Animals That Play Dead

Have you ever wondered what animals play dead? We know that dogs can be taught to play dead, but what animals will do this as a survival mechanism? We’ll go into more detail about the most well-known creatures that do this and how and why they do so.

Animals That Play Dead

American Nursery Web Spider

There are many reasons an animal or insect may want to play dead, with one reason being that they simply don’t want to mate. Some female insects will eat their partner after mating, and the American nursery web spider is one of these.

However, there is one way the American nursery web spider stands out. Male spiders will present the females with an insect to feed on.

The female will feed on the insect while the male mates with her, but if the female doesn’t, the male will “drop dead” until she does.


Also known as doodlebugs, antlions are an insect who are skilled when it comes to feigning death. It can do this for up to 61 minutes, which is an impressive record.

Their larvae are incredibly aggressive, and they will fake their death so they can ambush predators and suck their insides out. The reason antlions are so aggressive is because they don’t feed when they have reached the end of their transformation.

Blue Jay

The blue jay has a distinctive blue color that makes them stand out, which also makes them noticeable prey for their natural predators.

When they play dead, they will slump and not move, but they may also lie there with their wings spread, and their head at an angle.

However, blue jays may not do this for preservation reasons. Blue jays have been known to play pranks on others by pretending to be dead, or they may just do this to sunbathe.


The first animal that you think of when you think of one playing dead is man’s best friend. While some dogs may naturally know how to play dead, others can be taught this.

While other animals may play dead as a defensive mechanism, a dog that knows how to play dead may do so to stay out of trouble. Compared to other animals, dogs don’t naturally play dead, but it’s a fun trick to teach them.


Similar to how the American nursery web spider will fake their death for mating purposes, the amazing dragonfly will play dead if they don’t want to mate with another dragonfly.

To fake their death, they will drop and crash, playing dead on the ground, and won’t move until it’s clear to fly again. The reason that female dragonflies do this is because they only need to reproduce with one mate.

Once they’ve mated, they have fertilized all the eggs they have, and if they mate once more, they can damage their reproductive system.


Many people aren’t aware that there are many species of ducks who play dead when they are caught by another animal. If you’re taking your dog to a park and they try to hunt a duck, the duck will pretend to be dead so that it won’t be eaten.

To play dead, the duck will immediately collapse, so that way the predator hunting them will lower their guard. Playing dead is a common trick for many ducks, especially if they want to avoid foxes.

However, foxes have discovered this trick, and will offer a fatal blow to ensure that ducks won’t successfully trick them.

Eastern Hognose Snake

Hognose snakes are well known for their ability to fake their death, and will likely do this when they have found a predator that they can’t beat. When they fake their death, they give an oscar-worthy performance, writhing back and forth and secreting a foul order.

They will then fall backwards and lie there with parted jaws, even if you were to prod it. The eastern hognose snake sells quite an impressive act, and is more accurate at playing dead than other types of snakes.

European Mantis

European Mantis

The mantis is famous for its distinct praying appearance, and they are also known for the sexual cannibalism that takes place in their species. The female will eat the male after mating, so it is no surprise that the mantis has learned to fake its own death.

While they are mating, the male mantis will suddenly become motionless. They won’t move, only doing so when the female mantis has no more interest in them.

Japanese Quail

Similar to ducks, Japanese quail will play dead to avoid predators such as cats. They will play dead so they can find an opportunity to escape.

Japanese quail are also incredibly popular as pets due to their shy disposition. When they are sleeping, they also appear to be dead, but this is unintentional, and can shock their owners.

Lemon Shark

Despite being an apex predator, the lemon shark will still play dead. To do this, the lemon shark will go onto its back and labor its breathing and tremor occasionally. When it lies on the ocean floor, other animals will pick any parasites off its body.

Although sharks have to move to breathe, lemon sharks can continue to play dead and so they can successfully play dead. The lack of movement when remaining still is impressive for a shark, and the lemon shark is the only one that can do this.

It is surprising that they can do this, for as far as we know, the lemon shark doesn’t have any natural predators that can attack them.

Livingstonii Cichlid

The Livingstonii cichlid is a semi-aggressive fish who will feign death to catch their prey. They will lie on the floor of their habitat and wait for a smaller fish to approach.

Once the small fish approaches, the livingstonii cichlid will attack their prey and consume them while they are surprised.

Pygmy Grasshopper

When they are hunted by frogs, pygmy grasshoppers will feign their death by freezing and extending their legs outwards. However, they don’t only play dead.

They will stiffen their legs so that the frog is unable to swallow them, so they can continue to live another day.


It should come as a surprise to no one that rabbits have the ability to play dead. Whether a rabbit is wild or domesticated, if it believes it is in a great deal of danger, it will make itself appear dead.

However, while wild rabbits will play dead when they are threatened by predators, domesticated rabbits will do something similar if they are put into a trance by the owners, and it will often look affectionate or relaxed when this happens.

Wild rabbits will play dead when they can’t access their fight or flight reflexes, and it’s actually incredibly stressful for them.

Researchers have noticed this by observing the heart rates of rabbits when they do this, so it is often a last ditch resort to survive another day.

Redback Spider

These spiders are closely related to black widows, and are incredibly venomous to humans. However, they aren’t naturally aggressive spiders unless their eggs are threatened, or if they are trapped and can’t escape.

If a predator were to hunt them, instead of fighting, a redback spider will curl into a ball and freeze. That way, they will appear dead to the predators hunting them.

Red Imported Fire Ant

These ants are known for their resilience, and they can create a chain to stay alive when their natural habitat is flooded. However, they aren’t always like that.

Young fire ants struggle to fight and flee, so they will often play dead to protect themselves from predators. As they grow older, they will flee instead of feigning death.

Texas Indigo Snake

Compared to the Eastern hognose snake, the Texas indigo snake isn’t as skilled at faking their death. They will often try to overpower and consume rattlesnakes and other prey.

If they are unable to succeed, they will uncoil their bodies, stop moving, and slacken their jaw so they appear dead.

Virginia Opossum

There is a reason that playing dead is called “playing possum”. Virginia opossums are known for playing dead when they feel like they’re in danger.

If a possum is frightened, it will play dead by flopping onto the ground, closing their eyes, sticking out their tongue, and emitting a distinct odor to trick their predators. Most possums will be able to save themselves as the predator will lose interest.

However, possums can also be frightened by cars, so if you see a possum on the road, it could be playing dead out of fear. Unfortunately, this puts them at danger of scavengers who may search for roadkill to ensure they have a meal.

Final Thoughts

As you can see, there are many animals who fake their death for a variety of different reasons. It is either done for surviving another day, or to trick their prey. However, much like acting, some animals are much better at faking their deaths than others.

In the animal kingdom, it is a fascinating survival tactic known as tonic immobility or thanatosis is employed by various species when they feel threatened. 

This behavior, essentially playing dead, is a sophisticated method used predominantly by prey animals to avoid being eaten. For instance, red foxes are known to exhibit thanatosis by becoming completely rigid, a state that can deceive predators into thinking they are not a viable meal. 

Similarly, the black widow spider, when confronted with danger, may drop and remain motionless to evade threats. This act of feigning death is not only about remaining still; some animals, like certain marsupials, may add to the illusion by drooling or emitting a foul odor, further convincing predators of their demise.

In summary, tonic immobility or thanatosis is a remarkable survival strategy in the animal kingdom, utilized by species like red foxes and black widow spiders, among others, to escape predation. 

This tactic involves more than just stillness; it can include additional elements like drooling, which enhance the illusion of death, making it a multifaceted and effective means of survival for prey animals.

Olivia Kepner