Modern humans have it very easy. Among those who eat meat, few will have to hunt their own lunch, let alone risk serious pain or even death for it. Many species of animals lack this luxury. Going for food for them means a fierce fight with animals that can bite, sting or poison them. Why they hunt such difficult prey is a mystery, but many have developed elaborate and impressive methods of disarming their victims’ defenses. Here are ten brave (or crazy) predators that feed on vicious and poisonous animals.
Related: 10 animals that our ancestors hunted
With their painful sting and tendency to swarm, it might seem like bees shouldn’t have natural predators. Even without the painful possibility of being stung, they hardly look appetizing. At least not to humans. Bees actually have numerous natural predators, but they’re so central to a bird species’ diet that they’re even known as “bee-eaters.”
There are 22 varieties of bee-eaters and they live in all kinds of environments, including tropical forests and deserts. They are usually colorful and possess long black beaks with which they deftly pull bees out of the air mid-flight. Naturally, they do not want to be stung by the bee. To prevent this, they cleverly bash the captured bee’s head against a branch to stun it, then flip it over and rub its tail up and down the branch until the stinger and venom sac are removed. Now safe to eat, the bee swallows it whole. It may sound brutal, but bee-eaters play an important role in maintaining the balance of insect populations.
The tendency of these fearsome fish to devour almost any living thing is well known, but one snack is sure to give a boost to a shark’s terrifying reputation: the puffer fish. Pufferfish are small, slow swimmers and therefore vulnerable to predators. Still, they possess one of nature’s best defense mechanisms.
By rapidly swallowing water and air, they can inflate themselves into a spiky sphere of death several times their normal size. They are covered in sharp spines that protrude when inflated and are filled with tetrodotoxin, one of the deadliest toxins found in nature. A single puffer fish contains enough tetrodotoxin to kill 30 adult humans. Why would anyone want to eat something so extremely deadly? Not many predators do, or at least few survive. However, sharks are impressively immune to tetrodotoxin. In fact, they are the only species known to be so. So the puffer fish is as much a type of prey on the shark menu as it is the next fish.
These little lizards can be found crawling up walls or hiding in dark places in hot climates all over the world. They may scare some people, but they are not easily classified in most minds as fearsome predators. Their diet usually consists of flies and other small insects, but in Australia, they sometimes enjoy another delicacy: funnel-web spiders. Funnel webs are the deadliest spider species. The funnel webs of mature males are full of delta-hexatoxin. This neurotoxin causes nerves to fire continuously and can cause spasms, drops in blood pressure, organ failure, and death. It is lethal to humans.
This helps defend male funnel-webs against predators if they unknowingly cross one’s path while searching for a mate. Surprisingly, funnel nets face a variety of predators in the wild, including reptiles like geckos, marsupials like dunnarts, rats, and some birds. In 2020, a study of Sydney funnel-web spiders was interrupted when a lizard swallowed one of the subjects while he was wearing a tracking device on his back.
These playful red-headed primates harbor a dark side. While an orangutan’s usual diet consists of fruits, leaves, bark, and insects, scientists reported a disturbing new item on the menu in 2012. The adorable-looking slow loris is a rare primate much smaller than an orangutan, with big eyes and a fluffy coat. body. While they look cute to humans, to some Sumatran and Bornean orangutans, they look like a great protein-packed snack. There’s just one problem: slow lorises are poisonous.
In fact, they are the only mammals that are poisonous, and it is said that their bites can rot meat. Exactly why orangutans would choose to eat these deceptively adorable creatures is up for debate. Some scientists say meat is an alternative food when staples of orangutans’ diets are in short supply.
However, a lack of plant foods has not always been the case when orangutans have been observed eating slow lorises. It may be that scientists simply don’t have much evidence of this happening because they haven’t specifically looked for it. As for venom, the larger size of orangutans seems to make it easier for them to control the small creatures and avoid being bitten.
6 Chacma baboons
Like orangutans, baboons’ diets are primarily plant-based. Chacma baboons of southern Africa eat mainly fruits, bulbs, and roots, but have also been found to be very fond of certain animal foods such as bird eggs, spiders, centipedes, and lizards. Another delicacy for baboons is scorpions.
