Disappearing Freaks of Nature — and the Secrets Going With Them
The ultimate freak show is an understatement: Armed worms, sex-crazed fish, poison-hungry butterflies, polka-dotted flying good luck charms, and the most despicable creature born with a grin whose blood fights gravity. No one knows all the secrets they hold, but what’s clear is that the strangest amongst us are showing us a better way to live.
The catch? They are teaching us their survival skills as they disappear.
It’s natural to resist the idea that we can learn from what makes most do a double-take for the wrong reasons. But no one can deny that these oddballs have passed the most brutal of selection tests by tinkering with their inherited traits. As others wiped out, they whipped up fascinating tricks to get by.
Maybe most perplexing is not how eccentric they are (and they are full-blown gloriously bizarre), but that we would be ambivalent about losing them. This is irreplaceable data. So putting aside these creatures are a pure source of wonder, the linchpin to a thriving, humming planet, and have an inherent right to be here: if we are obsessed with, and arguably dependent on, cutting-edge technology–why are we wiping out the true masters of innovation?
Why we want to be more like the ugliest fish on the planet.
Organism: Anglerfish (Lophiiformes) — some species endangered
Time on Earth: Somewhere between 130 and 100 million years
Average Lifespan: 30 years
Innovation/Problem solved: Manipulating light
Behind the science: Cornell University; Center for Conservation and Research; San Antonio Zoo
Potential applications: New ultra-black materials; biochemical tags; bioinspired lamps
Whoa. Whoa. WHOA. Where to start with this one. Anglerfish let it rip when it comes to weirdness. It’s a good thing they don’t know what they look like. They’ve been dubbed by National Geographic as, “possibly the ugliest fish on the planet,” but it’s their life stories that makes these carnivores fascinating.
Let’s start with the dudes: If you’re a male anglerfish, your mission in life is to find a mate–not for your species’ survival, but for your own. Males are unable to hunt, so their life depends on finding a woman who can. Only 1% of them do. Most of them starve to death as virgins.
Male anglerfish look and act nothing like females. About the size of a little goldfish, he uses his oddly large nostrils to identify a potential female partner by her unique pheromone scent, then once she’s close enough (and he can tell with his eyes she’s the right species), he hooks his teeth into her belly. This is where it gets really weird: he fuses his body to hers until he literally loses himself — his eyes, his teeth, his tummy — till what is left are his lungs (for breathing) and testes (to pump her with sperm). He uses her for everything else down to her blood. Now that’s a stage-5 clinger!
Now, the females! Her dating profile would say she has teeny, saw-like teeth that are creepily see-through, cover the bottom of her mouth, and run down her throat. Fun party tricks include she can grow to more than 60x her man’s size, her mouth and stomach can extend twice their size (to swallow prey much bigger than her, a key feature when living in the pitch black deep-sea where food is harder to come by and she’s feeding up to 8 males fused to her), and her most defining feature: She looks like she’s been permanently stabbed in the forehead with a glowing Q-tip. Think of that Q-tip, a modification of her dorsal fin, as her built-in fishing rod with glow-in-the-dark bait. The glowing bulb at the end is not controlled by her; it is actually a home to bioluminescent bacteria. The bacteria have a safe place to live while doing the anglerfish a life-saving favor: providing a light to attract prey and boys.
As if this glowing adaptation isn’t impressive enough, anglerfish also harness their skin for the opposite reason: to hide. Those living a mile below the surface benefit from hyper-dark camouflaging that helps them blend in with a black sea and stay safe from predators. Their skin’s unique architecture and the layer and shape of their melanosome means that their intensely dark pigmented skin almost completely blends into the darkness around them (<.5% reflectance). As noted in cell.com, “the simple architecture of strongly absorbing and highly scattering particles may inspire new ultra-black materials.” With these oddest of deep-sea residents, new approaches to manipulating light can be integrated into innovative materials with applications ranging from telescopes to solar panels.
Impressive for a wretched fish.
Source: Anglerfish Harness Both Light and Darkness (AskNature)
Ingesting this poison could kill a horse, but this butterfly can’t live without it.
Organism: Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) — endangered
Time on Earth: 65–135 million years ago
Average Lifespan: 6 to 8 months
Innovation/Problem solved: Protect against toxins
Behind the science: University of California, Berkeley; UC Riverside
Potential applications: Chemical resistance
You may know them as butterflies, but they are actually poison hungry insects.
