Dangerous Animals Around Sydney

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Don't Panic!!

Are you in danger in Australia? Perhaps, though most tourists who die are older people who succumb to heart attacks. Forget about fearsome animals: between 1980 and 1990, here are some death causes for Australians, over ten years:

Crocodile attacks 8
Shark attacks 11
Lightning strikes 19
Bee stings 20
SCUBA diving accidents 88
Drownings and submersion 3367
Traffic accidents 32772

So you can see what you have to be worried about!

Dangerous birds | Dangerous mammals | Dangerous reptiles | Threats from the sea | Sharks and Rays | Australian spiders

Threats from the sea

Bluebottle | Box Jellyfish | Blue-ringed octopus | Sharks and Rays | Sea Urchin

Bluebottle

Bluebottles stranded on a beach can still sting. This "animal", like its relatives among the jellyfish, the anemones and the corals, carries some powerful stinging cells. The bluebottle is actually made up of a large colony of organisms, one of which forms a transparent bladder between 3 and 8 cm long. This bladder, which is filled with air, serves as a float, while other organisms specialise in other ways - rather like the bees in a hive.

The bluebottle of Australian waters is called Physalia utriculus, the species name reminding us that its construction is a bit like a set of bagpipes (in Latin, utriculus), but the main fishing tentacle is rather longer than the drones on a set of pipes, dangling as much as 13 metres (40 feet) below the float. It is a relative of the western Atlantic bluebottle or Portuguese Man-o'-War, Physalia physalis.

Bluebottles don't really want to sting people, because to get among people, they are on their way to be stranded on the shore to die, driven there by onshore winds. The stinging tentacles that brush across you contain hundreds of cells, each with a coiled, spring-loaded harpoon within. When it makes contact with a human (or a fish) each cell blasts the tiny harpoon into you, and then pumps in small dose of venom through the hollow centre.

The sting has enough force to pass right through surgical rubber gloves, but usually only a few stinging cells are set off to begin with - the rest will be set off when you try to brush the tentacle away. The trick is to stay calm, take the pain, grab one end, and peel the tentacle away gently.

Old Australians may tell you to splash vinegar on the tentacles, but this just triggers more stinging cells to go off, so the recommended treatment now is to wash the tentacles away with sea water, though I think the latest idea is to use hot water. And don't worry: while the Portuguese Man-o'-War has killed three people in the United States, no deaths have occurred from the Australian bluebottle, although there is another species in north Queensland which may be more dangerous.

The main thing, if you have a small child who has been stung on the body is to immobilize the child's arms, because as the victim rubs at the tentacles, more and more of the stinging cells (nematocysts) will fire, delivering more and more venom.

Bluebottles usually blow in with the nor'-easter - or half of them do, as the floats come in two mirror-image forms, with one type drifting off to the left of the wind, while the other drifts off to the right. On patrolled beaches, if you see warning signs about bluebottles, stay out of the water, and if you are stung, seek help from the patrol.

Where to see bluebottles: any beach when the wind is right, or along the wave line after the tide has fallen (watch out, the tentacles can still sting painfully).

Blue-ringed octopus

The main thing to remember about this animal is that its bright warning colours should warn you off, but that if you do not, you will probably need CPR. So long as somebody keeps you breathing, and keeps your heart pumping, you will survive the bite.

Box Jellyfish

These are tropical, so you don't need to worry about them in Sydney. Take warnings seriously in tropical waters, as these are lethal.

Sea Urchin

These relatives of the star-fish or seastar have long sharp needles in all directions. I have heard it claimed that they have a toxic coating, but I doubt this -- the spines give you a deep puncture wound that would be difficult to clean out, and which would be likely to be infected. Get medical attention.

Sharks and Rays

More threatened by humans than threatening. Some people dive with them, though after the incident with Steve Irwin, that is probably less common. The barb can cause considerable pain, even if it does not penetrate the heart as happened to Irwin.

Dangerous reptiles

Taipan | Goannas

You are far more likely to have your leg pulled about dangerous Australian reptiles than you ever are to encounter one, or to be killed by one.

Taipans do not leap over people's heads, crocodiles do not appear in the southern half of the continent, but there are aggressive snakes in some parts, and "saltwater crocodiles" can be found in fresh water - so long as they can swim there from an estuary.

