Weird animal features – Part 1

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The animal kingdom is full of weird specializations and features. A mutation happens and suddenly an animal has a different color, or a new feature. A stronger jaw, a higher top speed, you name it. Specializations are caused by little errors in the DNA of an individual. Most of these changes go completely undetected, but sometimes they're very evident. More often than not this mutation doesn't change much about the animal, but when it does it either means the demise of this animal, or success. And when success hits, this specific animal will likely be able to have more offspring than it's other species members.

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.

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This article is part of a series, find more at the bottom of this article!

Waterbird tongues

The weird features of this beak of this goose are very evident.
Photo by Hussain Badshah on Unsplash

Weird animal features come in many shapes and forms. Anyone that has ever been bitten by a big waterbird knows that, despite the fact that their bills aren’t hooked, they can leave a nasty and painful mark. I remember my first (and last) bite by a swan. I had the habit of feeding her and her young while she was still on the nest. Dangerous yes, but I knew these birds, and they would let me get close to their nest and feed them and their young. I felt honored (I was young) and decided to feed the mom from my hand. Safe to say that was a little too close for comfort for the both of us because I ended up with a blue and bloody finger that remained colorful for weeks. She was fine though, perching on top of her massive nest, demanding more food.

Freaky beaks and tongues

I know better now, but man, have you ever looked into a waterbird’s beak or a bird that grazes a lot? (And there are more!) And see what hazards lie within? Many of them have teeth! Take the goose beak, especially the domestic goose. I mean, they’re easy to spot, they come run at you whenever you get on their property while showing the inside of their beaks. They’re used as an alternative for guard dogs, and when you look a bit closer you understand why. Even their tongues have teeth! Or well, something that looks like it.

Horrifically beautiful closeup of a goose beak and tongue. Source unknown, please contact us if this image is yours!

What are these ‘teeth’?

They’re not teeth the way we know them. They’re a hard and spiky kind of cartilage, known as tomium. These structures are not individual teeth, they’re part of the beak instead and help the bird graze, rip up the occasional prey, and process their food before it enters their stomachs. Much like we process our food.

The teeth on their tongues look like something straight out of a horror movie. They too are tomiums, All of their teeth, but especially those on their tongues, help out on ripping vegetation from the ground. They do so by gripping their food of choice and violently shaking their heads to cut it loose. These teeth are also very effective to keep small prey in their beaks. It’s fairly uncommon for them to escape when they’re impaled by tomiums.

Those teeth may be sharp, but they’re not as strong and hard as real teeth. Don’t be like me, don’t get bitten by a bird.

What does this mean for artists?

Did you know that birds are among the closest related species to dinosaurs? It’s thought that dinosaurs were way more bird-like than we have been portraying them. Feathers don’t preserve as well as bones do. But there is a lot of evidence out there that many dinosaurs had feathers. And as we all know: Dinosaurs had teeth. So it’s not that strange that we find something resembling teeth in birds today.

What does this mean for artists? Well, you likely didn’t know that birds can have teeth, even have them on their tongues, and can be herbivores despite the fact that these teeth are sharp. What else don’t you know? Or think isn’t there, while it is? What does your audience know? Likely less than you, especially taking into account that you are the one reading articles like this.
The beautiful thing is that, because we don’t know something exists, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. This leaves our minds open to wander and wonder about what can and cannot be. If a bird can have teeth on its tongue, a seemingly flightless animal can have folds on its body hiding wings. I’m sure that, if you didn’t know about these teeth, you freaked out pretty much when you saw the pictures. Use this to your advantage, to freak people out, or to mesmerize them, depending on your take. Don’t let what you see dictate what will be.

Animals that can hear infra-sounds

I”m sure you heard of it before. Animals that can predict tsunamis, storms, and volcanic eruptions. They leave the area long before people realize what’s going on. This is not because they’re harbingers, or can see in the future. It’s because they can sense things we people can’t, simply because their sense organs have a broader or different spectrum than ours. One example is infra-sound. Infra-sound is a very low-frequency sound that people can’t hear, but many animals can feel.

