Nature’s own Pinocchio, Peter Pan and Edward Scissorhands: the world’s most bizarre animals

02/03/2020 10:39

Written by Bradt Travel Guides

They say that variety is the spice of life, and we've no shortage of variety when it comes to the animal kingdom. From disproportioned primates to fish that have mastered the art of camouflage, our encounters with obscure creatures are becoming closer (and more unusual) than ever before. Here's our pick of the world's most bizarre animals.

Aye-aye

Perhaps more than any other mammal, the aye-aye epitomises all that is bizarre and compelling about Madagascar’s wildlife. It is a seriously weird animal that scientists originally classified as a squirrel. 

It has a disproportionately long and bushy tail; incisor teeth like a rodent’s that never stop growing; ears resembling large radar dishes that are so sensitive they can detect a grub moving under the bark of a tree; claws rather than fingernails (except on the great toe); inguinal teats (between its back legs not on its chest); no fixed mating season; and its celebrated extraordinary middle finger.

Often described as ‘greatly elongated’, this Edward Scissorhand-like finger is in fact no longer proportionally than in other primates (including man). But it is extraordinarily thin – skeletally so, for it has no flesh – adding to the illusion of extra length.

Aye-aye Madagascar by javarman, Shutterstock© javarman, Shutterstock

The aye-aye keeps its other fingers crooked up out of the way when working with its most important digit, so its hand looks like a tarantula. The slender finger is like a built-in Swiss Army knife, designed to fit through gnawed holes in trees or nuts (coconuts are a favourite) to winkle out the tasty contents. 

It is no surprise, then, that the aye-aye is a focus of Malagasy folklore and superstition – much of it contradictory. Most regard the aye-aye as an omen of evil, sickness or death; some in the far north even say that aye-ayes eat people! And so in many areas the aye-aye is persecuted and killed in an attempt to dispel any evil spirits. Yet others believe aye-ayes to be the reincarnated spirits of their ancestors, and so bestow upon them the highest of honours usually reserved for important chiefs.

It was long believed that the aye-aye was close to extinction. However, in recent years it has become apparent that they are actually the most widely distributed lemur species. It is not that their population has made an astonishing recovery, but simply that our knowledge of these creatures has improved.

Nevertheless, sighting a wild aye-aye is a very rare event; not only are their territories huge and their population density low, but they move high in the forest canopy under the cover of darkness.

Proboscis monkey

The proboscis monkey lives only on Borneo and a few small islands close to its shores. Its most distinguishing feature is its nose: huge and fleshy in males, upturned and pixie-like in females. The male’s pendulous nasal feature grows continuously, in a Pinocchio-like manner, and may reach a quarter of his body length!

The function of this strange facial appendage is uncertain, though it is thought to act as both an ‘organ of resonance’, amplifying the male’s strange ‘kee-honk’ vocalisation, and a thermoregulatory device. Females also seem to prefer males with larger noses. 

Together with their potbelly and swaggering gait, the large nose led locals to nickname them kera belanda (‘Dutch monkeys’) – a rather unkind reference to the Dutch plantation owners of colonial times. Their bloated belly contains bacteria used to digest toxin-containing leaves.

Their appearance when at rest – the spindly legs dangling beneath corpulent bodies – was once likened to someone wearing ‘a bomber jacket over ballet tights’. 

Proboscis monkey, Bako National Park, Borneo, Malaysia © Gualtiero Boffi, Shutterstock© Gualtiero Boffi, Shutterstock

Proboscis monkeys live near the waterways and coasts of Borneo, in mangrove, nipa, peat swamp and riverine forests. They can be seen catapulting themselves across expanses of water by swaying branches back and forth to gain momentum – or when a gap is too large, diving into the water and swimming across in single file. 

Proboscis monkeys now rival orangutans as the most popular primates to see in Borneo, and their endearing appearance may help save them from extinction, as tourism proves a viable alternative to flailing cash crops.

Ground pangolin

A 15kg walking artichoke? A metre-long ant-eating pinecone? It’s hard to describe a pangolin in animal terms. This bizarre mammal is the only warm-blooded creature on the planet that is completely covered in scales.

