The most dangerous animals in North America, ranked by frequency and deadliness of attack.
I’m in Whistler, British Columbia and speaking with a woman who lives in an especially rural part of the Yukon. She’s telling me and the man next to me—an editor from Los Angeles—about her regular encounters with grizzly bears and how she has to keep her children’s cries quiet or it will call the bears in. But she’s not afraid of the bears, she tells us. With bears, you have to be firm. You have to stand your ground.
What about cougars? Or snakes? I ask. I’m teasing the editor at this point, who still seems nervous about a rumored black bear sighting from earlier in the evening.
Forget it, she says. With a cougar, you’re dead. A snake? You’re a goner.
This made me laugh—a grizzly being safer than a rattlesnake? But, of course, I’d grown up around rattlesnakes, the way that she’d grown up around bears. Our fears were proportional to our experiences.
Which made me wonder: which of these fears measure up to reality? Which really are the most dangerous animals?
It turns out, there is usually data for that. And for the most part, nothing is as deadly as we are. Forty thousand people die every year in car accidents—3,100 of them from distracted driving. That’s more than every single yearly animal fatality on this list combined.
In case you’re not convinced, here are the most dangerous animals in North America, ranked by frequency and deadliness of attack.
Unless you’re in Alaska where there are more than 7,000 wolves, a wolf sighting would be pretty darn rare. The next most populated area would be the western Great Lakes states (4,200 wolves), like Minnesota and Wisconsin, and the northern Rocky Mountains (1,700 wolves).
Meanwhile, there have only been two documented deaths caused by wolves in all of North America since recording such a thing began. Most wolves are afraid of people, and the best thing we can do when we see them is not treat them like dogs (e.g. try to make friends with them), since, like most wild animals, habituating them to humans can lead to problems.
Unlike many of the animals on this list, coyotes are still quite common, even in urban areas. That’s true even though humans kill tens of thousands of coyotes in North America every year.
Despite their continued presence, according to the Humane Society, there are only two known human deaths by coyotes in all of Canada and the United States. It’s rare for coyotes to attack humans at all. A study of coyote attacks from 1977 to 2015 found just 367 incidents, or about 10 a year. Little kids were especially unlucky since about 40% of the attacks were on kids under the age of 10.
Coyotes do seem to enjoy eating small pets, however, so keep Fido close by.
9. Alligators and Crocodiles
While you won’t run into the crocodilian species in most of the United States—alligators hang out in some of the southern states, and American crocodiles only live in Florida—they can certainly inspire fear when you’re in their territory.
But that’s misguided. According to CrocBite: Worldwide Crocodilian Attack Database, run by Charles Darwin University, there have only been 260 attacks since 1734, and just 41 of them have been fatal. That’s less than one attack a year.
“Conflict with humans rarely occurs because of the shy nature of American crocodiles,” according to the Everglades National Park Service. Most often, if you encounter one at all, you’ll just hear a large splash as they run away from you and into the water.
8. Cougars/Mountain Lions
Admittedly, there aren’t any good government resources for how many cougar attacks have happened and how many of them have been fatal, which is not the most comforting news. However, a thorough Wikipedia page that suggests that in the last 100 years, there have been about 125 attacks, 27 of which have resulted in human death.
That’s because cougars aren’t especially interested in humans and often avoid them entirely. “Mountain lions are so stealthy, it’s amazing,” says Brooke Linford, who has worked at eight parks over the last 20 years and is the Wilderness Information Center Supervisor at Olympic National Park. One cougar family being studied in the park was right near a populated area but never seen by humans.
Unfortunately, in many places, cougar populations are in decline due to hunting and habitat loss, according to the Humane Society.
In 2018, there were 32 shark attacks in the U.S., and only one was fatal. That’s even fewer attacks than the year before, when there were 53 attacks. “That’s not because sharks don’t know we’re there, it’s not because sharks aren’t near you,” says David Shiffman, an interdisciplinary marine conservation biologist. “We are just not on the menu.”
The best advice for avoiding a shark attack, Shiffman says, is basically to avoid the habits of surfers: “Don’t go swimming at dusk or dawn, stay close to shore, and stay in a large group of people.”
