Animal Defense Mechanisms

Discover defense mechanisms your livestock and wildlife use to fend for themselves.

| January/February 2016

Inside your barns and sheds, danger lurks. Rusty nails can catch a sleeve and scratch an arm. You can trip on loose boards, heavy things can fall on your head, a slick spot can send you to your rear, and those are just a few of the perilous things in the place your animals call home. But what about the animals themselves?

Let’s just say nobody goes to the barn without some sort of protection.

This is especially so in the wild. Spanish ribbed newts have the nifty ability to turn their bones into side-rows of poisonous spikes when they come across danger. When threatened, hagfish ooze a substance that mixes with water and becomes slime to disable an enemy. Northern fulmar chicks will vomit on an attacker. Bombardier beetles can shoot burning fluid from their behind when they feel threatened, and a species of Malaysian ants will explode themselves to protect their nest.

The good news is that you’ll likely never find hagfish, fulmar chicks, or Malaysian ants in your barn, and Spanish ribbed newts probably don’t reside in your shed. But the defense mechanisms of the animals you live with are just as interesting.

Let’s start at the top.


For many species of wild animals, horns or antlers evolved for either mating purposes (he who has the best rack wins) or for defense and warfare (and sometimes defense and warfare go hand-in-hand with mating). For domestic animals – prey creatures like sheep, goats, and some cattle – the defense and warfare seems to be the reigning theory of why evolution gave them bony protuberances covered with skin and keratinized cells sprouting from their head.

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