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15 Examples of Ambush Predators (With Pictures)

Have you ever heard the phrase “lie in wait?” That’s what ambush predators do when they go hunting for their next meal. Animals find food in many ways, and ambush hunting is one trusty method hundreds of species use to secure dinner.

From ensnaring tiny insects to taking down whole wildebeests, ambush predators are plentiful and effective hunters that live around the globe.

Continue reading to learn about ambush predators and 15 kinds of animals that fit that description.

What is an Ambush Predator?

Ambush predators are carnivorous animals that hunt their prey by hiding or lying in wait until their prey passes by. They have special adaptations or skills that allow them to remain silent and concealed, especially at night.

Some adaptations include vertical pupils, night vision, powerful jaws, color-changing skin, fur coats, rapid reflexes, and venomous bites. These can also help them dispatch their prey as fast as possible before it has a chance to defend itself.

Almost any kind of animal can be an ambush predator. There are mammals, reptiles, insects, and even marine invertebrates that sneak up on and ambush their prey.

15 Ambush Predators

1. Lion

Lion sits on the ground
Lion sits on the ground

Scientific name: Panthera leo

Male lions are dangerous, but did you know that females do most of the hunting? While males stay back with the pack to guard it from interlopers, females venture out to stalk and follow herds of grazing herbivores across the savanna.

2. Tiger

A tiger roaring | Image by Pfüderi from Pixabay

Scientific name: Panthera tigris

Tigers are built to be swift, silent, and deadly. Their coats are tan and black to sink into the shadows of the jungle in southeast Asia. A single leap onto their prey is enough to disable it before they kill it with a swift bite to the neck.

3. Trapdoor Spiders

Trapdoor spider on sand grains
Trapdoor spider on sand grains | image by Jean and Fred Hort via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Scientific name: Ummidia sp. 

Many species of trapdoor spiders live throughout North America, especially in the East and Southwest. These relatives of the tarantula furnish a jar-sized burrow with silk walls and a hinged silk trapdoor covered in dirt and plant matter. When a suitable insect or invertebrate goes by, they open the door and quickly drag the unfortunate animal inside.

4. Polar Bear

Polar Bear
Polar Bear | image by 358611 from Pixabay

Scientific name: Ursus maritimus

Don’t come up for air when a polar bear is waiting for you. Polar bears’ sense of smell is so keen that it can smell the breath of a seal when it surfaces for air. The bear shoots out a paw, snags the seal, and hauls it onto the ice, where it kills it with a bite through the skull.

5. Mountain Lion

Mountain lion fierce
A mountain lion fierce | image by Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area via Flickr

Scientific name: Puma concolor

Mountain lions are some of the most dangerous big cats in North America. These ambush hunters love to drag their kills into the branches of trees to save for later. They primarily hunt deer and larger herbivores, but some have killed humans while defending their territories.

6. Chameleon

A chameleon color changing
A chameleon color changing image: Pixabay.com

Scientific name: Chamaeleonidae

Chameleons have some of the most effective camouflage methods in the animal kingdom. This insectivorous lizard changes its color to match its environment so that prey doesn’t see it. When dinner is finally close enough, the chameleon shoots out its pink tongue and grabs the prey.

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7. American Alligator

American Alligator
An american Alligator | image by JakeWilliamHeckey via Pixabay

Scientific name: Alligator mississippiensis

American alligators are the ultimate freshwater ambush predators. These reptiles catch prey by waiting in shallow water for land-dwelling herbivores to come take a drink.

They look like dead logs with only their eyes above water. Once prey is close enough, they grab on with their huge jaws, drag the animal into the water, and barrel roll to drown it.

8. Alligator Snapping Turtle

Alligator Snapping Turtle
Alligator Snapping Turtle | image by Peter Paplanus via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Scientific name: Macrochelys temminkii

The swamps and wetlands of the American south are full of Alligator Snapping Turtles. They have a special tongue adaptation that acts as a lure for small fish. When they take the bait, the turtle bites down and enjoys lunch.

9. Black-footed cat

Black-footed cat
Black-footed cat | image by Jonathan Kriz via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Scientific name: Felis nigripes

This tiny wild cat dines on mice, rats, and other nocturnal rodents it finds in the grasslands and deserts of southern Africa. They are extremely effective hunters which lie in wait outside the dens of prey, ready to catch it with a quick swipe when it emerges.

10. Anhinga

Anhinga perching
Anhinga perching | image by Susan Young via Flickr

Scientific name: Anhinga anhinga

The Anhinga is a waterbird that lives along the US’s southern coasts, as well as Central and South America. It swims barely above the waterline, so that only its neck is visible. When it stalks prey, it remains still until darting its head out to spear fish on its sharp beak.

11. Starfish

Starfish underwater
Starfish underwater | image by Bernard Spragg. NZ via Flickr

Scientific name: Leptasterias tenera

This species of starfish is a very effective ambush predator. It remains still until small crustaceans crawl over or around it. As soon as the starfish detects movement, it grabs the crustacean and begins to eat it while it’s still alive.

12. Copperhead

Coiled eastern copperhead
Coiled eastern copperhead | image by Peter Paplanus via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Scientific name: Agkistrodon contortix 

The copperhead is one of the deadliest snakes in North America. The venomous bite from this serpent can kill in minutes.

It’s so effective that the copperhead doesn’t need to chase its prey. It can simply creep up behind or lie in wait for the rodent or frog it has its eye on, then strike!

13. American Bullfrog

American bullfrog
American bullfrog by Emerald Beetle from Pixabay

Scientific name: Lithobates catesbeianus

An everyday bullfrog might not seem like the typical ambush predator, but to insects and invertebrates, this amphibian is a deadly enemy. The bullfrog waits until it sees prey, then shoots out its sticky pink tongue, grabbing its quarry in less than a second.

14. Belted Kingfisher

Belted kingfisher on top of log
A belted kingfisher on top of log | image by Andy Morffew via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Scientific name: Megaceryle alcyon

Belted Kingfishers hunt by perching motionless on a snag or grass stalk beside moving water. Once they spot their prey, a fish, they dive into the stream or river in just a few seconds. They stab it instantly with their bill upon impact.

15. Jaguar

Jaguar at the zoo | Image by carlo quinteros from Pixabay

Scientific name: Panthera onca

The Jaguar is one of the deadliest big cats in the world. Dwarfed only by the lion and the tiger, a jaguar can take down prey as large as a cow or river caiman. These stealthy cats camouflage themselves in jungle trees or water and wait for prey to expose themselves in the open.