Here are the Best Liars in the Animal Kingdom

From sneaky squid to blue jay impressionists, deceit abounds in the animal kingdom.

Nature is brutal, and some creatures have evolved their own sneaky ways of surviving, from mimicking other animals to taking advantage of dutiful parents.

Weird Animal Question of the Week decided to take an honest look at various strategies animals use to deceive each other.

BLUE JAY

Birds are among nature's most gifted liars. For instance, “blue jays do a good job of imitating a variety of hawk species,” says Bob Mulvihill, an ornithologist at the National Aviary in Pittsburgh. 

The supposed “hawk” causes other birds to scatter, leaving the jays with sole access to bird feeders—and thus an easy meal.

COWBIRD

North America's cowbirds produce up to 40 eggs a season, and instead of making their own nests, females sneaks them into other birds’ nests.

“They’re the quintessential bird that does not put all their eggs in one basket,” Mulvihill says.

The Kirtland's warbler is an unsuspecting victim of deception: It's duped in raising other birds' babies.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JOEL SARTORE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC PHOTO ARK

Though some bird species drive off cowbirds, the endangered Kirtland’s warbler is usually tricked into raising the cowbird babies as its own, a phenomenon called kleptoparasitism.

This is so common and taxing to the adult warblers that it's a major reason why the warblers' have declined, Mulvihill says.

EASTERN GREY SQUIRREL

Eastern grey squirrels of North America will hold a nut in their teeth and pretend to bury it in a variety of places before actually doing so, a tactic to keep other squirrel thieves guessing, according to the National Wildlife Federation.

Any would-be nut bandits then dig up a lot of empty caches before giving up.

Another squirrelly manoeuvre is to bury a nut and then pile leaves and dirt over another spot that looks like a food cache but is actually empty.

TIL: THESE BIRDS TRICK OTHERS INTO RAISING THEIR GIGANTIC KIDS

CEPHALOPODS

Many marine species, such as cuttlefish, have what's called sneaker males, Rebecca Young, a biologist at the University of Texas at Austin, says by email.

“Sneaker males will look like females to avoid being attacked by a larger dominant male,” Young says. While the male guards the nest and the female, the sneaker, whose feminine disguise includes a smaller size and a more mottled coloration, dashes in and fertilises the eggs.

Australia’s mourning cuttlefish sneaker males can even split their look by changing their coloration on demand. If a cuttlefish sneaker is between a female and another male, it can appear male to the female and female to the male, which fools the male into thinking he's seeing two females instead of a courtship in progress. 

Mourning cuttlefish are shape-shifters: The males pose as females to avoid attack by a rival.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ANDREW TREVOR-JONES, ALAMY

In spear squid, sneakers' sperm is tailored for a completely separate sperm reservoir, near the female's mouth. The smaller sneaker males also have bigger sperm than non-sneakers.

DUNNOCK

Michael Greenfield, an evolutionary biologist with the National Center for Scientific Research in Tours, France, says that deception between members of a species doesn't work if the animal is caught lying.

When a deception is discovered, Greenfield says, it's eventually ignored or avoided by other members of the group, leaving the deceiver with nothing to gain.

Female dunnocks simply can't pull the wool over their mates' eyes. They breed in monogamous pairs and the males go to unusual lengths to conduct paternity tests.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JAN VAN ARKEL, NIS/MINDEN/NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

Males and females of many monogamous bird species mate with other birds—called extra-pair copulations—likely in an attempt to ensure some sort of genetic benefits for their young.

But male dunnocks of Europe and western Asia have wised up to female dalliances. 

To make sure they're the father of their babies, male dunnocks will peck at the cloaca—or reproductive opening—of females, causing their mates to expel the sperm of other males with which she's mated.

From there to paternity.

Header Image: Eastern grey squirrels are crafty: They'll go to great lengths to hide their stashed nuts by digging decoy holes to keep nut thieves guessing. PHOTOGRAPH BY JOEL SARTORE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC PHOTO ARK

Discuss this article

Newsletter

Never miss a Nat Geo moment

Your email address
Submit