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The “star” on nose of the blind Condylura cristata is actually a series of sensory feelers that allow it to “see” and identify prey. The 22 feelers are in constant movement with five times as many touch sensors as a human hand packed into a nose the size of a fingertip. The world’s fastest eater can find and consume an insect or worm in less than 0.2 of a second. It’s also the only animal able to smell underwater, blowing bubbles then inhaling them. Where to find them: The mole, which grows up to 20 centimetres long, is native to the wetlands of North America, from southeastern Manitoba to Labrador and Nova Scotia, and to southeastern Georgia – the only mole species to inhabit such soggy soil.
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The endangered aye-aye (Daubentonia madagascariensis) is a nocturnal omnivore that lives in rainforest trees, seldom descending to the forest floor. Not such a bad idea, as the aye-aye is thought to bring bad luck by superstitious locals and was hunted indiscriminately until protected by law. Thought to be the only primate to use echolocation to find prey, the aye-aye taps the tree with its long middle finger then listens for insect larvae moving under the bark. Where to find them: Wide-eyed aye-ayes can only be found on the Indian Ocean island of Madagascar.
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Once he hatches, it’s a short (five days) and not so sweet life for the male comet moth (Argema mittrei), aka Madagascan moon moth, during which his only purpose is to find a lady moth and breed. One of the largest moths on the planet (with a wingspan up to 20 centimetres) doesn’t feed, instead living off supplies amassed in the caterpillar stage. He has to find a partner within a day of hatching otherwise the eggs cannot be fertilised. Oh, and every other inhabitant of the rainforest considers the bright-yellow moth to be the perfect snack. His more fortunate female counterpart has broader and rounder wings and a shorter tail and antennae. Where to find them: The beautiful but tragic Madagascan moon moth lives in the rainforests of Madagascar.
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Migratory mammals that spend their entire lives in the sea, dugongs (Dugong dugon) can grow to three metres long, weighing up to 400 kilograms. Surfacing to breathe, the slow-moving “sea cows” graze on seagrass meadows in warm, shallow water. They have little protection against predators other than their size. Fortunately, only big sharks and saltwater crocodiles trouble them, the main danger coming from humans – net entanglement, collisions with boats and degradation of habitat. Dugongs, thought to be the origin of the “mermaid” myth, also have important cultural significance for indigenous peoples. Where to find them: Dugongs range around the waters of Indo-West Pacific; the northern waters of Australia between Shark Bay in Western Australia and Moreton Bay in Queensland are a favourite stamping ground.
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Bush vipers (Atheris squamiger), as the name suggests, are forest dwellers in tropical sub-Saharan Africa. They come in a variety of vibrant colours and patterns and the female is larger, growing up to 80 centimetres long with a lifespan between 12 and 20 years. They seldom venture down to the ground and ambush a wide range of prey – birds, lizards, frogs, rodents – from a dangling position. The bush viper’s venomous bite is definitely worse than their bark and several human fatalities have been recorded. Where to find them: We don’t advise you seek them out, but bush vipers are likely to be found lurking in trees as far from human habitation as they can get in African nations south of the Sahara.
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Related to the mongoose, the fossa (Cryptoprocta ferox) is a carnivorous cat-like mammal – Madagascar’s top predator – that will eat anything in the forest – from wild pigs and lemurs to mice, frogs and insects. Growing to 1.8 metres from nose to tail and weighing up to 12 kilograms, it’s a formidable unit. Good climbers, fossas are generally solitary, patrolling and defending territories of around four square kilometres. Fossas have an unusual real estate-based mating system. The receptive female occupies a site high in a tree, below which the males gather to compete for conjugal rights. Where to find them: Fossas prefer pristine forest habitats and can be found throughout Madagascar.
