Africa Wildlife

Unusual wildlife encounters

Bizarreness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

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 bumblebee safaris to disproportioned primates, our encounters with obscure creatures are becoming closer (and more unusual) than ever before.

Aye-aye, Madagascar

Aye-aye, Madagascar © Daniel AustinFor generations, scientists have disputed over the aye-aye’s true identity, which has now been revealed as a lemur © Daniel Austin

The sinister combination of big eyes, bat’s ears and witch’s fingers leaves no doubt as to why the Aye-aye is feared across Madagascar as a harbinger of evil. However, their long, skinny fingers have evolved for a very specific purpose; similar to woodpeckers, they tap on old tree bark and winkle out insects from inside the cavity.

Proboscis monkey, Borneo

Proboscis monkey, Bako National Park, Borneo, Malaysia © Gualtiero Boffi, ShutterstockProboscis monkeys are endemic to Borneo © Gualtiero Boffi, Shutterstock 

The Malay term for this primate is orang belanda, or ‘Dutchman’, its potbelly and big nose having reminded locals of Borneo‘s first European settlers. Regardless of stereotypes, this monkey certainly boasts one of the most comical faces in the animal kingdom.

Bumblebee safari, UK

Meadow, UK © Matthew J Thomas, ShutterstockWith butterfly nets in hand, bumblebee safaris take the group through colourful wildflower meadows © Matthew J Thomas, Shutterstock

There are several locations in England where guides from the Bumblebee Conservation Trust take children and adults alike on educational and interactive ‘safaris’. The aim is to inspire love for bees and their strange and mysterious lifecycle. The safaris foster an appreciation of the vital ecological role they play and are also a great excuse to saunter in the countryside and hover around beautiful, richly scented wildflowers – just as a bumblebee might.

Ground pangolin, southern and eastern Africa

Pangolin, Katavi, Tanzania © Ariadne Van ZandbergenThe elusiveness of the pangolin means that even African game rangers can spend a lifetime in the bush and never set eyes on one © Ariadne Van Zandbergen

A walking artichoke? A metre-long 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. They form a suit of armour so that when the pangolin is under threat, it can curl up to protect its vulnerable belly and swing its sharp tail back and forth to slice into any unwelcome predators.

Clownfish, Indian and Pacific oceans

Clownfish, Papua New Guinea © Nick Hobgood, WikimediaAll clownfish are born male, but as they grow and establish hierarchies, the dominant male switches sex to become female © Nick Hobgood, Wikimedia

Though sea anenomes are deadly enough to kill many other fish, clownfish have come to a remarkable arrangement with their venemous hosts. Their skin secrets a protective mucus coating that allows them to move among the stinging tentactles unharmed, making their home a strong refuge from predators. In return for its hospitality, the anenome benefits from a clownfish clean-up service, which gets rid of algae, damaging invertabrates and dead tentacles.

Clubtail dragonfly, UK

Clubtail metamorphosis, Goring, England © James LowenClubtail larvae are squat, flattened and spider-like, rather recalling an extra-terrestrial © James Lowen

During spring in Oxfordshire, one of Britain’s most localised dragonflies shifts its abode from water to air. On its ascent from river bed to river bank, the adult inside the larvae breaks free of its former self in an alien-like fashion. After an hour or so a dragonfly emerges, leaving behind its larval casing (‘exuvia’), an eerie reminder of an earlier life stage.

Giant anteater, Central and South America

Giant anteater, Guyana © Mike WeedonA face resembling a vacuum-cleaner nozzle, a witch’s broom for a tail, and meat hooks for claws – there’s nothing entirely normal about the anteater © Mike Weedon

The giant anteater is by far the larest of the four anteater species – all of which are endemic to Central and South America –growing up to 2m in length. Its unsurprising diet of ants explains many of the anteater’s bizarre adaptations, including an absurdly long muzzle, and an even longer tongue that can shoot in and out of its mouth 150 times per minute.

Emperor penguin, Antarctica

Emperor penguins, Snow Hill Island, Antarctica © Jonathan ScottDespite Antarctic winters falling to below -50°C, this penguin stays warm by using its feathers to insulate body heat © Jonathan Scott

Not only does this bird live in the coldest place on earth, it also chooses the dark, frozen depths of winter as its breeding season.  After the female lays a single egg she heads back to sea to feed, leaving the male to incubate it beneath a thick fold of warm belly skin. For over three months he huddles amongst his companions without food, patiently waiting for the egg to hatch and the female to return.

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