The lizards and goannas of Australia are comparatively harmless. In open country, a frightened goanna may climb up you to take refuge (so don't frighten them!), and if you stick a finger in the mouth of a bluetongue you may end up with a sore and bruised finger (they have strong jaw muscles). Recent research has shown that goanna saliva contains a weak venom, but they have no fangs to inject the venom.

Crocodiles come in two forms: the highly dangerous "salty", or saltwater crocodile, more correctly called an estuarine crocodile, but perfectly happy in freshwater, and the Johnson's River Croodile, a smaller beast which allegedly never hurts humans.

Snakes in Australia include a number of harmless pythons, and also a number of snakes with quite nasty bites. Most people bitten by snakes in Australia were either trying to catch them or to kill them, while a very few are just plain unlucky. A quick and unscientific survey reveals that the average Australian has seen around five snakes outside of zoos in their entire lives.

Where to see snakes safely: Taronga Zoo, Australian Reptile Park.

Useful reference: Australian Snakes: A Natural History, Rick Shine, Reed Books 1991, ISBN 0 7301 0389 7

Taipan

There are about 170 species of snake recognised in Australia, but most Australians would be expected to see about five live snakes in the wild in their entire lives. Of these, the one they least wish to see would have to be the inland taipan, reputed to be the most venomous snake in the world.

Whether this is correct or not, the inland taipan is in the same class as the better-known African mamba, with which it shares many similarities. Luckily for us, the taipan eats small mammals. In fact, only three people have ever been bitten by the inland taipan, and all of those survived, even though the venom is about 80 times as deadly as that of a rattlesnake.

(Using the standard toxicologist's LD50 measure, one bite from an inland taipan will kill half of a sample of 218,000 mice, but a bite from a diamondback rattlesnake would kill only half of 2700 mice. A king cobra bite will kill half of 11,500 mice.)

While Australians love to boast about their deadly snakes, the typical year sees only about five Australians dying of snakebite, and these usually come from tiger snakes and brown snakes.

Goannas

There are about 40 described varanid (or monitor) lizards, and 25 of those, as well as several undescribed species, are found in Australia. Named from an apparent similarity to the iguana, the Australian goanna is in many respects, the top-order predator across large parts of Australia. The other species are found in Africa, Arabia, southern Asia, Indoesia and Papua-New Guinea.

No living Australian goanna is as large as the 3-metre (10 feet) varanid known a the "Komodo Dragon" of Indonesia, which has been known to attack babies and sleeping adult humans, but this was a mere speck, compared with Megalania prisca, a fossil form which once occurred in Australia. This monster form was 6 metres or 20 feet long, so it was twice as long, twice s high, and twice as broad as a Komodo Dragon - eight times the size!

Luckily, the Australian bush today has nothing larger than a Varanus giganteus, two metres of lizard, but in the early days of the colony, even these lizards struck terror into the hearts of of colonists, who thought there were crocodiles in their midst. (At least one Sydney tour group regularly tells its audiences that the distribution of saltwater crocodiles used to reach down to Sydney, citing one reference in a settler's journal to the goanna sighting as their evidence.)

The goanna has a forked tongue, an evil-looking face, and a swaggering, menacing walk - at least to somebody unused to the goannas, and this makes them look very threatening. They eat the eggs of "cute" animals like birds and turtles - and also of crocodiles, and this helps to confirm their reputation as a "bad guy".

Author May Gibbs has a lot to answer for in setting the minds of generations of children against the reptile group, with malefactors like Goanna and Mrs Snake - not to mention the Big Bad Banksia Man!

"Goanna oil" is a patent medicine of allegedly miraculous powers. It once contained oil from the fat bodies of Varanus varius, the lace monitor, but for many years now has been a formulation of wintergreen, menthol, pine, peppermint and eucalyptus oil.

Some goannas run very fast when they are frightened. They seem to run on their hind legs only, with the long tail raised behind them. It is tempting to think of them as survivors from the day of the dinosaur. It may be tempting to do so, but it is zoologically wrong.

Where to see goannas: Taronga Zoo, along with Komodo dragons, Australian Reptile Park, or Kangaroo Island for Rosenberg's monitor, Varanus rosenbergi. If you see a live goanna in the wild, put down a hen's egg near the base of the tree, stand back, and wait for a curious sight.

