Mary’s Monday Metazoan: An Australian miscellany

I’m flying off to Australia tomorrow! Unfortunately, I’m leaving Mary behind — she’s got a job, you know, and needs to continue slaving away to keep me in the style to which I am accustomed. But she’s not bitter about it, no, not at all. See? She sent me this cheery little ditty about the Australian fauna!


  1. Ring Tailed Lemurian says

    The thing is, it isn’t a joke. Apart from the Vegemite. And the Frill Neck – not sure what that’s doing there. We used have large numbers of them running through the garden. I loved watching them. It’s impossible not to visualise dinosaurs when you see half a dozen sprinting upright across the ground on their hind legs with their little arms out and brightly coloured frills flapping about.

  2. arthwollipot says

    Don’t panic. I’ve lived here all my life and I’ve never once been killed by a crocodile.

    Well, except for that one time in 1986…

  3. Fred The Hun says

    Looks like the only creature one really has to fear in Australia is the vindictive kangaroo. That was just too funny!

  4. jjr1993p2 says

    I remember the line from Bill Bryson, _In a Sunburned Country_ : “Lethal seashells?! They have lethal seashells in Australia!?”

  5. Charlie Foxtrot says

    I was going to comment that it was missing Tasmanian Devils, but then it occurred to me that they actually would be more interested in devouring your already expired carcass and scattering your bones across the scrub – so, ok.

  6. Zeno says

    Your wife shouldn’t have shown you that. Now you’re going to insist on looking for the blue-ringed octopus.

  7. Rev. BigDumbChimp says

    I was going to comment that it was missing Tasmanian Devils, but then it occurred to me that they actually would be more interested in devouring your already expired carcass and scattering your bones across the scrub – so, ok.

    Or giving you facial tumors.

  8. recovering catholic says

    And PZ–why did you have to get your gums fixed before you left for Oz?

  9. Ye Olde Blacksmith says

    And at 56 seconds in, the most horrible thing of all…VEGEMITE! Oh the horror, the horror.

  10. Moggie says

    I don’t get why people recoil so from Vegemite. It’s just an inferior version of Marmite: passable if you can’t get the real thing.

  11. Peter Ashby says

    @Recovering Catholic

    Vegemite is quite, quite wonderful. I had some this lunchtime in fact on a GF cracker. We actually managed to find a not absolutely tiny jar in the supermarket yesterday so it might last a mite longer than the last few.

    Nah, its marmite you want to be careful of. That stuff is so foul it must be poisonous.

    Australians are ashamed that they only have 9 of the top 10 most venomous land snakes. They look after them too. At a nature reserve north of Perth the land sloped gently down to the lake, the lawn dotted with grazing kangaroo and wallaby, there were koalas in an enclosure (they are not native to Western Australia) and just off shore (separated by a ditch of perhaps 3 feet wide was a long, very overgrown island. on the shoreline was a sign: Tiger Snake Breeding Sanctuary.

    But then as the video says, when all your wildlife is either deadly poisonous or wants to disembowel you with their claws you have nothing cuddly to conserve so you end up coddling Tiger Snakes . . .

    Might explain a few things about Australians. While over in New Zealand we have cuddly flightless parrots and a national bird that lays the biggest egg per body size ever, has feathers like hair, the shortest beak* despite appearances and whiskers!

    What’s not to like?

    *you measure the length of a bird’s beak from tip to nostrils, the kiwi keeps its nostrils on the very tip of its beak (all the better to smell grubs in the leaf litter with) so it has a very short beak, officially.

  12. Peter Ashby says

    Mind you in all the time I have spent in Australia I have seen no snakes (except in Perth Zoo, behind glass) and no spiders, poisonous or otherwise. Mind you I have not tried to swim in the sea there, probably why I am still here.

  13. Rev. BigDumbChimp says

    Which one of you islands down three in that corner of the world has those birds that try to eat cars?

    OH yeah. New Zealand.

    How do you people get by with all the natural world trying to eat either you or your cars?


  14. chuckgoecke says

    They say “accidentally” get killed. I’d say those salty crocs, Great whites, Taipans, Funnel Web spiders, etc. actually intend to kill you!

