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15 Fish With Amazing Talents

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As these marvelous swimmers demonstrate, schools of fish definitely have the best talent shows.

1. Clownfish Regularly Change Sex.

Scientifically known as “sequential hermaphrodites,” all clownfish are initially born male. However, gender-swapping is rampant. As adults, clownfish develop complex hierarchies headed by a dominant female. Should she die off, one male will transform himself into the next alpha-female, continuing this strange life cycle.

2. Peacock Flounders are Masters of Disguise.

Flat fish don’t get much respect, but maybe they should. Pigment-altering skin cells enable the peacock flounder to radically change its color scheme within seconds. By comparison, chameleons generally take several minutes to even slightly modify their hues. Point goes to the flounder.

3. Clown Loaches Can Defend Themselves with Facial Spikes.

They’re a hit with aquarium enthusiasts, but any predator can tell you that clown loaches make terrible dinner guests. These colorful Indonesian fish have movable spines beneath their eyes which, when raised, make them exceedingly difficult to swallow.

4. Tiger Fish Can Snag Birds in Midair.

With their huge, razor-sharp teeth, African tiger fish look like they mean business. Scarier still, one specimen was recently recorded leaping clear out of a freshwater lake and engulfing an unfortunate bird just above the surface. You have to respect that kind of athletic ability.

5. Parrot Fish Help Build Beaches.

Have you ever kicked back on one of Hawaii’s gorgeous white beaches? Some of that sand was probably fish waste. Parrot fish eat various organisms that live on coral reefs. While feeding, they inevitably wind up swallowing chunks of rock-hard coral, a side-dish these critters can’t digest. Such pieces get broken down and pass through their systems as freshly-made sand.

6. Archerfish Are Expert Marksmen.

It’s like the world’s deadliest squirt gun. Archerfish have one of nature’s most oddly specific hunting strategies: namely, spraying hapless insects with a controlled jet of water. The victim—usually perched on an overhanging plant limb—falls directly into the archerfish’s eager jaws.

7. Sawfish Can Sense Beating Hearts.

Electroreceptors on a sawfish’s toothy snout allow it to detect even the faintest heartbeats. This really comes in handy, considering that preferred menu options (crabs, shrimp, smaller fish, etc.) regularly hide out under several inches of sand.

8. Sockeye Salmon Use Magnetic Fields to Navigate.

These salmon famously migrate for thousands of miles and return to the same streams in which they hatched. How can they pull off this amazing feat without a GPS? By picking up on tiny variations in the earth’s magnetic field. No two streams, after all, give off exactly the same magnetic signature.

9. Hagfish Fend off Predators With a Cloud of Slime.

They may look like pushovers, but these scavengers know how to protect themselves. The hagfish’s unique skin glands release a thick, fibrous haze of gunk that clogs jaws and jams gills to teach naïve attackers a lesson they won’t soon forget.

10. Antarctic Tooth Fish Have Freeze-Resistant Blood Streams.

Swimming through icy polar depths (which can dip below -2º Celsius) becomes child’s play when there’s an all-natural antifreeze coursing through your blood.

11. Gobies Go Rock Climbing.

Most fish would see trying to scale a waterfall as an impossible task. Luckily, few fish enjoy extreme sports more than rock-climbing gobies of Hawaii. When gobies need to venture upstream through swift mountain waters, waterfalls and sheer rock faces are no hurdle: The fish use their incredibly strong mouths and a unique sucker appendage on their bellies to grab onto rocks and gradually inch their way up to more hospitable territory.

12. Cookie Cutter Sharks Used to Re-Route Nuclear Submarines.

Evolution has equipped these guys to take circular chunks out of passing animals. And, as the U.S. Navy found out, the 22-inch sharks aren’t exactly finicky eaters. During the 1970s, cookie-cutters wreaked havoc on unsuspecting subs by chomping through sensitive cables and rubber sonar equipment, forcing these vessels to return to base.