Useful reference: Goanna: The Biology of Varanid Lizards, Brian King and Dennis Green, UNSW Press, 1993, ISBN 0 86840 093 9.

Dangerous birds

Cassowary
Emu
Magpie
Wedge-tailed Eagle

Cassowary

The cassowary is a tropical bird, and so not a problem in Sydney. Be aware that they are large and dangerous in Queensland rainforests.

Emu

The male emu guards the nest, and can be very protective. In zoos, they will happile take sunglasses and other small objects. They are bigger than you, so stay away. Only seen in captivity around Sydney.

Magpie

A magpie joins the picnic. In most cases, the magpie seems like a harmless bird, and they will often try to beg from picnics, or even steal from the picnic, as seen here, but in large numbers, they can occasionally become aggressive, and in spring, they get territorial.

When they are nesting, magpies will fly close, or even peck people on the back of the head. Popular lore has it that they will never fly at anybody who is watching them, which may explain sightings in September or thereabouts of people wearing caps, hats or ice cream containers with eyes drawn on the back. This is not a legpull: people really do it, and it seems to work.

Magpies vary in their colouration. The one shown here is a Sydney one, but as you go south, they have more white on their backs. Notice the white on the beak, which distinguishes them from the somewhat similar currawongs.

Wedge-tailed Eagle

You are unlikely to get close enough to one of these magnificent birds to be threatened. Don't try too hard!

Dangerous mammals

Dingoes
Banteng
Water Buffalo

Dingoes

Every Australian has heard of "The Chamberlain Case", and most visitors have, too, thanks to Merryl Streep who starred in the film Evil Angels, some years ago. A baby, Azaria Chamberlain, died mysteriously near Uluru (Ayer's Rock), and no body was ever found, but the mother said that she saw a dingo taking the baby. She was accused of killing the baby, gaoled, and later exonerated.

Every Australian has a theory about "what really happened", but nobody has ever thought to ask if this was the first reported case of baby-stealing by dingoes. They should have done.

The dingo is just an ordinary dog, Canis familiaris. The dingoes were almost certainly brought to Australia by the aborigines, but now many of them have gone wild. (There is another view, that the dingo is an Asiatic dog, bred for eating, and left here by Asian fishermen at some time in the past, but this is still to be proven.)

The dingoes, wherever they come from, have mostly interbred with other wild dogs, so very few genuine dingoes remain in the wild, except maybe on Fraser Island in Queensland.

The dingo, you see, is no devil in disguise, no wolf, no vicious brute, just a large feral dog. It is a carnivore which sees smaller animals as legitimate prey. If you let a poodle run wild, and it survived, it would behave like a dingo, too. So would a St Bernard. Now back to my question: have dingoes ever killed babies before?

Back in the days when tourists were less common than immigrant settlers, people wrote guide books for the settler, rather than for the tourist, and one of these authors was Mrs. Charles Meredith, whse comments may be found here. They are worth a look if you are interested. If you aren't, I will tell you for free that she reports just such a case in Bathurst. I wonder why that didn't come out in court? Maybe it did: I was not a close follower of the Chamberlain court cases, but I don't remember hearing of Mrs. Meredith's report.

If you have small children, don't worry: the only dingoes you will see in Sydney are tame ones or captives in zoos. You shouldn't be surprised if they seem too small to eat babies: feral animals are always bigger than the domesticated variety.

Dingoes are seen to best advantage at several of Sydney's zoos, on Fraser Island, or around the Myall lakes near Port Stephens

Banteng

The Banteng (Bos javanicus) or "Bali cattle" was introduced from the island of Bali into the short-lived Victoria settlement in the Northern Territory in 1849, and ran wild after the settlement was abandoned. Until 1948, nobody even knew that these cattle were there - unlike the herds of water buffalo, which were being enthusiastically hunted as early as 1895.

There are very few (if any) wild banteng left in Indonesia, so it is possible that these feral animals in Australia might one day be important in the conservation of the species. In the mean time, a population of 3000 is having some effect on the Cobourg Peninsula in the Northern Territory.

The population seems to have stabilised under pressure from aboriginal and trophy hunting. The Sydney population remains stable at zero.