If we really pay attention to the life of a monarch butterfly it is beyond comprehension. Their lives may be closer to magic than science (as I dig into here and adapted below), but it’s their lesser-known ability to handle and survive because of one poison–so lethal it could kill a horse–that has captured the attention of innovators.
First a reminder of these seemingly mindless insects’ stunning life story:
Brain the size of a pinhead. Perfectly engineered yet outweighed by a feather. So dainty it could be crushed in the most gentle of hands and yet powers through whipping winds that could break a flesh neck. They may appear mindlessly fluttering around, but they are on an epic, purposeful journey to keep their species alive that they will die trying to complete.
No single butterfly makes the entire migration on their own. It takes 3–5 generations. That means it’s a family team effort to make it from the fir forests of Mexico, up to Canada, and all the way back to Mexico. They lay their little eggs on one specific type of poisonous plant along the way. Milkweed is the only leaf picky monarch caterpillars will eat, and an interesting choice; because by eating milkweed, monarchs consume deadly toxins that can give small animals a heart attack and could kill a horse at some quantities.
Monarchs leverage these poisons to their benefit. The toxins remain in their bodies throughout their lifetimes — even through metamorphosis and the complete reworkings of their innards from a caterpillar milkshake into an exquisite butterfly. The toxins become part of their natural defense system, because, while an animal may not die from eating a monarch, a taste means they won’t seek them out for a snack in the future.
Innovators are looking at the genetic mutations that they have developed that enable monarchs to consume poisonous milkweed without dying and then keep the toxins safely in their bodies to deter predators. When looking at this on a molecular level, they recognize their trick is that they don’t actually digest the poison. It’s the genetic mutations in their sodium pump gene that have made them immune to it; so they are not digesting it, but rather placing it in a protective, quarantined safe in their bodies.
So what is the most incomprehensible part of a butterfly? The mind-blowing wonder that they transform from caterpillar into that iconic silhouette? Or that at the weight of a paperclip they can carry poison in their bodies, through every stage of their lives, that could give other animals a heart attack? Or knowing that even though the “great grandchild” usually completes the final leg of their epic migration, a creature that’s never even been in that country, they can somehow return to the same tree where their great grandparents lived? Impossible to pick.
But as beloved and resilient as monarch butterflies are, they are now an endangered species. These pollinators have declined over 90% in the last few decades. One of our favorite ways to save them? Create a new monarch habitat by planting native milkweed in your yard and luring in these magical migrators!
Source: Digestive System Protects Against Chemicals (AskNature); Monarchs evolved mutations to withstand milkweed toxins; so did their predators (Phys Org, 11.22.21); Monarch butterflies are now an endangered species (National Geographic, 2022)
Note: You can learn more about monarch butterflies at the Extinct and Endangered: Insects in Peril exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History in NYC. This features the uniquely powerful macrophotography of Levon Biss, and highlights 40 incredible but imperiled species from specimens from the Museum’s world-class research collection. Each photograph is created from up to 10,000 individual images using special lenses, capturing microscopic detail. If you’re not in NYC, visit the stunning Extinct & Endangered site.
What do killer worms have to do with ending plastic pollution? (They don’t eat it.)
Organism: Velvet Worm onychophoran — endangered
Time on Earth: 500 million years (before dinosaurs)
Average life span: Up to 6 years
Innovation/Problem solved: The velvet worm’s lethal slime composition has unique properties to create bioplastic and adhesives.
Behind the science: Harvard; Nanyang Technological University
Potential applications: Biodegradable plastic or adhesive
How does a nearly blind, slow-moving creature so small it’s measured in centimeters with a name like “velvet worm” become a feared predator? These tiny meat eaters don’t need good vision — they can sense you in the air because of their attunement to air currents. Forget fangs and speed–their weapons include two pistols jutting out of their face (think two high pressure garden hoses gone bonkers) that shoot slimy saliva that quickly hardens, paralyzing their victim and liquifying their insides. That’s when they saddle up to sink their blade-laced mouth into a meat milkshake.
Now scientists are looking at the composition and sequence of the proteins in the velvet worm’s slimy ammunition, specifically how the slime hardens, as inspiration for a greener, better bioplastic. Its unique composition means that it has bonds that make it as strong as nylon but can dissolve when exposed to water.
