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Every animal on the Wikipedia page for “apparent dead”, categorized by how dead it looks

Most days of my life, I’m not afraid of a predator eating me. It is a human privilege, for which I am immensely grateful. I certainly fear a lot other kinds of predators when I walk past my door, but I don’t fear the huge jaws of something bigger or more poisonous than me swallowing me whole, or consuming me more gradually in a series of chunks the size of with a bite.

Many animals do not have this privilege. Any day could be an antlion’s last – the tiny larvae are like popcorn to predators. Thus, insects rely on a defense strategy common in the animal kingdom: scientifically known as “thanatosis” or “tonic immobility”, and colloquially known as “pretending dead until that the thing that wants to eat you gets bored and goes away”. Predators, after all, don’t want to eat something that died and started decomposing a long time ago, for the same reasons you might pass up half-price sushi at the grocery store. When provoked, the antlion larvae will simply lie motionless for an hour, waiting for the predator to move on to prey that they can confirm is alive. The strategy appears to increase the antlions’ chances of survival.

Although some animals, like opossums, have become moderately famous for their deadly scams, many different types of animals play dead. The Wikipedia page for “Apparent Death” lists many examples, some of which are accompanied by images. Some photos made me nod in approval. Others made me pause or frown. A photo made me gasp. I will now rank them subjectively for you, from most convincing to least convincing.

1. Young Common Swift

Credit: Klaus Roggel, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

You couldn’t convince me that this young common swift isn’t actually dead. This bird is in the perfect form of a dead bird: on the back, the claws slightly curved, the beak turned towards the sky. Perhaps the bird’s gray tones add to that dead air, as if it were a bird transported from a time before color photography. Of course, a 19th century bird cannot be alive today! I guess I also see plenty of photos of dead songbirds that died after colliding with windows, which is tragically common and often preventable, and many look just like that, perfectly preserved and stiff on their bellies. Excellent.

2. Brown widow spider

Credit: JonRichfield, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

According to Wikipedia, this brown widow spider apparently fell into thanatosis after being shaken from its web, which sounds like a perfect opportunity for thanatosis to me. I am deeply convinced of the death of this spider. I have seen many small dead spiders in my life, spindly legs rolled up into little meatballs that sit on my windowsill or under a dresser for long periods of time. If this spider was just lying on its side, perhaps resting, legs spread like a pig, I wouldn’t be so quick to believe it. But she went the extra mile to curl her legs and rest slightly askew to the floor.

3. Green-headed ant

Credit: Steroid Maximus, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

This green-headed ant (right) appears to successfully fool the black ant (left) which seeks to attack them. However, I can’t rate it higher because the green-headed ant is too blurry in the photo, and there must be subtleties in their pose, body curvature, and general behavior that I could criticize more fully if the whole picture was clear. But the overall, hazy impression is certainly impressive; look at those curved legs!

4. Possum

Credit: Johnrouble, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

This opossum seems to be doing a good job, but consider the larger context. The possums are infamous for this scam, and I won’t be easily fooled! If I remember correctly, the first thing I learned about opossums was that they play dead. I’ve seen the videos on YouTube and TikTok of melodramatic opossums discovered in the middle of a scam. If I saw a really dead opossum and tried to bring it back to life, try to poke it and feed it some of its favorite foods, such as eggs, frogs, insects and animals dead, if I brought the opossum home and put them in the guest bedroom and waited days for the opossum to come back to life, if the opossum lay still and a foul stench started coming out of the guest bedroom Friends, even then I wouldn’t necessarily be convinced that the opossum wasn’t playing the long game to cheat me. If I’m to believe a possum is really dead, it better have fake blood or tire tracks or something. real! A good apparent death hampered by a crowded field.

5. Sleeper Cichlid

Credit: Wen2li3, CC BY 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

So this photo of a sleeper cichlid clearly doesn’t depict the cichlid playing dead. I stared at this photo for several minutes trying to figure out how this cichlid could appear dead – maybe its disguise is only noticeable to fish. But then I read the accompanying text, which shares that sleeper cichlids play dead to hunt, as a form of so-called aggressive mimicry. The cichlids will lie on their side on the bottom of the lake with a mottled coloration, reminiscent of a rotting carcass. It sounded fantastic and almost unbelievable, so I found a video on Youtube that shows a Livingston cichlid doing just that. I imagine the creators of the Wikipedia page may not have been able to find images of this fish doing this particular action in the public domain, but they were so captivated by this behavior that they when even chose to include an unrelated photo of the fish. I respect that decision, and that cichlid.

6. Barred Snake

Credit: Bernard DUPONT from FRANCE, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Is that what a dead snake is supposed to look like? This barred grass snake looks downright cheerful. Why are they smiling so big! I went to the Wikipedia page for the barred snake to see what the live snake looks like (very normal, very snake), which actually has a much better photo of the snake faking death, fully belly in the grass. I have to wonder why this photo was not included in the Wikipedia article for the apparent purpose of offering different examples of thanatosis? And mouth open and smiling sideways, nothing else in the posture of this snake suggests death. Being coiled up has huge “living” vibes, at least for this layman. Maybe there’s something I’m missing, and this snake might fool someone who knows a lot about snakes and why this can actually be a great print of a dead barred snake. But this living serpent does not deceive me, not today. The extruded tongue is a nice touch.

7. Burmeister’s Leaf Frog

Credit: Popovkin, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Not only does this Burmeister leaf frog not look dead, it looks suspicious. Accomplice, even. They look like a villain in a Pixar movie about a young fly living in the Brazilian Atlantic Forest who doesn’t feel sure that it’s less flashy and venomous than all the other tropical insects because the Brazilian Atlantic Forest is home to many flashy bodies, and flies insecurity about their appearance means they seek the approval of dangerous characters like this frog. Perhaps if this frog was in a more cupped position, or even had a tongue sticking out of its mouth like the garter snake, I would be more open to this interpretation of death. But this frog looks tense and actively uncomfortable, a body position that actually makes me look closer at the frog. In fact, I can’t stop staring at this frog, and the longer I stare, the more uncomfortable I feel. And the more I look, the more I feel like the frog is staring at me.

8. Eastern Hog-nosed Snake

Credit: Benny Mazur, CC by 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

What can I even say? This photo is as if Caravaggio lived in the age of digital cameras and was an amateur wildlife photographer. This hog-nosed serpent serves a biblical omen. And the regurgitated frog whose legs protrude elegantly from the snake’s mouth is serving something, maybe a ballerina? alien from Extraterrestrial? The eastern hog-nosed snake is “notorious” for this melodrama of faking death, rolling over on its back, convulsing, defecating, expelling stinky musk and regurgitating its food, according to the Florida Museum. Does the snake look dead? I guess I feel deeply ambivalent; the snake certainly looks sick, but it looks too dynamic for something dead. But I know one thing. If I saw that snake do that thing, I wouldn’t blink before heading off in the opposite direction. It’s a snake that fires no punches, fears no god, stops at nothing to save itself, and if the ultimate goal of feigning death is to live another day, this snake resoundingly succeeds.

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