Some of you may recall a previous article entitled “Protective Coloration” in which we endeavored to show how the Creator provided many members of the animal kingdom with external cloaks to match their natural surroundings so as to protect them from their enemies. The intent of this article is to illustrate how the Great Designer has provided other animals with an unusual means of self- protection—the ability to feign death.
The most familiar example of counterfeiting death is; that of the opossum, which, when in danger, becomes immobile, drops its jaw, draws back its lips, exposes its teeth in an agonizing expression, and assumes a glassy open-eyed appearance of death which completely baffles its enemies.
In South America the cunning pampas fox is a master at the art of deception. At first, he will fight savagely. Gradually he eases up and finally drops as though dead from exhaustion. The foe admires such apparent courage, but after the one attacking has withdrawn, the feigning fox cautiously slips away. A behavior very similar to the pampas fox pattern characterizes the Australian dingo (wild dog). One author, Mr. Hudson, has said; “The poor brute will keep up the pretense even when its head has been broken. Some cases are known in which such an animal has been left for dead, with its head half cut through; but during the night it: has managed to crawl away into its native haunts without having given one sign of life during the whole time it was being beaten to death.”
The reptiles are also adept in this pretense of death. For example, a Congo lizard rolls on its back, places one of its paws in its mouth and lies perfectly still in this uncomfortable position. The giant African toad is completely relaxed and supine, assuming any position in which it is placed as though it were a lifeless mass. Possibly, you have immobilized a frog by placing it on its back, or a chicken by laying its head next to a line drawn on the ground.
A leaf-like locust of Nicaragua ‘freezes’ when a horde of driver ants appears. These ants consume every living thing in their path and the locusts instinctively use their effective form of protection— apparent death. The ants can walk all over them without their giving any indication of life. The value to thus protect themselves is even more evident when one observes the other insects in their endeavor to escape by flying or jumping away. Their attempt is futile as they are immediately caught by birds which purposely fly above the ant army to obtain their food supply by capturing the disturbed insects.
Another excellent example is the walking- stick which will ‘freeze’ in the position of a broken twig for hours after the approach of an enemy. The water strider, an aquatic insect, may be immobilized with a light tap on the thorax. Touch an infested potato leaf and watch the beetles roll off as pebbles and remain lifeless in form and helpless as clods of dirt.
Explanations of these feigning acts are many and varied. Some attempt to explain it on an evolutionary basis—animals imitate death to escape it; the survivors are those that reproduce, and, consequently, by natural selection feigning death is perpetuated. Other naturalists ascribe these forms of catalepsy to fright, but this explanation is inadequate because animals as the frog, chicken, guinea pig, may be immobilized without any sign of fright. The response is instantaneous. A third theory is that of the mechanists who endeavor to explain the reaction as a physical cause and effect phenomenon. For example, a bright light causes a running rabbit to “freeze”. They explain that the bright beam of light strikes the brain causing it to stimulate the secretion of activating hormones in the body as a cap explodes a bullet. This chemical hormone paralyzes the nerves completely at first, but, gradually, diffuses and releases the body from this stimulus.
There are elements of truth in all the explanations which we may combine and view in the light of creative design. In His infinite wisdom God designed this “death feigning” reaction to show forth His greatness and glory. Certainly, it is not the product of the animal’s own mind or ingenuity as the Darwinian evolutionists would have us believe. The act is instinctive—instilled in the very being of the animal by God. In many cases fear, or an emotional disturbance may be the stimulus and, undoubtedly, the feigning reaction is centered in the physical make-up of the organism as the secretion of a chemical sets up an automatic nerve-muscle reaction of a protective nature and the result in these instances is a death feigning simulation.