Fantastic specialization of living organisms

Join us on social media!
The planet we live on screams specialization. Every single organism you see is specialized, one more than the other, but they all found their niche and adjusted to it. In some cases, this means they have very remarkable features you rarely see in other species. In other cases, it meant the difference between life above the water surface and a completely barren planet. Let me take you on a stroll and show you some wonderful specializations on this planet.

Hi! My name is Tessa, I’m a Dutch artist, art director, and creative project manager. I love to share my passion for this craft, nature, art and fantasy, and do that by creating this archive and community, alongside my company Tez Art & Design.

Table of Contents (Click to (un)fold)

What is specialization?

Specialization is equal to evolution. Evolution happens either when conditions change and a species needs to adapt. This is causing the fittest to survive and pass on their genes. This doesn’t necessarily mean they look different. But they can for example be better heat or cold-resistant or can do well with less water. Or, something that can happen is a sudden genetic mutation. This is not uncommon. A baby is thought to be 50% mom and 50% dad, but when the baby is born, it’s born with roughly 70 genetic mutations. This happens in all living organisms. In some more than others, depending on its genetic complexity. But these mutations can potentially cause an animal to become superior to other members of that species within its given environment. Because it’s superior, it survive longer and can reproduce longer, causing more offspring to be born with this superior gene potentially present.

Good vs bad mutations

The cheetah evolved to be specialized in speed on large open planes.
Photo by Charl Durand on Unsplash

Mutations happen all the time, sometimes even in a single living organism. One of the best-known mutations is cancer, in which some cells defect and keep copying themselves endlessly. But most of these mutations are benign, cannot be seen or noticed, and really don’t do anything at all for the organism. Blue eyes in humans are a mutation for example. If anything: It makes people with blue eyes more sensitive to light. But because humans are humans: These blue eyes were really attractive to us so they could spread as wide as they did. This of course was an advantage to people with blue eyes. Animals however don’t act that way most of the time. However, we do see it in some bird species for example.

But as we mentioned before in another article: Sometimes small changes can make a huge difference. The cheetah, for example, has a remarkably long and flexible spine, long legs, and nails it cannot retract for extra grip on the ground. It still looks like a cat though, but over time developed into its own species specialized in speed

Benign mutation or not?

Cancer on the other hand maybe really devastating, but we all know about that, so instead let me give another example of a gene that can be both benign and deadly at the same time: The Overo Lethal White gene in horses. It causes a beautiful white pattern alongside the frame (side) of the horse. Most of the time it’s strikingly visible, other times it’s completely invisible. It doesn’t really benefit the horse, other than maybe add to camouflage, for which white is a really bad color. And when the gene is only inherited from one parent: There is no problem at all. But when both parents pass on the gene: You have a dead foal. Not instantly, no.

We people keep breeding OLW horses because we think they’re so beautiful, but if you don’t test for it in breeds that are known for this gene, you may end up with a foal that will die a horrific death within 48 hours of its birth.

An OLW horse with it’s typical patterning.
Image by Bonnie U. Gruenberg

So what happens?

First of all: You will know you have a sick foal right away because it’s completely white. (Note though that some other genes may cause white foals and that you should NEVER breed two OLW parents together, no matter what). But worst of all: There is a defect in the OLW gene that causes the gut not to develop. The healthy gene compensates for that completely, but on the OLW gene, there simply seems to be some information missing telling the cells to create functional intestines. So you end up with a foal that may have an anus and does have a stomach, but incomplete intestines, causing any food to build up and finally killing the foal because the stomach, or whatever is there that could be called intestines rupture.


This of course is a horrific example, and there are more like that causing other problems. But all in all, you can say that a mutation can be very good, very bad, benign, or not doing anything in particular. Some are visible and others are not. It’s important though to understand how and why these mutations happen as that will help you understand why living organisms look and behave the way they do.

