When the convicts first set foot in Australia, they would’ve faced many dangerous unknowns. The hardships of forced labor, meager food rations and the possibility of never returning to their families. But overriding all those concerns would have been the harsh realities of Australia in the 1800s, and in particular, its population of deadly animals.
Today, it’s common knowledge that Australia is home to some of the deadliest critters on the planet. But back then, the convicts would have been some of the first westerners to encounter the terrors of the coastal taipan and saltwater crocodile. Read on to learn about the seven most infamous animals the convicts might have faced.
- The Sydney Funnel-Web Spider
With fangs that can pierce fingernails and venom that can kill humans in 15 minutes, the Sydney funnel-web spider is one of Australia’s most infamous arachnids. Its name comes from the funnel-like burrows it creates to hide from its usual prey of lizards and snails. Its venom is what makes it particularly deadly, as it has a special neurotoxin that can shut down a human’s nervous system. While funnel-web spiders are found throughout Australia, this particular species is native to the Sydney area where the convicts would have first lived.
- Box Jellyfish
Named for their square bodies, box jellyfish are particularly deadly for a few reasons. Unlike normal jellyfish that peacefully float wherever the current takes them, the box jellyfish can swim up to four miles per hour. The fastest humans (think Michael Phelps) can swim around five miles per hour. They are also covered in tentacles known as nematocysts that contain poison strong enough to induce paralysis or cardiac arrest in humans. The largest and deadliest of the box jellies are found around northern Australia and can grow up to one foot in diameter with tentacles up to 10 feet long.
- Saltwater Crocodile
Crocodiles would have been especially frightening to the convicts as nothing like them exists in the western world. Particularly fearsome is the saltwater crocodile which can grow up to 20 feet long, making it the largest reptile in the world. They are the ultimate stealth hunters and can hold their breath for up to seven hours as they stake out their prey. Their strength is nearly unparalleled in the animal world—they can apply up to 5,000 pounds of pressure per square inch of their jaw.
- Textile Cone Snail
With a patterned shell of beautiful black, white and browns, the textile cone snail would catch any beachcomber’s eye. But under that pretty façade is a toxin powerful enough to kill 10 people. It typically lives in shallow waters among coral and rocks and can be found around Australia and in the Indian Ocean from eastern Africa to Hawaii.
- Blue-Ringed Octopus
With its relatively small size and docile nature, the blue-ringed octopus is an unassuming menace. Found in tide pools and reefs from Australia to Japan, it carries enough venom to kill 26 humans within minutes. This venom is 1,000 times more powerful than cyanide and can cause vision loss and muscle paralysis before ultimately killing its victim. When it’s getting ready to hunt or feels threatened, its skin will change from yellow to the black and blue rings it’s named for.
- Stinging Stonefish
Known as the most poisonous fish in the world, the stonefish is found in the shallow coastal waters around northern Australia. They are masters of disguise and will lie motionless on the ocean floor until their prey comes along. Once a target is within reach, they have jaws powerful enough to snap it up and swallow it whole. If disturbed, their sharp dorsal fins will release the venom that causes their infamous sting.
- Coastal Taipan
Hailing from a highly venomous family of snakes called Elapid, the coastal taipan is a beige to brown snake that is the largest of the Australian elapids with an average length of seven feet. It has highly developed eyesight and can actively scan for prey or threats. If it feels threatened it will not hesitate to strike and will bite quickly to partially paralyze the threat before retreating until it’s fully immobilized.
These seven are just a few among the hundreds of deadly animals that occupied Australia when the convicts arrived. While we don’t know if the prisoners directly encountered any of these creatures, it’s more than likely they would have heard the stories of their fangs and venom and learned to sleep with one eye open lest a taipan get too close.