8 Spiny Creatures You Don’t Want to Meet in the Wild


When you think about it, the human defense system is really lacking. Unlike other animals, we can’t shoot poison out of our body. We don’t have bony armor to hide behind. Our fingernails can’t even be fashioned into a decent claw. Formidable spikes are one of of these crazy, enviable ways animals have to defend themselves against potential predators. 

A few of these spiny, spiky creatures that could poke your eye out in the wild. Here’s a sample of the terrifying moving cacti of the animal kingdom.

1. The short-beaked echidna 

Image Credit: KeresH via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

This Australian mammal looks like a giant hedgehog crossed with an anteater and lays eggs, much like a platypus. The average 9-pound echidna is covered in spikes and will curl up in a ball if threatened. One researcher who has spent time with the animals calls them “spiky baby killers” due to the males’ habit of eating their young. 

2. The hairy frog

Image Credit: J. Green via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain 

Also known as the “horror frog,” this African species pierces its own skin with sharp bones in its toes, turning a normal foot into a terrifying claw. The fist-sized amphibians are hunted as food in their native Cameroon—but only using long spears and machetes that keep them at a distance.

3. The armored rat

A stuffed armored rat. Image Credit: ZeWrestler via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

The armored rat is covered in “impressively broad and stiff” spines up to an inch long. A native of South America, it looks exactly like the subway rat of your nightmares.

4. The spined spider

Image Credit: Thomas Shahan via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

Micrathena spiders, found in forests, look kind of like a bug that swallowed a jack. The females of the species have pointy, sharp growths extending from their abdomen that make them unappealing to predators. And us. 

5. The Spanish ribbed newt 

Image Credit: David Perez via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0

When threatened, this amphibian rotates its ribs until they pierce through its skin, creating spiny nodules covered in toxic secretions. This is not the kind of animal you want to sneak up on.

6. Potto

Getty Images

The potto is a small, nocturnal primate that lives in trees throughout the tropical regions of Africa. They look plenty cuddly from the outside (not unlike a loris), but when attacked, they curl their necks down to reveal protective spines hidden under the skin. 

7. Hatpin urchin 

Image Credit: James St. John via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

Do not poke the hatpin urchin, whose needle-like spikes are toxic and can be up to a foot long. Centrostephanus longispinus can be found in the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean [PDF]. The urchins hide in rocky crevices during the day, and come out to forage at night.

8. Thorny dragon 

Image Credit: Christopher Watson via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Also known as the thorny devil, this Australian native is covered with sharp thorns that look like what you would find on a rose stem. The desert lizards are only a few inches long and stick to a diet of a few thousand ants a day, but they look battle-ready at all times. When a predator shows up, thorny dragons puff their bodies up—sticking out their spines—and tuck their heads down to reveal a spiny appendage that looks like a false head, making them hard for a snake to get its mouth around.

Andreas Trepte via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.5
Climate Change Has Forced Mussels to Toughen Up
Andreas Trepte via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.5
Andreas Trepte via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.5

Researchers writing in the journal Science Advances say blue mussels are rapidly evolving stronger shells to protect themselves against rising acid levels in sea water.

Bivalves like mussels, clams, and oysters aren’t good swimmers, and they don’t have teeth. Their hard shells are often the only things standing between themselves and a sea of dangers.

But even those shells have been threatened lately, as pollution and climate change push the ocean's carbon dioxide to dangerous levels. Too much carbon dioxide interferes with a bivalve’s ability to calcify (or harden) its shell, leaving it completely vulnerable.

A team of German scientists wondered what, if anything, the bivalves were doing to cope. They studied two populations of blue mussels (Mytilus edulis): one in the Baltic Sea, and another in the brackish waters of the North Sea.

The researchers collected water samples and monitored the mussel colonies for three years. They analyzed the chemical content of the water and the mussels’ life cycles—tracking their growth, survival, and death.

The red line across this mussel larva shows the limits of its shell growth. Image credit: Thomsen et al. Sci. Adv. 2017

Analysis of all that data showed that the two groups were living very different lives. The Baltic was rapidly acidifying—but rather than rolling over and dying, Baltic mussels were armoring up. Over several generations, their shells grew harder.

Their cousins living in the relatively stable waters of the North Sea enjoyed a cushier existence. Their shells stayed pretty much the same. That may be the case for now, the researchers say, but it definitely leaves them vulnerable to higher carbon dioxide levels in the future.

Inspiring as the Baltic mussels’ defiance might be, the researchers note that it’s not a short-term solution. Tougher shells didn’t increase the mussels’ survival rate in acidified waters—at least, not yet.

"Future experiments need to be performed over multiple generations," the authors write, "to obtain a detailed understanding of the rate of adaptation and the underlying mechanisms to predict whether adaptation will enable marine organisms to overcome the constraints of ocean acidification."

University of Adelaide
Scientists Find Potential Diabetes Drug in Platypus Venom
University of Adelaide
University of Adelaide

The future of diabetes medicine may be duck-billed and web-footed. Australian researchers have found a compound in platypus venom (yes, venom) that balances blood sugar. The team published their results in the journal Scientific Reports.

So, about that venom. The platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus) may look placid and, frankly, kind of goofy, but come mating season, the weaponry comes out. Male platypuses competing for female attention wrestle their opponents to the ground and kick-stab them with the venom-tipped, talon-like spurs on their back legs. It’s not a pretty sight. But it is an interesting one, especially to researchers.

Animal venoms are incredible compounds with remarkable properties—and many of them make excellent medicine. Many people with diabetes are already familiar with one of them; the drug exenatide was originally found in the spit of the venomous gila monster. Exenatide works by mimicking the behavior of an insulin-producing natural compound called Glucagon-like peptide 1 (GLP-1). The fact that the lizard has both venom and insulin-making genes is not a coincidence; many animal venoms, including the gila monster’s, induce low blood sugar in their prey in order to immobilize them.

It’s a good strategy with one flaw: GLP-1 and compounds like it break down and stop working very quickly, and people who have trouble making insulin really need their drug to keep working.

With this issue in mind, Australian researchers turned their attention to our duck-billed friends. They knew that platypuses, like people, made GLP-1 in their guts, and that platypuses, like gila monsters, make venom. The real question was how these two compounds interacted within a platypus’s body.

The researchers used chemical and genetic analysis to identify the chemical compounds in the guts and spurs of platypuses and in the guts of their cousins, the echidnas.

They found something entirely new: a tougher, more resilient GLP-1, one that breaks down differently—and more slowly—than the compounds in gila monster spit. The authors say this uber-compound is the result of a "tug of war" between GLP-1’s two uses in the gut and in venom.

"This is an amazing example of how millions of years of evolution can shape molecules and optimise their function," co-lead author Frank Gutzner of the University of Adelaide said in a statement.

"These findings have the potential to inform diabetes treatment, one of our greatest health challenges, although exactly how we can convert this finding into a treatment will need to be the subject of future research."


More from mental floss studios