As you can see: Mutations are random. It’s not like an animal goes from one environment to another and its offspring or the animal itself mutates into something that fits that environment just fine. No, mutation is random, some work, some don’t. For some animals this means a quick of horrific death, for others it means they can adapt better to another kind of environment, or do better in the one they’re in because that mutation happens to be very handy where they’re at. All in all: Mutations are a Russian Roulette.

1. The Phylliroe, a fantasticly mutated nudibranch

Pelagic bioluminescent nudibranch (Phylliroe bucephala) ( Phylliroe bucephalum) Tahiti
Image graciously provided by: Fabien Michenet

Heard of the Phylliroe? Hmm? Oke… A nudibranch? Oke.. A nudibranch is a slug, the Phylliroe is a slug that looks and acts like a fish! Now we’re talking, right? Yea, how this wonderful slug evolved into looking and acting like a fish is unknown. It lives in hard to reach depths, so little is known about this nudibranch. But we can guess, of course!
The shape of the slug is very different from that of a regular slug, The most striking part is that the foot is missing. It only has a small part of the foot left at the mouth, with which it can attach to its prey: Jellyfish. This mutation allows the slug to be more streamlined but also incapable to stay on the ocean floor.

This mutation could either have happened very slowly, leaving the slug with a smaller foot generation after generation. I know too little of slugs to make a well educated guess, but knowing that a half foot will make this slug both not streamlined and incapable of staying on the ocean floor, I think it’s more likely that at some point an individual developed this drastic mutation where it almost had no foot left, and the only way to survive was by swimming, which it likely did marvelously. This slug could not only swim, it was also a lot quicker than its other species members. This meant it could cover larger distances to find food, live longer by easily evading predators, and mate with relatively more other slugs. Along the way passing on its unique genes. And there we have the wonderful Phylliroe!

2. Platypus

The first time I laid my eyes on a platypus I thought it was a joke. Someone must have taken Ovide from Ovide and the gang and neatly constructed some weird creature from it. In case you haven’t heard of the platypus before: I was wrong. And of course it’s Australia that’s harboring these weird creatures. I mean: What other continent but Australia could have something like this roam their waters? It’s like an alien planet that landed on earth and merged with it seamlessly. The only things that are normal on that continent are the people and the animals that people introduced there themselves!

Fun fact:
When the first platypus was brought to western nature scientists, they thought it was a hoax and that several animals were sewed together.

So… What is a platypus?

Image by: Dr. Philip Bethge

So, the platypus, its like nature thought: Hey, wouldn’t it be fun if we merged a beaver with a seal, give it a beak and poisonous rooster-spurs that look like fangs? And of course that made ‘total’ sense. But this is the beauty of nature! And therefore also the beauty of creature design. It doesn’t have to make sense per say to actually work. The platypus is not a bird, although it could easily be mistaken for a bird related to penguins because it lives its life in the water, has a beak and doesn’t fly. It even lays eggs! But surprise surprise: It’s a mammal. One of the few poisonous mammals on this planet, the only one with a beak, and only one of two mammals laying eggs (The Echidna being the other).

The beak

It’s beak is a sensory organ. Unlike the beaks of birds, the platypus beak is flexible and primed to help in the hunt of invertebrates on the bottom of shallow rivers and lakes. It has a leathery skin covering it and the upper side is merged with the forehead, while the lower side represents the jaw. This beak is very sensitive to touch and electroreception helps to detect movement, much like the shark and many other fish do.

Poison glands

The platypus is one of the few mammals that are poisonous. But the platypus isn’t always poisonous. It’s only the adult males that have a hollow spur at their hind legs and the poison is only available during mating season. Females have a spur too up to 8 months of age, then it falls off. Females are not poisonous. The poison of the males is very painful, but for people it’s not deadly. It will make your limb swell and form a painful edema after which the pain turns into heightened sensitivity of that limb for up to months, even after the edema disappeared. The poison of a platypus can be deadly for anything up to the side of a large dog.

