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I recently wrote an article talking about some of the most unusual self-defense tactics used in the animal kingdom. But this got me thinking; most of the creatures I talked about fought against an attack alone. Surely there are animals out there that work as a team?
I took to researching the subject and found out some pretty interesting information. There are tons of animals that work closely together to form social defense mechanisms that predators don’t stand a chance against.
Animal Social Mechanisms for Defense
When animals live alone in the wild, they have to fend for themselves. However, there are many animals that live in groups, and within these groups there are social defense mechanisms. These are strategies and behaviors that allow the animals to protect one another when faced with a predator or other attacker.
By employing these tactics, animals stand a greater chance of survival within the group, and reproductive success is increased.
You’ve heard the term ‘there’s safety in numbers’ well this couldn’t be more true for many animals. Imagine being a lone animal being attacked by a predator that’s much larger and faster than you; you wouldn’t stand a chance. But when grouped with other members of your species, your collective strength and skill give you a much higher chance of survival.
That’s why one of the best social defense mechanisms is living in a group. This is something we often see in prey animals and the great thing about it is that each member can play his or her own role. For example, some individuals may be employed to be on the lookout and alert other members of the group of an incoming threat.
When standing up for themselves, animals have a much higher rate of survival during an attack when they work as a team. Different species have different strategies for this which I’ll look at in more detail later when I discuss how different animals protect themselves.
What’s more, when faced with a large group, predators will be much more intimidated and may often give up before they’ve even made a decent attempt at attacking; it’s simply not worth it. Not only can a larger group physically overwhelm a predator, but they can also confuse its senses.
Altruism & Kin Selection
Many animals practice altruism which is essentially a sacrificial act for the benefit of the entire group. For example, ground squirrels are known to have one member of the group that alerts the others of a predator’s presence. While this means that the rest of the group can prepare to defend itself, the alerting member draws attention to itself and risks being killed. The same can be said about exploding ants; one individual will literally explode in order to save the rest of the colony but more on that later!
As well as this, animals use what is known as kin selection. According to biologists, this is a form of altruism, although there aren’t many examples of it.
This works in a very similar way to altruism but instead of just choosing a random member of their own species to help, an animal will choose its close blood relatives. This is seen in bird species like the scrub jay. Instead of having and raising their own young, individuals will assist relatives in their breeding.
In the event that this altruistic individual is predated, there’s still a chance of passing on its genes. By doing this, these altruistic traits can still be passed on which translates into continued survival of the group.
Where a lot of prey animals would run and hide in the event of a predator attack, some feisty species do the exact opposite. They engage in a behavior known as mobbing, whereby they communally attack a predator to overwhelm it.
While mobbing is seen in many species, like meerkats, it’s more common in seabirds, such as terns and gulls. It usually begins with a small handful of individuals harassing the predator, but before long, more members of the group join in. In some cases, the birds will poop and vomit on their target, so much so that the weight of the products weighs the predator down and they can’t escape.
How Animals Protect Themselves & Their Communities
There are a large number of animals that defend one another. From insects that explode when under attack to creatures living in huge colonies, they have some amazing ways to protect one another.
Despite their name, meerkats are not a species of cat but are more closely related to the mongoose. These are highly social animals that live in groups of up to 50 which have a complex social structure. One of the benefits of this is protection from predation.
You may have seen images of meerkats standing upright and assessing their surroundings. This is a task assigned to certain individuals (and they take turns doing it) in order to watch out for predators and warn others in the colony.
From a high vantage point, the sentinel meerkat will make peeping sounds to let others know that everything is OK. But when they spot a predator, they’ll make an alarm call so the rest of the group knows to hide. It’s believed that this is altruistic behavior because the alarm call will attract the attention of the incoming predator.
However, when the group is attacked by another mob of meerkats, they’ll stand up to an attack by performing a war dance! The meerkats will puff up their fur to appear larger and stick their tails in the air.
2. Naked Mole Rat
The naked mole rat is one of the most peculiar-looking yet interesting animals on this list. These mammals live underground and remain below the surface for their entire lives. They live in colonies of up to 300 members, but each colony only has one breeding pair.
Together, the members take care of the young, search for food, and of course, protect one another. While the queen is the only fertile female, if she becomes weak, other females within the group become fertile and will fight for her position.
One of the other important roles within the colony is that of the soldiers. Should any member encounter a predator, such as a snake, they’ll let out an alarm call, and this tells the soldiers it’s time to step up. They’ll rush towards the intruder and use their long sharp teeth to scare it away.
3. Prairie Dogs
Just like the naked mole rat, prairie dogs live in underground burrows connected by tunnels, and they’re called prairie dog towns. There could be hundreds of individuals within the colony and they have a series of elaborate vocal calls to communicate, including those that alert other members about a predator.
It’s reported that the language used by prairie dogs is even more complex than that of intelligent species like chimps and dolphins. When sending out an alarm call, they use different sounds to tell others key details about the predator, including its size, speed, and which direction it’s moving in.
What’s more, when one prairie dog performs a call or an action, other members of the group will mimic this. The benefit is that there’s a constant stream of communication to better protect their home. They’ll even kill off competition, despite being herbivores.