Again, there isn’t a specific tally for bear attacks or deaths in the U.S. or North America. The closest is Wikipedia’s recording of media-reported bear deaths. According to their tally, 152 people have died from bears in North America in the last 100 years—between one and two a year. Yellowstone National Park reports there were 44 people injured by grizzly bears in the park since it opened in 1979 and eight of them died.
Bear encounters are common in the backcountry. Linford says that knowing the type of bears in your area is important. “In black bear habitat, for the most part, you shouldn’t be very concerned. They tend to want to run away from us,” he explains. But grizzly bears are different, and it’s best not to startle them. To do that, make plenty of noise while hiking—talking works best.
5. Venomous Snakes
In the U.S., we have several types of venomous snakes, namely rattlesnakes (perhaps the most recognizable, thanks to their warning rattle), copperheads (which are found on the east coast), and cottonmouths/water moccasins and coral snakes (found in the southeast).
Between 7,000 and 8,000 people are bitten by venomous snakes in the U.S. every year, but only about five die. Some walk away with permanent damage to the area that was bitten, but thanks to modern medicine, only about five people who are bitten die annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Even more, a study in The Western Journal of Medicine in the late ‘80s found that of the 282 bites they investigated, more than half were handling the snake when they were bitten. So stay a little afraid of venomous snakes, don’t pick them up, and you’ll be even less likely to get chomped.
While ticks can cause several different illnesses, including anaplasmosis and spotted fever rickettsiosis, the top of everyone’s mind Lyme disease, which is by far the most common. The CDC gets reports of some 30,000 cases of Lyme disease every year, and that’s not capturing every instance. Researchers estimate the number of cases is closer to 300,000. Most of these cases are from the northern parts of the midwest and the northeast.
Untreated Lyme disease can cause serious issues as the infection moves to the joints, nervous system and heart. Luckily, most cases of Lyme disease are effectively treated with antibiotics, although there are some instances of Post-Treatment Lyme Disease Syndrome, which currently does not have a proven treatment method. It’s still very rare for Lyme disease to cause death.
There doesn’t appear to be any official count of how many jellyfish sting people in the U.S., although in 2018 Florida lifeguards treated over 800 jellyfish stings in three days. There are an estimated 150 million stings every year around the world.
It’s also unclear how many people die every year from jellyfish around the world (is this comforting yet?), but it’s “at least 50,” according to Lucas Brotz, a Ph.D. student at University of British Columbia’s Fisheries Center who co-authored research on jellyfish told CityLab.
Still, the good news is that the U.S. doesn’t usually see many deadly jellyfish along its coast. If you’re spending time in Australian waters, though…well, we wish you luck.
2. Bees, Hornets, Wasps
Yes, one of the most deadly creatures in the U.S. wilds is smaller than your finger. Hornet, wasp, and bee stings have killed more than 1,000 people since 2000, about 62 every year, according to the CDC. Although bee stings can be just a minor irritant for some, they can result in severe allergic shock in others, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Though they bee little (sorry), they are fierce. Avoiding perfumes, brightly colored clothing, and flowering plants can help prevent a sting, according to the CDC. And contrary to everyone’s natural reaction, it’s actually better to stay calm than to swat at a stinging insect. But if you’re being swarmed, embrace your instinct and run.
Maybe you weren’t expecting Bambi to be on a list of deadly creatures, but alas, it’s true. According to LCB, which compiled data from the CDC, deer cause at least 120 deaths every year—usually in car crashes. And that’s not to mention injuries and the cost to motorists (and their insurance companies) after a collision.
While they seem sweet, deer cause damage beyond car crashes, too. Overpopulation of deer can wreak havoc on forests, cause a decline in songbirds, and they tend to spread plants around where they shouldn’t be. Not to mention, they gobble up private and corporate gardens.
The advice on avoiding deer collisions is to drive slow, use your brights, and pay extra close attention after sunset until past sunrise in areas where deer are active. But the experts are still trying to figure out how to manage the impact of deer on nature.
Now, go forth into the wilderness without (too much) fear of a violent death at the hands of a wild animal.