Who could have predicted that the slime from a worm would give us new possibilities around bioplastics and adhesives to help fight plastic pollution? And while we’d think they are safely ignored hanging out under leaves, even velvet worms are victims of the exotic pet trade based on their unusual look and behaviors. They are also at risk due to habitat loss, primarily due to draining and burning of their wetland homes for industrialization and agricultural use. Their role inspiring more sustainable alternatives to replace traditional plastics and materials made from fossil fuels means there are even more reasons to protect this little guy.
Source: Velvet worm proteins sequenced at last: One step closer to becoming a bioplastic (The Straits Times, 6.19.22) and Dispersed solid transported within water (AskNature)
How sloths master engineering (even when they’re dead).
Organism: Pygmy Three-Toed Sloth (Folivora) — endangered
Time on Earth: >40 million years
Average life span: 20–30 years
Innovation/Problem solved: The sloth’s curved spine supports its body weight under tension via curved shape and offers energy efficiency.
Behind the science: National Science Foundation; Office of Naval Research; Georgia Tech
Potential applications: Infrastructure; Energy; Robotics
If you’ve ever seen a sloth right-side-up you know something’s not right. The 19th century naturalist Georges-Louis Leclear de Buffon said, “Slowness, habitual pain, and stupidity are the results of this strange and bungled conformation. These sloths are the lowest form of existence. One more defect would have made their lives impossible.” If he flipped his human-obsessed lens he’d see something else entirely: their oddities are their superpowers. Some consider sloths living examples of exquisite design.
They can pump blood against the force of gravity; fart through their mouth; hold their breath for 40 minutes underwater; process toxins others can’t due to their hyper-slow digestive systems (it takes up to a month to process one leaf); fall asleep and give birth upside down; harness their gas to help stay afloat; and create their own built-in camo coats by moving so slowly that cockroaches and algae hide out in their fur (scientists are also looking at sloth fungus to fight cancer). And arguably most impressive are their signature spines, which are not “bungled conformations”, but true masters of engineering. Some sloths can be found hanging upside on tree limbs even after they are dead.
Can the living embodiment of one of the seven deadly sins and poster child of sluggishness help shape the future of infrastructure or energy? Maybe. What is possible if engineers look to their built-in curved spines’ unique ability to handle balance of tension and compression so gracefully? While bridges have been around for centuries, sloths designed to resist tension forces could be meaningful inspiration for the next generation of suspension bridges.
Or perhaps we look to sloths (what British zoologist Lucy Cooke calls “energy saving icons”) for energy breakthroughs. They are already the inspiration for a new breed of tech conservationist (half biologist / half robot) that channels a sloth’s vibe through and through: slow on purpose, energy efficient, recharges in the sun, collects data over long periods of time, and charms whoever gets a chance to sneak a peek. Curious to learn more? Look out for one called Slothbot hanging in the trees at the Atlanta Botanical Garden.
Source: Curved Spine Deals with Tension (AskNature); Skeletal development in sloths and the evolution of mammalian vertebral patterning (National Library of Medicine); ‘Slothbot in the Garden’ Demonstrates Hyper-efficient Conservation Robot (Georgia Tech)
This polka dotted cutie’s most interesting part is one we rarely see.
Organism: Nine-Spotted Lady Beetle (Coccinellidae novemnotata) — endangered
Time on Earth:Unknown (Researchers out there, have the answer? Let us know!)
Average lifespan: 1–2 years
Innovation/Problem solved: Curved vein shape allows for self-locking
Behind the science: Seoul National University; University of Tokyo
Potential applications: Robotics; Aviation
Red, round polka-dotted charmers linked to good luck, ladybugs are welcomed little encounters for most. We feel like a million bucks if they choose to land on us, but they are happy most anywhere from cities to outer space (NASA sent four on the space shuttle with their favorite food aphids to study gravity). They can smell with their feet, suck down about 5,000 insects in their lifetime, and were named after the Virgin Mary after seemingly miraculously helping farmers control crop pests. For a beetle measured in centimeters, they have quite a fanclub.
While these retro-looking fashion icons are one of the more recognizable insects that exist, it’s the part of their bodies we generally don’t see that interests researchers. Take a look at this NPR video of ladybugs taking off to better understand why. “The ladybugs’ technique for achieving complex folding is quite fascinating and novel, particularly for researchers in the fields of robotics, mechanics, aerospace, and mechanical engineering,” said Kazuya Saito of the Institute of Industrial Science, U of Tokyo.
