Ten Important Wild Animal Behaviors to Memorize

It may not be the most likely thing in the world, but if you spend any amount of time outdoors in the amazing wilderness, you need to know a thing or two about wild animals. That’s just a common sense safety issue, right? Well, the problem is that too many people don’t know enough about how animals act in the wild and what to do when they see these strange behaviors.

As more of us take to hiking trails, national parks, and scenic areas (which is a good thing!), so too do our chances go up of coming into contact with nature’s most unpredictable creatures. So consider this list a deep and hopefully productive foray into what one should do if you come across various kinds of animals in the wild.

These ten tidbits will hopefully never come into play for you because, hopefully, you are never in a situation where you need them! But just in case you meet a wild creature out on a hiking trail or while enjoying the safari of a lifetime, it’s better to have the information in your head and at the ready than be floundering and flailing about with your life on the line.

Related: 10 Animals with Zero Survival Instincts

10 Brown / Grizzly Bears

Brown bears or grizzly bears are incredibly powerful animals. They are confused as the same animal, with both labeled as Ursus arctos. However, grizzlies are technically a subspecies of brown bear: Ursus arctos horribilis. The difference is really regional: Bears on the coasts are called brown bears, while those farther inland are called grizzly bears.

Whatever you call them, when they come across humans, they often do what is called a “bluff charge,” in which they run toward the person they find but stop short of attacking. That is typically accompanied by huffing and even jaw-popping sounds. These movements and sounds are meant to scare you, and, well, they should.

They are terrifying, and brown bears are massive! They use these movements to warn those around them that they could strike at any minute. When that happens, it’s best to back away. Really, you should have done that before all this happened, but in case you are in a bad situation, now is the time to exit.

The exit isn’t as simple as you might think, though. For one, you should NOT turn your back on the bear and run. Bears, like dogs and many other animals, will chase things that run away from them. Instead, you should move away very slowly and sideways. Moving sideways is seen as the least threatening type of movement for a brown bear, and it is the most likely way for you to get out of there unharmed.

Brown bears should never, ever be provoked. In fact, if you are attacked by a brown/grizzly bear, it is best not even to fight back. Your best bet for survival is to simply play dead and hope the bear loses interest. If you can make it onto the ground before the attack, wildlife experts counsel people to lie down on their stomachs and do whatever they can to not allow the brown/grizzly bear to lift them up or flip them over. By playing dead in this way, you can convince the bear that you are not a target, and it will leave you alone… hopefully.[1]

9 Black Bears

Black bears are meant to be treated a little bit differently than brown/grizzly bears. For one, black bears tend to be smaller than their brown counterparts. Black bears are also (often) a bit more skittish and fearful. Because of that, they must be viewed differently and treated differently when spotted out in the wild.

Behaviorally, black bears often climb trees when spooked. This can mean one of several things—namely that either they are seeking safety or are trying to preserve access to their food sources from a perceived threat (you!). In that case, then, it is best to let the black bear climb the tree as it intends. Doing so will help calm it, and it will allow you to back away slowly and carefully to get out of danger.

Black bears will rarely attack humans, but if they do, there is one key difference here from what you are to do with brown/grizzly bears. Unlike the large, brown predators, you should NOT play dead if a black bear attacks. With black bears, you can first try to escape to a secure place, like inside a car or inside a nearby building. If that’s not possible, you should fight back with all your might.

Using sticks or stones or any other object available, concentrate your strikes, kicks, and blows on the black bear’s muzzle. Doing so will hopefully stun and/or hurt it just enough to make it scared of you again so that it runs off. As we noted, black bears are usually quite a bit more hesitant than brown/grizzly bears. Thus, by fighting back in the very rare scenario where a black bear attacks you, it is possible to drive enough fear into them to get them to leave you alone just as quickly as they happened upon you.[2]

8 African Animals

Perhaps it’s not incredibly likely that you will find yourself in Africa anytime soon. But there are plenty of life-changing safaris and trips that millions of people take each year to that fascinating continent. So, just in case you visit Africa and come face-to-face with its most amazing and legendary creatures, why not get a quick rundown of what not to do?

