Paraponera clavata, the bullet ant, is an inch-long insect with the face of a demon from hell. Take a look, if you dare. Two black eyes stare soullessly sideways out from its head, usually black or bloodred, above two twitching antennae almost as long as its legs, above two flexing mandibles, serrated, terrible.
But the front is, indisputably, the bullet ant’s nicer end. The stinger stabbing out from its slick and hairy gaster gives the tiny fiend its name, because a jab from it feels like a gunshot. The venom within, called poneratoxin, produces what the masochistic entomologist Justin Schmidt has described as the most painful string in existence — “a tsunami of pain.” The bullet ant is also called the 24-hour ant because the tsunami of pain lasts for a full day.
In 2016, in a clearing in the Costa Rican rainforest, Nathaniel “Coyote” Peterson, a then-35-year-old American YouTuber in hiking gear and an Indiana Jones hat, grasped a bullet ant with a pair of metal forceps and pressed the frantic monster to his shaved forearm.
“DAH!” he exclaimed, as the ant pierced him. “URR! GRR! GRRRSH! IT’S STUCK IN MY ARM!” The ant had indeed latched on to his arm, and was dangling from its stinger. After a few excruciating seconds, it tumbled off.
“OH MY GOSH!” Peterson screamed and collapsed, trembling, to the forest floor. “GUH! IT’S REALLY BAD!” His face turned white. He writhed, sweating, the veins in his neck popping out. Then his vocalizations became stranger and more primitive: distressed breathing, howls, squeals. Finally he gathered himself. He tried to describe the pain in more detail. “I am experiencing hot, radiating waves of pain. It feels as if someone is stabbing me with a hot poker,” he said. “This is getting worse.” It went on like this.
On Dec. 20, 2016, Peterson uploaded footage of the sting to his YouTube channel, Brave Wilderness. Two years later, it has been viewed 40 million times.
YouTube earnings are private, and Brave Wilderness doesn’t disclose its ad rates. But Social Blade, a website that measures social media analytics, gives a range of earnings for the video, based on industry norms, at between $20,000 and $161,000.
That’s quite a range. So, for argument’s sake, let’s take the average. That would mean that the sting of a bullet ant for Coyote Peterson is worth somewhere around $93,000. Not bad, for 24 hours of anguish.
“STUNG by a BULLET ANT!” and videos like it — e.g., “STUNG by a COW KILLER!,” “STUNG by a TARANTULA HAWK!,” “ALLIGATOR BITE!,” and “Do Horseshoe Crabs STING?!” (no, but they are creepy) — have made Peterson the most popular wildlife personality on YouTube. Three years ago a lab technician at a printing ink company in Columbus, Ohio, Peterson now commands more than 13 million subscribers to Brave Wilderness, where his videos have received more than 2.3 billion lifetime views. That puts him within stinging distance of YouTube royalty like Jake Paul (17.5 million subs) and Markiplier (22.3); and ahead of celebrities like Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus. He is, according to the website GeekTyrant, “the Steve Irwin of the internet.”
It’s not hard to see why. When he’s not wailing in agony, Peterson is a winning host: plucky, chummy, and childlike — a natural proxy for his legion of young fans, the Coyote Pack. He even has a catchphrase, which he delivers in a scratchy tenor that is indistinguishable from the actor Charlie Day’s: “I’m Coyote Peterson, and I’m about to enter the sting zone.”
And the Brave Wilderness videos are good. They’re an obvious cut above the endless stream of webcam dross, reaction videos, and nerd-culture salvage matter that often populates the YouTube trending page. Professionally shot in far-flung locations, tightly edited, dramatically scored, and consistently branded, Peterson’s videos have a patina of quality and a unified concept that approach the standard of cable television. The concept: putting weird, gooey, scaly, scary, sting-y, bitey creatures on camera as Peterson marvels at and explains them. And every so often, waiting in suspense for 10–12 minutes while Peterson explains in yeoman’s biology why a sting is going to hurt so bad, then watching Peterson psych himself up to get stung, and then, pain town. It’s a little bit Crocodile Hunter, a little bit Fear Factor, and a smidgen of Jackass — a comparison Peterson hates.
Internet content is famous for overpromising and undelivering, for forcing unearned clicks through misleading headlines. There’s no clickbait with Coyote Peterson. If the video teases that he’s going to get stung by a giant hornet, brother, he’s going to get stung by a giant hornet. If the promo promises “They See Me ROLLIN’...TURDS!” you had better believe you are going to see some dung beetles getting their claws dirty.
Also, the man has an undeniable talent for getting the absolute shit stung out of him.
If making slick edutainment is his job, expressing pain is his art. His contemporaries here aren’t as much nature hosts as they are the legends of being compellingly in agony: Johnny Knoxville, Cristiano Ronaldo, an entire oeuvre of backyard stunts gone virally awry. The majority of Brave Wilderness videos don’t feature Peterson getting rocked by Mother Nature, but the ones racking up the heavy-duty view counts mostly do.
The gatekeepers have noticed. In April, Peterson made his debut on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, where he discussed his stings and brought an iguana that urinated on the host’s desk. In November, Little, Brown, and Company published Peterson’s book, The King of Sting. Also in November, Brave Wilderness debuted the first video in a Jurassic Park–themed collaboration with Universal Pictures. And next year, Peterson will produce and star in an as-yet-unnamed original series on Animal Planet. He’s the first YouTube celebrity to host a series on the network.
“Coyote is a star,” said Susanna Dinnage, Animal Planet’s global president. “He’s passionate, enthusiastic, and infectious. We feel very confident that he can come over and meet an even bigger audience globally.”
Only a handful of YouTube stars have made the jump to television, and not all of them have done so successfully. Last year, Nickelodeon fired Jake Paul from the show Bizaardvark after a local news report about Paul angering his neighbors scared advertisers. And My Drunk Kitchen creator Hannah Hart’s show on the Food Network, I Hart Food, hasn’t come back for a second season. With its polished episodes and camera-ready star, Brave Wilderness seems like a natural fit for TV.
But there’s a catch: Coyote Peterson, the King of Sting, the 2-billion-view genius of pain, doesn’t want to get stung anymore.
It’s ironic that Coyote Peterson is a YouTube star, because the origins of his success lie in the kind of bucolic American boyhood that a generation of parents are afraid their children won’t be able to tear themselves away from their tablets to enjoy. Growing up in tiny Newbury, Ohio, population 5,000, Nate Peterson found that all of the action was outdoors. He caught his first animal, a toad, at age 4.
He was hooked, leading packs of kids from the neighborhood on expeditions around the ponds behind his house. They turned over rocks, combed through reeds, and plunged into the muck looking for critters. Peterson lived above all else to spot a snapping turtle.
“It’s a large predator with razor-sharp jaws and huge claws,” Peterson told me in November. “It’s a living swamp monster.”
Peterson’s artist mother took him on long road trips to Arizona. There, he became obsessed with finding the rare regal horned lizard. His method was to stalk roadrunners, the speedy cuckoos that eat the lizards. Peterson’s mom started to call him Coyote, as in Wile E.
After college, where he designed his own filmmaking major, Peterson got a job at a printer ink company in Columbus. He worked on screenplays in his spare time. In 2009, fundraising for a script fell through at the last minute. “For a kid from Columbus, Ohio,” Peterson said, “it was heartbreaking.”
At a low point, Peterson took his infant daughter to the Holden Arboretum outside Cleveland. He spotted some kids trying to catch frogs. He also spotted a snapping turtle.
“I said to the kids, ‘Do you want to see a big turtle?’’” Peterson remembered. “It looked like a dinosaur coming out. A crowd gathered around me. Afterward, the mom said, ‘Hey, you should have a TV show.’”
So Peterson and his collaborator, Mark Vins, a friend from Ohio State who is now the CEO of Brave Wilderness, got to work. Their idea was to combine the pounding-music dramatics of Bear Grylls’ wildly popular Man vs. Wild — minus the survivalist animal killings — with “Crocodile Hunter” Steve Irwin’s kid-friendly persona and focus on conservation. “Nate” became “Coyote.” And he and his crew spent their weekends in the woods, catching animals and developing a tone and a persona. Peterson caught snapping turtle after snapping turtle, blocking out shots and practicing his presentation. It was all, Peterson stressed to me, extremely calculated.
