National Geographic
Menu

5 Trickster Animals That Play Dead

It’s almost Halloween, and the streets will soon be overrun with the undead—carrying trick-or-treat bags, of course.

But the animal kingdom is full of these tricksters 24/7. Check out five animals that play dead to stay alive.

A Watery Grave

Worried about shark attacks? Some experts say that punching a shark near the eyes will get it to back off—but violence is not the answer. Lemon sharks are rendered harmless when flipped on their backs. These kings of the ocean go limp after about 15 seconds and will play dead long enough for scientists to conduct experiments on them.

lemon shark picture
Lemon sharks play dead when flipped on their backs. Photograph by Bernard Radvaner, Corbis

Swimming With the Fishes

OK, so maybe your goldfish really was sleeping. The Central American cichlid only pretends to be dead in order to lure unsuspecting prey. This aquatic predator has intricate markings that make it look like a decaying fish, and scavengers are attracted to what they think is an easy meal. After miraculously regaining consciousness, the cichlid kills and eats the cleanup crew.

Duck, Duck, Death

When faced with imminent death, certain species of duck will play dead. It’s called tonic immobility, and scientists think that the response is a defense mechanism. Unfortunately, it’s not a very good one: These death-feigning fowl are often eaten anyway. What birdbrains.

Out to Pasture

Tonic immobility isn’t common in higher species, but farm animals like cows, goats, and pigs have also been known to go into a trancelike state for minutes at a time before returning to normal. Unfortunately, we can’t say the same about your family pet that “went to go live on a farm upstate.”

pig picture
Pigs and other farm animals can fall into a trancelike state. Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic

Biting the Big One

Snakes are good actors. The baby brown snake, or Storeria dekayi, will freeze if approached by a menacing predator—or scientist intent on a closer look. And the snakes stay in character, remaining stiff and lifeless even after prodding.

Tell us: What other animals have you seen play dead?

Follow Mollie Bloudoff-Indelicato on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Chike
    Nigeria
    October 25, 2013, 7:52 am

    Humans.

  2. J. R.
    Tennessee
    October 24, 2013, 1:39 pm

    Chickens will fall asleep in seconds if you tuck their head under their wing. Grandma lesson #27.

  3. Danielle T
    Illinois
    October 17, 2013, 9:12 pm

    Another common animal who plays dead would be the possum. I’ve even seen a possum on my front porch around 10 p.m. xD

  4. Jon
    Georgia, USA
    October 16, 2013, 1:24 pm

    I can place a rabbit in my lap and flip it over onto its back and lower its head below its tail to put it into a trance. Even the wildest will become immobile and allow me to trim its claws or check its gender.

  5. Andy V
    Michigan, USA
    October 15, 2013, 8:04 pm

    Fainting goats are really cool. A friend of mine had one named Nibbles.

  6. Susan Gittens
    Murrayville, GA
    October 15, 2013, 5:14 pm

    Certain types of buzzards in Africa will feign death after having been attacked by a lion, the lion loses interest as the prey drive is no longer stimulated and the buzzard will then fly away….saw it on National Geo Wild!!

  7. Bruce Grant
    London
    October 15, 2013, 11:58 am

    My wife when I come back from a bar feeling amorous!

    Joking asid, I hsave see4n mice play dead when caught by our cat.

  8. redfox
    October 15, 2013, 7:08 am

    I do.

  9. Terry
    October 14, 2013, 8:52 pm

    I have both seen and read about cockroaches playing dead – so remember the “double tap” rule (as in the movie Zombieland).

  10. Richmond
    Philippines
    October 14, 2013, 2:28 am

    Beetles usually play dead.

  11. Xu Wanwei
    Singapore
    October 13, 2013, 1:49 am

    Dragonflies! They love to play dead upon capture. They will flip themselves upside down and not move for a while.

  12. El Gabilon
    October 12, 2013, 11:57 pm

    We cannot let this one go by without saying that there seems to be a little discrimination in this article. Humans are animals, and yet they are not mentioned as one of those who “play dead”. Just like those other animals that do play dead…humans are “tricksters” as well. An example is the people during a shoot out at a mall “played dead” in order not to die…and lived.