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Australia’s top 10 most painful creatures

Australia is renowned for its stunning landscapes, unique wildlife, and laid-back lifestyle. However, it also harbours some of the world’s most painful creatures, capable of inflicting agony that can be both physically and psychologically scarring. 

Venom expert and University of Queensland professor Bryan Fry’s interest in pain began with a painful battle with spinal meningitis when he was a child.

“[It was] that early experience combined with my mum being the daughter of UN workers … living in Africa,” Prof. Fry says.

“I remember looking at her photo albums of cobras in the garden, a viper on their tennis court. They even had a black mamba come into their house one time.”

His work now focuses on understanding the evolution, effects, and potential medical applications of venom. This research is not just academic. Humans seem to have a fascination with the dangerous and the deadly. This fascination often leads us to explore the macabre side of nature.

Here, we delve into Prof. Fry’s top 10 list of Australia’s most painful stings. It’s a cautionary tale for the curious and a stark reminder of the power contained within even the smallest of creatures.

10. Bull ant 

Starting the list is the bull ant, with around 90 species found across Australia. These ants are fiercely protective of their underground nests and will attack any perceived threat. The Jack Jumper ant, a larger variant, is notorious for causing severe allergic reactions, particularly in Tasmania, where it seems to be especially allergenic.

9. Giant water bug 

Also known as the giant fish killer or the toe-biter, these aquatic predators can grow up to seven centimetres long. Their sting has been compared to a heated nail driven through the foot. They hunt by injecting prey with digestive enzymes and then consuming the liquefied remains, a process that is excruciatingly painful if experienced by a human.

“These things are big, and they’ll even feed on small turtles. They’re a predator’s predator,” says Prof. Fry.

8. Caterpillars 

Brightly coloured and often adorned with spikes, venomous caterpillars are a painful lesson in the dangers of touching the untouchable. Prof. Fry’s first encounter with venom came from one of these seemingly innocuous creatures, which can cause intense nausea and gastric pain.

“The really brightly coloured caterpillars of any kind are going to be the ones that are going to hurt you. If they’ve got spikes, you have a pretty good idea they’re venomous. If they’re smooth you have a good idea they’re poisonous,” says Prof. Fry.

7. Hellfire anemone 

With a name that forebodes its painful sting, the Hellfire anemone’s tentacles can cause skin ulcers and intense agony. Its beauty belies the danger it poses, and its sting has been likened to a form of chemical warfare.

6. Crown of thorns starfish 

This coral-eating starfish, which can grow up to 80 centimetres wide, is covered in sharp spines that can easily penetrate gloves and skin. While not aggressive, their sting is a painful reminder of their presence on the Great Barrier Reef.

5. Redback spiders 

Redback spider bites cause intense local pain, likened to holding a welding torch on your skin. More than 250 people stung by these spiders need antivenom every year. There have been no fatalities since the introduction of antivenom in the 1950s.

4. Stingrays 

Stingrays, while not typically aggressive, possess a venomous barb covered in flat spines made of a kind of cartilage. It’s these spines that cause excruciating pain and significant damage to the body. Prof. Fry ranks a stingray encounter in Moreton Bay as one of his top three most painful experiences.

3. Stonefish 

The stonefish has a series of spines along its back that can inject venom when stepped on. The venom causes pain so severe that victims have been known to want to cut off the affected limb for relief. Fortunately, the venom is heat sensitive and can be neutralised with hot water.

“All you have to do is put the affected limb in water that’s around 50 degrees and you’re fine, that’s enough to denature the venom and stop the pain,” says Prof. Fry.

2. Box jellyfish 

With tentacles capable of delivering multiple lethal doses, the box jellyfish is a formidable presence in tropical waters along the top of Western Australia, the NT and through to Queensland.

There are two ways to die from box jellyfish stings. 

“The first is within the first two to five minutes with the pain, that’s going to be shock,” says Prof. Fry. “That’s all about managing blood pressure, [victims] are crashing to lethal hypotension levels. If they survive that, they have a chance of 20-30 minutes later dying from cardiovascular collapse from the venom’s direct effects on the cardiovascular system.”

1. Irukandji jellyfish 

At the top of the list is the tiny but terrifying Irukandji jellyfish. Its sting can cause extreme anxiety, shooting pains, fluid in the lungs, and even brain hemorrhage. The psychological impact of the sting, including a profound sense of impending doom, can be as damaging as the physical pain, which can persist for weeks without relief from conventional painkillers.

“There’s no antivenom. We have no way of neutralising it at this point, all we can do is treat the symptoms,” says Prof. Fry. “There’s a million different ways to produce pain, and in the case of the Irukandji, whatever pain pathway it’s going through, it’s not one of the pain pathways that morphine blocks. Morphine has no effect on these people. Zero.”

These creatures, while fascinating, serve as a stark reminder of the respect we must have for the natural world. For Australians and visitors alike, it’s crucial to be aware of the potential risks when exploring the country’s diverse environments. Whether you’re swimming in the ocean, hiking through the bush, or simply enjoying a picnic in the park, understanding the hazards posed by these creatures can help prevent painful encounters.

If you ever find yourself in the unfortunate position of being stung or bitten by one of these creatures, seek medical attention immediately. Always remember to wear protective clothing when in areas known to be inhabited by venomous animals, and stay informed about first aid procedures for wildlife encounters.

Have you ever been stung by one of these creatures? Have you ever seen them in the wild? Let us know in the comments section below.

Also read: What to do – and not do – if you’re bitten by a snake

Disclaimer: This article contains general information about health issues and is not advice. For health advice, consult your medical practitioner.

Ellie Baxter
Ellie Baxter
Writer and editor with interests in travel, health, wellbeing and food. Has knowledge of marketing psychology, social media management and is a keen observer and commentator on issues facing older Australians.
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