The Surprising Reasons Why Animals Play Dead

SongayeNovell, iStock / Getty Images Plus
SongayeNovell, iStock / Getty Images Plus

Fight or flight are cited as the two most common responses animals have to immediate threats. But there's a third reaction that will seem familiar to anyone who's seen a "dead" possum spring to life: In the face of danger, some animals will enter a tonic state as a last-ditch shot at survival. Assuming a vulnerable, motionless position may seem like the worst way to get out of an emergency situation intact—but "playing dead" can be a life-saving behavior.

According to World Atlas, feigning death, or thanatosis, is most often used as a strategy to avoid becoming a meal. When some animals feel threatened, their systems become overloaded with fear and they enter a coma-like state. If a predator is looking for live prey and finds an apparent—and possibly diseased—corpse instead, it may lose interest, leaving its would-be victim to live another day.

Some animals do more than flop onto the ground to turn off predators. Opossums sell their performance by releasing a foul odor during thanatosis that suggests they've been rotting for days. The southern hog-nose snake uses a similar, smelly defense mechanism while laying motionless, and has also been known to spit up blood, according to National Geographic. Some creatures change their appearance in a tonic state: The undersides of the fire-bellied frogs of Asia and Europe flush bright orange and yellow to signal to predators that they're toxic.

Thanatosis is also used as a way to get closer to prey, though such cases are rare. Livingston’s cichlid, a fish native to Lake Malawi in East Africa, sinks to the lake bed and waits for unsuspecting fish to swim by it before going in for the kill. Playing dead can also be used as a mating strategy. The courtship ritual of the nursery web spider involves a male spider offering a silk-wrapped insect to a female. Sometimes the female attempts to snatch away the present and leave the male behind. To avoid this, the male plays dead and allows himself to be dragged along with the package as the female tries to run. He revives himself when the female starts to feed.

Thanatosis is observed across the animal kingdom, from invertebrates to mammals. It has provided an evolutionary advantage to many creatures, but it isn't always a guarantee of survival. An opossum that freezes up at the sight of an incoming car, for example, is likely to become roadkill.

The Reason Why No Photography is Allowed in the Sistine Chapel

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

As the home of some of the greatest works of art produced by humanity, the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City is a popular tourist destination (to put it mildly). If you've been one of the 4 million visitors to the famous landmark each year, you've probably learned of one aspect of the room filled with Michelangelo's beautiful, biblical frescos that tends to come as a surprise to first-time guests.

There's no photography or video allowed in the Sistine Chapel.

Yes, despite the rules that encourage quiet contemplation of the fantastic, eye-popping art that adorns nearly every inch of the walls and ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, visitors to the chapel will find their experience peppered with terse shouts of “No photo! No video!” from security guards. The prohibition against photography has been in place for several decades, and while many assume that the no-photography rule is in place to prevent the flashing of cameras from affecting the art, the real reason dates back to the restoration of the chapel's art that began in 1980 and took nearly 20 years to complete.

Restoration of Daniel in the Sistine Chapel
Michelangelo, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain in the United States

When Vatican officials decided to undertake a comprehensive restoration of Michelangelo's art in the chapel, the price tag for such an endeavor prompted them to seek outside assistance to fund the project. In the end, the highest bidder was Nippon Television Network Corporation of Japan, whose $3 million offering (which eventually ballooned to $4.2 million) was unmatched by any entity in Italy or the U.S.

In return for funding the renovation, Nippon TV received the exclusive rights to photography and video of the restored art, as well as photos and recordings of the restoration process by photographer Takashi Okamura, who was commissioned by Nippon TV. While many initially scoffed at the deal, the high-resolution photos provided by Nippon offered a hyper-detailed peek behind all of the scaffolding that hid each stage of restoration, and eventually won over some critics of the arrangement.

As a result of the deal, Nippon produced multiple documentaries, art books, and other projects featuring their exclusive photos and footage of the Sistine Chapel restoration, including several celebrated collections of the photographic surveys that informed the project.

The ban on photography within the chapel remains in effect despite the waning of the terms of Nippon's deal. In 1990, The New York Times reported that Nippon's commercial exclusivity on photos expired three years after each stage of the restoration was completed. For example, photos of Michelangelo's epic depiction of Last Judgment were no longer subject to Nippon's copyright as of 1997, because that stage of the restoration was completed in 1994.

For the record, Nippon has stated that their photo ban did not apply to "ordinary tourists," but for simplicity's sake—lest some professional photog disguised himself in Bermuda shorts and socks and sandals—authorities made it an across-the-board policy.

Last Judgment in Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel
Michelangelo, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain in the United States

The “No Photos! No Video!” rule remains in place for the Sistine Chapel (though as some recent visitors can attest, its enforcement isn't exactly strict). Given the damage that can be caused by thousands of cameras' flashes going off in the chapel each day, it's no surprise that Vatican officials decided not to end the ban when Nippon's contract expired.

After all, the chapel houses some of the greatest art in the world—and a gift shop stocked with souvenir photos, of course.

Where Do Cobwebs Come From?

S847/iStock via Getty Images
S847/iStock via Getty Images

It’s a hallmark Halloween decoration: Sticky, burdensome cobwebs that stretch across ceilings and walls, remnants of spider occupations gone by. Some homes don’t need the artificial version, with real cobwebs a persistent nuisance that requires perpetual prodding with a duster. Where do these cobwebs come from?

The term cobweb is used to describe any web spun by a member of the Theridiidae family of spiders, made up of a number of species that tend to be found in residential homes. But colloquially, people tend to use the phrase to refer to abandoned threads of webbing they wind up clearing with brooms. When in use, these cobwebs tend to be sticky but unstructured, lacking the amazing and intricate design of webs woven by other species. Spiders make webs in the hopes of trapping prey, but if one location isn’t proving fruitful, they’ll move to another. That—along with the death of the web owner—can lead to abandoned cobwebs that eventually fall apart, dangling listlessly from room corners, collecting and trapping dust.

It’s that flypaper characteristic that likely results in you noticing a cobweb for the first time. As particles accumulate, the cobweb becomes more visible. You may also notice single web strands in isolation. These are likely from a spider’s interior travels as they search for a place to settle in.

If you want to reduce the cobweb clutter, regular dusting will reduce both their visibility and their existence. You can also look for and seal cracks around windows or doorways that might provide access. Maybe wait until after Halloween, though.

[h/t realtor.com]

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