Planet Earth

How Animals Suck: 9 Creatures That Slurp Creatively

Moths that steal tears while their victim sleeps, bats with tongues that start near their hearts, and more animals with weird techniques for eating and drinking.


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news
Photo Credits: All text by Andrew Moseman. Image: Wikimedia Commons / Hans Hillewaert

For animals like us, eating seems pretty simple: You bite the food directly, or you use arms to shovel it in. But that's far from the only way to do it. Across the animal kingdom there are numerous creative ways to ingest food and drink--some gross, some conniving, and some wonderfully weird. These are a few of our favorites.

Polychaeta are a class of worms that are commonly called bristle worms because of the many bristles that help them move around. But they also have a bizarre way of ingesting: an axial proboscis (pictured at right) that researchers liken to a retractable elephant trunk. It's actually inside the worm's body, and after the worm deploys it to catch food it flexes muscles that retract it.

Photo Credits: Image: Roland Hilgartner / Mamisolo Raoilison

If you're a snoozing bird, that is. Madagascar has more than its fair share of odd animals, and that includes this moth with a fearsome proboscis it uses to snatch the tears of birds.

There's no shortage of tear-stealers on mainland Africa, but those typically exploit animals too big to swat them or to flee. With a bird, you have to be more careful. So the moth strikes at night, using its barbed implement to peel back the bird's double eyelid.

This moth isn't a tearjerker; it's a tear-drinking jerk.

Photo Credits: Image: Nathan Muchhala

You may have heard about the extraordinary tongue of the chameleon, the longest compared to its body size for all vertebrates. But within mammals, that honor goes to Anoura fistulata, the tube-lipped nectar bat discovered in the cloud forests of Ecuador.

While some of its relatives can extend their tongues an inch and a half, this bat's tongue can reach an astonishing 3.4 inches, or more than one and a half times its body length. This gives it access to the nectar inside bell-shaped flowers that no other bat can reach, and it's possible because the tongue is anchored deep inside the bat's rib cage, between its heart and sternum. That lends it this extra leverage.

Photo Credits: Image: Wikimedia Commons / Martin Rizzo

The vicious thorns of the acacia tree, insects flying around the eyes--these are no match for the tongue of the giraffe, one of the longest in the animal kingdom.

Besides its prodigious span, the giraffe tongue is also marked by its distinct bluish-black color. Some zoologists think this may be a way to keep the tongue from getting sunburned, since it spends so much time outside the animal's mouth.

Photo Credits: Image: Wikimedia Commons / Lonnie Huffman

Hawk moths aren't the most svelte or slender fliers. But when you can unfurl a 14-inch long proboscis, who cares? Like nectar bats, many species of hawk moths (sometimes called sphinx moths) can reach nectar inaccessible to other flying creatures. Instead of keeping their appendages tucked deep inside, though, the moths keep theirs curled up until they need them.

Famously, Charles Darwin predicted that there must have been moths with exceedingly long proboscises in Madagascar after he saw the orchids from that island with deeply recessed nectar. Those moths weren't discovered until after the great naturalist's death, so he was posthumously proven correct.

Photo Credits: Image: Wikimedia Commons / Joey Makalintal

No, they're not elephants. And technically, they're not even shrews. But it's not hard to see how elephant shrews got their name. This insectivorous African animal uses that glorious and elongated nose to hunt down spiders, worms, and insects, and then suck them up like an anteater does.

Biologists in the past believed these creatures were related to true shrews, hedgehogs, or maybe even primates and rabbits. But, it seems, they are rather their own distinct order dating back millions of years, and a new species turned up in Tanzania just two years ago.

Photo Credits: Image: Wikimedia Commons / National Park Service

As is the case the elephant shrews, it's clear where this handsome fellow, the star nose mole, gets his moniker. That star nose is made of 22 separate tentacles covered in 160,000 sensors per square inch, according to the PBS Nature episode "The Beauty of Ugly," which featured the mole. When it burrows, those tentacles can touch 12 different objects every second, appearing to the human eye as no more than a pink blur of activity. With this ability, it takes less than a second for the star-nose mole to devour its prey, often worms or insects.

As we said about naked mole rats in our gallery of weird lab animals, you've got to be tough and talented if you're this ugly. Star nose moles certainly are.

Photo Credits: Image: Wikimedia Commons / M.Buschmann

The scientific name for barnacles is Cirripedia, and the "cirri" means those weird feathery limbs you see here on goose barnacles. When the barnacle glues itself to its home, be that a rock or a ship's hull, it goes front end-first. These odd appendages then emerge from its back end to pull in plankton to eat.

Photo Credits: Image: flickr / ZeroOne

While pigeons might seem dirty, dumb, and fill you with the urge to poison them in the park, the ubiquitous urban birds are actually quite clever, as research examples have shown. Not only that, they use their beaks like straws to suck up water, while most other birds have to rely on getting a few drops in their mouths and then tilting their heads backward to let the water trickle down their throats. On second thought, perhaps I'll let the pigeons live.

1 free article left
Want More? Get unlimited access for as low as $1.99/month

Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

1 free articleSubscribe
Magazine Examples
Want more?

Keep reading for as low as $1.99!


Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

More From Discover
Recommendations From Our Store
Shop Now
Stay Curious
Our List

Sign up for our weekly science updates.

To The Magazine

Save up to 70% off the cover price when you subscribe to Discover magazine.

Copyright © 2021 Kalmbach Media Co.