There are plenty of pathways a biological sciences graduate can take, from going into pharmaceuticals to conservation or life sciences research. Zoology is a major field of biology, and features in our biological sciences course. Of the many scientists who study the world’s flora and fauna, some aim simply to further our knowledge of the planet, or understand how to save a species from extinction. Others study plants and animals to advance science and technology in other fields. For example, researchers at the University of Massachusetts developed ‘Geckskin’, an adhesive based on gecko feet which can hold enormous weight. The humble gecko is able to walk on ceilings with ease, and so researchers studied the complex structure of its feet to understand how it generates so much friction.
Over hundreds of millions of years of natural selection, evolution has come up with countless ingenious solutions to a variety of problems, inspiring humans with their expert manipulation of the laws of physics. And in the process, it’s also come out with some weirdoes. Some creatures are so completely bizarre that they look like aliens. Others that are relicts of evolution which have survived almost unchanged for tens or hundreds of millions of years. Some just look a bit funny. Here’s a list of some of the world’s oddest creatures, which will hopefully inspire you to dig deeper into the history of life on Earth.
When the first platypus pelt was presented to Europeans, they suspected it was an elaborate hoax. The platypus is a creature quite unlike any other. With a duck-bill and a tail like a beaver, the platypus, almost unique among mammals, lays eggs instead of giving birth to live young. It’s also one of the few species of venomous mammals in the world, a trait far more common amongst fish, reptiles, invertebrates and amphibians. This venom is delivered, unusually, by a spur on the animal’s hind feet.
Native to south and east Australia, the platypus, with its egg-laying and reptilian gait, is from a very ancient lineage of mammals. Its ancestors first split from all other mammals, including marsupials, when the dinosaurs still roamed the earth. The platypus is therefore a frequent subject of research in evolutionary biology. One interesting fact about the platypus is that it has 10 sex chromosomes, while most mammals, including humans, only have 2.
A species of lemur on the island of Madagascar, the aye-aye is a rather unusual looking creature. Its most distinctive feature is its fingers. The third, thinner than the others, is used for tapping on tree trunks to find hollow spaces, while their fourth fingers are highly elongated, so the animal can reach in and dig out insect larvae. Its large ears aid it with this method of foraging, and its weird appearance is completed by a pair of round yellowish eyes which help it navigate the forest at night.
Madagascar as a whole is a fascinating lab for evolutionary biology. Despite lying off the coast of east Africa, the island actually split from India almost 90 million years ago, and is now separated from Africa by 250 miles of sea. This unique geography allowed flora and fauna to evolve independently. As a consequence, more than 90% of its wildlife is unique to the island. The island’s iconic lemurs, descended from early primates, are thought to have colonised Madagascar by drifting across the sea from Africa on debris many millions of years ago. Without competition or predators to worry about, they evolved to fill many of the island’s biological niches, giving rise to the incredible diversity in lemur species today.
There are 38 known species of Lamprey, 18 of which are parasitic animals which bore into the flesh of other fish to suck their blood. If this sounds nightmarish enough already, then take a look at their mouths. These jawless fish have a bizarre circular maw filled with razor sharp teeth. Asides from this terrifying appearance, it’s their lack of a jaw that makes them so distinct. Lampreys are part of a very ancient lineage of fish, stretching back half a billion years, which predates the evolution of the vast majority of fish. Northern lampreys have the highest number of chromosomes (164–174) of any vertebrate animal in the world.
The critically endangered Axolotl is a salamander native to lakes in central Mexico. These neotenic salamanders are unusual amongst amphibians as instead of undergoing metamorphosis, like a frog, they remain aquatic with gills, like a tadpole. These gills are external and protrude behind its head, making it an unusual-looking animal. Some people regard it as cute and keep it as a pet, but it’s of particular interest to scientists because of its incredible regenerative abilities. Axolotls can regenerate entire lost limbs. In fact, they can even restore parts of their brain, and they can also readily accept transplants from other Axolotls, like eyes, restoring them to full function.
As nasty as the Lamprey’s mouth is, otherwise it looks fairly innocuous. The same can’t be said of the sinister Anglerfish. These deep-sea carnivores come in a variety of species, but are united by their protruding, fishing rod-like organ which dangles in front of them with a luminescent tip. This is used as a lure to attract prey in the blackness of the deep ocean. They also all have a nightmarish, crescent-shaped maw filled with needle-like teeth. Luckily, you’re not going to bump into them by the seaside, as most species live up to a mile below the surface.
The strange fishing rod feature of the Anglerfish is in fact restricted to the females. So how does the male hunt? Well, he doesn’t. Much smaller than the female, the male is in fact nothing but a parasite. When a young male anglerfish encounters a female, he latches onto her with her teeth and, over time, physically fuses to her, connecting to her skin and bloodstream and eventually losing all his organs except the ones that the species needs for reproduction: the testes. A female will typically carry six or more males like this on her body!
The main reason for including the proboscis monkey on this list is simply its brilliant appearance. With a large belly and a huge, drooping nose, the proboscis monkey has a face you won’t soon forget. The male’s large drooping nose contrasts with the female’s much smaller, pointed one. It’s thought this large nose creates an echo chamber which amplifies the male monkey’s call, which is used to impress females and scare off rival males. The proboscis monkey lives throughout Borneo, the world’s third-largest island, where it mostly feeds upon fruit and leaves.
Facing the same threats as the orang-utan, the proboscis monkey’s population has decreased dramatically during the past few decades due to logging and the clearing of forest for oil palm plantations. It’s also used in traditional Chinese medicine and is considered a delicacy by some native tribes.
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