The Real Guide to
Australia’s Dangerous Wildlife
By Ben Groundwater
Here’s the thing about Australia: there are a lot of animals out here that could kill you. This is not a fear campaign, it’s the truth.
There are spiders, snakes, crocodiles, sharks, jellyfish, and even cassowaries – giant, fluffy, emu-like psychopaths – in Australia that could and would cause your untimely death. These animals rate among the deadliest on Earth: we have the world’s most venomous snake, the inland taipan; we have two of the world’s most dangerous spiders, the funnel web and the redback; we have the top three deadliest jellyfish; and our waters boast the world’s largest crocodiles.
There’s something else, however, that you need to know about Australia’s deadly critters, something that may bring a measure of succour in this active, outdoor-friendly season: you’ll never see them. You’ll never even know they’re there.
This is the thing about living in Australia. There are many, many things around here that could kill you, and yet by and large, they don’t. Fatal snake bites are extremely rare here. Few people get stung by deadly jellyfish. We went 37 years without a single death by spider, a run that only just ended.
The reason for this is not that our venomous creatures have surprisingly placid natures – seriously, they’re scary. The reason is that there just aren’t that many of them around, and they’re very easy to avoid when they are.
I grew up in country Queensland, prime territory for redback spiders, and I saw probably four or five of them in my entire childhood. I’ve now lived in Sydney for 12 years, and I’ve never encountered a single funnel web.
Snakes are rare to see in most of Australia. You spot them when you’re out walking in the bush sometimes, sunning themselves on hiking paths, but you never see them in the city.
Crocodiles only exist in the far north of Australia, often in sparsely populated areas. Jellyfish are similarly northern dwelling, and only appear in the warmer months. Sharks are only a problem for surfers, in certain avoidable areas. Cassowaries are dangerous, but confined to the far north-east.
And even when you are in areas where deadly animals are present, there are certain precautions that pretty much all Australians know to take, small things that help ensure you don’t have an encounter with our less friendly residents.
You don’t wander around in long grass, especially not without sturdy shoes. The spare block beside my old house in Queensland is probably still filled with tennis balls – if you hit a six into the long grass there during a game of backyard cricket back then, you wrote it off. Only a tourist would go wandering through prime snake habitat in their flip-flops.
You lift the toilet seat up, too, to check for redbacks – but only if you’re using an outdoor “dunny”. Otherwise it’s not necessary.
You wear a “stinger suit”, a coverall lycra number, if you’re swimming up north in jellyfish season. You stay “croc safe” and don’t hang around on riverbanks and ocean shores in some parts of northern Australia. You don’t go surfing at dawn or dusk. You keep an eye out for funnel webs in dark, damp places.
These are all precautions that work. We just don’t see these deadly animals on a regular basis here. In fact, we don’t even think about them.
“Only a tourist would go wandering through prime snake habitat in their
What we do think about are the not-so-deadly but far more prevalent and annoying critters that come around to bother us in Australia on an almost daily basis:
Sleek in their black-and-white plumage, gorgeous in their morning song. And yet, in the breeding season of spring they’re stone-cold weapons, birds that will swoop from high perches at passers-by and attempt to peck their ears off, or at least give them enough of a fright to ensure they never return.
Kangaroos are similarly beautiful native wildlife, seemingly docile creatures who will still give you a good kick in the chest if you start to annoy them, and who also have a bad habit of jumping in front of moving cars on country highways around dawn and dusk.
Plovers, meanwhile, are much like magpies, lovely birds that seem passive enough until they begin to lay eggs around November and start swooping people to defend them, the talons on their wings aimed for maximum damage on innocent bystanders.
And then, of course, you have cockroaches, which won’t kill you, but which will also refuse to be killed. These will be the last surviving organisms on Earth in the case of a nuclear war. In Australia we have small cockroaches that tend to infest houses that haven’t been properly protected, and we also have large, flying cockroaches, the type you won’t see until they settle on your shoulder as you’re sitting around outside on a warm night, or which can be spotted scuttling under the couch after you’ve accidentally left the screen door open. These are the true courges of Australian life, the critters you really need to keep an eye out for.
Spiders, snakes, crocodiles? No problem. If anything is going to make you scream with fear around here, it will be a cockie.