Playing dead, also known as ‘playing possum’, is a common strategy used by many animals to avoid predators. Animals that play dead usually just drop to the floor and don’t react to touching in order to convince the predator that they’re really dead.
Take a look at all the animals that play dead below:
- Black Widows
- Eastern Hognose Snakes
- Brown Widow Spiders
- Common Grass Snakes
- Japanese Quail
- Blue Jays
- Praying Mantis
- Fire Ants
1. Black Widows
Scientific name (genus): Latrodectus
These spiders are the stuff of nightmares to many, but although their bites are extremely painful, they’re rarely lethal. What’s interesting about them is that they’ll often avoid conflict with possible predators, despite their powerful venom.
Some spiders from this genus will curl up into a ball and drop from their web, pretending to be dead to avoid predators. This behavior is actually quite common with many insects, as there are also crickets and grasshoppers that do the same.
Scientific name (family): Leporidae
When they’re put under too much stress, rabbits will roll over and induce tonic immobility (what we colloquially call ‘playing dead’) as a defense mechanism. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the predator will leave them alone, as foxes, for example, will eat a dead rabbit.
There are times when this strategy’s good enough for them, though, since some predators will leave them alone after this. It’s been proven that during this state, rabbits aren’t in a trance and that they’re aware of what’s happening around them.
3. Eastern Hognose Snakes
Scientific name: Heterodon platyrhinos
This is one of the best examples of a reptile that plays dead in the wild, as the eastern hognose snake is a completely harmless animal, but it will try anything to scare the predators off.
Firstly, it’s a non-venomous snake that behaves like a venomous snake – it will try to strike the predator to scare them off, despite those strikes being harmless.
If that doesn’t work, it will roll over on its back and let its tongue hang out in order to convince the predator that it’s dead. It will even let the predator pick it up – that’s just how committed they are to this act.
4. Brown Widow Spiders
Scientific name: Latrodectus geometricus
Similar to the black widow, the brown widow will also drop to the ground and curl up in a little ball to avoid predators. These spiders are the definition of the saying “they’re more afraid of you than you are of them”.
Most spiders, in fact, will do anything to avoid conflict, as running is their primary strategy, but not all spiders play dead like the two species we mentioned.
5. Common Grass Snakes
Scientific name: Natrix natrix
Grass snakes are possibly the most widespread snakes in the world, they’re also possibly the least dangerous snakes in the world. They can kill fish and small birds, but aside from that, they’re completely incompetent.
It would be very easy for anyone to kill this snake, which is why they’ll play dead if you grab one. Not only that, but many snakes have adopted the method of spraying feces on people if we pick them up, and that’s usually enough to deter anyone from harming snakes.
Scientific name: Anas platyrhynchos
Tonic immobility is actually present with many duck species, not only mallards, but we decided to point out these ducks just because of how good they are at it.
Mallards will play dead when a predator attacks, but they’ll remain conscious and wait for an opportunity to escape. It’s been reported that mallards that play dead have a greater chance of survival than those that fight back or resist, especially when it comes to fox attacks.
Scientific name (superorder): Selachimorpha
Who would guess that sharks, some of the most intimidating fish of the sea, are actually often playing dead. Well, this actually isn’t something that they do on purpose. In fact, anyone can cause tonic immobility in a shark if they know what the exact species is and how to do it.
Tiger sharks, for example, can be put in this sort of trance by placing hands on the sides of their snouts, near the eyes. This will induce the trance, during which the animal doesn’t move a single muscle for about 15 minutes.
Scientists are yet to figure out why this even happens – it’s confusing that these fish play dead since they’re predators and they rarely have a reason to fear anyone or anything.
It also appears that orcas have learned of this weakness and they gladly exploit it when they hunt sharks. They’ll ram into a shark to stun it and flip it on its back to induce tonic immobility.
This is another way of stunning a shark – flipping it on its back.
8. Japanese Quail
Scientific name: Coturnix japonica
These small birds are completely defenseless when it comes to predators, which are most often wild cats, so it’s necessary for them to play dead if they want to avoid becoming dinner.
Unlike mallards, they completely freeze and don’t move until danger has passed – they don’t even try to escape during the attack.
Scientific name (infraorder): Anisoptera
Most animals that play dead do it to avoid being eaten, but these insects do it for a completely different reason. Dragonflies, believe it or not, play dead when they’re avoiding mating.
Females will drop mid-flight and act dead on the ground to avoid an annoying male that they don’t want to mate with. If they mate more than once, they could damage their reproductive system, which is why it’s crucial for them to only mate once.
10. Blue Jays
Scientific name: Cyanocitta cristata
Blue jays are considered to be some of the more intelligent birds out there, so it’s no wonder that they came up with an effective strategy for avoiding predators.
Just like dragonflies, they’ll drop to the ground mid-flight and they’ll even effectively act that death out by spreading their wings and dropping their head to the ground.
Unlike some animals that don’t react to touching, these birds will snap right back after poking them.
11. Praying Mantis
Scientific name (order): Mantodea
Praying mantis are famous for the female biting the male’s head off after mating. Since this isn’t the way anyone wants to go, some males will become completely motionless after mating to avoid their doom.
It isn’t a proven tactic, though, as the female will sometimes kill and eat the head of the male, while other times it will actually leave it alone and move away.
This behavior is incredibly interesting, as it appears that males are aware that the female will kill them, and despite that knowledge, they still go ahead with the mating.
Scientific name (family): Cichlidae
Sleeper cichlids are endemic to Lake Malawi, and they’re one of the rare animals that play dead in order to attract prey. They’ll lie down to the bottom and attract scavengers.
Then, the fish will eat all those other fish that came too close. This strategy is extremely rare, but we also see it in another two species of cichlids, so it’s likely that this entire family has similar hunting habits.
13. Fire Ants
Scientific name (genus): Solenopsis
Playing dead isn’t used to kill or to defend from predators for these animals, instead, younger worker ants employ this strategy to avoid conflict with other ants.
Older ants are much more often choosing to fight over playing dead, but younger ants are four times more likely to survive an attack than their older brethren.
Scientific name (order): Didelphimorphia
Opossums are by far the most popular animals they play dead, as this is their primary strategy to avoid being hurt. They do it so much that the entire phenomenon is colloquially called ‘playing possum’.
They do this by mimicking the appearance, but also the smell of a dead animal, and they’re one of few species to actually do this with smell too. This act isn’t conscious, according to scientists, and it’s more of a reflexive, involuntary action.
During this reaction, you can grab and turn the animal over – it won’t react. They’re completely frozen and they won’t be able to move until all danger has passed.
Out of all animals that play dead, opossums are by far the masters of the art. However, there are animals like cichlids, which play dead to attract prey, and this method has proven to work very effectively in the field.
We also can’t forget the case of dragonflies, where females outright refuse to mate by dropping down to the floor and playing dead until the male loses interest.
It’s also interesting to note that some species, like many species of shark, don’t do this voluntarily and it’s almost like there’s a glitch in that brain that causes this behavior.