The ground pangolin, also known as the Cape or common pangolin, is the most widespread of Africa’s four pangolin species, and the only one found in the eastern and southern parts of the continent. Its broad range, however, does not make it any easier to see. Indeed the elusiveness of this animal is legendary in African safari circles; even game rangers can spend a lifetime in the bush and never set eyes on one.

Ground Pangolin by Dawie Jacbos Photography, Shutterstock© Dawie Jacobs Photography, Shutterstock

A pangolin’s scales, like our fingernails, are made of keratin. They form a suit of armour that completely covers the animal’s upperparts and accounts for nearly 20% of its total weight. A threatened pangolin curls up to protect its vulnerable belly, wrapping its tail tightly over its head to form a virtually impregnable ball.

This strategy is not only a passive one: while curled up it will scythe its tail back and forth, using the blade-like edges of the scales to slice viciously into any unwelcome paw or muzzle. It will even dowse an assailant, skunk-style, with a foul-smelling spray from its anal glands. With a pangolin, you know when you’re not welcome.

Giant anteater

There’s nothing you could call ‘normal’ about this animal. A vacuum-cleaner nozzle for a face, a witch’s broom for a tail and meat hooks for claws: it could have been assembled from cast-offs at your local dump. Yet each of these bizarre features has evolved to play a vital part in its survival.

The giant anteater is by far the largest of the four anteater species – all of which are endemic to Central and South America – and may exceed 2m in length.

At the front end is a head that looks more weevil than mammal, with an absurdly long, tube-like muzzle, and tiny eyes and ears stuck like an afterthought at the back. Bringing up the rear is the shaggy wedge of a tail, which accounts for about half the animal’s length and resembles nothing so much as the roller brushes from a car wash.

Giant Anteater by Luiz Kagiyama, Shutterstock© Luiz Kagiyama, Shutterstock

Then there’s the way it moves. The whole curious package ambles along with a peculiar shuffling gait, head down and tail sweeping behind. Look closer and you’ll see that the animal is walking on its knuckles – and with good reason: each front foot ends in four fearsome claws, which it must curl up and out of the way in order to make any progress.

A giant anteater (surprise, surprise!) eats ants: the adults, eggs and larvae. It is equally partial to termites. An animal this big needs serious quantities of such tiny prey in order to sustain itself and indeed a giant anteater can get through 30,000 insects a day.

This diet explains many of the bizarre adaptations. Inside that long muzzle is an even longer tongue: 60cm of sticky ribbon, rooted deep down at the sternum, that can shoot in and out of the small oval mouth 150 times per minute in order to trap prey. 

Axolotl

This weird-looking creature is the Peter Pan of the amphibian world. Why grow up, after all, when life is so much better as a larva?

‘Axolotl’ is thought to derive from the Aztec nahuatl, meaning ‘water dog’. While this amphibian is certainly no dog, its appearance and lifestyle are so bizarre that you can forgive a little confusion.

In fact, the axolotl is a salamander, endemic to the central highlands of Mexico. Like all its kind it has four limbs and a tail. But the first thing you’ll notice are the three feathery gills that project from behind its broad head on either side.This is a feature you’d normally associate with tadpoles at an early stage of development, as is the long caudal fin running the length of its tail and the small lidless eyes sunk into the side of the head.

Axolotl by Has Asatryan, Shutterstock© Has Asatyran, Shutterstock

What you’re looking at, however, is very much an adult – or as close as this amphibian will ever get. The axolotl never grows up: it is a classic example of ‘neoteny’, a phenomenon by which an animal remains in a life-long larval stage, never undergoing the physical transformation to adulthood.

Not that this holds the axolotl back. It continues growing, sometimes reaching 30cm or more. And in this state of arrested development it reaches full sexual maturity, breeding like any other amphibian, and may live more than 12 years. It never comes on land and continues to use its gills to breathe underwater.

Bald uakari 

Bald is beautiful – or so the follically challenged would have us believe. If so, then the shocking red pate of this South American monkey makes it one of the pin-ups of the animal world. Local people may not have had beauty in mind, however, when they nicknamed it mono angles, or ‘English monkey’, inspired by the first sunburnt natives of Blighty to visit their homeland.

