Nature, You Crazy

The classic superheroes captivate our admiration by wielding unearthly powers, but the world already holds within its many mysterious riches an array of animals whose talents seem to defy the laws of nature.

Invincibility: Tardigrades
Photo courtesy of Katexic Publications.

Meet the tardigrade, the chubby, eight-legged invertebrate that survived all five of Earth’s mass extinctions and that will likely be around long after you and everyone you know has gone down in the zombie apocalypse. This little guy responds to many nicknames, including “water bear” and “moss piglet,” but he’d rather not tell us how he earned them.

What we do know is that in spite of its plush, pillow-like appearance, the tardigrade is one of the toughest creatures on the entire planet, capable of withstanding boiling temperatures and radiation. They can even survive for decades without any water at all. In 2007, Swedish researcher K. Ingemar Jonsson from Kristianstad University launched tardigrades into low-earth orbit and found that most of them survived after exposure to the vacuum of space. Some of the females laid eggs while the satellite was in orbit.

These plump microorganisms possess the uncanny ability to slow their metabolisms to .01 percent of the normal rate in order to maintain a state of suspended animation for indefinite periods of time. While in this state, they shrivel into a dehydrated microscopic puff pastry, and they only reanimate when their cells come back into contact with water. With a fossil record that dates back 500 million years, it’s safe to say that the “moss piglet” is one of Earth’s crowning evolutionary accomplishments.

Super Immunity: Naked Mole Rat
Photo courtesy of Justin.

I’m not going to pretend that the naked mole rat is not the ugliest animal on this list, and quite possibly on the planet. There’s no getting around the fact that this animal looks like a cross between Lord Voldemort and a guinea pig, if that guinea pig had a botched bikini wax and a fingernail for a face. But this wrinkly, subterranean rodent has an impressive trick hidden up its—er—skin folds.

The naked mole rat possesses a natural substance called hyaluronan that renders it immune to cancer. The substance is an extracellular component that binds tissues together, and the naked mole rat produces it in quantities up to five times greater than those found in humans. Consequently, the naked mole rat lives longer than any other rodent species, with an average lifespan clocking in at 32 years. By comparison, the average house mouse lives only four years. Researchers continue to study the biology of these gnarly little guys in hopes of developing new methods of cancer treatment.

Super Speed…and Super Sight: Mantis Shrimp
Photo courtesy of prilfish.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the mantis shrimp is the most intimidating animal that has ever existed.

While they may appear to be the rainbow-clad rave ponies of the shrimp world, they are actually finely tuned murder machines equipped with supernatural vision and a punch equivalent to the velocity of a .22-caliber rifle. To put that another way, if humans could throw a ball at one-tenth the speed of a mantis shrimp’s punch, we would throw it into orbit. Their tiny shrimp fingers move so quickly—with roughly 10,000 times the force of gravity—that they cause the surrounding water to boil. When the bubbles collapse, they create a shockwave that rips the limbs right off of the mantis shrimp’s prey.

Photo courtesy of Charlene Mcbride.

To make matters worse for those of us concerned about what world domination would look like at the mercy of these lobster-like, limb-blasting ocean terrorists, the mantis shrimp can perceive an otherworldly array of colors, including UV light. Whereas the human eye implements three types of cones in order to perceive the visible spectrum, the mantis shrimp uses between 12 and 16 photoreceptors, or approximately four to five times the awesome. In short, you can run from the mantis shrimp, but you definitely can’t hide.

Invisibility: Cuttlefish
Photo courtesy of Peter Hellberg.

Congratulations, sea creatures, you sneaky super freaks of the deep, you win the evolution game again. This time around, I’m looking at you, cuttlefish.

For those who are not familiar, cuttlefish are the sweet-faced, dopey-eyed mollusks capable of shifting shape and masking themselves instantaneously against any background scenery. Like some of their cephalopod cousins, these masters of disguise possess pigment sacs called chromatophores that expand and contract in response to their environment, similarly to the iris of an eye. Cuttlefish make use of these specialized cells to pulsate phases of color across their bodies in rapid prismatic ripples that alarm predators and hypnotize prey.

In addition to mimicking shape and color more precisely than any other animal, the cuttlefish can also use its muscles to change the texture of its skin in order to resemble kelp or coral.

Feature photo courtesy of greyloch.