Wednesday 29 December 2010

Giant Centipede

Image: Tod Baker
Giant Centipede pretty much just means 'really big centipede'. It usually refers to the (really big) ones in the family Scolopendromorpha. When people think 'big centipede' or even just 'centipede', they usually think of a typical (or really big) member of this family. The biggest one of the lot is Scolopendra gigantea, the Amazonian Giant Centipede, which can get over a foot (30 centimetres) long, while others can be much smaller. The really big ones are mostly tropical, but sizeable ones can even eke out a living in deserts. This is interesting, since they dry out easily and like to keep themselves to moist areas and are generally nocturnal.

Sunday 26 December 2010

Water Walkers

There goes Christmas. Now it's time to look to the future, maybe even a little further than New Year's Eve. Or not. In any case, whatever your hopes and dreams, your trials and burdens, your strengths and weaknesses, walking on water would be really cool. More or less half of these miraculous creatures could have 'Jesus Christ' thrown onto their name, but for them walking on water is not a miracle, it's simply life or escape from death. They just don't know how lucky they are! But then again, who does?

Wednesday 22 December 2010

Christmas Island Red Crab

Crabe rouge de l'île ChristmasImage via Wikipedia
The time has come to really start ramping up the jolly. To help you out in that I can think of nothing better than going off to a tiny isolated island to check out a small cold blooded beast with a tough, unyielding integument that is red like Santa Claus' red bits, red like an unwrapped Ferrari and red like blood. Or maybe sorrel.

The island in question is Christmas Island, an Australian territory named after the day of it's discovery. Actually it's closer to the capital city of Indonesia than to any Australian coast, but that's history for you.

Sunday 19 December 2010

Sperm Whale

Image source
Big. Need I say more? I have no idea, but I want to and I'm going to. Still, sperm whales really are gigantic creatures, the biggest toothed animal in the world, in fact. A big male can get to some 20.5 metres (67 feet) long which is just... it's... it's... big. They can also weigh up to some 50 or 60 tonnes. Also big. Life on this scale is like imagining the day to day experience of a tree, it's so alien as to be unfathomable.

Wednesday 15 December 2010

Surinam Toad

Image: Arthur Chapman via flickr
That's not a leaf, that's a Surinam Toad! These creatures are strangely geometric and look a bit like the product of some not-particularly-impressive origami. They are remarkably flat, with a rectangular body and a triangular head. They are usually about 10 centimetres (4 inches) long, but they can also double this. Actually there are 7 species of Surinam toad, but they all seem to be quite similar to each other. Also they're frogs, not toads.

Sunday 12 December 2010

Tree Tumbo

Image: calips98
Were you to come across the Tree Tumbo (Welwitschia mirabilis) you may well think it's on its way out, staggering on its last legs, wilting on its last leaves, altogether about to die. This wouldn't be surprising since it is only found in the Namib Desert along the coast of south-west Africa. Round these parts average annual rainfall is a paltry 25 millimetres (1 inch) with temperatures reaching 40°C (about 100°F). You would be wrong, though.

Wednesday 8 December 2010

Pacific Barreleye Fish

Image source
The Pacific barreleye is an astonishingly peculiar creature, the kind of thing that could only come from a genius, madman or the deep sea. It comes from the deep sea. Specifically, this barreleye inhabits depths of around 600 metres (2,000 ft) to 800 metres (2,600 ft), where the darkness approaches absolute black. Clearly this provides ample explanation for that extraordinary head, yes? No? Lets take a look.

Sunday 5 December 2010

Monstrosities of the Deep Seas

Ah, the deep sea. Where it appears that to live, one simply MUST be monstrous. Life here is so horrendous and so difficult that just about everything is horrendous and difficult to look at. Marvellous. Here we look at some deep sea denizens. There are no sunlit shots or beautiful, wide vistas, just the merest glimpse through the porthole and into the darkness...

Wednesday 1 December 2010


Image source
Salps are effortlessly weird animals. They have a similarly alien appearance as jellyfish and makes one wonder "how can something that big have no FACE?" It can be difficult to imagine oddities like this really TRYING to be alive and somewhere in their genome thinking it a good thing. Nevertheless they have no face and live still. They also happen to be more closely related to humans and everything else with a backbone than they are jellyfish.

Sunday 28 November 2010


Image: Uwe Kils
Krill are tiny, unassuming crustaceans that can be found in seas all over the world. They look quite a lot like shrimp, but shrimp are actually in the order decopoda alongside crabs and lobsters, whereas the 90 species of krill have another order all to themselves.

