Are Australia’s Native Creatures Really That Dangerous?

Are Australia’s Native Creatures Really That Dangerous?
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Welcome to Australia: a place that is the focus of regular reports that nearly every creature is ready and waiting to pounce. If it rains, it brings warnings of venomous snakes. If the weather is dry, then giant spiders can set up house in your power box.

But as Australia prepares once again to welcome new citizens during next month’s Australia Day, it seems appropriate to take a closer look at how deadly our creatures really are.

There is no doubt Australia harbours venomous animals and encounters that can be traumatic and need a rapid emergency response.

We must we careful not to understate the impact of any encounters with venomous animals on families and the sufferers themselves. Nor must we play down the highly specialised management, effective treatment and medical care required.

See also: Horrify Non-Australians With These Rare And Dangerous Beasties

But is this reputation of a land of deadly and aggressive creatures well founded?

Detail in the data

My colleagues and I recently published a review of hospital admissions and deaths caused by venomous animals in the Internal Medical Journal.

We sourced data from 2001-2013 from national hospital admissions and national coronial information, which showed more than 42,000 hospitalisations from venomous sting or bites. Most – not all – are shown in the graph, below.

Over the 12 years that’s an average 3,500 people admitted to hospital every year for a venom-related injury. This can be loosely averaged 0.01% of the Australian population per year, or roughly one in 10,000 Australians.

Allergy or anaphylaxis from insect stings such as bees or wasps were responsible for about one-third (33%) of hospital admissions, followed by spider bites (30%) and snake bites (15%).

Over the 12 years, 64 people were killed by a venomous sting or bite, with more than half of these (34) caused by an allergic reaction to an insect bite that brought on anaphylactic shock.

Of these, 27 deaths were the result of a bee or wasp sting, with only one case of a beekeeper being killed. Anaphylaxis to tick and ant bites combined caused five deaths, the box jellyfish caused three deaths and two deaths were from an unidentified insect.

Given there are 140 species of land snakes in Australia, snake bite fatalities are very rare, at 27 for the study period. To put that in perspective, the World Health Organization estimates that at least 100,000 people die from snake bite globally each year.

Image The red belly black snake is not as nasty as it looks. [Image: Flickr/Derek A Young]

While it’s natural to be frightened of snakes, the reality is the number of deaths from snake bites in Australia is very small. In the same time frame, for example, figures from the National Coronial Information System (NCIS) show nearly 5,000 people died from drowning and 1,000 from burns in Australia.

Nevertheless, snake bites do hold the crown as the most common cause of death, with nearly twice as many deaths per hospital admission than any other venomous injury, making snakebite one of the most important issues to address.

Deadly creatures elsewhere

Understandably, living in a country with creatures that can potentially kill us is a daunting prospect. As you can see from the figures, though, they don’t kill as many people as you might think and other countries have their own potentially deadly creatures.

In the United Kingdom there are reports of deaths or injuries from bees, widow spiders, jellyfish and adder snakes.

The continent of America has a menagerie of reptilian assassins such as vipers, and its mammals also pack a punch, with reports of attacks from bears, wolves and mountain lions.

A sturdy Australian would surely quake at the thought of being faced with an offensive grizzly, with no amount of Crocodile Dundee-esk buffalo hypnotism techniques going to get us through that encounter.

Sure Australia also has sharks and crocodiles, but it’s important to note that the majority of our critters do not come after you.

Minimising the minimal risk

Our report, while giving a broad overview of envenoming trends in Australia, does raise more questions than it answers. Questions such as: who is most at risk and how can we support them? Do we need more localised guidelines? And how do we maintain knowledge for such a rare injury?

Image No one died from a spider bite during the 12 years of our study. [Image: Flickr/Corrie Barklimore]

This work seeks to initiate new conversations in regard to potential gaps in knowledge in both the public and health domains, and find solutions. We’re currently seeking funding to continue this research.

From an individual or national public health perspective, we can’t make informed decisions until we have a much clearer picture of what’s going on. The big question is how can we manage this coexistence with the creatures around us, without being detrimental to people and the creatures themselves.

It comes down to understanding, appreciating and respecting the amazing diversity nature has provided us. We need to learn about prevention methods and understand correct first aid.

This, together with the ongoing research and improvements in clinical care and the accessibility, affordability, effective management and treatment of bites and stings in Australia, actually make it one of the safest places in the world, and certainly not one of the deadliest.

The Conversation

Ronelle Welton, Scientist at the Australian Venom Research Unit, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation.


  • There hasn’t been a spider death in 3 decades, the anti-venom manufacturing and distribution is top notch with the benefit of our public health system. Your more likely to be killed by a domesticated animal than a spider.

    That said anti-venom supplies have been reported at their lowest that the zoo program that milks spider venom has asked people to catch funnel web spiders.

  • Correct me if I’m wrong, but I thought that the Spider isn’t deadly?

    Yeah it has some venom, but it’s not anymore lethal than another kind of tarantula.

  • Yeah, we have some nasties here, but I think the nastiest critter I’ve ever seen (on telly) is the Black Mamba. Their poison is insidious and deadly within a very short time and Africa isn’t exactly known for its medical service. They get bloody long and they are one of the fastest snakes in the world. Add that to being one of, if not, “the” most aggressive snakes in the world that will actively chase your ass down and you have a friggin slithering nightmare. Sends shivers down my spine just thinking about it.

  • One thing that jumped into my mind reading this – Steve Irwin passed away less than 12 years ago, killed by a marine animal. Yet the chart says that all three deaths from marine animals resulted from box jellyfish. What gives?

  • Where’s the comparison? Would have been nice to show on graphs the totals for UK and USA then reduce it to instances per100k of population for real comparison stats.

  • The article kind of dances around a significant point – a portion of the population will have anaphylactic reactions to a couple of different types of venom, and that is a greater threat than the venom itself. Then, aside from anaphylaxis – distance from, and the quality of, healthcare is critical. Our most deadly spider just so happens to be endemic to the most densely populated area of the country – that would be a huge issue in a developing country.
    A question on the data though – two deaths in 2002 were suspected to be from Irukandji, but not confirmed. They wouldn’t be the two “unknown”, as the author suggest they’re insects. I wonder if the two in question aren’t even recorded as envenomation deaths.

  • I wonder if there is any study of ongoing health issues from bites. For example, I know a wonderful pianist who was bitten on the arm by a white-tail and it messed up the dexterity in her arm badly enough she cannot play any more.


    I believe with all of our snakes, the venom runs down a groove on the outside of the tooth, so often a lot of the poison will ends of on clothing or skin, and primarily travels through the lymph system – compared to species on other continents that have hollow teeth acting as hypodermic needles delivering their payload directly into the bloodstream. Australian snakes are also generally less aggressive. (Recalling all this from a couple of First Aide courses over a decade ago, so may not be entirely accurate, but thought you might find it interesting.)

    The funnelweb spider on the other hand can kill a man in eight seconds, just by looking at him.

  • Another Australian species which is known to bite and sometimes kill, is the politician. It is not easily frightened, except when ignored by very large numbers of people known as voters. And it is quick to lash out at other species if they get too close or ask too many tricky questions.

    Now considered one of the most dangerous Australian species, it is rapidly gaining a reputation around the world for cruelty, and for attacking the old, sick and poor.

    No longer benign, this species has become deadly.

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