Animals

Scary, surprising ways that animals stalk their prey

From snake-stomping birds to spider-eating spiders, the predators have creative ways to find a meal.Sunday, October 21

By Liz Langley
Secretary birds, like this one in Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya, stalk their prey on the ground.

With Halloween practically on our doorstep, it’s time for scary movies—and that usually involves some kind of predator stalking its prey, whether that predator is a human, a demon, or even a tornado-powered shark.

In the animal world, cats are known for silently waiting to pounce, putting them at the top of the sneaky heap. But many other animals certainly keep themselves fed without enjoying the cat’s predatory rep.

We wondered, what other predators have ultra-cool tactics? From prey-stomping birds to heat-sensing snakes, the animal world is full of creative ways to find and capture a meal.

Secretary Birds

We just dare you to ask this secretary to quit wearing those leggings to work.

Secretary birds, native to sub-Saharan Africa, are unusual because unlike most birds of prey, they hunt on the ground.

They can grab up smaller prey, such as mice, but they will stomp and kick snakes and other large prey to death. They can deliver a kick in just 15 milliseconds.

Pelican Spiders

Eighteen new species of pelican spiders were recently discovered in Madagascar after having been thought to be extinct. But that’s not the only surprise they’ve got in store.

Pelican spiders find other spiders — which are their only prey — by tracing the silk lines they leave behind. They’ve even been known to pluck at a spider’s web to get it to come closer.

What looks like a huge pelican’s bill from the side is actually a powerful jaw with fangs on the end. Once a pelican spider bites into a victim with those fangs, it can hold it far away in these huge jaws until the other spider is dead. (Related: 18 Spider-Killing Spiders Discovered — And They Look Like Pelicans)

Before your brain starts weaving your nightmares, don’t worry, these spiders are just one centimetre long, about the size of a fairycake sprinkle.

Black Egrets

Black egrets, also called black herons and umbrella birds, are native to central and eastern Africa. They have a brilliant concealed weapon that’s right out in the open.

Black egrets stalk their prey in shallow water and repeatedly open their wings like an umbrella to eliminate the glare off the water surface while fishing,” says Dan Roby, a wildlife ecologist at the U.S. Geological Survey and Oregon State University.

Is it a hat? A funky clam? Nope, it’s a black egret in prime stalking mode in the Okavango Delta, Botswana.

Making a little dome over their target with their wings may also help to obscure their silhouette from the fish they’re targeting.

It also makes them look sort of like a runaway Beatles wig.

Pit Vipers

Pit vipers, a group of snake that includes cottonmouths and rattlesnakes, use infrared radiation to hunt.

These snakes have “heat-sensing pits on their faces, to detect warm-blooded prey with the sensitivity of detection in the thousandths of a degree Celsius,” says Robert Espinoza, a biologist at California State University, Northridge.

A cottonmouth, also known as a water moccasin, is a type of pit viper. These snakes, found in the Southeastern U.S., have heat-seeking organs in their heads. This one was photographed in Cache River National Wildlife Refuge in Arkansas.

It’s a skill that helps these nocturnal serpents hunt prey in the dark.

The creature from the original Predator movie, Espinoza says, used “the same sense, thermal imaging, to search for its preferred prey item, Arnold Schwarzenegger.”

Alligators and Crocodiles

You already know these toothy reptiles are great at stalking prey, but there is one technique that makes a couple of species stand out, says Espinoza.

American alligators and mugger crocodiles use a bait-and-switch tactic to lure birds pretty much right into their mouths.

The reptiles “lie mostly submerged near heron or egret colonies with sticks on their heads, apparently knowing the nesting birds seek the sticks as nest materials.”

It looks pretty funny, but it’s a very effective trap.

“When the birds land on them to pick up the sticks, Espinoza says, “WHAM! Dinner.”

Vladmir Dinets of the University of Tennessee documented this behaviour in 2013, noting that it appears to be the first known instance of tool use in reptiles.

Next thing you know, they’ll be using croc pots.

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