The Crown-of-Thorns Starfish

This is the Crown-of-Thorns Starfish, which, as you can guess from its name, is a lovable creature and a true friend to all.

Notice how everything else in this picture is dead.
Seen here bringing a little colour to a dead, decaying underwater hellscape.

The Crown-of-Thorns starts its life like any other starfish – five arms and radial symmetry – but the older it gets, the more the arms split, and the more spikes sprout from its nasty Hellraiser skin. Eventually, it will turn into a huge barbed disk with a frill of arms, blindly feeling its way across the ocean floor, looking for food.

And for the Crown of Thorns Starfish, food means coral. Not just the animals that live there – the coral itself.

The starfish is a problem because it eats the very creatures that make up the reef, and is difficult for other animals to stop. Methodically, it moves across the reef, killing and consuming the coral, cracking the ecosystem apart from the bottom up.

What’s worse, in many parts of the world human-induced chemical runoff has caused plankton to bloom, creating the perfect conditions for an uncontrollable starfish “outbreak”. One such outbreak has destroyed 42% of the Great Barrier Reef in the last 15 years.

Like a Resident Evil monster in every way that matters.
They’re like a Resident Evil monster in every way that matters.

Notice how it’s pretty tough to tell them apart in the photo above – there’s just too many of them, too crammed together.

Like that, they move over the marine landscape, and leave only the coral skeletons behind. Made brittle without their owners, the coral skeletons usually break apart in the next storm, and the reef is destroyed. On the wreckage, algae will grow, and the ecosystem will change completely.

Before.
Before.
Mad Max: Ocean Edition
After.

The phalanx can defend itself, too. Like regular, non-evil starfish, the Crown-of-Thorns has a body full of saponins – chemicals which act like a natural detergent.

Keeping one of these starfish in an enclosed pool will quickly have it foaming, like bubble bath, but whatever you do, don’t light a few candles and put some Barry White on. The Crown-of-Thorns got its name for a reason, and it is covered in sharp spikes, intended to punch deep into flesh and get the saponins into the wound. Regular bubble bath stings your eyes; Crown-of-Thorns bubble bath stings wounds, and usually means massive swelling, crippling agony, and a trip to the hospital.

General rule of thumb for nature: if it's this brightly coloured, it is evil.
General rule of thumb for nature: if it’s this brightly coloured, it is evil.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, the spines also have a nasty habit of breaking off deep inside a predator or an errant foot, resulting in some quality time spent with the nearest surgeon.

So, I guess we just sit back, keep our hands and arms away from the starfish and let it eat all the reefs ever, right?

Think again, you spiky asshole starfish.
Think again, you spiky 5-to-28-armed asshole.

The defence of the reefs has to come from two angles – eliminating the chemical runoff that’s causing the starfish outbreaks, and culling the existing population back down to their natural, non-apocalyptic numbers.

Three boat crews on the Great Barrier Reef are deployed every year to try to bring the starfish population down, with divers injecting each one with ox bile and moving on. It’s a race against time, trying to beat the starfish’s phenomenal reproductive speed, and the bile is expensive and difficult to store and use.

Recently, however, it was discovered that normal household vinegar does the same job with a 100% starfish kill rate. Much cheaper, available in any supermarket and easy to store, ocean tests are underway now to see whether it may hold the key to saving the reefs.

The other side of the rescue, however, is not going well. The industrial and agricultural runoff that creates the outbreaks has continued without rest – the conditions are perfect for another endless swarm.

Alien biology, venomous spikes, mindless swarm eating all living things, created by pollution... It's like a Monster Movie checklist.
Alien biology, venomous spikes, a mindless horde eating all living things, created by pollution… It’s like a checklist for monster movie creatures.

All we need to do to stop the outbreaks forever is cut back on the pollution of the oceans.

That should be easy, right?

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The Pistol Shrimp

Imagine that you worked out, but only one of your arms. Imagine you pumped so much iron and drank down so many protein shakes that your one muscular arm grew almost as large as your whole body, and you could clap so loud that the people around you literally died.

You’ve just successfully imagined being the Pistol Shrimp.

Because when I say “shrimp” you say “giant sonic terror claw”.

The pistol shrimp’s arm has a goddamn cannon built into it. To go hunting, the shrimp picks a concealed spot, like a burrow, a bit of coral or a little underwater grassy knoll, and waits, antennae sensing the water for prey.