Whatever your idea of beauty, the flaming face of a uakari is certainly attractive to its own species. Indeed, good colour vision is one feature that distinguishes South American monkeys from their Old World cousins.

Mature males are balder and redder of face than their juniors, with their deepset eyes and prominent skull creating an intense expression. The colour fades in individuals out of condition, suggesting that baldness and redness are indicative of health and breeding prowess.

Bald Uakari Monkey, Amazon by Jess Kraft, Shutterstock© Jess Kraft, Shutterstock

Tear your gaze from its bonce and you’ll see this is a medium-sized, long-limbed monkey with a coarse, shaggy coat. The body colour varies across four different subspecies, from a rich orange-chestnut in the red uakari to a pale cream in the white uakari. The tail is unusually short for a South American monkey, just one-third of the body length, and is not prehensile.

These monkeys are very agile, despite their lack of a prehensile tail, and will often suspend themselves by a single limb while feeding. They sometimes descend to forage on the ground – males especially – but are quick to return to the trees at the first hint of danger.

Star-nosed mole

Small and black, with thick velvety fur and big, burrowing feet: so far, so mole. But then you notice that nose: an outrageous pink sea anemone, with tiny fleshy tentacles wriggling like a hydra’s head of maggots. Could this be some kind of joke?

It’s no joke: this extraordinary facial fungus is deadly serious. The 22 mobile tentacles that make up the mole’s ‘star’ are, collectively, the most sensitive tactile equipment in the mammalian world. Each is covered with tiny receptors called Eimer’s organs – named after the German zoologist Theodor Eimer – of which a staggering 25,000 are crammed into a single square centimetre of skin.

With the help of its star, the mole can touch, identify and consume up to 12 objects per second, making it the fastest feeder of all mammals. There is even evidence that the star, like the bill of a platypus, enables the animal to detect electrical currents.

Star-nosed Mole by Agniezka Bacal, Shutterstock© Agniezka Bacal, Shutterstock

Like most moles, this one is functionally blind. It finds its prey by patrolling the network of shallow tunnels that it digs beneath the ground with its big, shovel-like front feet, snapping up worms and other juicy morsels that stumble into its path. The burrow network of one individual mole may extend for 270m.

You can’t miss the telltale molehills in the meadows and marshes where this animal lives. What you won’t spot, however, are the burrows that exit underwater. The star-nosed mole, you see, is equally at home rooting about on the bottom of a pond, where its spade-like feet become paddles, powering it along with alternating strokes in a distinct zigzag motion. It will even forage beneath the ice in the middle of winter.

When immersed, the star-nosed mole reveals yet another extraordinary talent: it is one of just a handful of mammals that can smell underwater. It does so by breathing out a continuous stream of bubbles and then breathing them back in once they have captured telltale odour molecules. A swimming star-nosed mole will snort out and sniff in ten times per second.

Leafy seadragon 

It’s just seaweed, surely: a delicate sprig, embellished with tiny leaves, swaying gently like an underwater spray of mistletoe. And yet this ‘seaweed’ appears to be moving away as you approach. Could your eyes be playing tricks on you?

Camouflage does not come more extravagant – or more effective – than that of the leafy seadragon. This extraordinary fish has its entire body adorned with leaf-shaped, gossamer appendages that perfectly mimic the seaweed tangle of the temperate Australian coastal waters where it lives. To enhance the deception it tumbles and drifts in slow motion, as though at the mercy of the current.

Leafy Sea Dragon by Kjersti Joergensen, Shutterstock© Kjersti Joergensen, Shutterstock

Peer through the fake foliage, though, and you’ll spot a long body with a thin tail at one end and a pipe-like snout at the other. The leafy adornments are for camouflage only; they help the dragon to ambush tiny crustaceans, shrimp, sea lice and other marine prey.

Look closer and you’ll see the translucent, whirring dorsal fins on the spine, which propel it forward, and the similar tiny pectoral fins on the side of the head that serve for steering. Movement is slow, graceful and almost imperceptible – though a seadragon may stay put for a long time; up to 68 hours has been recorded.

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