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5 Trickster Animals That Play Dead

Whether luring in prey or facing with imminent death, these animals have an unusual trick up their sleeve.

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Pigs have also been known to go into a trancelike state for minutes at a time before returning to normal.

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.

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Lemon sharks play dead when flipped on their backs.

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?