Innovators are looking to the ladybug’s unique qualities such as wings that are quickly deployable, compact and foldable, and resilient under high-frequency flapping for design inspiration. They are particularly intrigued by the ladybug’s unique curved vein shape which enables energy to be stored inside the vein and swiftly spread out. They compare the strategy to the curve of a carpenter tape that allows them to curve and flex straight. Ultimately scientists hope that this novel skill can contribute to advanced wings for aircrafts, space technology (such as folding antennas), or next generation robots with multiple functions (glide, crawl, jump, flap, perch).
Many don’t realize that the nine-spotted ladybug, once so prevalent in its range they are the official state insect of New York, are endangered. With a figure that reminds you more of a halved tennis ball with legs than a sleek machine, some will be surprised they’re teaching us about cutting-edge robotics and aviation, but maybe that’s partly the point: good innovation comes from the most unexpected places. We still don’t know the extent of what we’re losing as we lose them.
Source: Self-deploying robot wings inspired by the ladybird beetle (AskNature); Investigation of hindwing folding in ladybird beetles by artificial elytron transplantation and microcomputed tomography (PNAS)
Note: You can learn more about Nine-spotted Lady Beetle’s at the Extinct and Endangered: Insects in Peril exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History in NYC. This features the uniquely powerful macrophotography of Levon Biss, and highlights 40 incredible but imperiled species from specimens from the Museum’s world-class research collection. Each photograph is created from up to 10,000 individual images using special lenses, capturing microscopic detail. If you’re not in NYC visit the stunning Extinct & Endangered site.
This bird saves more energy flying than plopped on a nest.
Organism: Albatross (Diomedea exulans) — endangered
Time on Earth: More than 225,000 years
Average lifespan: >Up to 50 years
Problem Solved: Decarbonizing aerospace industry; Efficient flight
Behind the science: NASA; University of Arizona College of Engineering; MIT; International Fulbright Science & Technology Award; The Link Foundation; Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology
Potential applications:Wind-powered drones; aircraft designs
Imagine a bird who can save more energy flying across oceans than plopped on its nest, go years without touching land without flapping their wings, and fly more easily against the wind than without any wind at all. Maybe you’d guess their epic 11-foot wingspan carries them, but you’d be wrong. Their secret? They lock in tendons in their shoulders and catch the wind. Watching them you can almost see them manipulate the wind as their engine.
Other party tricks include it can fly more than 10,000 miles at once (that’s further than Los Angeles → Sydney); circumnavigate the world in 46 days; drink salt water; fly 50 MPH; and make the PH of their stomach so acidic it matches a corpse-eating vulture’s (this helps them quickly digest food that crosses their path). Maybe most rare: they are committed mates for life.
Scientists and engineers are interested in the albatross’s unique technique of “dynamic soaring” that enables them to be one of the most epic, efficient flyers to decarbonize aerospace. Albatrosses have a locking mechanism in their shoulders, and this strut-like tendon passively holds their wings horizontal to gracefully soar during flight. Researchers are looking at how the albatross is hyper-skilled at maneuvering strong winds, sensing the changes in wind and air speed, and harnessing the lift between quick and slow air and changing direction (think climbing and descending S-patterns on repeat) as they soar. They can fly against the wind more gracefully than attempting to fly without the wind since their dynamic soaring technique means they require toggling between varying velocities and air masses. That added adaptation of a shoulder that locks into position also reduces energy inefficiencies.
This year NASA planetary scientists and University of Arizona aerospace experts plan to test albatross-inspired gliders in various atmospheres aiming for long distances and long duration while using limited energy. This glider plane would share the bird’s 11-foot wingspan, be motorless, and harness wind energy. This would be an attractive glider to navigate Martian skies, a place which has a uniquely thin atmosphere, making it particularly challenging to fly a traditional plane.
PS: What does this albatross glider, ladybugs and the James Webb Space Telescope have in common? Origami! Satellites would transport the albatross folder-glider to Mars where it would unravel its origami-like folded wings and take flight, just like the James Webb Space Telescope that also folded in an origami-style in order to fit into a rocket before launching to space.
Source: Albatross-inspired glider designed for Mars flight (BBC, 7.14.22); Engineers identify key to albatross’ marathon flight (MIT News, 10.10.17); Traugott, J., Nesterova, A., and Sachs, G., The nearly effortless flight of the albatross: Measuring and modeling the bird’s aerial behavior could inspire new drone designs (IEEE Spectrum, 6.28.13)
Can we be obsessed with knowledge and indifferent to permanently losing it?