  15. Matt Penfold says

    Mind you in all the time I have spent in Australia I have seen no snakes (except in Perth Zoo, behind glass) and no spiders, poisonous or otherwise. Mind you I have not tried to swim in the sea there, probably why I am still here.

    When I was last in Australia I saw both venomous spiders and snakes in the wild.

    I also got told off for not checking inside a pair of wellington boots before putting them on. Seems in the part of Australia I was in (just north of Brisbane) there is a spider that likes to live in wellies and bite the feet of people who put them on without checking.

  16. MolBio says

    I live in Aus. I almost got bitten by an Eastern Brown snake. He was on my doorstep in Victoria. Don’t see many snakes, but when you do, they’re fairly close up. lol

    Richard Dawkins was on Q&A here. Three of the people on the panel are politicians. Yes, the stupidity of politicians is a universal constant. It should be taught in physics class. It evidently holds promise as a renewable energy source.

  17. MolBio says

    Yh, that’s the white tailed spider, lives in shoes and things. Caused nasty necrotic bites. Eastern States, NSW down to Victoria, I think.

  18. ambulocetacean says

    Don’t worry – the crocs usually only eat tourists … oh, right …

    But don’t mess with the kangaroos. They grab you round the head, stand on their tails and use their hind legs to rake your nuts off. A bloke in Tasmania apparently lost a testicle like that some years back (and they only have the little grey kangaroos down there, not the big reds).

    Cool song, but the “thing in a shell” that kills you is a cone snail, not a hermit crab or whatever that was. And they neglected to mention the deadly old stonefish and the sneaky little irukandji. Nice to see the platypus getting props for its venomous spines, though.

    There are bull sharks in the rivers up north too. Don’t even think about swimming in the river in Brisbane.

    Oh, and I almost forgot the goannas. Whenever they’re startled they run up the nearest tree. Problem is that they’re a bit short-sighted and tend to mistake people for trees. Should you see an eight-foot Varanus giganteus charging towards you, just lie down flat on the ground (having made sure to check the ground for snakes first).

    That’s all I can think of for now. Have a great trip!

  19. Desert Son, OM says

    Love the vid. Safe travels, PZ! Can’t wait to hear about the trip.

    Still learning,


  20. Larry says

    When in Australia, just remember that if it’s alive, it’s probably poisonous, has big, nasty teeth to eat you, or sharp, pointy claws to tear you to pieces. Possibly all three.

    Otherwise, its a pretty safe place.

  21. Rikaishi says

    The possums tend to have extremely sharp claws and a penchant for confusing legs with trees too, so watch out for those. Frillnecks CAN be trouble on occasion, since their standard defense is to run up your leg and chomp on your testicles.

    No-one has mentioned bluebottle jellyfish yet, the buggers are small – about the size of your thumb – and their sting is deadly (of course).

    There are a few nasty imports to be wary of too. European wasps have been known to kill people in urban areas, while the rurals have to be wary of wild (non-native) dog packs. Wild dingos are pretty good-natured overall and aren’t actually dangerous, unless you’re stupid enough to leave an unattended baby on the ground.

  22. Rikaishi says

    Oh yeah, forgot to add that there are a couple of seemingly innocuous species that have poisonous spurs hidden on their persons. Specifically the platypus (the freaky duck-billed beaver thing) and Plovers – a common species of very territorial, ground-nesting bird which tends to build nests in the stupidest of places, like traffic islands and roundabouts.

    Anywho, welcome to Australia. Hope you have a blast PZ ^^

  23. Kristjan Wager says

    Camels are also something to watch out for, but they only live out in the desert anyway.

    PZ, I’ve been in Australia many times, and only once have I seen a snake in the wild. OK, it was a deadly variant, and I nearly stepped on it, but thankfully it ignored me.

    Spiders are a bit more problematic – they tend to be a bit more aggressive, and live inside the city. Scorpions as well. Still, with a minimum of care, you won’t have any trouble.

    Since you’re not going to the north-east, the likelihood of running into crocodiles is about as big as in Minnesota. Same goes with all the water-based animals, as long as you stay away from the sea.