Most of them are tiny, like 1 centimetre long tiny, whereas some can reach up to 15 centimetres. They mostly eat plankton which they filter out from the water using feathery legs, and this is part of what makes krill one of the most important creatures in the world. Whoa! Where did THAT come from!?

Wednesday 24 November 2010

Goblin Shark

Image source
The Goblin Shark... yuck! I mean, why? Why SO ugly? Was it really necessary? Did it really have to? How does it, like, get with the ladies and stuff? Don't they realise how incredibly unattractive they are? Do they care?

You know, they probably don't. Goblin sharks are found in the lightless deep seas, apparently all over the world, or at least close to the more food rich shores. They get to around 11 feet long and are the only living species in their family, all the others having died out. They look very different from our more typical sharks, and not for the better either!

Sunday 21 November 2010

Sticky Feet. I've Got Those Sticky Feet.

Walking on walls, clambering up trees, hanging about on the ceiling. All great stuff. Great stuff we can't really do, not easily anyway. Most people who CAN do all that seem to end up fighting crime or something, whereas I would much prefer to just get a bit more living space. In any case, there are a whole host of animals with sticky feet and some can even walk about on glass. Flies can fly AND walk on glass. Greedy. And I don't think they are effective at crime reduction either. No, it's all about themselves, isn't it. Pah! Eating my food. Flying through my air. Walking on my windows. Giving absolutely nothing back. Something has got to be done. You know what? I hereby announce my candidacy... wait. What? 

Wednesday 17 November 2010

Lion's Mane Jellyfish

Image: Dan Hershman via flickr
The lion's mane jellyfish is a giant among jellyfish. In fact it's the giantest of all jellyfish yet known, even if 'giantest' isn't a word. They are found only in the northern hemisphere. Actually they're found only in the northern half of the northern hemisphere, right up into the freezing waters of the Arctic. They really, really like cold water.

Sunday 14 November 2010

Coconut Crab

Image BlueBec via Flickr
A little while ago we took a look at arthropods that have made their home underwater. I said then that crustaceans are so utterly aquatic, they require all sorts of adaptations to make a living on land. One such crustacean is today's monstrosity, the Coconut Crab. It's also known as the Robber Crab, but I have always known it as the former and I would like to get to know them a bit before I start slinging those kind of accusations around. It's only fair.

Wednesday 10 November 2010

African Butterflyfish

Image: Toniher
Also known as the Freshwater Butterflyfish. Thus, we are immediately told that they are an African freshwater fish. They aren't however, related to marine butterflyfish, those ridiculously colourful tropical inhabitants of coral reefs. No, these butterflyfish have a gothic beauty all of their own.

Their dark colours would leave them drab were it not for the flowing veil of most of their fins, and the unique, rather dangerous looking spikiness of the pelvic fins as they splay out in rigid tendrils of morbid pink colour and dark stripes. I can't help but think of some recently used medieval torture device when I see those particular fins. That might just be me, though.

Sunday 7 November 2010

Camel Spider

Image: Braboowi
The camel spider is one vicious looking little beast and is relatively unknown compared to other vicious looking little beasts. This has led to all manner of strange, almost super-natural legends growing up around them. While it's fun (or something) to scare yourself rigid with crazy untrue stories, and we're certainly very good at that, I'm going to confine myself to the facts. Sorry!

Wednesday 3 November 2010

New World Vultures

Image: Don DeBold
There are two kinds of vulture in the world, those of the Old World and those of the New. They are all scavengers, fulfilling the extremely important role of getting rid of carrion and clearing the place of dangerous putrefying corpses and incumbent disease. Old World and New World vultures aren't actually closely related to each other, similarities between them are purely due to their lifestyle choices.

Sunday 31 October 2010

Old World Vultures

There are two kinds of vulture in the world, those of the Old World and those of the New. They are all scavengers, fulfilling the extremely important role of getting rid of carrion and clearing the place of dangerous putrefying corpses and incumbent disease. Old World and New World vultures aren't actually closely related to each other, similarities between them are purely due to their lifestyle choices.

Wednesday 27 October 2010


Triton is the name given to the Greek god who is the son of Poseidon and Amphitrite, god and goddess of the sea. Triton is the messenger of the ocean and blows on a conch shell to calm or anger the waves. It's also the name given to a snail. A gigantic marine snail, that is. One particular species, the aptly named giant triton, can see its shell reach more than half a metre in length, some 20 inches. For millennia, people have gathered these shells, drilled a whole in the top and blown it like a trumpet, just like the gods themselves. Although without the godlike control over the sea.

