Not simply as a practical joke, playing dead can be found in the animal kingdom for various survival reasons. Animals that play dead due so as a defense mechanism, when finding food, or even during mating! This behavior is scientifically called thanatosis, catatonia, or tonic immobility (TI). It is generally a great defense mechanism because most animals don’t feed on dead or decaying prey.
This article will cover 16 animals that play dead and explain why they do it. Let’s find out how this behavior helps them survive!
16 animals that play dead
Here is a list of 16 animals that play dead. There are a couple of well-known ones, but some may surprise you about why they do it.
1. Lemon sharks
Scientific name: Negaprion brevirostris
One of the major predators in marine habitats, the lemon shark, also interestingly plays dead. When flipped on their back they remain still, have labored breathing, and even the occasional tremor.
It is unclear to scientists why lemon sharks do this, especially since they don’t have significant natural predators. Instead, they prey on various animals, including other sharks, fish, and stingrays. One theory scientists have is that being on their back disorientates the sharks leading them to play dead.
2. Virginia opossum
Scientific name: Didelphis virginiana
Virginia opossums are the main species associated with playing dead. In fact, they influence the term “playing possum” meaning to lay low or pretend you are sleeping or dead. These animals are great tree climbers, related to kangaroos, and the only marsupial native to North America.
When faced with predators, such as foxes, bobcats, or dogs, opossums will flop onto the ground, close their eyes, stick out their tongues, drool, and even omit an order – all in the plans to appear dead. Typically predators will be taken off guard so the opossum can escape. While this behavior can save them from predators, it can be dangerous when they are checking out roadkill as food. Opossums can easily get frightened by cars and play dead in the middle of the road.
3. Livingstoni cichlid
Scientific name: Nimbochromis livingstonii
While most animals on this list play dead to avoid predators, some use this behavior to catch their prey. The livingstoni cichlid, also known as the kalingono or sleeper fish, is a semi-aggressive freshwater fish.
These fish will lay down at the bottom of their habitats and wait for their prey, typically smaller fish, to approach. Once the prey comes close enough, they will attack and eat the surprised prey.
4. Pselaphid beetles
Scientific name: Claviger testaceus
Another animal that plays dead to catch prey is the pselaphid beetle. Instead of waiting in ambush, these beetles will play dead so ants can carry them away. Once they get inside an ant’s nest, they will “come alive” and feed on the ant larvae, which make up most of their diet.
5. European Rabbits
Scientific name: Oryctolagus cuniculus
Since rabbits are typically prey animals, there’s no surprise they display tonic immobility (TI) as a defense mechanism. European rabbits are one of the most common domesticated rabbits kept as pets. Owners sometimes notice they go into a trance-like state.
Scientists have studied this and found the rabbits aren’t in a trance but actually experiencing TI due to stress. Rabbits will play dead when they feel they are stuck in a position, unable to flee.
6. Texas indigo snake
Scientific name: Drymarchon melanurus erebennus
The Texas indigo snake is a nonvenomous and large snake that can grow up to 7 feet in length. They are a subspecies of the Eastern Indigo snake and can be found throughout Texas.
Although they can overpower and swallow even venomous snakes like rattlesnakes using their powerful jaws, they are known to play dead when threatened. These snakes will loosely coil their bodies, become immobile, and slacken part of their jaw.
7. Eastern hognose snake
Scientific name: Heterodon platirhinos
Eastern hognose snakes grow up to 46 inches long and you can find them in woodland environments throughout the eastern half of the U.S. They are another species of snake that prefers to play dead when they feel threatened. However, with much more dramatics than the Texas indigo snake.
When facing dangers, these snakes will writhe back and forth and excrete a foul odor as if they are in pain and dying. Then they will collapse on their back, slightly part their jaws, and remain still. They will stay still like this even if you poke or handle them!
8. Mallard ducks
Scientific name: Anas platyrhynchos
The mallard duck is a large duck with wide flat bills and is the ancestor of most domestic duck species. The males have a distinctive shiny green head, while females and ducklings are typically various shades of brown.
Around 29 out of 50 ducks will play dead when threatened by a predator. Mallard ducks will often collapse when caught by red foxes to wait for a chance to escape when the fox lowers their guard. They sometimes even remain still and allow themselves to be brought back to the fox’s den before finding an escape.
9. Japanese quail
Scientific name: Coturnix japonica
Another species of bird that plays dead is the Japanese quail. These animals do so for similar reasons to ducks – to avoid predators, such as cats, and wait for an opportunity to escape. When sleeping, Japanese quail also appear to be dead and can sometimes cause alarm to their owners.
These birds are medium-sized roundish birds of various brown, white, and yellowish coloring. They are shy animals that live in grassy areas but are also popular as pets due to their durability and ability to thrive in small cages.
10. Redback spider
Scientific name: Latrodectus hasselti
Closely related to the black widow spider, the redback spider is venomous and medically threatening to humans. While they can be aggressive when defending their eggs, these spiders typically will not bite unless they are trapped between shoes or clothing.
When they sense danger outside their webs, redback spiders prefer to play dead. They will curl into a ball and become completely frozen in place.
11. American nursery web spider
Scientific name: Pisaurina mira
While most animals play dead to protect themselves from predators of different species, some have to protect themselves from their mates. Sexual cannibalism, where the female will eat the male before or after mating, is more common than you might think in the animal kingdom.
Male nursery web spiders will present females with an insect to initiate the mating process. They will mate when the female feeds on the insect. However, if the female doesn’t feed on the insect, the male spider will pretend to drop dead. He will only come back to life after she starts feeding on the insect again.
12. Blue jays
Scientific name: Cyanocitta cristata
As their name suggests, the blue jay has brilliant blue backs, wings, tails, and crests. Their belly and chin are mostly white, and their bills, feet, legs, and eyes are black.
These birds will commonly play dead to avoid being attacked by slumping down and being motionless. Sometimes they will also lay down with their wings spread and head to the side. Some birdwatchers, however, theorize that this is a way they sunbathe or play a practical joke since they often surprise people by coming alive after a poke.
13. Red imported fire ant
Scientific name: Solenopsis invicta
Red imported fire ants are a resilient species known to adapt to drought and flooding conditions. For instance, the colony can link together, creating a “floating raft” and stay connected for weeks waiting for floodwaters to recede.
Young fire ants that are a few days old typically are unable to fight or flee very well. For this reason, you will find them playing dead as their main defense mechanism. In contrast, fire ants that are a few weeks old will choose to flee.
14. Pygmy grasshoppers
Scientific name: Criotettix japonicus
The pygmy grasshopper is a small brown, moss-green, or grey grasshopper growing around 0.6 inches long. Not only do they play dead, but they add another layer to this behavior to increase their chance of survival.
When threatened by predators, such as frogs, these grasshoppers will freeze and extend their legs out in all directions and stiffen their legs. This makes it almost impossible for frogs to even try to swallow them.
15. European praying mantis
Scientific name: Mantis religiosa
European praying mantis are easily recognizable insects with long narrow bodies, a small head with large eyes, and oversized front legs that they hold upright in front of their face. These green insects are another example of a species that play dead to avoid sexual cannibalism.
To avoid being eaten by the female after mating, a male praying mantis will become motionless to act dead. They will only move again once the female has lost interest and left.
Scientific name: Anisoptera
Instead of playing dead to avoid predators or survive mating, female dragonflies will often play dead to avoid mating altogether. When an unwanted suitor approaches them, the female will drop from the sky, crash, and act dead on the ground. Flying again only when the coast is clear.
Female dragonflies do this because they only need to mate once to fertilize all their eggs. Mating a second time can be damaging to their reproductive tracts.