Playing dead seems like the last ditch effort of someone or something that has given up all hope. When you have no ideas left, just stay very still and hope the world passes you by. It’s not clever and it doesn’t take a lot of skill, but you’d be surprised at how effective it is. And it’s not just good for avoiding bear attacks.
10. Moorland Hawker Dragonflies Play Dead to Avoid Mating
The Moorland Hawker dragonfly may not be a creature you’re familiar with, but it’s very common. You can find it all across the northern hemisphere through Europe, Asia and North America. The females of the species have also developed a unique self preservation technique that is at once clever and kind of sad, in human terms.
Insect mating is never a particularly romantic endeavor, so after hawker dragonflies have mated, it’s back business as usual. But in their world, consent doesn’t exist, and a male has no way of knowing if a female has already mated or not. Females, in an effort to prevent unwanted males, have perfected the playing dead defense.
A female obviously doesn’t need to mate twice, but a male that tries it could actually end up causing damage to her reproductive system. To fend this off, the female will flee from a male and then crash to the ground, lying on her back and remaining perfectly still. Since an upside down insect is almost always a dead insect, the male will conclude she’s dead and leave.
9. A Pet Pig Played Dead To Get Help For Her Owner
There’s ample evidence that pigs are highly intelligent, even more so than dogs, and on par with human toddlers. When a bond has been made between humans and a pet pig, it’s not surprising that a pig may have some clever skills up its sleeves when the need arises. We can train dogs to track drugs and alert humans who are having a seizure. A pig that plays dead to save a life seems entirely reasonable.
Jo Ann Altsman had a heart attack back in 1998 and the only one home to help her was a pot-bellied pig named Lulu. The pig actually forced her way through a fence, tearing herself up in the process, and made her way to the street. There, she did the only thing a 150lb pig could do. She played dead in the middle of the road.
Eventually, someone stopped to see why there was a dead pig in the road. Lulu led the person back to the home and Altsman received medical attention. Apparently, had it taken even another 15 minutes, her doctor said she likely wouldn’t have made it.
8. Male Nursery Web Spiders Play Dead to Trick Females
Arachnophobia is a prominent fear for many people, and there’s not a lot of love lost between spiders and humans. And it’s no wonder when you look at how they treat one another. Take, for instance, the nursery web spider. The males of the species are deceitful and sneaky and far too crafty for their own good.
When it comes time to mate, the males have to get creative. In many spider species, the females will kill the males and they are typically much larger. Male nursery web spiders use tricks to get the job done, which can include giving the female a gift wrapped in silk to distract her. The problem is the gift may be a lie and inside will just be a seed she can’t eat or even the husk of something the male already ate. And he’ll also play dead to deceive her long enough to turn her back so he can sneak in and mate while he has the chance.
About two-thirds of given gifts were real insects that the female could eat while the male mated with her. The last third were the trick gifts, which usually resulted in shorter mating periods since the female would realize she’d been duped. That led to the deadbeat male faking death, so it had a chance to try another round of mating.
7. Cichlid Fish Play Dead to Dupe Prey
Typically, we think of playing dead as a method of escape. We’ve all likely heard that playing dead is a way to deal with a grizzly bear. Just do nothing and hope it loses interest. But sometimes playing dead is done for the exact opposite reason, as is the case with cichlid fish.
A technique known as aggressive mimicry, the fish uses it to draw in others that would feed on its dead body. The fish literally lies still on the bottom, resting in the mud, and when smaller fish come to inspect the corpse, it snaps to life and eats them.
6. Embryonic Sharks Play Dead After Sending Predatory Electrical Signals
The life of a shark can be a rough one. These predators are constantly on the hunt for food and they’re also in danger from humans as well as each other. Larger sharks are more than happy to prey on smaller ones and baby sharks are at great risk. This is such an everyday part of how a shark lives that their ability to avoid predators is pure instinct, part of their minds before they’re even born. We know this because there’s evidence of embryonic sharks playing dead to avoid danger. Even before they hit the water, they know to avoid predators.
Sharks are able to sense electrical fields produced by other living things. They use this ability when they are adults to help them hunt. But when they’re still unborn, they can sense the electrical fields of potential predators and respond by limiting their movement and effectively playing dead to not give themselves away to something that might be interested in a snack. All of this happens within the confines of an egg still inside the mother shark. When the electrical signals are sensed, the embryonic shark will limit gill movements and wait the predators out.