Sunday 24 October 2010

Crown of Thorns Starfish

Image: Matt Wright
The crown of thorns starfish seems to be less an animal and more a malevolent presence. Starfish are usually odd little things or perhaps just ornamental rocks or something, but the crown of thorns reaches about half a metre across and is a ruthless nocturnal hunter. They can have as many as 19 arms, which for no specific reason I find absolutely disgusting, underneath which are the thousands of tiny tube legs that starfish use to get around. Slowly.

On the upper side of the arms and the entire body is that horrific covering of spikes that lend it its Biblical name. They reach 5 centimetres in length and are sharp. Very, very sharp. On a molecular level in fact, such that they require absolutely no force whatsoever to pierce skin, also wetsuits in case you ever see one. They are also venomous, releasing a neurotoxin that causes pain, nausea and swelling. The spikes can even break off and get embedded in the skin, possibly leading to infection. This is bad enough at home or in your own bed, but in the sea? When all you wanted to do was get up close and personal with the wonders and vibrant colours of the coral reef? That would be disappointing to say the least.

Wednesday 20 October 2010

Water Bear

Image source
Water Bears are microscopic animals found in water all over the world (a lot more on that later). They are also known as tardigrades, which means 'slow walker' and the name water bear comes from the bear-like way they walk. Aside from hibernation (a lot more on that later), the similarity pretty much ends there. A large adult water bear may be just 1.5 millimetres long and other species less than 0.1 mm. Also they have 8 legs armed with 4 to 8 teeny weeny claws. Their bodies are segmented, giving them a look not unlike a tiny caterpillar and they are in fact distantly related to insects and other arthropods. Their skin, or rather cuticle, even contains chitin (the stuff that makes exoskeletons hard) so they have to moult as they grow.

Sunday 17 October 2010

Elephant in Musth

Image: OxOx
Elephants. Delightful creatures long famed for their intelligence and memory, they have personality, self awareness and have even been seen grieving their dead. They are the biggest animals on land, sometimes approaching 4 metres in height, meaning they have no predators and can afford to be placid and peaceful. People who care for and work with elephants talk about developing real relationships with them. As is so often the case, the elephant has become beautiful in our eyes through the use of its own mind.

Usually. For there is a month every year in a bull elephant's life when all this goes out the window to be replaced with anger, furious aggression and wanton destruction. This period is called musth.

Wednesday 13 October 2010

Komodo Dragon

Image source
The Komodo Dragon is a kind of monitor lizard and at some 10 feet, is the longest monitor and the longest lizard in the world. It is believed to be among the last of a whole host of giant monitors that once dominated Indonesia and Australia, filling in the apex predator niche usually taken up by mammals. Like a lot of old giants, or megafauna, in this part of the world, most of these gigantic lizards probably died out when they came into contact with humans. Today, the Komodo dragon survives on a few islands in central Indonesia, including one that happens to be called Komodo.

Sunday 10 October 2010

Underwater Arthropods

No matter how much you might like the sea and swimming and such, we humans are fundamentally landlubbers. We just lub the land. Quite right too, what with our spindly limbs and conspicuous absence of gills. It's no wonder then that we usually think of arthropods, insects and arachnids as equally at sea in the sea, what with their spindly limbs and, usually, conspicuous absence of gills. But a number of our exoskeletal friends have taken to water and haven't looked back, relying on various adaptations to get around, feed and breathe. Live, basically. Which is the whole idea. It's often fascinating to see how various skills and lifestyles shared with their terrestrial kin are put to use in this new environment. First though, grasping the nettle, let's quickly step over some arthropods that are so incredibly aquatic they require adaptations to stop being quite so mercilessly aquatic... 

Sunday 3 October 2010

Vampire Squid

Image source
The Vampire Squid's scientific name, Vampyroteuthis infernalis, translates to 'vampire squid from Hell'. Which is odd because it isn't a vampire, doesn't have any particularly vampiric habits and isn't actually a squid. Oh, and there is no evidence to suggest that it was created by devils and demons from the Underworld to spy on humanity and prepare for an infernal attack on the Land of Mortals. It still could be of course, but there is no real evidence to suggest it. It's all circumstantial.

Sunday 26 September 2010

Portuguese Man o' War

"Gosh" you might say, "that's one weird looking jellyfish". Well, you'd be partly right. Certainly it looks rather odd but it isn't a jellyfish, it isn't even one animal. The Portuguese Man o' War is in fact a whole colony of four different kinds of organism, each adapted to perform a specific function for the benefit of the whole.

