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dangerous animals in north america

Most Dangerous Animals in North America: 5 Species to Avoid

North America is the third-largest global continent in size and the fourth-largest by population. Dominated by the United States and Canada, the continent is home to natural landmarks like the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls, countless national parks, and active volcanoes. With so many different landscapes and habitats, you might be wondering, what are the most dangerous animals in North America?

North America is bordered by the Arctic Ocean to the north and South America and the Caribbean Sea to the south. It’s a sprawling continent that spans several climates and 23 countries, and among its nearly 600 million human population are some deadly predators that you need to look out for.

Racking up human fatalities every year, these are just some of the most dangerous animals in North America that you should avoid. From supersize mammals to killer fish, let’s get into it. 

Bears

bears fighting
Photo by byrdyak/Envato Elements

Officially the deadliest animal in the states since 1970, the brown bear has been responsible for 70 deaths in the last 50 years and their population is widespread throughout the continent. Captive bear attacks do happen, but most of America’s attacks are done by wild bears and national parks like Yellowstone are hotbeds for such incidents. 

Brown bears are large species, often known as grizzly bears in North America. Their subspecies, the Kodiak bear, which inhabits the islands of the same name in Alaska, is the largest known species of bear in the world, but most brown bears grow to around seven feet and weigh up to 1,000 lbs. 

Most of North America’s brown bears live in Alaska, with around 30,000 inhabiting the boreal forests and frosty coastline of the northmost state, but around 1,500 brown bears can be found across Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, and Washington, as well as Western Canada. Brown bears can look similar, but there’s actually a lot of differentiation within the species, from their size, diet, coloring, and sleeping patterns, which all depend on their location. 

Grizzly bears typically refer to brown bears that live inland, away from the coast. These are abundant in Yellowstone National Park where they can eat a variety of foods, preying on animals like elk calves and other small mammals, but also spawning trout. Alaskan brown bears, on the other hand, are the largest brown bears and require the most food. 

They can eat 80 to 90 lbs of food a day and need to gain about three to six pounds of fat each day in summer and fall in order to store fat for winter. They eat almost anything with a diet consisting of berries, flowers, grasses, herbs, and roots, but they get their protein from beavers, deer, caribou, and any mammal carcass. They’re also expert salmon catchers and eat the most fat-rich parts of the fish first—the skin, brain, and roe. 

Brown bears are very intelligent and curious, especially around food. Bears who attack and subsequently feed on humans can then associate people with food, which can become dangerous. Even bears who are fed by humans can create the same links, so never leave food lying around in bear territory and never try to feed a bear. 

Even the grizzly bears in Yellowstone hibernate for winter and enter their dens between mid-October and early December. Those with cubs are even more likely to sleep throughout winter, but some bears can awake and search for food during the season. Pregnant grizzly bears give birth during winter, usually in late January, but remain in their dens. 

When they emerge in the springtime, the cubs have grown to around four to eight pounds, the mother bear will start the hunt for food. Hungry and protective over her new young, this is one of the worst times to encounter a grizzly in the wild. 

Black bears are also ones to be watched, responsible for 54 fatal attacks since 1970, while polar bears have killed 10 people in the same time frame. Black bears can be found throughout the Pacific Northwest forests and mountains as well as in Canada, Alaska, the Rocky Mountains, the upper midwest, and even parts of the south like the Appalachian mountains and Mexico. 

In fact, black bears are found in all provinces of Canada and in 40 of the 50 US states, with a population of around 900,000 distributed across the continent. Polar bears are limited to Alaska but there are as many as 4,000 to 7,000 individuals living in the northern state. 

If you do encounter a bear, slowly walk away to the side and don’t run. In most instances, the bear won’t follow. If it does, stand your ground. If the bear gets aggressive, you can try scaring it off by looking as big as possible, waving your arms, and making noise. If this doesn’t work and the bear launches an attack, drop to the ground, play dead, and cover your head and neck. 

Snakes

eastern diamondback rattlesnake
Photo by kjwells86/Envato Elements

Snakes are the second biggest killer on the continent and one of the most dangerous animals in North America. We don’t need to tell you why you need to be wary of snakes and there are more than a few deadly species in the states. Around 7,000-8,000 people receive venomous bites every year in North America, and around five of those victims die. 

Snakes have been responsible for almost 60 fatalities in the last 50 years, with most of the fatal bites being attributed to rattlesnakes, although copperheads account for more snakebite incidents than any other venomous species in North America. The eastern diamondback rattlesnake, the largest of its species, is the most deadly of all. 

