Australian wildlife, by popular account, so brims with venom that the average Outback spider could dispatch you with an octuple-eyed glare. The description for the National Geographic show “Australia’s Deadliest Attacks,” for instance, reads: “Whether it walks, crawls, swims or hops, even the unlikeliest animal could be one of Australia’s killers.”
It is true that strange and potent fauna thrive on the island continent. Biologists consider the box jellyfish, found floating off of Australia’s shores, to be the most toxic marine animal on the planet. The skin of this jellyfish is studded with cells known as nematocysts, which explode to release barbs containing chemicals strong enough to arrest a human heart within minutes.
But such factoids, along with nature shows and headlines about ill-fated animal encounters, promote a particular narrative: That Australia is, as University of Melbourne public health expert Ronelle Welton described it to The Washington Post, “the epicenter of everything venomous.”
In reality, Australian animals are venomous — but they very rarely kill, according to research Welton and her colleagues recently conducted. Their report, to be published in an upcoming issue of Internal Medicine Journal, reviewed hospitalizations and deaths from venomous Australian animals between 2000 and 2013. Based on medical admission data, coroners’ findings and autopsy reports, the scientists determined that venomous bites and stings hospitalized more than 41,000 people over those 13 years — an admission rate of 199 people per 100,000 in the population. Venom killed 64 people during the same time period.
The results surprised even Welton. “I was expecting to see larger numbers,” she told The Post by phone early Thursday. “Just the number of people hospitalized, I thought, would be a lot larger.” By way of comparison, the researcher noted that there were 5,000 drownings and nearly 1,000 lethal burns in the same time period.
In broad terms the study described “what is venomous and what is dangerous,” Welton said. “There is, potentially, a very big distinction.” It was the first such national report of its kind, perhaps because Welton’s team was the first to ask such a broad question; most venom research in Australia focuses on clinical management, prevention and first aid.
Allergic reactions to bee and wasp stings — not the insect venom itself — were responsible for a third of the hospital admissions. More than half of the reported deaths, too, stemmed from anaphylactic shock after an insect bite or sting triggered a reaction.
Spider bites caused 30 percent of hospital admissions, but these arachnids killed no one during the 13-year period. The last recorded death from a funnel web spider was in 1980, before the development of antidotes, Welton said. A red back spider killed an Australian citizen in 1999, but medical responders failed to use antivenom as they did not recognize the spider bite.
Venomous snakes were to blame for 15 percent of admissions in Australia. They caused the most fatalities per hospitalization, with a total of 27 deaths during the time period studied by the report.
“There is so much hysteria and exaggeration surrounding Australian venomous animals that this is a refreshing bit of intellectual fresh air,” said Bryan Fry, a venom expert at the University of Queensland who was not involved in the study, via email. “The key here is that the numbers are spectacularly low compared to India, for example.” People living in India, Northern Africa and other areas of the developing world are more likely to encounter vipers, and, conversely, have worse access to antivenom and emergency care.
And what about Australia’s barb-slinging, super-toxic box jellyfish? Responsible for taking three lives, the study found — the same number of deaths as tick bites. Australian ants caused two fatalities.
Welton told The Post that, although the study did not explore causes behind the statistics, the large disparity between the number of hospitalizations and deaths may stem from Australia’s “very high class, accessible and affordable” health-care system. “We have a very good health-care system,” she said. “You can get to a hospital very quickly.”
In the way that Americans living in bear country know to carry pepper spray and to only play dead around defensive grizzlies, Australians have a healthy appreciation for the animals that share their island. In fact, snakes killed on average just two people a year in Australia; this rate is roughly equal to the number of yearly grizzly bear injuries in the United States. (For Americans wary of the Australian menagerie, Welton pointed out: “You have bears. Our mammals are wimpy.”) Signs warning swimmers to beware of jellyfish are not uncommon at Australia’s northern beaches. A nylon bodysuit is reportedly thick enough to repel a jelly’s missiles, giving rise to a cottage industry in stinger suits.
Exaggerated, too, are rumors of aggressive wildlife on the prowl Down Under. Many of the venomous animals found in Australia are small in size, opting to flee rather than attack if spooked. “I would happily go camping in the Outback of Australia,” Welton said. “Our critters don’t come after you.”
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