How Do Animals Protect Themselves?


Being a prey animal means having to navigate the environment in a constant state of alertness. Prey animals must always be on the lookout for danger. Many animals have adapted unique ways of either hiding, escaping from, or intimidating their predators to avoid predators.

Animals will use camouflage to hide not only from predators but also from their prey. The porcupine uses sharp quills to keep themselves safe, while armadillos, tortoises, and turtles have armor made of keratin and bone. The Virginia opossum is unique as it will play dead, secreting a foul odor to ensure that their prey thinks they are no longer a good meal.

There are many ays that animals keep themselves safe. They not only have to be careful of predators but also from the elements.

Mammals are generally dull in color.  Find out why here.

Butterfly

Camouflage

Camouflage is something common to many animal species. Some animals have feathers or fur patterns that allow them to blend into their environment, but some creatures can change their appearance to match their surroundings.

Great horned owls are a perfect example. Native to North America, they are found as far north as Alaska’s arctic coasts, but most live in temperate regions. Those that live in colder climates will migrate to southern states like Florida and California during the winter. Some will even fly as far as Mexico.

These majestic birds have a color and pattern on their feathers that mimic tree bark almost exactly. This allows horned owls to blend seamlessly into the trees without being spotted by their prey or predators.

The tulip-tree beauty moth also has the same adaptation. The markings on its wings allow it to rest on a tree or branch with its wings held flat, and they would be almost impossible to spot. In addition to their wing markings, the edges of their wings are scalloped and uneven, given them even better camouflage against the rough tree bark.

They are common along with the southern and western states of the US, including Florida, Texas, and Missouri.

Native to Arizona and Mexico, Brown vine snakes are so-called because of their brownish-green color and slender body. They hang in trees waiting for prey to pass by. The way they rest in the trees makes them resemble vines or tree branches, so unsuspecting prey animals would not be alerted to the snake’s presence.

The snake also uses its camouflage to protect itself against predators. Birds of prey such as hawks and osprey will attempt to predate vine snakes if they get the chance.

Mimicry is a form of camouflage, and there are two common types; Batesian and Mullerian. Batesian mimicry is when two toxic or poisonous animals have similar markings. This helps both species avoid predators. For example, monarch and viceroy butterflies are almost indistinguishable aside from a single black stripe that viceroy butterflies have.

Both butterflies eat plants containing toxic compounds. These compounds do not affect the butterflies, but they taste bitter to predators, so they will avoid them. If a predator has tried to eat a monarch butterfly, they could easily mistake a viceroy butterfly for a monarch. This means that the predator will no longer prey upon either butterfly species.

Mullerian mimicry is when a non-poisonous animal mimics the markings or behavior of a poisonous species. Hognose snakes are not poisonous, but they mimic rattlesnake behavior to try and intimidate predators.

They will also play dead, rolling onto their back and sticking their tongue out in the hopes the predator will leave them alone.

Want to know which rattlesnakes live in North America.  Find out here

Armor

Who needs to camouflage when you have body armor to protect you? Turtles and tortoises have hard shells that protect their bodies. The shell is made from small bones and layers of keratin, the same compound found in hair and nails.

Both turtles and tortoises can retract their legs and head into their shell to prevent a predator attack. Interestingly, turtles and tortoises are the most commonly confused species. Turtles live in water and have flippers. Tortoises live on land and have legs and feet.

Snails also have shells that they can retract their body into as protection against predators like birds and small mammals. Unlike tortoises, whose shells are made of bone, snail shells are formed from calcium. The more calcium a snail can absorb from food, the thicker and larger their shell will grow.

The nine-banded armadillo also has rows of bony plates covering its body. A common misconception is that when they feel threatened, they roll into a tight ball with their head and legs are hidden within the strong armor plating. However, the nine-banded armadillo can’t. The three-banded armadillo is the only species that does roll itself up to protect it.

This is the only species of armadillo found in North America, and their range has been expanding steadily over the last century. Although they typically prefer warm desert areas, armadillos have been found as far north as Nebraska.

The armadillo is the only mammal to have a shell.  Find out more about the armadillo in this article I wrote

Opossum Playing Dead

Behavior

Perhaps the most famous North American animal to use behavior as a defense mechanism is the opossum. They are famous for playing dead when they feel threatened. According to experts, this is not a conscious act. An opossum will be in a catatonic state, foaming at the mouth and secreting a foul-smelling liquid from its anal glands.

