If snakes and spiders give you the willies or you quake at the thought of sharks or piranhas lurking beneath the surface, you might be surprised to learn these “scary” animals don’t deserve their bad rap.
A venomous Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus).
Thanks to a less-than-wholesome depiction in folklore and superstition, snakes have an undeserved reputation as deadly predators. In fact, the vast majority of snake species are harmless. Of the estimated 3,900 species of snake in the world, only 660 (about 17%) are venomous.
And unless you’re a rodent or some other natural prey item, you’re in luck! Of those venomous snakes, only 200 species are considered harmful to humans.
Here in Tennessee, the odds are even better that snakes you encounter aren’t out to get you. The Volunteer State has 32 species of snake, but only four — Northern Copperheads, Cottonmouths, Timber Rattlesnakes and Pygmy Rattlesnakes — possess venom whose bite is medically significant to humans. In other words, whose venom “can cause death, serious illness or injury in humans that may require emergency room care or the immediate care of a physician.”
A common misconception is that snakes are inherently aggressive, but snakes are actually shy – yes, even Cottonmouths – and prefer to avoid confrontation. Their prey consists of small rodents, amphibians or reptiles, and they have no interest in anything human-sized.
Most snake bites occur when humans inadvertently step on snakes or disturb them. Biting is their last line of defense when threatened, and they would prefer to go on their way unbothered.
Snake bites are also extremely rare, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reporting an average of 7,000-8,000 annually in the United States. Even more reassuringly, only one in 50 million people — approximately five a year — die from snakebites annually in the U.S., according to the University of Florida’s Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation.
Understanding snake behavior and habitats and knowing how to identify venomous snakes that live in your area can greatly reduce the risk of an unexpected or unwanted encounter.
Snakes also serve an important role as natural pest controllers in our ecosystems by helping keep rodent populations in check. Without snakes, rodents would practically take over many food-rich environments. They are also eaten by animals such as wading birds and raptors, making them important prey as well.
Red-bellied Piranha (Pygocentrus nattereri).
Hollywood has long told moviegoers to fear the waters of the Amazon River, where they say a terrifying predator lurks, ready to converge, en masse, to devour prey at the slightest disturbance of the water’s surface.
Though Red-bellied Piranha possess a fearsome reputation, that portrayal is far from accurate. Humans are not on the menu for this toothy Amazonian fish. They are actually omnivores, eating a varied diet that includes aquatic vegetation, other fish, invertebrates, insects and small terrestrial animals.
Piranha also exhibit complex social behaviors that challenge the notion that they’re nothing more than mindless eating machines. They coordinate their movements with complex body language to engage in cooperative hunting. Piranha also shoal in groups, a behavior that was once believed to be a way for them to hunt, but a 2005 study published in The Royal Society journal Biology Letters demonstrated that this group maneuvering was actually a defensive act.
Like snakes, piranha also serve a vital role in maintaining a balanced aquatic ecosystem. As top predators, they help regulate fish populations, preventing overgrazing of aquatic vegetation and helping maintain biodiversity and a healthy ecological equilibrium.
Golden Silk Orb Weaver Spider (Trichonephila clavipes)
Spiders are another critter often met with fear or apprehension. Like other animals on this list, they play a crucial ecological role that is often overshadowed by unfounded human fears.
Despite often being mistakenly lumped in with them, spiders aren’t insects but arachnids, possessing only two body segments and eight legs (rather than the three segments and six legs of insects). Also unlike insects, which undergo metamorphosis from a larval stage to an adult stage, spiders and other arachnids maintain the same body shape and configuration throughout their lives and grow by molting their exoskeleton.
Worldwide, there 50,000 identified species of spiders, with scientists estimating that just as many are waiting to be discovered and classified. The U.S. alone is home to about 3,500 spider species, but the overwhelming majority are harmless to humans since many of them lack fangs large and powerful enough to pierce human skin.
Some spiders are venomous, but they primarily use their venom to hunt prey and not as a defense against or an act of aggression toward humans. Despite their reputation as dangerous, fatalities from bites by species such as Black Widows and Brown Recluses are extremely rare and usually occur in cases of severe allergic reactions or when treatment is delayed or never sought.
Between 2008 and 2015, there were only six recorded deaths due to spider bites, according to the Mississippi State University Extension Service. By comparison, annual deaths from encounters with other animals are far more common, including dogs (34) and large livestock (74). Even lightning (26) is a more likely cause of fatal injury than a spider.
Setting aside their misrepresentation as deadly to humans, spiders join snakes among the ranks of nature’s most important pest controllers. They might not be insects themselves, but the spider webs that always seem waiting to stickily ambush us while hiking perform a crucial role by helping keep actual insect populations in check. Without spiders, crops and our homes would be far more impacted by problem insects, including pesky, disease-carrying ones like mosquitoes.
Sand Tiger Shark (Carcharias taurus)
[Cue menacing tuba theme music.]
Sharks have long suffered from a deeply ingrained and unjust reputation as ruthless killers ready to attack humans innocently going for a swim in the ocean.
Considered the world’s first summer blockbuster, Jaws inspired a nationwide fear of sharks when it premiered on June 20, 1975. This menacing reputation was later reinforced by a seemingly endless
parade of copycat films, such as “The Reef” (2010), “The Meg “ (2018), and, yes, even “Sharknado” (2013).
Combined with media reports of isolated shark attacks, fear of these marine predators has been deeply ingrained in the public, but sharks are much more misunderstood than ruthless.
Shark attacks on humans are statistically rare. In 2022, there were only 57 unprovoked shark bites on humans worldwide, of which only five were fatal, according to the International Shark Attack File. You’re more likely to be injured while driving to the beach than by a shark attack once you’re in the water.
Shark attacks on humans are also typically a case of mistaken identity. Despite their portrayal, sharks don’t actively seek out humans as prey, preferring to feed on fish, seals and other marine animals that make up their natural diet.
The actual “attack” is generally a taste test. Shark attacks on swimmers or surfers are usually attributed to a shark mistakenly believing it was hunting a seal or other mammal. Because humans aren’t a natural part of marine ecosystems, sharks are unsure whether to treat us as prey, so a bite is generally their attempt to decide whether or not we’re good to eat.
Like snakes and spiders, it’s also unfair to lump all sharks into a single category. With more than 500 species of shark worldwide, their temperaments and diets vary from gentle giants, like Whale and Basking Sharks that consume primarily krill and plankton, to apex predators (and the most-maligned species of all), the Great White Shark.
Even Great Whites and other top-tier predators like Bull and Tiger Sharks play a vital role in marine ecosystems. They act as an important control on populations of the fish they consume. Without them, the ocean’s food web would become imbalanced.
If anything, sharks have far more to fear from us than we do from them. According to the International Fund for Animal Welfare, humans are responsible for killing about 100 million sharks a year, an average of more than 11,000 every hour.
Sharks are suffering from a severe conservation crisis. Overfishing, habitat destruction and the demand for shark fin products have led to numerous species becoming threatened or endangered, which underscores the urgency of dispelling harmful myths about these ocean predators.