Animals That Behave in Unexpected Ways

By Lucy Freeman

From fainting goats to octopuses that walk, animals can surprise us at the best of times.

Have a read of these eye-opening antics – and keep an eye on your pet! You never know what they’re getting up to when your back is turned…

Mudskipper fish
The mudskipper fish spends most of its life on land! © F3al2
Article continues below

More on Nature

Goats that faint

If you had to picture a creature fainting away like a Jane Austen heroine, you’d probably think of something delicate. A Siamese cat, maybe, or a fragile Italian greyhound. But a goat? Healthy-looking goats in the deep South of the USA are known for keeling over, stiff-legged, after a loud noise or a sudden movement has frightened them. A few moments later, they wriggle about and get up again.  This behaviour is known as myotonia congenita, a condition where muscles contract but do not relax, meaning the animals become temporarily paralysed – quite literally, scared stiff – when they are afraid. Despite their name, though, fainting goats don’t actually faint; they remain conscious the entire time.1

Profile of a Tennessee Fainting Goat in a Florida field
This Tennessee fainting goat is known to faint from fear! © passion4nature

Fish that walk

The Mudskipper is a fish that spends most of its life on land – and can breathe air. They live on mudflats in Japan, feeding off the tiny plants and animals that flourish in the exposed silt. 

They have eyes on the top of their heads to help them spot predators, and this also comes in handy when looking for a mate, as they jump high above the mud to signal their presence.  Drying out in the sun is a risk for the mudskipper, so they roll in the mud or burrow into it to keep their skin cool and moist.2

Frogs that fly

In the rainforest canopies of South America lives the Gliding Leaf Frog. It leaps from treetops to the forest floor and survives the drop by using its huge webbed feet as metaphorical parachutes to slow its descent.  Gliding Leaf Frogs spend most of their lives in the high canopy and only come down for breeding.3  

Gliding frog on a leaf
Gliding leaf frogs spend most of their lives in the high canopy. © Dikky Oesin

Birds that can swim but not fly

The torpedo shape and purposeful waddle of the penguin has become so familiar to us that we forget what surprising creatures they actually are. There are 18 species of penguin and not one of them can fly.  All penguins have a stocky build and short legs, making them much better suited to diving and swimming than flying.4 Their strong wing and pectoral muscles help them move swiftly through the water, while their feet and tail are used to steer.5 

Swimming penguin
Penguins may not be natural flyers, but they are strong swimmers. ©

Flying snakes

If you’re one of the many people that isn’t entirely comfortable with snakes on the ground, how do you feel about them airborne? The rainforests of Southeast Asia boast snakes able to fling themselves from tree to tree, altering their body shape to help them glide through the air. Five species of this flying snake exist, and they all belong to the genus Chrysopelea.

Professor Jake Socha, from Virginia Tech in the US, carried out a study into the flying snakes.6 He explains that, as the snake jumps, “it flattens out from just behind the head to where the tail starts… And this makes it much wider - so it doubles in width - and it forms this unique cross-sectional shape.” The snake becomes as aerodynamic as an aeroplane wing and this – together with moving its head from side to side, passing waves down its body – helps it fly. To onlookers, the snake appears to be swimming in the air.7  

Flying snake wrapped around a tree
Flying snakes can fling themselves from tree to tree! © Kristian Bell

Sea Lizards

Marine Iguanas in the Galapagos islands are the only lizards that have evolved to survive the sea. Food sources are scarce on land, so the adult species plunge into the rough, cold depths of the sea to eat red and green algae.  Marine iguanas can dive up to 9 metres (30 feet) with a single breath, but speed is of the essence because after ten minutes in the cold water, the iguana’s muscles begin to seize up.8 

Marine iguana
These lizards have evolved to survive in the sea! © EarnestTse

Octopuses that walk

Octopuses live and breathe underwater, so – normally – any lurking in a beach rockpool when the tide goes out would be trapped there until the waters returned to release it.

However, this isn’t the case for the Abdopus aculeatus, which simply…climbs out. This species of octopus, found in North Australia, walks on land by pulling itself forwards using the hundreds of tiny suckers on its strong arms. It moves just as well here as in the water, going from rock pool to rock pool in the hunt for crabs.9 

Mice that sing

Male mice serenade females with complex songs as part of their courtship rituals. Sadly, we can’t hear these romantic torch tunes as they are delivered at between 50 and 100KHz; too high for our hearing. As part of a series of experiments, researchers at Duke University in North Carolina even found that if two male mice with different vocal pitches shared a cage, they began to ‘sing’ in the same range after eight weeks.10 The smaller mouse changed his pitch to match that of the larger cellmate.  This is especially surprising because scientists had believed that ‘vocal learning’ was restricted to parrots and songbirds, along with whales, dolphins, sea lions, bats, and elephants.11

Mouse in garden
In courtship rituals, male mice serenade females! © David Aubrey

Stoats that dance

It’s believed that stoats hypnotise rabbits by performing a manic ‘dance’ in front of them. They have been seen springing into the air and writhing about in a frenzied manner, with an arched back and splayed-out tail – all of which seems to leave their prey thoroughly mesmerised.12 Before we get carried away and suggest they take a salsa class, scientists are still working out if this ‘dance’ really is their chosen method of hunting, or – more disappointingly – the effect of a parasitic infection.13

Can stoats hypnotise other animals through dance moves? © Ben Queenborough

Cats that swim

All cats hate water, right?  Wrong. Turkish Vans, believed to have originated a few thousand years ago in the Lake Van region of Turkey, love to swim, play, and even hunt fish in water.  When kept as pets they’ll often play in their water dish or the sink.14

When you study animals, you never know what you might uncover.  We coexist with them and despite centuries of scientific study, we’re still finding new and surprising aspects to their behaviour.  Now… what’s your pet been up to?

Turkish Van Cat rests on chair
Turkish Van cats love to swim and play in water! © undefined undefined

When you study animals, you never know what you might uncover.  We coexist with them and despite centuries of scientific study, we’re still finding new and surprising aspects to their behaviour.  Now… what’s your pet been up to?


More like this