These slippery, stinging arachnids make a tasty snack for primates, who place their hands on the scorpions until an opportunity arises to deliver a good slap from above to stun them. The baboons then rub the scorpion across the ground with their hand a few times before pulling out the stinger and throwing it away. So, the scorpion is ready to be eaten.
An observer in 1919 noted that baboons chew scorpions with “every appearance of satisfaction”. Since they shoot the stinger, it seems that the baboons do not get hurt if they are stung. However, the same writer observed that while raiding bee nests, baboons seem not to experience as much pain from stings as people, although they do try not to get stung.
5 centipede eaters
Centipedes come in a variety of sizes, but for the most part they are creepy and fast and can deliver a nasty bite. These attributes hardly make them appetizing, yet they are the only food source for one type of South African snake, the aptly named black-headed centipede eater. Also known as Cape centipede eater, these pencil-thin snakes are harmless to humans, but their venom is lethal to centipedes.
They will bite and inject their venom into the spine of a centipede, patiently waiting for it to take effect before devouring the dead creature’s head. They are strictly nocturnal and can often be found on deserted termite mounds or under objects such as rocks and logs.
4 tiger keel snakes
Newly hatched tiger keel snakes are not venomous. Without the proper diet, they will stay that way for life. This makes these Japanese snakes quite unusual for the species. However, wild snakes are known to defend themselves against predators by secreting bufadienolides from glands on the back of the neck. These are toxins that affect the heart and respiratory tract.
Since snakes are not born with a supply of bufadienolides and cannot produce them on their own, they must acquire them through a practice that is surprisingly common in nature: venom stealing. Tiger-keeled snakes consume venomous toads, stealing the venom for their own use in the process. They even increase their power. Mothers can pass the poison to their young, who can then hunt toads to continue the cycle.
Although highly venomous and despite its name, the king cobra is not at the top of its food chain. Cobras and many other species of snakes are preyed on by a ferocious little hunter: the mongoose. Unlike humans, mongooses can tolerate cobra venom thanks to a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine that neutralizes the effect of toxins by preventing them from binding to the nervous system. This means that mongooses can kill and eat cobras and many other snake species. So, snakes are a staple in a mongoose’s diet.
However, the enmity is mutual and there are varieties of snakes that also eat mongooses. Mongooses are capable of hunting and defending themselves using their fierce claws, fantastic eyesight, speed, and agility. They are so effective that they can kill snakes that are larger than themselves, and in various parts of the world, humans use them to control snake and rat populations.
2 leatherback turtles
When it comes to the sheer scale of victims consumed, leatherbacks may be the fiercest predators on the planet. The huge sea creatures can weigh up to 1,415 pounds (640 kilograms) and consume up to 73% of their body weight daily. They have a 100% success rate, much better than more well-known hunters like lions and sharks, and the food they eat contains only a measly 5 kcal each. So what are they eating?
Their prey must be abundant, slow and defenseless. Well not exactly. Leatherbacks eat jellyfish, which are certainly slow and plentiful. However, many hapless swimmers have discovered that jellyfish are not defenseless and possess a nasty, sometimes even lethal sting. But sea turtles are immune to jellyfish stings because their reptilian scales protect them. And leatherbacks are uniquely adapted for hunting jellyfish, with scissor-like jaws perfect for catching the creatures and terrifying spikes called papillae that line their throats and ensure their victim is effectively snapped and unable to escape.
1 Killer whales
Orcas are worthy of their alternate nickname, “killer” whales. They are predators of a variety of sea creatures, but a staple food for some orca populations requires them to face serious danger before they get their dinner. That staple is the stingray, whose tail contains a spike that could seriously injure a careless or inexperienced orca. While that sounds like a risk worth taking only if the killer whale is starving, they have even been observed to congregate and kill rays for no apparent reason.
Although it is possible that they were aware of the humans watching them, so they did not eat the stingray. Like many other predators, they may also kill for practice or play. During an observation in which a gang of young orcas killed a stingray, divers also surmised that the orcas may have been showing off or exhibiting a threatening appearance.
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