Archive for Monday, June 19, 2006

A walk on the wild side?

No thanks. These creatures can end your life in rather unpleasant ways. A look at the likelihood - and the pain - of such an encounter.

June 19, 2006

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Recently, the great state of Florida has been in the grip of panic.--

Alligators have killed three women in separate attacks in recent weeks. (In one case, a gator nabbed a jogger near Fort Lauderdale and dragged her into a canal.) Floridians are taking up arms. The state's gator hot line (when 1 million alligators live in your state, you have a gator hot line) is logging an unprecedented 200 calls a day. Even some gator exterminators are worried: Will anti-gator sentiment run amok?

The Rogue Gator Crisis of 2006 (not to be confused with the Shark Attack Crisis of 2001) got us thinking: What is it about killer animals that touches such a deep, twitchy nerve in the human psyche? And more to the point, what animal-caused death would be the worst?

So we made a brief and exquisitely unscientific survey of Our Natural World, and some of the ways it can kill us. We wanted to know: how painful, likely and frightening would it be to get...

CHOMPED BY A GATOR?

The facts:These members of order Crocodilia are scattered around the globe, representing for the Age of Reptiles. At the ripe species-age of 200 million years (and more closely related to birds, their fellow "living dinosaurs," than other reptiles), they've developed a relaxing routine. They laze about in brackish rivers and lakes, usually moving slowly - until they kill at will.


A saltwater crocodile leaps high out of the water on the Adelaide River in Australia's Northern Territory. There have been three reported human deaths by alligators in Florida recently.

A saltwater crocodile leaps high out of the water on the Adelaide River in Australia's Northern Territory. There have been three reported human deaths by alligators in Florida recently.

The fury: Propelled by massive tails in water and lightning quick movements over short distances on land, gators prefer ambushes. With a bite 30 times more powerful than a dog's, they're often lethal once they sink their fangs in prey. However, limited lateral movement in their neck and their inability to open their jaws if held closed give Homo sapiens a chance to survive if attacked.

The feast:Florida's current gator meltdown is a little weird. The state recorded just 17 gator fatalities over 50 years before this May's troika.

Terror factor: MODERATE. If you live north of the Mason-Dixon line, you're pretty safe.

GORED BY A BULL?

The facts:The annual running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain, always gives a few bright dudes the opportunity to make this happen, occasionally with fatal results.

The fury: The bulls run eight times during Pamplona's San Fermin festival, pursuing white-uniformed daredevils through city streets for several minutes. Last July, the pack of 12 cattle broke apart, with single bulls marauding and tossing human runners like rag dolls. Four "competitors" were gored. In 1995, an American died after a Pamplona bull gouged his abdomen.


A runner falls after being hooked by a bull's horn during a San Fermin bull run in Pamplona, Spain, in 2004.

A runner falls after being hooked by a bull's horn during a San Fermin bull run in Pamplona, Spain, in 2004.

The feast:Cows don't eat people. They just sometimes puncture them.

Terror factor: LOW. C'mon.

MAULED BY A GRIZZLY?

The facts:Fifteen hundred pounds of highland-bred ferocity, the largest examples of Ursus arctos horribilis inspire reverence and dread in the Rocky Mountain states. With its humped shoulders, massive head and unique "silvertip" markings, a grizz is unmistakable in the wild. Spot one? Back away. Slowly.

The fury: Grizzlies are wicked fast. (And running away tends to inspire them to give chase.) These powerful omnivores can take down moose or caribou, but they generally prefer to pick berries and scoop fish.

The feast:Grizz-related human deaths are rare. (Montana's Glacier National Park, perhaps the most intense mingling of the two species, recorded just 10 grizz killings between 1910 and 1998, for example.) But maulings and scary run-ins happen every year; occasionally bears spice up their diet with a highly evolved primate. In 1998, for example, Glacier hiker Craig Dahl got munched by a female grizz. Note to self: He ran.


Though instances are rare, grizzly bears have attacked and killed humans.

Though instances are rare, grizzly bears have attacked and killed humans.

Terror factor: MODERATE. After all, you have to be on the bear's turf before anything happens.

DEVOURED BY A SHARK?

The facts:With near-telepathic sense of smell (for some species, one part of blood per million is enough to trigger red alert), sharks are king predators of the sea.

The fury: They can reach swimming speeds of almost 12 miles per hour when attacking. Can ya match it?

The feast:Panic over sharks far outstrips their actual culinary use of human beings. In fact, the Florida Museum of Natural History's International Shark Attack File registers just 58 confirmed shark attacks for 2005, and only four fatalities. When sharks do nibble, they tend to stop after one bite. What, we don't taste good?

Terror factor: HIGH. Thanks to "Jaws," death at the fangs of a Great White has assumed an iconic place in beach-goers' fears. But stay on land, or off a surf board (which can look like a yummy seal), and you're fine.


Ants form a chain with their bodies to bridge the gap between two leaves. "Swarm-raiding" African driver ants are the only insects known to kill and consume a human being.

Ants form a chain with their bodies to bridge the gap between two leaves. "Swarm-raiding" African driver ants are the only insects known to kill and consume a human being.

SMOTHERED BY ANTS?

The facts:"Swarm-raiding" African driver ants are the only insects known to kill and consume a human being. They're blind (like all ants) but communicate via pheromone signals to pull off highly complex mass infantry maneuvers as they lay apocalyptic waste to the landscape. (A BBC nature special describes the species as a "monstrous black tide.") Up to 22 million of these flesh-hungry doom mites can live in a single colony.

The fury: Capable of stripping a chicken overnight or reducing a cow to shiny, collectible, polished bone given enough time. The drivers' favored method of execution is uniquely horrifying: An armada of millions invades a victims orifices, simultaneously asphyxiating and chewing them to death from inside out!

The feast:Human deaths are rare. Usually, only those physically incapable of escape - drunks, the elderly, babies - suffer the hideous consequences.

Terror factor: EXTREME. Imagine the visceral horror. Or, on second thought, don't.

- asap contributor Zach Dundas hopes to die painlessly one night in his sleep.

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