On the deadly scale, the continent of North America is somewhere in the middle. Probably even on the safe side. But don’t let that lul you into a false sense of security. There are quite a few dangerous animals both big and small roaming the wilds of the USA and Canada.
To cram in the most deadly animal action into this one article I have put some of these animals into groups. Also, I didn’t want the actual statistics to get in the way of a good story so I have thrown all those together too. And one more thing, I have resisted that pet hate of mine where the sanctimonious author tells us, shock horror, “man is the deadliest animal”. Yawn!
North America is home to a number of potentially dangerous, even deadly, species of spiders. Until recently the most infamous of these were the black widow spiders (Latrodectus). This was for very good reason, the venom of the black widow is the second strongest of all spiders. As little as 0.05mg of the powerful neurotoxin can be deadly and 36 deaths were recorded from black widow spider bites between 1965 and 1990.
More recently the brown recluse spider (Loxosceles) or fiddleback has gained itself a reputation. These spiders are fairly common throughout America and generally not aggressive. However, the venom of these spiders is necrotic or flesh eating. A quick search on the internet will reveal lots of pretty horrific looking injuries with large areas of skin and flesh destroyed around the bite.
Whilst these bites are notoriously slow to heal, they are unlikely to prove deadly.
Another notorious species is the Hobo spider which is a closely related to the common house spider. Whilst the bite can be unpleasant and cause a nasty sore it is rarely considered dangerous.
Like spiders scorpions are arachnids. And also like spiders they also have potent venom. The scorpions primary weapon is its stinger on the end of the tail which they use to inject venom into prey or predators. Scorpions are also armed with pincers although these can’t do much damage to a human. It is often said that the smaller the pincers, the more powerful the venom. This seems to be the case with the USA’s most dangerous species, the Arizona bark scorpion.
Measuring less than 3 inches (7.5cm) in length this bark scorpion Centruroides exilicauda has a potentially lethal sting. The neurotoxic venom is known to cause severe pain described as like electric jolts by victims. In serious cases numbness, vomiting and diarrhoea may follow, and possibly death. During the 1980s more than 800 people were killed in Mexico by the bark scorpion.
There are around 60 species of scorpions found in the deserts of California and Arizona most of which only present a small danger. The Arizona Hairy Scorpion (Hadrurus arizonesis) can deliver a painful sting as can the Stripe-tailed Scorpion (Vaejovis spinigerus), but the biggest danger here is the risk of an allergic reaction.
8. American Bison
Given the size and power of the American bison it is little surprise they have proven deadly to humans. Standing nearly 6ft (1.9m) tall and weighing in at up to 1.5 tons these are the biggest land animals in America. They are on slightly smaller than the African water buffalo which are nicknamed the “black death” or “widowmaker” as they kill hundreds of people every year. Fortunately the bison has a much less aggressive temperament and requires at least some provocation. But when it does attack the results can be devastating.
Bison are remarkably fast for their size and have been known to run at up to 40 mph (60 km/h) – that’s much faster than the 28 mph achieved by the world’s fastest sprinters. Being hit by one in full charge would be like getting run over by a truck.
Between 1980 and 1999 79 people were injured by bison in Yellowstone National Park; that’s more than the 24 bear attacks in the same period. Injuries ranged from goring puncture wounds to broken bones and in some cases death.
The scientist who named this beast didn’t want us to be in any doubt that this is in fact a bison – the scientific name is Bison bison bison, yep thats bison times three!
7. Wolves & Coyotes
Wolves have long occupied a special place in the human psyche. This goes way back into history when wolf packs in Europe did pose a potential threat to people with around 10 deaths a year in France alone during the 16th and 17th century.
The gray wolf (Canis lupus) is the largest of the wolves and is found throughout Canada, the northern USA and Alaska. They can weigh up to 90lbs (40kg) and hunt in packs of up to 40 wolves. As a rule wolves are not common in populated areas so this greatly reduces interaction with humans. They usually do not regard humans as potential food either, however there are circumstances where this may be more likely. If wolves lose their fear of humans through habituation, or if in large groups they may be more inclined to attack. A predatory attack by wolves typically involves repeated bites to the head and face after which the victim is dragged some distance away to be eaten – usually starting with the abdominal cavity.
It has been suggested that wolf attacks are on the increase in North America with wolves possibly becoming more aggressive. Since 2000 there have been 2 fatal attacks, one in Canada and one Alaska.
Coyotes are significantly smaller than wolves but have been linked to a number of fatal attacks over the years. Most attacks have taken place in California, around Los Angeles with 160 attacks recorded between 1976 and 2006. They present the greatest risk to small children and there have been numerous cases of coyotes attempting to take children under the age of 5. There has only been one case of an adult being killed by coyotes and that was 19 year old folk singer, Taylor Mitchell, who was killed by a pack of at least six in 2009 in Canada.