Japanese spider crab
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“Biggest Crab in the World” title goes to the Japanese spider crab (Macrocheira kampfaeri). Attached to a relatively tiny body (38 centimetres wide) its eight legs can grow up to a terrifying 3.7 metres long and it can weigh up to 20 kilograms. In addition to its octet of legs, Crabzilla also has a pair of arms, wielding a lethal set of claws. Where to find them: Before you start pulling on the Kevlar, be reassured this giant of the sea lives only off the Japanese Pacific coast at a depth of between 100 and 275 metres.
Lowland streaked tenrec
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Weighing in at around 200 grams, the lowland streaked tenrec has porcupine-like quills, and yellow-striped black fur. Partial to earthworms and insects, the tenrec is not averse to rummaging around gardens and agricultural land, and is common in urban areas. It communicates by vibrating its (non-barbed) quills to produce a high-pitched chattering sound, but uses the barbed ones to deter predators such as the fossa. Where to find them: Yet another Madagascan native, the streaked tenrec (Hemicentetes semispinosus) hangs out in tropical lowland rainforest and is active day and night.
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It’s a good thing the mantis shrimp (Stomatopoda) is a featherweight – about 10 centimetres – because the aggro crustacean is frightened of nothing. Aided by supernormal vision, this bad boy hunts by “punching” its prey – unfolding and swinging its raptorial claw at its chosen dinner with bullet-like speed. The mighty mantis comes with a claw option. “Spearers” have a claw lined with numerous sharp teeth on which they impale soft-bodied animals like worms, shrimps and fish. “Smashers” have a club-shaped claw and hammer their way into hard-bodied snails and crabs. Where to find them: They’re found mostly in tropical and subtropical waters of the Pacific and Indian oceans.
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Monodon monoceros is a toothed whale living year-round in Arctic waters. The large ivory “tusk” – spiralling up to 2.75 metres out of its head – was once thought to have magical properties. Queen Elizabeth I kept a tusk (given to her by English explorer Martin Frobisher) with her crown jewels in the belief it was a mythical “sea unicorn” horn. The horn is actually a protruding canine tooth thought to be a sensory organ helping the whale understand its environment. Narwhals spend seven months a year under the sea ice, using cracks in the ice to breathe, and can dive as deep as 2.5 kilometres to feed on fish, squid and shrimp. Where to find them: It inhabits the Arctic waters around Canada, Greenland and Russia.
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Despite looking like an unfinished zebra with it striped hindquarters and legs, the okapi (Okapia johnstoni) is actually an ancestor of the giraffe, although not as tall, reaching a mere 1.7 metres at the shoulders and weighing in at 350 kilograms. Extremely shy and elusive, it inhabits a small, remote area of tropical mountain forest in Central Africa, sensibly avoiding humans and consequently rarely sighted. The okapi is a herbivore, utilising its thick black prehensile tongue to snag tasty overhead foliage. Where to find them: The endangered okapi lives mainly in high-altitude canopy forests of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
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Standing behind the door when good looks were handed out, the proboscis or big-nosed monkey (Nasalis larvatus) has an unfeasibly large, fleshy hooter and a bloated stomach to complete the picture of a primate with a drinking problem. This leaf-eater is agile in the trees and a very good swimmer, aided by its partially webbed feet. The unfortunate nose can grow so big it has to be pushed aside to eat and becomes red and swollen when the monkey is excited or angry. Their only predators are cloud leopards and humans, who once considered the proboscis monkey a delicacy. Where to find them: The proboscis monkey is native to the mangrove swamps and lowland rainforest of Borneo and rarely descends to the forest floor from the branches, though it is a proficient swimmer and jumps from tree to water with an undignified bellyflop.
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The red-lipped batfish (Ogcocephalus darwini) is not particularly fishy. For starters, it can’t actually swim that well. However, its pectoral and pelvic fins have evolved in such a way that it can rest on the sea floor and “walk” around to capture prey. It attracts its diet of small fish and crustaceans using the modified dorsal fin sticking out of its head as a lure. With a mouth way too big for its body (about 25 centimetres wide) set in a permanent pout, the batfish looks like it applied its lipstick in the dark. Where to find them: They’re usually loitering in deep waters around the Galapagos Islands and off Peru.