Let’s start with giraffes. Giraffes look a little graceful and a little goofy, but they are very strong, and they can be very aggressive. The most important violent behavior to remember in their case is neck-swinging. When giraffes get territorial with each other, the males of the species will whip and swing their necks into their opponent. These swings can roll through some serious momentum, and they can really do some damage.

In doing so, male giraffes are doing one of two things: They are either asserting dominance within the group or actively competing for mates. In either case, your role is simple: stay far, far away. Giraffes can cover lots of ground quickly with their long legs, and it’s best not to get anywhere near them.

How about elephants? Another massive and memorable animal with plenty of power throughout its body. Just like giraffes, elephants will move quite aggressively and decisively to assert their dominance. They do this with other elephants at various times, but they also single out human beings of whom they are unsure and show their strength. This dominance is exemplified by an elephant running directly at its target at full speed but stopping just short of attacking.

In this case, the elephants are hoping the target will back down and cower before the dominant pachyderm. And if you see that, and it happens to you, that’s exactly what you should do. Walk away very, very slowly and without sudden movements. Turning your back or running in quick bursts may cause the elephant to charge unexpectedly and trample you. And that wouldn’t be great!

There’s one more African animal we can add to this quick-and-dirty list, too: gorillas. When it comes to asserting dominance within their communities, male gorillas tend to beat their chests loudly and make aggressive, deep noises. These noises and the powerful chest-thumping are signs that the gorilla is trying to show off its power among its mates and neighbors. It may also use them as a warning that something much worse is going to happen if you don’t get the heck out of there.

When gorillas begin to assert their dominance like this, it’s best to get as far away as possible. And along the way, there is one other very important thing to do: avoid eye contact at all costs. Gorillas can be triggered by eye contact when they are already in a dominant, violent mood, and eyeing them at this vulnerable time could mean terrible things for you.[3]

7 Fire Ants

Fire ants are pretty incredible creatures. Not only do they have a nearly unbelievable ability to coordinate and work together despite living in very, very large numbers in their colonies, but they can also be downright dangerous with their ability to sting and attack en masse. So it’s generally a good idea to stay away from fire ants no matter when or where you see them.

They aren’t exactly cuddly creatures, after all. Even in the best of circumstances, there really isn’t much to be gained by hanging out with these creepy, crawly, and very busy little guys (and gals). But there is one particular fire ant formation that you should watch out for among all the rest—and it’s called “the ant raft.”

The ant raft, also known as “the raft formation,” occurs when hundreds or even thousands of fire ants link their little ant legs together and become a floating mass. They climb on top of and around each other to make a big ball of, well, ants. They aren’t doing it for fun, though.

As the name of this strange behavior suggests, they are doing it to quite literally build a raft—out of themselves. Fire ants most typically go into this piled-high raft formation when they are in or near water. They use their raft to float away as a group and, in the right scenarios, can successfully escape floods and rising waters like that.

The raft formation can also be used in certain other instances to draw collective power and try to dissuade predators from getting too close, as well. Anything that gets close to these fire ants while they are in this raft formation then quickly becomes a target. Fire ants are at some of their most aggressive points in life while they are building out and existing within their “raft.”

In fact, they are mad as can be—so don’t poke the bear… er, ant! Basically, the bottom line is this: If you see a bunch of fire ants climbing on top of each other in a big heap, it’d be in your best interest to make a beeline (er, uh, an antline?) in the other direction.[4]

6 Moose

Moose are very powerful, very large, very awe-inspiring, and very unpredictable. Because they are so strong and can move so quickly, it’s advisable not to get within about 100 miles of a moose if you can help it. Okay, we’re exaggerating a little bit there, but it’s not a joke to say that moose have tremendous strength and can do some incredible and devastating damage in just seconds if they choose to turn on you. Moose can also do some weird things, though.

One strange behavior that is common to moose all over North America is the act of licking things. If you watch videos of various moose walking along in the forest in Canada or the northern United States, you may notice them licking trees and the like. In recent years, they’ve even been known to lick cars, attracted by the salt that often accompanies anti-snow measures on roadways. But Canadian officials have pleaded with residents to get their cars away from where moose can lick them, if at all possible.

