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Living out there in the animal kingdom is fraught with challenges, and unless you’re at the top of the food chain, you always need to be on the lookout. Sometimes referred to as thanatosis, playing dead is a behavior seen in a range of animals as a way of deterring predators.
Why Do Animals Play Dead?
Playing dead is the colloquial term for thanatosis or tonic immobility. This is a survival tactic in several species of animals in order to evade predators. But this isn’t simply a matter of dropping to the ground, staying still, and hoping to go unnoticed. These animals actually become temporarily paralyzed and unresponsive. For all intents and purposes, you’d believe they were no longer alive!
However, according to observations, many animals in thanatosis are actually still very aware of their surroundings. They may be seen to discreetly scan their environment or make minor movements in response to stimuli.
But why do these animals behave this way? Wouldn’t a predator just eat them anyway? Probably not!
Many predators have a drive to kill and this is as much a part of the action as eating their prey. When this is taken away and they’re presented with an already dead creature, they’ll often turn their noses up and look elsewhere. Plus some animals will even emit a nasty odor to further convince their hunter that they’re dead and no predator wants to chow down on rotting meat.
However, escaping predation isn’t the only reason that lots of animals feign death. Let’s take a look at some other ways it benefits them.
- Some animals, like the sleeper cichlid fish (nimbochromis), use a specific form of playing dead where they’ll lie on their sides, motionless to appear dead. But what they’re really doing is making themselves look like less of a threat, so it’s easier to catch their next meal.
- In the insect world, it’s very common for the female to eat the male after they have mated. This is known as sexual cannibalism. In order to avoid this, the male praying mantis will play dead.
- Grasshoppers adopt a specific pose when they feel threatened and become all but motionless. While this isn’t actually classed as playing dead, it can deter predators. What’s more, the way that they pose their bodies makes them much more difficult to swallow which can be enough to put predators off.
- It is argued that some species of shark will play dead in order to facilitate mating. Male sharks may bite the female which in turn immobilizes her and makes mating much easier.
Animals that Pretend to Play Dead
All kinds of animals may play dead to avoid becoming a meal. From crustaceans to mammals and birds to insects, let’s get to know some of the creatures that exhibit this interesting behavior.
1. Grass Snake (Natrix natrix)
The grass snake is a common, non-venomous reptile found across Europe and Asia. They are mainly preyed upon by badgers, foxes, and hedgehogs, but domestic cats can also be a threat to them.
When they feel threatened, grass snakes will emit a nasty-smelling odor that’s very similar to garlic. But this isn’t their only line of defense. These snakes are able to make their entire body go limp so it appears that they are dead.
If that wasn’t enough to convince their predators, then how about some blood dripping from the eyes or nose? They may even roll their eyes back in their heads for full effect and twist their bodies, sometimes ending up getting tangled in the process. However, this is a process that’s most commonly seen in wild grass snakes and not so much in lab-reared specimens.
2. Virginia Opossum (Didelphis virginiana)
Sometimes, playing dead in animals is referred to as playing possum, and this term came from this Virginia opossum that will appear to drop dead in the middle of trying to defend itself. When it’s first threatened, the animal will growl, show its teeth and make hissing sounds. But if this has no effect, it’ll throw itself to the ground in a dramatic display.
The eyes will half close, and the tongue falls out of the mouth, but there’s a lot more going on inside the opossum. When it feigns death this way, the heart rate decreases and the animal’s breathing slows down by as much as 31%. The body temperature may also drop, and while the animal is fully conscious, it’ll remain still even if the predator bites it, only reanimating when the threat is completely gone.
3. Dwarf Mongoose (Helogale parvula)
The dwarf mongoose is an incredibly cute creature that’s part of a very strict social hierarchy. Groups can inhabit more than 2 hectares (20000 square meters) and will only part ways when the alpha female dies.
And speaking of dying, the dwarf mongoose is another animal that’ll feign death. But how and why does it do this?
Mongoose has a mutualistic hunting relationship with the hornbill (think Zazu from The Lion King). But these birds are also known to prey on their supposed buddies and will chase them around only to find their intended meal has just fallen to the floor. The mongoose will fall onto its back with its legs pointing up.
However, these creatures have also been known to behave in this way playfully so it can be hard to tell what their intentions are.
4. Eastern Hognose Snake (Heterodon platirhinos)
There are many snakes that use thanatosis as a form of defense and another example is the eastern hognose snake.
Initially, when they are threatened, they will try to deter predators by rearing themselves up, hissing, and generally making themselves look scary. But this isn’t always enough and so the snake has no other option but to flip itself upside down and look dead.
Once it’s upside down, the eastern hognose snake will open its mouth wide and let its tongue flop out to really add to that deceased look. What’s more, these snakes will emit a foul-smelling odor that’s reminiscent of death; it’s no wonder predators will look for an alternative meal.
5. Indian Stick Insect (Carausius morosus)
The Indian stick insect is preyed on by various species of birds and uses thanatosis to confuse them. This appears to be something that works as, during studies, it has been noted that birds paid less if any, attention to dead stick insects compared to live ones.
These stick insects use their already twig-like appearance to convince predators that they are dead. When they are disturbed, they may simply fall from their branch and rest on the ground, where they might not move for several hours.
As they do this, they will bring their legs into the body to create an even more stick-like appearance, and their entire bodies will go rigid.
6. Burmese Python (Python bivittatus)
The Burmese python is an endangered species of snake native to southeast Asia. This is one of the largest snake species in the world, with individuals growing up to 23 feet (7 meters) in extreme cases, although usually, adults are around 16 feet (4.9 meters) in length.
