What can kill you in Australia?
Inside: Down Under may seem notorious for deadly Australian wildlife, but there is more to the story.
Australia is home to more than just Crocodile Dundee and the Hemsworth brothers. There are all kinds of critters there, and not all of them play nicely. Australia is full of plenty of things that can bite, sting, or poison—and some of them can even kill you.
That doesn’t mean you should avoid Australia, though. If anything, it’s an explorer’s paradise due to all the awesome biodiversity. Just be sure to keep your distance from the wildlife unless you’re absolutely sure it’s safe! Here is a compilation of just some of the things that can kill the unsuspecting.
If there’s one thing Australia is home to, it’s a lot of bugs. Spiders in particular have a fearsome reputation, but only a few can actually kill you, such as the Redback spider (Latrodectus hasselti) or the Syndney Funnel-web (Atrax robustus).
The robustus part of the Sydney Funnel-web’s scientific name should give you a clue to what they look like: big, large-fanged, and with a habit of rearing up on its hind legs to show off its fangs when threatened.
Luckily, spiders are one of the least likely things to kill you. Only one spider death has been recorded in the last 40 years, thanks to spiders’ slow-acting venom and the invention of anti-venom in the 80s.
Aside from spiders, there are many bugs that can sting but won’t cause death—unless you are allergic and suffer anaphylactic shock. This is unfortunately common with a few types of bugs. The Jack Jumper ant (Myrmecia pilosula) and various Bull ants (Myrmecia spp.) have been responsible for at least six deaths between 1980 and 1999. The common honeybee and paper wasps are also responsible for at least a few deaths each year.
Sometimes you can’t even see the dangers coming. Australia is home to infectious diseases just like anywhere else, but it also has a few special ones of its own.
The Hendra virus affects fruit bats, which don’t normally interact with people. The problem comes when horses eat underneath bat roost trees, incidentally eating their droppings as well—and spreading the deadly disease to people. At least four people have died of this disease.
Melioidosis is another disease caused by Burkholderia pseudomallei bacteria. It lives in muddy areas and was responsible for killing 77 people from 1989 to 2009.
You’ll also find that Australia has a lot of snake species—around 172, to be precise. What’s more, just over half of them can actually kill you! Luckily, all snakes try to avoid biting you if possible (why waste the venom?), so if you see a snake, just leave it be. Only a few species have been recorded as the culprit when the cause of death is a snakebite.
The Eastern Brown Snake (Pseudonaja textilis) is a nondescript 4’-6’ snake that’s responsible for more than half of snakebite deaths. It’s no wonder: they’re cranky, they’re the second-most venomous land snake in the world, and they love the same types of coastal areas where most people are concentrated in Australia.
Tiger snakes (Notechis scutatis), the Coastal Taipan (Oxyuranus scutellatus), Mulga snakes (Pseudechis australis), and Common Death Adders (Acanthophis antarcticus) are also responsible for a few snakebite deaths every so often.
Sharks and Rays
Unlike many deadly species in Australia, sharks are one of the few things that may actually seek you to try and kill you. Even so, most shark attacks are just mistakes on the shark’s part; they either mistake people for regular prey items like seals, or they might be curious and just “tasting” us rather than being driven by all-out bloodlust.
Most shark attacks in Australia come from three species of sharks: the fearsome Great White (Carcharadon carcharias), the aggressive Bull shark (Carcharhinus leucas), and the garbage-can-like Tiger shark (Galeocerdo cuvier).
While not technically a shark (although it does have a cartilaginous skeleton like sharks), the stingray is now a notorious (if extremely rare) killer. Steve Irwin, the famous Crocodile Hunter, was killed by a stingray whose venomous tail spine pierced his chest and poisoned him while filming. Rest assured, though, it was a unique event, and Steve was one of the few people in the world to be killed by these beautiful critters.
Even though sharks are one of the few animals that can develop a taste for humans, we’re causing them far more harm than they are to us. Shark populations are declining, and it’s up to us to help these guys so we can keep these guys around for a long time. If we can all learn good ways to prevent bad shark encounters, then all the better for sharks and for us.
Sea invertebrates are unlikely to come after you, so it’s up to you to avoid them. Australia has at least two deadly species of jellyfish. Its most famous is the box jellyfish, the most venomous marine animal in the world. Box jellyfish stings can be so painful that people can actually die from the shock of them.
On the other hand, the sting of the Irukandji jellyfish isn’t necessarily that painful at first. Half an hour later, though, victims go into full-blown Irukandji syndrome, where they’ll have excruciating lower back pain, hypertension, muscle cramps, anxiety, and a host of other unpleasant symptoms. Oh, and watch out—the Irukandji jellyfish is only about a half-inch long.
If you see any small octopuses with blue rings, keep away! The blue-ringed octopus (Hapalochlaena spp.) looks link a tiny trinket, but when it’s blue rings are flashing, it’s a warning: stay back, I’m deadly! And because there is no antivenom for this little guy, you definitely don’t want to get stung.
If you love looking for cool shells, steer clear of Cone Snails. They have beautifully-patterned shells, but they’re hiding a secret: a harpoon full of venom which they use to hunt small fish. These snails produce a huge array of different venoms, each of which have different effects. Many scientists are interested in cone snails for this reason, and some are even being explored for medicinal purposes!
You thought fish were just a tasty dinner, didn’t you? Think again: some fish are deadly. Stonefish resemble, well, stones—and they can pack a deadly punch of poison if you step on them accidentally or pick them up. Venomous lion-fish are popular aquarium fishes, but they can also be found in the wild in Australia. Smooth toadfish (also known as pufferfish) are also deadly if eaten. You may know them as fugu, the dangerous Japanese delicacy.
Just like sharks, crocodiles are one of the only animals in Australia that can actually identify humans as prey. Crocodiles can live in saltwater and freshwater, and while they can go on land, they’re not very fast runners. As long as you heed good safety practices in crocodile country, you and crocodiles both will stay safe.