Success among nature’s diversity of species is usually about passing on your genes. While most species try to avoid being eaten, are sure to eat and pursue the chance to reproduce, sometimes these goals collide in unexpected ways. Today, we discover 10 self-destructive animals that have embraced success or taken an unusual approach to life through death, cannibalism, or just merging with the body of another.
10. Brown Antechinus – Manic Mating Mortality
How many M’s can you put in a sentence? Well, try manic marathon mating marsupial mouse for starters. The Brown Antechinus from Australia looks like a house mouse, but is actually a marsupial, showcasing a remarkable case of convergent evolution in mammals. But the animal’s enormous testicular development represents the greatest surprise in the physiology of this strange species as they grow to an incredible one quarter of the total body mass of the male Brown Antechinus. Form does not only follow function, function follows form.
Thus, having such a large percentage of the body devoted reproductive purposes, it is not surprising that, forgetting work-life balance, there is little sex-life balance. So little, in fact that the males pay for fecundity with individual mortality. For with those huge gonads comes crazed sexual activity so frenetic that males forget and forsake food to mate. With a lack of food and extreme energy expenditure on mating, the males focus all their energy on reproduction at the expense of their own survival, simply mating themselves to death. But since the genetic information is passed along, pregnant females giving birth to large litters ensures the survival of this apparently self-destructive species despite male sacrifice
9. Honey bee – Stings for the Greater Good
Honey bees may be familiar and are also feared as potential deliverers of an extremely painful sting. Such a sting can even be life-threatening for the seriously allergic, but fortunately most honey bee stings end in a deadly fate only for the stinging insect. While delivering a most painful sting may aid bees significantly in colony defense, it is devastating to the individual honey bee. Harpoon or fishhook-like stingers plunge into the flesh of the target, but do not come out of the unfortunate victim’s body. The force of a stinging honey bee’s ensuing struggle once anchored into the target not only tears out the bee’s stinger but also rips free portions of the bee’s digestive tract.
With that damage comes loss of muscles and nerves, as well as portions of the honey bee’s abdomen. After “escaping” without its stinger, the honey bee is badly wounded and has little time left to survive. After such a catastrophic injury, the bee’s death soon follows. Yet, by protecting the hive and the bee’s relatives, a greater genetic group benefit is achieved by the survival of the colony at the expense of the stingers. A venom sack remains with the stinger left behind by the honey bee that continues to deliver toxins.
8. The Exploding Ants of Borneo – Walking Insect Bomb
Explosive attacks may be the stuff of military-themed movies, but for certain hair trigger ants in Borneo, blowing themselves to oblivion is exactly how they fight for the greater goal of colony survival. Living in the trees and trying to mind their own business, the explosive ant species Colobopsis explodens is most appropriately named. This particular species of ant is rare, as an exploding ant, but since they lack any venom that can be injected or powerful mandibles to bite potential attackers, a markedly different and individually costly way of protecting colonies and the species as a whole has developed.
The individual sacrifices of the grenade-like creatures are carried out in attacks where the ants hitch onto a predator and then burst themselves open. The bursting action, accomplished by forceful muscle action, delivers a splattering of yellow goo that is toxic to the point of being fatal to predators and effective in discouraging the predators from attacking their would-be prey. It is worth noting that Colobopsis explodens does not take the self-destruct route casually or without due care and preparation. Rather than just blowing themselves up at first sight of a threat, the ants lift their rears into the air as a warning that they are ready to blow themselves apart.
7. Anglerfish – Overly Attached Boyfriend
Mating usually involves a physical interaction between two animals with reproduction in mind. The means of sexual reproduction can vary, and so can the biology of the animals mating. But for deep sea anglerfish, mating is something very different. For these strange fish, mating is a time of complete loss of autonomy and physical identity for the males. Male deep-sea anglerfish are much smaller than females, which have a bioluminescent lure known as an esca extending from their forehead to attract prey. Finding a female through their senses of sight and smell, males track females and then bite into her body, continually hanging on. Gradually, his body tissues and bloodstream join with that of the female, allowing him to gain nutrients from her body.
Once attached, the internal organs, eyes, fins, and teeth of the male are lost. Having merged with the female and becoming absorbed into her system, the male eerily sticks out from her body. The male anglerfish becomes what is known as a “sexual parasite.” Over 160 species of deep sea anglerfish are known to patrol the world’s oceans, but studying them is hard due to their deep sea habitat. But footage obtained 2,600 feet deep in the North Atlantic in 2016 showed a live male anglerfish seen in the act of mating in only the third video recording of deep sea anglerfish ever made.
6. Bedbugs – Traumatic Insemination
Bedbugs are horrible. The creepy creatures rank as some of the worst small natural enemies of human beings with an entire industry dedicated to their control and eradication. But not only is the way that they sneak into dwellings and prey on humans as they sleep, leaving ugly welts the next day distasteful. These awful insects, which are indeed classified as true bugs in case you are wondering, have an even more disturbing sex life. Known as “traumatic insemination,” bedbug reproduction consists, essentially, of the male stabbing the female in her abdomen with his specially adapted stabbing reproductive equipment, piercing her abdominal wall and delivering the ever so important sperm. A most romantic encounter!