When something edible swims too close, the shrimp pulls the hammer on its claw back, “loading” it.

“Safety’s off, Sarge.”

That claw then snaps shut, creating a blast of sound. The water ahead of the shrimp briefly spikes to 5000°C, or the temperature of the fucking sun. There’s even a flash of light, caused by the sheer force of the collapsing vacuum in the water.

The prey is hammered by the shockwave, and stunned or killed. After that, the shrimp can drag them into its sniper nest and munch at its leisure.

Pictured: a regular shrimp meeting a pistol shrimp.

What’s more, they can’t be disarmed. If a pistol shrimp loses its cannon-arm, presumably to the oceanic equivalent of Jason Bourne, it will regenerate as a normal claw – while its other arm grows to monstrous size and becomes a cannon arm.

Try to take the gun away, and it just switches hands.

Pistol Shrimp are found all over the world, with members blasting their way across tropical waters, up into temperate coasts and in freshwater caves. However, these lunatic sniper shrimp are drifting further North than ever before – a pair were found by an English fisherman off the coast of the UK this year, and they are increasingly being fished up outside their usual ranges, hopefully by fishermen in bomb-proof blast suits.

The only explanation is that they are being pushed North by climate change, and while the shrimps themselves are fine with this, the fish and crustacean species already in their new shooting gallery aren’t – any invasive predator is bad news, and one with such an unstoppable hunting strategy is even worse.

What’s more, some of them are even eusocial, like bees, wasps and ants. The Synalpheus genus, which lives in sea sponges, forms colonies of a single “Queen” female, hundreds of workers, and hundreds of soldiers, all armed with the pistol shrimp’s shockwave cannon.

You know what happens next.

Little underwater trenches and little underwater artillery emplacements.

BLAM.
BLAM.

Be right back, I just had a great idea for a SyFy Original script.

Dan

The Secretary Bird

I, for one, am a little annoyed that dinosaurs don’t still walk the Earth.

I can stroll down the street without seeing a single Triceratops or Brachiosaurus, and while that makes me sad, it’s Velociraptor that I really miss. I wish there was a crazy, hip-high, feather-covered predator running around in our time, hunting in packs, literally kickboxing its prey to death left, right and centre, but alas, it’s not to-

Oh.
Oh.

That is the Secretary Bird, the feathery MMA champion of the African Savannah.

Standing at up to 1.3m tall (or over 4 feet) it’s immediately recognisable, with long legs like a crane or flamingo, and a head like an eagle. It even has the distinct colouration and black belt that hints at its true nature – it might strut around like a crane, but this is not a dainty fish-eater.

The Secretary Bird eats venomous snakes.

Unusually for a bird of prey, it spends most of the time on the ground, stomping around. This is where its crazily long legs come in useful – they are armoured with heavy scales and long enough to keep the bird’s body out of reach of most of its prey.

The heavy stomping will disturb any hiding creatures, and the bird’s keen eyes will direct its boot straight to them. The Secretary Bird then reenacts its favourite bits of American History X and Fight Club, kicking the prey to death with repeated strikes that land with up to four times the force of the bird’s weight.

That’s like a boxer landing punches at more than a ton of force each, and then eating you afterwards. Or being hunted by predatory telephone poles.

Rule 1. of "Being Eaten By A Big Bird Club" is "Don't talk about Being Eaten By A Big Bird Club."
Rule 1. of “Being Eaten By A Big Bird Club” is “Don’t talk about Being Eaten By A Big Bird Club.”

All that isn’t to say that the Secretary Bird can’t fly. Oh no. Like all kung fu movie villains, the Secretary Bird has no problem following you into the air.

Pictured: the most literal "flying kick" ever.
Pictured: the most literal “flying kick” ever.

The Secretary Bird even takes its “if velociraptors could fly” gimmick to incredible new levels with its truly sinister alternative hunting techniques.

The bird usually hunts in pairs, but can actually form loose “flocks” which move through the undergrowth together, flushing out prey for one another like the kitchen scene in Jurassic Park. These flocks are particularly fond of waiting by the edge of wildfires, where they ambush the panicked creatures fleeing the blaze. The prey are then KO’d and swallowed whole, or lifted into the air and dropped to their deaths.