6. Mountain Lions
The mountain lion goes by several names, most commonly the puma or cougar. It is native to much of the N American west coast from Canada down. Despite its name it is more closely related to the domestic pet cat than the lion. But that probably makes them more dangerous; imagine a family cat the size of a football player and that’s what we are talking about. The biggest cougars recorded have weighed 300lbs (136kg) and measured 9ft (2.7m) from nose-to-tail. That’s a big pussy cat!
Able to run at up to 50 mph (75 km/h) and a very capable climber the mountain lion is a formidable predator. Its natural prey include deer, elk, moose as well as livestock. Typically the cougar kills its prey with a bite to the back of the neck, aiming to position its canine teeth between the vertebrae and into the spinal cord. This is the same method these big cats have employed when attacking humans.
As a rule mountain lions will avoid contact with humans and do not see us as prey. However, there is an increasing overlap in habitats and this is reflected in an increase in attacks. Between 1890 and 1990 there were 10 fatal attacks in North America, yet in the next 14 years alone the total number of deaths had doubled. Many attacks have occurred in California but the highest concentration has been on Vancouver Island, Canada.
If confronted by a cougar the advice is very different to that for bears. Instead of avoiding eye contact and behaving submissively the advice is to make eye contact and shout, i.e. confront the animal. Remaining quiet and still may be seen as weakness and encourage an attack. If attacked fight back, hard.
5. Alligators & crocodiles
Just looking at one of these brutes should tell you they are potentially very dangerous. Commonly measuring over 15 feet (4.6m) in length and weighing around half a ton these offer a glimpse into the world of the dinosaurs. The jaws of the alligator are incredibly powerful and it has been recorded as having the strongest laboratory-measured bite of any living animal. It uses this incredible power to grip its prey, but can also bite through turtle shells and crush bones.
Alligators are opportunistic apex predators. They will basically eat anything they come across, although they do not seem to regard humans as prey. The preferred diet consists of animals that can be swallowed in a single bite be they fish, birds, mammals or whatever. They are known to tackle prey as large as deer which they kill by dragging into the water to drown. As they have no slicing teeth different approaches are required to eat larger prey. One method is to store the carcass and allow it to rot. The other is to engage in a “death roll” in which the crocodile grips the prey and spins and shakes it violently ripping of bite sized chunks in the process.
Alligators are known to commonly ambush prey out of the water and are able to run at great speed in short bursts.
In recent years the number of attacks on humans has increased as people encroach more into alligator territory. The average number of deaths each year is around 2 to 3 nearly all of which have occurred in Florida. Whilst most deaths from alligator attacks are the result of drowning there is also a serious risk of infection from a bite, which in at least one recorded case resulted in a subsequent death.
As well as alligators there is an American crocodile which is found in Mexico, the Caribbean and southern Florida. This is even bigger than the American alligator with specimens up to 20ft (6.1m) and weighing almost a ton being recorded. Fortunately it is note highly aggressive and rarely takes large prey.
This is where North America really excels. The waters off both Pacific and Atlantic coasts are home to some of the largest and most dangerous sharks on the planet. And it’s not just the USA; the largest great white shark ever caught was landed off Canada. All of the “big three” man-eating species can be found off the North American coast; the great white, tiger shark and bull shark are all native and have all notched up a number of deadly attacks. In fact the USA is the shark attack capital of the world accounting for nearly half the reported attacks globally.
There are regional differences in the species involved in attacks with most occurring in Florida and California. In California every recorded fatality has been attributed to great white sharks, and these have occurred the length of the coast, particularly north of San Francisco. In Florida the majority of fatal attacks are carried out by bull sharks and to a lesser extent tiger sharks. New Smyrna Beach in Florida is reputedly the most likely place to be attacked by a shark in the world according to ISAF. One estimate suggests that anyone that has swum here will have been as close as 10ft (3m) from a shark.
Other states have also had their fair share of attacks with Texas and the Carolinas being next on the list. If you include Hawaii in the North American statistics then this has a high number of deadly attacks, all attributed to tiger sharks. Surfers are still the number one dish on the menu throughout the United States.
There are quite a few species of venomous snake in North America several of which pose a genuine danger to humans. It is estimated that there are somewhere between 5-8,000 bites from venomous snakes every years in the USA, resulting in 5 deaths. This number would be much higher if it wasn’t for the availability of antivenoms.
Best known of America’s deadly snakes are the rattlesnakes. Their name comes from the specialised rattle at the end of their tail which they shake as a warning signal. So uniquely American is the rattler that it was almost chosen as the national animal of the USA instead of the bald eagle. There are several species of rattlesnake varying in size from around 18 inches (45cm) up to well over 6ft (2m). Amongst the most dangerous are the diamondbacks. These are large, quite aggressive and have a powerful haemotoxic venom capable of causing intense pain and serious tissue damage. Symptoms include swelling, severe pain, weakness, nausea and eventually, in some cases, heart failure. If this is the case, death occurs between 6 and 48 hours after a bite.
