Science - Nature
By: - at June 20, 2013

15 Unusual Animal Defense Mechanisms

Humans are the only species on earth capable of self-reflection and building advanced tools and technology But when it comes to pure, unassisted self-defense, there is not much we can do protect ourselves. Most animals have clear defense mechanisms to protect against natural enemies. Rhinoceros, for instance, have a very intimidating horn on their foreheads. Tigers have claws; sharks have multiple rows of teeth. Some animals, however, have evolved with special defenses that are far from the norm.

15)  Horned Lizard
This defense mechanism is completely harmless yet absolutely terrifying. Most species of horned lizards simply puff up their bodies to emphasize their horns and look more challenging to eat. That alone works plenty of wonders, as most predators do not wish to choke. There are a few species, however, that can shoot blood from their eyes to frighten predators. The blood does not drip, or lightly squirt; it shoots out up to five feet away from the lizard.

Texas horned lizard

This would undoubtedly work on most predators, especially humans, who do not like to see living things shooting out blood for any reason. Even scarier is that they can aim the bloodstream wherever they please. Apparently the blood works to both frighten predators and produce an unpleasant taste for picky eaters. Many animals have evolved to avoid bad tastes, as they are often an indicator of poison in nature.

horned lizard blood eyes defense mechanism

The one downside for the lizard is that predatory birds do not seem to mind the blood at all (sight or taste), so the down-horned lizard must use other tactics to keep birds at bay. The lizard will lower himself as close as it can to the ground, so any bird will have a much harder time trying to scoop him up. This method is quite effective for the great horned lizard as well, but the blood mechanism gives a whole new meaning to "blood-shot eyes."

14)  Pangolin
A pangolin is not a well-known animal unless someone happens to be from tropical areas of Africa or Asia. It is a highly unusual mammal, covered in huge plated scales and resembling a very heavily armored armadillo. Their meat is a popular ingredient in many cuisines, and their scales have been used in various fashions for hundreds of years. Pangolins have the ability, when threatened to curl up into a ball and point out their spiky scales. It looks both unappetizing and a little scary, plus the hard scales protect all the softer parts on a pangolin's stomach.


The pangolin's spikes are made out of keratin, like human nails, and are the only mammal that possesses this physical trait. The plates are very hard and effective armor. On a grosser note, pangolins can also secrete a terrible smell from their anus to put off predators. They cannot spray like a skunk though, so things can walk near them without getting blasted. Pangolins do look funny, but they are serious about protecting themselves. It may not be enough however, as many pangolin species have already gone extinct. Deforestation poses a constant threat to this animal, and no amount of armor can save them from the environmental impact of humans on this planet.

Holding a Pangolin
By Valerius Tygart (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

13)  French Guiana Termite
These termites are the ultimate selfless family members. When the termites grow too old, they take up valuable colony resources and slow things down. These senior citizens do not, however, become completely useless in their old age. They have developed an evolutionary tactic to protect the rest of their nest. Old termites in French Guiana have tiny blue spots on behind their heads. These pretty spots contain crystals capable of explosion.

French Guiana Termite Nest:
French Guiana Termite Nest
By Yannloicollivier (Guyane) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Yes, these termites suicide bomb themselves for the greater good and survival of their colony. Even more ingenious is the fact that the crystals mix with saliva from predators to poison and paralyze them. The crystals themselves are not poisonous, but they mix with other materials to make a highly toxic compound. They can save their entire colony in this manner. The termites that have been working tirelessly their whole lives to build a successful colony are constantly at risk from outside predators, and their elders can stop attacks before the entire colony suffers. It is quite a gruesome self defense mechanism, but the results speak for themselves.

12)  Potto
A potto is a primate from Africa that spends most of its life in the trees. It is quite cute and fuzzy, and it sleeps in the leaves during the day. Because it is nocturnal, it has very few natural predators to worry about. Most of the animals that would hunt it are diurnal, meaning they are only awake during the day, when the potto is sleeping. If something should attack it however, the potto will be ready to strike.