5. Praying Mantis Will Play Dead to Avoid Cannibalism
The praying mantis is an infamous example of the dangers of mating in the animal kingdom. It’s a well-known example of the disparity between males and females in insects thanks to the habit females have of cannibalizing males after and sometimes even during mating. The males, as you can imagine, don’t like this and will try to avoid it if and when they can.
In at least one species of mantis, around 60% of males end up eaten. The other 40%? They need to think fast. For some, the key is to trick the female into thinking her job is already done and that means playing dead.
This can be seen in several different mantis species which also engage in the behavior to escape predators. They leap off trees, flatten themselves on the ground, and present themselves as corpses.
4. Opossums Don’t Choose to Play Dead
Is any animal more famous for playing dead than the opossum? People literally call it “playing possum.” Ironically, of all the animals we’ve already covered that play dead, opossums are actually the least effective at it. Which isn’t to say they won’t effectively make you think they’re dead, it’s just that they’re not “playing,” strictly speaking. The reaction is not a voluntary one, so it’s less play and more affliction.
The reason an opossum is said to play dead is what you think. It’s a defensive mechanism and comes into play when the opossum fears attack from a predator. The animal doesn’t have control over it and cannot make it start or stop on its own. It’s kind of like a sneeze or a muscle spasm that might strike you by surprise and you just endure it because your body is doing what it needs to do.
The opossum will also release liquid from a gland that gives off a smell like rotten flesh to help complete the illusion. This can go on for four hours, too.
As an aside, though it’s called “playing possum,” if you’re talking about the North American marsupial, it is technically an opossum. A possum is actually a similar but different animal found in Australia.
3. Young Fire Ants Fake Death Until They’re Older
When it comes to ants, there’s a real mixed bag out in the world. Some species are tiny and relatively harmless, while others are larger and potentially very dangerous. The bullet ant gets its name because when it stings you, it produces a pain likened to actually being shot by a gun. That’s pretty terrifying. Slightly less terrifying but still much maligned thanks to its sting is the fire ant. If you’ve never been stung by a fire ant, you can guess, based on the name, what you might be in for. Their sting is loaded with compounds that can cause minor skin irritation up to serious pain.
Though the fire ant is equipped with clear defensive skills, just like most animals, the young ones are not as adept as the older members of the species. Young fire ants are not able to defend themselves against rival fire ants so they’ll just play dead to avoid a confrontation altogether.
The “attacking” ants may only show up and inspect the young ants, they don’t need to be fully aggressive. The young ants will curl up right away and as soon as the rivals leave, they uncurl and go about their day. Once they’re old enough, however, the fire ants will take on a more aggressive defense and fight these invaders rather than trying to trick them.
2. A Deer Shot By a Hunter Attacked After the Man Thought it was Dead
Hunting, whether subsistence hunting or even trophy hunting, typically plays out the same way. Whether we agree with it or not, it involves a human tracking and killing an animal either for the sport of it or to feed themselves or their family and community. But that’s getting ahead of the story and implies the hunt went as planned, and that’s not always the case.
Thomas Alexander was hunting deer in Arkansas. He caught sight of a buck and fired, taking the deer down. Alexander left his hide and approached the deer to inspect his kill. So far, this is how most deer hunts go. But this was not like most deer hunts, and that deer that Alexander went to inspect was not dead. It just looked like it was.
Incredibly, the deer was not dead. When Alexander approached, the deer got to its feet and attacked him. The buck must have had an impressive rack of antlers because Alexander suffered serious puncture wounds throughout his body. He was able to make a call to his wife, who then called emergency services, but unfortunately the man died shortly after. The deer was not found.
1. A Korean Business Lets People Pretend to be Dead
Maybe it seems too obvious that humans play dead as well, but when you stop to think about it, can you think of many cases in which this happens for a particular reason other than why an animal might do it? We’re told to play dead to avoid grizzly bears and, in horror movies, it’s sometimes a good way to avoid the killer.
In Daejeon, South Korea, there’s another reason for playing dead and it’s apparently to prevent suicides. In a seminar called “Coffin Academy,” participants are charged $25 to spend four hours getting ready to die. They write letters to their loved ones, decide what should be written on their tombstones, and then spend some time resting in a coffin to get a feel for that final dirt nap.
The pretend death goes for 10 minutes of silence and stillness. According to at least one account of it, the coffin is actually nailed shut by staff to really hit the simulation home. Some feared that the experience, which many find therapeutic, might encourage people to want to commit suicide by presenting them with the idea that the afterlife is peaceful. The founder argues the opposite, suggesting that it shows how lonely it would be to people in a country with the highest suicide rate in OECD countries.