Wildlife Defence Mechanisms

By Elizabeth Trickey

Wildlife are pretty lucky to have the skills and defence mechanisms that they do.  Sometimes I think that I’d like to have some of those traits since they would be quite handy for having a long and successful life.  They’d also be handy in keeping others at bay when I prefer to be alone.  Well, that’s being polite about it.  Really, there are times I’d like to see someone who is being rude, nasty, or dishonest getting what they deserve – a squirt of skunk, a well-placed quill.…  So I imagine possessing some of those abilities to help make my point.  Yes, I do have a rich imagination!  If you could have any defence mechanism used by wildlife, which one would you want?  Let’s look at what is available to choose!

How about starting with the masked bandits, our beloved raccoons? From fossil evidence, it has been found that their ancestors first appeared 25 million years ago.  Compare that to the average mammalian species that only lives for 1 million years.  Homo sapiens have, so far, been around for 300 000 years.  So what do you suppose is their secret to longevity?  The delicious treats they find in trash bins?  Don’t think so.    

             Photo source: Pixabay    
              Photo source: Pixabay

The reason is because raccoons are adaptable and intelligent.  The species has moved all over the globe, adjusting to different climates and habitats, finding alternate ways of coping with new situations, especially habitat loss.  As well, trash bandits are a species that work together to solve problems.  Being smart enough to adapt to a changing world is an important skill for longevity.  And many people hope for a long, healthy life for themselves and their offspring.  Oh, and did I mention that raccoons are also incredibly adorable?  That helps, too!

Next, let’s move on to discussing that wonderful defence that skunks have.  Oh, yes, the eye-stinging spray that can hit a target with tremendous accuracy from 10 feet away!  Oh, wouldn’t that be a great defence to have!  Our black and white striped friends don’t have to run away from predators, they just waddle along, knowing that they can take care of themselves.  Having that ability would mean you could walk down any city street at night without worrying as much about being mugged!

Photo source: Rolland Gelly

Last month, we had the pleasure of seeing the amazing trait of ground hogs.  These woodchucks have the uncanny ability to tell the weather.  You guessed it.  Wiarton Willie is Ontario’s most famous meteorologist, and he pleased us all by predicting an early spring.  I’ll bet he’s equally as talented with predicting cold fronts and rain.  It sure would be great to have this special skill as we plan vacations and camping trips.

Photo source: Procyon

How about being capable of changing how you look in order to blend into your environment, like a chameleon?   Those critters use that ability to hide in plain sight from predators.  Did you ever see the Woody Allen movie “Zelig?”  That character could blend into any crowd!  Actually, many animals change colours with the seasons in order to keep more concealed, such as Arctic foxes, hares, weasels, ermine, and some frogs and birds.  Maybe you don’t want to be seen because you want to be alone, while other times, you might want to get access to secrets, being that proverbial “fly on the wall.”  That’s mighty sneaky!  But, hey, curiosity is an important attribute.   

Arctic fox winter Photo source: Elizabeth Trickey 
Arctic fox summer Photo source: Dalia & Giedrius dgwildlife.com
Photo source: Nick B. Hunter

As people age, they become more susceptible to heartburn.  If you were a turkey vulture, you could eat anything, and never feel that burning in your stomach.  These amazing birds are our greatest garbage disposal, cleaning up roadkill, and eating sick animals in the forest.  They can consume critters that have rabies, ebola, botulism, anthrax – you name it, and not feel the slightest bit ill.  How about having that ability?  Say goodbye to your Rolaids and Pepto-Bismol, and bring on the chocolate and red wine! 

Photo source: McGill University

Maybe it’s not the heartburn that’s getting to you as you age.  Maybe it’s your eyesight. In order to help bats find their way around at night, they use echolocation, little sound waves that bounce off structures and tasty bugs.  Most of us who used to have 20-20 eyesight, now need reading glasses.  If we had echolocation, we could find things more easily without our glasses.  But that wouldn’t help us read, so glasses it is, if we could just remember where we put them.  This is where the attribute of elephants come in – they never forget!  I sure could use a big dose of that trait!

Opossums have a couple of interesting defence mechanisms.  They are slow animals, so tend to use both scare and sly tactics.  First off, when encountering a predator, they will bare their teeth.  They have 50 very sharp fangs, though not a very ferocious bite.  It’s mostly for show, keeping their mouths open wide for long periods of time.  Failing that scare tactic, the opossum keels over, feigning death.  And it’s more than just not moving for a short time.  The opossum will hang its tongue out of its mouth while drooling, excrete faeces and a putrid “death” smell, slow its breathing, and it can lie limp in this way for up to 4 hours.  Many predators prefer their dinner healthy and fresh, and don’t want to eat a pre-dead meal, so the sly critter will usually just slink away when the coast is clear.  There are some people who don’t like controversy and prefer issues to just fade away.  This playing dead strategy is great for that!

Photo source: Jen Howard
Photo source: Jen Howard

For those people who want argumentative people to get the real point, the adaptation of porcupines would suit them well.  Those quills just don’t poke into a predator’s body.  They have a barb at the end of the quill that grips under the skin, and they are very difficult to remove, tending to move further under the skin. Extremely painful, indeed.  That is a very useful defence to have that would encourage others to keep their distance, while helping others to get the point! 

Photo source: Jen Howard

Wildlife critters have many different strategies to stay alive and prosper.  Others include the armour worn by turtles, the speed of deer and rabbits, the sharp claws and teeth of bears, the venom of snakes, spiders, and bees.  Maybe you’d just like the Wood Frog’s use of its internal antifreeze – then you would never succumb to the harsh Canadian winters!

So what would be your favourite defence mechanism of the animal world?





Wildlife Defence Mechanisms
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