In July 2017 Andreas Kay was roaming through the Ecuadorian portion of the Amazon rainforest. The Amazon is obviously known to be one of the most biologically diverse regions in the world, so Kay was prepared to come across some unusual creatures throughout the course of his travels. But even so, one tiny critter was so utterly bizarre-looking that it completely stole the man’s attention.
Andreas Kay is a scientist seeking to examine Ecuador’s rich natural environment. Since 2011, in fact, he has been capturing images of creatures and plants found in the country and uploading them to the internet. So far, he has shared more than 25,000 such pictures.
The sheer number of Kay’s photographs is a testament to the spectrum of life contained within the Amazon. After all, Kay has only been recording plants and animals within the Ecuadorian section of the rainforest; the forest actually spreads across eight other countries. Most of it, in fact, lies in Brazil, Peru and Colombia.
It is also thought to be about 55 million years old, emerging from the Eocene period of Earth’s history. And all in all, the Amazon serves as more than 50 percent of Earth’s surviving rainforest and contains roughly 390 billion trees.
These many billions of trees are split into about 16,000 different species. The sheer range of plant species in general found in the Amazon is actually more varied than in any other region around the world. As it stands, for example, more than 40,000 different species of plant have been recorded there.
Of course, the array of animal life in the Amazon is also profoundly broad. Some 2.5 million different kinds of insects have been recorded there, for instance. And this is on top of 2,200 species of fish, almost 1,300 kinds of bird and more than 400 types of mammal. New species continue to be discovered regularly too.
One report from 2017, in fact, suggests that a previously undiscovered type of plant or animal is recorded in the Amazon every two days. So it could hardly come as a surprise for Andreas Kay to stumble upon some unusual creatures during one of his ventures. Yet he must surely have gotten a jolt upon coming across a creature known as Metagryne bicolumnata.
Metagryne bicolumnata are a type of arachnid that belong to the Opiliones order. The Opiliones are more commonly referred to as harvestmen or daddy longlegs. And Metagryne bicolumnata have themselves been given a more colloquial name based on their bizarre appearance: the bunny harvestmen.
To put it plainly, Kay’s photographs reveal a creature that looks to be some combination of a spider and a dog or a rabbit. “Footage shows that this curious creature has a dark body with a pair of eye spots situated on its back,” Kay himself wrote in a blog post accompanying his images. “[The creature’s] awkward ‘bunny ears’ rise above from the edge of its abdomen. Crazy!”
In actuality, the critters are not rabbits, dogs or even spiders. Yes, in spite of their eight legs, harvestmen are not actually classified as spiders. And the yellow dots on the bunny harvestmen are not, in fact, eyes.
The creatures’ actual eyes are located just below the yellow dots. We can see them as two black circles, looking like the nose of a rabbit or dog. But if these yellow dots don’t serve the creatures’ sight, then what are they for? And why have the critters evolved to look this way in general? Scientists are yet to provide a sufficient answer.
Kay himself has a theory, however. In his blog post, the scientist explained his hypothesis. “Maybe the eye spots and ear-like protuberances are meant to fool predators into thinking the creature is larger than it really is,” he wrote. This theory is yet to be properly examined, of course.
In fact, it seems that scientists have given little thought or effort to the bunny harvestman. Yet Kay was far from the first to discover the creature. A German called Carl Friedrich Roewer actually documented it way back in 1959. But since that time, researchers have produced only a small number of papers on the animal.
So it is possibly the fact that so little is known about the bunny harvestman – in addition to its bizarre appearance – that has so thoroughly captured people’s attentions recently. Because in November 2018 a science writer brought Kay’s images into the spotlight – and soon the online community was going wild for them.
The science writer who tweeted Kay’s images is named Ferris Jabr, and he has his own thoughts on the bunny harvestman’s appearance. “Clearly, it should be called The Grim,” he wrote in his tweet accompanying the images. This is a reference to a symbol of death that takes the form of a dog in the Harry Potter universe.
Other internet users simply debated whether the arachnid most resembled a dog or a bunny. One user specifically questioned its resemblance to a cute bunny rabbit, asking, “Who on this Earth looked at that monstrosity and called it the ‘Bunny Harvestman’?”
The bunny harvestmen won plenty of other fans, however. One user even went so far as to claim the creature was “actually kind of adorable.” This assessment is perhaps more astute as, despite its appearance, the harvestman is actually harmless.
Yet, when viewing most of the images of the bunny harvestman, one could be forgiven for thinking the arachnid to be a large beast. As one image shows, though, it is actually little bigger than the tip of a person’s finger.
Moreover, a bunny harvestman cannot produce venom. There is, however, a famous urban myth that claims harvestmen are among the most venomous creatures on Earth. This is a falsehood for multiple reasons. First and foremost is that no species of harvestman has ever been known to possess the glands required for producing venom.
As for the bunny harvestman specifically, more study will be required to gain a clearer understanding of it. For now, then, it remains something of a enigma, with an appearance like something totally unrelated to itself. Yet within the Amazon, the bunny harvestman is far from the only puzzling creature that resembles something else entirely.
