Does Australia really have the deadliest snakes in the world?
Only if you analyse their venom in isolation, instead of looking at the whole picture.
Hello, let’s talk about deadly snakes! Bear with me I have a broader point.
So, non-Australians always want to talk about how many deadly snakes/spiders/sharks/jellyfish/etc we have.
And in one way it’s true. We have 20 of the 25 most venomous snakes. The inland taipan has just astonishingly toxic venom, more than any other snake in the world by a mile.
There are no recorded deaths attributed to the inland taipan.
It lives way out in the desert and it’s a very relaxed, peaceable snake.
So what do we mean when we say “deadly”?
Here’s a few factors:
- How aggressive is it?
- How high up can it bite? (Some snakes can raise up pretty high and hit you in the torso. Others are only going to be able to bite your leg, which buys you more time.)
- What percentage of its bites are “dry”? (Most brown snakes, which you do see around a bit if you live on a farm, only actually inject venom about half the time they bite. Black mambas, on the other hand, use venom every time.)
- Is there an antivenom? How effective is it? (People who receive black mamba antivenom still die 14% of the time.)
- Does it live where people live?
Australia is one of the most urbanised populaces on the planet. That means most snakes don’t live near people, and the people who do get bitten are usually close to a hospital. And that hospital will be well-funded by global standards.
So how deadly are our snakes? They’ve killed 35 people in the past 20 years. And in 20% of those cases, the victim was trying to pick up the snake.
Compare that to the saw-scaled viper, which kills 5,000 people in India every year (and more in Africa, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, etc.) Less toxic venom, but a rural population — higher exposure to snakes, lower access to healthcare.
The common krait kills 10,000 a year, again, just in India. The Indian cobra kills 15,000 people per year.
Obviously India has a significantly higher population than Australia, but even per capita, it’s hard to argue India doesn’t have much, much deadlier snakes.
Our other animals are pretty similar.
There has been no recorded death by funnel-web spider bite (the supposed deadliest in the world) since an antivenom was developed in 1982. Redback: 1 death in 60 years. Shark attack: 15 (horrible) deaths in the last 20 years.
Someone is killed by a crocodile every year or two in Australia. The Nile crocodile kills hundreds of people in Africa every year. Again, croc/human population overlap, access to healthcare, different lifestyles (people in Africa need to access rivers for day-to-day living. In Australia it’s basically recreational). Even saltwater croc attacks, same species, result in death half as often in Australia as they do in South-East Asia, presumably because of medical infrastructure.
My broader point, which I did say I’d get to, is that a snake’s deadliness is not an intrinsic property of the snake (and *certainly* not an intrinsic property of the venom, divorced from the snake’s behaviour).
This is true of not just snakes but basically every trait, positive or negative. You can’t separate a thing out from the system it operates in.