6 Animals That Show Mother Nature's Sense of Humor

You've heard jokes like these all your life: What do you get if you cross an octopus with a cow? An animal that can milk itself. I didn't find such an animal, but the world has plenty of strange species that at first glance appear to be hybrids of unrelated species because they have attributes that surprise us. However, we are only surprised because our personal experiences don't encompass all that nature offers.

1. Turtle + Hedgehog = Armadillo

Rudyard Kipling wrote the story The Beginning of the Armadillos, in which the animal came from a tortoise and a hedgehog. They didn't join to give birth to armadillos; instead, they taught each other their talents. The hedgehog helped the tortoise learn to curl into a ball, and the tortoise taught the hedgehog to swim, which toughened up his spines into armor. Before they knew it, both had turned into armadillos.

Here in the real world, armadillos are related to both sloths and anteaters and are native to Latin America except for the nine-banded armadillo we see in the US. In certain states they are called "speed bumps". Armadillo image by Flickr user Ben Cooper.

2. Giraffe + Zebra = Okapi


The okapi (Okapia johnstoni) appears to be a short giraffe with a zebra's legs tacked on as an afterthought. The animal, which lives only in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (and in zoos), is actually related to the giraffe but was "shorted" in the neck department. To make up for that oversight, the okapi has a tongue long enough to lick its own ears! The zebra stripes are thought to be used as camouflage, and to make it easy for okapi young to follow their mothers through the rain forest. Okapi image by Raul654.

3. Anteater + Armadillo = Pangolin


The pangolin is also known as the spiny anteater. They are mammals, but have keratin scales over their bodies. They roll up into a ball in defense like an armadillo or a hedgehog. Recent genetic studies show that pangolins are related to neither anteaters (despite the fact that they eat ants) nor armadillos. But the weirdness doesn't stop there: pangolins can spray a nasty musk just like a skunk. And they don't have any teeth!

4. Bird + Fox = Fruit Bat


Fruit bats encompass several species and are also called megabats or flying foxes. What sets fruit bats apart from your garden variety insect-eating belfry-hangers is the fact that most fruit bats do not use echolocation to get around. They need their eyes big and their noses long to sense where they are going, so their faces look like more familiar land mammals—particularly dogs. No doubt that's where the term flying fox came from. If you couldn't see a fruit bat's wings, you might have a hard time guessing the species. Fox image by Flickr user Kris *Thirty6Red*. Bat image by Flickr user smccann.

5. Duck + Beaver = Platypus


The platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus) of Australia looks like a taxidermy experiment in which a mammal has been accessorized with a beaver's tail, a duck's bill, the venom of a snake, and the feet of an otter. This animal is not related to any of the others, however. The platypus is a monotreme. It shares that order with only four other species which are all echidnas. It is truly unique in the animal kingdom, and the most likely of any in this list to be an example of God's sense of humor. Platypus image by Stefan Kraft.

6. Hoop Snake + Lizard = Armadillo Girdled Lizard


This lizard might be what people saw when they came up with the legend of the hoop snake (featured in a previous post). You don't find too many lizards that protect themselves by rolling into a ball, but the Armadillo Girdled Lizard (Cordylus cataphractus) does just that. This lizard grabs its tail with its mouth and forms a ring with its spines pointing out. Any predator will have a hard time figuring this thing out, much less eating it! The name is just a descriptor; this lizard has no relation to an armadillo, which is a mammal.

Can you think of other examples of animals that look like hybrids of unrelated species?

Ted Cranford
Scientists Use a CT Scanner to Give Whales a Hearing Test
Ted Cranford
Ted Cranford

It's hard to study how whales hear. You can't just give the largest animals in the world a standard hearing test. But it's important to know, because noise pollution is a huge problem underwater. Loud sounds generated by human activity like shipping and drilling now permeate the ocean, subjecting animals like whales and dolphins to an unnatural din that interferes with their ability to sense and communicate.

New research presented at the 2018 Experimental Biology meeting in San Diego, California suggests that the answer lies in a CT scanner designed to image rockets. Scientists in San Diego recently used a CT scanner to scan an entire minke whale, allowing them to model how it and other whales hear.

Many whales rely on their hearing more than any other sense. Whales use sonar to detect the environment around them. Sound travels fast underwater and can carry across long distances, and it allows whales to sense both predators and potential prey over the vast territories these animals inhabit. It’s key to communicating with other whales, too.

