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What Preys on Humans?

Most of us never come in contact with a deadly predator, but there are still enough encounters to remind us that humans are not always the top of the food web

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Several crocodile species are known to attack humans (photo courtesy of flickr user Fayes4Art)

We started out Predator Week on Monday with a study that looked at what happens when predators disappear from an ecosystem. But why do we get rid of predators in the first place? Some of them go after things we care about, like our livestock, but an even more understandable motivation for eliminating a species is that it attacks (and eats) us. Humans and our ancestors have been dealing with that problem for forever (check out the top 10 deadliest animals of our evolutionary past), and while many of us are able to live our lives without ever coming in contact with a deadly predator, there are still enough encounters to remind us that humans are not always the top of the food web. (That said, we’ve had enough reminders lately that these species are important to their ecosystems, important enough that we need to keep them around.) Here are the predators that humans had best avoid:

Cats: We’re not talking about your cute little housecat (though a nasty scratch or bite can be troublesome). Leopards, lions and tigers are the scary man-eaters of the cat world. Just this week a leopard in India was taken down after going on a rampage and mauling several people. And tiger attacks in India may be on the rise as their habitat shrinks. But when I think of man-eating cats, my mind goes to the lions of Africa, and stories like the movie The Ghost and the Darkness. If you want to avoid being eaten, a new study finds that lions take advantage of their better night vision and most often attack humans in the nights after the full moon, when the moon rises an hour or more after sunset.

Bears: Earlier this summer, a hiker was attacked and killed by a grizzly bear in Yellowstone National Park. It was the first fatal bear attack in Yellowstone since 1986. Your best option when traveling in bear country is to find out which species you may encounter, learn about them and prepare yourself with the proper knowledge and equipment so you can be ready in the case of an attack.

Sharks: What would summer be without stories of shark attacks? These attacks are real—there are several dozen each year worldwide and a few fatalities—though the hype some years is far greater than the danger. The Florida Museum of Natural History has a good list of advice for avoiding a shark encounter, much of it common sense (don’t go in the water if bleeding; don’t harass a shark). Sharks aren’t just terrifying nightmares, though; they’re smart—for fish—and many of their “attacks” may just be the shark investigating its environment.

Komodo dragons: The most famous victim of a komodo dragon attack has to be Phil Bronstein who, in 2001 when he was married to Sharon Stone, lost his big toe to one of these big lizards. These giant, carnivorous lizards, native to Indonesia, use sharp teeth, and possibly venom, to bring down large prey, such as pigs, deer and water buffalo. They’ll also attack humans and even dig up bodies from shallow graves.

Crocodiles and alligators: These are both big reptiles with pointy teeth that like to hang out in the water and wait for a meal. In the United States, we worry about the freshwater alligators (Florida’s Sun-Sentinel newspaper keeps an online database of attacks) while in Asia, Australia and Africa, the saltwater croc finds humans to be tasty meals. The easiest way to avoid them both is to stay away from waters where they may be found, and that includes the shores where the reptiles may be lying in wait for their prey.

Wolves: People who live in wolf territory often fear that these dogs will attack them or their children. In North America, wolf attacks on humans are incredibly rare, fatal ones even more so; one report counts around 20 to 30 in the 20th century. Wolves are more bold (or more desperate) in some other parts of the world, however. In Uttar Pradesh in India, wolves killed or injured 74 people in 1996 and 1997.

Hippos: Hippos are mostly herbivorous animals, but that’s a bit misleading because they seem to have a great enough dislike for humans that they’ll attack people even when the humans think they’re safe in a boat. More people are supposedly killed by hippos than by any other animal in Africa. They weigh several tons and can run as fast as, or perhaps faster than, a human on land, so it’s best to stay in the safari vehicle when traveling through hippo country.

Snakes: While poisonous snakes can kill you, tales of man-eating snakes center on species like pythons that are big enough to swallow a human child whole. Confirmed stories of such deaths, however, are extremely rare.

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About Sarah Zielinski
Sarah Zielinski

Sarah Zielinski is an award-winning science writer and editor. She is a contributing writer in science for Smithsonian.com and blogs at Wild Things, which appears on Science News.

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