It get its name from its distinct coloration and a dorsal pattern consisting of dark diamond-shaped blotches, lined with a border of yellowish scales. Most adult diamondbacks reach 33-72 inches (84-138 cm) in total length, but the biggest ever recorded measured 99 inches, that’s more than 250 cm long. They typically weigh 4-5 lbs, but a big snake can weigh more than 15 lbs, making it one of the heaviest venomous snakes in the Americas. 

The venom of a diamondback contains a potent hemotoxin that kills red blood cells and causes immediate tissue damage. You should never use a tourniquet on a suspected rattlesnake bite for this reason. The bites are extremely painful and can be fatal, with an average yield of 400 mg of venom per bite—that’s eight times greater than the volume of venom needed to kill a human.  

A bite from an eastern diamondback could cause numbness in the face or limbs, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, sweating, salivating, blurred vision, difficulty breathing, and in extreme envenomation, cardiac arrest, and death. Antivenom is widely available throughout the snake’s range, but a bite can still have lasting effects even with treatment. 

You don’t have to worry about them everywhere you go in the states. Diamondback rattlesnakes are restricted to the Lower Coastal Plain of the southeast, with distribution from southern North Carolina to eastern Louisana, although their highest populations can be found in Florida and southern Georgia. 

They prefer scrublands, pine, and coastal forests. Abandoned farmland and over overgrown fields near such environments are likely to have eastern diamondbacks. You can also find them in more moist areas like wet prairies and the borders of wetlands. Although they favor dry environments, they’re actually adept swimmers and will occasionally dwell in saltwater and along the edges of swamps. 

Never stray off the beaten path or wander through tall grass in snake territory in North America, and try to make a lot of noise when you are hiking or rambling to let snakes know you’re coming. While they can be aggressive, they’d rather avoid humans and potential threats. The distinctive rattle of the eastern diamondback is the best indication of their presence. Listen out and be aware. 

Sharks

great white
Photo by Mint_Images/Envato Elements

Sharks are closely tied with snakes when it comes to the deadliest predators in the states. They aren’t only one of the most dangerous animals in North America, but the United States also recorded more unprovoked shark attacks than anywhere else in the world in 2021, with 47 confirmed incidents. That’s a 42 percent increase from 2020 and representative of 64 percent of the global total. 

Florida has topped the charts for the most shark bites worldwide for decades, with most incidents happening in Volusia County on beaches like New Smyrna which has come to be known as the shark attack capital of the world. However, the majority of attacks are accidents and cases of mistaken identity, hence why they’re usually of a bite-and-release nature. So why Florida and which sharks are responsible for these numbers?

One of the main reasons that Florida is such a hotbed for shark attacks is simply because of probability. More shark attacks occur when more people encroach on sharks’ habitats, namely when people enter shark-infested waters. Tourists and locals flock to the beaches in Volusia County to enjoy the year-round warm temperatures. The likelihood of attacks also isn’t helped by the big predators that love Florida’s waters too. 

Many different shark species migrate in and out of Florida’s waters as a result of temperature and the abundance of prey like mullet, sardines, menhaden, and other baitfish. Among these sharks are some of the most dangerous species in the world like bull sharks and the formidable great white. Although the former is more aggressive, the great white is a force to be reckoned with, albeit with very bad eyesight, meaning it often mistakes humans for seals and other prey.

Predatory sharks have strong jaws that make them more than capable of tearing through human flesh. If you’re isolated in deep water, the chances of reaching shore or calling for help after suffering a painful bite are much lower. Try to avoid solitary swimming, since sharks after more likely to approach individuals than groups of swimmers. Stay close to shore in shark territory, preferably in depths where you can stand. Be extra cautious in areas between sandbars or steep drop-offs as these are favored hangouts of sharks. 

Stay calm if you do see a shark and swim quickly but smoothly away if you’re near the shore. If a shark launches an attack, playing dead won’t save you. Use anything at your disposal to fight off the shark like a surfboard, dive gear, or fishing equipment, and if you only have your bare hands, aim your attack on the eyes, nose, and gills.   

Alligators

alligator in north america
Photo by harrycollinsphotography/Envato Elements

Found in subtropical and tropical freshwater from southern Texas to North Carolina, as many as four people have been killed by alligators in 2022 alone and more than 30 since 1970, making them one of the most dangerous animals in North America. 