13. Black Swallowers Really Live Up to Their Names.

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Generous jaws and a uniquely designed stomach enable these 10-inch predators to gulp down live meals that are twice their own length and 10 times as massive.

14. Plainfin Midshipmen Hum to Attract Mates.

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

We don’t normally associate fish with vocalization, but some amorous males of this species, also known as “California singing fish,” emit hour-long humming noises to arouse potential mates (and angry grunts whenever a competitor zeroes in).

15. Mudskippers Climb Trees.

What’s even more amazing than a fish crawling around on land? A fish crawling up a tree. As adaptable mangrove swamp denizens, mudskippers periodically exit the water and walk over patches of mud. They’re also known to scale tree branches from time to time. Next up on their to-do lists: building treehouses.

All images courtesy of iStock unless noted otherwise.

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The Real Bay of Pigs: Big Major Cay in the Bahamas
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When most people visit the Bahamas, they’re thinking about a vacation filled with sun, sand, and swimming—not swine. But you can get all four of those things if you visit Big Major Cay.

Big Major Cay, also now known as “Pig Island” for obvious reasons, is part of the Exuma Cays in the Bahamas. Exuma includes private islands owned by Johnny Depp, Tyler Perry, Faith Hill and Tim McGraw, and David Copperfield. Despite all of the local star power, the real attraction seems to be the family of feral pigs that has established Big Major Cay as their own. It’s hard to say how many are there—some reports say it’s a family of eight, while others say the numbers are up to 40. However big the band of roaming pigs is, none of them are shy: Their chief means of survival seems to be to swim right up to boats and beg for food, which the charmed tourists are happy to provide (although there are guidelines about the best way of feeding the pigs).

No one knows exactly how the pigs got there, but there are plenty of theories. Among them: 1) A nearby resort purposely released them more than a decade ago, hoping to attract tourists. 2) Sailors dropped them off on the island, intending to dine on pork once they were able to dock for a longer of period of time. For one reason or another, the sailors never returned. 3) They’re descendants of domesticated pigs from a nearby island. When residents complained about the original domesticated pigs, their owners solved the problem by dropping them off at Big Major Cay, which was uninhabited. 4) The pigs survived a shipwreck. The ship’s passengers did not.

The purposeful tourist trap theory is probably the least likely—VICE reports that the James Bond movie Thunderball was shot on a neighboring island in the 1960s, and the swimming swine were there then.

Though multiple articles reference how “adorable” the pigs are, don’t be fooled. One captain warns, “They’ll eat anything and everything—including fingers.”

Here they are in action in a video from National Geographic:

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13 Secrets From the Ravenmaster at the Tower of London
Christine Colby
Christine Colby

Christopher Skaife is a Yeoman Warder at the Tower of London, an ancient fortress that has been used as a jail, royal residence, and more. There are 37 Yeoman Warders, popularly known as Beefeaters, but Skaife has what might be the coolest title of them all: He is the Ravenmaster. His job is to maintain the health and safety of the flock of ravens (also called an “unkindness” or a “conspiracy”) that live within the Tower walls. According to a foreboding legend with many variations, if there aren’t at least six ravens living within the Tower, both the Tower and the monarchy will fall. (No pressure, Chris!)

Skaife has worked at the Tower for 11 years, and has many stories to tell. Recently, Mental Floss visited him to learn more about his life in service of the ravens.

1. MILITARY SERVICE IS REQUIRED.

All Yeoman Warders must have at least 22 years of military service to qualify for the position and have earned a good-conduct medal. Skaife served for 24 years—he was a machine-gun specialist and is an expert in survival and interrogation resistance. He is also a qualified falconer.

Skaife started out as a regular Yeoman Warder who had no particular experience with birds. The Ravenmaster at the time "saw something in him," Skaife says, and introduced him to the ravens, who apparently liked him—and the rest is history. He did, however, have to complete a five-year apprenticeship with the previous Ravenmaster.

