15 Animals With Bizarre Defense Mechanisms

Boxer crab holding two anemones in its front claws
Boxer crabs' defense mechanism is to carry stinging anemones in their claws.

Aleksei Permiakov / Getty Images

One of the most fascinating phenomena in nature is a wild animal's ability to evade predators by playing dead, dropping a tail, and vomiting or pooping poison. These familiar tactics, however, are far from the most creative. You've likely never heard of a frog that breaks its own fingers to use the bones as weapons or a butterfly larva mimicking a deadly snake, down to the diamond-shape head.

Here are 15 of the most bizarre—if also grisly—defense mechanisms in nature.

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Texas Horned Lizards Shoot Blood From Their Eyes

Texas Horned Lizard resting on a rock against blue sky
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One of the most horrifying defenses is performed by the Texas horned lizard, also known as the horny toad. This lizard deters predators like hawks, snakes, other lizards, coyotes, cats, and dogs by squirting blood from the corners of its eyes. It does this basically by rupturing its own sinus membranes.

Texas horned lizards have muscles that line the veins surrounding their eyes. When contracted, these muscles cut off blood flow to the heart and flood the ocular sinuses. The lizards can contract the muscles further and make the blood shoot four feet from their eyes. In biology, it's called autohaemorrhaging or "reflex bleeding."

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Iberian Ribbed Newts Use Their Ribs as Spikes

Iberian ribbed newt resting on mossy rocks in water

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The Iberian ribbed newt has an amazing (albeit disturbing) way of evading predators. When threatened, it pushes its ribs forward through its stretched skin to create a spiky body armor. Oh, and the spikes are poisonous. They secrete a milky substance that seeps into the newt's skin and can cause the predator severe pain or possibly even death. The newt itself experiences no significant negative affects from the gruesome strategy and can perform it over and over again, healing itself each time without problem.

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Pygmy Sperm Whales Create Clouds of Poo

Pod of sperm whales being social near water's surface

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Defecation is a common class of defense mechanism shared by everything from the potato beetle to the pygmy sperm whale. The latter goes beyond using its fecal matter to simply stink out or poison predators, though. Rather, it excretes a sort of—brace yourself—anal syrup, then flaps its fins and tail to create a dark cloud that shrouds predators and conceals the whale's escape route. How's that for using your waste as a weapon?

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Hairy Frogs Break Their Finger Bones to Use as Claws

Hair frog resting on tree in the dark

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There's a good reason why this frog is often called the "horror' or "wolverine" frog. When threatened, its main defense is to crack its own finger bones, pierce them through the skin of its toe pads, and use them as claws—not unlike Wolverine from "X-Men." On their hind feet only, their claws connect with bone via collagen. On the other end of the bone is a muscle that the frog can contract when under threat to break a sharp fragment of bone and push it through its toe pad. This behavior is unique among vertebrates.

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Some Ants Self-Combust

Close-up of red ant on forest floor in Malaysia
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Ant colonies have many types of ants that fill different roles, including ants whose job is to defend the colony against attackers. But for about 15 species of ants in Southeast Asia known collectively as "exploding ants," defending the colony entails more than biting attackers with their mandibles.

Worker ants from these species have large, poison-filled glands that run through their whole bodies. When under threat, they will violently contract their abdominal muscles to blow themselves up and spray a sticky poison. It's this corrosive chemical irritant, rather than the explosion itself, that immobilizes or kills the attacker. Unfortunately, it also kills the ant.

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Slow Lorises Mimic the Defense of Cobras

Close-Up Of Slow Loris in trees
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The slow loris, a lemurlike nocturnal primate native to southern Asia, might be cute to some, but it packs a deadly punch. Its defense against predators like orangutans, birds of prey, and, yes, snakes is to mimic the defensive behavior of a cobra. It will rear up, rest its hands on its head (creating that famous diamond shape) and hiss. Meanwhile, a poison excretes from its armpits.

If it feels really threatened, it will even suck the poison from its underarms and deliver it to its attacker with a deadly bite.

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Bombardier Beetles Spray Hot Poison

Macro shot of a bombardier beetle on a leaf

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The bombardier beetle doesn't just spray something that smells bad, like a stink bug would. What it sprays, rather, is a scalding chemical combined from two abdominal chambers. Its biological ability to keep the "ingredients" of this toxic substance separate is the only way it can survive while carrying it. The spray is as hot as the boiling point of water. The beetle delivers it through an abdominal tip that can rotate 270 degrees, making it easier to target attackers.

