It ain’t all fun and games in nature – when things get tough, an organism’s gotta do what it’s gotta do to survive. Some inhabitants have devised ingenious ways of defending themselves, while others exhibit downright disgusting defense mechanisms.
Take, for example, the fulmar, a species of seafaring bird. While their parents are out fishing for dinner, the white, fluffy fulmar chicks are left alone in their burrow. But any predators who think the chicks would make an easy meal are sorely mistaken. Anyone who gets too close to these seemingly vulnerable chicks will be coated in sticky orange projectile vomit that stinks like rotten fish. This stomach oil is not just foul-smelling – it’s also fatal if the predator happens to be another bird. The oil is so sticky it mats the avian predator’s plumage together, so it is unable to fly and drowns due to a loss of buoyancy. Lesson learned: don’t mess with fulmar chicks!
Beneath the ocean waves, a similar defense mechanism is displayed by the hagfish. This ancient eel-shaped creature is the only animal to have a skull but no vertebrae, and it is also jawless. When threatened, the hagfish will excrete a slime from around a hundred glands along the length of its body. This slime combines with water to form up to twenty litres of a sticky goo. Hagfish are then able to tie themselves into an overhand knot, thereby scraping off the gel-like substance and escaping from their predators who remain distracted by the sticky mess. It is also thought this mucus could clog the gills of marine predators, explaining why the primary predators of hagfish are birds and mammals. Researchers are looking into potential applications of the hagfish’s slime, including as a renewable alternative to materials currently produced from fossil fuels.
Another ocean-dwelling creature also shoots sticky stuff from its body to defend itself: the sea cucumber. But sea cucumbers don’t just excrete any old substance. They discharge filaments that form part of their respiratory system, and they shoot these sticky strands out of their anus. I don’t know about you, but I certainly wouldn’t want to become entangled in gluey sea cucumber butt strings. Luckily the sea cucumber can regenerate their respiratory filaments after they’ve been expelled for defense purposes.
Another animal that ejects its own body parts to defend itself is the Iberian ribbed newt. When attacked, the newt will shoot out its sharp ribs through wart-like projections running along its sides. Simultaneously, it will begin to secrete poisons which when combined with its sharp protruding ribs, make for a mean stinging mechanism. Luckily for the newt, its skin is able to heal quickly after it has been pierced.
Unlike sea cucumbers and the Iberian ribbed newt, not all organisms are able to recover from their self-defense. The Malaysian exploding ant makes the ultimate sacrifice for the safety and territory of its colony when combat becomes too intense. The worker ants of this species have enormously enlarged glands around their jaw. If a threat is too great, the ant will forcefully contract its abdominal muscles, causing these glands to rupture. Upon rupturing, a sticky substance is sprayed outward. This viscous goo contains chemicals that are both irritating and corrosive, thereby immobilizing nearby victims. Unfortunately this explosion spells the end of the line for the ant himself, not only his attackers.
These are just a few of the diverse and multifarious self defence methods nature has devised. Always fascinating and often foul, they epitomise the lengths an organism will go to in order to protect itself from the big wide world, and pass on their defensive genes to the next generation.