The most Dangerous Animals in Australia

Australia is famous for its unusual and dangerous creatures. They’re discussed on talk shows, written about in books and blogs, and even featured in songs. From crocodiles and sharks to spiders and snakes, the ‘land down under’ has an abundance of fauna with potentially deadly bites and stings. While it’s true that many of these animals pose no immediate threat to humans, all tourists and locals need to be aware that many of them don’t like intruders in their natural habitats.

Snakes

Australia is unique in that it has more venomous than non-venomous snakes. In fact, there are no fewer than 115 venomous species that are native to Australia, of which about twenty are capable of causing death or serious harm to humans.

The most poisonous of these is the fierce snake, or inland taipan, which is actually the single most toxic snake in the world. The good news, however, is that they are shy, non-aggressive creatures that live in hot, arid desert regions rarely visited by humans. Its cousin, the North Queensland-based coastal taipan (more commonly just referred to as a taipan) is arguably the most dangerous Australian snake based on its venom, fang length, temper and likelihood of biting a human. Taipans can grow to three metres in length, and increase their store of venom as they get hungrier. Fortunately, an anti-venom has been available since the 1950s and deaths from taipan bites are now rare.

Other deadly Australian snakes are the brown and tiger snakes, of which there are several varieties, and the death adder. Perhaps the deadliest of these is the eastern tiger snake, which frequents the most populous regions of New South Wales and Victoria. No other snake is more likely to be stepped on, and there are more recorded bites from eastern tigers than from all other species. Also resident in eastern Australia is the eastern or common brown, second only to the fierce snake in toxicity, but it is a relatively shy creature and likely to avoid humans.

The mulga is certainly a snake to be wary of. Although its venom is not particularly toxic, this species, which is found in all but the south-eastern corner of Australia, often delivers an extremely high yield due to a unique chewing motion. Its venom is also unique, and must be treated with a specific anti-venom.

Spiders

Australia is home to more than 2000 species of spiders, and nearly all are venomous. Of course, their small size means that the great majority pose no threat to humans. There are, however, a handful of indigenous spiders that are capable of causing great discomfort, or even death.

The redback, closely related to America’s black widow, is Australia’s most famous spider. It is easily recognisable and common throughout the country. It seems to prefer living in the same areas that people do, and several hundred bites are recorded each year (all from the larger female). Fortunately the poison is slow acting and is usually treatable. Although fatalities have been rare since the 1930s, the bite of a redback can still cause a great deal of pain and nausea.

The funnel-web, which is common to Sydney’s northern beaches and has been found in coastal towns of New South Wales, is one of the world’s deadliest spiders. As its natural habitat has been destroyed, it has adapted to sheltered areas around homes and gardens. The funnel-web’s poison is highly toxic, and distressing symptoms can appear within ten minutes of a bite. Unlike the redback, it is the male which is responsible for potentially fatal bites. Its venom contains a unique ‘atraxotoxin’ which seems to affect monkeys, apes and humans, but no other animals.

Crocodiles

Crocs were once hunted to the verge of extinction, but there may now be in excess of 100,000 of them lounging around northern Australia’s rivers and estuaries, waiting for unwary prey to come near.

There are two main species of Australian crocodile: the smaller freshwater croc which is normally not aggressive, and the much larger estuarine variety, sometimes misleadingly called the saltwater croc. Although these monstrous killers do prefer salty estuaries and tidal areas, they are increasingly found in waterways and swamps many kilometres inland. Estuarine crocodiles may grow to more than five metres in length (some exceed seven metres) and are often hard to spot as they lie, half-submerged like logs, in shallow water.

Crocodiles generally kill their prey by drowning it in a ferocious ‘death roll’. It is a mistake to think that they are only dangerous in the water, however, as they are capable of leaping up to grab animals (including humans) from riverbanks and are remarkably quick runners over short distances. Between 1980 and 2010 there were about two fatalities each year, although a large number of these were due to the victims failing to heed warning signs. Tourists are advised to take precautions and to show common sense if they are travelling to areas where crocodiles are known to live. The ones that are not seen are always more dangerous than the ones that are visible.

Sharks

Nothing seems more frightening than a shark attack, but incidents involving these fearsome though misunderstood predators are comparatively rare these days. Between the World Wars, an upsurge in the popularity of beach bathing and surfing led to about three fatalities per year, but since 1950 there has been an average of one death each year.

The most dangerous sharks found in Australian coastal waters are white pointers (great whites), tiger sharks and bronze whalers. Don’t be misled by statistics that show most fatalities occur in relatively shallow water as this is merely a reflection of where the vast majority of people are swimming. It is far more dangerous to swim near people who are fishing, or to be trailing blood while spear-fishing. (Incidentally, rock-fishing and diving are responsible for far more Australian deaths than shark attacks.)

Poisonous sea creatures

Perhaps not as well-known as Australia’s snakes and spiders, but every bit as dangerous, is a stunning array of poisonous sea creatures that live close to Australian coastlines. They aren’t aggressive unless the victim happens to touch one, and then they can be deadly.

The box jellyfish, specifically the Chironex, has been responsible for at least 60 deaths since the late 1800s. Their trailing tentacles, which may reach three metres in length, adhere to prey and inject thousands of tiny venomous threads into the skin. Although there is some debate about how many metres of tentacle are needed to kill a fully grown human, one thing is clear: excruciating pain and then cardiac arrest can occur within minutes. Because not all of the injecting threads fire at once, it is possible to avoid serious harm if the tendrils are removed quickly enough. The only recommended way of doing this is to pour vinegar over the affected area, and indeed, many popular Australian beaches have plenty of vinegar bottles located nearby.

Incredibly, the box jellyfish isn’t even the most dangerous creature of its type. That dubious honour goes to the Irukandji, a tiny jellyfish which may be the most poisonous animal in the world. Because they only grow to about an inch (2.5cm) in length and are almost invisible in the water, they were unknown until the 1960s and fatality statistics are unreliable. Indeed, the syndrome of poisoning was known a dozen years before the culprit was identified. Irukandji poisoning is unusual in that it can take between 20 and 40 minutes for effects to show.

The blue ringed octopus is a little creature, no more than 16-20 cm long, but it is one the world’s most lethal marine animals. At rest, its rings are a pale blue, but they become more pronounced when it is alarmed. This is when it is likely to bite, injecting a poison capable of paralysing or even killing an adult human. The blue ringed octopus is often found in tidal rock pools, where it can be a potentially lethal attraction for small children.

A few other dangers

Australia is home to many other dangerous creatures: cone shellfish that shoot out a venomous spike when handled; stonefish, whose natural camouflage renders them invisible until stood on; stingrays; reef fish and eels that are extremely poisonous if eaten; and mosquitoes that spread a variety of deadly fevers. Wandering wildlife, especially kangaroos, also cause a number of traffic accidents.

Deaths attributable to these mysterious, wonderful animals are rare, however, and Australia’s reputation as a deadly place to visit is ill-deserved. As is the case with every country in the world, the most dangerous creature of them all is the one that walks on two legs.