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  • Writer's pictureFrank DiGiovanni

That can't be real, can it?

Updated: Oct 3, 2023

The world's animals come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, colors, lethality and oddness. From the tiny but lethal Blue-ringed Octopus, whose sting has three documented human fatalities, to the odd-looking Goblin Shark and the shoe-billed stork (who you'll meet later), Mother Nature has created some very interesting creatures.

All of the animals you'll read about here are very real, despite causing fear or disbelief.

If I think about the animals that make me go "AAAAHH!" or ask, "What IS THAT?!?!", they must be odd or strange looking to me. Must have strange habits or weirdly shaped bodies, have a strange niche to fill or are just plain... Weird. I mean, all animals have their niche but let me be frank here, pun intended, the very idea of the Amazon Giant Fishing Spider (Ancylometes rufus) gives me the heebie geebies! Now before you close this tab, consider that the female's body, or cephalothorax, can grow to be two inches long. In other words, one inch smaller than your average post-it pad! Combine that with a leg-span of 5 inches and you'll know why people might recoil in terror, while asking "What is that?!" Fortunately for the arachnophobes in the audience, these spiders call South America home and be glad they do so. They can dive underwater for up to an hour, breathing the oxygen that gets trapped in their hairs! Just make sure you look before you leap into that South American river ;-)

On the topic of spider-y looking creatures, let's take a dive into the ocean. In the depths of the waters around Japan, lurks the Japanese spider crab (Macrocheira kaempferi). Japanese spider crabs are mostly found off the southern coasts of the Japanese island of Honshū and are the largest crustacean in the world. Which is why when I first learned about it, I couldn't help myself and exclaimed, "Whaaaaat?!?" From there, this animal landed on this post because of the fact that from claw to claw, this animal is (and I'm not exaggerating here) ONLY SIX FEET LONGER THAN I AM TALL! Yes, from claw to claw can be a staggering 12 feet across and this behemoth can weigh in at a whopping 40+ pounds! For those of who have met Kaia, the dog that is occasionally inside the museum, that crab is only 10 pounds less than the dog!

Below (courtesy of author and Reddit, respectively) are Kaia and a Japanese Spider Crab!

These crabs are considered to be a delicacy in Japan, and to ensure they're around to be enjoyed, measures are being taken to protect them from overfishing. These crabs like cool/cold water of the deep, below 950 feet, where the water is a brisk 50 °F and the females will lay roughly 1.5 million eggs although clearly, not all will survive to adulthood to reach these titanic proportions! Omnivorous by nature, the Japanese Spider Crab is known to also scavenge and some open up mollusk shells for their dinner. If you're in the area, the Long Island Aquarium out in Riverhead has one of these crabs on display, so you don't need to book that flight to Japan just yet. These crabs are huge, but size means nothing to the next animal that might make you say "Wh-wh-whaaat?"

I want you to imagine you've taken that trip to Australia that you've been thinking about for all those years... or at least that trip that I'VE been dreaming about for all those years. While Sydney, Perth or Melbourne might be the big-city destinations. You might have better luck tracking down our next strange-looking animals outside of the city-areas and more towards the Outback, where they predominantly live. Preferring the arid scrubland and desert that covers most of central Australia, these small reptiles grow to roughly 8-10 inches in length, but it is there appearance that might make you recoil for a second. The thorny devil (Moloch horridus), also known commonly as the Mountain Devil, Thorny Lizard, Thorny Dragon, and/or Moloch, is a species of lizard that lives in the wilds of Australia. While somewhat intimidating, this lizard is strictly an insectivore, feasting on roughly 1,000 ants a day!

A Thorny Devil. By KeresH - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0 | Wikimedia Commons

Evolution has guided the Thorny Devil's (and Horned Frog's) evolution with the outward facing spikes across its entire body. This natural defense that makes it very difficult to swallow for potential predators; but there are animals that feed on it like an animal called a Goanna. However, the spikes are only part of their defense, they also "offer" their false head by lowering its head between its front legs. The spikes also increase the surface area of the body and allow for any moisture from morning dew or rain to be funneled towards its mouth. But it can also absorb water directly through its skin, even while under damp sand! While non-venomous, it certainly has an outward appearance to make you stop in your tracks, should you encounter one!

