Skunks spray. Tobacco hornworm caterpillars use “bad breath”. The yellow headed vulture projectile vomits up to five feet away.
When it comes to evading predators and staying alive, animals dip into a large, often nasty bag of tricks. Almost every animal has either a tiny parasite that bugs it or a much bigger predator that simply gobbles the animal up. To avoid this, animals have evolved ingenious defenses, things like playing dead, camouflage, spikes, and so much more. While many work, some of them simply have to be seen to be believed.
Did you know that cuttlefish don’t just squirt ink to distract their predators? They can use the ink (plus mucus) to create a small dense cloud that’s about the size of its own body. The attacker sees the pseudomorph, and thinks there’s another cuttlefish available for dinner. The momentary pause gives the cuttlefish just enough time to swim away.
If cuttlefish doppelgangers are too tame for you, here are ten other animals whose defenses range from ‘How-do-they-do-that’ to ‘You-didn’t-say-we-were-going-to-see-a-SAW-movie-marathon’
10. The African Spiny Mouse – Shedding & Regeneration
Cuteness overload, right? This desert dweller looks like it can do no harm, as long as it can scurry around, eating and pooping. The African mouse has evolved to perfectly understand its own limitations. It knows it will never outrun a bird swooping down on it or a snake creeping up on it.
The next best thing is to put up a struggle; when grabbed, the mouse wriggles violently to escape. As it does, it leaves chunks of mouse fur, skin and flesh in the predators grasp or mouth. The “pieces” left behind are inedible as the skin of the mouse is covered in sharp spines. This shedding doesn’t adversely affect the mouse as the lost flesh grows back within three days! A real-life Wolverine in mammal form?
9. The Bombardier Beetle – Projectile Chemicals
The African bombardier beetle protects itself by “firing” on its predators. The beetle stores two chemicals hydrogen peroxide and a hydroquinone, in separate reservoirs in its abdomen. When threatened, one chamber empties into another, causing both chemicals to mix. With the reaction bubbling in its gut, the beetle can aim the explosive spray in any direction, up, down even between its legs, with laser precision.
The chemical mix causes the formation of benzoquinones and boiling water (from the rapid oxidation of hydrogen peroxide). The highly corrosive chemical product formed has been found to stain human skin for up to three weeks. The bug is also able to ‘rapid-fire’ so that it sprays in a series of up to 70 pulses, at about 500 pulses per second! With its temperature measured at 100O C, the weapon has proven effective against all pests, small or large.
8. The Axolotl – Limb Detachment & Regeneration
The axolotl is a close relative of the salamander and is commonly found in the waters around Mexico City. Their varied colors and that almost-smiling face make them a popular exotic pet, so cute that most people instinctively want to touch them, but doing that will spook them.
To get away from threats, members of the Salamander family allow the predator to grab a non-vital part of their body, like their tail or even a foot. But before the predator can gobble them up, they jettison the body part and flee. The discarded body part continues to flop around like a live thing, thus distracting the predator.
Salamanders have a unique ability to regenerate a perfect replacement for the sacrificed limb. The process is so “perfect” that scientists are studying them to see how it can be replicated in humans.
7. The Sea Squirt – Disembowelment
Possums, snakes and even some fish play dead when attacked. The sea squirt takes things a step further; instead of simply playing dead, the squirt violently “commits suicide.”
When jostled or threatened, squirts rupture their filtering organ, and push out their stomach and guts. After “disemboweling” itself and leaving a mass of organs just floating, it also contracts itself so that it looks dead and shriveled. Since most predators avoid dead animals, it’s often abandoned.
The crafty squirt stays in this “dead” state for up to five days, while it slowly regenerates its internal organs. After about ten days, its filtering siphon is healed and all organs are back in place.
6. The Komodo Dragon – Bacterial Bite
Growing up to 9 feet long and weighing 150 pounds, the Komodo dragon is often called a modern-day dinosaur. Their 60+ serrated teeth ensure they have a terrible bite, but that’s not even the most dangerous part of the animal.