They are all either a kind of polyp, which are like really small sea anemones, or medusae, similar to tiny jellyfish, but here they are all connected to each other and are unable to survive on their own. Such is the way of the siphonophores, an order of colonial creatures related to... can you believe it? Sea anemones and jellyfish. In case you were wondering, the whole thing develops from one egg that sprouts all the other parts, rather than loads of little polyps undertaking an epic journey of self discovery in search of their People.

Sunday 19 September 2010


Image: Clark Anderson/Aqua Images
The frogfish is a darling of a monstrosity. Plump and round, rather eccentric, available in an incredible variety of colours and patterns, they are, in all honesty, quite cute. Cute in a monstrous way of course! There are some 45 species of frogfish found in tropical and subtropical waters all over the world and ranging from just an inch long to 38 centimetres. They mostly keep to shallow waters, around 100 meters or so, keeping to the ocean floor where their extraordinary colours camouflage them against corals. Others are camouflaged against rocks and plants. One, the sargassumfish, lives among clumps of drifting sargassum, a kind of seaweed. Another mimics a sea urchin of all things, some even have algae growing on them. They can be so well camouflaged that sea slugs might crawl all over them without even realising!

There's a bit of a theme developing here: yes, most frogfish don't like to move too much. If you're willing to have a slug crawl all over you then you clearly aren't strongly wedded to the notion of motion in the ocean. (Erk. That sentence made me think of a song by Enya and so I listened to it and now I feel a bit melancholic. Anyway, tally ho.) Such stillness can be an important part of anyone's day, but it doesn't get you fed. So how does the frogfish get itself fed?

Sunday 12 September 2010

What is the Biggest Flower in the World?

When it comes to the biggest flower in the world, there isn't quite so clear cut an answer as you might imagine. Technically speaking it's simple, but when it comes to the impression one gets and sheer awe, not so much. There are three contenders, but one of them is on a boring palm tree and looks impressive, but not much more. Let's confine ourselves to the other two.

Sunday 5 September 2010

1 + 1 = Scorpion

With its grasping pincers and narrow tail tapering to a bulbous sting held aloft, the scorpion is certainly one of the more memorable and even charismatic of the arthropods. Interestingly though, its most defining features aren't entirely unique.

Sunday 29 August 2010

Giant Salamander

There are three species of Giant Salamander, all very similar to each other. The Hellbender from North America grows to about 75 cms long, the Japanese Giant Salamander, found in Japan of all places, grows to 1.5 metres long, while the Chinese Giant Salamander from Peru (wait... I've just checked my records and am reliably informed that it actually comes from a place known as "China". Let's continue, shall we?) and grows to a length of 1.8 metres. This makes them the biggest, second biggest and third biggest amphibians in the world, everyone's a winner! Yaaaay!

Sunday 22 August 2010


Bedbugs. Horrible, HORRIBLE little beasties that feast on human blood. Unlike many other parasites such as fleas, lice and mites, they don't live directly on their hosts; bedbugs make their homes in tiny crevices in, on, under and around the bed, emerging at night to feed. They're small and wingless (thank God for small mercies), reaching only about half a centimetre in length. They're a reddish brown in colour and remarkably flat, allowing them to squeeze into tiny crevices. There are actually several species of bedbug, some of which primarily infest bats or chickens, but the species Cimex lectularius specialises in the human habitat and pulls more than its own weight in horror in the home.

Sunday 15 August 2010

Frilled Shark

Image source
Wow! We have something of a mini Leviathan this time, folks! It's a shark, but with little in common with what we have thus far grown accustomed to be denoted by the term. Jim. Basically, they're a bit weird. With its snakey head and eely body, fins set far back on the body, it's no wonder that the frilled shark is believed to be at the root of sea serpent sightings, even though it only grows to around 2 metres long. I mean, it's hardly gonna sink ships, is it?

But what the frilled shark lacks in stature it makes up in mystery and eccentricity. It isn't just odd, its an ancient among the ancients, a living fossil amidst the long and diverse line of shark heritage. With this old age comes a host of peculiarities that some may see as primitive, but which seem to serve this psuedo serpent sssswimmingly! (I have a smile on my face now!)

