Animal Trickery: It’s No April Fool’s Joke
April Fool’s Day marks a time when lies, trickery and deception are okay, even encouraged, provided they’re done harmlessly and in a spirit of fun. In the nonhuman world, however, trickery can be serious business, a way to live long and prosper. Below are 10 animals that trick enemies, competitors and mates:
How Fauna Fake It
- When a troop of tufted capuchin monkeys visited feeding platforms set up in an Argentine national park by biologists studying the animals, the lower-ranking monkeys sometimes failed to get access to the food. To even the score, a lower-echelon individual would scream alarm calls used to warn of predators, sending the upper classes running off and leaving the food to the underling.
- If a female kopi antelope in Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve attempts to stray from her herd while in breeding condition, the dominant male will sometimes look in the direction the female is traveling and falsely issue an alarm call that warns of lions in the vicinity, though there are no lions nearby. Straying females usually heed the deception and retreat back into the herd—why take chances?
- The alligator snapping turtle , the largest U.S. turtle species, has an appendage on its tongue that looks like a worm. It wiggles this lure, with jaws held open, to attract fish into its mouth. Then—chomp—the turtle gives new meaning to the phrase snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.
- The non-venomous scarlet king snake is banded in red, yellow and black, making it look very much like the highly venomous coral snake. This ploy can keep enemies away from the king snake. How do you tell the two species apart? In the king snake, red and black bands usually abut, while in the coral snake red and yellow bands usually touch, hence the saying, Red against black is a friend of Jack, red against yellow will kill a fellow. Note the emphasis on usually. If you ever encounter a red-, yellow- and black-banded snake, don’t bet your life on the old saw.
- When approached at their nests by predators, killdeer—tawny and white birds with black markings often found around wetlands—will make their characteristic kill deer, kill deer cry and thrash around on the ground, dragging one wing as if it’s broken. As it enacts this ruse, the bird will move farther from the nest, always out of the predator’s reach, until the nest is distant enough that the bird abruptly takes wing, leaving the predator outfoxed. Does the bird knowingly engage in this deception? Probably not. One hypothesis is that the bird is trapped between two conflicting urges—the drive to stay at the nest and the drive to flee–so it engages in this odd halfway measure that looks like a bird in trouble.
- Opossums are well known for playing possum, keeling over when threatened and lying as if dead. Apparently this behavior helps them escape harm in some situations. Like the killdeer, the possum may not play dead intentionally; biologists think it just passes out from stress. During this condition, the marsupial’s lips draw back, baring the small, sharp teeth. Foam can form around the mouth, and a secretion from the anal glands may emit a foul smell that indicates: I’m dead. Recovering from this convincingly moribund trance may take up to 4 hours.
- Another animal that escapes danger by playing dead is the hognose snake, a smallish, mottled reptile that when handled or threatened often will flip on its back and lie dead still, with mouth gaping and tongue hanging out. If turned over, it will flip again on to its back, determined to show it has gone belly up, both literally and figuratively.
- Gray squirrels bury acorns gathered in autumn for use later in winter. To keep other squirrels from pilfering a buried nut, a squirrel sometimes pretends to bury a nut several times before actually burying it.
- The northern pygmy-owl, which lives in the western United States and southwestern Canada, bears spots on the back of its head that look like eyes. One of the world’s tiniest owls, the pygmy-owl hunts songbirds by day and often is mobbed from behind by its prey. The eyespots may give songbirds the impression they are being watched and thus protect the owl from whacks on the back of the head.
- Many butterfly and moth species bear spots on their wings that look like eyes, just as many fish species bear eyespots on their fins. These false eyes may give a predator a sense that it has already been seen, so that a chase is a losing proposition, or may simply startle it into retreating.
Photos for this blog were donated by competitors in the annual National Wildlife Photo Contest. See more photos or sign up for the annual National Wildlife Photo Contest. In addition to cash awards, winning photos appear in National Wildlife magazine and on the NWF website.