Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons. Horror frog.
The Strangest Defence Mechanisms In The Animal Kingdom
by Justine Alford
The animal kingdom is always full of surprises. With predators lurking left right and center, self-defense is a top priority for some. But just what lengths will some animals go to so that they don’t end up served al dente with a light sprinkling of saliva?
The Newest Member Of The X-Men
Let’s start with animals that will go as far as breaking their own bones to ward off predators. The hairy frog or “horror frog” actively breaks its own toe bones when threatened, which then puncture the skin resulting in a set of cat-like claws. So there you have it, your very own amphibian Wolverine. Scientists aren’t entirely sure what happens afterwards, but they think that when the muscles relax the claws slide back under the skin.
The hairy frog , Trichobatrachus robustus. Wikimedia commons.
These guys aren’t the only ones to have adopted this gruesome self-mutilating defense mechanism. The Iberian ribbed newt , found in the Iberian Peninsula and Morocco, pushes its ribs through its skin when under threat. But it gets worse; it then secretes a poison through these newly formed pores. So the unsuspecting attacker will first get a nasty sharp poke which punctures them, then the poison enters often casting a fatal blow. That’ll teach them… But don’t worry, amphibians repair wounds very effectively without forming scar tissue, and people are even beginning to turn to them in an attempt to find a way of allowing humans to do this.
The Iberian ribbed newt Pleurodeles waltl demonstrating the sharp ribs along the side of the body. Wikimedia commons.
Bang Goes The Bug
You know when you get so angry that you feel you could just EXPLODE?! Well, some animals actually do explode as a form of defense mechanism. Two animals are known to do this; the Malaysian ant C. saundersi and termites from French Guiana, N. taracua. The Malaysian ants have glands inside their bodies which are full of poison, and when threatened they contract their abdomens causing these glands to explode, shooting poison all over their predators. The termites have a slightly more explosive backpack to hand. They secrete toxic blue crystals into external pouches which react with enemy saliva. When the enemy takes a bite the pouches explode, paralyzing and killing them. Unfortunately, the termite also dies in the process, but nobody can say that’s not a noble way to go.
Rings Of Fire
There are many animals which have adopted truly disgusting defense mechanisms, secreting some horrible things from different parts of their bodies. Let’s start with the animal that takes the phrase “s#!t scared” to a whole new level – the bombardier beetle. Nothing quite says “I’m warning you!” like a hot, noxious spray of toxic bodily fluids, right out of the anus. The bombardier beetle stores two chemicals separately in glands; one compartment of the gland contains hydroquinones and hydrogen peroxide, the other contains a mix of enzymes that catalyze the reaction. When the beetle squeezes the reservoirs, the chemicals mix and react, shooting out at almost boiling point. Johnny Cash’s classic “Ring Of Fire” has suddenly popped into my head. Ouch. Spraying potent warnings out of anuses is surprisingly common in the animal kingdom; skunks, and in fact all members of the Mustelidae family (such as ferrets) spray an anal musk at attackers. The musk from the skunk is so strong that it can temporarily induce blindness in the predator.
Check out this YouTube video of the bombardier beetle shooting out the chemicals.
It’s All About The Anus
Pygmy sperm whales might look adorable, as all “miniature” animal counterparts do, but you wouldn’t want to tick one off. The pygmy sperm whale would be pretty vulnerable if it didn’t have a secret stashed up its, well, anus. In a bid to avoid attack by larger whales such as the Orca, it squirts out a deep colored anal syrup into the water and spreads it around with its tail, like an artist swishing a paintbrush, only the result is much less magnificent.
Sea cucumbers are also not afraid to shoot things out of their anus, but they’re even more dedicated attackers. They contract their bodies which causes them to eject their intestines and other organs at predators. These entangle the enemy, and some are actually poisonous as they contain a toxin called holothurin. Who would have thought there were so many interesting ways to use an anus?
An Interesting Fashion Choice…
We’re not done with toilet talk yet folks; the animal kingdom has kindly given us some other intriguing examples of how to use what you’ve got. Some animals use their own feces to deter attackers from eating them. The potato beetle eats a poisonous plant called nightshade and through a series of abdominal contractions it covers itself in its own toxin containing feces. This forms something aptly named a “fecal shield”. Cereal Leaf Beetles also adopt a similar mechanism of defense, encasing their poo in a secreted jelly-like mucus, like a stinky backpack.
The cereal leaf beetle; yes that is feces on its back. Wikimedia commons.
We’re Way Past Just Being Horny
The next animal really is something you’d think belongs in a horror movie: the Texas Horned Lizard. This lizard isn’t just very horny- it goes much further than that. It can increase the blood pressure in its head to such an extent that the blood vessels around its eyelids rupture, releasing a spurt of blood and other disgusting secretions up to a distance of 5 feet. Unfortunately this causes the lizard to lose around a third of its total blood supply, but I guess that is still better than being eaten. Check out the YouTube video below for some amazing footage from National Geographic.
Don’t Let The Cute Deceive You
Fluffy feathered, innocent looking chicks- aren’t they the cutest? That may be the case, even for the Fulmar, but you wouldn’t want to get too close to one of their nests. They produce a putrid oil in their stomach which they will projectile vomit into the face of predators. This might seem a hilarious gag, excuse the pun, but it can actually mat the feathers of the predator, rendering them unable to fly. The word Fulmar comes from the Old Norse words fúll meaning foul, and már meaning gull.
Take THAT, Sharks!
Our final delightful example for the day is the Hagfish. Hagfish are pretty interesting because they are in fact living fossils, meaning they’re almost identical to the Hagfish that existed 300 million years ago. Their family is considered an important link between vertebrates and invertebrates, as they are also the only known animals to possess a skull but no vertebral column. When bitten, they secrete slime out of their pores which immediately reacts with the water around it, expanding dramatically in size. This smothers the gills of the predator and can cause them to suffocate. Check out the YouTube videos below showing just how impressive a small amount of slime can be.
So there you have it; vomiting, poo wearing, exploding animals. Can the animal kingdom get any more interesting?