Why do animals play dead?

(Image credit: Popovkin)

Question from Li Yung

Playing dead, a  behaviour known as thanatosis, has been observed in several species in the animal kingdom. In most cases, such as that of the American opossum, it is a form of defence from predators. Not only does it help the creature evade detection, but it also serves as a warning not to eat them because if they are already dead, they may harbour dangerous bacteria. 

Alternatively, thanatosis can be used to attract scavenging species as prey or, in the rare case of the male nursery web spider, help induce mating by encouraging the female to drag them to their nest.


Answered by Joanna Stass for Brain Dump in How It Works issue 102.

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