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Five of Australia's Most Venomous Creatures
As an Australian, I find that I sometimes travel abroad and strike up a conversation about my life with locals, only to receive the ‘Australia, you mean the “Isle of Death?" ' look, and to watch in despair as the aforementioned locals back slowly away, shielding their horrified faces behind hands that are firmly interlocked in the shape of a crucifix … Okay, I may be exaggerating slightly, but it seems that, from movies and TV to reality, Australia does have a reputation for brutal ‘beasts’ and creepy critters, sometimes even eclipsing our cute and cuddly marsupials with their infamy. This reputation, I’ll admit, is not entirely undeserved, but it is certainly – to my mind anyway – blown a little out of proportion. However, I’ll let you all decide for yourselves with five of Australia’s most venomous creatures:
1. Inland Taipan
The inland taipan, colloquially known as the 'Fierce Snake' and verbosely labelled Oxyuranus microlepidotus, is a creature native to the arid centre of Australia. A relatively shy animal despite the fact that it carries venom surpassing all other snake species in potency, it utilises cracks and fissures in the dry soil as a means of escape from heat and predators. It is predicted that a single drop of the inland taipan’s venom is sufficient to kill 100 men, and indeed, without medical treatment, it may prove fatal in less than 45 minutes. The pre- and postsynaptic neurotoxins engender muscle weakness or paralysis, whilst the presence of procoagulants can interfere with blood clotting, causing major bleeding. Usually around 1.8 metres in length and generally a plain brown colour, the inland taipan may not look particularly fascinating, but, for reasons we’ve already established, don’t let it hear you say it! The good news, however (and yes, there is some), is that its shy nature, coupled with its arid, remote habitat, rarely places it in contact with humans. To date there have been no recorded deaths, and the few sustained bites have all been successfully treated with prompt medical attention.
2. Blue-Ringed Octopus
The blue-ringed octopus is a name referring to the genus Hapalochlaena, describing a number of species that inhabit waters around Australia, Japan, and some Pacific Islands, generally dwelling down to a depth of 50m. How exactly does Hapalochlaena convert to ‘blue-ringed?' you ask. The answer’s simple: these four-six centimeter long octopuses all possess bright blue markings across their bodies, strikingly displaying them just prior to a dispersion of venom. See, Australian animals aren’t so bad. They give you ample warning before attack (much needed warning in the case of such a small, venomous creature), and are striking to look at … is what I wish I could say to console you. Whilst the latter part of the statement is quite correct, the former may not be, as it seems that by the time one receives the ‘blue-ringed’ warning, one has already fallen prey to the toxic creature. Just how toxic … well, very. It produces the chemical tetrodotoxin, paralyzing prey by blocking the transmission of messages through nerves. Such paralysis shuts down the respiratory muscles, however, the victim remains fully conscious, meaning that constant resuscitation for several hours until the toxins have been naturally excreted from the body will often result in a full recovery. The good news: due to it reclusive nature, only three or four deaths have actually been recorded from this creature, and they will usually only bite if provoked. The bad news: The blue-ringed octopus contains enough venom to kills 26 adults within minutes. If bitten you will (at least temporarily) die and be entirely reliant upon constant resuscitation, not to mention that their small size and often painless bites make recognition of their attack quite difficult in the first place. My advice: Stay out of the water.
3. Box Jellyfish
If the blue-ringed octopus didn’t offer enough incentive to avoid the ocean, perhaps the box jellyfish, also known as the sea wasp, will provide you with sufficient motive. Inhabiting the waters of Northern Australia and extending into Indonesia, this creature, like the blue-ringed octopus, is considered to be one of the deadliest in the world, almost invisible and carrying enough venom to kill roughly 60 adults. Unlike the octopus, however, its sting is so excruciatingly painful that some swimmers have been known to drown from shock upon contact with the tentacles, which are numerous and can grow up to three metres in length. By punching holes in red blood cells, leading to the rapid leakage of potassium, the toxins of the box jellyfish can cause cardiac arrest in a matter of minutes – before the swimmer has even made it back to shore. By observing the warning signs and staying out of the water during stinger season (approximately November through to June), swimmers have a much higher chance of enjoying Australian waters, and it may be the observance of such warnings that result in the relatively few deaths (only one or two annually) from this dangerous animal.
4. Funnel-Web Spider
Australia is known for its deadly snakes and spiders, but the latter category, in fact, tends not to be too devastating. Indeed, the red-back spider, perhaps the most recognised Australian arachnid due to its striking colour and infamy for hiding under the lids of old outback toilet seats, is not as venomous as one might think, and although it causes much pain and is a highly received spider bite, medical treatment is often unnecessary. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the Australian funnel-web spider, the most dangerous of which appears to be the Atrax robustus, an aggressive, dark brown or black creature inhabiting the state of New South Wales. Although absent from the females’ venom, the males’ venom contains Robustoxin, particularly affecting the human nervous system by opening sodium channels, causing repetitive firing of motor neurons. Although especially toxic to humans and primates, the venom of the funnel-web spider appears largely harmless to many other animals and, since the introduction of the antivenom in the early eighties, has thankfully failed to claim any more human lives.
That’s right, we’re back in the ocean with a deadly, well disguised creature known as the stonefish (Synanceia verrucosa). So called because of its brown hue, allowing it to flawlessly mimic a submerged rock or encrusted clump of coral, its thirteen deadly dorsal spines are made all the more dangerous to unwitting waders who, in pausing for a break, may end up being envenomated with toxins that can kill in as little as two hours. Containing a mixture of enzymes and non-enzymatic proteins, the venom of the stonefish is considered to make it the most venomous fish in the world and, inhabiting the waters of the Indo-Pacific, it is thought to have been responsible for the deaths of many native islanders. Whilst the development of an antivenom has made deaths in Australia unlikely, the sting is reported to cause excruciating pain, which might be enough to make you pause before seeking out that harmless rock as a comfortable foothold.
So there you have it: Five of the most venomous creatures Australia has to offer, but perhaps also five of the least likely to actually enter your line of vision, let alone administer their fatal toxins. I’ll let you be the judge, but I hope that this has helped you to conclude that Australia is a safe … well, er … relatively safe continent.