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Termites Develop Explosive Pouches of Toxic Goo

Close-up of termites on textured surface

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The Neocapritermes taracua termite of French Guiana spends its life readying for an attack. When the time comes, older termites take to the front lines—they're particularly prepared to fight with the toxic blue crystals they've collected in their abdomens over time. When the blue crystals move to the termite's external pouch and react with salivary gland secretions, they transform into a goo that erupts the moment an enemy, like the Labiotermes labralis termite, takes a bite. The explosion kills the worker termite and paralyzes the enemy with the sticky substance.

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Northern Fulmars Trap Predators With Their Vomit

Close-up of northern fulmar sitting on log
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Birds will often vomit as a defense mechanism because the putrid smell of it deters predators. But the northern fulmar, a gull-like subarctic seabird, takes this method to a new level. Its vomit is so sticky that it can act as a glue, matting the predator's feathers and making it incapable of flight. This is usually the doing of chicks, which are limited in their other means of defense, and sheathbills and skuas are often the victims.

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Flying Fish Take to the Air at 37 Miles Per Hour

Flying fish with fins out "flying" above water
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The flying fish, the largest of which grow to only about 18 inches long, swim at speeds reaching 37 miles per hour to launch themselves from the water. Once airborne, it can reach heights of 4 feet and glide distances of up to 655 feet. Then, it will prolong its return to the water, skimming the surface by rapidly flapping its tail. They can stretch a single flight out to 1,312 feet, which is almost four football fields.

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Sea Cucumbers Push Organs Out of Their Anuses

Close-up of sea cucumber on ocean floor

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Sea cucumbers utilize a defense mechanism called self-evisceration in which they eject their intestines and other organs out of their anuses. The long intestines distract, entangle, and can even harm the enemy because, in some sea cucumber species, they're poisonous. Predators may believe the sea cucumber to be dead, and the expelled organs keep the predator busy while the sea cucumber flees the scene. Though it looks gruesome, the sea cucumber isn't harmed in the process. The organs can be regenerated within a matter of weeks.

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Hagfish Choke Their Attackers With Slime

Blue hagfish in shipwreck under water

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The hagfish has been around for some 300 million years, no doubt due largely to its seemingly fail-proof defense mechanism. Similar to the pygmy sperm whale, the hagfish will expel a thick slime when it's bitten—the aim being to switch the predator's focus from its prey to escaping the gill-clogging goo. While the predator gags, the hagfish slips away.

Researchers behind a 2011 paper about hagfish slime captured the phenomenon on video. They noted that of the 14 observed predatory attempts, not a single one was successful.

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Motyxia Millipedes Ooze Cyanide

Millipede glowing green in the dark

Eden, Janine and Jim / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

One common defensive strategy is to display vivid colors or patterns that warn off would-be predators. But if you spend much of your life in the dark, as do nocturnal creatures, colors do little good. That's where bioluminescence comes in. Motyxia, a genus of millipedes endemic to California, uses an internal glow to ward off predators.

Not only that, though. They also produce and ooze cyanide from pores that run along their wormy bodies. Cyanide is extremely toxic. It prevents cells in the body from using oxygen. So, the rodents, centipedes, and beetles that prey on Motyxia millipedes receive a lot more than what they bargain for when they take a bite out of this leggy invertebrate.

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Boxer Crabs Make Lethal Pompoms of Sea Anemones

Boxer crab with two anemones in its front claws

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The boxer crab, also known as the pompom crab or cheerleader crab, has concocted a clever defense using tiny sea anemones as weaponry. These crabs will carry anemones in each claw and wave them to warn off predators. If the predator attacks, the anemones pack a powerful sting.

It's a great way to keep attackers at bay, and the anemones benefit by becoming mobile and thus potentially gaining access to more food. Boxer crabs don't exactly need anemones to survive, and sometimes they'll use coral or sponges instead.

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Dynastor Butterfly Larvae Transform Into Snakes

Close-up of the dynastor butterfly faking a snake face

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Native to Trinidad, the Dynastor darius darius butterfly puts on perhaps the most impressive display of mimicry of the whole animal kingdom. In its pupal stage, it will flip itself upside down, puff out its head, and use its brown underbelly to trick predators into thinking it's a snake. It will do this for 13 days after shedding its final layer of skin. During this period, it's immobile, and the incredibly deceptive snake disguise is its only defense.

When in this stage, the butterfly even mimics the scales and eyes of a serpent. Its head (the underside of it, that is) takes the threatening diamond shape of a pit viper, which no butterfly predator wants to mess with.

View Article Sources
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