Reality bites: what should we really fear?

Our country is renowned for having some of the world’s deadliest animals, but stats say that our fears are overblown.

Bluebottles, funnel-webs, and red-bellied black snakes. Nonsense to the rest of the world, enough to send shivers down locals’ spines.

Australia is renowned worldwide for its deadly critters, but statistics show that chance of a fatal encounter is slimmer than your imagination might lead you to believe. The reality is that more probable risks to our well-being are the ones we face day in, day out.

We look at some of the events more likely to claim your life than the animals we fear most: sharks, snakes and spiders.

Cows in Australia
Bessie is not so sweet. Cows killed more humans than sharks, snakes, and spiders combined in 2001–2010.

Sharknado: not coming to a beach near you

A fear of being Jaws’ next victim is understandable: statistically, Australia is a global hotspot for attacks, beaten only by the US in numbers.1 With WA live Tweeting updates on hundreds of tagged sharks2 and sightings making the news, it can be easy to imagine that our coast is infested with these predators.

However, the actual numbers tell a different story. In our waters, there were a total of 33 recorded attacks in 2015 and two deaths.3 Looking over decades of shark attack stats, about one quarter are fatal and on average one person a year is killed.

Practice safe swimming and heed all warnings at the beach to avoid your chance of a shark attack and – of course – “selfie” responsibly.

Sharks in Australia
Shark attacks are less common than we might believe: only two people were killed by them in Australian waters last year.

Anthropophobia: snakes suffer irrational fear of humans

Being on dry land doesn’t necessarily make us feel safer. Home to the world’s “most venomous snake”, Australia’s inland taipan can kill 250,000 lab mice with venom from one bite.4 While phobias of snakes are common (and perhaps not surprising with that fact in mind!) and there are around 3,000 snake bites every year in Australia, only one or two cases a year are fatal.5

In total 14 people died from venomous snake bites between 2001–2010.6

Generally, snakes try to keep out of our way. The best advice? Leave them alone and give them space! If you’re scared of them, you won’t need much encouragement to stay back. 

If creepy-crawlies give you the heebie-jeebies…

Along with snakes, it seems that arachnophobia (a fear of spiders) is an evolutionary trait (a 2008 study found that our ability to spot snakes and spiders has been key to our survival as a species).8

Tales of Australia’s eight-legged are far-reaching, and for good reason: red backs, funnel-webs and the non-deadly9 (yet terrifying) huntsman are feared worldwide.1 More than 10,000 species of spider live across Australia,1 spinning webs in our homes, the bush, and even the backyard pool. For this reason, our chance of encounter with a venomous spider is actually quite high.

But that’s pretty much where risk stops. A death in April 2016 was the first recorded spider-related fatality since 1981.11

Red Back Spider
Red backs are notoriously venomous, but Australian spiders have been responsible for just one death since 1981.10

Real dangers don’t necessarily have fangs

It’s human nature to be alert to danger, but perception of risk is strongly influenced by what we see on the news and the stories we hear. “Dramatic” or “unusual” events are topics of conversation, and this causes us to overestimate their likelihood of happening to us, says Professor John Dunn, from the University of Adelaide’s School of Psychology.11 When you look at actual statistics, Australia’s deadliest aren’t living up to their reputations.

Instead, real threats to our well-being are likely to be closer to home. Taking care with the day-to-day, as well as exercising caution in the habitats of snakes, sharks and spiders, can help avoid unexpected illness or injury.

Knowing that life’s unpredictable and planning for worst case scenarios can protect you or your family in the event of the unexpected.


  1. Map of World’s Confirmed Unprovoked Shark Attacks, 1580–PresentFlorida Museum of Natural History
  2. Shark ActivitySharkSmart
  3. Australian Shark Attack File Annual Report Summary for 2015Taronga Conservation Society of Australia
  4. Why Are Some Snakes So Venomous?The Conversation
  5. Australian Snake BitesThe University of Sydney Discipline of Anaesthesia
  6. Animal Related DeathsNational Coronial Information System
  7. Staying Safe from SnakesSouthern NSW Local Health District
  8. Why we fear snakesLive Science
  9. Spider FactsAustralian Museum
  10. Australian spiders: the 10 most dangerousAustralian Geographic
  11. Here are the animals REALLY most likely to kill you in AustraliaAustralian Geographic

Posted: 23 Mar 2017

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