Animals Play Tricks to Survive

By Sandy Masuo

Opossum (Photo by Bruce Gelvin)

The opossum’s convincing ability to play dead is only partly a ruse. Intense fear causes the opossum to pass out, which makes it an unappealing meal to predators that consume only live prey. (Photo by Bruce Gelvin)

Mangshan pit viper (Photo by Ian Recchio)

The early bird that catches this worm will be in for a big surprise! This fat, pale “worm,” is the caudal lure of a Mangshan pit viper. The snake uses it to draw unsuspecting animals nearer, then turn predator into prey in an instant. (Photo by Ian Recchio)

April Fool’s Day pranks can be amusing, but in the wild, the ability to trick predators or prey can be a matter of life and death. Reptiles are particularly adept tricksters, capable of a variety of deceptions. Many lizards, including our local alligator lizards and Western fence lizards have breakaway tails that continue to writhe around on the ground, flummoxing predators long after the lizard has escaped. Shingleback skinks also use confusion to their advantage. Fat tails that mirror their bulbous heads can cause enough hesitation about which end to attack to buy valuable escape time.

Ambush predators such as the American alligator and mata mata turtle lie in wait looking like logs and rocks until their prey is close enough to strike. The scale patterns on Gaboon vipers help them blend into leaf litter or look like skinny prey instead of a beefy predator. Speckled rattlesnakes are known to develop scale patterns that mimic the specific types of granite in the rock piles where they live. The Mangshan pit viper is one of several snake species with a caudal lure—a tail that resembles a worm and is used to turn the tables on would-be predators who then become a meal.

Insects are also great tricksters. Sometimes the best defense in a good offense: aposematic coloration warns predators to stay away. Brightly colored monarch butterflies taste terrible and make some predators sick thanks to the toxins that build up in their tissues when they are caterpillars and feed on milkweed. Other butterfly species mimic monarch colors, which confuse potential predators. Plants are in on the act, too. A number of orchid species not only simulate the appearance of certain female insects, but also produce faux-pheromones that draw amorous males to them. During their frantic efforts to mate with the female impersonators, they deliver pollen from flower to flower. Stapelia plants are one of many that are pollinated by flies, so rather than smelling sweet, their fleshy flowers emit a fetid odor designed to mimic carrion.

Opossums’ renowned ability to play dead is actually an involuntary response to stress—fear causes them to pass out. Many predators only pursue live prey and so ignore the comatose marsupials. Eventually their operating systems restart and they escape.

View some animal tricksters below: