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Animals fake death for long periods to escape predators

University of Bristol documents antlion larvae pretending to be dead for 61 minutes

Many animals fake death in an attempt to escape their predators, with some prey species remaining motionless, if in danger, for extended lengths of time.

The renowned 19th Century English naturalist Charles Darwin recorded a beetle that remained stationary for 23 minutes. But the University of Bristol, in the south west of England, has documented an antlion larvae pretending to be dead for an astonishing 61 minutes. 

Of equal importance, the amount of time that an individual remains motionless is not only long but unpredictable. This means that a predator will be unable to predict when a potential prey item will move again, attract attention, and become a meal.

Predators are hungry and cannot wait indefinitely. Similarly, prey may be losing opportunities to get on with their lives if they remain motionless for too long. 

As a result, faking death might best be thought of as part of a deadly game of hide and seek, in which prey might gain most by feigning death if alternative victims are readily available.

A study, published recently in the science journal Biology Letters, involved evaluating the benefits of death-feigning in terms of a predator visiting small populations of conspicuous prey. Researchers used computer simulations that utilise the marginal value theorem, a classical model in optimisation.

The lead author of the paper, Professor Nigel R Franks from the University of Bristol’s School of Biological Sciences, said, “Imagine you are in a garden full of identical soft fruit bushes. You go to the first bush. Initially collecting and consuming fruit is fast and easy, but as you strip the bush finding more fruit gets harder and harder and more time-consuming.”

He added, “At some stage, you should decide to go to another bush and begin again. You are greedy and you want to eat as many fruits as quickly as possible. The marginal value theorem would tell you how long to spend at each bush given that time will also be lost moving to the next bush.”

Franks said that this approach is used to consider a small bird visiting patches of conspicuous antlion pits. Antlion larvae that waste some of the predator’s time, by ‘playing dead’ if they are dropped, change the game significantly. In a sense, they encourage the predator to search elsewhere, he said.

The modelling suggests that antlion larvae would not gain significantly if they remained motionless for even longer than they actually do. This suggests that in this arms race between predators and prey, death-feigning has been prolonged to such an extent that it can hardly be bettered.

Professor Franks added that playing dead is rather like a conjuring trick. Magicians distract an audience from seeing their sleights of hand by encouraging them to look elsewhere. This is the same with the antlion larvae playing dead, where the predator looks elsewhere. This in turn means that playing dead seems to be a very good way to stay alive.

Topics: animals predators

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