Australia has an unfair reputation when it comes to our wildlife. Are the animals really that bad? The answer is an emphatic no. We dug into the stories and found some science refuting many of the myths.
1. Myth - Australia’s Snakes Will Kill Me
Venomous snakes live across much of Australia but—as with most wild animals—they live mostly in bushland areas. Occasionally red-bellied-black and eastern brown snakes are found in urban areas, but these encounters are rare, and snakes tend to shy away from humans.
The numbers are telling. Every year, worldwide snakebites kill between 81,000 and 138,000 people and cause long-lasting disabilities in another 400,000 people, according to research published in the Lancet. But those people are primarily in Africa and Asia. One reason for these numbers is that many residents of Africa and Asia live in prime snake habitat and they lack access to anti-venom treatments.
Only two people per year die in Australia from snakebite, according to The Australian Snakebite Project.
Five to ten times more people die while riding horses than from snake bites, according to Safe Work Australia. And the cause for deaths that do occur is often people showing off and handling venomous snakes or people reaching into holes.
Also, snakes are shy retreating animals, and they’ll slither away from you as quickly as possible when you approach. The most important thing you need to do when there is a snake around is stand still until it has passed, then slowly move away from it—it’s that simple.
2. Myth - Australia has Deadly Sharks Everywhere
Certainly, sharks are found throughout the world’s oceans. But when it comes to getting bitten by a shark, Australia is not one of the top places. In fact, Florida in the United States leads the world—by a long shot—in terms of shark bites.
According to the International Shark Attack File (ISAF), in 2019 there were only 73 unprovoked attacks worldwide and 39 provoked attacks. (See below for definitions.)*,**
“For decades, Florida has topped global charts in the number of shark bites, and this trend continued in 2021”, an ISAF report said. “Florida’s 28 cases represent 60 per cent of the U.S. total and 38 per cent of unprovoked bites worldwide. This is consistent with Florida’s most recent five-year annual average of 25 incidents.” During the same time period (2019), Australia saw a total of 12 unprovoked attacks—resulting in three fatalities. (Surprisingly Florida had no fatalities.)
Additionally, Australia has a robust programme of shark-spotting from the air as well as offshore netting that thwarts sharks’ attempts to get close to popular swimming areas. According to Time magazine, there has not been a fatal attack on a netted beach in Queensland since nets were introduced in the 1960s.
*“Unprovoked bites”—incidents in which a bite on a live human occurs in the shark’s natural habitat with no human provocation of the shark.
**“Provoked bites”—when a human initiates interaction with a shark in some way, including harassing or trying to touch sharks, bites on spearfishers, bites on people attempting to feed sharks, bites occurring while unhooking or removing a shark from a fishing net and so forth.
3. Myth - Most Australian Spiders (Which Are Everywhere) Could Kill Me
This myth is truly off the mark. There are an estimated 10,000 species of spider in Australia, but two species get all the credit for being scary: the redback and the funnel web. However, encounters with those species are few and far between.
According to University of Newcastle researcher Dr. Geoffry Isbister, “In Australia and the USA, bee and wasp stings account for many more deaths than spider bites. A recent review from Australia identified 45 deaths from bee and wasp stings during a 20-year period (1979–98). During the same period there were no deaths from spider bites. In fact, only 26 deaths from spiders have been recorded in Australia in the past century.”
Another study, undertaken by Dr. Ronelle Welton of the University of Melbourne and her colleagues, looked at records from hospital admissions and coroners from 2000 to 2013. The study found horses were responsible for 74 reported deaths between 2000 and 2013, while bees and other stinging insects were blamed for 27 deaths. Snakes were responsible for 27 fatalities. Not a single death was linked to spiders.
4. Myth - Crocodiles Can Catch Me Even if I’m Running
Wrong! Crocodiles running at their top speeds have been recorded in various research efforts and according to researchers, “They top out at about 12 mph [19 kph] on land, and they can only do it for a really short period of time—for maybe 20 or 25 metres”, noted crocodile scholar Evon Hekkala of Fordham University.
A very fast human walker can reach speeds of about 18 or 19 kilometres per hour on land. So, even a fast crocodile cannot keep up with the much faster human.
However, in the water it’s a different story. Crocodiles have been recorded moving as fast as 32 kilometres per hour in the water. Humans are much slower in water, obviously.
There are a few basic rules to keep yourself safe if you travel to croc country:
• Never swim in water where crocodiles may live even if there is no warning sign. Only swim in designated safe swimming areas.
• Obey all crocodile warning signs—they are there for your safety and protection.
• Always keep a watch for crocodiles. They will see you before you see them.
• Never provoke, harass, or interfere with crocodiles, even small ones.