Eggs and young

Yea as if poison and a beak on a mammal isn’t enough, it had to lay eggs too. And if the resemblance with a bird isn’t enough either: It’s eggs are leathery, like that of a reptile. The young also have a so-called egg tooth. This tooth is present solely to break open the egg. This egg tooth is only seen in reptiles. But, like any mammal: It does nurse its young which are still blind and have no fur when they leave their eggs. But! Platypus have no nipples… Instead the mother platypus leaks the milk from her sebaceous glands at the roots of her hair follicles in the areas you would expect milk to come from. Yummie.

So, how did they evolve to be this specialized?

Tricky question. It’s not like they become a fully fledged bird or mammal first and then evolved to be like this. They just happened to branch off of mammals in a very early stage, before mammals started to split between marsupials (in which young are born very early and kept safe in a pouch, like the kangaroo, Tasmanian devils and koala’s) and placentalia, your regular mammal that develops the young inside their bodies and also suckle their young. So, instead of specializing: This branch of animal species is simply very unique and because of that: Managed to survive for millions of years with only few changes. Thus we can conclude that this unique animal is very successful because of the way it specialized and evolved.

Just for the fun of it: They can also kinda purr and roar:

3. Death and mayhem: The Komodo dragon.

Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

The Komodo dragon only lives on the Komodo island and neighboring islands. It’s a very dangerous 3 meter long reptile, for anything that’s alive and large enough to be of interest. It’s potentially so dangerous that most of the island is inaccessible for tourists, so if you want to see the Komodo dragon in it’s real habitat: It may be very hard for you to do so. If you were to access their habitat: It won’t hesitate to make an attempt to kill you by biting you or lashing out with its huge tail.

You’re very unlucky for one to cross your path while you’re in the middle of nowhere and can’t get medical attention quickly. You’re even more unlucky when there’s more than one. This is usually how people get killed by Komodo dragons. When they’re adults, they don’t have any natural predator, which makes them the Apex predators of the island. Because they are Apex predators they’re usually not afraid of people.

Although they seem slow and heavy lizard: They’re not, they can easily outrun a human. They have a very keen sense of smell, are quite intelligent and have a very strong tail that can tackle you easily. They prefer area’s with high grass, so the only thing you may notice before you’re a goner is the quick movement of grass, probably from several directions. (You may wonder now if the inspiration for deadly hunters in games and Jurassic park for example came from: Few things are more terrifying than seeing things quickly move your way, but only because the grass makes an unnatural movement in your direction.

‘Fun’ fact
Their bite force is 600 pounds p. inch, that of humans is roughly 120.

Poison and bloodloss

Komodo dragons are poisonous, they have poison glands that can overtime kill the animal it bit. One of the traits this poison has is that it prevents bloodclotting. Although a Komodo dragon will attempt to kill the prey instantly, it often doesn’t. Instead the animal is left to be poisoned and/or bleed to death. The Komodo dragon will follow the prey with its great sense of smell and will keep following its prey until its incapable of walking away any longer. When it collapses it won’t have enough fight in it left for the Komodo dragons to find the need for killing it before they start eating the poor animal.

4. Frog-made cryonics

Image of an Alaskan wood frog by Waxworker – This photo was taken in White Clay Creek state park.

So you thought that cryonics was invented by people. Freezing the dead minutes after their death, in the hope they can be revived later when technology developed enough to actually revive them and cure whatever killed this person. But no, nature came up with that idea first. Truth to be told: I didn’t even know about it until a few months ago.
There is a frog out there called the Alaskan wood frog that allows its body to freeze when temperatures get to low. When spring comes their bodies thaw and they come back to live.

It’s an interesting trait for a cold-blooded animal. Because of this they are capable living as far up north as they do. There are no other amphibians known that can survive that far up north.
The only reason that these frogs can survive is because they can store enormous concentrations of glucose in their organs and tissues. This up to 10 times of normal levels. This stops their cells from shrinking and dying, something that normally happens when tissue gets frozen. This glucose acts like a so-called cryoprotectant.

