Here’s a quiz question for you: what is the most dangerous animal in the world? Thought of an answer?
The problem is that it’s a bit of a tricky question. What does it mean for something to be “the most dangerous”? Does it have to kill the most humans? What about the most other animals? Or is it that in the unlikely event you get attacked, bitten, or stung by it, you’ll almost certainly end up dead? Let’s dig in.
Not Just Pests
The creature responsible for most human deaths has an imposing tally. Mosquitoes might be little more than a pest in North America, but around the world, they kill more than one million people annually—that’s more even than us humans who kill a little under half that number of other humans.
It’s not that a mosquito’s bite is particularly vicious; it’s that in much of the world, female mosquitoes can carry malaria and other nasty diseases, which is then passed to the victim. In the Western world, it’s a mostly treatable condition, but in developing nations, it can be, and often is, a slow death sentence. It’s why Bill Gates, like any good billionaire, has poured money in developing death lasers to take them out.
And, while mosquitos easily take the crown, there are other insects and pests that kill plenty of people through disease transmission. Tsetse flies, assassin bugs, and freshwater snails all kill around 10,000 people per year by transmitting a disease: African sleeping sickness (African trypanosomiasis), Chagas disease, and schistosomiasis, respectively.
It Was Us All Along
If you expand the definition of “deadly” to include not just humans, but all animals, then there can be only one contender: humans. Annually, about 470,000 people die as a victim of murder or war. That’s enough for second place overall, but when you add in the millions of cows, chickens, sheep, and other farm animals slaughtered each year, plus the species being driven to extinction by climate change, deforestation, and other human action, then we’re responsible for uncountable billions of deaths every year.
Whatever way you look at it, humans are responsible for killing more of any animal on the rest of this list than they are for killing us. Even if mosquitoes put up a decent fight, the judges are still going to call every round 10-9 for humanity.
But now the most interesting part of the question: what animal is the most dangerous, if it attacks. There just aren’t that many shark attacks each year, but when they happen, they can have lethal consequences. Of the 105 incidents last year, five were fatal—though only two of those deaths occurred in unprovoked shark attacks.
Bears (including brown, black, and polar bears) are a bit more deadly. In Alaska between 2000 and 2017, there were 74 bear attacks with ten fatalities (and 68 hospitalizations). You certainly don’t want to run into a bear in the woods, but you still have a chance.
But sharks and bears are amateurs compared to the worst-case creature: the crocodile. The saltwater and Nile crocodiles kill around 1,000 people each year, but what’s terrifying is the fatality rate. In Australia, you have a 25% chance of dying in a saltwater crocodile attack while in Malaysia, it’s a 50/50 shot you’ll make it out of the water. Worst of all, though, is the Nile crocodile in Africa: 63% of attacks are fatal.
However, even with those stats, crocodiles kill relatively few humans each year. By far, the biggest direct killers are snakes. Maybe you’re right to have a fear of them. Roughly five million people get bitten each year, resulting in around 100,000 deaths.
So, what’s the most dangerous animal? To my mind, it’s either snakes or crocodiles, depending on whether you favor overall number of deaths or sheer, horrifying efficiency. Mosquitos, while responsible for by far the most deaths, aren’t actively trying to murder humans. And while we kill a lot of each other, I feel calling humans the most dangerous animal willfully misses the question most people want to know the answer to.