Image: Hans Hillewaert
Japanese Spider Crab
Life, in all its varied forms, can be described in many ways. ‘Astounding’, ‘beautiful’ and ‘majestic’ are just a few of the words that spring to mind while looking at some of our planet’s living things. Yet watch a spider scuttle across a desk and words like ‘horrific’ and ‘terrifying’ suddenly feel far more apt. But what about those times when you come across a life form so strange-looking it seems to have come from a different planet altogether? Come with us on a whistle-stop tour of some of Mother Nature’s more ‘out-there’ creations.
Image: Steve Jurvetson
6. The Eagle Ray
The sea has long held a fascination for us. Maybe this is because its vast, unfathomable depths mean we will never be able to explore it all. Or perhaps it’s because every time enthusiasts do go underwater, there are so many things both strange and beautiful to be seen. Among these bizarre discoveries are some striking yet very odd-looking rays.
The ray family of fish glide through the water in the same way as a bird flies through the air. While rays normally move along the bottom of the ocean, this particular specimen, the eagle ray, travels in schools in the open water. These rays feed on other fish, octopi and clams, amongst other things, and, while they are usually shy, they are considered a potential threat to divers due to their venomous tail spines. They are beautiful, strange and dangerous all at once.
5. The Harlequin Shrimp
Another underwater oddity, the coral reef-dwelling harlequin shrimp is a colourful and dangerous predator. Unlike many other creatures – whether on sea or land – when a male meets a female shrimp they will become a monogamous pair for life. Although they are only small (reaching an average size of 2-5cm in length) they can be very territorial and vicious.
In the ultimate demonstration of Nature’s cruelty, a mated pair of harlequin shrimp will co-operate when it comes to preying on their favourite food, starfish. When a starfish is found the couple will work together to prize its arms from the rock it’s anchored to, and turn it over. They will then begin to feast, starting with its delicate feet and working inwards. Sometimes they will take it into a dark nook or cranny and continue to feed on it for days, or indeed keep it alive deliberately in order to feed on it later.
Image: Franco Folini
4. The Potato Bug
The potato bug, or, as it is also known, the Jerusalem cricket, is particularly disgusting looking. Ironically it isn’t actually a cricket, doesn’t like potatoes and certainly doesn’t come from Jerusalem. It does love to feed on dead material though, or other insects. It is also not uncommon for these unpleasant critters to burrow underground to get to decaying roots either.
Like crickets they do produce a unique song which is used to communicate during mating, made by the insect beating its abdomen against the ground. If they are played with they can give you a nasty bite, but it is by no means fatal. The potato bug can also give off a foul-smelling scent – making it doubly disgusting.
Image: Reg Mckenna
3. The Passion Fruit Flower
It’s not just fish and insects that can look a little alien. Plants, too, can sometimes seem like something from science fiction. Take the passion fruit flower. Most of us are familiar with passion fruit – these days it’s added to everything from fruit juices to ice cream. Something we may not be so well acquainted with, however, is the plant it grows on.
The plant itself is actually a vine, which grows vigorously and will cling to almost any surface with its small tendrils. The flower is fairly small (5-7.5 cm wide) and is best pollinated by bees: because the pollen is quite thick and sticky, wind pollination is ineffective. As well as its strange protrusions, strong blue and purple colours epitomise the flower, making it a striking plant to come across.
2. The Basket Stinkhorn
A weird fungus that looks like it should be growing on an alien planet somewhere. Originating in Europe, the basket stinkhorn can grow up to 20 cm tall and, like other fungi, feeds on decaying woody plant material – which is why it can be found at the base of trees. It gets its stinkhorn name from the amazingly horrible smell it produces to attracts flies. These flies then propagate the fungus’s spores, enabling it to spread.
This fungus gets its weird, alien appearance from the way it grows. Once it is established, the basket stinkhorn grows a series of spongy arms that entwine in a completely random manner to give it its unique look. Once fully grown there are usually between 80 and 120 holes in the mesh, allowing flies and other insects access to the fungi spores.
1. The Japanese Spider Crab
Crabs can be just as frightening as spiders. While some are small and innocuous, and can be either ignored or thrown out, others seem more like nightmares from some alien subconscious. The Japanese spider crab falls into the latter category. Often content to lurk in the murky depths of the sea – adults can be found at a depth of 2,000 ft – the Japanese spider crab is the biggest known arthropod on Earth. With a leg span reaching up to 13 ft, this terrifying creature can also weigh up to 41 pounds.
Living off a diet of animal carcasses or other shellfish, this crab can, in the right conditions, live for 100 years. Despite its size, it is thought to be a gentle crab, and yet injuries to people are not unheard of. Like other crabs it has been known to attach sponges and sea anemones to its shell to protect itself from predators – which brings to mind one question: what predators?
As exploration of the planet continues with ever more precise filming equipment, more and more strange, beautiful and utterly bizarre-looking plants and animals will be thrown up. If we ever needed a reminder of how amazing our planet is, all we have to do is look at the plethora of life that has evolved on, or under, its surface. We may deem some of these species glorious and others terrifying, but ultimately it’s up to us to ensure that future generations have the chance to make the same judgements too.