Weird and Wonderful Animal Adaptations

This week, New Scientist released two different articles about incredible animal abilities, namely porpoises’ sonar skills and spiders’ ever-changing body clocks. Popular TV programmes like The Blue Planet, Planet Earth, and Life often show us the beauty and strength of nature and animals that cohabit the world with us. But what makes each animal special is the weird and wonderful abilities they possess. Basically, a lot of animals are pretty damn cool! Whether it be an obvious survival tactic, or a seemingly unnecessary trick, here is a list of some awesome animal abilities from the world!


Garden variety orb-weaving spider / Wikimedia Commons

Several species of orb-weaving spiders (those that literally make webs in the shape of orbs, or circles) have been found to reset their own body clocks to avoid daily jet-lag by up to 5 hours! These arachnids’ internal body rhythms were recently studied by biologist Darrell Moore, and his team, from East Tennessee State University. The study involved exposing these little guys to periods of constant darkness, as well as shifts of delayed sunlight, using artificial light sources. Arach-tivity and responses to a delay or absence of light was constantly recorded, and showed several different results. In comparison to the normal circadian (24-hour) clock, three species have naturally quicker biological clocks (between 17.4 and 19-hour days), whereas two other species have considerably slower body clocks (averaging at either 28.2 or 28.5-hours a day). Intriguingly, one species lacked an internal body clock all together, with seemingly random activity patterns. Despite these variations, all the spiders seem to adjust to the normal 24-hour cycle when in the wild. Whilst in complete darkness these spiders work to their natural rhythms, but in the wilderness’ afternoon light productivity is delayed – encouraging web-weaving and food hunting pre-dawn, and pre-predator wake-up call!


The wood frog (Rana sylvatica), possesses the ability to freeze itself practically to death to cope with winter, and then re-awaken, or thaw out, when it’s all over. These frogs’ habitat covers a wide area from as south as the US state of Georgia, right up into Canada and the Arctic Circle, although it seems to be those which live in the cold, harsh north which can be revived from the deepest of freezes! The Alaskan wood frog was frozen at temperatures as low as -16 degrees Celsius, yet still returned to a completely healthy state. Jon Costanzo, of the Department of Zoology at Miami University in Ohio, has studied these antifreeze amphibians for over a quarter of a century. His most recent work has proven just how incredibly high and consistent the freeze tolerance is for these frogs. Able to survive for weeks with approximately two-thirds of their body water frozen, it is completely normal for them to also go for days, or even weeks, at a time without breathing or a heartbeat. Physical processes, like metabolic activity and waste production also almost all cease completely. It’s understandable considering that they’re basically a temporary icicle! This freeze-and-thaw process is only possible in the species due to the high concentration of cryptopectants, which are basically anti-freeze compounds and proteins throughout the frogs’ cells. The cryptopectants lower the freezing temperature of body tissues, preventing too much ice from forming internally, and keeping our little frozen friend alive!


Giant Tubeworms turn toxic water into food – who said you couldn’t get anything better than turning water into wine! The Giant Tubeworm (Riftia pachyptila) is a marine invertebrate, which inhabits the hydrothermal vents of the deepest parts of the ocean, up to 8000 feet below sea level and in utter darkness. Whilst one end of its body lives in the harsh seawater, sitting just above freezing temperatures, the other extends and sits in considerably warmer waters (c. 21 degrees Celsius, or just above room temperature). This unusual dual habitat is possibly for the maintenance of both the worms’ internal bacterial environment and formation of nutrients. These tubeworms have reproductive organs, and heart-like structures, but that’s where the similarities to most other animals ends. The tubeworm has no eyes (who needs to in complete darkness?!), and no gut or stomach, which is replaced by an internal bacteria sack of sorts. The water at that deep level is filled with toxic gasses and acid, mainly consisting of hydrogen sulphide. The internal bacteria ‘sack’ makes it possible for the marine worms to process this usually lethal hydrogen sulphide into an energy source. What’s toxic for other species, is nutritious for these tubeworms – less competition for food I guess!

