We share the world with a wide variety of animals, most with truly wacky abilities. Some of them are beautiful and awe-inspiring. Others are gross, and some are even the stuff of nightmares. But all of them are intriguing proof of how many species have evolved to defend themselves, gather food, and survive. From changing color to seeing with sound to even regrowing lost body parts, the world of animals is filled with amazing abilities.
When it comes to catching prey or escaping danger, being fast is the go-to adaptation. We're familiar with cheetahs and ostriches, two of the fastest creatures alive on the savannah or anywhere else in the world. But even they pale in comparison to peregrine falcon. These high-flying birds of prey are aerodynamically designed like mini-fighter jets and can reach speeds of up to 242 miles per hour. They are also some of nature's most daring skydivers, soaring to incredible heights and dropping like guided missiles onto unsuspecting prey animals.
Another popular survival adaptation is camouflage. Most animals like lizards are colored to blend in with their surrounding environment, but a few have the special ability to change their color to match their surroundings at will, namely the cephalopods, the family that includes octopi, squid, and cuttlefish. These squishy sea creatures have specialized pigment cells called chromatophores that allow them to actively change their color. In addition, they can alter the texture and shape of their bodies to blend in with coral, rocks, or other nearby substrates.
Have you looked at a thermal imaging photograph? There are some snakes that literally see the world around them this way. A group of snakes collectively known as pit vipers (the family that includes rattlesnakes), along with some pythons and boas, have a series of small heat-sensitive organs on their faces. These organs are connected to the sensory areas of the snake's brain and allow it to pick up heat traces of prey like rabbits and mice. The snake literally "feels the heat" to find its way to its next meal!
Imagine being able to eat everything in front of you and not have to worry about getting a stomachache or throwing away leftovers. Hyenas don't have this problem in the African savannah. They have a stronger bite force than most other carnivores and can crunch right through bone to get the nutritious marrow inside. But it's their stomachs that really do the dirty work. Hyena guts are able to digest virtually all biological material, even hair, hooves, and horns that other predators would find hard to stomach.
Guns are infamous for malfunctioning underwater. While this might sound like bad news for the pistol shrimp, it really isn't because this power-packing crustacean uses a different kind of ammunition. Instead of gunpowder and a trigger, it uses air bubbles and its own specialized claw. By forming what's known as a cavitation bubble in its enlarged open pincer and then snapping it shut, this shrimp can fire an air bullet with enough force to stun or kill its prey or shatter a glass aquarium container.
Wouldn't it be nice if we could heal our own injuries or regrow a lost finger or toe? Most lizards are able to regenerate their appendages, and some even willingly shed their tails when pursued by a predator and escape to regrow it later. The healing powers of the axolotl salamander surpass even this feat. When injured, the salamander's damaged area immediately clots and begins to develop new cells, including skin, nerves, blood vessels, even bone! With this adaptation, an axolotl salamander can completely regrow an entire limb in a few months. It can even regenerate some organs and parts of its brain!
Animals have evolved different ways to defend themselves from attack, from camouflage to looking big and scary to simply making themselves too gross for predators to want to eat. The sea cucumber falls into the "too gross" category for its protection method. When threatened, this tube-shaped invertebrate drives off attackers by vomiting its own insides. The spewed guts stick to the would-be predator, an appetite killer if there ever was one. Meanwhile, the sea cucumber regenerates its organs and lives to see another day.
Cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises) have average sight at best, but it's their ability to echolocate or bounce sounds off of objects that makes up for this. All cetaceans produce sound to communicate in their undersea world, but toothed cetaceans like dolphins have a specialized "melon" or forehead organ that focuses their sound well enough that they can tell if a tasty school of fish is just ahead with a simple click.
We don't give birds much credit for their smarts. But at least one bird family seems determined to put that notion to bed. Crows, ravens, and other corvids have demonstrated several levels of intelligence. Most notably, they have extremely long memories. If a person or animal threatens a crow, the crow remembers it for life and passes this information on to its flock and its offspring.
Orcas, or killer whales, are found in all oceans of the world, but not all orcas are created equal. Like humans, these largest members of the dolphin family have formed their own "cultures" and languages depending on what part of the world they live in. A family of shark-hunting orcas in California "speaks" a different language than a pod of Alaskan seal-eaters.
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