4. Exploding Ants
The exploding ant is found in Brunei and Malaysia and, just like other ant species, lives in massive colonies. There are around 15 different species of exploding ants, and all of them have one thing in common; they perform suicidal altruism.
This essentially means that one, or any number of worker ants will sacrifice themselves for the rest of the colony. When under attack, the ant rapidly contracts its abdominal muscles, which causes them to release a sticky chemical substance from enlarged glands.
This chemical concoction has the ability to do everything from mildly irritating the attacker to killing it. But one thing is for sure; the ant isn’t going to survive.
5. Honey Bees
Honey bees are among some of the most fascinating creatures and they’re found all over the world, apart from Antarctica. These flying insects live in colonies up to 60,000 strong and the complex social structure means that each bee plays his or her own role.
Throughout the honey bee hierarchy, you’ll find many different types of bees. The term worker bee refers to lots of jobs within the hive; foraging, raising young, and protecting the colony. These bees are willing to self-sacrifice by stinging (which usually kills the bee) in the event of an attack.
Although the act of stinging is usually fatal, it triggers the release of an alarm pheromone that alerts other hive members. They come to the rescue, surrounding the intruder in a tight bee ball and they flap their wings to raise the temperature to a fatal level. The lesson? Don’t mess with bees!
6. Vervet Monkeys
Native to Africa, the vervet is a species of old-world monkey that lives in groups. However, when a male reaches sexual maturity, he will migrate to another, nearby group. Regardless, groups have a clear social hierarchy, and it’s believed that their calls are so exact that vervet monkeys can even recognize the call of precise individuals.
When it comes to protecting the group, this effective communication certainly comes in handy. Vervet monkeys are often predated by birds of prey, such as eagles, and have developed an alarm call to let others know of an approaching threat. It seems that this call is so effective that it’s even been learned by closely related species.
As vervet monkeys give this call, it’s considered an act of altruism because all that noise is bound to attract the attention of the predator they’re telling everyone else to run away from. And they’re not just random calls, it appears that there are predator-specific calls, and in response, the other members of the group make very specific sounds.
Earlier in this guide, I discussed the phenomenon of mobbing in which a lot of bird species will gather together to harass and attack predators. This is a behavior commonly seen in crows when they’re attacked by predators such as owls.
Crows will come together in large numbers and fly around a potential predator making loud cawing sounds to scare it away. That all sounds pretty normal considering what we’ve learned so far. However, these birds, which are often seen as a nuisance, will engage in mobbing even when an owl or other predator is minding its own business.
It’s thought that crows do this to reduce the risk of an attack, and studies have shown that while owls don’t eat crows as often as you’d think, mobbing does reduce the risk of an attack.
Orcas are some of the most intelligent marine mammals out there. They live in groups called pods which can contain up to 40 individual whales. Within these groups, they do everything together, such as hunting and of course, protecting one another.
Protecting the younger members of the pod is extremely important and the orcas will coordinate a counter attack when threatened. For starters, they communicate using echolocation which is a great way to ensure the pod stays together and that more vulnerable members are protected.
Moreover, orcas also hunt in large numbers to ensure good access to food. However, in many areas, fishermen see orcas as competition and attempt to kill them. And human interaction doesn’t end there. In European waters, it’s been demonstrated that orcas display certain behaviors like bumping into boats or swimming with dead salmon on their heads, and others will copy this, proving they have social trends.
9. Musk Ox
The musk ox is a bovine species native to the Arctic region and is well known for its super thick coat that allows it to live in extreme conditions.
These large creatures live in social groups that can number up to 24 in summer but may dwindle in size to around 8 to 10 individuals in winter. While they’re not overly territorial, they are known for marking their territory using preorbital glands.
In terms of protecting the group, musk ox will form a circle around the young or vulnerable members of the group, pointing their horns out toward attackers. These may include polar bears, wolves, and brown bears. If the musk oxen feel it necessary, the group will charge horns-first at the predators to chase them away.
10. Exploding Termites
I’ve already discussed exploding ants, but the insect world hasn’t finished with its bombs just yet because there are also some species of exploding termites. You’ll find them in French Guiana, and they’re always ready to respond to an attack.
Exploding termites collect little blue crystals over the course of their lives, which they store in their abdomen. But as they age, the termites head to the front line and transfer the crystals to special glands where they are mixed with saliva.
When an attack happens and something tries to bite the termite, it all ends with a violent explosion in which the saliva and crystals have formed a sticky goo. While this does finish off the altruistic termite, it also paralyzes the attacker and puts the rest of the colony in relative safety; until the next attack, at least.
11. Red-Winged Blackbird
Another bird species that engage in mobbing is the red-winged blackbird. It’s found in Northern and Central America, and flocks can number as many as a million individuals. Imagine being mobbed by that!
The red-winged blackbird has a significant number of predators, including raccoons, owls, hawks, snakes, and many others. But when threatened, especially during nesting, the males will form mobs to scare off predators.
Since many predators also go for the red-winged blackbird’s eggs, they’ve developed group nesting tactics to better protect their eggs and young. Males will usually be on the lookout for any incoming attackers and will use specific calls to alert other members of the group. What’s more, this species has adapted to nest over water where the risk of predation is lower.