Nature’s most cunning creatures

In the competition for survival, animals don’t always play fair; these crafty creatures have all devised devious tricks to get what they want…

Raccoons have remarkable memories and expert burglary skills

Raccoons look like bandits with their famous mask-like markings, and play up to this notorious reputation with their considerable talent for thievery.Although cute and innocent-looking, you should take care of your things when these cunning critters are around, particularly if it’s food. As common residents in American campsites, it’s not uncommon to find tents ransacked by raccoons looking for an easy lunch. With their nimble and highly sensitive fingers, some raccoons have even shown an aptitude for lock picking. In the early 20th century, raccoons were popular test subjects for scientists hoping to gain a better understanding of animal intelligence. It was found that they have an incredible memory and are able to retain information for longer than dogs, even after being distracted. However, the animals were too wily for extensive testing – escaped raccoons became a nuisance after gnawing through their cages and hiding in ventilation shafts. Because of these difficulties, there has been surprisingly little research into raccoon intelligence and behaviour.

Squirrels play mind games to protect their food stores

Animals that are capable of adapting to their environment often show a high level of intelligence, and few woodland critters are more adaptable than the grey squirrel. These nimble rodents can be a nuisance in the garden, digging up seeds and stealing food from bird feeders whenever they get the chance. But rather than thinking of them as pests, we should admire squirrels’ opportunistic and determined nature – their food-foraging skills help them to survive in almost any habitat, making them some of the most successful mammals around.

Eastern Grey Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) introduced species, adult, with nut in mouth, amongst fallen leaves, Kent, England, November
Squirrels move their food stores regularly to prevent other animals from stealing them


One of the most cunning behaviours shown by squirrels is their talent for hiding food. Contrary to popular belief, this goes beyond randomly burying acorns; squirrels use their impressive memory to remember reliable food stores year after year. They even know how to stop other squirrels from finding their favourite nuts. If a squirrel knows that it is being watched by a rival, it will sometimes pretend to bury its food before scampering off and secretly hiding it somewhere more private. To minimise the chance of thieves returning to regular hiding places, food is often buried and reburied in different spots. This helps to ensure that the squirrel always has something to nibble on during the lean winter months.

A squirrel will pretend to bury its food, before scampering off and hiding it somewhere more private

Margays mimic baby monkeys to trick the adults

The margay, a small jungle cat, is known to use a rather cruel trick while hunting for food. It pretends to be a panicked baby monkey, alarming nearby parents and causing them to run straight into the path of the prowling predator.Although they are skilled climbers, margays find it tricky to chase agile creatures like tamarins through the trees. It is likely that this is why the felines came up with their ploy to mimic the monkeys, emitting a high-pitched squeal that sounds enough like a baby tamarin to worry their relatives. When they run down from the branches to inspect the situation, the margay pounces. Scientists think that other cats, such as jaguars, might also mimic their prey in this way.

Margay Cat (Leopardus wiedii) Male on branch - captive - Port Lympne Zoo, UK.
When the tamarin runs down from the branches to inspect the situation, the margay pounces


Black seadevils use luminous fishing rods to tempt their prey

Some of our planet’s most bizarre creatures live in the ocean, and the black seadevil is no exception. This fiendish deep-sea dweller is a type of anglerfish, named after the light-emitting organs attached to their heads. The seadevil uses its glowing appendage (known as a photophore) like a fishing rod, dangling it temptingly in front of its enormous, toothy mouth. In the dark ocean depths, other creatures can only see a bobbing pinprick of light. Suspecting a tasty snack, they swim up to it – a fatal error. The seadevil strikes out with its extendable jaws, swallowing the hapless victim. Like a snake, it can gorge on creatures more than twice its size – useful in the deep sea, where meals are often few and far between.

Beware of the luminous lure
Beware of the luminous lure

“The seadevil strikes out with its extendable jaws, swallowing the hapless victim.”

Chimpanzees use amazing treetop teamwork to ambush colobus monkeys

Chimpanzees chase and kill red colobus monkeys using teamwork and skill that’s comparable to a military operation. Different members of a group are assigned specific roles: driver, blocker or ambusher. Once the chimps spot a group of monkeys high in the canopy, the driver will climb up and begin the chase. As the startled monkeys swing from tree to tree, blockers begin to intercept and corral them towards a particular point, where the ambusher is waiting to grab one of the unfortunate primates for dinner. This is a brilliant but blood-curdling example of the chimpanzee’s considerable brainpower. As our closest living relatives, these apes are capable of many complex behaviours including tool use, deception and understanding human language.

29 Jul 2011, Uganda --- Chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes) group looking for monkeys in trees while out on hunting patrol, western Uganda --- Image by © Suzi Eszterhas/Minden Pictures/Corbis
The chimps’ brainpower is put to a grizzly purpose


Packs of grey wolves plan their hunts with precision to feast on larger, faster animals

Grey wolves are masters of strategy, using their impressive intelligence and highly-developed social structures to ingenious effect while hunting. These wily predators are closely related to dogs, but research shows that wolves surpass their domesticated cousins in tests of logic. Dogs tend to follow human commands regardless of whether they are rational, but trained wolves will ignore instruction if it means performing a task more efficiently.