Could we be obsessed with death and indifferent to extinction? For many of us who may straddle being deeply uncomfortable and intrigued by death (at times so hellbent on avoiding it that it’s not uncommon to keep someone “alive” who may never have the capacity to experience joy or connection again), we can be oddly indifferent as the last breath for an entire species goes unnoticed. It’s a weird, unsettling thought.
While extinct is a word once reserved for dinosaurs, the fact is that status is attached to up to 150 new species every 24 hours. Extinctions are happening 10,000 times faster than ever in history. That ecological collapse is disturbingly quick. Our only reference point in all of history that compares is the Permian extinction–think doomsday–killing about 90% of the planet’s species that once ruled the world.
The world is becoming a different place.
That’s partly why while writing this piece I called Dr. Kenneth Lacovara, a dinosaur expert I met last summer and the visionary behind the world-class-first-of-its-kind Edelman Fossil Park & Museum in NJ (opening 2023). Dr. Lacovara is revered for many things, maybe most notably unearthing what he later named Dreadnoughtus, who at 65 tons and as long as a highschool basketball court was one of the most massive dinosaurs to walk on our home planet. Growing up I thought a paleontologist focused on the past, but (maybe counterintuitively) paleontologists like Dr. Lacovara understand more about our future than most ever will.
He’s an expert on why dinosaurs matter to us now. He’s an expert on how dinosaurs can be a humbling mirror to our own blind spots. He’s an expert on what we could learn from “the indomitable masters of the planet” if we had access to their legendary superpowers before getting decimated by an asteroid. For example, how they grew their own body armor, managed self-powered flight, regulated body temperature, moved their massive bodies across swampy terrain, and repurposed features. That’s worthy of its own article I’d be honored to write, and unsettling knowing the avalanches of life that are on their way to joining their extinct status. There’s a fundamental link between what we’ve lost, what we’re losing, and our own survival. We so quickly miss it.
I admire the way Dr. Lacovara put it in his book Why Dinosaurs Matter. He says, “We’re all freaks of nature, us species, in that everything has to line up just right for us to be. It’s remarkable that the same mechanisms of natural selection, amplified over deep time but modified by circumstance, led to both dinosaurs and us. Their story is not our story, though we share the first few chapters, yet the common theme of evolution–such as efficiency, resilience, adaptation, competitiveness, and dispersal–carry through and resonate with our own experience.”
Is it possible we’re obsessed with knowledge and indifferent to permanently losing it? What if we accept and embrace that we are dependent on the secret worlds around us — including the most strange, bizarre, and unrelatable? They challenge our perspectives and show us that sometimes life’s most brilliant tricks are buried in the spit and the spines and poisons that surround us. They expand what is possible for our world by letting their freak flags fly — and invite us to honor that part of ourselves.
First image caption credit: Mugshot of deep-sea telescope fish Gigantura indica | Image of Harvard MCZ specimen 60585 by G. David Johnson, Curator of Fishes at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History Washington DC
Katie Losey works at the intersection of business and conservation. At the heart of her work she believes storytelling that speaks to both heart and head can be a powerful tool to drive change and is committed to integrating climate science and culture to help rebalance and rewild the earth (and each other). She is a director at Fragile Earth, a company focused on catalyzing a new energy era by amplifying ancient and innovative climate solutions.
Previously Katie led marketing and partnerships at a travel company that helped protect the world’s wild places, creatures, and indigenous cultures. In this role, she was further exposed to the possibilities of innovation inspired by nature while observing gorillas in Rwanda, orcas in Antarctica, and rats in NYC! Prior to that, Katie led partnerships at Puppies Behind Bars, a nonprofit that trains prison inmates to raise exceptional service, therapy, and explosive-detection canines. There she established Paws & Reflect, a program matching homebound seniors with volunteers who bring a puppy to visit them in their home providing invaluable socialization for working-dogs-in-training and companionship to seniors living alone.
Katie has been a member of The Explorers Club since 2015 and was part of their first flag expedition to Cuba documenting coral reefs. Ms. Losey is a board member of the BiomimicryNYC Network, has been guest writing for the Biomimicry Institute since 2019, and is currently pursuing her Wildlife Rehabilitator License. She lives in NYC and gets in the woods with her rescue dog, Nelle, as much as possible. Connect with Katie on Instagram and LinkedIn.