Pictured: A breeding pair of secretary birds hunting for mice, National Geographic
Pictured: A breeding pair of secretary birds hunting for mice, National Geographic Magazine

There are even reports of Secretary Birds attacking young gazelles and cheetah cubs, although these are rare – when you’re as good at your job as the secretary bird, you don’t need to look elsewhere for food.

Despite initially taking well to their loss of habitat, and stalking farmland as if it was savannah, the Secretary Bird is now facing a range of new challenges, and is listed as “Vulnerable” by the IUCN.

Deforestation of the acacia trees in which it roosts are one main cause of problems, denying the birds their secure nests, but pesticide use, alongside general brush encroachment and desertification of their ranges, have all contributed to a plummet in numbers in recent years.

With the recent announcements concerning Environmental Policy, especially in the US and UK, these threats are not likely to go away, so it’s up to us. The Secretary Bird can’t flying-kick its way out of habitat loss: to protect its ranges and make sure these incredible birds stay on this Earth, we have to do the flying kicks for it.

Not literally, unless you have to.

That rubber snake is climate change, and you are the secretary bird. Give 'em hell.
That rubber snake is climate change, and you are the secretary bird. Give ’em hell.

Dan

The Pangolin

Pangolins are cool, but man, are they weird.

Really weird.
Really weird.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that’s a goofier Sandslash – it totally is.

sandslash

The pangolin is far more than just scales and being beaten by Water-Types, though. It’s got all kinds of tricks up its heavily-armoured sleeves.

For starters, the armour itself. Pangolins are covered in thick scales made of keratin – the same stuff that makes hair, nails, rhino horns and other stylish mammalian outerwear. The scales interlock to create a suit of armour that goddamn lions can’t get through, which, since they are found in Asia and Africa, is pretty nifty.

Notice how the fucking pride of lions is not currently eating the pangolin.
Notice how the fucking pride of lions in this photo are not currently eating the pangolin.

They can also roll into an almost perfect ball to avoid exposing any weak points to a predator, which you can see above, but here’s another photo anyway because honestly, how cute are they?

I want to hug it, even though that would be a terrible idea.
I want to hug it, even though that would be a terrible idea.

The name “pangolin” even comes from a Malay word, “pengguling” meaning “something that rolls up”.

I’m sensing some trepidation here. There must be a catch, right? This animal isn’t terrifying at all!

It must be awful to be right all the time.

The pangolin is not the scariest thing to us, but to its prey, it acts pretty much like fucking Godzilla. The pangolin eats ants and termites, which it unearths using its comically enormous earth-rending claws, shown here in a picture of a pangolin descending onto an urban center full of terrified ants.

A bug;s Life would have been a very different film with this thing in it.
A Bug’s Life would have been a very different film with this thing in it.

Once it’s torn the nest wide open, the pangolin uses a long sticky tongue (that can be as long as its entire body) to whip around the inside of the nest, into every nook and hollow, hoovering up ants wherever they try to hide. When the ants fight back, the pangolin’s scales, sealable ears and nostrils, and immensely thick eyelids prevent them from doing any damage. It seals up every weakness, and then annihilates the ants.

Rare footage from inside the ant's nest after the pangolin attack.
Rare footage from inside the ant’s nest during a pangolin attack.

There’s a reason I’m picking such a cute animal and pretending it’s scary this post instead of just picking any one of the actually scary animals out there: the pangolin is in real trouble.

It’s one of the most hunted animals in the world, with people killing them for their armour (which they use to make hideous clothing) or to break the scales up and sell them as a snake-oil miracle cure for everything from baldness to cancer. Their meat is prized, and their habitat is being destroyed.

All 8 species are listed as “Threatened with Extinction” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature – but all is not lost. The little goofballs have their own awareness day (World Pangolin Day, 21st Feb) and a charity dedicated to helping them – savepangolins.org.

You should check them out. The world’s better with little armoured, tongue-as-long-as-their-body, ant-terrorising mini-T-Rex walking pinecones in it. Its weirder and more interesting and just better.

Above: adorable, and only deadly if you're a termite.
Above: adorable, and only deadly if you’re a termite.

The Bobbit Worm

There’s just something about the ocean that encourages the growth of monsters.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s all kinds of awful life crawling, shambling, stalking and soaring above the water too, but once you go beneath the waves it’s as though the natural order ceases, and Nature is free to unleash the worst nightmares she cooked up in her teenage goth phase.

