Jul 15

With the recent release of the final instalment of the Harry Potter series, many of us will be waiting with baited breath to see whether Harry, Ron and Hermione will triumph over evil, by destroying the horcruxes and uniting the hallows.

The story goes that when the elder wand, the resurrection stone and the invisibility cloak are united, they allow the bearer to conquer death. The tale of the hallows got us thinking about the different kinds of wizardry employed in the animal kingdom to avoid (if not quite conquer) death…

Now you see me…

Well it’s not quite complete invisibility, at least compared with Harry’s incredible invisibility cloak, but there are a number of species that do a very good job at avoiding detection by predators by simply blending into their environment. The pygmy seahorse, for example, is so well camouflaged that it was only discovered when the gorgonian coral it inhabits was examined by scientists in the lab.

Next time Harry, Ron and Hermione try sneaking into the magically guarded wizarding bank Gringotts, perhaps they should take a leaf out of this peppered moth’s book. It’s cryptic colouring would definitely make it easier to slip past unnoticed!

Photo of well camouflaged light peppered moth on lichen

Well camouflaged light peppered moth on lichen

Warning, warning…

If hiding from potential predators doesn’t work, then there is always the option for the more overt approach. Just like the dark mark acts as a warning to the wizarding community, bright colours in the animal kingdom usually act as a warning to signal danger. The common fire salamander has a distinctive yellow and black colouring and, if this doesn’t put predators off,  they’ll get a nasty surprise once they grab hold, as this cunning critter is also able to exude a toxic secretion making them particularly unpalatable. Almost as good as a the Weasley twins puking pastilles…

Photo of common fire salamander

Brightly coloured common fire salamander

What a racket…

In the Deathly Hallows it is revealed that Nagini, Voldemort’s pet snake, is actually one of the horcruxes intended to safeguard the Dark Lords immortality. Voldemort is able to communicate with his snake using Parseltongue, the language of serpents, which very few wizards posses the ability to speak. Often, acoustic communication in the animal kingdom needs no translation. The eastern diamond-backed rattlesnake deters predators using its characteristic rattle, usually in response to a threatening situation. The rattling sound is made by the snake’s rapid tail movement, which causes the hollow interlocking segments at the end to clash together.

Eastern diamond-backed rattlesnake photo

Eastern diamond-backed rattlesnake

Many eyes make light work…

There is a lot to be said for safety in numbers, particularly because it acts to confuse potential predators, making it harder for them to pick out a single individual to target. The Order of the Pheonix use this strategy to reasonable effect as they move Harry from Privet Drive at the start of the final book, confusing the death eaters with seven identical Harry Potters! In the animal world, meerkats employ the safety in numbers strategy very effectively, living in family groups and taking turns to be sentry and watch out for potential threats. They even have a varied vocal repertoire of alarm calls to signal each threat to the rest of the group, not unlike the Patronus charm used by some of the Order to carry important messages.

Photo of a meerkat family group

Meerkat family group

A bewitching tale…

With all those curses flying around, it should come as no surprise that there are a fair few casualties as the story draws to a close. While wizards have Skelegrow and Essence of Dittany to re-grow bones and heal gaping wounds, many lizard and salamander species are able to shed then re-grow part of their tail in a process called ‘caudal autonomy’. This defensive mechanism involves the vertebrae of the tail being easily broken when grabbed by a predator, buying the lizard enough time to escape undetected, while the predator is distracted by the piece of tail that remains wriggling on the ground. Quite a nifty tactic I think you’ll agree, shown here by the western green lizard.

Photo of a Western green lizard having shed tail

Western green lizard having shed tail

If you can think of any other magical methods that animals use to avoid death, let us know!

Laura Sutherland, ARKive Media Researcher & Helen Roddis, ARKive Species Text Author

  • Harriet (July 19th, 2011 at 1:46 pm):

    Love this! Congrats imaginative ARKive team!