Satanic leaf-tailed gecko
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Camouflage doesn’t get much better than this. With a tail identical to a rotting leaf, Uroplatus phantasticus emerges at night to hunt insects and snails. In the day, it usually hangs from a branch pretending, you guessed it, to be a leafy twig. The “satanic” appellation could be due to the gecko’s habit of opening its red mouth wide and hissing when threatened. They became popular as pets in the early 2000s, but the collect-a-gecko fad faded and this master of disguise could go back to not standing out from the crowd. Where to find them: These leaf-like reptiles are indigenous to the island of Madagascar.
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The eel-like lamprey (Petromyzon marinus) is a primitive parasitic predator vaguely related to the shark. A sinuous tube of cartilage without jaws, its scary suction-cup mouth is ringed with sharp, horny teeth. Like something out of a horror movie, it sucks up to its prey then uses its rough tongue to rasp away the flesh so it can feast on its host’s blood. It has no natural predators, but will attack most large fish. One lamprey can consume more than 18 kilograms of fish in its short adult life (12 to 20 months). Where to find them: Native to the north and western Atlantic, the largest populations of sea lamprey can be found in waters of Portugal, Spain and France. You can also find them on menus: the Romans were fans and the lamprey was a Medieval favourite during Lent thanks to their flavour which is meatier than other fish. And every royal Coronation and Jubilee, the people of Gloucester have sent a delectable lamprey pie to contribute to the festivities.
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In this matriarchal spider society, the female spiny (or spiny-backed) orbweaver (Gasteracantha cancriformis) has shattered the glass ceiling. Only the female actually has spines, she’s much bigger than the male and lives (slightly) longer. She has white (or black) spots on her abdomen and her spine is red. Confusingly wider than she is long, each night she spins a circular web in which she waits, upside-down, to catch trap insects. Where to find them: Found in the southern United States as well as Central America, South America and part of the Caribbean, orbweavers have also been spotted on our own Whitsunday Islands. They live in trees or shrubbery.
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The endangered shoebill stork (Balaeniceps rex) is boss of the swamp, eating fish, lizards, snakes and crocodiles – OK, baby crocodiles, but still... It stands motionless for long periods, like a 1.5-metre statue, then pounces like an avalanche, hoovering up everything in the vicinity with that enormous bill. It shakes its head until all the “bycatch” is removed – mud, water, grass, other animals – decapitates its dinner with a snip of that same razor-sharp bill and swallows it whole. Where to find them: The terrifyingly efficient shoebill lives in the wetlands of eastern Africa, stalking swamps from the Sudan to Zambia.
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The 15-20-centimetre thorny dragon, aka mountain devil (Moloch horridus) has spiny orange, yellow and black skin with a pretend second head on its back, presumably to weird out predators, although it doesn’t seem to bother its main danger, the brown falcon, at all. Fail. A finicky eater itself, the dragon only munches black ants, up to 1000 in a sitting. Ideally evolved to desert life, the dragon rubs against the morning dew on the spinifex and moisture runs down the spikes and along grooves directly to its mouth. Where to find them: Native to the sand country of Central Australia, the thorny dragon’s colours mimic the desert in shades of brown and tan that lighten and deepen according to the seasons.
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The shy and elusive Elaphodus cephalophus is most active at night, never straying far from water. Solitary and territorial, the small deer stands up to 0.7 metres and weighs up to 30 kilograms on a diet of bamboo, fruit and grasses. Despite the vego diet, the males sport vampire-like fangs. These upper canines can grow to a length of 2.5 centimetres and are employed to rumble with other males during mating season, their antlers being largely for show. Where to find them: If you want to see a tufted deer in the wild, you’ll have to climb for it. Inhabiting the high valley jungles and rainforests of Myanmar and central and southern China at altitudes up to 4600 metres, the tufted deer is rarely seen.
Up Next: What It’s Like to Walk Among Gorillas in Rwanda
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