The oceans have the colossal squid, the moray eel, the Japanese spider crab, the goblin shark and thousands upon thousands of other deep-seated animate phobias that I am certain to write about at some point or another, but none of them, not one, really compares to The Bobbit Worm.

No no no, BOBBIT worm. A Bobbit worm is much bigger than this guy.

The Bobbit Worm was named after Lorena Bobbit, a woman who in 1993 cut off the penis of her husband with a knife.

At this point, I imagine you’re scratching your head. Why would you name a worm after a woman who cut off someone’s Johnson?

Oh, right. The giant shaft-mangling scissor jaws. Gotcha.
Oh, right. The giant shaft-mangling scissor jaws. Gotcha.

Those stupidly menacing shears are part of a complex jaw structure called a pharynx, which turns inside out to make for more efficient snagging of prey when it snaps shut.

And boy, does it snap shut. The jaw strikes of a Bobbit Worm are often so powerful that fish are cut clean in half. No screwing around, just bam. Darth Mauled. Once hopelessly impaled on the fangs of the monster worm, the prey is then pulled down into the sand, where it is eaten, presumably in a horrifying manner.

I say presumably because, well, we don’t know what happens down there. No-one has ever directly observed the inside of a Bobbit Worm burrow during snack time.

But feel free to stick your hand in there and have a feel around for what’s happening. There’s plenty of curious scientists out there who, for some reason, haven’t done that yet.

They’re a real scourge of aquariums, often being responsible for the disappearances of fish and other animals, or the mysterious maiming and bisection of their tankmates. They bury themselves in the sand, forming a murder-burrow with only their heads and a few inches of body showing, and so can be impossible to find without dismantling the entire tank.

Oh, and attempts to bait one of these mystery-aquarium-killers using hooks on wire failed a few times in aquariums in Newquay, Cornwall and Woking, Surrey, after the worms in question sliced through the wire to evade capture.

This on its own is creepy enough, but I forgot to mention that they usually show up around 10 feet long, or 3 meters if you’re more one for shitting yourself in metric tons. They’re the thing that every monster worm in every fantasy or horror movie wishes it was, with a rainbow shell to boot.

They have five antennae on their heads dedicated to finding more living things to slice up and drag into the sand, their jaws turn inside out for better flesh-rending, they drag their prey into sinister warrens beneath the ground, beneath the sea.

Fuck this worm. I’m out.
Dan

(image credit for image 1 – http://www.g4tv.com, image 2 – http://www.youtube.com (Bobbit Worm vs Lion Fish, image 3 – http://www.flickr.com (Bobbit Worm Attack by Jason Isley, image 4 – Nadine Kalinauskas, Daily Buzz)

The Tailless Whip Scorpion

It’s been over a month, you think, he hasn’t posted anything new. It’s probably safe to go back on the internet without having some unspeakable, skin-crawling abomination of nature appear on your computer screen.

WRONG
WRONG!

This is the tailless whip scorpion or “whip spider”. It is, unsurprisingly, a relative of spiders, scorpions and other arachnids, and, if you look closely, you will see that it is somehow worse than all of them. Combining the flat, armoured body of a scorpion with spider-like body structure, the spiked forelimbs of a praying mantis with the gangly, unsettling legs of a harvestman and tacking on the long, spindly antennae of whatever that bug is that’s on your back right now, this Frankenstein super-arachnid lives in tropical and subtropical climates worldwide.

They can be found in leaf-litter, under rocks and other debris, in tunnels under the soil and even in deep cave systems, where no creature ever sees the sun.

"The sun is terrible for my skin anyway."
“The sun is terrible for my skin anyway.”

They are exclusively nocturnal, so if they ever have to leave their secluded, shadowy haunts, they do it in the dark. Their first pair of limbs have evolved into the eye-removing, prey-impaling nightmare claws seen above, but the second pair have changed into extremely long, antennae-like sensory “whips”. The creature extends these whips on either side of its body, walking sideways to achieve maximum creepiness and allow it to sense the environment both ahead and behind.

When prey is located, the whip spider lunges forwards, impaling it on the spiked forelimbs of doom and pulling it in to be torn open by strong, spider-like jaws. The body fluids and soft tissues of the victim can then be eaten, and the whip spider can continue its steady sideways amble into the nightmares of everyone, everywhere.

The whip spider is also, amazingly, venomless, and harmless to humans. It lacks the venom glands, poison injectors, acid sprays, web spinners and spine launchers which I fully expected to find on such a creature.

