Like knights of old preparing for battle, some animals never go out without a suit of armor to protect them from the hazards of daily life. However, in the animal world, that armor doesn’t have to be taken off and put away at the end of the day—they’re born with it. Here are seven animals that have their own nature-provided protective armor, along with a few other defense adaptations.
The small, but powerful-looking scorpion is one formidable arachnid, with an armored exoskeleton, an eight-legged body, a segmented tail-like metasoma with a venom-delivering stinger that it wields above its head to neutralize enemies, and sharp pedipalps with crab-like pincers. Scorpions vary in size from the quarter-inch-long Middle Eastern scorpion to the 8-inch-long flat-rock scorpion—and there are more than 1,500 different species (40 in the US alone). They are found on every continent except Antarctica in a diverse range of habitats, from rain forests and grasslands to deserts.
With a back-covering “shell”—actually modified skin with three hardened, tough-as fingernails armored bands—plus long claws (mostly used for digging up insects to eat) and the ability of curl up into a ball with its head protected inside when threatened, the three-banded armadillo is well equipped to protect itself. It is nocturnal, and the hairs on the underside of its foot-long body, sometimes referred to as “curb feelers,” help it navigate in the dark to stay out of potential predators’ way.
Measuring three feet wide from leg tip to leg tip, the coconut crab is the world’s largest land arthropod, found on islands in the Indian Ocean and South Pacific. Adults have a very tough brown shell, armored legs, and pincers that are strong enough to go after one of its favorite foods—coconuts—which it can clip off a tree and crack open with ease. Before it grows old enough to develop its rugged crab body armor, a young coconut crab may protect itself by wearing an empty coconut shell like a helmet, to protect its abdomen.
Living in rivers, wetlands, and lakes in the southeastern US, the alligator snapping turtle is the largest freshwater turtle in North America—weighing up to 220 pounds and measuring about 2 feet long. If its heavily armored shell with many jagged points and its armored tail aren’t enough to keep a predator away, the alligator snapping turtle has sharp claws, a sharp beak and powerful jaws to bite with. And if its potential attacker is still not deterred, this turtle can pull its head inside its shell until that predator leaves it alone.
A back made up of a long series of hard plates may not totally protect the giant African millipede from a much larger predator, which may tower above this diminutive 4- to 12-inch-long arthropod. However, those plates and a body made up of 30 to 40 segments (with four legs each!) allow it to curl up into a tight, hard ball to effectively avoid confrontations. And if that isn’t enough, it can secrete a foul-smelling and bad-tasting substance called “repugnatorial fluid” to repel a potential threat.
The docile North American porcupine has more than 30,000 flesh-snagging barbed quills—which are actually modified hairs made of keratin—to protect it from predators. If threatened, a porcupine can make those quills stand on end, effectively turning all but the underside of its body into a three-foot-long pincushion. Contrary to the myth, a porcupine cannot shoot the quills from its body—but those quills can cause serious damage to any aggressor that comes in direct contact with them. The quills are coated with a substance that contains antibiotics, which may protect porcupines from infection if they accidentally stick themselves.
Thick, gnarled skin, a heavy tail it can wield to pack a wallop, powerful jaws, and a mouth full of sharp teeth make crocodilians a force to be reckoned with. There are 23 crocodilian species, and the American alligator is the largest in North America, weighing up to 1,000 pounds and measuring up to 14.5 feet long. Crocodilians truly are “armed to the teeth”—and an American alligator’s mouth has 74 to 80 of those sharp teeth. Some crocodilian species can grow up to 8,000 teeth in their lifetime, growing new ones to replace lost teeth as needed.
Whether an animal is as small as the quarter-inch-long Middle Eastern scorpion or as large as the 14.5-foot-long American alligator, having a built-in suit of armor to “wear” every day can be extremely advantageous in a variety of wild habitats. Head to the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park to see more examples of animals that are “dressed for success,” and for survival.
Eston Ellis is a writer and copy editor for San Diego Zoo Global. Read his previous blog, Who Are You Calling “Bear”?