    Oh, and you’re not even close to the cyclones, which is a good thing (I once got out of Darwin 2 hours before the place was hit, yet again, by a cyclone).

  24. Matt Penfold says

    With regards scorpions in Australia, my understanding is that they are one of more benign groups of animals, and that there are none that are likely to be fatal to an otherwise health adult.

  25. Rev. BigDumbChimp says

    Oz may not have the Kea, but I think the Cassowary more than makes up for it.

    yeah, sounds like it.

    The one documented human death caused by a cassowary was that of Phillip Mclean, aged 16 years old, and it happened on 6 April 1926. He and his brother, aged 13, were attempting to beat the cassowary to death with clubs. They were accompanied by their dog. The bird kicked the younger boy, who fell and ran away. Then the older boy struck the bird. The bird charged and knocked the older boy to the ground. While on the ground, Phillip was kicked in the neck, opening a 1.25 centimeter wound. Phillip got up and ran but died shortly afterwards from the hemorrhaging blood vessel in his neck

    Note to self: Do not try to beat a Cassowary to death with a club.

  26. Matt Penfold says

    I would add that my brother, who lives in Brisbane, considers the Queensland conservatives to be the most dangerous animal found in Australia.

    Much as I loathe to give credit to my brother, my limited experience with them would bare that out.

  27. glenister_m says

    I like to tell people that most of the animals in Australia are cute, deadly, or both.

    I was quite surprized how vicious Koala’s are until trained to tolerate humans.

    Funny how certain aspects are inverted between the northern and southern hemispheres. In Canada, 9/10 snakes that you run into are harmless. In Australia 9/10 snakes are deadly. In Canada, we have at most 2 spiders that are harmful to humans (won’t kill you unless you are in poor health already), and a good pair of leather boots would protect you. In Australia, some spiders could kill you, and at least one of them can bite through leather boots.

    Have fun, I’d like to go back myself.

  28. waynerobinson4 says

    … Great song. But the taipan referred to was actually a death adder (I know that doesn’t sound like much of an improvement). And anyway, more people in Australia get killed by horses than sharks, more people get killed by bees than snakes. Antivenins exist for everything poisonous, so no one has died from snake or spider bites for a very long time. And anyway, at least Australian snake venoms are either neurotoxic or anticoagulant, which are reversible, unlike the American snake venoms that are tissue destructive. Many people get bitten by snakes and don’t even notice until the symptoms start to appear hours later.
    Actually loved Bill Bryson’s book though. I was jealous of his claim that he saw an echidna in King’s Park in Perth (I used to work just across the road, and I have only ever seen echidnas in zoos).

  29. Sili says

    They say “accidentally” get killed. I’d say those salty crocs, Great whites, Taipans, Funnel Web spiders, etc. actually intend to kill you!

    Accidentally =/= unintentionally

    Well, if I have to die, I’d rather it be at the spur of platypodes than at the feet of geese.

  30. MadScientist says

    It’s pretty rare that people get mauled by kangaroos, but they are wild animals. The jumping and kicking with the hind legs is just something they do; you can frequently see the males fighting like that (which includes some boxing) – in fact you get the illusion that they’re standing on their tails with their feet in the air. Even the big macho ones aren’t difficult to scare off (or to kill for that matter, if they’re silly enough to not go away), but the few maulings I know of give me the impression that the hostile ones prefer to attack people who are unaware or who otherwise do not appear to pose any sort of threat.

  31. MadScientist says

    @Fred The Hun: In the north the crocodiles and snakes are the greatest hazard – just leave snakes alone and stay clear of them and they’ll leave you alone despite the myths of the fearsome human-hunting snakes. Crocodiles are much more difficult to avoid though; you just have to be very careful around muddy areas and pools of water – video footage may give you the misleading impression that these creatures are easy to spot. Crocs seem to prefer German tourists though. The “shellfish” (conchs) have many poisonous varieties and they’re among the deadliest animals on the planet, but this is not unique to Australia – similar deadly conchs are found in shallow waters throughout the western Pacific (and the South China sea, and the Indian ocean …). But by far, the animal that kills the most humans are humans, so beware of the apes.

