Animals at war

Battles between beasts are an unavoidable part of the natural world

In nature, conflict is inevitable. In the fight for survival animals often have to fight with one another. Whether it’s a case of defending territory, battling for breeding rights or killing prey, there are millions of miniature wars raging across the natural world at any given time.

 

Wolves use team strategy to take down prey

Grey wolves are undoubtedly the most famous pack hunters in the natural world. From grassy plains to snowy Arctic tundras, these wild canids are fiercely territorial, patrolling their patch of land as a group to fend off outsiders and gather food for their families.

While individual wolves are capable of taking on small prey like rabbits and birds, they really come into their own when working in groups. Ungulates like moose, bison and elk are large enough to feed the whole pack, and wolves will patiently track herds of these large herbivores for days in order to maximise their chances of a successful kill.

Wolves instinctively understand how to utilise their environment for the best results, herding their prey into a dry riverbed where it may falter on the banks, or alternatively prowling on the perimeters of a herd trudging through snow, waiting for one of its panicked targets to make a dash for the safety of the centre of the herd and thereby flounder and fall.

Once this happens a wolf’s light, rounded paws really come into play, spiriting it effortlessly across the snow. Females will dash in from all directions to overwhelm and confuse the prey, leaving larger and stronger males to deal the killing blows.

 

Killer whales combine intelligence and teamwork to catch otherwise elusive prey

Killer whales are apex predators and some of the most dangerous animals in the sea. These mighty cetaceans are powerful enough to secure most of their meals alone, but when the situation calls for it they’ll team up to take down prey. Seals can present a problem for orcas, hopping onto sea ice to get away from their ocean-bound predators. To combat the seal’s escape strategy the whales have learned to work together, creating large waves that wash their prey off the ice and into their reach.

In order to create this terrifying tidal wave pods of orcas charge towards the floating ice, diving down at the last minute to create a swell that knocks the seal into the water. This behaviour is unique to orcas in icy regions – different tactics are adopted by groups of killer whales in warmer climates, suggesting that specific group hunting strategies have been passed down through generations of orca families.

 

Army ants march tirelessly to serve their colony

Humans aren’t the only animals to form armies. Several species of insect are also known to wage war in vast alliances, which can be composed of over a million individuals and include a range of skilled warriors. The army ant is the best-known example. These diminutive bugs are an irresistible force when they work together, devouring creatures many times their size as they terrorise large areas of land in service to their queen.

Rather than constructing permanent nests, army ant colonies move almost constantly, foraging food as they raid the nests of other insects and swarm into new territories. The queen’s larvae are carried along by her army and fed on scraps of prey so that they can grow into the next generation of workers.

The queen is the largest ant in her colony and mates with numerous males to produce up to 4 million eggs per month. She is served by both workers and soldiers; the former are small, blind and tirelessly obedient ants that form the bulk of the army, while the latter are powerful bodyguards that help to protect the colony and carry the heaviest loads.

When it comes to battle, a massive wave of expendable workers are deployed to overwhelm the enemy (often a nest of termites). Once they have absorbed the initial blows, soldier ants will sweep in as a reserve force, using their stronger mandibles to finish off any stragglers. Despite their destructive behaviour, army ants serve an important purpose in nature. Many birds and insects depend on them to flush out prey, while other creatures gain valuable protection from predators due to their association with the marching insects.

 

Millipedes produce chemical weapons to protect themselves

As some of the earliest animals to walk on land, millipedes have developed an array of defence strategies to avoid being eaten by predators. Along with their more conventional defensive adaptations – sharp teeth, spines and body armour – some species of millipede hide deadly chemical weapons within their natural arsenal.

Some millipedes ooze toxic goo from their bodies to make themselves inedible, while others will actively spray their chemical weapons from up to half a metre away. Polydesmid millipedes naturally produce hydrogen cyanide, a substance powerful enough to kill birds and small mammals. For animals that are immune to such poisons, these millipedes can create a second type of chemical: benzaldehyde, a weapon that’s particularly effective against predatory insects such as ants.

 

Words: Matt Ayres

 

To learn even more animal battle tactics, accept your mission to pick up a copy Issue 58 of World of Animals in store or online