For humans, superpowers are the stuff of fiction. But in the animal world there are a surprising number of species that really do have what appear to be superpowers. From jellyfish that never die to dung beetles that can lift 1,141 times their own weight and parasites that practice mind control, the animal kingdom displays an astounding range of superpowers.
20. Immortal jellyfish
The immortal jellyfish is a bizarre creature that has an extraordinary attribute – it is effectively immune to death. Found in the seas off the coast of Japan and in the Mediterranean, the immortal jellyfish can, at any stage in its life, revert to the polyp form. This is the part of its life cycle that comes after the creature has been nothing more than an egg. It can do this if it’s threatened by environmental changes, or even if it’s cut with scissors in the lab.
19. Naked mole rat
The naked mole rat’s appearance alone makes it a freak of nature. But this clever little creature has another incredible power – it scarcely feels pain. In scientific terms, the naked mole rat feels no pain because it doesn’t have a neurotransmitter called substance P that is found in all other mammals. Substance P is what transmits pain to your brain when you smash your thumb with a hammer.
The alien-looking tardigrade is a segmented beast with eight legs that measures about 1/32in long and usually lives in water. This beast’s superpower is the ability to survive just about anywhere, even in conditions that would certainly kill any other animal. Temperatures of down to -458°F or up to 300°F are fine for the tardigrade, as are radiation levels 100 times those fatal to humans. And they can do without food or water for up to 30 years. They’re tough.
17. Hairy frog
A frog with hair is a pretty freaky concept to start with, but that’s not even the weirdest thing about this creature. It can fracture its own bones to form claws. It breaks those in its feet into the shape of talons, which it can project and retract at will. Under threat, the frog sticks out the sharpened claws, enough to deter all but the most determined of predators.
16. Mimic octopus
As its name suggests, this creature’s superpower is the ability to mimic. In fact, the mimic octopus actually has the attributes of a shapeshifter since it can actually change its form to resemble that of other species that live in its vicinity. This, of course, is very helpful if you want to lull your neighbors into a false sense of security so you can catch and eat them. Alternatively, the octopus can imitate poisonous species to deter predators.
15. Duck-billed platypus
Peculiar is a rather understated way to describe the duck-billed platypus. A native of Australia, the platypus combines the feet of an otter, the bill of a duck and the tail of a beaver, and it’s one of only five mammals that lay eggs. As if that wasn’t enough oddness for one species, the platypus also has the ability to find its prey by generating electrical pulses from its muscles, a handy superpower indeed.
14. Leaf beetles
You might want to skip this entry if you’re eating your lunch. Various members of the leaf beetle family have a unique defense mechanism, called a fecal shield. Basically, they fashion a shield from their own excrement, mixed with bits of broken shell. They then mount this fecal shield on their backs as a protection against predators. Trying this at home is not recommended.
The humble flea has plagued humans for millennia, not to mention cats and dogs, and a wide variety of other animals. But the flea does have its very own superpower – its astonishing jumping ability. In fact, the flea can jump 100 times its own height. Let’s say the average adult human height is a modest five feet six inches. To equal the flea, that notional human would need to leap 550 feet. Actually, the current men’s world high jump record is a tad over eight feet.
12. Spinoloricus cinziae
With its discovery only reported as recently as 2010, Spinoloricus cinziae has no common name. Scientists found it in sediment in the 2.2 mile-deep L’Atalante basin of the Mediterranean Sea. This 1/25in-long jellyfish-like organism’s claim to fame is the fact that it can survive completely without oxygen. That’s a trick that no other known animal can match.
11. Dung beetle
You’ve probably seen dung beetles on nature shows – they’re the ones that tirelessly roll balls of dung around. Slightly distressingly, that dung is also their food. But despite these unsavory culinary habits, the dung beetle does have one outstanding superpower – its strength. A dung beetle can lift 1,141 times its own weight. That’s the equivalent of a human lifting about 10 African elephants, which you’d have to catch first.
10. Black bear
The formidable black bear, a North American native, is a powerful hunter, and one of its favorite foods is fish, especially salmon. Researchers have discovered that it can find its prey at a distance of 18 miles away, by using its superpower – the sense of smell. Dogs are also known for their keen sense of smell, but the black bear’s nose outmuscles them by a factor of seven.
9. Wood frog
Widely distributed in various parts of North America including Alaska, the Appalachians and North Carolina, the wood frog’s superpower is its high tolerance to extreme cold. In fact, this amphibian can actually survive most of its blood and tissue being literally frozen. As long as the proportion of water in its body that is frozen does not exceed 65 percent, the wood frog will be happily hopping around again once the weather warms.
8. Sea cucumber
Sea cucumbers – which of course have nothing to do with the salad vegetable – come in a bewildering range of shapes and sizes. The one pictured here is appropriately called a red-lined sea cucumber. But they all have an amazing superpower. Sea cucumbers can perform a trick that effectively means that they liquefy their bodies. This allows them to squeeze into tight crevices where they’re safe from predators.
7. Shocking pink dragon millipede
One of nature’s more colorful creatures, the shocking pink dragon millipede is a spiny critter. And you’d be well advised to steer clear of it if you come across one in its native habitat, the limestone caves of Thailand. This millipede actually smells of almonds, and that’s because it has glands that excrete hydrogen cyanide. Yikes.
6. Pistol shrimp
Also going by the name of snapper shrimp, the many species of pistol shrimp are armed and extremely dangerous. Its weapon is actually its claw, which is adapted to shoot out bubbles of air. This might sound fairly tame, but the velocity of these bubbles, up to 63mph, and the noise they make, is such that the acoustic pressure can stun and even kill small fish.
5. Electric eel
The first essential fact about the electric eel is that it is not an eel. It is, in fact, a type of knifefish. But its deceptive name makes it no less electric. It actually has three internal organs that produce an electric charge. Although this is powerful enough to stun the electric eel’s prey, humans, at any rate healthy adults, have little to fear other than a sharp shock since the electrical charge produced is not strong enough to be fatal.
4. Pit viper
The many species of pit viper – the one pictured here is a brown-spotted pit viper from Thailand – are venomous snakes native to the Americas and Eurasia. The pit viper’s extraordinary superpower is in its pit organs, set on the snake’s face. These are actually heat sensors and the snake can track down its prey by sensing the heat it emits from as far away as several feet.
A range of animals use camouflage either to hide from predators or to get close to prey, but the cuttlefish is the master of the art in the animal kingdom. The cuttlefish, which is actually a mollusk rather than a fish, does this by having not just the ability to change color at will, but also the capacity to change shape.
The many species of salamander come in a huge range of sizes and colors and many types have the miraculous and highly useful superpower of autotomy. Autotomy is the ability to regenerate a lost body part, and it’s quite common for lizards to regrow lost tails. But, as well as tails, salamanders can grow entire new limbs within a matter of weeks. They can even regrow retinas.
1. Toxoplasma gondii
You might well think that the superpower of the Toxoplasma gondii is the weirdest and most disturbing of all. This microscopic parasite seems to have the power to control the mind of its prey. It starts by infecting mice and making them lose their fear of cats. That’s because it actually wants to parasitize the cat, which it can do if the cat eats the mouse. Once inside the cat, it reproduces in its intestines. In fact, Toxoplasma gondii infects many animals, including humans, although healthy adults seem not to suffer any symptoms and the parasite can only reproduce in cats.