A CT scan of two halves of a dead whale
Ted Cranford, San Diego State University

Human technology, meanwhile, has made the ocean a noisy place. The propellers and engines of commercial ships create chronic, low-frequency noise that’s within the hearing range of many marine species, including baleen whales like the minke. The oil and gas industry is a major contributor, not only because of offshore drilling, but due to seismic testing for potential drilling sites, which involves blasting air at the ocean floor and measuring the (loud) sound that comes back. Military sonar operations can also have a profound impact; so much so that several years ago, environmental groups filed lawsuits against the U.S. Navy over its sonar testing off the coasts of California and Hawaii. (The environmentalists won, but the new rules may not be much better.)

Using the CT scans and computer modeling, San Diego State University biologist Ted Cranford predicted the ranges of audible sounds for the fin whale and the minke. To do so, he and his team scanned the body of an 11-foot-long minke whale calf (euthanized after being stranded on a Maryland beach in 2012 and preserved) with a CT scanner built to detect flaws in solid-fuel rocket engines. Cranford and his colleague Peter Krysl had previously used the same technique to scan the heads of a Cuvier’s beaked whale and a sperm whale to generate computer simulations of their auditory systems [PDF].

To save time scanning the minke calf, Cranford and the team ended up cutting the whale in half and scanning both parts. Then they digitally reconstructed it for the purposes of the model.

The scans, which assessed tissue density and elasticity, helped them visualize how sound waves vibrate through the skull and soft tissue of a whale’s head. According to models created with that data, minke whales’ hearing is sensitive to a larger range of sound frequencies than previously thought. The whales are sensitive to higher frequencies beyond those of each other’s vocalizations, leading the researchers to believe that they may be trying to hear the higher-frequency sounds of orcas, one of their main predators. (Toothed whales and dolphins communicate at higher frequencies than baleen whales do.)

Knowing the exact frequencies whales can hear is an important part of figuring out just how much human-created noise pollution affects them. By some estimates, according to Cranford, the low-frequency noise underwater created by human activity has doubled every 10 years for the past half-century. "Understanding how various marine vertebrates receive and process low-frequency sound is crucial for assessing the potential impacts" of that noise, he said in a press statement.

Scientific Reports, Fernando Ramirez Rozzi
Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Humans Might Have Practiced Brain Surgery on Cows 5000 Years Ago
Scientific Reports, Fernando Ramirez Rozzi
Scientific Reports, Fernando Ramirez Rozzi

In the 1970s, archaeologists discovered a site in France containing hundreds of cow skeletons dating back 5000 to 5400 years. The sheer number wasn't surprising—human agriculture in that part of the world was booming by 3000 BCE. What perplexed scientists was something uncovered there a few decades later: a cow skull bearing a thoughtfully drilled hole. Now, a team of researchers has released evidence that suggests the hole is an early example of animal brain surgery.

Fernando Ramírez Rozzi, a paleontologist with the French National Center for Scientific Research, and Alain Froment, an anthropologist at the Museum of Mankind in Paris, published their findings in the journal Nature Scientific Reports. After comparing the opening to the holes chiseled into the skulls of humans from the same era, they found the bones bore some striking similarities. They didn't show any signs of fracturing from blunt force trauma; rather, the hole in the cow skull, like those in the human skulls, seemed to have been carved out carefully using a tool made for exactly that purpose. That suggests that the hole is evidence of the earliest known veterinary surgery performed by humans.

Trepanation, or the practice of boring holes into human skulls, is one of the oldest forms of surgery. Experts are still unsure why ancient humans did this, but the level of care that went into the procedures suggests that the surgery was likely used to treat sick patients while they were still alive. Why a person would perform this same surgery on a cow, however, is harder to explain.

The authors present a few theories, the first being that these ancient brain surgeons were treating a sick cow the same way they might treat a sick human. If a cow was suffering from a neural disease like epilepsy, perhaps they though that cutting a hole in its head would relieve whatever was agitating the brain. The cow would have needed to be pretty special to warrant such an effort when there were hundreds of healthy cows living on the same plot of land, as evidenced by the skeletons it was found with.

Another possible explanation was that whoever operated on the cow did so as practice to prepare them for drilling into the heads of live humans one day. "Cranial surgery requires great manual dexterity and a complete knowledge of the anatomy of the brain and vessel distribution," the authors write in the study. "It is possible that the mastery of techniques in cranial surgery shown in the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods was acquired through experimentation on animals."

Either way, the bovine patient didn't live to see the results of the procedure: The bone around the hole hadn't healed at all, which suggests the cow either died during surgery or wasn't alive to begin with.


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