Monday, December 28, 2015

Freeze or Fight

Suppose you are an animal. Well, actually, you are an animal, but suppose you’re another kind of animal, maybe something small that might make a tasty snack for a larger predator. You’re walking along one day when you see a big dog. What do you do?  Well, depending on what kind of animal you are, you have different options. A skunk can spray a noxious liquid that will repel predators, a cat can make its hair stand on end so that it seems larger than it is, or some animals, such as opossums, may pretend to be dead already.

There’s another strategy all these animals have, though. You’ve seen it before, but maybe never thought about it. They can freeze. This is a way to avoid detection by a predator scanning the scene for motion. It is an instinct built into most mammals and even insects like the humble house fly.

A rabbit's first defense is to freeze when it's frightened. If it thinks it has been spotted, it starts to run. It trades evasion for distance and speed zigzagging right and left in short hops. This makes it hard to follow as any one hunting with a 22 rifle can testify. Just ask a beagle. Either it finds safety, tires and confuses a predator, or ends up as the main course for an owl, bobcat or other lucky winner.

Humans have this instinct hardwired from birth, and that can be good or bad news. An interesting article in the NY Times describes the conflict in our brain when danger such as a shooting suddenly appears.
"One suggestion, promoted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Department of Homeland Security, and now widely disseminated, is “run, hide, fight.” The idea is: run if you can; hide if you can’t run; and fight if all else fails. This three-step program appeals to common sense, but whether it makes scientific sense is another question."
It appears that this same conflict occurs in bunnies.  A friend sent me this video of a bunny rabbit with an really baaad attitude.  Rather than "freezing" this usually mild mannered mammal was having a bad hare day and took it out on a black snake.

1 comment:

  1. Reminds me of my observations of squirrels VS rabbits: Caution, this is totally anectdotal, not scientific. Seems squirrels just go into torpor like kittens being moved by their mothers. Rabbits, on the other hand, go all out crazy kicking ninja, while squealing. What have others witnessed?