“We asked ourselves, How do you take the human form and turn it into an action figure?” Peterson said. “Everything from my hat to my backpack to my boots.”
Funded by a $35,000 investment from the owner of the printer ink company, Peterson eventually put together an 11-minute sizzle reel. Networks passed. Production companies offered Peterson hosting gigs in different, Survivor-like concepts. He wanted to host an animal show.
“I wasn’t just looking for a paycheck,” he said. “Or to be a gimmick.”
Down to their last $1,000, in 2014 Peterson and Vins traveled to Realscreen, the unscripted entertainment trade show. They showed a video of Peterson catching a 90-pound snapping turtle to Jim Louderback, then the CEO of the digital television network Revision3. Louderback was in the process of selling Revision3 to Discovery Digital Networks, which itself was building out Animalist, a website devoted to animal content. Discovery asked for 12 episodes of the show, which Brave Wilderness called Breaking Trail.
As Animalist prepared to post the first episodes, in September 2014, a Discovery producer told Peterson that he should create a YouTube channel for the videos, “because people are putting content there too.”
“I thought it was a waste of time,” Peterson said. “A place for prank videos.”
The purpose of the Breaking Trail videos was to entertain, but also to educate. In one of the first episodes, Peterson took a kayak out on a pond outside Columbus, nabbed a whopper of a snapping turtle, and performed a basic biology lesson as the animal stared at him indignantly. Viewers learned about the plastron (the lower shell) and the scutes (a bony outer plate), and also that the bad boy on camera can take off a finger if you’re not careful. These early videos did good but modest traffic.
While shooting a video of a porcupine in Montana in August 2014, Peterson asked the animal’s handler why he was wearing leather gloves. Because he didn’t want to get quilled, the handler replied. Peterson immediately knew what he had to do.
“I was just supposed to be educating,” he said. “It was a spur-of-the-moment thing. People don’t know how to remove quills.”
Peterson gently brushed the animal with the back of his hand. “OOOH!” he exclaimed. “There we go: That’s a handful of quills.” As the porcupine scooted away, the camera zoomed in on the spikes, sunk deep into Peterson’s knuckles. “I think they touch bone! It hurts a lot!” For the next three minutes, Peterson slowly pulled the quills out, taking care to show viewers how to do so without ripping up any extra flesh. “Ahhh, jeez,” he said, “You get that shot with the blood? Yeah, that really hurt. Oh my gosh!”
The video, “YIKES! Quilled by a Porcupine,” was a hit.
“People loved to see me in pain,” he said. “The viral rocket just took off.”
Like so many super-successful internet content creators at the time, Peterson saw where the audience was, and he pivoted. “Stung by a Scorpion - with sting Closeup!,” “Bitten by an Alligator...Lizard!,” and “CRAZY Alligator Snapping Turtle Bite!” followed soon after. For the latter, Peterson and his crew jerry-rigged a brace out of bamboo and athletic wrap they bought at Walmart so he could withstand the bone-crushing bite of the turtle. Afterward, a shaking Peterson removed the brace to reveal two small wounds where the reptile had broken through the cast. The video has been viewed 27 million times.
Peterson’s viral pièce de résistance, though, came in the form of his ascent up the Schmidt sting pain index, a scale of relative pain created by the eponymous entomologist to classify insect venoms. It was a neat metaphor for the success of Brave Wilderness: The more pain Peterson put himself in, as he moved from cow killer wasp to tarantula hawk to bullet ant, the more successful he grew. But it was also a strange inversion of the YouTube path to extremity: Instead of viewers being pushed by an algorithm to more and more extreme videos, a creator was being pushed by viewers and the algorithm to create more and more painful content. Under the sting videos, popular comments joked about the painful experiences Peterson might attempt: jumping off a building, drinking bleach, getting shot by an AK-47.
“All of the pain is real,” Peterson told me. “It hurts like crazy. I get nervous. The giant hornet, dude, this thing is so intimidating. It’s the largest hornet species in the world. These things kill people.”