Like several other species of snake, the Burmese python will feign death as a means of protecting itself. What’s interesting is that while other species of snake might rear up, hiss, and otherwise make themselves appear dangerous, the Burmese python goes completely limp. In studies where these snakes were captured, it was noted that the animals were totally lifeless when removed from their captive sacks.
Even more interesting is that when the snakes were stimulated, they moved slightly but remained in this ‘dead’ looking pose for several minutes, seemingly until the perceived threat was gone.
7. Sweetpotato Weevil (Cylas formicarius)
The sweetpotato weevil is a small type of beetle that’s considered a pest by gardeners. They’re found throughout the world apart from in China and Antarctica and are a problem as they burrow into sweet potatoes, eating the leaves and emitting a foul odor that affects the taste of the crop.
But while they might be a pain to humans, there’s no denying that they’re smart little creatures. Sweetpotato weevils are able to fly but this isn’t their first port of call when they feel threatened. When disturbed, adults would rather feign death.
However, this is a behavior that’s seen in these insects more frequently during the day. They’re usually active at night, and it’s been noted that the resting weevil is more likely to feign death. That said, when they do this, it takes much longer for them to recover than when they play possum during periods of activity.
8. Brazilian Seahorse (Hippocampus reidi)
The Brazilian seahorse is a medium-sized species of seahorse that grows up to around 3.1 inches (8 cm). They are predated by things like rays, red snappers, and tuna. However, they use camouflage as a first line of defense and this seems to work quite well as they’re not highly predated.
That said, these seahorses will feign death when they feel threatened. But scientists have noticed that the way they do this differs according to whether they are captive or in the wild.
Wild Brazilian seahorses tend to curl themselves into something of a C shape with the head curved down towards the belly and the tail curled up. However, in captive seahorses, the behavior involves stretching out the body. In any case, the period of thanatosis only lasts for a few seconds.
9. Cichlids (Nimbochromis spp.)
Cichlids are one of the few animals that will feign death not to protect themselves but to catch prey. They’re sometimes called sleeper fish in honor of this behavior where the fish will lie motionless at the bottom of the water, waiting for prey to pass by.
They’ll typically lie on their sides, and their coloration helps to camouflage them so they’re very difficult for prey to spot. This means a meal will swim much closer, allowing the cichlid to ambush it.
10. Ducks (Anatidae)
Several species of ducks will play dead when they feel threatened, including the mallard; a very common species of duck. They’re often caught by foxes who will sometimes leave the bird to eat later on, in the belief that it is dead. However, when the fox leaves, this gives the duck time to escape. Unfortunately, some foxes are a little wiser and have become savvy to this trick, so will make sure the duck is dead before walking away.
When ducks feign death, they will remain as still as possible, appearing all but dead. It’s been discovered that as many as 29 species of ducks behave this way.
11. Leaf-Litter Frog (Ischnocnema aff. henselii)
Thanatosis is not a frog’s first form of defense, as they’ll usually use things like toxins and camouflage. However, it is a behavior that they have adapted and it serves them well. While several species of frogs will behave this way, let’s take the leaf-litter frogs as an example.
These frogs are usually found in moist tropical zones and are nocturnal animals. Knowing that predators prefer a live meal, leaf-litter frogs may suddenly ‘drop down dead’ in front of a predator or they may take on an exaggerated pose to make them appear deceased. They’ll slow their respiration right down to avoid movement and will remain in this state for the short time it takes for the predator to move on.
12. Lemon Shark (Negaprion brevirostris)
Lemon sharks are right at the top of the food chain, so you might think it’s unnecessary for them to feign death. But just like the sleeper cichlid, these large fish use this tactic to catch a meal. What’s more, they’re the only species of shark known to behave this way.
The lemon shark may be seen to be lying on the seabed, sometimes upturned, with labored breath and the occasional tremor. To any passing prey, this doesn’t look like much of a threat, so they’re likely to swim closer. But what’s really interesting is that while lemon sharks are the only sharks to behave this way by choice, any shark would enter into an involuntary state of thanatosis if you were to flip it upside down; not that that would be something I’d recommend doing!
13. Blue Death Feigning Beetle (Asbolus verrucosus)
It’s pretty obvious from the name of this beetle that it’s a master at feigning death. But this isn’t the only way that they ensure their own survival.
These beetles live in desert climates, so need to ensure that they stay hydrated and cool. To do this, they secrete a blue wax, and this is also where they get their coloration.
The blue death-feigning beetle is usually preyed on by spiders, and these eight-legged creatures always prefer a live meal. It seems that the beetle is aware of this and so will roll onto its back when confronted by a potential predator.
In some cases, the beetle will drop from a plant or tree and remain motionless on the ground. This is useful when going up against predators that sense prey through movement, and the beetle can stay like this for as long as necessary. There have even been some reports of them remaining in thanatosis for hours at a time!
14. Nursery Web Spider (Pisaura mirabilis)
If you’re struggling to find a partner what better way to get one than via deceit? Well, it seems to work for the nursery web spider and males who use thanatosis for mating have been shown to be up to 89% more successful.
He will start by presenting the female with a gift to distract her so that he can copulate with her and deposit his sperm. All the while, the male will keep one of his feet on the gift to stop the female from getting away.
Should she try to, the male will play possum, causing her to think she’s gotten away. However, after allowing her to drag him along for some time, the male will wake back up and have another go! How sneaky!