Rattlesnakes are pit vipers – they have special heat sensitive pits on their faces that allow them to detect warm-blooded prey at night. Another of America’s most notorious snakes, the cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus) is also a pit viper. The cottonmouth inhabits the swamplands of the deep south and gets its name from the white inside of its mouth which it shows as a threat. The venom of the cottonmouth is a tissue destroying haemotoxin and bites are prone to infections such as gangrene.
The most venomous of all North American snakes is the coral snake. A member of the cobra family these snakes are recognisable by their alternating black, red and yellow bands. Although less than 4ft (1.3m) in length the coral snake has a deadly neurotoxic venom capable of causing respiratory paralysis in the victim and hence, suffocation. However, there are several reasons these snakes are not as infamous as the pit vipers. Firstly they are shy and not aggressive – they account for only 1% of the snake bites recorded in the US. Also, they have quite an inefficient venom delivery system and have to hold on for few seconds to envenomate their prey. The antivenom for the coral snake is effective too and the death rate from bites has reduced from 10% to virtually zero.
There are three species of bears native to North America, all of which are potentially highly dangerous. They are the black bear (Ursus americanus), the brown bear (Ursus arctos) and the polar bear (Ursus maritimus).
Of all three it is the brown bear that has the worst reputation and more specifically the grizzly bear. Even the scientific name suggests it might be trouble – Ursus arctos horribilis. Although responsible for less attacks than the black bear these are generally more serious. This is largely due to the grizzly’s greater size, aggression and territorial nature. Weighing in at around five times the weight of a human and almost 10 feet (3m) tall in some cases these are big animals. They are incredibly powerful, equipped with strong jaws and five inch long, lethally sharp claws. When attacking the grizzly will stand on its hind legs towering above the victim. It has been reported that the bear will attempt to “disarm” the victim by clamping on to their lower jaw, preventing biting back. With jaws capable of crushing a bowling ball and 1.5 inch (4cm) teeth the results of this can be devastating.
Humans aren’t on the grizzly’s menu and they will usually avoid contact. However, habituation to humans can remove their natural fear and increase the risk of conflict. Should you ever be attacked by a bear the first thing to remember is never run, bears are very fast – up to 40 mph (60 km/h) and they will chase. Also, avoid eye contact and slowly back away. If the worst comes to the worst, play dead and try to protect your head and neck.
If you want to be proactive about escaping bear attacks you can forget guns too – use bear spray. This has proven 92% effective compared to only 67% with guns. Stopping an angry grizzly with a bullet is harder than it sounds.
Black bears are actually responsible for more attacks than grizzly bears. The main reason is there are more of them and they live closer to populated areas. Attacks can be deadly; in one particular case a black bear killed 3 teenagers who were fishing in Algonquin Park in Canada. The advice on how to respond to an attack is different for black bears. You should stand your ground and fight back as hard as you can. Grizzly bears generally attack if they feel threatened so will try to eliminate that threat. Black bears on the other hand are looking for a quick meal and will be more easily dissuaded if you fight back.
As for polar bears, these are the biggest predator on land, anywhere. Weighing up to 1600lbs (700kg) and permanently hungry these bears are incredibly dangerous. As there is little overlap between human communities and bears attacks are thankfully rare. Scientists are, however, warning that climate change may increase polar bear – human interactions.
1. And statistically speaking…
Yes, Bambi! I know you were expecting something pretty spectacular after man-eating sharks and killer bears, but no, you got deers. Statistically speaking deers kill more people in North America than any other animal – around 200 human deaths every year. And how do they do this? With their killer antlers and powerful kicking hooves? No, they are just really bad at crossing roads. So bad that in 2000 it is estimated that around 100,000 were run over in the US alone. They even have an official name for it; a deer-vehicle collision or DVC for short. The primary culprits are white tailed deer, they appear particularly stupid.
In actual fact deer can be pretty dangerous even when not jaywalking. In the Fall, testosterone fuelled stags armed with huge, point antlers are doubly aggressive. Even lady deer, or does as I think they are called, are known to attack. They tend to be most aggressive in the Spring when they have fawns to protect.
There are other boring animals that kill many more people than the sharks, bears, wolves etc. Bees and wasps for instance kill around 40 people a year in the USA. Dogs are next on the list accounting for nearly 11% of animal related fatalities and these were mostly due to pit bull type dogs followed by Rottweilers.
It also seems that who you are affects how likely you are to be attacked by an animal. The statistics state that if you are a white male aged over 65 and living in the southern states of the USA then you are more likely to be attacked by an animal, be it wild or domestic.