How animals defend themselves against danger
Wild animals live by one simple rule: Eat or be eaten! Few animals live without the threat of natural enemies--predators that hunt them for food. Even animals that live together sometimes fight each other, and this can be dangerous, too. How do animals protect themselves from being hurt, killed or eaten? There seem to be as many animal defenses as there are animals. But they all fall into one of three basic groups: taking flight, fooling or fighting.
The one that got away
You can keep yourself safe if you keep predators from getting too close. That's the idea behind animals that try to escape danger. These animals have super senses--they can see, hear, smell, even feel danger approaching. They depend on speed or the ability to go where predators can't follow them.
The white-tailed deer does actually have white hair beneath its tail. In fact, the white-tailed deer lifts its tail in warning at the first sign of danger. The deer's tail, bright white and almost a foot in length, flashes to tell other deer: "Get out of here!" Deer use speed and strength to escape danger. They run quickly, jumping over logs and streams. They leap left and right to confuse whatever is chasing them.
Like most birds, a duck has one of the best forms of defense. It flies! When a duck is frightened, like this wood duck, it can rise from the ground or the water and take to the air. Some ducks can leap into the air with just a few flaps of their wings. Other ducks are like planes rolling down a runway: they have to run and work their wings a bit before getting airborne.
A rabbit's first defense is to freeze when it's frightened. If a rabbit is spotted, though, it starts to run. A rabbit's escape path is anything but straight. The rabbit leaps left and right in a zigzag pattern. This makes it hard to follow. With luck, the rabbit can find safety or run on until a predator gets tired and gives up the chase.
If you've scared a few squirrels, you know what they do first to escape: head for the nearest tree! A squirrel can scoot up a tree trunk, knowing that most animals canŐt climb after it. Not only are squirrels good climbers, they're good at hiding, too. A squirrel always seems to keep the tree between itself and whatever is trying to spot it.
The Great Pretenders
Animals have lots of tricks for dealing with danger. From confusing colors to baffling behavior, these tricks fool enemies into passing an animal by or leaving it alone.
If you're not a dangerous animal, it helps to look like one that is! This trick works for many insects. For example, anything trying to eat a honeybee gets treated to a painful sting. So, many animals leave honeybees alone. The hover fly does not have a stinger. It does have colors that copy the honeybee's though. The hover fly's honeybee costume fools predators into leaving it alone.
A good way to stay safe is to stay out of sight. An animal that's the same colors as its background is hard to spot. The American bittern is a shy wading bird. It hides among tall marsh grasses. When the bittern is frightened, it points its bill to the sky and stretches out its neck. The bittern's neck feathers are patterned to blend in with the grasses. The bittern even sways in the wind, just like grasses do!
The earthworm has a pretty simple body shape. In fact, it's hard to tell one end from the other. Speaking of ends, an earthworm can often grow a new back end if it loses the one it was born with! So, a hungry bird may get part of a meal, but an earthworm gets a second chance at survival.
Many meat-eating animals will not eat an animal if they find it already dead. The opossum uses this fact to save its own life. If a opossum feels it's in danger, it may choose to play dead! The opossum falls over and curls up. Its tongue hangs out, and its eyes look lifeless. This act can fool a hunting animal into losing interest.
When a toad is under attack, it uses a big trick. The toad stands on its tiptoes. It takes a deep breath and puffs up its whole body. This trick can make a toad look three times as big as it really is...which just might scare away an attacker.
The walking stick is an insect that really lives up to its name. Its body is shaped like the twig of a tree. When the walking stick stands still, it's hard to tell it apart from real twigs.
Don't mess with me!
Animals may have specially designed body parts that serve as fighting tools, or weapons. Sometimes, these weapons don't go into action until an animal is forced to fight back. Other times, these weapons are mainly used by predators for attacking, but are also handy for protection.
Any predator that makes the mistake of scaring a skunk learns a smelly lesson. A skunk defends itself by spraying a smelly mist at its attackers. The spray shoots out from under the skunk's tail. To be fair, the skunk does lift its tail to warn attackers what it's about to do. Some skunks even do handstands to make the message clear. If a predator keeps on coming, out shoots the spray!
A turtle depends on its shell to save it from danger. When the turtle moves, its head, legs and tail stick out of its shell. When frightened, a turtle pulls all of these soft body parts into its shell. This tough top can stand up to the sharpest teeth or claws. Predators soon figure this out and leave to look for an easier meal.
The bombardier (BOM-buhr-DEER) beetle takes the skunk's idea one step farther. Not only does this beetle squirt a smelly spray...it's also boiling hot! The beetle has an empty space inside its back end. When the insect feels the need for defense, this space fills with chemical liquids from the beetle's body. As the liquids mix, they create a hot, smelly explosion. The liquid squirts out a tube-like tail with a loud popping noise. The beetle has great aim, too. It can turn the tube quickly to follow a moving attacker, such as a crawling ant!
The cottonmouth snake has a pair of fangs inside its mouth. These fangs sink into an animal's skin when the cottonmouth grabs it. A poisonous liquid, called venom, flows through the fangs and into the animal. If a cottonmouth snake is cornered, it will rise up and open its mouth. Its next move is to strike and bite, delivering its poison. The cottonmouth is among the most poisonous snakes in North America.