2. HE LIVES ON-SITE.

The Tower of London photographed at night
Christine Colby

As tradition going back 700 years, all Yeoman Warders and their families live within the Tower walls. Right now about 150 people, including a doctor and a chaplain, claim the Tower of London as their home address.

3. BUT HE’S HAD TO MOVE.

Skaife used to live next to the Bloody Tower, but had to move to a different apartment within the grounds because his first one was “too haunted.” He doesn’t really believe in ghosts, he says, but does put stock in “echoes of the past.” He once spoke to a little girl who was sitting near the raven cages, and when he turned around, she had disappeared. He also claims that things in his apartment inexplicably move around, particularly Christmas-related items.

4. THE RAVENS ENJOY SOME UNUSUAL SNACKS.

The Ravenmaster at the Tower of London bending down to feed one of his ravens
Christine Colby

The birds are fed nuts, berries, fruit, mice, rats, chicken, and blood-soaked biscuits. (“And what they nick off the tourists,” Skaife says.) He has also seen a raven attack and kill a pigeon in three minutes.

5. THEY GET A LULLABY.

Each evening, Skaife whistles a special tone to call the ravens to bed—they’re tucked into spacious, airy cages to protect them from predators such as foxes.

6. THERE’S A DIVA.

One of the ravens doesn’t join the others in their nighttime lodgings. Merlina, the star raven, is a bit friendlier to humans but doesn’t get on with the rest of the birds. She has her own private box inside the Queen’s House, which she reaches by climbing a tiny ladder.

7. ONE OF THEM HAS EARNED THE NICKNAME “THE BLACK WIDOW.”

Ravens normally pair off for life, but one of the birds at the Tower, Munin, has managed to get her first two mates killed. With both, she lured them high atop the White Tower, higher than they were capable of flying down from, since their wings are kept trimmed. Husband #1 fell to his death. The second one had better luck coasting down on his wings, but went too far and fell into the Thames, where he drowned. Munin is now partnered with a much younger male.

8. THERE IS A SECRET PUB INSIDE THE TOWER.

Only the Yeoman Warders, their families, and invited guests can go inside a secret pub on the Tower grounds. Naturally, the Yeoman Warder’s Club offers Beefeater Bitter beer and Beefeater gin. It’s lavishly decorated in police and military memorabilia, such as patches from U.S. police departments. There is also an area by the bar where a section of the wall has been dug into and encased in glass, showing items found in an archaeological excavation of the moat, such as soldiers’ discarded clay pipes, a cannonball, and some mouse skeletons.

9. … AND A SECRET HAND.

The Byward Tower, which was built in the 13th century by King Henry III, is now used as the main entrance to the Tower for visitors. It has a secret glass brick set into the wall that most people don’t notice. When you peer inside, you’ll see it contains a human hand (presumably fake). It was put in there at some point as a bit of a joke to scare children, but ended up being walled in from the other side, so is now in there permanently.

10. HE HAS A SIDE PROJECT.

Skaife considers himself primarily a storyteller, and loves sharing tales of what he calls “Victorian melodrama.” In addition to his work at the Tower, he also runs Grave Matters, a Facebook page and a blog, as a collaboration with medical historian and writer Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris. Together they post about the history of executions, torture, and punishment.

11. THE TOWER IS MUPPET-FAMOUS.

2013’s Muppets Most Wanted was the first major film to shoot inside the Tower walls. At the Yeoman Warder’s Club, you can still sit in the same booth the Muppets occupied while they were in the pub.

12. IF YOU VISIT, KEEP AN EYE ON YOUR MONEY.

Ravens are very clever and known for stealing things from tourists, especially coins. They will strut around with the coin in their beak and then bury it, while trying to hide the site from the other birds.

13. … AND ON YOUR EYES.

Skaife, who’s covered in scars from raven bites, says, “They don’t like humans at all unless they’re dying or dead. Although they do love eyes.” He once had a Twitter follower, who is an organ donor, offer his eyes to the ravens after his death. Skaife declined.

This story first ran in 2015.

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