The reason why wildlife experts want moose as far away from cars as possible is two-fold. For one, the act of a moose licking a tree or any other object (including your SUV) means that the moose is marking that territory for himself. The more comfortable a moose gets in marking your car as territory, the more violent he may well be when it comes time for you to move the car.

As he sees it, that car belongs to him now. He’s merely playing to the logical endpoint of the “if I lick it, it’s mine” game. But if you have to actually drive somewhere, that suddenly becomes a potentially deadly problem for you when it comes to making yourself the unwanted focus of the moose’s angry attention. Not ideal!

There’s more to it, too. The more that moose lick cars, the more comfortable they become around cars. And the more comfortable they become around cars, the more likely they are to be hit in collisions on roads because they are no longer fearful of the big, metal boxes rolling down the pavement. That is obviously not great for any moose that gets hit by a car. It’s also not great for those driving or riding in the car. Moose are massive creatures, and striking one on the highway can often lead to death or devastating injury for the car’s driver and passengers.

Car licking concerns aside, you should also generally stay far away from any moose that you observe licking forests, fence posts, or anything else out in the wild. That licking, as we mentioned, is a territorial move. Thus it means that if you see one licking things in your vicinity, the moose regards that region as his turf. If or when he sees you on it, the end result may not be as idyllic and picturesque as you were hoping for when you went out into nature in the first place. Licking means get lost![5]

5 Crows

You’ve probably seen crows do this before, almost like it’s something straight out of an Alfred Hitchcock movie: a large group of black crows gathers around on a tree or all across a section of a street and begins to caw, fly around, swoop down, and alert each other of something (or someone’s) presence. The average crow is something of an afterthought for most human beings.

Still, when you get dozens of them together at the same time, things can get downright creepy with them. And scientifically, there is actually a name for that very specific and very loud behavior: it’s called “mobbing.” Mobbing occurs when a group of crows feels sufficiently threatened by something that they have to call in for backup. It most typically happens when there is a bird of prey around, like a hawk, an eagle, or even a peregrine falcon.

Sometimes, a bird of prey will have picked off a crow and will be eating it for dinner. Other times, the bird’s mere presence will be enough to set off a mob. And sometimes, it’s not another bird at all! It could be a human, like you, just being close enough to a crow’s touchy territory—most often where they are raising their young.

Mobbing is loud, aggressive, and chaotic. Scores of crows fly in, showing up in large numbers to caw, call out, and drown out the sky with noise. Their black bodies and powerful wings flap around as wildly as they can get them. The mass effect of dozens of crows doing this all at once can be extremely intimidating. So, if you see it, get out of there!

Crows won’t chase you down the block if you hightail it away from their mobbing space. Unlike many predators on this list, you don’t put yourself at risk by fleeing fast. But by leaving quickly, you will reduce stress on the birds and cease the loud, frantic mobbing calls and actions. And you’ll be able to wiggle out of a potential scene in your own real-life Hitchcock movie, so that’s good.[6]

4 Praying Mantis

The praying mantis is one of the most interesting creatures out there. Long, thin, green, and stick-like, you might very often confuse it for a leaf or just another part of a tree if it’s set just right out in the wild and you’re not looking closely. Its method and style of hunting its prey very purposely allows for it to be overlooked, too. After all, the praying mantis gets its name because when it comes time to hunt for food, it folds its forelimbs in front of it and appears to bow down as though it is deep in prayer.

However, it’s actually camouflaging itself and waiting intently, ready to strike. But you wouldn’t know that by seeing it—you might think it’s asleep or asking God about what may come next! Of course, people aren’t mantis food, so when you see a praying mantis fold up in its faithful position, there’s no need to worry that you might be attacked. Better to just leave it alone and let it continue its work. It’s not bothering you, so why bother it?

There is one fun footnote about seeing a praying mantis out in the wild, though: they are said to be a good luck charm! Many Native American cultures and other indigenous peoples around the world believe that the mantis was created ages ago—long before virtually every other creature populated the earth.

