mark Wong recently flipped over a rock in Tallaganda State Forest in New South Wales, Australia, it had been just another day of looking at spiders. Then, the ecologist spotted the burrow of Atrax sutherlandi, a funnel-web spider.

Normally, A. sutherlandi has a glossy black back and fang, as well as a deep-brown or plum underbelly. The spider that sprung from the burrow, however, had a blood-red belly and fang.

Wong knew immediately that he had made  a  discovery.

“I had never seen a funnel-web spider with those colors before"—and it turns out no one else had, either, says Wong, a National Geographic Young Explorer and Ph.D. student at the Australian National University in Canberra.

It's very common for individual animals, even spiders, to have different colors, says Amber Beavis, a spider expert and senior researcher at theRegional Australia Institute, an independent think tank in Canberra.

"There’s more variation than you might think,” Beavis says. But the red-fanged spider struck her as a particularly unusual find.

“I spent five years in this area looking for spiders, and I didn’t see anything like it.”

Why So Red?

A careful search of the area also didn’t yield any other spiders with similar coloring, says Wong. He brought the oddly colored spider back to the lab, but it died.

He's not sure what gave this particular spider its scarlet hue, but it's likely some sort of genetic mutation.

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The color is also probably not for communicating with other funnel-web spiders, he says. Not only do A. sutherlandi mostly live in complete darkness, they're solitary and have notoriously poor eyesight.

Funnel-webs, which reach about two inches (five centimeters) in length, spend most of their lives in underground burrows, with males emerging only to look for mates.

Funnel-webs are also well known in Australia for their venom: Bites from the closely related Sydney funnel-web spiders (A. robustus) used to kill several people every year until scientists developed an effective anti-venom. (See "What Should You Do If You Find a Spider in Your House?")

A. sutherlandi are also venomous, although have killed far fewer people due to their remote habitats.


-by Carrie Arnold