As you wander across this bounteous continent, you might assume you’re relatively safe from the threat of wild animal attacks. And you would be right. Compared to say, Australia, where everything that moves is either venomous or a kangaroo (or Paul Hogan), North America is pretty tame.
But there are still plenty of beasts, birds, and creepy-crawlies capable of maiming or killing you if you make the wrong moves — especially if you’re fond of the great outdoors. Here are the 8 most dangerous animals in North America, where you’ll find them, what you should know about them, and how to stay safe should they cross your path.
1. Grizzly Bears
Grizzly bears are a subset of brown bears that range from Alaska, through Western Canada, and into the American Northwest. Females tip the scales at 500 pounds, while males can weigh 900 pounds or more. Armed with large, powerful bodies and razor-sharp claws, we shouldn’t have to tell you to tread lightly around grizzlies.
On average, there are 3 fatal bear attacks every year in the US. Most grizzly attacks on humans are carried out by females with cubs. (The phrase “mama bear” was coined for good reason!) You should never, ever approach a bear with cubs. She will do anything to protect them.
If you do encounter a grizzly (or any other bear), there are a few key things to keep in mind.
- You cannot outrun a bear, so don’t try. You’ll only encourage it to pursue you.
- Don’t scream. Instead, speak soothingly and wave your arms to let the bear know you are a human — not food.
- Don’t make eye contact. Back away slowly if the bear isn’t coming toward you.
- If attacked, play dead and try to keep quiet until the attack ends.
You can help avoid encounters with grizzlies (and other less dangerous species) by storing food properly when camping in bear country, and disposing of garbage in bear-proof receptacles. Hiking in groups of 6 or more may also deter attacks.
2. Killer Bees
Biologist Warwick E. Kerr wanted to create a hybrid bee that would produce more honey, so he cross-bred European species with African ones. The result was the emergence of Africanized bees — better known as “killer bees.”
Kerr’s Frankenstein pollinators were imported to Brazil in the 1950s, but some colonies escaped quarantine and buzzed their way north. They worked their way through Central America, took over Mexico in the 1980s, and pushed into southern Texas in 1990. Since then, Africanized bees have spread throughout the Southwest, Florida, and even into the Northwest. They are a ruthlessly expansionist invasive species, tending to displace less violent species of bees wherever they go. And they’re equally ruthless when it comes to protecting their hives.
European bees have been selectively bred for centuries by beekeepers, who weeded out the more aggressive varieties to make them more pliable. But there’s no comparable history of human influence in African bees. As a result, Africanized bees are far more likely to attack any perceived threat, humans included. They will swarm intruders, attacking in relentless droves, and have been known to chase humans down for a third of a mile or more.
They have killed perhaps 1,000 people in this manner in recent decades.
So unless you feel like running a mini-marathon for your life, keep your eyes peeled for hives if you’re hiking in states with Africanized bee populations.
3. American Bison
You won’t have a hard time identifying an American Bison. Weighing as much as 2,000 pounds, able to jump 6 feet into the air, and capable of charging at 40 miles and hour, something tells us you’ll know one when you see it.
Bison are one of the most dangerous animals in North America. They’re the deadliest thing you’re likely to encounter in a National Park — yes, arguably even more so than bears! Between 1980 and 1999, 79 people were gored by American Bison. Mercifully, only 1 person died, but I’m sure the other 78 would still advise you to stay out of a bison’s bad books.
Bison will attack humans if provoked. To be fair, we’ve done plenty of provoking; prior to the year 1800, there were perhaps as many as 60,000,000 of them in the US. By 1900, there were only 300. Today, that number has rebounded to 360,000, but it’s not hard to see why the bison may not see humans as their friends.
Bison safety is mostly common sense. Never approach them on foot, and don’t get closer than 330 feet or so under any circumstances — even if you’re in a vehicle. If you happen upon bison while hiking, give them a very wide berth.
Want to read more about the giants of the plain? Check out National Park Tourist Who Harassed A Bison Has Since Been Arrested.
4. Alligators & Crocodiles
Do I really have to convince you of this one?
Crocodiles are ancient, adroit apex predators. They can grow as long as 20 feet and weigh as much as 2000 pounds. Anything that moves in or around their patch of river or swampland is a potential meal, and that certainly includes humans.
American alligators are smaller — maxing out at 15 feet and 1,000 pounds — but, really, on this scale, what’s the difference? Crocodiles may be bigger and nastier, but they are restricted to Florida everglades and the extreme south of Mexico. Alligators, on the other hand, range from southeast Texas to North Carolina.