Grey Wolf (Canis lupus) Looks Up
Grey wolves have hunting strategy down to a fine art


Tactical know-how helps wolves make strategic decisions and carry out successful hunts. Working in packs, groups of wolves act as one in order to take down their preferred kind of prey: large ungulates. Elk, moose and bison are among the wolf’s targets.The cunning canines patiently stalk their prey until the terrain plays to their advantage. Snowy ground is ideal – no problem for the wolves’ large paws, but troublesome for smaller hooves. Agile female wolves dart around the target to confuse it, allowing the slower but more powerful males to close in for the kill.

The cunning canines patiently stalk their prey until the terrain plays to their advantage.

Killer whales create powerful waves to knock seals off the ice

Arguably the most successful hunters in the ocean, killer whales use incredible group dynamics to tactically catch animals ranging from seagulls to sharks. Not even the largest animals on Earth, blue whales, are safe from these apex predators. Different killer whale populations have developed their own hunting techniques, each specialising in a particular kind of prey. One of the cleverest involves groups of killer whales swimming in formations to create waves, knocking seals from floating ice in order to catch, kill and eat them. This method demonstrates remarkable intellect; it involves spyhopping (vertically rising out of the water) to locate a suitable ice floe and carefully assessing the type of wave required to wash an animal off it, before creating a deadly bow wave using a tightly synchronised aquatic charge.

Southern Type B Killer whales (Orcinus orca) hunting Weddell seal (Leptonychotes weddelli) spyhopping to assess where seal is on ice floe and to intimidate, Antarctica. Taken on location for BBC Frozen Planet series, January 2009
A seal has no chance when killer whales work together


Crocodiles wait all year for the perfect time to attack

One of the most patient and stealthy assassins in the animal kingdom is the Nile crocodile. Amazingly, these water-dwelling reptiles can go for many months without eating, slowing down their heart to just two or three beats per minute to slowly consume the energy from their food. When they do eat, it’s a considerable feast. The crocodiles lurk in rivers, waiting for animals such as antelopes to cross on their annual migrations. While the herds approach the riverbanks for a much-needed drink, the crocodile remains perfectly still, imitating a log floating on the surface. When a vulnerable animal is within its reach, a sudden lunge out of the water secures the croc’s long-awaited meal.

Nile crocodile (Crocodylus niloticus) attacking a Thomson's gazelle (Eudorcas thomsonii) as it crosses the Mara River. Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, October 2009
The Nile crocodile, nature’s most patient assassin

When a vulnerable animal is within its reach, a sudden lunge out of the water secures the croc’s long-awaited meal.

Red foxes use the Earth’s magnetic field to aid their hunting

Everyone’s heard the phrase ‘as cunning as a fox’, but do these supposedly crafty canines live up to their reputation? Certainly, if their remarkable hunting technique is anything to go by. Unlike wolves, red foxes tend to be solitary hunters, stealthily stalking their prey before leaping high into the air and striking the clueless victim from above. The fox’s recognisable pouncing technique is called mousing, and it’s thought by some scientists to rely on the Earth’s magnetic field. Other animals such as birds, bats and sharks also use the magnetic field like a sixth sense.

Yukon, Canada --- A cross fox leaps into the air while hunting for mice, Dempster Highway, Yukon, Canada --- Image by © Robert Postma/First Light/Corbis
Foxes can hunt using magnetic superpowers


As if using a built-in compass, the prowling predators tend to jump in a northeasterly direction when catching their food, and are much more likely to make a kill when they do so. It’s believed that the fox can accurately target its prey by comparing the angle of sound waves hitting its super-sensitive ears with the axis of the Earth’s magnetic field. Once these two curvatures match up, the fox is able to pinpoint the exact distance it will need to jump in order to make a kill – sometimes from as far as five metres (16 feet) away.

Alligator snapping turtles fool fish with their worm-like tongues

There’s a good reason why fishermen use worms as bait: fish find them irresistible. Alligator snapping turtles also know this, and have developed a sneaky technique to take advantage of it. The prehistoric-looking reptile tends to lurk at the bottom of murky waters with its jaws wide open. With its mouth camouflaged against the rocky riverbed, the turtle’s cylindrical pink tongue could easily be mistaken for a worm. This cunning illusion spells disaster for any curious fish that is drawn to it – they meet an untimely end when the turtle clamps down its jaws, which are strong enough to bite a broom handle in half.

Alligator snapping turtle (Macroclemys temmincki) fishing by luring a fish with the vermiform, worm-like, tongue, USA, captive
Keep well clear! The snapping turtle can break a broom handle with its bite


This article first appeared in World of Animals issue 30, written by Matt Ayres

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