Because of the direct delivery of sperm into the female bedbug’s body through traumatic insemination, the female’s reproductive tract is not part of the mating process. Instead, female bedbugs simply lay eggs from their reproductive tract after traumatic insemination. Before the female bedbugs finally lay the eggs, the sperm inserted through the abdominal wound travels to the ovaries to fertilize the eggs. Despite the damage and stress inherent in bedbug reproduction, it evidently works well enough given the ongoing global battle waged against bedbugs.
5. Painted Buntings – Deadly Duelers
Nature is filled with irony and the ranks of songbirds offer no exception. One such irony is the love life of the Painted Bunting, a relative of finches, cardinals, and grosbeaks. Native to the South-central and Southeastern United States, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America, Painted Bunting males are among the most stunningly colored and patterned small birds in existence. Yet, the glorious appearance of these birds is sullied by a mating season lifestyle so violent that is nothing short of hideous at times. Eyes may be pecked out, wounds gouged beneath the feathers, and wings damaged badly. For the mating season is defined by all out wars to defend 3-acre territories.
Among the bird wresting and bill stabbing, a number of males are left disfigured every year or simply die in the bid to be the one best positioned to mate. What a gamble! Male Painted Buntings that survive the violent competition that precedes mating gain the advantage of passing on the genes of a strong and successful rival that was able to hold a territory. The bright plumage may enhance reproductive appeal and help intimidate rivals, but the color show also presents an increased risk of predation. One of nature’s trade-offs!
4. Guppy – Offspring Hunter
Guppies are remarkable small tropical fish that are good aquarium pets. Naturally having some color, the species has been selectively bred in a manner comparable to some purebred dogs and goldfish to create all manner of stunning, fancy guppy varieties. Despite their tiny size, they are also remarkable as they give birth to their young as live, miniature fish. While getting guppies to breed in the first place is much easier than other fish, keeping the babies alive may be another matter all together. This is not because the guppy fry are delicate, however.
Despite their prolific reproductive abilities, female guppies are notorious for giving birth to a group of adorable and minute guppy fry only to then consume them in an act of parental cannibalism. The problem of guppy cannibal moms is so well established in the aquarist hobby that specialized breeding pens to isolate the mother from the young are commonplace purchases in aquarium shops. When a female is about to give birth to young, she is placed into a compartment easily installed in the main aquarium that holds her, while another compartment provides the baby guppies with a shelter where they can take refuge from their hungry mom.
3. Stegodyphus lineatus Spiders – Self-destructive Moms
Parenting may involve sacrifice, but the female Desert Spider Stegodyphus lineatus takes parenting one gruesome step further. While many animal species go to significant lengths to obtain food for their young and care for them in a variety of important ways, the female Desert Spider goes much further. In the breeding season, females produce higher quantities of enzymes. Females catch more prey and then regurgitate the meals for their young. After coughing up a slurry made from her victims, the mother, in the case of this fierce spider species, then gives up the ghost, killed by the damaging effects of increased enzyme production. Once dead, her own young can eat her.
The term for the offspring based on their dietary behavior is matriphagous, which is the correct biological term meaning that the baby spiders eat their own mother. Males measure just under half an inch, but fortunately for the hungry youngsters, females are just a little larger at slightly over half an inch in length. The Desert Spider is not large or threatening to humans. This species inhabits warm scrub environments of Mediterranean Europe and desert and scrub lands of Eurasia with a range extending all the way to Tajikistan.
2. Brush-tailed Phascogale – Heartthrob Horrors
Australia is home to many remarkable animals, but little known are the adorable but fierce Brush-tailed Phascogale, also rather amusingly known as “Wambengers.” The name phascogale means “pouched weasel” and refers to their status as marsupials and their predatory nature. Able to jump over 6 feet, the creatures eat birds, mammals, and insects. But the reproductive life of these creatures is one where evolved mania, mating, and mortality come together. The males are dominated by the females when interacting with them but treat reproduction as their final life goal, being exhausted in the process of going positively nuts in their frantic pursuit of females.
The largest mammal in which the males die after mating, the Brush-tailed Phasogale is a species whose males suffer hormonal chaos and organ breakdown that swiftly brings his death soon after mating. No males survive the mating process, which is described as the “absolute” end by Australia’s Parks and Wildlife principle research scientist Dr. Tony Friend. While the Brush-tailed Phascogale is a type of marsupial, females lack a true pouch. The animals are the size of a typical squirrel and nest in hollow trees for the most part, selecting eucalyptus forests as their favored natural habitat. When the phascogales are not busy mating, their brush-like tail serves as a defense by distracting predators.
1. Australian Redback Spider – Cannibalism and Underage Relationships (…Oh My)
Glossy, black and red, and resembling a Black Widow, the Australian Redback Spider is a species with a secret to survival and a path of living that includes a rather horrendous sex life. Native to Australia and found all around the country, it is worth noting that this species of spider has been benefited by human settlement, extending far beyond Western Australia to inhabit a range of environments, particularly settled habitats. Potentially deadly to humans because of its venomous bite, the Redback Spider preys on insects and also other spiders, small mammals, and reptiles from time to time. Males are less than half the size of females, and are often victims of what is somewhat terrifyingly termed “sexual cannibalism.” Females devour males to gain protein as a reproductive advantage.
But being cannibalized is not the ideal fate for a male Redback Spider that might prefer to mate and live to mate another day. Because of the awful actions of females, males of this species that might otherwise get cannibalized after mating may sometimes resort to an unusual strategy. By mating with immature females, “shrewd” males of this species try to avoid getting eaten in the heat of the moment while still passing on their genes in the long run.