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7 Clever Hunting Tricks Used in the Animal Kingdom

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The animal world is full of predators with some impressive tricks up their sleeves.

1. Sun-tracking sharks

Great white sharks are the largest predatory fish in the world, and perhaps the most famous of sharks, thanks to their starring role in the Jaws franchise. But new research suggests these creatures are also quite clever. Scientists from Flinders University in Australia now say white sharks can use the sun’s positioning to their advantage when hunting. On sunny mornings, the sharks strike from the east with the rising sun directly behind them. In the afternoons, they switch directions to approach from the west. “This would suggest that the sharks are capable of tracking the sun, which is quite an impressive feat,” says Dr. Charlie Huveneers, an ecologist who led the research. By putting the sun behind them, the sharks are avoiding glare and making their unlucky prey easier to see. 

2. Bait-fishing green herons

This beautiful bird knows the best way to catch a fish is with a little bait. They’re sometimes observed dropping bits of bait—bread, for example—into the water to lure curious victims to the surface before striking. For other herons, little fish become the bait itself, used to trick bigger fish looking for a meal. Watching a heron fish with such precision and ingenuity is a creepy reminder that birds are actually really smart.

Not to be outdone by its green cousin, the black heron has another smart tactic for finding dinner: it shapes its wings into an "umbrella" that creates shade. This allows it to see down into the water by reducing the sun’s glare, but serves the dual purpose of attracting fish, which are drawn to dark areas of vegetation. You can see this ingenious trap at work here.

3. Color-changing crab spiders

Call them the chameleons of the arachnid world. The female whitebanded crab spider can change its own color from white to yellow and back again to avoid being detected while it waits patiently on flower petals before ambushing prey. Males, sadly, aren't blessed with this talent.

4. Bubble-blowing humpback whales

These giant creatures work together to corral large schools of krill or herring into one place for a massive meal. The whales swim in an upward spiral below the fish and release columns of air bubbles, which the fish won’t swim through, essentially creating a bubble net around the prey. Researchers say this hunting skill is passed on from whale to whale.

5. Sneaky crocodiles

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Mugger crocodiles in India and some American alligators have been observed lying completely still just beneath the surface of the water for long periods of time, their snouts deliberately covered by sticks. It seems these reptiles have learned that, during heron mating season, the birds need sticks to build their nests. By hiding beneath something that’s in high demand, the crocodiles and alligators nearly guarantee themselves a meal if they can wait long enough. “If the crocodylians really are using the sticks as bait to attract their bird prey,” writes Darren Naish at Scientific American, “this is tool use, since the sticks are objects that are being employed for a specific function.”

6. The fish that plays dead

Possums aren’t the only animals that play dead. In East Africa, a species of cichlid fish uses this skill to catch smaller fish for dinner. In shallow waters, the fish sinks to the ground as if dead. Some fish spend up to 15 minutes in this position, waiting for someone to take the bait. Smaller fish, convinced by the act, nibble on the corpse of the cichlid. If they come close enough, the faking fish snaps to life and nabs a meal. But this hunting method comes with a cost: Some cichlid fish sustain lifelong injuries to their fins from essentially using their own bodies as bait.

7. Mimicking jungle cats

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Mimicry is a well-utilized and impressive skill in the animal world. One good example is the morgay, or tree ocelot, in the Amazonian forests of the Reserva Florestal Adolpho Ducke in Brazil. This jungle cat mimics the call of baby pied tamarin monkeys to attract curious adult monkeys. "Cats are known for their physical agility, but this vocal manipulation of prey species indicates a psychological cunning which merits further study," says Wildlife Conservation Society researcher Fabio Rohe.

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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between Gophers and Groundhogs?
Gopher or groundhog? (If you chose gopher, you're correct.)
Gopher or groundhog? (If you chose gopher, you're correct.)
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Gophers and groundhogs. Groundhogs and gophers. They're both deceptively cuddly woodland rodents that scurry through underground tunnels and chow down on plants. But whether you're a nature nerd, a Golden Gophers football fan, or planning a pre-spring trip to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, you might want to know the difference between groundhogs and gophers.

Despite their similar appearances and burrowing habits, groundhogs and gophers don't have a whole lot in common—they don't even belong to the same family. For example, gophers belong to the family Geomyidae, a group that includes pocket gophers (sometimes referred to as "true" gophers), kangaroo rats, and pocket mice.

Groundhogs, meanwhile, are members of the Sciuridae (meaning shadow-tail) family and belong to the genus Marmota. Marmots are diurnal ground squirrels, Daniel Blumstein, a UCLA biologist and marmot expert, tells Mental Floss. "There are 15 species of marmot, and groundhogs are one of them," he explains.

Science aside, there are plenty of other visible differences between the two animals. Gophers, for example, have hairless tails, protruding yellow or brownish teeth, and fur-lined cheek pockets for storing food—all traits that make them different from groundhogs. The feet of gophers are often pink, while groundhogs have brown or black feet. And while the tiny gopher tends to weigh around two or so pounds, groundhogs can grow to around 13 pounds.

While both types of rodent eat mostly vegetation, gophers prefer roots and tubers (much to the dismay of gardeners trying to plant new specimens), while groundhogs like vegetation and fruits. This means that the former animals rarely emerge from their burrows, while the latter are more commonly seen out and about.

Groundhogs "have burrows underground they use for safety, and they hibernate in their burrows," Blumstein says. "They're active during the day above ground, eating a variety of plants and running back to their burrows to safety. If it's too hot, they'll go back into their burrow. If the weather gets crappy, they'll go back into their burrow during the day as well."

But that doesn't necessarily mean that gophers are the more reclusive of the two, as groundhogs famously hibernate during the winter. Gophers, on the other hand, remain active—and wreck lawns—year-round.

"What's really interesting is if you go to a place where there's gophers, in the spring, what you'll see are what is called eskers," or winding mounds of soil, Blumstein says [PDF]. "Basically, they dig all winter long through the earth, but then they tunnel through snow, and they leave dirt in these snow tunnels."

If all this rodent talk has you now thinking about woodchucks and other woodland creatures, know that groundhogs have plenty of nicknames, including "whistle-pig" and "woodchuck," while the only nicknames for gophers appear to be bitter monikers coined by Wisconsin Badgers fans.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Animals
Watch Christmas Island’s Annual Crab Migration on Google Street View
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Every year, the 45 million or so red crabs on the remote Australian territory of Christmas Island migrate en masse from their forest burrows down to the ocean to mate, and so the female crabs can release their eggs into the sea to hatch. The migration starts during the fall, and the number of crabs on the beach often peaks in December. This year, you don’t have to be on Christmas Island to witness the spectacular crustacean event, as New Atlas reports. You can see it on Google Street View.

Watching the sheer density of crabs scuttling across roads, boardwalks, and beaches is a rare visual treat. According to the Google blog, this year’s crabtacular finale is forecasted for December 16, and Parks Australia crab expert Alasdair Grigg will be there with the Street View Trekker to capture it. That is likely to be the day when crab populations on the beaches will be at their peak, giving you the best view of the action.

Crabs scuttle across the forest floor while a man with a Google Street View Trekker walks behind them.
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Google Street View is already a repository for a number of armchair travel experiences. You can digitally explore remote locations in Antarctica, recreations of ancient cities, and even the International Space Station. You can essentially see the whole world without ever logging off your computer.

Sadly, because Street View isn’t live, you won’t be able to see the migration as it happens. The image collection won’t be available until sometime in early 2018. But it’ll be worth the wait, we promise. For a sneak preview, watch Parks Australia’s video of the 2012 event here.

[h/t New Atlas]

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