Fear in Animals

By Hannah Schardt

When an animal—even you!—is scared, there’s usually no hiding it. But fear not: Showing fear is normal, natural, and even helpful.

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You’re walking down a quiet hallway when—BOO!—a friend jumps out from behind a door. Do you yelp? Do your hands fly up to protect your face? Or do you freeze and stay still, your eyes wide and your heart racing?

When you’re startled or scared, you react without even thinking about it. That’s because fear floods your brain with chemicals that make your body do things to keep you safe. You freeze so that a threat may not notice you. Your eyes widen so you can see clearly what’s going on around you. Your heart pumps more blood to your brain and muscles so you’ll be ready to run away or defend yourself at a moment’s notice.

You may not like feeling spooked. But fear can be a lifesaving emotion for people AND for other animals. Keep reading to learn about some ways animals react to fear.

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When scared, these animals stay and fight—or at least look as if they might!

A swimming tiger cub is startled by something floating on the surface of a river. Before it realizes the “threat” is only a dried leaf, the tiger snarls, showing its sharp teeth. Watch out, leaf!

Whooo’s that? A young long-eared owl spreads its wings and fluffs up its feathers, trying to look as big and scary as possible. Those wide-open eyes are looking right at the thing that scared it—YOU!

When it spots a threat, a porcupinefish fills its stretchy stomach with air or water. The sharp spines on its skin stand up, making it too painful a meal to eat.

You can see the fear on the face of this cornered black rat. And, if you were there, you could hear its terrified squeak. But the rodent is also sending out an invisible message through smelly chemicals called pheromones (FAIR-uh-mohnz). One sniff lets other rats know there’s danger nearby—even when this rat is long gone.

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Whether you’re slow as a tortoise or speedy as a hare, sometimes the best way to stay safe is to stay right where you are!

As curious cheetah cubs start sniffing around, this tortoise automatically tucks itself inside its protective shell. Then it sits tight, waiting for the cheetahs to give up and go looking for an easier meal.

When a hungry eagle circles overhead, this African savanna hare stays perfectly still—eyes wide and alert for danger. Eagle eyes are great at scanning the ground for movement. But as long as the hare doesn’t move, it blends right in with the dry grass. Hare? What hare?

Big, burly muskoxen don’t have much to fear. But when a pack of wolves or a grizzly bear creeps too close, muskoxen do fear for their smaller, helpless babies. So the nervous mammals stand shoulder to shoulder, forming a solid, furry wall around their young.

Are you scared of some wild animals? Guess what—they’re probably every bit as scared of you! (Just ask this Barbary macaque and the tourist it startled.) That’s as it should be. Fear helps us keep a healthy distance from things that might hurt us. So don’t be afraid to show a little fear.

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