Scales, Spikes, And Armor: The Best Defenses Of The Animal Kingdom

In nature, something always wants to turn you into dinner. So the world's organisms created ingenious animal defense mechanisms to make sure they don’t end up on the menu. Unlike humans, animals require built-in protection if they want to survive the brutal gauntlet that is "wildlife." Animal armor, weapons, and abilities are all crucial when it comes to defense, but the ways animals defend themselves differ greatly from species to species. Though some animal armor like horns and stingers to any predator, many animals possess surprising defense mechanisms you would never expect on something so cute. Did you know echidnas can manipulate their individual spines?

Some animals sprint at amazing speeds to outrun any predator. For the slower ones out there, camouflage and mimicry allow them to hide instead of wasting their breath running. Many aren't even afraid to use disgusting defenses to ensure their survival. Even if they sport no real weapons or defenses, some species choose to intimidate their way out of otherwise fatal situations. Whether a stinger, shell, or just a big bluff, these built-in protections for animals are undeniably impressive.

Photo: Andrew Butko / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA 3.0

  • Armor

    Photo: Pixabay / Pixabay

    Armored animals exist in various phyla, and they all use their own system for warding off predators. Whether it's a bony shell, an exoskeleton, or hardened skin and scales, this defense mechanism remains one of the most effective in nature. Tortoises evolved shells made of bone to cover the majority of their bodies. Many species can retract their fleshy appendages, including their heads, into the shell for maximum protection. Armadillos have developed a remarkable shell, and one species can roll itself into a perfect ball for maximum protection.

    As opposed to most other animal phyla, arthropods wear their entire skeletons on the outside of their bodies, covering them in armor from head to toe. In addition to providing defense, an exoskeleton also gives arthropods extra support and helps to retain water.

  • Mimicry

    If you thought both these animals were wasps, you might want to take a closer look. The insect on the left is not any species of wasp or bee, but actually a hoverfly. These harmless little bugs adapted to resemble wasps and bees as an ingenious defense mechanism. While the hoverfly sports no stinger of it's own, it rocks the distinctive black and yellow stripes of their more dangerous counterparts. This gives the hoverfly a sort of natural street cred, as most other animals will avoid them out of fear. 

    Many insects practice mimicry, posing as another species to get some sort of benefit or to scare off potential predators. Mimicry is not limited to insects, however. The non-venomous king snake has the same banded coloration of the highly venomous coral snake. On the avian side, the common cuckoo bird, who slides its eggs into other species' nests, is believed to have evolved to mimic the Eurasian sparrowhawk, a deadly bird of prey.

  • Numbers

    While letting your homies get eaten by predators doesn't sound like the most moral defense mechanism out there, it finds great success in the animal kingdom. Many animals live in massive herds, flocks, and schools, providing them extra layers of protection by bodies. Statistically, an individual stands much more likely to survive an attack by predators if they are in a large group, opposed to if they spend their lives alone.

    Caribou and many other animals even give birth en mass in the same location at the same time, ensuring their offspring face a better chance of survival past infancy. Some animals possess such strong herding instincts they occasionally put themselves into more danger by following the herd, like following everyone right off a cliff. Herding has it’s drawbacks but, more often than not, safety is in the numbers.

  • Communication

    Humans tend to believe language lies outside the grasp of other organisms, but several examples animals species have developed what can arguably be called language. One of the most fascinating examples of animal communication comes from prairie dogs when they warn of impending predators. When a prairie dog spots a threat, it calls out to the rest family to alert them of the danger. Not only do they warn each other, but they have specific calls for specific types of predator. Scientists studied recordings of prairie dog calls and discovered distinct words for hawks, coyotes, and even humans.

    Vervet monkeys are another example of a clever species who use distinctive calls to alert their troops of approaching danger. In the vervet dictionary, words exist to warn of leopards, eagles, and pythons. Predator-specific calls are effective defense mechanisms that allow animals like prairie dogs to avoid danger in the most strategic way possible. 

  • Smell

    Photo: Pixabay / Pixabay

    One sure-fire way to avoid getting eaten, hell, to avoid contact with any living thing remains the power of stench. That’s exactly the strategy of the skunk, a small mammal known for its powerful odor. More than just stinky, it can actual burn some animals and seriously disrupt their sense of smell. Many predators need their noses to locate prey, so making it enormously hard to turn a skunk into prey when you can't find it. Created pair of glands by the anus, a skunk spray can be shot up to a range of ten feet.

    Stink bugs also sport glands which secrete a disgusting chemical meant to ward off potential prey. They can shoot from their glands individually or both at the same time, and can even absorb spent fluids back into the glands. Waste not, want not, y'all. 

  • Spines

    Quills and spines act as the bane of any dog owner whose pup has ever run in with one of these pointy critters. Porcupines, echidnas and hedgehogs are all known for the needle-like hairs that have evolved to ruin the day of anything stupid enough to touch them. Porcupine quills, able to pierce flesh using half the force of medical needles, are so good at what they do that scientists study them to improve medical instruments. In addition to the quills' sharpness, they often also sport backwards facing barbs along their surfaces, making them incredibly difficult and painful to remove. Being covered in quills ensures predators will have a hell of a time getting at your soft underbelly, making them a very useful adaption.

    But echidnas with their spines actually exert more control over their defense mechanisms. Since their spines are actually more elongated hairs than quills, echidnas can manipulate them to move to cover certain parts of their bodies.