Too late for April Fools’ day this yearbut it’ll come round again. Some people measure intelligence by the fact that they can deceive other people. Whether this shows the intelligence of the perpetrator or the idiocy of the fooled one is a moot point.
But if this is a criterion then lots of animals are enormously intelligent. In a book written by Martin Stevens called ‘Cheats and Deceits’ female bolas spiders occupy a major position. The female bolas spider creates a dangling ball of sticky material that resembles an ancient weapon called a bolas. She then hangs from a “trapeze wire” connecting two pieces of vegetation and releases chemicals that mimic the pheromones of female moths. When the male moth shows up, thinking he’ll get a mate, the spider swings the sticky bolas and catches him.
Being a predator is not easy. Many have to chase prey and succeed only occasionally. Some are even injured in the process. So, some predators have developed special tricks to catch their prey.
The Cantil is a pit viper snake found in Central America. Its bite is very poisonous but its short heavy body doesn’t allow it to move fast to catch the frogs, birds and lizards that are its prey. So it uses a device. The tail has a bright yellow or whitish tip and the otherwise dark snake moves its tail so that it resembles a wriggling worm. Since its prey feeds on worms, they are tricked into approaching the lure. As soon as they are within range the snake strikes.
The Alligator Snapping Turtle does this with its mouth. It lies motionless in the water, looking very much like a harmless rock, with its jaws wide open. Its tongue has a fleshy appendage that looks like a worm, and the turtle can move this appendage to make it even more worm-like. Small fish, frogs and even other turtles are often fooled into believing that they found dinner, but as soon as they enter the snapper’s jaws to attack the worm, the turtle closes its mouth with tremendous force, killing its prey.
The Anglerfish lives far below the water where darkness is the norm. The female has a spike protruding above the fish’s mouth like a fishing pole. At the tip of the spike there is a bulb-like organ which contains luminous bacteria, producing a blue-green glow similar to that of a firefly. The rest of the anglerfish cannot be seen. When a fish or invertebrate approaches the lure, the anglerfish swallows it whole. Its stomach and bones are very flexible allowing the fish to devour prey up to twice its own size.
The Green Heron doesn’t have a natural lure but it is much smarter – probably the smartest on this list. It uses bait. It drops bait onto the water - some herons steal the bread that people feed to ducks in ponds - and uses the bread as bait. Some capture small fish but instead of eating them, they use them as bait for larger fish. The bait is thrown into the water. Fish are tricked into investigating the object and then the heron quickly snatches up the unsuspecting victim.
The Assassin bugs are insects that use many ingenious techniques to hunt. Some disguise themselves as ants to prey on real ants; others use camouflage to ambush prey. One of the most amazing assassin bugs feeds on spiders. When this insect finds a spider web, it uses its legs to tap into the silk threads, sending vibrations that are very similar to those produced by an insect that has become stuck in the web. The spider senses the vibrations and goes for the attack, only to be ambushed and killed by the assassin bug.
The Chichlid is a top predator in its habitat and a master impostor. In an exceptionally strange and rather morbid feat of deception, the Nimbochromis cichlids of East Africa’s Lake Malawifeign deathby lying limply on their sides on the lake bottom. When a curious scavenging fish approaches, the corpse suddenly “resurrects” into a truly lethal predator, bursting forth at lightning speed and seizes the curious investigator.
In order to deceive their prey, South America’s freshwater leaf fish hang limply in the water, appearing to be just another dead leaf floating in the turbid waters. When a fish drifts by, the lazily floating “leaf” suddenly lunges at lightning speed, seizing its prey in a deadly grasp. Leaf fish possess disproportionately large jaws that allow them to take on much larger prey items than their size.
Food theft is another form of predation. While a wide selection of powerful birds simply intimidate their adversaries,a small, weak African songbird, known as the fork-tailed drongo, tricks meerkats (relatives of weasels) into abandoning their prey byfeigning meerkat alarm calls. The drongo will then help itself to the abandoned meal. Small capuchins, who don’t get the food they want because the elder monkeys bully them, use deceptive alarm calls to grab extra food. The smaller low ranking ones go a short distance and then make hiccup like calls to warn of the approach of a wild cat. The false alarm works because the threat of predators is very real but senior capuchins are not deceived for long, so it's a snatch and grab operation for the deceiver who grabs the food and runs.
Photinus fireflies use their light to communicate with each other – usually to attract a mate. The female cannot fly. During mating season, Photinus males fly above the ground emitting flashes to attract females. The females watch the males and respond with their own flashes. Enter the Photuris firefly. This creature spies on the females of other species and mimics their flashing patterns to attract unsuspecting males. When the males descend to the ground ready to mate, they are quickly attacked and devoured by the Photuris firefly.
The Margay is a small arboreal cat in Brazil that mimics the calls of baby monkeys in distress. This, of course, attracts worried adult monkeys which are then attacked and devoured by the Margay. Margays can also imitate the sounds of other animals, such as the tinamou (a flightless bird) and the agouti (a large rodent).
The jaguar is a large cat which eats anything from turtle eggs to anacondas and caimans. One of the jaguar’s favourite foods is fish. The jaguar has developed a clever trick. It taps the water surface with its tail to mimic a waterlogged insect or fallen, floating fruit. Fish soon swim to the surface to investigate the lure and the jaguar then scoops them out of the water with its paw.
Cleaner wrasse fish approach larger fish and offer their services to remove parasites and dead skin in exchange for a meal. A “dance” coupled with a display of unique colours notifies the large fish that these individuals are service crew and not food. The ferocious sabre-tooth blenny takes advantage of this unique trust by mimicking the wrasse in shape and behaviour. Getting close to a larger fish, the blenny, instead of gently removing a parasite, snatches a larger biteout of the fish’s flesh and escapes.
Both hunters and the hunted need their wits to survive. Both are extremely smart.
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