Wildlife & Wild Places

5 Trickster Animals That Play Dead

It’s almost Halloween, and the streets will soon be overrun with the undead—carrying trick-or-treat bags, of course.

But the animal kingdom is full of these tricksters 24/7. Check out five animals that play dead to stay alive.

A Watery Grave

Worried about shark attacks? Some experts say that punching a shark near the eyes will get it to back off—but violence is not the answer. Lemon sharks are rendered harmless when flipped on their backs. These kings of the ocean go limp after about 15 seconds and will play dead long enough for scientists to conduct experiments on them.

lemon shark picture
Lemon sharks play dead when flipped on their backs. Photograph by Bernard Radvaner, Corbis

Swimming With the Fishes

OK, so maybe your goldfish really was sleeping. The Central American cichlid only pretends to be dead in order to lure unsuspecting prey. This aquatic predator has intricate markings that make it look like a decaying fish, and scavengers are attracted to what they think is an easy meal. After miraculously regaining consciousness, the cichlid kills and eats the cleanup crew.

Duck, Duck, Death

When faced with imminent death, certain species of duck will play dead. It’s called tonic immobility, and scientists think that the response is a defense mechanism. Unfortunately, it’s not a very good one: These death-feigning fowl are often eaten anyway. What birdbrains.

Out to Pasture

Tonic immobility isn’t common in higher species, but farm animals like cows, goats, and pigs have also been known to go into a trancelike state for minutes at a time before returning to normal. Unfortunately, we can’t say the same about your family pet that “went to go live on a farm upstate.”

Pigs and other farm animals can fall into a trancelike state. Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic

Biting the Big One

Snakes are good actors. The baby brown snake, or Storeria dekayi, will freeze if approached by a menacing predator—or scientist intent on a closer look. And the snakes stay in character, remaining stiff and lifeless even after prodding.

Tell us: What other animals have you seen play dead?

Follow Mollie Bloudoff-Indelicato on Twitter.

Mollie Bloudoff-Indelicato is a science journalist who loves em dashes, ’80s music and parasites. She has a master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism with concentrations in science journalism, photography, and radio reporting. Contact her at news@mbloudoff.com, and follow her on Twitter at @mbloudoff.
  • El Gabilon

    We cannot let this one go by without saying that there seems to be a little discrimination in this article. Humans are animals, and yet they are not mentioned as one of those who “play dead”. Just like those other animals that do play dead…humans are “tricksters” as well. An example is the people during a shoot out at a mall “played dead” in order not to die…and lived.

  • Xu Wanwei

    Dragonflies! They love to play dead upon capture. They will flip themselves upside down and not move for a while.

  • Xu Wanwei

    Dragonflies! They love to play dead upon capture. They will flip themselves upside down and not move for a while.

  • Richmond

    Beetles usually play dead.

  • Richmond

    Beetles usually play dead.

  • Terry

    I have both seen and read about cockroaches playing dead – so remember the “double tap” rule (as in the movie Zombieland).

  • Terry

    I have both seen and read about cockroaches playing dead – so remember the “double tap” rule (as in the movie Zombieland).

  • redfox

    I do.

  • redfox

    I do.

  • Bruce Grant

    My wife when I come back from a bar feeling amorous!

    Joking asid, I hsave see4n mice play dead when caught by our cat.

  • Bruce Grant

    My wife when I come back from a bar feeling amorous!

    Joking asid, I hsave see4n mice play dead when caught by our cat.

  • Susan Gittens

    Certain types of buzzards in Africa will feign death after having been attacked by a lion, the lion loses interest as the prey drive is no longer stimulated and the buzzard will then fly away….saw it on National Geo Wild!!

  • Susan Gittens

    Certain types of buzzards in Africa will feign death after having been attacked by a lion, the lion loses interest as the prey drive is no longer stimulated and the buzzard will then fly away….saw it on National Geo Wild!!

  • Andy V

    Fainting goats are really cool. A friend of mine had one named Nibbles.

  • Andy V

    Fainting goats are really cool. A friend of mine had one named Nibbles.

  • Jon

    I can place a rabbit in my lap and flip it over onto its back and lower its head below its tail to put it into a trance. Even the wildest will become immobile and allow me to trim its claws or check its gender.

  • Jon

    I can place a rabbit in my lap and flip it over onto its back and lower its head below its tail to put it into a trance. Even the wildest will become immobile and allow me to trim its claws or check its gender.

  • Danielle T

    Another common animal who plays dead would be the possum. I’ve even seen a possum on my front porch around 10 p.m. xD

  • Danielle T

    Another common animal who plays dead would be the possum. I’ve even seen a possum on my front porch around 10 p.m. xD

  • J. R.

    Chickens will fall asleep in seconds if you tuck their head under their wing. Grandma lesson #27.

  • J. R.

    Chickens will fall asleep in seconds if you tuck their head under their wing. Grandma lesson #27.

  • Chike

    Humans.

  • Chike

    Humans.

  • Jan

    I have a snake outside and the cat was around and would not leave so I’m wondering do snakes play dead

  • Jan

    I have a snake outside and the cat was around and would not leave so I’m wondering do snakes play dead

  • Abhinav

    Mimic octopuses play better dead than possums.

  • Abhinav

    Mimic octopuses play better dead than possums.

  • Abhinav

    Mimic octopuses play better dead than possums.

  • Abhinav

    Mimic octopuses play better dead than possums.

  • Mora

    I know that a certant type of gourami fish plays dead. I’ve seen it too…….(My friend took a net and picked it up, I thought it died for a second!)

  • Farm

    Brown Recluse
    They can “play dead” for hours without air
    inside an 8oz jars. Their bodies shiveled up and all 8 legs withdrawn as tho it had finally suffocated. The pest control engineer gently poured them out onto the petri dish; when suddenly he realized they were net ‘dead’ at all! They came to life and suddenly scattered! I was told by staff, they had never seen him run so fast! Lessened learned! Now if you’ll excuse me, I feel something crawling on me!

About the Blog

Researchers, conservationists, and others share stories, insights and ideas about Our Changing Planet, Wildlife & Wild Spaces, and The Human Journey. More than 50,000 comments have been added to 10,000 posts. Explore the list alongside to dive deeper into some of the most popular categories of the National Geographic Society’s conversation platform Voices.

Opinions are those of the blogger and/or the blogger’s organization, and not necessarily those of the National Geographic Society. Posters of blogs and comments are required to observe National Geographic’s community rules and other terms of service.

Voices director: David Braun (dbraun@ngs.org)

Social Media