Wild ways animals protect themselves

Some species have developed defense mechanisms that are crucial for their survival

|  Story by Meghan McMahon |


Humans have evolved into sophisticated creatures, with a keen sense of intelligence that usually keeps us safe from danger. Wild animals also have developed strategies to keep them safe from danger. For some, these defense mechanisms are crucial to surviving in the wild.  

Some of these means of protecting themselves are well-known and obvious — you’ve probably smelled the presence of a nearby skunk without ever seeing it. Others are more subtle, and some are downright bizarre.

For example, some species of ants that live in Asia will explode to protect the colony. This protective action kills the ant, but it can save the colony from danger, according to Mother Nature Network.

The Texas horned lizard will squirt blood from its eyes at a predator to keep itself safe. And a sea cucumber will shoot its digestive organs out its anus to protect itself. In some cases, the sea cucumber’s intestines can be poisonous to predators. Sometimes, though, it’s just a clever way of convincing a predator it is dead.

These defense mechanisms may seem wild, but the animal kingdom is full of bizarre behaviors that animals engage in to keep themselves safe. Here’s a look at some of the defense mechanisms used by animals you might see in your own backyard.



An opossum with its teeth out.

Photo via Shutterstock

Opossums are notorious for playing dead, and they are very good at it. But it’s not really an act. That is, they don’t actively decide to play dead. It’s an involuntary response that is more like fainting, according to the San Diego Zoo.

When an opossum plays dead, it bares its teeth, foams at the mouth and secretes a fluid from its anal glands that gives off a bad smell. All of these things add to the look of it being dead, helping to keep predators at bay. It can remain in this catatonic state for a few minutes or a few hours.



Opossums are the animal most famed for playing dead, but they aren’t the only one. Take the western hognose snake, for example. These snakes, which are predominantly found in the western United States, could win acting awards for faking their own deaths. They start by having spasms and then rolling over, according to the National Wildlife Foundation. Then they either vomit or expel blood from their mouths, finishing off the performance by defecating and emitting a pungent musk from its tail. This dramatic performance is usually enough to send potential predators off in another direction.


Walking sticks

A walking stick on a wooden structure.

Photo by Michelle Blackburn

Camouflage is a well-known way for animals to protect themselves from predators, but perhaps no creature in the animal kingdom is as good at it as walking sticks. More than 3,000 species of these insects exist across the world, and their stick-like appearance serves them well in hiding from potential predators. They are usually green or brown in color to blend in with the twigs they disguise themselves as, according to the National Wildlife Federation.

Stick bugs don’t just look like sticks; they act like them too. They can be hard to the touch, like a stick or twig would be. And to help them blend in, they will sway in the wind just like the twigs on a tree would do.

These masters of camouflage have some competition in the animal kingdom when it comes to blending in with their environment. The patterns in the plumage of several owl species, including the great horned owl, provide excellent cover for sitting in a tree. And many insects, lizards, frogs and snakes also have coloring that allows them to blend in rather than stand out. And our oceans are full of creatures – from fish to seahorses to crustaceans – that blend into their environment so as not to call attention to themselves.


Monarch and Viceroy butterflies

A side-by-side view of a monarch and viceroy butterfly.

Photos from left to right: Monarch butterfly courtesy of Ronald Kapala; Viceroy butterfly by Glenn P. Knoblock

Some animals protect themselves from predators by looking very similar to another animal, a practice called mimicry. Among the best known examples of this is viceroy and monarch butterflies, which look strikingly similar except for one black stripe viceroys have on their hind wings that monarchs do not have.

Both types of butterflies eat plants that contain noxious compounds that make them taste bitter to predators, according to Save Our Monarchs. This bitter taste keeps predators at bay, and in this case the butterflies get double the protection because predators will stay away from both monarchs and viceroys because of their similar appearance. These butterflies are an example of Mullerian mimicry, in which two (or more) noxious animals have similar physical appearances as shared protection against predators of both animals.

Another type of mimicry is called Batesian mimicry, which is when a non-toxic animal evolves to have a strikingly similar appearance to a toxic animal to protect it from predators. This form of mimicry was first noticed among butterflies in the Amazon, according to PBS. Closer to home, Batesian mimicry is used by the non-venomous scarlet kingsnake, which looks so similar to the venomous coral snake that it can be difficult to differentiate between the two.

Both the scarlet kingsnake – which is completely harmless to humans – and the coral snake – which is deadly, although it rarely bites humans – have red, yellow and black bands. The difference is that the yellow and red bands are next to each other on a coral snake, while a black band always separates the yellow and red bands of a scarlet kingsnake, according to the Florida Museum. This subtle distinction has given rise to a clever rhyme: Red touches yellow, kill a fellow. Red touches black, friend of Jack.


Turkey vultures

Close-up of a turkey vulture with its tongue out.

Photo via Shutterstock

If you happen upon a turkey vulture devouring a meal, it’s best to give it plenty of space. Why? Because these birds will vomit up the contents of their stomachs to keep from being harassed or disturbed, according to the Washington NatureMapping Program.

Turkey vultures mainly eat carrion, or the carcasses of dead animals, which means their stomach contents may be a little more vile than most creatures’. And they can heave their stomach contents pretty far – up to 10 feet away. Even the young vultures are well-versed in vomiting to keep potential predators away.

Vultures aren’t the only animal to vomit to defend themselves from predators. European rollers are sometimes called “vomit birds” because the young birds will throw up a putrid, orange liquid to make themselves less appetizing to predators. The vomit also provides an olfactory cue to their parents that the nest is under attack.

And camels are famous for spitting, which is really just a way for them to protect themselves. The “spit” is actually more like vomit – a combination of their stomach contents and saliva – that they use to distract or bother whatever happens to get too close for comfort.



Two young skunks in the grass.

Photo courtesy of Joyce Flanagan via Will County Wildlife

The stinky spray of a skunk is one of the most well-known animal defenses there is, but it’s usually used as a last resort by these striped animals. A skunk will first try less odiferous means of keeping a potential predator at bay. It may start by hissing and stomping its feet, according to the Smithsonian Institute. If that doesn’t send a predator scampering, the skunk will arch its back and lift its tail.

If all else fails, a skunk will deliver a spray of its pungent musk. The musk is contained in anal glands that have nipples so the skunks can precisely direct their spray, which can reach distances of 10 feet or more, according to the National Wildlife Federation. The spray may cause an unsuspecting animal’s eyes to water and sting, but it leaves no lasting damage – although the smell can linger for days or even weeks.

Skunk spray is the most effective foul-smelling defense – it can be smelled more than a half-mile away – but plenty of animals employ similar means of keeping potential predators at a safe distance. Take minks, which are related to skunks. They also secrete a bad-smelling musk from their anal glands when threatened, but it’s not nearly as powerful and potent as that of a skunk, according to Mother Nature Network. Stink bugs secrete a smelly fluid, and bombardier beetles will release a foul-smelling secretion that can also burn and irritate the skin to defend itself. Similarly, millipedes will also emit an odiferous secretion that will also irritate the skin when threatened.

Lead image via Shutterstock

Back to Top