  32. echidna says

    Victoria may not have the cyclones, but did you see the size of the hailstones we had on Saturday? We saw them as big as golf-balls, they were even bigger in some other places. It was a ripper of a storm – sunny and warm one minute, chilly and wild the next.

  33. says

    @waynerobinson4(#35): There is also YWFGd1nMa1A on youtube, which has a real (IMHO Inland) taipan.
    Btw., I’d say a Death adder is a huge improvement over a taipan — the venom has much less side-effects (i.e. besides killing you).
    I might be mistaken, but the cute smiling worm at 1:05 looks like a mamba, not something from Oz (the picture is not very sharp, but the dark line from the nose towards the eye seems to be the place where the 2nd supralabial meets the prefrontal).

  34. Kliwon says

    PZ, did you stop to think that there could be another reason that your wife is not coming to Australia with you other than work commitments? Have you checked how much life insurance you have?
    The Vegemite might not be poisonous, in small doses anyway, but it sure tastes like it is.
    Also, watch out for the beer, we have alcohol in ours. ;)

  35. FossilFishy says

    It’s going to be sad when the conference is over and everyone stops paying attention to Australia again.

    “Come to sunny Australia.” my then wife-to-be said, “It’s beautiful here.” She said. And it is, just don’t get so caught up in looking at the scenery that you forget to watch where you’re putting your feet.

    In addition to all the toxic animals we also have the climate trying to off us. Last year here in Victoria it was huge bushfires and this year we’re on a flood watch. I mean come on, make up your mind Australia: you can threaten to burn me or threaten to drown me, not both. That just uncivilized.

  36. Cowcakes says

    I must object, the film clip is grossly incorrect. It shows a “Death Adder” not a Taipan. The Death adder is only about the the 9th most deadly land snake, a real wimp compared to the Taipan that is at 2 or 3 and the Inland Taipan or Fierce Snake which is the most deadly in the world.

  37. ambulocetacean says

    Madscientist at #37

    Do kangaroos really not put their weight on their tails when they fight? I guess you learn something every day…

    Glenister_M at #34

    Er, which spider can bit through leather boots? I haven’t encountered that one yet.

  38. tacticus says

    In a completely random digression we have people handing out comforts bastardised version of origin today at RMIT (royal melbourne institute of tech)

  39. says

    Just to make our upcoming visitors even more comfortable:

    “Headline: Five people in NSW treated in hospital for snake bites in five-hour period

    From: The Daily Telegraph March 08, 2010 12:00AM

    Snakes bit five people over a three-hour period yesterday, bringing the total for the summer to more than 50.”


  40. Akkadis says

    Another hazard if a possum climbs up your legs is that they pee when they’re scared. My sister and her Dept of Conservation friends find it hilarious to get unsuspecting volunteers to release trapped possums right under a tree – so that when the possum runs up the tree and pees, the “volly”* is standing right underneath. Hilarious.

    * Also, Australians will never use a full word when a short version will do.

  41. Moggie says


    I’ll see your bitten-on-the-face, Twisted, and raise you a bitten somewhere else entirely

    Quick! Suck out the venom!

  42. ButchKitties says

    Nice to see the platypus getting props for its venomous spines, though.

    Australia has venomous mammals? Good grief.

  43. says

    @ButchKitties (#52)
    Why not? Venomous mammals are almost everywhere (shrews in Eurasia and Americas, Slow lorises in India).

  44. MJMD says

    Has anyone else noticed the ridiculous up-surge in Redbacks over this summer?
    Normally, I see one every couple of summers in the back yard. This year, I’ve killed 12 inside and 4 outside.
    The outside ones were where my little ones would get bit so I had to get rid of them.
    We mounted the 4 in wax and the kids studied them for days.

    We also got a little 50cm Brown Snake next to the house a couple of weeks ago. The kids were soooo excited to see one in an urban area.

  45. Drhoz says

    I can’t say it’s been much more redbacks than usual, MJMD but I have had a surprising number abseil down from the ceiling vents this year. And I found a scorpion in one of my art folders, too.