Australia’s 10 deadliest creatures

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Here we present Australia’s 10 deadliest creatures, with expert comment from the naturalist Steve Backshall, author of Venom: a Study of Toxins in the Natural World.

Despite the bewildering variety of frightening animals found in Australia, Mr Backshall insists no-one should be put off visiting for fear of encountering them. “Australia has so many of the world’s most venomous, toxic and toothy beasts,” he said. “However, the most dangerous animals to humans are horses and honeybees. Almost no-one dies from spider, snake, croc and shark bites on the whole continent. With a little common sense, no one visiting Oz should be unduly worried about the wildlife; quite the opposite, it is a great reason to visit.”

Box jellyfish / Picture: AP
1. This species has accounted for 79 of 81 known jellyfish deaths since 1883. The sea wasp, as it is sometimes known, has near-invisible tentacles with millions of harpoons that deliver a hefty dose of venom. The creature can kill in minutes – and is found in vast numbers off beaches during the long “stinger season”, from October to May.
Am I likely to meet one?
Steve Backshall: “Its arrival in northern waters is seasonal – a simple stinger suit will deter them. That said, almost no animal on earth has the potential to stop a human heart so quickly, so warnings on beaches must be taken very seriously.

Inland taipan snake / Picture: AP
2. The inland taipan snake has enough venom to kill 100 men – but they live so remotely, and are so shy, that humans are very unlikely to see one. According to Australian Geographic magazine, bandage pressure and immobilisation can buy victims a few hours in which to find help, although if poorly managed, a bite can lead to death in 45 minutes. Police investigated how a boy came into contact with a specimen last year, after he survived a bite in a coastal region where the “fierce snake”, as it is also known, is not normally found.Am I likely to meet one?
Steve Backshall: “You will not encounter the world’s most venomous snake! They live in the dead red centre of the country and are rarely seen above ground. It took me three days of concentrated searching sleeping out in the desert to find one.”

Eastern brown snake More to worry about is the eastern brown snake – humans are far more likely to encounter them, as they feed on mice and so thrive in populated areas. Aggressive in their attacks, they are responsible for most snake-related deaths in Australia. If provoked, the animal will raise itself off the ground in an S-shaped curve, preparing to fire its venom, which inhibits blood clotting. Am I likely to meet one? Steve Backshall: “Again you are unlikely to see one of these, but basically just know that Oz is one of the only places on earth where there are more venomous snakes than non-venomous. Treat everything snakey as suspect - give them a wide berth and I promise they'll do the same to you!” Picture: GETTY
Eastern brown snake / Picture: GETTY
3. More to worry about is the eastern brown snake – humans are far more likely to encounter them, as they feed on mice and so thrive in populated areas. Aggressive in their attacks, they are responsible for most snake-related deaths in Australia. If provoked, the animal will raise itself off the ground in an S-shaped curve, preparing to fire its venom, which inhibits blood clotting.
Am I likely to meet one?
Steve Backshall: “Again you are unlikely to see one of these, but basically just know that Oz is one of the only places on earth where there are more venomous snakes than non-venomous. Treat everything snakey as suspect – give them a wide berth and I promise they’ll do the same to you!”

Honey bee
Honey bee / Picture: THOMAS KIENZLEAFPGetty Images
4. Yes, he produces lovely honey and yes, his buzz is charming, but the apis mellifera is actually one of Australia’s most dangerous stingers, due to the high incidence of allergic reaction, at 1-2 per cent of the Australian population. Bee stings cause more deaths than sharks, snakes or spiders separately every year, making the insect second only to snakes as the deadliest venomous animal in Australia.
Am I likely to meet one?
Steve Backshall: “Its venoms are high in allergens. If you are susceptible, you need to have an epi-pen to hand, as a single sting could cause anaphylaxis. If you find your throat constricting after a sting, stay calm, and get to hospital as soon as possible.”

The blue-ringed octopus / Picture: AP
The blue-ringed octopus / Picture: AP
5. In the 1983 film Octopussy, James Bond is seduced by Magda, whose tattoo of a blue ringed-octopus shows her alliance with the wealthy female protagonist. In reality, this blue-blooded creature may be even more dangerous – it has enough poison to kill 26 people. When annoyed, the creature’s brown spots darken and pulsating iridescent blue rings appear, and it produces a neurotoxin 10,000 times more powerful than cyanide. And yet it actually causes fewer deaths than eating incorrectly prepared fugu fish – a Japanese delicacy – which contains the same nerve toxins.
Am I likely to meet one?
Steve Backshall: “There are several species, one of which lives right in Sydney harbour. They’re tiny, vibrant and gorgeous. If you’re lucky enough to see one diving, view from a respectable distance.”