5. No water, no problem for the Kangaroo rat

It looks a lot like our pet gerbil, which don’t need much water either. But the kangaroo rat brought it to another level. They don’t need water at all, ever!
They live in the desert where they eat seeds. The moisture in these seeds are all they need to survive. They do however drink when they come across water or droplets of dew. They do pee, but this is a rarity and are really tiny droplets. Because of their long nasal cavities they can reabsorb moisture when they exhale, allowing less moisture to leave their bodies. And their fur is quite oily. They take dust baths to keep this oil in their fur so moisture can’t easily evaporate from their skins.

Forefathers of these species adapted roughly a million years ago when when the western part of America turned into a desert. The rats living there evolved and diversified in several sub-species with the same unique trait, which we all now call kangaroo rats. This is a very good example of an animal adapting to a slowly changing environment over a long period of time, allowing them to inhabit this unique landscape, rather than migrate away from it or become extinct in the area.

Their jumps are triggered by sound

You probably guessed it already: They jump, and they jump very high and far. Their large back paws function the same as that of kangaroos and they’re known to travel on their back paws nearly all of the time, making them bipedal rodents. This is an ideal adaptation to avoid their natural predators which are snakes and owls. Their round heads have large cavities which makes them capable of hearing low frequency sounds, like the swoosh of a flying owl or a striking snake. This sound triggers a jumping reflex, allowing the rat to jump clear from whatever is trying to strike it.

6. Mucus homes for the dry-season

An African Bullfrog.
Image by Steven G. Johnson

Imagine being able to build yourself a home out of your own mucus! No rent, and anywhere you like. Now imagine that you live in an area where there’s no rain for long periods of time and the sun is blasting down on the earth. Oke, so, maybe an underground mucus home. Imagine sealing yourself into this cocoon under the ground and before you know it you built your own coffin you can’t get out of no matter what. Yea this gives me the creeps too :p. But this is exactly what the African Bullfrog does.

Dry-season is usually just that: A season. But sometimes it can last for years. Bullfrogs (and any frog really) don’t do well in dry areas, the bullfrog solved this problem by creating this moist cocoon around its body deep in the ground. This mucus hardens, making the frog incapable of leaving this cocoon until it starts raining again. This softens up the mucus so the frog can break free.
Bullfrogs are known to be able to live up to 7 years inside their cocoons.

Frogs breathe through the mucus and water on their skins. Before they leave the water they cover themselves in saliva to prevent them from drying out and suffocating. Being able to build a cocoon from this saliva is quite unique, but is just another way to use whats already a frog-trait.

7. The maned wolf and its delicate legs

A maned wolf.
Photo by Chris Unger on Unsplash

It’s a strange sight, the first time you see the maned wolf. It looks much like your average red fox, just with enormously long legs.
The maned wolf lives primarily in tall grasslands in south America. There are many different ways to adapt to this kind of habitat. You can easily hide in the grass, which is a huge advantage obviously. But if both predator and prey do that: You may have a huge advantage if you as only medium-sized animal, can observe this grassland from above?

You can’t only see and hear your own predators come from far thanks to the rustling of the grass, but you can also easily find your prey in the same way. The huge ears the maned wolf sports adds to this advantage. Grass can block sound very easily, making it hard to pinpoint a sound, or even hear it at all, when you’re close to the ground. But if you raise high above that same grass, the sounds no longer will be diffused and deflected by the grass itself.
Anther useful advantage is that these long legs can create high speeds: Up to 75 kmph (47 mph). A cheetah can run up to 130 kmph (81 mph) while the average human being can reach speeds of 28 kmph (17 mph). The red fox can reach speeds of 50 kmph (31 mph).

8. Mimicry by the Cyphonia Clavata

Cyphonia clavata
Image by Graham Wise

Maybe you heard of tree- and leaf-hoppers before. They’re insects living on and from trees and brushes and are incredibly diverse, but more about that later. First the Cyphonia Clavata, a specific tree-hopper species. This species has adapted to grow the likeness of an ant on it’s back. And not just any ant: But a local tree-ant which is very hard to prey on, and thus very unappealing to animal species preying on ants.
The ant-replica is facing backward, making any predators approaching from behind think they’re seen. The light color of the rest of the tree-hopper blends in nicely with that of the leaves it lives on, Making it a perfect camouflage.

