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6 Unusual Traits of Animal Evolution

From powerful punches to mind control, nature regularly throws up some strange and mystifying adaptations of animal evolution.

By Sean Mowbray
Dec 19, 2023 9:30 PMDec 19, 2023 10:00 PM
Peacock mantis shrimp
(Credit: Maxfield Weakley/Shutterstock)


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For some animals, life is tough — full of hostile environments and dangerous neighbors. To survive, many creatures have developed adaptations worthy of a bit of head-scratching. Here are a few such evolutionary traits, ranging from the quirky to the downright horrifying.

1. Maned Wolf

(Credit: Christian Musat/Shutterstock)

There is much that’s unusual about the maned wolf. Known as the “fox on stilts,” it is the tallest of the canid species and indeed looks part fox — though it isn’t actually related. The wolf’s gangly legs are thought to enable it to spy across the tall savanna grasslands it calls home. Its distinctive bark, called a roar-bark, is also quite unlike any other species.

But its most unusual trait is the smell of its urine, which smacks of marijuana. Curiously enough, scientists believe this odor is a warning to other maned wolfs to keep off their turf.

Read More: The Mysterious Origin of the Real-Life Dire Wolf

2. Peacock Mantis Shrimp

(Credit: Gerald Robert Fischer/Shutterstock)

Among the 400 species of mantis shrimp that exist, some evolved to spear, some wield a hatchet-like appendage, and some — like the peacock mantis shrimp — go for a good old-fashioned smash technique.

This miniature creature packs a massive punch. Though it reaches only around 7 inches in length, the peacock mantis shrimp's punch is known as the most powerful in the animal kingdom — breaking apart its prey with the force of a .22 caliber bullet. How the tiny critter doesn’t obliterate its own fist is due, in part, to a web of natural shock absorbers beneath.

3. Black Lemur                               

(Credit: Miroslav Halama/Shutterstock)

On the island of Madagascar, black lemurs like to get high — and their supply is millipedes. Though these lemurs largely prefer eating fruits, on occasion they might grab a millipede, give it a bite and rub the toxin it sprays all over themselves. Scientists think this secretion acts as a form of natural pesticide, helping to keep unwanted beasties away. In the process, the lemur also gets its kicks.

Though certainly unusual, black lemurs aren’t the only species to practice zoopharmacognosy — or self-medication. Many other species rub, munch or lick their way to health in different ways. Not all of them, however, get a buzz out of it.

Read More: 4 Ways Animals Adapt To Life In The Rainforest

4. Fishing Cat

(Credit: Vladimir Wrangel/Shutterstock)

Most cat owners can attest that their fluffy feline friends aren’t too fond of water. But that’s not true of the fishing cat. This species of small cat, found across South Asia, is well adapted to a semi-aquatic life and lives in mangroves, marshlands and riversides. Equipped with partially webbed front toes, the fishing cat is a strong swimmer.

It also sports a kind of “thermal underwear,” a short layer of fur beneath its coat that offers a certain amount of waterproofing; this enables the cats to spend time hunting in water.

Read More: These Rare Adaptations Help Animals Survive in the Desert

5. Crypt Keeper Wasp

(Credit: Scott P. Egan, Kelly L. Weinersmith, Sean Liu, Ryan D. Ridenbaugh, Y. Miles Zhang, Andrew A. Forbes/CC BY-SA 4.0/Wikimedia Commons)

The parasitic crypt keeper wasp’s evolutionary trait is straight out of a horror show. The wasp lays its eggs in the hollows of oak trees, right next to those of other wasps like Bassettia pallida.

The crypt keeper’s larvae then burrow into the bodies of Bassesttia hatchlings and, when it comes time to hatch, prohibit them from chewing their way out of what has become a tomb; scientists are unsure how the crypt keeper achieves this gruesome feat, though it's suspected to be a form of mind control. After the host is eaten, the young crypt keeper wasp slowly emerges through its victim’s head.

Read More: Researchers Discover 15 New Parasitic Wasps That Mind Control Spiders

6. Tardigrade

(Credit: Videologia/Shutterstock)

Matching up to the hardiness of the tardigrade is tough. With an evolutionary timeline that stretches back to the age of the dinosaurs, this miniature micro-animal — also known as the water bear — is renowned for its ability to survive extreme conditions. With bodies less than 1 millimeter in size, these critters can survive high doses of radiation, freezing conditions, extreme pressure and being launched into space.

Read More: Top 10 Snow Animals and How They Survive the Cold

They do so by entering into a “tun” state, in which their bodies dry out and curl into a tiny ball, entering a state of protective hibernation. Unfortunately, the tiny creature can’t tolerate high temperatures for a sustained period of time. Still, the tardigrade likely takes the ticket as the evolutionary equivalent of titanium.

FAQ About Animals With Unique Evolutionary Traits

What Is a Maned Wolf?

The maned wolf is a unique species native to South America, resembling a large fox with elongated limbs. Unlike true wolves, it has a reddish coat and primarily feeds on both plant and animal matter.

Where Does the Maned Wolf Live?

This species inhabits the open grasslands and scrub forests across Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina, and Bolivia. Its habitat choice is influenced by the availability of its varied diet, which includes small animals and fruits.

What Is a Peacock Mantis Shrimp?

The peacock mantis shrimp is a vibrant, colorful crustacean known for its incredibly strong and fast striking claws. It stands out for both its striking appearance and its exceptional hunting abilities.

Where Does the Peacock Mantis Shrimp Live?

It resides in the warm, tropical waters of the Indian and Pacific Oceans, often making homes in burrows on the ocean floor. These shrimps prefer coral reef environments and areas with plenty of hiding places.

What Is a Black Lemur?

The black lemur is a primate species indigenous to Madagascar, known for its striking sexual dimorphism. Males are predominantly black, while females display brown and white coloration.

Where Does the Black Lemur Live?

Black lemurs inhabit the tropical forests of northwestern Madagascar. Their arboreal lifestyle is well-suited to the dense, tree-filled environments of the island.

What Is a Fishing Cat?

The fishing cat is a relatively small but robust wild cat, known for its aquatic hunting skills. It's one of the few cat species adept at swimming and catching fish.

Where Does the Fishing Cat Live?

This species is primarily found in the wetland areas of South and Southeast Asia. It thrives in regions with dense vegetation and proximity to water bodies.

What Is a Crypt Keeper Wasp?

The crypt keeper wasp is a parasitic insect known for its unique life cycle that involves exploiting other wasp species. It's a small wasp that plays a fascinating role in the ecological interactions of its habitat.

Where Does the Crypt Keeper Wasp Live?

This wasp is native to the southeastern U.S., often found in wooded areas. It specifically targets the galls created by other wasp species for its reproductive cycle.

What Is a Tardigrade?

Tardigrades, commonly known as water bears, are microscopic organisms celebrated for their resilience to extreme conditions. They are capable of surviving in the most inhospitable environments on Earth and even in outer space.

Where Does the Tardigrade Live?

Tardigrades inhabit a variety of ecosystems globally, from deep ocean beds to mountainous regions, and are commonly found in moist areas like moss. Their ability to endure extreme environments makes them one of the most adaptable creatures on the planet.

Read More: Yes, Animals Create Culture and Pass It Along for Survival

This article was originally published on Sept. 26, 2022 and has since been updated by the Discover staff.

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