If threatened, its primary response is to run like hell, using its flattened body to vanish into cracks in rock and other small crevasses. If cornered, those barbed arms come into play, but against a large, determined predator they can only really do so much.

tailless
And if any creature is desperate enough to eat a tailless whip scorpion, let’s assume it is not going to be easily dissuaded.

So you see, they are actually absolutely harmless and benevolent. Nothing to worry about. They even fit adorably in your hand!

The donor of this hand tragically died in a non-horror-arachnid related mauling after this picture was taken.
The donor of this hand tragically died in a non-horror-arachnid related mauling after this picture was taken.

Ignore the fact that they have been seen snatching moths out of the air, or the way South American populations have been recorded pulling shrimp out of freshwater streams to tear apart and eat them. Nothing worrying there. But try telling Ron Weasley that. That guy’s scared of the cuddliest things.

What a bitch, am I right?
What a bitch, am I right?

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed reading about the whip spider, a perfectly non-threatening arthropod that is not currently coercing me into writing reassuring things about it on the internet!

Dan

(image credit for image 1 – colinhuttonphoto.deviantart.com, image 2 – naturecloseups.com, image 3 – http://www.britannica.com, image 4 – forums.wowpetopia.com, image 5 – http://www.tumblr.com

The Mexican Fish-Eating Bat

Have you ever wondered whether bats go fishing?

Ever lain awake at night thinking about whether their little feet trail through the water, raking up fish so they can hang upside down and eat them? Whether they have some sort of sonar-related way to pick out fish too close to the surface?

Well, wonder no more.

leporinus_2
“Mfmmfm.”

This happy little scamp is the Mexican Fishing Bat, Myotis vivesi. It lives mainly on small islands on the Gulf of California, and emerges at night (as bats are wont to do) to go fishing.

A bat that can fish is weird enough that I would write about it; but how it does the fishing is stranger still.

These bats fly above bodies of water (including the sea) and use echolocation to accurately perceive the surface of the water, like some sort of 3D targeting system. When they detect the tell-tale ripples or disturbances of fish close to the surface, they then move to attack – and it’s the sort of attack that makes you realise why you never see The Joker in a boat.

images (1)
“First the fish. Then the criminals.”

The bat swoops low, homing in on where it predicts the fish to be, and drops its specialised, clawed feet into the water, trailing them along like Hell’s very own little fish trawler. The rake-like feet are elongated and flattened, so they skim through the water more easily, and the claws are massive and curved forward to catch in any prey like hooks.

Mexican FIshing Bat (Myotis vivesi)
They had to call it the “Mexican Fishing Bat” because “Mexican Freddy-Krueger-Footed Bat” was apparently already taken.

The bat hits the fish at high speed, hooking it with its creepy little claws and dragging it clear of the water, before swinging it up into its creepy little mouth full of creepy little teeth.

Mexican Fishing Bat (Myotis vivesi)
You’re going to hear a lot of scratching in the attic tonight. It’s probably nothing.

Just so we’re clear, it makes a screaming demon face while doing it, too.

maxresdefault
Just in case any of you were wondering about whether there is a god (who does anything besides inspiring creeping madness).

It then flies off to a convenient perch, where it hangs upside down and eats the entire fish, as seen in the first picture. Don’t think you’re safe just because you’re a crab or something, either. If it lives in the water, the Myotis will eat it. They’ve been recorded eating crustaceans, frogs, algae and small fish, as well as the airborne insects above the water, and presumably those of the researchers that were out in boats on the water’s surface. Unusually for land mammals, they can also concentrate their urine far above the mammalian norms, allowing them to survive in their arid environment by drinking seawater. Water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink, except for the bats.

The echolocation means they’re accurate in total darkness, so the fish have no sensory ability that can pick them up before the strike. Out of the water and with no light to give them away, the bats are undetectable to their prey until it is far, far too late.

You’d probably have a better chance of picking one up if it came raking its claws down your street, though.

Yeah, you’d probably be fine.

Dan

images
“Everyone! Let’s go skinny dipping!”

(Image credit for Image 1 – chiroptera.fr (Chiroblog), Image 2 – abmexico.blogspot, Images 3 and 4 -Scott Trageser Photography, Image 5 – youtube still, “World’s Deadliest Fishing Bats”, Image 6 – web.ecologia.unam.mx