Monday 9 August 2010

Marabou Stork

Image: Cacophony
Wherever you have human beings, you have rubbish. The more humans, the more rubbish. Where there's a lot of rubbish, a dump or landfill for instance, you tend to get animals gathering to find a morsel of food amongst the trash. A scrap from the scrap. Round my way the most obvious of these are gulls, horribly noisy, pooing all over the place and maybe even flying in to steal a chip from right out of your hand, they're seldom welcome. But at least they're only about a foot long, smaller than the all but the teeniest of tiniest human beings. Certainly adults, anyway. They also don't look too ghastly, even if they're foraging in filth. Spare a thought then for the people of sub-Saharan Africa, for there be Marabou Storks.

Monday 2 August 2010

In Your Face!: Squirters of the Animal Kingdom

From the cutsey-wutsey skunk to the strangely disconcerting velvet worm, many creatures spit, spray and squirt for their lives. Often it's a defense mechanism against certain death, often it takes so much energy that said creature is reluctant to do it, often the results are so appaling that it's best not to risk it. So if you want to avoid an awful stink or lizard blood all over your face, read on and tread carefully...

Tuesday 27 July 2010

Venus Fly Trap

Image source
The Venus flytrap is probably the most famous example of a rather peculiar thing - a meat eating plant. While most plants are passive recipients of sunlight, water and the unwanted attention of herbivores, the Venus flytrap eats living things. And while many meat eating plants, such the pitcher plants, passively attract prey before passively capturing and passively digesting them, the Venus flytrap could be described as something more akin to an ambush predator. Strangely enough, Venus is the Roman goddess of love, so I guess someone was going through some difficult times when they named it.

Saturday 24 July 2010

Giant Isopod

The giant isopod is a deep sea crustacean, a relative of crabs, shrimp and most obviously, woodlice. It looks a lot like a woodlouse out for a swim. A ONE AND A HALF FOOT LONG woodlouse out for a swim. These things get BIG! The effect is strange, we just don't often see such massive compound eyes and chunks of exoskeleton of that size, especially when it looks so similar to something so small. It seems uniquely weird and otherworldly. This impression isn't helped by having 2 pairs of antennae and 4 sets of jaws.

Thursday 22 July 2010

Naked Mole Rat

Image source
First thing's first, the naked mole rat is one ugly animal. So ugly in fact, it almost pulls off a full 180 to become quite cute! The rather unnerving appearance is perhaps understandable given its unforgiving lifestyle and habitat; the mole rat lives underground in the hotter, drier more uncomfortable parts of east African grassland. Almost totally hairless, almost totally blind and, being a rodent, in possession of huge, constantly growing teeth, the naked mole rat is perfectly adapted to a life of dark tunnels and tunneling in darkness. They can even walk backwards as quickly and confidently as they walk forwards. Their blood has a stronger than usual affinity to oxygen and it has a lower metabolic and respiratory rate than other small rodents, meaning that the mole rat needs less food and less oxygen than you'd expect. They are also unable to feel pain in their skin, this is believed to help them survive as all that carbon dioxide would cause a build up of acids in their body. You can't have the little blighters itching and getting cramp the whole time, can you?

Saturday 17 July 2010


Image source
Aaaahh, the hagfish. A creature so wretchedly, dispicably, unapologetically, even proudly unattractive, it's almost inspiring. Lucky then, that its eyes are so primitive they can distinguish between light and dark, but little else. In fact, the hagfish is very primitive indeed; our beloved Planet Earth has been graced with the presence of the hag for some 300 million years! This... fish (sort of) was in the sea when metre long scorpions were bestriding the land and giant dragonflies ruled the air.

Thursday 24 June 2010

Praying Mantis

Image source
I've always rather liked mantids or mantises or whatever the plural is meant to be. They are a type of insect, which usually means that there is a ridiculous diversity of size and shape around each species. Such is the case here. I, of course, refer to the mantids with the long, stiff thorax, the small triangular head and the large forelegs held aloft, characteristics that give a certain dignified elegence and the name 'praying mantis'.

Tuesday 22 June 2010

Deep Sea Anglerfish

Image source
There are a couple hundred different species of anglerfish, living in open water, the deep sea or the ocean floor. What they all share is the hunting equipment that lends them their name, a fleshy growth on the head that ends in a bulb containing bioluminescent bacteria. This is used as a lure to attract unsuspecting prey like a moth to a flame, or to a really big mouth. A really, REALLY big mouth. Anglerfish have maws that occupy the entire front of the beast. Some appear to be more jaw than fish, or all jaw with a bit of fish to get the jaws to where they want to go. They also have extremely long, backward inclining teeth, to the extent that some anglerfish don't appear to be capable of actually closing their mouth.