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Insects, fish, mammals and more that could kill you is part of Australia’s charm. Writer Helen Cordery shakes out her shoes and walks us through the menacing menagerie Down Under.
Text by: Helen Cordery
Country: Australia

honestly do not go looking for spiders.

They just always seem to find me, and in Australia there is a higher chance of meeting one’s eight-legged nemesis than anywhere else in the world. For this sprawling nation is home to some of the world’s most lethal arachnids, amongst other things weird and wonderful.

Bringing this fact up with your everyday Australian is not going to elicit sympathy or words to the effect of, “Don’t worry, it’s all exaggerated!” In fact, they’re most likely to laugh then regale you with anecdotes about when they found a snake in their bed, or that time their foot was nudged by a shark in the (otherwise) picture-perfect Pacific Ocean.

Australians are perhaps so used to the number of dangerous critters on their doorsteps that dealings with them are now just considered a way of life. The author Bill Bryson writes in his travelogue “Down Under” (known in North America as “In a Sunburned Country”) that locals he met describe the sting of the bluebottle jellyfish—commonly depicted as agonising —as just “a bit uncomfortable”.

This causes him to muse that an entirely new vocabulary has sprung up as a way to deal with all the toxicity and danger that exists in everyday life. This may be, but for the humble backpacker, finding a redback spider in one’s shoes can still be so heart-attack inducing that it becomes a story worth telling for the next ten years.

Another delightful addition in the menagerie is the funnel-web spider, one of Australia’s more infamous inhabitants. This family of spiders lives on the eastern coast and they are generally around 5 centimetres long. While not all are dangerous, the Sydney funnel-web has become something of an urban legend amongst Sydneysiders due to its aggressive nature and fast-acting venom.

Thirteen deaths are on record, although none since the arrival of the antivenom in 1981, which interestingly was discovered after the Australian Reptile Park started a venom-milking program to study its effects.

“We have not given our boys spider education intentionally because they don’t really seem to bother you,” Brisbane native Vikki Kay tells me. “For example, my great-uncle lives in the country and one time he had a visit from a ‘townie’. One night the visitor exclaimed that there was a redback climbing up the chair leg. So my uncle pulls his mattress up vertical, revealing a mass of redback webs in the bed frame! ‘If you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you!’ he said, though I doubt I’d have the strength of those convictions!”

About snakes and other creatures

Snakes, however, are a different story.

“My heart always jumps to my throat if I come across a snake,” Vikki continues, warming to the topic of Australia’s deadliest. “I think it’s because we are very much in their territory, and it doesn’t take much to get into bush that contains really dangerous snakes.

“Once when I was teaching in Rockhampton, a taipan crossed the yard and, realistically, if you had to rely upon an ambulance to get you to hospital in time, it might not work. Plus you’d need to positively identify the snake to receive the right antivenom.” Vikki is referring to the inland taipan, whose one bite contains enough poison to kill several people. But because this elusive snake lives only in the extreme deserts of Queensland, no deaths caused by its bite have ever been recorded.

Vikki’s husband, Paul, recalls many a camping trip where his torch would light up crocodile eyes. Crocodiles tend to strike fear into the hearts of visitors and locals alike, maybe because they have the most powerful bite of any species on Earth and can attack both in fresh water and the sea.

Perhaps the most well-known of Australia’s predators is the shark, of which the great white is most renowned and most misunderstood. Australian Geographic reports that great white sharks are responsible for just one death each year worldwide and are in fact endangered. The bull shark, however, is known for its aggression and claims a far higher toll. Both Paul and Vikki stress that despite growing up near to the sea, they’ve never been bothered by sharks, and Australia’s popular beaches are closely monitored.

You may encounter one of Australia’s other delights at sea, however, including sea snakes, scorpion fish, stonefish, fire fish, the cone shell snail, the blue-ringed octopus or the more deadly southern blue-lined octopus.

As much as these creatures make for good horror stories, they are also examples of what makes Australia so unique scientifically. This can be put down to the shifting of the Earth’s tectonic plates and the formation of new land masses, such as Australia, which sparked evolution to go in every direction.

The poverty of Australia’s landscape is considered to be the reason for the country’s diversity, which caused a process known as specialization. For example, certain soils will force plants to become tolerant of a certain aspect, thus prompting specialized insects, and then animals, Bryson writes. Some of these specializations have prompted marvellous examples of the weird and wonderful.

The box jellyfish, for instance, carries enough venom to kill a room full of people and yet eats only defenceless krill. Gigantic earth worms grow up to 12 feet long and are so large that you can hear them moving through the ground below. The biggest oddity of all is the platypus, a venomous, furry, semi-aquatic animal with a bill like a duck, a tail like a beaver, and the cloaca (an orifice for both reproduction and waste excretion) which has baffled the world for decades.

Best places

New South Wales

The Australia Museum in Sydney has an excellent natural history display, including a plant and animal identification centre, and its website is a good source of factual information.

The Sydney Aquarium is one of the world’s most extensive. The Oceanarium contains sharks more than 9 metres long, and there are over 6,000 creatures in the Great Barrier Reef Complex. Across the harbour is Taronga Zoo, one of the world’s best. A short drive from Sydney are the Blue Mountains, an impenetrable range best known as the home of the Wollemi Pine, or the world’s oldest tree species, whose nearest relation became extinct some 65 million to 200 million years ago. Learn more in Katoomba, the main town in the mountains.

