Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net
Holly Lisle's Vision

Dangerous Creatures: 

Finding the "Wild" in the Wilderness

By Keri Bas

2002, Keri Bas

"Smaller animals actually present more of a threat to the survivor than large animals." From Wilderness Survival: http://www.wilderness-survival.net

 

Whenever a character encounters a non-urban area, especially an untamed wilderness region, there are dozens of threats to health and survival that can go unnoticed.  A character's trips through wooded areas or unfamiliar landscapes can easily become torture because of the natural dangers inherent in such an area. 

Often, in the minds of readers and travelers, the smaller dangerous animals take second place to the larger predators and more glamorous encounters.  Even in a fantasy world where dragons or griffons run rampant, their ecosystem could (and should) support a plethora of smaller animals.  The pitfalls an adventurer encounters in nature can be myriad, and the effects of such difficulties on the plot are just as varied. 

Sometimes a trip through the woods is characterized merely by a series of inconveniences.  Biting insects are annoying, especially if they manage to invade any protective gear the character may be wearing.  Burrowing animals make some terrain treacherous for foot traffic and horses - sudden collapses and unpredictable holes in the ground can spell big trouble for the unwary. 

Other aspects of the wild can be true dangers, causing delays and unfortunate injuries to travelers.  Poisonous spiders come in many shapes and sizes.  It's easy to overlook the smallest arachnids in awe of the larger, although the damage from the smaller is often more severe.  Spider's venom is at least a more natural problem that can be addressed by pharmacology and treatment.  Often the more debilitating consequence of unknown bites, insect or arachnid, is disease.  For instance, posted signs in North American recreation areas warn of the tiny deer tick, an arachnid that is easy to overlook but can transmit Lyme Disease.  

Rodents like bats, squirrels, and rats can cause a lot of problems for the unwary traveler, whether by damaging equipment or by spooking larger animals, like packhorses. 

The most dangerous elements of the wilderness are, of course, those creatures that can cause a quick and unexpected death.  Snakes are often at the top of a list of dangerous creatures.  These reptiles are usually difficult to see in the woods, so all travelers should take care as they move through the terrain.  Snakes aren't the only poisonous menace in the woods or deserts or jungle.  Scorpions can get into camping gear, as can bees and wasps.  There are only two poisonous lizards in the world, but any large reptile might bite and claw if cornered..  Even centipedes can cause injury as their legs puncture the skin, although they themselves may not have a poisonous bite.

Given all the potential dangers inherent in wild terrain, caution and preparation become paramount.  Proper supplies and clothing can mean the difference between life and death, or health and a slow ruin by malnutrition and vitamin loss.  Realistic rendering of a character's encounter with an unfamiliar or untamed ecosystem requires knowledge of the dangers and the pitfalls of the environment.  Characters who face such problems, even the simplest of mosquito bites, bring a new dimension of believability to a novel.