Saltwater crocodile / Picture: GETTY
Saltwater crocodile / Picture: GETTY
6. The largest of all living reptiles, the “saltie” has the strongest bite of any living creature, and a large specimen is said to be able to crush a fully-grown gazelle’s skull between its jaws. It causes 1-2 known deaths every year, and is responsible for 4-10 non-fatal attacks. In August this year, a man’s body was found by police after he was seized by a crocodile as he swam in the Mary River in Australia’s Northern Territory. The channel has one of the highest croc populations in the area: Senior Sergeant Geoff Bahnert told the AP news agency at the time: “You don’t swim in the Mary River.”
Am I likely to meet one?
Steve Backshall says that saltie victims are “almost always people who have fallen asleep at the riverside at night. Common sense is essential in Northern parts of the country where the animals may occur. Take local advice before swimming anywhere, saltwater or fresh.”

Bull shark 7 Picture. AP
Bull shark 7 Picture. AP
7. The great white might hit the headlines, but it’s the bull shark you really need to look out for. They have bitten and killed people in shallow water because they come very close to beaches looking for food. Indeed, some experts believe that it was a bull shark, not a great white, responsible for the deaths that inspired Jaws. Inhabiting both fresh and saltwater, they also enter rivers and estuaries, and after flooding in early 2011, one was reported seen in a suburban street. They are large and stout, and up to 81cm in length at birth – an adult female weighs about 130kg.
Am I likely to meet one?
Steve Backshall: “Another that can be found right in Sydney harbour. Very rarely of any danger to humans, but best to stay clear of swimming in murky estuarine habitats where they hunt in zero viz [visibility], and might mistake you for prey.”

Sydney funnel web spider / Picture: GETTY
Sydney funnel web spider / Picture: GETTY
8. You wouldn’t want to meet the Sydney funnel web spider on a dark night – or at any time of day, in fact. It might be minuscule, at just 1.5-3.5 cm long, but it has fangs longer than a brown snake’s, and so powerful they can pierce toenails. Humans are more likely to encounter them than some of the other creatures on this list, as they are found in populated urban areas in New South Wales, wandering in gardens and sometimes dropping into swimming pools. Luckily, anti-venom was developed in 1981, and since then no fatalities have been recorded. It’s still up there among the world’s deadliest spiders, let alone Australia’s.
Am I likely to meet one?
Steve Backshall: “This rivals the Brazilian wandering spider for title of most venomous on earth. They are generally rare and reclusive, and almost never seen in the city itself, but the bite is very unpleasant indeed. In all areas of Oz, shake out boots and clothing before putting them on, as spiders may seek shelter inside.”

Cone snail / Picture: © David Fleetham /Alamy
Cone snail / Picture: © David Fleetham /Alamy
9. This coil-shaped creature looks harmless enough, but is carnivorous and predatory, feeding on small fish, molluscs, and even their own kin. Large specimens can be fatal to humans – their shells are attractive and people try to hold them. According to the authoritative Goldfrank’s Toxicologic Emergencies resource, about 15 human deaths have been caused by the snails. Their toxins have been used to derive painkillers, the first being registered by the US Food and Drug Administration in 2004.
Am I likely to meet one?
Steve Backshall: “Empty cone shells wash up on beaches every now and again. I have only seen a few alive and out on the reefs in thousands of dives. If you do find one, do not handle it – even if you think it is dead. The mollusc that lives inside fires a venom-laden dart from the narrow end, and though it would be extremely unlikely to kill a human, would hurt like crazy. Proteins in the venom may be denatured by immersion in hot water.”

Giant stinging tree / Picture: © Suzanne Long / Alamy
Giant stinging tree / Picture: © Suzanne Long / Alamy
10. A wildcard, and not an animal – but you will also want to avoid the giant stinging tree, dendrocnide excelsa, found in Queensland. Severe stings – caused as the hairs on all aerial parts of the plants latch onto your skin – can cause pain for several months. Treating them involves applying wax hair-removal strips and pulling off, like a large and painful plaster, to remove the hairs that have embedded themselves in your skin. That treatment method might be reason enough to avoid them in the first place.

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