This makes a predator believe that the animal has been dead for some time, and the smell will deter them. Opossums typically stay like this for several minutes, but they can remain catatonic for hours.

Squid and octopus have a bizarre defense mechanism against predators. Whenever they feel threatened, they shoot a large burst of ink towards their attacker, giving the animal time to swim away and find a safe place to hide.

The most unusual animal is perhaps the electric eel. Despite their name, electric eels are not eels but belong to a different family of fish. They can generate a voltage as high as 600-700 volts when they feel threatened, making them very dangerous for fishermen and scientists attempting to study their behavior.

Ever wondered why opossums play dead? Find out in this article I wrote

Protection From The Elements

In warm climates, animals need to find a way to keep cool and prevent heatstroke. There is not much water in the desert, so going for a swim or getting a drink is out of the question. Instead, desert animals tend to sleep or rest during the hottest hours of the day and are most active at night, when the weather is much cooler.

Other animals will dig burrows or tunnels underground as it is much cooler where the sun cannot penetrate. Small mammals and lizards will hide in rock crevices or shaded areas where vegetation grows.

Some animals can sweat, which is the body’s natural air conditioning. Sweating releases warmth from the body and helps lower the overall body temperature. The downside of this is that too much sweating can lead to dehydration.

In warm climates with a rainy season or warm, humid environments, animals may take mud baths. When the mud dries, it acts as a sunscreen, protecting the animal’s skin from burning in the sun.

Certain species can survive both hot and cold climates. Sheep keep warm in the winter thanks to their thick woolen coat that traps warm air close to the body. In the summer, sheep can sit in the shade, and their wool will trap cool air and prevent them from overheating.

Many animals in cold climates will hibernate during winter to avoid having to cope with the harsh conditions. Hibernation slows down the heart rate and metabolic processes within the body. This allows an animal to go weeks or even months without food.

To keep warm, hibernators will dig dens or find shelter in tree hollows. Female bears will even give birth in their dens during hibernation, and their cubs keep warm by snuggling close to their mother’s body and sharing body heat.

Animals that do not hibernate may choose to migrate instead. They will travel to warmer climates for the winter months and return to their home range in springtime. Some animals may move just a few states south, whereas others will travel further, even crossing into South America.

When migrating animals return in springtime, the weather is beginning to warm, and food is more abundant. This is the perfect time for animals to give birth, as there are plenty of resources for the young to survive.

Instead of migrating, some animals simply seek higher ground. In North Carolina, wild horses can often sense when storms or hurricanes are approaching. They will begin to move higher up the valleys, where the storm will be weaker, and they can better shelter from the elements. To protect themselves from dehydration, they dig holes in the earth to find freshwater. They cannot drink the seawater that surrounds their islands as the water is too salty.

Wherever an animal may live, adaptation is key to surviving against predators and mother nature. Only those animals who can adapt will survive.

Do you know why animals hibernate?  Find out here

References

Abel, C. (2021, May 4). How Do Sheep Protect Themselves? Essential Guide. Retrieved from Savvy Farm Life: https://savvyfarmlife.com/do-sheep-protect-themselves/

Adamo, S. A. (2021). How insects protect themselves against combined starvation and pathogen challenges, and the implications for reductionism. Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology Part B: Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

Chapuisat, M., Oppliger, A., Magliano, P., & Christe, P. (2007). Wood ants use resin to protect themselves against pathogens—proceedings of the Royal Society Biological Sciences.

Malaysia, E. (2017, February 21). How do animals protect themselves from harm? Retrieved from Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UlRy297dfeQ

McMahon, M. (2021). Wild ways animals protect themselves. Retrieved from Forest Preserve District of Will County: https://www.reconnectwithnature.org/news-events/big-features/animal-defense-mechanisms

Nature Museum. (2020, May 19). How do animals protect themselves? Retrieved from Nature Museum: https://naturemuseum.org/2020/05/how-do-animals-protect-themselves/

Unbelievable Facts. (2017, May 5). THE 10 CRAZIEST WAYS ANIMALS PROTECT THEMSELVES FROM PREDATORS. Retrieved from Unbelievable Facts: https://unbelievable-facts.com/2017/09/animals-protect-themselves.html

Bryan Harding

Bryan has spent his whole life around animals. While loving all animals, Bryan is especially fond of mammals and has studied and worked with them around the world. Not only does Bryan share his knowledge and experience with our readers, but he also serves as owner, editor, and publisher of North American Nature.

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