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What is an Ambush Predator?

Tigers are among the largest ambush predators.
Chimpanzees are often hunted by ambush predators.
Crocodiles are ambush predators.
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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 11 September 2014
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An ambush predator is a carnivorous creature that relies on deception to catch pray. Rather than stalking like a lion, group hunting like chimpanzees, or relying on strength or speed, ambush predators usually combine camouflage with quick bursts of movement to attack pray. Many species are considered ambush predators, including some fish, reptiles, spiders, and even mammals.

Camouflage, the ability to blend in with the environment, is usually considered to be a defensive animal ability. Fawns, for instance, are born with a white-spotted coating that fades into the background, allowing them some protection from nearby predators. In ambush predation, camouflage works the opposite way. Blending into the environment allows the predator to remain invisible to its prey until it is too late for escape.

The fish world provides many examples of this type of predation. The stonefish, one of the most venomous fish in the world, lies on reefs or the ocean floor, looking exactly like a rock. When prey swim up to the “rock,” the stonefish simply bites down on them. Despite the high levels of toxicity in its spines, this ambush predator maintains a diet primarily containing small fish, shrimp and small crustaceans.

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Flounders are another fish that use ambush tactics to catch their meals. These flat fish are found throughout many oceans in the world, but you may have to look hard to find them. By snuggling just under the top layer of ocean floor sand or pebbles, the flounder is nearly totally invisible. When prey lands on top of them or above them, the ambush predator takes its chance to move and usually ends up with dinner.

Some species of snake frequently employ ambush predation to feed themselves. The African bush viper uses its bright green coloring to imitate vines, and will often suspend itself from low hanging branches of trees to catch prey. The broad-headed snake of Africa uses its home as its camouflage. This retiring snake will often retreat into a favorite rock cave or hollow log for weeks or months to hide from other predators, but will eat any critter unwary enough to enter its shelter.

One enormous ambush predator is the dangerous and wily crocodile. These enormously strong reptiles are capable of leaping out of the water to do serious damage to large prey, but their typical hunting style is much more subtle. Remaining motionless, the crocodile will float in the water or bask on the shore, easily confusable with an inanimate log. If an animal wanders close enough, a single snap of the jaws is usually enough to kill it. On land, the crocodile will sometimes lay still with its mouth open, allowing truly foolish small animals to wander right into them.

Ambush predator tactics are an interesting contradiction, as many of the animals that employ them have other powerful hunting abilities. It may seem lazy, when an animal has the power of a crocodile or the venom of a stonefish, to simply lie around and wait for small prey. However, the skills of an ambush predator allow the animal to conserve energy, an excellent survival skill in a world where hunting may be difficult.

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