Fulgora laternaria are a type of planthopper found in the Amazon as well as across Central and South America in general. They are known by a variety of different names, including alligator bugs and lantern flies. Given their appearance, however, perhaps the most appropriate name designated to the insects is the peanut bug.
Peanut bugs are so called because of the bulges at the tops of their heads. These peanut-resembling lumps are useful to the insects, as they serves to drive potential predators away. And given that the bugs’ mouths are incapable of biting, this is an important defensive feature.
Their peanut-shaped heads, however, are not the insects’ only defensive measure. When the things spreads their wings, for instance, they reveal colored spots resembling eyes. So it is thought that these false eyes serve to frighten away potential hunters.
Many other creatures make use of false eyes too. Indeed, several species of butterfly are adorned with these notable spots. But one type of butterfly in particular looks uncannily like another flying animal: the owl.
Owl butterflies are also found in the Amazon as well as in other rainforests across Central and South America. They are even found as far north as Mexico. They can grow to quite a large size too: sometimes close to eight inches.
The spots on the wings of owl butterflies may, for humans, resemble the large eyes of an owl. But it is suspected that this is not actually the case for the creatures’ natural predators. According to the theory of Batesian mimicry, the spots would resemble not an owl’s eyes but rather the eyes of a reptile such as a lizard.
Yet though peanut bugs and owl butterflies possess ingenious defense measures, it’s difficult to suggest that the creatures are subtle. In fact, with owl-resembling wings and heads the shapes of nuts, it’s fair to say that the creatures somewhat call for a bit of attention. Insects within the Tettigoniidae family, on the other hand, are considerably more sophisticated in their abilities to stay hidden.
There are more than 6,400 different species of Tettigoniids, and they come in different sizes: anywhere between 1/5 inch and 5 inches. They also exhibit cryptic qualities to ensure that they are undetected by predators. In essence, this means that they can fool other animals into thinking they are leaves.
Tettigoniids are found in every continent of the world, excluding Antarctica. They do, however, tend to live in tropical climates. It’s not surprising, then, that the Amazon is home to more than 2,000 different species.
Even if you consider individuals within specific species of Tettigoniid, however, you would find considerable diversity. It is thought, after all, that almost 22 percent of each Tettigoniidae species was recorded as new, due to the level of diversity between individual insects. The reason for this diversity, it is hypothesized, is partly down to monkeys.
Monkeys are prime consumers of Tettigoniids, and they search for the insects by sifting through plants. Monkeys are smart creatures, so if all members of the Tettigoniidae species looked the same, they would probably eventually learn to identify them. But with so many distinctions between individual Tettigoniids, the monkeys seemingly cannot get used to a single identifying feature.
Yet while the Tettigoniids are wonderfully adept in disguising themselves, many other creatures can do so too. In fact, there are animals other than insects that are experts in camouflage. The potoo, for example, is a type of bird found in tropical regions of the world. There are numerous species found in countries such as Argentina and Mexico – but most are in the Amazon.
Potoos are nocturnal birds, meaning that they are active at night time. During the day, in fact, they spend their time in an immobile state, resting upon branches. But you needn’t worry for the potoo: just because they rest in broad daylight does not mean that they are overly exposed.
That’s because potoos’ feathers serve to conceal the bird from any potential predators. They are able to do this by giving off the appearance of tree bark. So when a potoo rests on a branch, it is virtually indistinguishable from the log itself.
Potoos’ eyes, in contrast to its subtle feathers, are extremely large and conspicuous, so they shut them during the day. Yet even so, the birds can perceive movement through small gaps at the bottoms of their eyelids – giving them another fighting chance of survival.
So the Amazon is evidently a treasure trove of bizarre and fascinating creatures. New species are being recorded regularly, and even many of those already discovered are by no means fully understood. Yet, unfortunately, those seeking to learn more about these plants and animals must also face up to the reality that they are under threat.
Deforestation represents a great threat to the Amazon and the plants and animals residing within it. In fact, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), deforestation in the Amazon has already seen 20 percent of its trees destroyed. The group further predicts that this will rise to 27 percent by 2030.
This level of habitat loss would have an adverse effect on global warming too. It could also ruin any chances of ever documenting previously unknown species of the Amazon’s plants and animals. This was a warning that Sarah Hutchison, a prominent figure within WWF’s fight to protect the Amazon, gave after the publication of a 2017 report highlighting the issue.
“We are only at the tip of the iceberg when it comes to unveiling the incredible species that live in the Amazon,” Hutchison pointed out. “Yet instead of this precious area being safeguarded, it is under greater threat than ever before. There is a real risk that, at the rate at which the Amazon is changing, many species may become extinct before we have had a chance to find them.”
Between 2002 and 2006, however, the rate of deforestation in the Amazon fell by about 60 percent. Today, much more needs to be done, yet this 60 percent drop illustrates that positive change is possible. And if this change occurs, maybe fascinating creatures such as the bunny harvestman will be allowed to thrive. We might even one day learn to understand these and other mysterious Amazonian creatures with more clarity.