While it most often the things that creep along the forest, ocean or, desert floor (as we've just seen), that make us wonder if what we're looking at, is real, there are larger animals that when people see, make them stop and consider whether what they've seen is actually real or just a trick of the eye. For me personally, when I first saw a photo of the Balaeniceps rex, or Shoebill (stork), I thought for sure it was something that someone created with Photoshop. Nope. It is 100% real, calling tropical East African swamps, from South Sudan to Zambia, home. While this bird was not classified until the 19th century, it remains very possible that the ancient Egyptians knew of this bird! Sadly, due to the loss of habitat, it no longer lives in Egypt, but small pockets are known across the continent, outside of its major range. Standing at close to 4 and 1/2 foot tall, it is easy to see why people think the bird isn't real.

Shoebill at the Pairi Daiza in Brugelette, Belgium | Wikimedia Commons

Looking at the bird's large, shoe-sized beak, you can understand how it came to earn its name. What you cannot see is the wingspan of the bird, which can be in excess of eight feet in certain individuals! What is also missing from these two photos are the large feet the Shoebill has to help it stand in its aquatic habitat while hunting and foraging. Even with this large wingspan, these birds are not long-distance flyers, the longest flight recorded at only 65+ feet but can fly longer when flushed. When hungry, these unusual-looking birds prefer fish like Catfish or Tilapia species but they are known to eat frogs, water snakes and even baby crocodiles! Predatory by nature, if it's in the mood, small turtles, rodents and small waterfowl have been known to be on the menu! Sadly, these birds are considered Vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature or IUCN with an estimated 5,000 to 8,000 wild individuals.

As a cat-owner for many years, I've got a soft spot for them. Along with soft and fuzzy animals such as the next one to make this list of animals that make you go "Whaaat?!" However, if you want to see this one in the wild, there is only one place you can find them, Madagascar, a mere 8,600 miles and a hemisphere away from Manhasset! By itself, Madagascar is a fascinating place. The fourth largest island in the world and second-largest island country, this island has been cut off from the Indian and African landmasses for about 84-92 million years! This has allowed some VERY interesting evolutionary adaptations to show up. From the Ring-tailed Lemur to any of the estimated 14,000 plant species found nowhere else on Earth, Madagascar's isolation has allowed animals (and plants) to find a niche and fill it.

Fossa. By Ran Kirlian | Wikimedia Commons

The Fossa (Cryptoprocta ferox) is a slender, long-tailed, cat-like mammal and the largest carnivore on the island. From the nose to the base of its tail, it can grow to two-and-a-half feet in length and weigh up to 20 pounds. About the size of a smaller dog, this animal can climb up and down trees thanks to its semi-retractable claws and flexible ankles to hunt. Lemurs, rodents, lizards, birds and other animals are all on the Fossa's menu. And although it looks cat-like, the Fossa has traits that suggest a close, biological relationship to animals called Viverrids. Active during the day and night, these animals are found almost all over Madagascar up to certain altitudes, generally staying below 6,600 feet; its highest confirmed sighting. According to the IUCN, the fossa has been assessed as "Vulnerable" 2008, as its population size has probably declined by at least 30 percent between 1987 and 2008. The species is dependent on forest and is threatened by the widespread destruction of Madagascar's native forest but is also able to persist in disturbed areas.

I continue to be amazed at what designs and adaptations survive. From the Frilled Shark to the strange looking Macropinna in the ocean and from the Bullet Ant to the Potoo (bird) on land, there are countless animals you've probably never seen or heard about.

So let your imagination and curiosity take you on a journey. Go to that zoo, visit that aquarium or go on that trip, don't be afraid to ask, "What is that?!" You might be amazed at what it is you're looking at!

Remember, the only silly/dumb question is the one you do not ask.

Happy learning!

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