Even a partial list of fatal alligator attacks paints a horrifying picture. Alligator attacks may be rare, and seem to be a result of the beasts mistaking humans for other prey, but they can still be deadly. At least 23 people have been killed by alligators since the late ’70s.
For the most part, North America is less dangerous than other regions. We don’t have the most venomous species (Australia), or the most gargantuan species (Africa). In general, our continent is quite congenial to human settlement.
The one category where we’re precocious is shark attacks, a plurality of which take place off the coasts of Canada and the US. Since 1900, there have been 1,657 unprovoked shark attacks in the US, 144 of them fatal. And it’s not like the problem is improving: increased contact has led to more and more incidents over time.
It’s no wonder shark attacks are so (relatively) common in the US; great whites, tiger sharks, and bull sharks can all be found off the coasts of North America. Bull sharks are also known to lurk in the Mississippi, swimming as far inland as Illinois.
Sharks don’t usually eat humans, since we make a pretty paltry supper for a predator of their size. Most shark attacks are really just reconnaissance: the shark wants to know what you are, so it takes a bite of you. Most likely, it will then decide you’re not worth the trouble and move on.
Of course, a playful nibble from a shark can be lethal to a human.
6. Arizona Bark Scorpion
As you might expect, these little critters are to be found in the Sonoran desert in the Southwestern US and in Mexico. Although all scorpions can deliver venomous stings, the Arizona Bark Scorpion is by far the most dangerous in North America. In the 1980s, as many as 800 people were killed by this scurrying menace.
Bark scorpions are commonly found in the moister regions of the desert, such as near riverbeds. They are increasingly common in residential areas as well, which raises the probability of altercations with humans.
Brown or light brown in color, about 3 inches end-to-end, bark scorpions are mostly nocturnal. Like many other scorpions, though, you can find them in the dark using special flashlights because they glow under UV light.
One reason rattlesnakes rank so highly is their enormous range. You can find them most anywhere in the Americas, from British Columbia to Argentina. But the highest concentration is in the American Southwest and Mexico.
(Are you sensing a theme here? Venomous things love the desert.)
Another reason rattlesnakes are dangerous, and becoming more so, is our own behavior. These snakes try to avoid heavily populated areas, but human expansion has led to campaigns of extermination against them (such as ‘The Annual Rattlesnake Roundup’). This selective pressure has increased the number of snakes who will strike out at humans without issuing their classic rattle warning.
There are 7,000-8,000 rattlesnake bites in the US every year, with an average of 5 deaths, but attacks can generally be avoided. Perhaps half of attacks are more the fault of the person than the snake. Many victims are drunk young men who went out of their way to start something. So if you see a rattler, no matter how many drinks you’ve had, don’t approach it, don’t try to touch it, and don’t provoke it!
It should be noted — gross-out warning — that rattlesnake heads continue to be dangerous, even after decapitation. They may continue to be alive and alert and capable of biting for up to an hour! One Texas man found this out the hard way; the ‘dead’ snake bit him so hard he had to receive 13 times the average dose of anti-venom.
If you are bitten, seek help immediately. The survival rate is nearly 100% when anti-venom is administered within 2 hours of the attack.
8. Black Widow Spider
Various sub-species of the black widow are fairly common throughout the world. In the US, you will find them in the Northwest, in Southwestern states along the Mexican border, in the heartland and the South ranging from Ohio to the gulf, and in the Northeast. So… you know, kind of all over the place. (In Canada, they’re native to B.C. and Ontario in particular.)
Black widow venom is a neurotoxin that attacks the nerves. This tends to cause severe local (and general) pain and cramping starting 10-15 minutes after the bite. That said, bite marks may not be visible. Another peculiar symptom of envenomation is profuse sweating — sometimes only in the limb where the bite was delivered.
The good news is that black widows are not nearly as dangerous as their reputation suggests. Although their poison can kill humans, it rarely does. In 2013, there were 1,866 reported black widow bites in the US ; none was fatal. Most bite symptoms will subside on their own, but it’s always best to seek medical attention if you think you’ve been bitten.
It’s worth noting that black widows are shy and generally don’t want to attack you. Most bites are accidentally provoked by humans.
Black widows are especially common in grape-growing regions, so watch out for them on your next vineyard tour.
We hope these tips will help you stay safe on your journeys across North America. Especially for lovers of the outdoors, it’s important to know what danger looks like, how to avoid it, and what to do if it comes your way. We wish you happy (bear-free) trails!