Following suit with their shark attack file, more attacks and deaths from alligators take place in Florida than anywhere else in the Americas, with almost 450 unprovoked bites since records began in 1948, averaging eight per year.  

The American alligator, often referred to colloquially as a gator or common alligator, is a large crocodilian reptile that is native to the Southeastern United States. There are only two species of alligator in the world, and the American gator is the larger, reaching lengths twice as long and weighing three times as much as the Chinese alligator.

Male alligators are much bigger than their female counterparts, measuring 3-4.6 m on average, compared to 1.5-2.6 m in females. Females weigh around 91 kg while males can weigh a whopping 230 kg, which contributes to their considerable strength. 

The American alligator has no predators and has the most powerful bite of all crocodilian reptiles in the US. To put things into perspective, humans produce around 890 newtons of force when they chow down on meat, while the American alligator can produce 16,460 newtons of bite pressure at a time. The power of an American alligator’s jaw makes it more than capable of killing prey instantly, but they’re also speedy runners and swimmers, and can also jump and climb. 

It’s an urban legend that running in a zig-zag will help you escape an alligator’s jaws. Since their blind spot is directly in front of their nose, running in such a pattern could actually make you easier to catch. Alligators tend to stay by the water’s edge, but if they see something they like, they could charge onto land at short bursts of up to 30 miles per hour—not even Usain Bolt is capable of those speeds. 

They’re most present from March through to May in areas like the Everglades in Florida. Never swim outside of posted areas in any marshland and swim only in daylight hours. Don’t discard fish scraps in the water too, use garbage cans at boat ramps instead so as not to attract unwanted gators. 

Although almighty, alligators are shy and would rather avoid human contact so leave them alone and you could avoid a nasty attack. Stay with children and keep an eye on pets in gator territory—it’s not unheard of for alligators to wander into Floridian backyards and use swimming pools. And despite their short bursts of speed, if you’ve got stamina, you should be able to outrun an alligator as it’s unlikely to chase you too far from the water’s edge. If you’re in the water and encounter a gator, get out of there quickly.   

Cougars

a mountain lion
Photo by macropixel/Envato Elements

Cougars are native to the Americas and their range spans from the Canadian Yukon to the Southern Andes. Otherwise known as mountain lions in some parts of the states, these large wild cats are strong and agile and known to encroach on human settlements in search of prey. 

Cougars don’t hunt people, but they sit at the top of the food chain and actively prey on livestock like cattle and chickens which can give them access to humans. In the past 100 years, cougars have launched around 130 attacks on humans with around 26 fatalities. This makes fatal cougar attacks quite rare, but they’re still a force to be reckoned with. 

Cougars are slender-bodied with round heads and pointed ears which make them not dissimilar in appearance from household felines, although on a larger scale. They reach lengths of around 1.2-2.7 m, including their tails, and weigh between 45 and 70 kg. 

Cougars are grayish-tan to reddish in color with a lighter underside and typically a black spot at the tip of their tails. They live wherever there is shelter and prey and can adapt to most American habitats from deserts to mountains; tropical beaches to forests. They can climb with ease and jump further than three times their body length. 

Make your presence known every time you’re hiking in North America. Talking loudly or playing music can help scare away any wild predators. If you come across a cougar, face the animal but look at its feet instead of directly into its eyes to prevent appearing aggressive. 

If the animal doesn’t retreat or seems aggressive, make yourself look bigger by raising your arms or an open jacket above your head. If this doesn’t work, make loud noises and even consider throwing stones or branches in its direction, although not directly at it, to scare it away.  

Where are the most dangerous states for animal attacks?

Although Florida is home to gators and great whites, Texas is by far the most dangerous state for animal-related deaths with over 500 recorded fatalities between 1999 and 2019. California is second with nearly 300 in the same time frame, and Florida is third with around 250 fatal incidents. North Carolina and Tennessee are top contenders with 180 and 170 deaths respectively, while Delaware, North Dakota, and Rhode Island are the safest with no animal-related deaths recorded in the last 20 years. 

What kills the most humans in the USA?

Although sharks, bears, and snakes are the most dangerous animals that you should avoid, it’s the more unlikely contenders that kill the most people in the states. Farm animals, hornets, bees, wasps, and dogs kill more Americans than big mammals with their kicks, bites, and stings. However, they’re not feared for their aggressive nature, rather their high populations and the likelihood of allergic reactions are what make them statistical killers.