This trait is a body plan innovation rather than a modification. Which is the difference between a human with a strange color of hair, or that same human growing an extra limb. Such body plan innovations are incredibly rare in evolution, making this tree-hopper extremely unique. This adaptation didn’t happen overnight, it’s more likely that it developed generation after generation, also causing other types of mutations. This one stuck because it increased the survivability of the species a lot, simply because it resembles the tree-ant so much.

Fun fact:
This particular tree-hopper can’t fly. What you are seeing aren’t wings. They are wing-like structures, just like the ant on its back is an ant-like structure.

As a bonus: Have fun watching these leaf-. plant-, and tree-hoppers. Just for inspiration sake.

9. Fish-hook ants

Fish hook ants.
Image from Bernard Dupont on Flickr

After adding an ant mimicker, why not add an ant: The fish-hook ant. Much like the tree-hopper, this ant-species likely developed it’s unique fish-hook protrusion on it mid-section overtime. This defense mechanism being very effective against predators made colonies with this feature survive a lot better than those that didn’t develop the the hooks yet. Overtime these ants diverted from one species and turned into another: The Fish-hook ants.
These hooks honor their names. They will not only hook anything attacking them, the ant will actually get stuck into the wound. A very painful experience. For the individual ant this is not really beneficial, but for the colony it is, because this predator won’t return to snack on them again.

And if you think this ant just happens to have hooks in the right place which happen to be handy: You’re wrong. The ants are very ‘aware’ of the hooks and their use. When a colony is attacked by an animal that is willing to take on the hooks: The ants will hook their hooks together, creating a big mass of ants that are stuck together. This makes it very hard for the predator to target a single ant.

10. Lichen

I couldn’t leave this one out. It may not be an animal, but plants and anything else can still have a place in creature design. Next to mushrooms: Lichen are one of the most wonderful creations of life. Did you know that mushrooms are descendants of lichen? And did you know that lichen are a symbiosis between an algae or bacteria and fungi? Did you also know that mushrooms diverged from lichen roughly 600-million years ago, and that these lichen were the first living terrestrial organisms? Meaning they are the first to leave the water and colonize the land.
Lichen are likely even older than that, covering the whole planet, given that the temperatures and the moist level in the air was decent enough.

This is a subject I can talk about endlessly, but we get to that into another article, when I have the time to dig into it really deep. Though, I still want to bombard you with some more interesting facts about lichen:.

Lichen facts

  • Lichen fungi (mushrooms that are capable of forming a symbiosis with algae or bacteria) require sugars made from carbon that’s provided by either algae or bacteria that can photosynthesize.
  • Cup-fungi are the ones that tend to form a symbiosis, creating lichen.
  • Cup-fungi form 98% of all fungi on this planet.
  • In perspective, there is an estimate of 5.1 MILLION fungi species on this planet.
  • Cup-fungi are also called ascomycetes, they are characterized by bags filled with spores.
  • Roughly half of these ascomycetes form lichen.
  • Lichen can be more than just two different organism species.
  • The counterpart of fungi are called Photobions.
  • Lichen create a solid structure for these photobions to live in for a long period of time, providing the lichen with much-needed sugars.
  • Fungi likely provide exquisite living conditions for photobions as these photobions live in significantly larger numbers in this symbiosis than outide.
  • Fungi provide a unique combination of nutrients found nowhere else, protecting the photobions against UV radiation, and desiccation.
  • There are lichen out there that evolved from their lichen state into a new lichen kind.
  • There are also lichen out there that live off of other lichen, more often that not this is not a symbiosis.

I’m pretty sure that you get why lichen are so unique and so darn interesting :D.

More remarkable and strange creatures

This list isn’t enough for you? Don’t worry! Below there’s more! More of these lists will be added overtime for your inspiration, if you’d like to stay up to date: Subscribe to our newsletter!

We would love to hear from you!

Sign in on Discord to comment and participate, or use the contact form.

Share on social media