In the Wild, It’s Survival of the Trickiest

Animals have some crazy tricks up their sleeves, and it’s all a matter of survival. Species must adapt special skills for protection and food, and in the process they often leave other animals completely fooled.

That Stinks

A few familiar stinkers are skunks and stink bugs. When bothered, both will release an unpleasant odor to keep predators away. Plants often have a different goal behind their scent. The blooms of some plants are designed to attract necessary pollinators. Skunk cabbage, for example, attracts flies by imitating the smell of rotting meat.

Skunk by Rolland Gelly.
Photo by National Wildlife Photo Contest entrant Rolland Gelly.

Gone Fishing

Humans aren’t the only ones that use bait to catch fish. The anglerfish has a “fishing pole” on its head, topped with glowing bait produced by bacteria. It bobs the bait around to lure prey. When the prey gets close enough, the anglerfish shoots forward and gobbles it up. Similarly, the viperfish uses light organs to attract prey directly into its mouth.  Talk about an easy meal!

And I couldn’t leave out this clever green heron that figured out how to use a piece of bread to catch fish!


Impressive & Disgusting Fluids

There are a variety of fluids that species use to protect themselves from predators. The Moses sole, for example, is a small fish equipped with shark repellent. As a shark attacks, they release a substance into the shark’s mouth. Amazingly, it stops the shark and allows the Moses sole to escape. The bombardier beetle is another species armed with a protective excretion, a boiling hot & corrosive substance that they are able to shoot at predators.

One of the more disgusting defense mechanisms is that of fulmar chicks, which vomit when threatened. As for impressive, the horned lizard can shoot blood from its eye.


Costume with Purpose

The natural world is filled with incredible costumes, but they aren’t just for show. Plants and animals have a purpose behind their looks. One case of fascinating mimicry involves the monarch and viceroy butterflies. During the caterpillar stage, the monarch butterfly feeds on milkweed. The toxins in milkweed make monarchs taste bad to predators. If a predator eats a monarch, it gets sick. When the predator considers eating a monarch in the future, it will remember getting ill and leave monarchs alone. Similarly, viceroy butterflies are also distasteful to predators. By sharing the same coloration, these two co-mimics each benefit by making it less likely that a predator will try to eat either one of them.

Another interesting case of disguise is that of the male cuttlefish. Smaller males will actually make themselves look like females. This allows them to slip by bigger male rivals when pursuing a mate without getting chased away. Another intriguing example is the orchid mantis. It mimics a flower to hide from prey, and then attacks.


All an Act

Animal theatrics are possibly my favorite form of trickery. If an award for Best Performance were given, the killdeer would certainly be in the running. When the nest or young of a killdeer is in danger, they will thrash and squeak along on the ground. To a predator, it appears the bird is injured. Anticipating easy prey, the predator will follow the killdeer, slowly moving farther from the nest. When the predator is far enough from the nest, the killdeer will simply fly away.

The hognose snake would likely have a nomination as well. When disturbed, the snake puts on an award-winning performance, feigning death. It flip-flops around, ends up on its back, throws up and drops its tongue out. Quite impressive.

Hognose Snake Playing Dead
A hognose snake playing dead. A few minutes after this he popped up and slithered off. Photo by Dani Tinker.

Sneaky Thieves

The phrase “cunning as a fox” is not an exaggeration. The Arctic fox relies on its sneaky abilities to steal eggs from the nests of birds in order to survive. Another thief in the natural world is occasionally Adelie penguins. Males are tasked with building an impressive nest to attract a mate. They must collect a lot of pebbles to build the nest, which apparently takes too much time & effort for some penguins that just steal their neighbor’s pebbles.


Adopt a Trickster

AdoptNow-150x26-GreenThe world is filled with an amazing diversity of wildlife. Some species are beautiful, others bizarre, and some are tricky — but they all are important and deserve our protection. NWF’s Wildlife Adoption program supports our important work protecting wildlife and connecting people to nature. Symbolically adopt one of the following wildlife tricksters:

  • Octopus — master of camouflage.
  • Red fox — sneaky egg thief.
  • Horned lizard — shoots blood from its eye.
  • Anteater — sticky tongue can grab 30,000 ants or termites per day.
  • Llama — will spit to say “get lost!”