Water Buffalo

The water buffalo, Bubalus bubalis was introduced into Australia between 1825 and 1843. It is now established as a feral animal in areas of the Northern Territory where the rainfall is between 1000 and 1500 mm (40" - 60").

Once a quiet domesticated beast, the water buffalo in Australia is generally regarded as a savage and dangerous wild animal. The first buffalo came from the island of Timor to Melville Island as meat animals in 1826, and animals were landed on the mainland in 1828. Fifteen years later, 1843 wild herds of up to 50 head could be seen on the mainland, and in the mid-1840s, the explorer Ludwig Leichhardt came upon herds on the eastern bank of the Alligator River.

There were an estimated 350,000 feral buffalo in the Northern Territory in 1985, with some occurring as far away as the Kimberley in Western Australia and the Gulf country of Queensland. They hugely outnumber the smaller herd of Banteng on the Cobourg Peninsula.

Buffalo herds have destroyed plant life around wetlands, reducing the food and shelter available to other animals. The trampled soil where the herds have wandered is open to erosion, while their swimming and wallowing has degraded many of the best wetlands. As well, their swimming habits open up channels which let high tides flood some of the areas with salt water during the dry season, killing many plants, and hastening the erosion process.

This animal also carries a range of cattle diseases, including tuberculosis, and are definitely one of the feral animals Australia could happily do without - at least in the wild. Some work is being carried out on developing disease-free domesticated herds, to be kept well away from areas of conservation value.

Australian spiders

Dangerous Spiders and Their Relatives

There is a local spider, commonly known as the "tarantula", or "triantelope". Many people are frightened of it, either because of its name, or because it is hairy and has long legs. This is quite unnecessary, since, like most spiders, it can't get its fangs into us. As for having long hairy legs, people don't get frightened of Afghan hounds on that ground! There are very few dangerous Australian spiders.

On the other hand, if you go camping, and leave your tent open, or if your shoes are outside the tent overnight, you might end up sharing your sleeping bag or shoes (respectively) with a funnelweb spider. So keep your tent zipped up, and check your shoes before you put them on.

Funnelweb Spider
Redback Spider
Harmless Spiders

Funnelweb Spider

The journalists of Australia suffered a setback in 1981, when an antivenom to this spider's bite was developed. Around 13 people are bitten each year by this spider, but none has died since then, making the spider far less worthy of screaming headlines.

If you ever see a funnelweb, you will know what it is: they are big, black and gruesome. In fact, every time you talk about it afterwards, say the experts, it will grew some more. Funnelwebs are impressive, tough, and hard to kill. Avoid them, but there is an anti-venene available if you do get bitten. Apply pressure to the bitten area, and get to medical help as fast as you can.

The fangs are very long and needle-sharp, so you will certainly know if you have been bitten by a funnelweb spider.

You can find funnel-webs everywhere from the Daintree rainforests to the open forests of the Eyre Peninsula in South Australia, and from the coast inlad as far as Dubbo, and up as far as the tree-line in the Snowy Mountains. The Sydney funnel-web, the only species that most people have heard of, is found from Newcastle to Nowra, and inland as far as Lithgow, on the other side of the Blue Mountains. They are more common in soils with a lot of clay, but they turn up in gardens almost anywhere, though most people remain unaware of them (we lived with 300 funnel-webs in a dry-stone wall just metres from our house for ten years, and only saw one of them.

Funnel-webs make silk-lined burrows, and have trip lines radiating out, designed to alert the burrow owner when food, a mate or a danger approaches. The venom of the male is five times as dangerous to humans as the female's venom - but the chemical which threatens us is quite different from the part of the venom it uses to kill its normal prey. Oddly enough, dogs and cats are hardly affected by funnel-web venom, while humans and monkeys are at severe risk from a bite from this spider. Given that humans were the first primates in Australia, and even the wildest estimates only set that at 120,000 years ago (40 to 60 thousand years is more likely), you have to wonder a bit.

The male spider will move around, looking for mate, and sometimes finds its way into a house, which is rather sad for the spider, doomed to die of thirst within a couple of days. At this time, if it shelters in a shoe, or is merely scuttling across a floor, it may bite a bare foot in self-defence. The tall tales you may hear about leaping spiders are just that - tall tales. The best they can do is about 5 cm (2 inches) - which would hardly get them into the Olympics.