• Never feed crocodiles—it is illegal and dangerous.
• Be extra vigilant around water at night and during the breeding season from September to April.
4a. Myth - Crocodiles Are Dumb
Researchers have found that crocodiles have complex social systems and can be trained like a dog. Using a clicking device, researchers trained crocodiles to come when they need veterinary treatment and food.
5. Myth - If We Swim in the Ocean We Will Be Killed by Box Jellyfish
There are about 50 species of box jellyfish. And yes, one species of box jellyfish (Chironex fleckeri) has the most toxic venom of all the creatures on Earth. They do live in waters off Australia’s northern coasts—typically north of Geraldton, Western Australia and Bundaberg in Queensland (majority of visitors to Australia visit destinations south of these places). And they are present in the water more during October to May. People have died in northern waters due to box jellyfish stings, but deaths are uncommon.
When a box jellyfish’s tentacles drag across skin, fish scales, or other types of living surfaces, the venom-filled stinging cells are automatically activated. When the same tentacles are dragged across synthetic materials, the activation doesn’t occur. So, the best way to avoid being stung by a box jellyfish is to dress for it. Lycra and neoprene (wetsuit material) can protect swimmers from being stung should you encounter a box jellyfish. These suits are called ‘stinger’ suits.
Prevention is always better than the sure. Avoid areas where box jellyfish are known to be. Talk to locals, watch for warning signs. Swim only at beaches where there are lifeguards who might be able to help you if you are stung. Wear shoes. And consider bringing medical emergency materials just in case—notably a bottle of vinegar.
6. Myth - Magpies Will Peck out My Eyes
Magpies do swoop and can injure humans. A five-month-old girl died when her mother fell while being swooped in 2021 and a cyclist crashed his bike and died while being swooped in 2019, but only in rare instances have magpies actually hurt someone.
The reason for swooping? In a study, researchers from Griffith University studied the behaviour of 10 aggressive (male-female) pairs of magpies with the behaviour of 10 non-aggressive pairs of magpies under three hypotheses: territoriality, brood-defence, and testosterone. The birds studied were in southeast Queensland.
“Behavioural observations strongly supported the contention that attacks on humans resemble brood-defence and did not support an association with territoriality”, the researchers wrote. In other words, it’s because the birds have chicks in a nearby nest. Since nesting sites for magpies are apparently a rare commodity, they are often used over and over again for years. So, defending that nest is part of the job for parent birds.
The best thing to do if you encounter a swooping magpie is to walk slowly away from the area. Magpies have been found to more readily attack you if you move quickly because they perceive a fast-moving creature as a greater threat. That’s why cyclists and runners are more often targeted.
7. Myth - If the Box Jellyfish Doesn’t Kill Me a Blue-ringed Octopus Will
Despite their lethality and their often proximity to humans, blue-ringed octopus bites are extremely rare. According to a report in Clinical Toxicology, only three deaths have ever been reported worldwide, two in Australia and one in Singapore.
Blue-ringed octopuses are highly venomous, and a bite has enough venom to kill 20 people or more within minutes, but the blue-ringed octopus is one of the smallest threats humans face in the ocean.
One problem with blue-ringed octopuses is that they tend to live in tidal pools where children often search for tidal creatures like small fish and crabs. But, although they live in the neighbourhood, so to speak, blue-ringed octopuses are shy, retiring creatures and they are reportedly not particularly aggressive. Bites can occur when the octopus feel threatened.
The best way to avoid them is to avoid putting fingers and toes into small niches and holes in rocks where they like to hide. Blue-ringed octopuses are extremely small—just a few inches in size—and they like to keep hidden.
8. Myth - Drop Bears Will Attack From Above
One myth that seems to get a lot of play is that of the mysterious “drop bear”. In one telling, drop bears are a carnivorous sub-species of koala bears that hang out in native Australian trees and attack humans by dropping onto their heads. They then haul their catch back up the tree and eat it there.
There is no such thing as a drop bear.
These supposed dangerous animals are described by the Australian Museum thus: “Around the size of a leopard or very large dog with coarse orange fur with some darker mottled patterning (as seen in most koalas). The creature is told as a heavily built animal with powerful forearms for climbing and holding on to prey. It lacks canines, using broad powerful premolars as biting tools instead”.
The museum states that drop bears can grow as big as 120 kilos and as long as 130 centimetres. And research has shown they only attack foreign tourists. One researcher described the drop bear habitat as “primarily … in the nightmares of tourists in Australia”.
Kangaroos, wombats, koalas - these are the animals you are most likely to encounter on our Australian adventure trips. Don't let the myths hold you back from exploring some of our greatest wilderness regions.