A large concentration of Giant Tubeworms from the Galapagos / Wikimedia Commons

Porpoises (Phocoenidae family), like their close relations (the dolphin), use a biosonar system for communication and hunting – but more incredibly, we now know they can actually twist the laws of physics, and target prey to keep it in sight! Today there are six surviving species of porpoise which vary in size and weight, but all possess the ability to produce biosonar. The biosonar system of these marine mammals is a result of the combination of their metamaterials. The skull, tissue (fatty organ called the melon) and air in the head make up this metamaterial, and this is where completely non-directional sound waves are converted into a narrow and targeted laser of sound for hunting prey up to the 30 meters away! The term non-directional sound waves refers to the high frequency clicks which are emitted from the tiny sound structure within the porpoises’ head called the phonic lips. These little clicks give out sound waves, which, in theory, should be spread out and basically all over the place. However, scientists carrying out computed tomography (CT) scans and simulations have found just the opposite!

A Harbour Porpoise (Phocoena phocoena) / Wikimedia Commons

The tests demonstrate how the combination of the melon, the skull and air sacs in the head work together, reflecting, refracting and forcing the sound wave in a single direction. Not only are these creatures’ sound waves so well-targeted, but by simply compressing the melon with its facial muscles, a porpoise can easily follow a moving target by widening its beam of sound, and therefore it’s line of sight. The attempted escapee-fish don’t stand a chance!


The pistol shrimp can snap its claw so fast that it creates a pressure wave in the surrounding water. This may not sound impressive yet, but although minute in size, this wave produces a bang louder than a jet engine and hotter than the surface of the sun! Snapping shrimp, also known also as pistol shrimp, make up the large Alpheidae family, with over 1000 species! These shrimp have two specially shaped claws, one of which is enlarged. This claw is clearly important, if expendable, with the smaller claw growing and becoming the bigger of the two if the original is ever amputated. Handy (or claw-y), huh? When the claw is fully open, it clicks into place, water filling the socket. Then, when the claw closes rapidly, water is displaced from the socket, out through a very narrow groove, forming a jet stream, or cavitation bubble. This stream of water pressure, like with biosonar, can be used for both communication and hunting purposes. Computational methods from Koukouvinis and his team from City University, London, this year, simulated the structure and mechanism of this powerful claw. They concluded that it is both the shape, and the speed of closure which creates this pressure. But how can it be used as such an effective weapon under the sea?! Well, during the high velocity jet stream formation, a vortex roll-up (like a little whirlpool) is also formed around this. If fast enough, a strong depressurization leads to a cavitation (bubble) ring which quickly moves along the stream, collapses and rebounds, producing high pressure pulses, or stream. It packs quite a punch! If you want to see this stunner in action, check out the YouTube video below!


The Turritopsis dohrnii, a type of jellyfish found in the warm Mediterranean waters, is pretty much immortal. Instead of simply continuing to age, this jellyfish actually reverses it’s life-cycle! Through a process called morph rejuvenation, a fully formed, adult (medusa stage) jellyfish can return to a much younger state (juvenile polyp stage). What it is to be young again!? A mitochondrial genome study by Lisenkova and her team from the Vavilov Institute of General Genetics in Russia was recently published in February. So far, under lab conditions, ten consecutive regenerations have been observed. Unfortunately, in the real, much harsher world, these jellies don’t have the chance to live that long, either dying from disease or predators. Considering the human obsession with the concept of immortality, it’s unsurprising that the public exhibition of these jellyfish at Kyoto University’s Shirahama Aquarium was so popular. In this particular species of jelly, specific variant genes and polymorphic regions were identified, as well as a unique development of proton-pumping protein structures. These variations could begin to explain how the Turritopsis dohrnii are biologically able to rejuvenate themselves from their previously dissolved material into a stolon (connective remaining organisms, kind of like a skeleton) and a new life, where other jellies cannot. Finally, we’ve found an animal which seems to be able to accomplish the impossible – living forever…


Human Applications and the Future 

We are only now just beginning to discover the abilities and adaptations of these amazing animals! Studies on these particular species, and so many others, are pioneering much more interdisciplinary work in the field of science! And what I think is really cool are the potential application of these adaptations to solve human problems! We could soon see frozen frog tissue helping us to transport human organs longer, and more vital distances! In the future, our growing knowledge on adjusting to circadian clocks could develop help to cancer patients! The genetics of the immortal jellies could make life-extension possible for the human race! The possibilities are endless, and so is the list of weird and wonderful animals on this planet.


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