There are now at least 38 species of funnel-webs known, but only four are known to be dangerous to humans. According to the Australian Museum, funnel-webs can float on a pool for up to 44 hours, and can survive between 24 and 30 hours under water, but by then they are incapable of biting for an hour or so.

For more information, point your browser at http://www.reptilepark.com.au/venom_production.asp

Redback Spider

The red-back is Latrodectus mactans hasselti to systematic zoologists. In the bad old days, when toilets were "dunnies", and found in the back-yard, it was common to have redbacks in the shelter provided by the roughly-built toilet, hence the persistent legends (and even a song) about The Redback on the Toilet Seat.

These days, redbacks are more likely to be found in rockeries, or under piles of timber in a backyard. The redback is the same species as the American Black Widow, but our variety has a red stripe down the centre of its black abdomen. The same species, or a very similar one, is widely distributed around the western Pacific, always with its own local name. In New Zealand, for example, it is the Katipo.

The experts aren't sure, by the way, whether the redback is a recent import or not, but redbacks from Narrabri turned up recently in Tristan da Cunha, having hitched a ride in a packing case on a plane.

Harmless Spiders

Australia has many more harmless spiders than dangerous ones. The scuttling spider on your ceiling is probably a huntsman, looking for insect pests to eat, even if it is called "tarantula" or "triantelope". Many people are frightened of it, either because of its name, or because it is hairy and has long legs. This is quite unnecessary, since, like most spiders, it can't get its fangs into us. As for having long hairy legs, people don't get frightened of Afghan hounds on that ground!

On the other hand, if you go camping, and leave your tent open, or your shoes outside the tent overnight, you might end up sharing your sleeping bag or shoes (respectively) with a funnelweb spider. So keep your tent zipped up, and check your shoes before you put them on, but assume that the spider you run into in the bush is harmless.

Early morning bushwalks can be a delight when the dew is glistening on the spiders' webs. You will see Golden Orb-Weavers everywhere, and when you look closely, you should have no trouble spotting a dozen different spiders outside, but you will also find non-threatening spiders inside the house or hotel room.

The long-legged spider in the intersection between wall and ceiling is probably our "Daddy Long-Legs", the cosmopolitan Pholcus phalangioides. Look more closely, and you may find tiny money-spiders perhaps a millimetre across, sitting and weighting for food to come their way.

A spider which is harder to find in Sydney gardens is the net-casting spider, Dinopis. Rather than weaving a web to catch flying prey, this spider hunts its prey by throwing a net over them, or scraping them up in its net. For people of Scots descent, the St Andrews Cross spider weaves an ordinary web, but then lays down a saltire and sits, with two limbs along each of the arms of the cross. These spiders seem to over-winter and reappear in much the same place, late in August, growing and reproducing throughout the summer.

Roads and tourists

Like Britain, Japan, New Zealand, Indonesia and parts of Africa, we drive on the left side of the road, and the steering wheel is usually on the right. If you are used to driving on the right, you have two dangers to look out for.

When you are driving: when you make a left turn, you are very likely to end up on the wrong side of the road. You need to concentrate very hard in order to get it right. It helps to have a passenger who can remind you. (If it makes you feel any better, we have the same problem in Europe and the USA, but with right-hand turns.)

When you are a pedestrian: Because cars drive on the left, you need to look to the right, last thing before you step off the kerb. Also, if you are walking along the side of a road that has no footpath (or sidewalk), you should stay on the right, so you are facing the oncoming traffic. My own European rule is to always wait for the traffic lights, even when the locals are flitting across the road it really is extremely confusing. In Vienna in June 2006, I was nearly run over by a fiacre (a horse-drawn cab) that had to swerve to avoid a van, a hazard I had not even thought about. Assume the traffic is out to get you!

External links

Australian Spider and Insect Bites: a University of Sydney site. Funnel-web Spiders: an Australian Museum site. Redback Spider: an Australian Museum site.


This file is http://members.ozemail.com.au/~macinnis/syd/dangers.htm, first created on March 23, 2006. Last recorded revision (well I get lazy and forget sometimes!) was on October 9, 2006.

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