Northern Territory

Near Darwin you can see ‘magnetic anthills’, which are actually termite mounds that are taller than people and baffle scientists. Nearby is Kakadu National Park, home to ancient aboriginal rock art, thousands of bird species, and a lot of crocodiles. Alice Springs Desert Park is world-renowned for its breeding programme focusing on Australia’s most vulnerable species, and it’s close to Uluru (Ayers Rock), one of the country’s most spectacular natural sights.

Western Australia

Rottnest Island, in Western Australia, is a sandy paradise and wildlife sanctuary. It is home to the indigenous quokka (relative of the wallaby), ospreys and snakes, and there are many opportunities to explore the coastline. Near to Broome is Gantheaume Point, where the tide exposes dinosaur footprints around 130 million years old. One of Australia’s most dramatic regions is the Kimberley, one of the most sparsely populated places on Earth. This area is filled with waterfalls, aboriginal rock art related to Ancient Egypt known as the Bradshaw Figures, and numerous reserves including the Bungle Bungles and Wolf Creek Crater Meteorite Reserve. Below Perth are the monstrous forests of Jarrah and Karri, while a treetop walk in the Valley of the Giants is spectacular. At Shark Bay you can spot manatees (sea cows) and one of the world’s only sites of living rocks, known as Stromatolites, an example of life 3.5 billion years ago.

Queensland

Daintree Forest is a tropical forest that harkens back to when the world was one land mass. One species of tree here dates back 100 million years and was, until 1972, thought to be extinct. This is one of the few places where you might spot a tree kangaroo or a cassowary. A visit to the Great Barrier Reef here has almost become mandatory for tourists.

South Australia

Flinders Chase National Park is free of predators, so animals have flourished without fear. Take a trip out to Dangerous Reef, where you can get up close to the endangered great white shark.

Victoria

Sherbrooke Forest Park contains huge mountain ash and fern trees, some as high as 20 storeys, and is also home to the infamous mimic, the lyrebird. The world’s smallest penguin, known as the fairy penguin, can be discovered on Phillip Island, which also has a visitor centre, an underwater viewing space and numerous viewing platforms. You can also see fur seals, koalas, and mutton birds ,among others. The Giant Worm Museum can be found in Gippsland.

New Species

Many of these new additions—including modern-day vehicles and farms—have caused a refashioning of the land’s soils and geology. Robyn Davidson, author of the novel “Tracks”, writes that the desert landscape has “been flogged by cattle and whacked out of kilter by introduced species [...] in just thirty years the landscape I knew so well would be refashioned to such an extent that I would find it difficult and painful to return” (2012).

She laments how sand tracks once left by native animals have been replaced by rabbit holes and fox prints, while invading foreign grass types have spread.

Life in Australia flourishes like nowhere else on the planet and, if you can look past the venom rating of many of its inhabitants, you will realise that Australia boasts some of the world’s strangest but most wonderful creations.

Where else might you encounter trees that date back 100 million years? Or reptiles that once looked at dinosaurs? And this is just brushing the surface. Tales abound of discoveries that were here one minute and gone the next, and the harsh interior has meant that a lot of the country still remains unexplored.

Snakes may hold the title of most deadly creature but what is Australia’s second? None other than the humble honeybee!

This article is not written to scare you off visiting this awe-inspiring land—this is a nation that 23 million people happily call home alongside its critters—but hopefully it will make you think about the fragility of the life there.

Adopting the Australian breezy attitude and casual motto that “she’ll be right, mate!” certainly won’t hurt when you do visit and find a redback in your shoe. Just shake it out, laugh and, maybe, write about it in a magazine called TeaTime-Mag.

Fact Box:

Safety: Seek immediate medical attention if you receive a bite or sting and if possible take the offender with you for identification. Swim between the flags on beaches, follow instructions if there is a shark alarm and take presented information seriously when visiting rivers. When beaches are closed due to jellyfish, heed the warnings. Simple steps to take involve common sense and a healthy amount of shoe/clothes shaking before use. In the event of a spider or snake bite, apply ice packs and follow the first aid method of “pressure and immobilisation in order to slow the lymphatic flow”. A rigid splint can be bound to the limb to prevent movement.




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Australia, Weird and Wonderful


Australia is a charming land full of deadly creatures. It is home to the world’s most lethal arachnids and many other weird and wonderful things. Australians are so used to the number of dangerous critters surrounding them that they barely notice them. But for visitors, an encounter with any of these can be quite scary.

Australia has more spiders than anywhere else in the world. The most common one is the redback spider, which often hides in shoes. However, spider deaths are not very common, if you don’t bother spiders, they will probably not bother you. But you should still be careful and regularly shake out your shoes before putting them on, just in case.

Snakes are also fairly common in Australia and there are many dangerous ones. The deadliest is the taipan, which has enough venom in it to kill several people. But there are no recorded deaths caused by its bite, since it lives only in the extreme deserts of Queensland.

Australia’s most well-known predator is found in its oceans: the shark. The great white shark is the most famous and feared shark, but it actually kills on average only one human a year, worldwide.

Other scary creatures found in Australia’s oceans include sea snakes, scorpion fish, stonefish, fire fish, the cone shell snail, the blue-ringed octopus, and the southern blue-lined octopus.

Although there are many deadly creatures in Australia, there are also many beautiful and fascinating things to visit, such as the oldest tree species and the only site of living rocks in the world. There are also beautiful non- threatening animals, like koalas and fairy penguins. So don’t be afraid to visit Australia, just pay attention to your surroundings and enjoy the beauty around you.

 

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Australia, Weird and Wonderful

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