Because of that, these mantises are said to represent health, wisdom, and wealth, thanks to their experience on the planet. Thus, if you see one out in the wild and you do not disturb it, legend has it that you will be visited by good luck and good fortune. All the more reason to let it be and appreciate it from afar![7]

3 Vultures

Vultures are massive birds with even more expansive wingspans than you would think could be possible based on the size of their bodies. And when they perch on the tops of trees or down on rocks under the sun in the middle of the day, they are seriously a sight to behold. Not only are their heads, necks, and beaks very memorable (and a little bit creepy, if we’re being honest), but they also do something else during their perch that attracts attention: sunbathe.

When it’s sunny outside, many vultures will find a spot on a clear, unshaded rock, hunker down for a while, and spread out their wings as wide as they can. Taking on their full wingspan like that, they loom out over the world beneath them. And it can make for a very scary and daunting sight!

But fear not, fans of fowl. These vultures aren’t spreading their wings in preparation to swoop down and attack or anything like that. Instead, they are sunbathing! This happens for a few different reasons. For one, if it’s been wet outside, vultures choose to sunbathe in order to dry their wings out so they can fly once again. They also do it to regulate their body temperature and warm up if their core organs feel like they need it.

Even more interestingly, they very often choose to sunbathe in order to rid themselves of parasites. Small, unseen parasites can grow and fester in a vulture’s feathers and skin folds. By letting it all hang out (literally!), these vultures prove that sunlight really is the best disinfectant for getting rid of unwanted bugs and critters. As for us as observers, well, there really isn’t much else we can do but watch in wonder![8]

2 Jellyfish

Jellyfish are bioluminescent, meaning their bodies naturally emit light in the water. It can be an amazing sight to see them light up and glow for several feet around like floating orbs moving through the otherwise dark ocean currents at night. But the beauty has an underlying purpose—and it’s one you should be aware of if you ever get caught up around a jellyfish glow-in-the-dark marathon.

See, jellyfish basically have two reasons for lighting up in bioluminescent glows: They either use it as a defense mechanism to scare off predators, or they are hoping that the light will attract unsuspecting prey upon which they can feed. In either case, you aren’t the target (we hope!), and so it’s best to give ’em a wide berth when the lights go on. It may look cool, but it’s very much not for you.

The use of bioluminescence as a defense mechanism is most common for the typical jellyfish. Species like comb jellies use these bright light flashes to startle and stun predators in the water. Some jellyfish species can even produce chains of lights that release thousands of glowing particles at a time in the water around them. That, in turn, mimics the spread of small plankton in a bid that will hopefully confuse the predator.

But because of this, when jellyfish are giving off their awesome bioluminescence, they are very often agitated and worried for their safety. Thus, it’s wise to stay away and let them do their thing with enough space in between so as not to heighten tensions even further. It may look beautiful to you, but it’s actually a frenzied fight for survival to them.[9]

1 Wolves

There are few things creepier than being out in the wilderness and hearing a wolf take a long, high-pitched, warbling howl. We’ve come to associate wolf howls with the creepiness of nightfall and the unknowns of the deep, dark forest. But the truth is that wolf howls aren’t as creepy as they have effectively become in our horror-addled minds.

In fact, when you get down to it, wolves are merely howling to communicate with each other in the most efficient and sure-fire way possible. While a wolf’s howls may sound like long, mournful calls to round up the pack and come kill you, they are actually merely logistical communications between different animals. Some howls are used to specifically warn other wolves not to enter a pack’s territory. But wolves almost always howl at each other, not out of anxiety or anger but affection.

They are calling out to their brethren in the pack, saying, “What’s up,” and waiting for the response to figure out how everyone is doing. And since wolves can be solitary creatures—even in packs, they split up and lay claim to large swaths of territory—it makes sense that they need to scream and shout to reconnect with their mates who may be miles away.

So rest easy the next time you’re out in the wilderness camping or something and hear a wolf howl. The animal isn’t taunting you with its super-predator abilities or warning you that you’re about to make for a very fine dinner. He’s merely calling out to his friends: “Where are you? What are you up to? Wanna hang out later?” And when you hear it, you can merely relax and enjoy the amazing sounds with no worry that you’re about to be hunted down as a meal. That is a vibe we can all get behind, right?[10]

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