5 poisonous spiders and insects in Australia explained for int’l students

insects in australia
A giant St Andrew's Cross spider sits in it's web at Mrs Macquarie's Chair enjoying the view of the Sydney Opera House as it waits for it's next meal to come along, on February 11, 2016. Source: William West/AFP

Australia is often portrayed as a country inhabited by an abundance of dangerous and exotic animals. There are many spiders and insects in Australia that can be deadly too, which could have grave consequences for the people bitten by them. It could lead to allergies or in the worst-case scenario, death.

For some foreigners, including international students, the unsuspecting fear of coming into contact with these poisonous insects and animals is exacerbated by the media and second-hand information.

Rest assured, hospitalisations and deaths due to contact with poisonous creatures are not as common as people may think. According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 3,520 people were hospitalised due to contact with a venomous animal or plant between 2017 and 2018.

Of this figure, nearly half of these hospitalisations were caused by insects. Bee stings accounted for over a quarter (26%) of hospitalisations while spider bites amounted for almost one-fifth of hospitalisations (19%), with redbacks being the most common spider involved. A total of 19 people died from venomous bites and stings between 2017 and 2018 in Australia.

It is also important to note that the probability of getting a deadly insect bite is slim and usually happens as a self-defence mechanism when provoked or triggered by human presence.

If you are curious about some of the poisonous spiders and insects in Australia that have pushed the stereotype that the country is unsafe, here are five worth looking into:

5 spiders and insects in Australia known for their poisonous bites

Australian funnel-web spiders

According to the Australian Museum website, funnel-web spiders are the most notorious members of the spider species, typically found in moist forest regions of the east coast and the highlands of Australia from Tasmania to the northern parts of  Queensland.

Characteristics: Typically medium to large spiders, ranging from one to five centimetres in body length. Male funnel-web spiders are slightly larger than their female counterparts. The carapace (defensive covering) is always sparsely haired and glossy.

The lateral pair of four spinning organs (spinnerets) at the end of the abdomen is always longer and easily visible in the Atraxspp. variation but often shorter in the Hadronyche spp. The eyes of the funnel-web spiders are closely grouped too.

Most recorded deaths from Australian funnel-web spiders can be traced from bites of the Atrax robustus, which is responsible for 13 recorded deaths and many medically serious bites.

Australian funnel web spider

The Australian funnel-web spider is among the deadliest animals found in Australia. Source: William West/AFP

Paralysis ticks 

Ticks are parasites that feed on human and animal blood. According to the Australian Health Direct website, there are about 70 different sorts of ticks in Australia, which are commonly found on the east coast of Australia. Most tick bites in the Land of the Down Under are caused by the tick genus Ixodes holocyclus, which is commonly referred to as a grass tick, seed tick or bush tick.

Characteristics: Flat body and long mouth. They grow from an egg and before transforming into a larva, and are about one millimetre in length and brown in colour. It then morphs into a nymph, about two millimetres long and pale brown.

An adult paralysis tick is very tiny, about one centimetre in length and is identifiable with its grey-blue body composition.

Ticks need blood to grow, so they latch onto grass, animals or humans to feed themselves. Their saliva can be poisonous, which can result in a condition called tick paralysis.

Some of the most severe symptoms of an allergic reaction from tick bites include a swollen throat, breathing difficulty and collapsing. People are encouraged to consult a doctor to remove the tick if they are suffering from any symptoms thought to be caused by paralysis ticks.

Mottled cup moth caterpillar

These caterpillars, commonly known as just “cup moths”, is a highly decorated insect that have spines which can cause intense stinging if touched, and may even cause lumps to appear. It is typically found along Australia’s east coast such as Sydney, Canberra and Brisbane.

The cup moths has dozens of spines laced with a highly potent venom that can inflict a sharp, burning sting like that caused by a bee.

Characteristics: Stout and slug-like. Each end is often armed with clusters of sharp spines. They are usually a pale green and may be marked with purple or brown, depending on the species.

Redback spiders

Redback spiders are also known as jockey spiders, belonging to the widely distributed Latrodectus genus, or widow spiders. According to the School of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Melbourne, the redback spider is a poisonous animal which has adapted to an urban environment and can be found in sheds and garages, under houses or in industrial areas as well as outside toilets.

Characteristics: Red, orange and brownish stripes on its abdomen. The male redback spider is typically very small, measuring three millimetres and its fangs cannot penetrate the skin. The female counterpart is considered dangerous, biting only defensively. It is known as a retiring spider.

Some acute symptoms sustained from a redback spider include progressive pain in the limb area, hypertension, fever, headache, nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain.


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Bulldog ants

Bulldog ants, also known as Myrmecia, are giant ants found throughout Australia. The biggest difference between bull ants and other common ant species is their size and appearance.

Characteristics: According to Animal Spot, these giant ants measure anywhere between eight millimetres to 40 mm. Other ants which are similar in size are worker and queen ants. Bulldog ants are known to have large eyes and long, hairy legs. Bulldog ants have a stinger loaded with venom located in the abdomen at the tip of the gaster.

They are extremely aggressive and are known to bite humans to defend themselves.

Alongside its counterpart the jack jumper ant, bulldog ants have been listed by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) to be among the most common species of ants that cause hospitalisations. One-third of the stings are reported to happen at home.