As they’ve gone on, the sting videos have grown more grotesque and more frightening. In November, the giant hornet sting caused a Popeye-esque bulge in Peterson’s forearm. Last December, Peterson posted “BITTEN by a GIANT DESERT CENTIPEDE!” In the video and a follow-up, a clearly distressed Peterson asked his crew to apply a small pump to the bite to extract venom. After several hours, Peterson left the site and went to urgent care.
“Now that you’ve seen me go through this,” he said at the end of the clip, “hopefully you will truly take away a message that is you simply admire these things from a safe distance. I do not want to see pictures out there on Facebook or Instagram or Snapchat of anybody handling one of these.”
Before every bite, Brave Wilderness runs a “do not try this at home” warning. And Peterson frequently reminds viewers of the epinephrine pen he keeps ready in case one of the stings sends him into anaphylactic shock. Yet these warnings feel different on YouTube, a participatory medium where copycats abound. Peterson chafes at the suggestion that his show is the Jackass of the animal kingdom. (He has a point. If you want to know what an animal kingdom Jackass looks like, look no further than the mid-aughts Wildboyz, which featured Jackass alums Steve-O and Chris Pontius were attacked by a jaguar, and, er, stung by an emperor scorpion.)
His show, he stresses, is about education and conservation.
“What Johnny Knoxville and his team did is brilliant, but they were stuntmen,” he said. “They probably influenced a generation of kids to get broken arms.”
Yet even as Peterson defends the educational value of the sting videos, he and his crew are planning to end them. The climb up the pain index, Peterson said, was part of a mathematical formula he’s been honing since his days as a screenwriting student.
“That had a place in the YouTube space,” he told me. “And it has a shelf life. We’re squashing that as we move from digital to linear. I’m not going to Animal Planet to get stung by things.”
Dinnage, the Animal Planet president, agreed. “I think he’s exhausted that and it’s time to go broader,” she said. “He’s done a lot of that type of content, and it’s time for him to explore new avenues with animals.”
Leaving behind stings isn’t the move you might expect from a man who rose to fame getting stung by things, and whose brand is still significantly predicated on his own agony — the book he released in November is called The King of Sting, after all. And according to Captiv8, an influencer marketing database, 73% of Brave Wilderness’s “engaged followers,” subscribers who frequently post on Peterson’s videos, are men between the ages of 25 and 44. If any demographic seems more likely to love Peterson for his sting videos than for his Spielbergian élan, it’s probably that one.
This all reframes Peterson’s painful rise on YouTube as a calculation, something temporary to endure on the way to more traditional television success. Coyote Peterson has the attention of the internet now, and it got him a show on cable. Whether he’s able to repeat the excitement he generated on YouTube without stings, and responsibly enough to meet the standards of the natural history community, remains to be seen.
“It’s a mantle that he’s going to have to figure out how to wear,” a veteran executive producer of natural history programming told me. “The community is a tight-knit, particular community that wants to make sure everything is done very cautiously.”
On Nov. 16, Brave Wilderness published a video titled “WILL HE LEAVE… for Animal Planet?!” Peterson, Vins, and the company’s wildlife producer, Mario Aldecoa, sat at a table in front of contracts.
“I’m sure the biggest fear everybody has out there has is: Will the Brave Wilderness that I’ve grown to love over the past four years, with all of these animals and all of Coyote’s bites and stings, just disappear?” Peterson asked. “Absolutely not.” The videos won’t disappear, but Peterson told me that while he would continue to make YouTube videos, the best stuff will now be reserved for Animal Planet.
After signing the contract, Peterson took a deep breath and yanked off his Indiana Jones hat. He reached under the table, pulled out an Animal Planet baseball cap, and put it on. Balloons floated down from the ceiling, along with a shower of Silly String and small figurines. They were plastic bullet ants. The screen went to black, and then the lights came up again. Peterson switched hats back.
“Don’t worry, guys,” he said. “Some things will never change.”
It was a good twist, well-considered. Still, comparatively speaking, not so many people saw it. As of the beginning of December, the announcement has 509,000 views. “STUNG by a GIANT HORNET!,” published a week later, has 11.5 million views and counting. ●