The potto has strange vertebrae that can poke out quite far under the skin. Not at the bottom of their spines; that would be a tail. The potto has the ability to tuck its head into its chest and stick out its top vertebrae. It will then neck butt its opponent. It can move quickly in this manner and cause some serious pain to an opponent. Another reason to watch out for this furry primate is its bite. The potto's laced saliva will ensure that the bite gets inflamed and irritated. They may look adorable, but they do not want to be messed with.

11)  Pygmy Sperm Whale
There are three species of sperm whale that have teeth. The pygmy sperm whale is one of these creatures. They are quite elusive, and we have only come to learn about them through the study of ones that have been separated from the rest of their species by being stranded on beaches. Pygmy sperm whales used to be confused with dwarf sperm whales, but according to "K.S. Norris' Whales, Dolphins, and Porpoises, the Smithsonian Institute" realized they were a separate species in 1966. The pygmy sperm whale is about the same size as a large dolphin.

Pygmy Sperm Whale

Though teeth set it apart from other sperm whales, the pygmy sperm whale's defense mechanism is something else very different and much stranger. It shoots out a dark red stream of liquid from its anus when it feels threatened, which would presumably scare predators away. Not enough is known about the species to know how well this tactic works, but the species has survived thus far. So the red liquid must do them some good. The red may be meant to resemble blood, or it could be a warning color. Dwarf sperm whales also possess this odd skill. Scientists also conjecture that the red fluid could be meant to simply confuse enemies without meaning anything specific. This reaction is rare in mammals, especially without a poison or a smell being involved. Hopefully scientists can one day learn more about this mysterious species by observing pygmy sperm whales in their natural habitat.

10)  Skunk
Most of us know about skunks, though hopefully without having had to experience them firsthand. Skunks deserve to be ranked with the other animals that defend themselves in unusual ways. Fuzzy and dark with big white stripes, they are easy to spot and important to avoid. Skunks do not like to be disturbed, and they will do whatever they can to get rid of intruders. There is almost nothing more effective to send off enemies than to completely disgust them, and skunks will do just that if they feel frightened.

young pair of skunks

Anyone who has been unfortunate enough to surprise a skunk has been on the receiving end of this animal's smelly defense tactics. When alarmed, a skunk will promptly turn around, raise its tail and hose the unlucky intruder down with a noxious-smelling liquid. Not only is the smell absolutely terrible, it takes days to go away. No matter how many showers someone takes, a skunk smell will remain until it is ready to dissolve away. Skunks may be cute, but stick to watching Pepé Le Pew on TV rather than trying to see a real skunk. As far as mating goes, good luck perpetuating the species when no female will come within several feet of a sprayed animal. Predators are incredibly put off by skunk smell, so skunks do not necessarily have to worry as much as other woodland creatures out there.

9)  Spanish Ribbed Newt
Also called the Iberian ribbed newt and the sharp-ribbed newt, this Moroccan and Iberian amphibian is known widely for its unusual defense mechanism. It has very sharp ribs that can puncture through its skin on its sides and stick out. This tactic is much more for show than for stabbing predators, and the ribs are not harmful to humans, since they are so small. Newts mainly need to deal with predators who live underwater.

Spanish Ribbed Newt Iberian Ribbed Newt
By David Perez (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The ribs stick out through tubercles running down the newt's sides. It does not harm the newt to enact this defense, and works quite well to repel predators from this foot-long amphibian. Spanish ribbed newts rarely leave the pond, except for when humans send them on space missions. Newts have been sent into space multiple times to study microgravity and regeneration in amphibians when in space. Incidentally, amphibians regenerate much faster in space than they do on earth. Newts are popular space subjects because of the female newts ability to hold active sperm for five months. They also develop very slowly, giving scientists proper time to observe and record their growth when development is sped up in space. Newts are great at defending themselves and helping humans to explore microgravity.

8)  Dormouse
When thinking of notable defense mechanisms, dormice are certainly not the first creatures that pop into mind. They are characteristically very timid and small, making them relatively easy targets for predators. They have cute little ears, a round, tiny body, and big watchful eyes. Humans eat certain dormice as well. Instead of bald, scaly tails, they have furry tails. They do not have many evolutionary tools at hand in the advent of an attack by a predator, so evolution has granted the dormouse one ace in the hole to allow it the chance to escape, and that lies within their furry little tails.