As the lizard rips up large chunks of meat with serrated teeth, the crevices harbor a lot of leftovers. Over time, these lead to the growth of several species of septic bacteria. This leaves the lizard with a mouth teeming with infectious microbes. Adult Komodo dragons don’t even chase prey; once it bites them, it simply waits till the infection kills the prey.
When eating, the adults shake out the contents of their prey’s stomach, to avoid eating poop. Young Komodos have developed a unique way to protect themselves from being cannibalized by the always-hungry, always-pissed off adult dragons. They simply roll around in this discarded mess, till they smell bad enough that even a hungry adult won’t find them tasty or appealing.
5. The Central African Hairy Frog – Breaks Its own Bones To Make A Weapon
As a rule, when an animal has an alternate name with “horror” in it, it’s never a good thing. This African amphibian is a good example of that. On the surface, it looks like any regular frog, but Trichobatrachus robustus – the horror frog – is far from ordinary. To defend itself when threatened, this harmless frog will shank you.
Frogs are not known to carry weapons, but this frog will break the bones in its toes and make them poke out of its foot. One swipe from this improvised claw is enough to wound predators and will draw blood from human skin. At least 11 species have been recorded with this swiping kick defense.
The Cameroonians who hunt them for food stay well away from the back end of the frog when hunting them. They use long spears, machetes or even guns to avoid getting swiped by those claws.
4. The Hagfish – Slime
Hagfish, or slime eels, are members of the jawless class of fish, the Agnatha. Hopefully those words have put an idea of how disgusting looking these ‘fish’ are.
But as disgusted as you may be, you have to marvel at some of their features. They can go months without food, surviving as deep as 5,500 feet below the surface. When they decide to eat, they easily absorb food through their skin as they tend to burrow into a carcass and eat their way out.
But that’s enough about their classy dining; hagfish also have ingenious ways of surviving being eaten up. When attacked, they produce a slime from their pores that blinds, chokes and traps any predators. On contact with water, the slime expands till the predator has to release the fish if it wants to get out of the slime cloud. The slime also clogs up fish gills, meaning stubborn predators will find themselves choking on the hagfish.
3. The Texas Horned Lizard – Shooting Blood From Eye
With its sharp spikes, horns, hissing and an all-round unfriendly demeanor, who’d be silly enough to attempt eating a Texas Horned Lizard? Apparently, hawks, snakes, dogs, wolves, and coyotes didn’t get the memo.
To protect itself from these predators, the lizard has developed one of the most curious defenses available today. When threatened, it squirts a well-aimed stream of blood straight out of its eyes. For those predators who don’t mind getting a little messy, the blood is mixed with a foul-tasting chemical. Though it is able to spray up to five feet away, using this ‘blood cannon’ can cost the lizard up to a third of its total blood supply.
2. The Sea Cucumber – Flinging Guts & Liquefied Bodies
Sea cucumbers are known for the defense mechanism where they “fling” their guts at a predator, before making a run for it – kind of like the sea squirt, as they regrow it in a few days. When that doesn’t work, they have an awesome backup strategy.
When cornered, sea cucumbers can liquefy their bodies. They can manipulate the catch collagen that makes up their bulk, loosening and tightening it at will. This allows them basically unhook the bonds holding their form in place. Like a ghost disappearing before your eyes, these organisms can dissolve and flow away to safety. The skill is so extreme that they can ‘over-liquefy’ themselves and die.
1. The Carpenter Ant – Explosive Self-Destruction
Native to the jungle floors of Borneo, the defense mechanisms of Camponotus cylindricus – a type of Carpenter ant – have led to its worldwide recognition. How often do you hear of an ant that explodes? By its own devices? Or a colony that can explode on demand?
When attacked, the sentry ants of C. cylindricus don’t just bite the intruder. They swarm over its body and climb up to its head. Reaching the face, they clamp on with their oversize mandibles and basically “self-destruct.” In a process called autothysis, the ant contracts its body around a large internal gland, causing the gland to rupture violently.
This internal explosion is accompanied by the release of a chemical that is both an irritant and a strong adhesive. The predator ends up blind or with a sealed mouth or with bits of ant stuck to its face or worse – ALL THREE!