The laid back Golden State of California is home to a range of wildlife, including a number of dangerous animals which should be treated with caution, or avoided entirely. It is the most populous state in the US and the third largest by area, providing contrasting habitats for creatures which range from large, carnivorous mammals, to tiny venomous insects.
Sharing an international border with Mexico and with the Pacific Ocean to the west, tourists are attracted to California for its tropical climate. As you reach the more central areas of the state, the weather becomes a little milder, with similarities to the Mediterranean. Meanwhile California’s high mountains, including the infamous Sierra Nevada see high levels of snowfall in winter and moderate temperatures during the rest of the year.
California is akin to a small country, with snowy peaks, tropical beaches, urban sprawls and dry desert – this is why you won’t find such a range of wildlife anywhere else in the US.
American Black Bear
Much smaller and much more common than their fierce cousin, the Grizzly bear but nevertheless, this bear is still more than capable of fatally wounding a human being. Many people have been injured by black bears when camping in national parks, with unsealed food and garbage attracting this scavenger which can smell a meal from over 20 miles away.
This animal may look gentle on appearance but its brutal strength, long claws and sharp teeth make it a potential killer if it feels threatened, or a person gets in the way of its next feed.
This species usually sticks to forested areas and is rarely seen on open plains, an excellent climber, the Black Bear feeds on all manner of things, including honey, fruit, tree sap, leaves, plants and insects.
Predominantly a herbivore but this bear will eat pretty much anything it can lay its claws on, with a taste for fish and on occasion it can be an excellent predator, preying on young moose calves and deer fawns.
Despite its name, this bear has been known to have blonde or cinnamon fur and there have also been reports of white! Black Bears. With a lifespan of 20-25 years in the wild, a fully grown adult can grow to 1.9m in length and weigh as much as 225kg.
The only animals which pose a significant threat to Black Bears in the United States, apart from humans are Brown & Grizzly Bears, Mountain Lions and Wolves.
Globally, there are over 70 species of Bark Scorpion, however the one typically referred to in the US is the Arizona Bark Scorpion which can also be found in California, unfortunately, this may be in your shoes or even your bed sheets!
It is the most venomous scorpion in the United States and can deliver a very painful sting.
Adult Bark Scorpions typically grow to around 60mm in length and can be identified by their long, narrow pincers. It is highly adaptive and can be found across the Americas, in deserts, forests, grassland and rocky areas. It’s natural habitat is under tree bark, rocks and crevices but they are also prone to wandering into people’s homes and finding a dark secluded spot.
It catches prey such as spiders, centipedes and other insects using the hairs on its pedipalps which pick up vibrations, it then ambushes the victim, stinging it with its tail to inject venom. The venom paralyses the unfortunate creature and liquefies its insides which can then be sucked up.
Anyone stung by this scorpion will experience a burning , tingling or numbing feeling around the puncture which will subside over time, although the pain is sometimes severe. A sting is almost never life threatening but small children and the elderly are most at risk.
Only one known pack of Gray Wolves call California home, consisting of around 14 wolves but this phenomenal predator can pose a significant risk to humans even if the chances of an encounter are slim.
Also know as the Timber Wolf, they are perfectly suited to the wide open ranges of the Lassen and Plumas counties, particularly Lassen Volcanic National Park where they are most likely to be spotted. Its physique is comparable to a large German Shepherd but with a white under colour and gray/ brown markings. An adult male can grow up to five feet in length and weigh up to 145 pounds.
These carnivores hunt prey such as elk, bison, moose and deer in efficient packs but will also kill smaller mammals like beavers and hares. A fully grown adult can consume 20 pounds of meat in a single feed.
Wolves howl in a form of long distance communication, while a bark serves a warning if it feels threatened. They have a lifespan of 8-15 years in the wild and are one of the few animals which mate for life.
In North America there have only been six reports of unprovoked wolf attacks on humans which have caused injury, while a further 21 attacks have been caused by a human feeding them. An encounter and especially an attack is unlikely but this animal is indeed dangerous and should not be approached.
Both the Chilean and Desert Recluse spiders can be found in California and both are able to deliver painful bites which can destroy skin tissue. The Chilean is one of the largest of the species and are identifiable by their brown body and the black violin shape on its back, giving it the nickname Fiddleback spider. The Desert Recluse has similar markings but are usually a sandy/ tan colour.
Native to South America, this species has been introduced to North America and has firmly established itself in California, helped by its hot and dry weather.
Untreated bites from a recluse spider can result in the death of skin tissue, with red blistering and blue discolouration, the necrotic venom can then spread, creating large wounds that will leave significant scarring.
Anyone bitten should apply an ice pack (as the venom spreads quicker in high temperatures) and clean the wound with soap and water, while applying Aloe Vera or an antibiotic cream can help soothe the pain. The bite is usually fully healed within three weeks and a person should seek medical help if the pain has not subsided in this time and the tissue damage has spread.
The Brown Recluse is not native to California which is considered the most dangerous of the species.
The Cougar, or Mountain Lion, also referred to as a Puma or Panther can be found from the Canadian Yukon to the Southern Andes and is the most widespread large mammal in the Americas. It is the second largest cat in the Western Hemisphere, after the Jaguar.
These dangerous animals are ambush predators and are solitary by nature, usually active at night or during twilight. Its common prey are deer but it will also eat creatures as small as insects, in addition to rodents and other small mammals which it stalks in mainly rocky and highly vegetated areas. Mountain Lions have also been credited with killing an animal as large as bear. Cougars can sometimes lose out on a kill if a larger animal such as a Bear or an Alligator tries to claim it.
Reports of a human being killed by a Mountain Lion are rare but have increased over the decades as people build homes and farms closer to their territory. In the last 100 years, 125 attacks have been reported in the United States, with 27 of them fatal.
Black Widow Spider
Although small, the Black Widow is one of the most dangerous animals in California and can deliver a painful, potentially life threatening bite. This spider’s venom is said to be 15 times stronger than a rattlesnake’s and a bite can result in a paralysis of the diaphragm, resulting in breathing difficulties – other symptoms include; nausea, vomiting & muscle aching.
The Black Widow has a red/ orange hourglass-shaped marking on its abdomen and its body is black-to-dark brown. A fully grown adult is usually around 1.5 inches in length and 0.5 inches in diameter.
A bite can be fatal to young children, the elderly, or people suffering from a disability, however, an healthy adult is unlikely to suffer from any lasting effects. Around 2,200 people are bitten by a Black Widow each year in the United States but most do not require medical treatment if correct precautions are taken.
Clean the bite with soap and water, apply antibiotic cream and apply a cool, damp cloth to the wound. If bitten on a limb then you should try to elevate it and take over the counter medication for the pain. Seek medical advice if you see signs of infection.
There are six species of rattlesnake in California, these include; the Western Diamondback, Southwestern Speckled (Panamint), Sidewinder, Mojave, Red Diamond and Western Rattlesnake. A type of pit viper, they get the names from the keratin segments located at the end of their tail, which create a distinct rattling sound when they are vibrated.
Hikers and adventurers could possibly stumble across one of California’s most venomous residents in areas such as Joshua Tree National Park & Mount Tamalpais State Park, with most attacks occurring when someone accidentally steps on a rattlesnake or it feels threatened. It is also worth remembering that young rattlesnakes, or ones that have been injured may not have a rattle, so it is advised to be wary of any snake you encounter in the wild. These snakes can also be identified by their unique, triangular shaped heads.
The Western Diamondback Rattlesnake is considered the most dangerous in California as it is larger and tends to be more aggressive than the other five species. In northern Mexico the Western Diamondback is responsible for the most snake related fatalities and is second in the United States, after the Eastern Diamondback.
Africanized Bees (AKA Killer Bees) were accidentally introduced into the wild in 1956, when they escaped from a facility in Brazil. This hybrid was created by cross breeding European bees with the East African Honeybee, creating an aggressive, highly defensive new species.
This bee went on to create colonies across south and central America before eventually reaching the United States in 1990 where it has gone on to earn a reputation as one of the country’s most dangerous animals. This creature thrives in warm weather but scientists believe this bee can adapt to cold climates and will ultimately spread to the northern states, creating a nationwide problem.
Killer bees are much more aggressive than their European cousins and attack in large numbers, chasing potential threats over long distances and delivering countless stings. They are also spooked by loud noises and are quick to defend their hives.
Between 2000-2017, bees, wasps and hornets were responsible for 63 deaths a year in the US, on average.
Great White Sharks
The ocean’s most well-equipped killer, the Great White Shark provides the greatest fear factor on the California coast. Although shark attacks are rare, the consequences can be devastating, with 99 unprovoked attacks on record in California, resulting in 9 deaths, while survivors have sustained injuries such as lost limbs and severe scarring.
The Great White is the only shark in the state that provides a significant threat to humans and can be found in the Eastern Pacific due to its cool, coastal waters – including California’s Channel Islands and north of Point Conception where they feed on Seals and Sea Lions.
Shark attacks on humans occur in waters which are 10-30 feet deep and they usually strike at the water’s surface, posing a risk to swimmers and surfers. Experts believe that surfers on small surf boards are mistaken for seals and is the main reason for an unprovoked attack.
It is advised to use a buddy system when entering the waters in this region, so someone can seek help, as without immediate medical assistance, victims can bleed to death. Attacks are most common in the months of August and September and have occurred between the hours of 7am-6pm.
The Great White Shark is protected in Californian waters and is classed as endangered due to over fishing and habitat destruction. These predators play a vital role in the ocean’s ecosystem.
Are there alligators in California?
Alligators are not native to California and prefer a freshwater habitat, however, some alligators and crocodiles have been bought as pets and released into the wild when they have grown too large – as such, there have been rare sightings of Alligators in California.
Are there any deadly snakes in California?
Yes, of the 33 snakes native to California, 6 of them are venomous and all belong to the Rattlesnake family, the most dangerous of them being the Western Diamondback Rattlesnake.
Are there any bears in California?
Yes, the Black Bear can be found in California’s national parks and can be attracted to campsites and farms by picking up the scent of human food. Although attacks are rare, this dangerous animal should be treated with extreme caution.