Poisonous creatures

Why are there so many poisonous creatures in Australia?

Australia has 70% of the world’s most venomous snakes. There are few deaths from snake bites since the invention of antidotes to their venoms, but some do still happen, although there appear to not have been any for many years. Fatalities are more likely to occur when the person bitten is a long way from proper treatment. Most of the snakes tend to avoid contact with humans, but people in the Canberra region know to avoid the local black snakes which are said to be very aggressive and will attack any humans or animals they encounter. I’ve been told that ambulances in the Canberra area all carry a supply of the antidote to the snakes’ venom to ensure the necessary quick response to the bites.

There are two species of poisonous spiders in Australia, the redback and funnelweb. These do occasionally kill someone, but it is rare now that anti-toxins are available. It is said that the bites are painful, even with proper treatment, so care must be taken if they are encountered. Redbacks have adopted an odd behaviour in that they lurk under toilet seats. This must be a recently learnt behaviour since there have been toilet seats in Australia only for a few hundred years, which has, obviously, not been long enough for evolution to make it a worthwhile practice. Why they do it is unknown, but it must be worthwhile for them.

In the warm seas around the Australian coast are found the box jellyfish, the blue-ringed octopus and the stonefish, all of which are deadly. The box jellyfish and the blue-ringed octopus trail long filaments in the water which swimmers accidentally contact. Contact with the tentacles is all that is require for the poison to take effect. Stonefish lie on the seabed looking like stones, as the name implies, until someone steps on them and contacts a spine. People are still being killed by all of these creatures as there is no antidote to their poisons, which attack the nervous system causing extreme pain and death by heart failure in a very short time.

Despite all these poisonous creatures, during my life in various parts of Australia, I have seen only one snake, which quickly departed my presence. (I was too terrified to do anything other than stand completely still, as I have a terrible fear of snakes and spiders). I have seen a couple of redback spiders but not close enough to bother me. I have never been bothered by anything dangerous in the sea. Whether there aren’t many of the creatures around or I haven’t been in places in which they lurk, I don’t know. Perhaps I’ve just been lucky.

The presence of all these poisonous creatures raises an important question: Why are there so many of them in a country which was very sparsely populated by people and animals until recently, and still is in most of it? There seems to have been no reason why they should evolve such virulent defences. It must have had a survival advantage at some time, though, or it wouldn’t have evolved. No-one seems to know the answer.

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