If something bites or grabs a dormouse's tail, the tail will come detached. This sort of defense mechanism is highly common in lizards, such as the skink, but extremely rare in mammals. Unfortunately for the dormouse, once it loses its tail, it cannot regenerate it. This is because the tail is attached to the mouse with very loose skin. Once the skin is ripped and the tail comes off, the mouse will gnaw off the extruding tailbones, since it naturally knows that it cannot grow another tail. This defense may not be scary or gross, but it is certainly unusual and has allowed many dormice out there very narrow escapes at just the right moments.

7)  Bombardier Beetle
There are over 500 species of bombardier beetles. They are named such because of their peculiar defense mechanisms. While most beetles have none, other than their very hard exterior, bombardier beetles have the ability to release a hot, smelly, spray full of chemicals from their abdomen. When the upsetting spray is ejected, a large popping sound occurs. If that does not send enemies running in the opposite direction, nothing likely will be able to save the threatened beetles out there.

bombardier beetle

When the something proves to be a threat, chemicals in the bombardier beetle's abdomen combine and heat up to almost the boiling point of water to propel it out of the beetle towards the target. This stream of fluid can easily kill insects and damage human skin. The creepy part is that this type of beetle exists on every continent, excepting Antarctica. Creationists and supporters of intelligent design have used this species as a manifestation of irreducible complexity, meaning that these beetles are too advanced to have just randomly evolved over time. If anything, bombardier beetles are an example of the most ideal forms of evolution. Such defense mechanisms take thousands of years to form, and only a couple of species have managed to grow something so sophisticated.

6)  Malaysian Exploding Ant
Some animals are called by their scientific names, and others are known by their practical names. Instead of being referred to as Camponotus saundersi (its proper Latin name), the Malaysian exploding ant is known by an important and significant label for obvious reasons. Most ants are harmless, at worst giving a few bites before we frantically brush them off, likely hurting them. Malaysian exploding ants cannot do us much damage either, but they are more than willing to sacrifice themselves in order to put up a serious fight. They can do a lot more damage to attacking insects.

Malaysian Exploding Ant
The photographer and, via Wikimedia Commons

The Malaysian exploding ant literally has the ability to explode at will. This is always the last line of defense, and though it does not do much to humans, the mechanism has proved helpful in nature. If the ant senses that its number is up, it will flex its abdomen to burst two pouches of poison in its sides. This poison causes the ant to violently explode and send a sticky juice all over the area. The liquid would smother and stop insect enemies in their tracks. This tactic often saves these ants from other species of ants intruding on their territory. One ant explosion can save a colony of hundreds of thousands of ants that they have been working to build for generations. It is the ultimate display of selflessness and teamwork.

5)  Colorado Potato Beetle
The Colorado potato beetle is a beautiful little bug, not to be confused with its relative, the false potato beetle. It is banana yellow with five dark brown stripes and enjoys spending its time infesting potato crops. It has proven quite a threat to potato crops in the past, making itself the most destructive pest in American potato crop history. Because of its extreme affinity for potatoes, potatoes have evolved to release poisons that eradicate them as a threat to valuable food resources. The Colorado potato beetle's defense is nothing like shooting out poison or exploding; this beetle simply evolves on the spot, as necessary.

Colorado Potato Beetle

A potato releases proteinase inhibitors that damage insects' digestion systems when the insects attack. Instead of dying off like many insect species would, the potato beetle reacts by adapting the make-up of its proteinases involved in digestion. This is a highly remarkable reaction that is extremely rare in nature. The ability to change bodily composition on the spot is invaluable to a species' overall survival in tough conditions and happens to be very rare. Who knows, beetles are so widespread and well adapted that they could easily outlast humans on this planet. One wonders if humans will ever evolve new features to deal with the ever-changing planet, as beetles have been able to.

4)  Hairy Frog
Hairy frogs do look a little furry, but they have no actual hair, just hair-like structures on the males. They have carnivorous, strong tadpoles with sharp teeth, but are otherwise almost completely like any other amphibian. Their true stand out feature is their defense mechanism. A hairy frog has the ability to intentionally break bones in its feet that will then break through the skin and act as claws. The bones fully break, and the frog's foot skin is essentially ripped off in the process of the bone protrusion.

