Life-and-Death Deception

Life—and—Death Deception

Ways in which animals deceive an enemy or intended prey are numerous and usually quite successful. Some appear to border on the realm of science fiction.

A rather rare phenomenon was observed by several scientists in the Indian Ocean, where they were observing a large school of tiny fish, each no bigger than a finger. Suddenly a large predatory barracuda approached. A quiver was seen to run through the school, and instantly the tiny fish closed ranks, and as if they were one, assembled a formation that strongly resembled an eighteen—foot shark. The scientists observed that four times in succession this sea monster composed of thousands of tiny units leaped high in the air as if it were a single organism. Then splashed back into the water dolphin fashion. The barracuda, seeing its prey so abruptly transformed into a huge shark, paused for a movement "as if it had to wipe its glasses." Then, without hesitation, it fled from this life—threatening monster.

Animal life—and—death deception can also work in favor of the predator. The African mongoose is a deadly enemy of the male fransolin partridge that dwells in the bush with his harem of hens. The reason the mongoose is such a treacherous enemy is that it can imitate the male francolin's cry perfectly. This talent enables the mongoose to fool the male partridge, for when it discovers a flock of these birds in the vicinity it crows like a cock partridge. The real harem boss thinks that a strange male francolin is in the bush and wants to fight him for his harem, so he rushes toward the sound in reckless attack posture. The mongoose needs merely to wait as his meal rushes right into his open mouth. Dinner is served!

On the other hand, the mongoose also falls victim to a life—and—death deception. Ordinarily, when encountering a snake, the mongoose wins out, but not always. There are some vipers whose tails confusingly resemble their heads, so when the mongoose attacks, the snake raises its tail threateningly as if it were confronting the mongoose. The mongoose is deceived effectively and bites the imitation head. Then, within a fraction of a second, it is itself bitten by the poisonous snake's real head, complete with fangs and venom. The mongoose that planned to dine on the snake instead becomes the dinner.

But here's a tale of the champion reptilian deceiver. In July 1951 a graduate student in geology was part of an early man archaeological dig in central Nebraska. His job was to identify the fossil bones as they were excavated. Being young and full of vigor, he spent the weekends prospecting for older fossils, which he stored at camp, awaiting the time when they could be shipped to the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. The unusual event happened late one Sunday as the geologist, his stamina dwindling after spending an entire day in the field by himself, was returning to camp.

The geologist suddenly stopped in his tracks, for lying on the trail in front of him was a snake that appeared to be of enormous length. The snake reared up the front part of its body, which promptly inflated into a large hood, and proceeded to hiss violently in a frightening manner. It scared the dickens out of the budding scientist, who exclaimed, "Ye gads, a cobra!" He then proceeded to clobber the snake with a shovel he was carrying. The snake was quickly sent off to reptile heaven while the man ran to camp with his story of having just killed a giant cobra.

All of the expedition members accompanied him back to the site of his encounter with the killer snake, and there lay a two—foot hognose snake. The ribbing he took continued for the remainder of the expedition — almost two months!

The young man was not the first to be frightened by the antics of this type of serpent. The Nebraska hognose snake in reality is a harmless, nonpoisonous snake that puts on quite an act on certain occasions. When it encounters danger, it inflates the front half of its body to about twice its normal size, spreading and flattening until it resembles a cobra, as could be verified by the geologist. Once the front end is "fanned out," the snake strikes vigorously amid loud hissing. These actions are certainly enough to discourage its being bothered further by most people, provided they are not carrying a shovel.

If mimicking the cobra does not work, the snake seems to go into convulsions, flips over, and goes perfectly limp as if dead. If the intruder attempts to make sure the snake is dead by turning it right side up, the hognose will immediately flip over again on its back, emphasizing the fact that it is indeed dead.

On occasion the "dead" snake will raise its head to see if the danger has passed. If not, the head quickly drops back down again into the dead position. When the danger has really passed, the snake will flip over on its belly and slither away.

The hognose snake should definitely be nominated for an Oscar as best reptilian action in a short subject.

From the book: 
Our Fascinating Earth