Hairy Frog
By Emőke Dénes (Natural History Museum in London), via Wikimedia Commons

This mechanism would obviously cause great pain to the frog, but it has developed for some reason. Science Now questions whether the protruding bones could assist in climbing ventures on slippery rocks, since frogs are not exactly known for getting into many fights. The broken bones would also take quite some time to repair (several weeks on average), so that brings into question whether such a drastic defense mechanism would take effect in a situation concerning anything less than outright survival. This is certainly one of nature's more gruesome and frightening defense adaptations.

3)  Sea Cucumber
Like sea urchins, sea cucumbers are echinoderms. These simple aquatic animals look like a long rubbery tube, and they contain one gonad branched at an end. Sea cucumbers play an important role in the aquatic ecosystem, because they help to decompose organic matter. Just looking at them, no one would expect anything special from them defense-wise. Some sea cucumbers are in fact completely vulnerable. Though they look practically lifeless, some species of sea cucumbers have developed successful defense systems through evolution.

Sea Cucumber on the bottom of the sea

Some species have plate-like structures from their inner skeletal structure that they can push outward when attacked to create a very effective armor. Others even have the ability to eject their cuvierian tubules, which are very sticky. The tubules come out of a tear in the sea cucumber, and they quickly entangle the predator trying to attack. The cucumber will re-grow these tubules in the period of a few weeks. Sometimes a toxin (similar to soap in chemical structure) will be released along with the tubules, killing all life nearby the sea cucumber. Tactics such as these have allowed sea creatures to be one of the most abundant animals living on the sea floor.

2)  Possum
Most of us have heard the expression, "playing possum." Well it is not a random saying; it is in fact referring to the possum's main defense mechanism. This is not in reference to the Asutralian possum but to the American opossum, known colloquially as a "possum." Though possums (or "opossoms") may hiss, growl and look vicious when they feel threatened, they are actually quite weak, and they realize this. This scares the possum, which then turns to its next best evolutionary tactic, which does not involve any kind of offensive measures at all.

possum playing dead

When a possum feels truly threatened, it will suffer an involuntary reaction very similar to fainting in humans. It will stiffen up, fall over, and play dead. It will leave its eyes open and even stick its tongue out. Possums will roll their lips back and foam at the mouth, and they will even secret an odor from their anus indicating that they have died. They will go completely stiff, allowing people to poke them or pick them up without moving. The faked death can last for up to four hours, depending on how active the possum's defense mechanisms are. Baby possums often do not react in time, because the trait develops as the possum matures. It may seem cowardly, but it sure works. Most predators are uninterested in already-deceased prey.

1)  Hagfish
As ugly as its name, the hagfish is an eel-shaped animal that is also special because it is the only animal with a skull but no vertebrae. The jawless hagfish looks like its species did 300 million years ago. That makes it a living piece of history and also suggests that it did not need to evolve due to having a top-rate defense system in the first place. Some are as small as a few inches in length, while others have been over four feet in length. One thing they all have in common is slime.

(WT-shared) Pbsouthwood at old wikivoyage wts [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

A hagfish has one hundred glands along its body that can all release a thick, slimy liquid all at once when the hagfish feels threatened. This thick slime can be ejected at amounts of over five gallons at a time. While the predator is distracted with the slime, the hagfish can tie its body into a knot and pull the knot through to clean itself off and allow it to get away.

Hagfish tying itself in a knot

The thick, viscous slime works to disrupt the breathing of predator fish through their gills by clogging them up. For such an ancient creature, this is some seriously advanced evolutionary tactfulness. If not purposeful, then it still benefits the hagfish either way by giving it time to escape. Basically, the predator attacks, the slime comes out, the predator is too distracted to bite, and the hagfish knots itself up and extracts itself from whatever compromising position it may have been in.

Final Words
Animals can have surprisingly strange defense mechanisms. Some, like blood shooting out of the eyes, are completely harmless and only work to scare predators away. Others, like foul odor, are downright unpleasant and effectively keep enemies at bay. Evolution is a marvelous process, and it is endlessly fascinating to see how different species have adapted to survive in their respective environments. It is especially interesting when species get creative in their adaptations.





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