Using infra-sound as communication

Many animals can hear or feel infra-sound, but there are a few that specialized in such a way that they can communicate through infra-sound. Elephants, giraffes, hippos alligators, and rhinos can sense infra-sound very well. The way their feet are built, and in the case of elephants, their trunks as well, makes them able to pick up on vibrations from the ground or water. In the case of elephants, it’s known that they can communicate with family members and other groups over distances as big as 30 to even 300 square kilometers, depending on the weather and environment.

Alligators for example are known for their infra-sound as well. We cannot hear it, but we can see it very well instead. When a male alligator is looking for a female he will bellow, which affects the water surrounding the alligator. When a female approves, the two lovebirds will start their love dance by rubbing and pressing each others snouts and backs, and… so on.

Using this knowledge in creature designs

You know now that this is a sound people can’t hear. But standing close enough to an elephant, you can FEEL them communicate. When you watch an alligator, you can SEE it communicate. When creating your own world, or creature, or character, you could use infra-sound to your advantage as part of your storytelling. Maybe your creature can use it. Maybe it can detect it. Or maybe it can’t, but gets a nauseating feeling. Ow who knows, maybe it’s out hunting and can’t catch prey because the weather and environment are ideal for the prey to communicate with infra-sound over long distances… It’s your world. Look at features and skills like this from different perspectives to find new ground to draw your inspiration from.

‘Ears’ in weird places

Cicada ears, like grasshopper ears, are hard to see. They’re tucked away right under their wings. The one above just emerged from its pupae, the tympanum is the circular structure right at the base of the wings.
Photo by David Todd McCarty on Unsplash

We all know grasshoppers, cicada’s, and crickets. We all know they can hear, because why else would they make these sounds. But have you ever thought of where their ears actually are? Maybe you’re thinking they’re like little eardrums on their heads? Well, you’re wrong. Grasshoppers and cicadas have their ears on the very first segment of their abdomen. Crickets have ‘ears’ in their legs instead, right beyond the knee.

Or, to be more precise: Like many other insects, they have an organ called tympanum. It’s a membrane with chambers right behind it. When a sound vibration hits, this membrane and chambers together make the insect capable of hearing the direction and distance of the sound. They can also determine what it’s coming from. Another animal of the same species, a human, a breeze, or even a predator. Although these organs seem fairly primitive, they surpass human hearing when it comes to the direction and distance of a sound.

Why are the ears where they are

As mentioned before: Evolution does weird things. Sometimes a mutation happens and it doesn’t work, at other times it does. And if one strand of creatures has a broad variety of morphology, then it’s insects. Apparently, the locations of the ears worked, or at least were no nuisance, and helped the insects survive. Other than that there is no obvious explanation why the ‘ears’ are where they are.

There are many more locations for insect ears to occur. When we look at insects we tend to do so in 3 parts: The head, the thorax (the part the legs and wings are attached to), and the abdomen. The tympanum can occur in any of these places.

  • Owlet moths, locusts, geometer moths, tiger beetles, and cicadas have their tympanum somewhere near the front of their abdomen.
  • Praying mantises have their tymphanum at the bottom ant toward the back of of their thorax.
  • In swallowtails and brush-footed butterflies its located more toward the top of the back their thorax.
  • Scarab beetles have their tymphanum located on the top front of their thorax.
  • Parasitic flies (Ormia) have it right behind their jaw on their thorax.
  • In fruit flies, honeybees and mosquitoes it’s located at the base of their antenae.
  • Hawkmots have them, believe it or not, in their jaws.
Have a close look at the front legs. After the first bend, you can see a slight arc. This is where the tympanum is situated.
Photo by Šárka Krňávková on Unsplash

Using this knowledge in your creature designs

Ears here, ears there, ears everywhere! Ears may not serve that well to draw randomly on creatures, and especially on humanoids and humans, but who knows. It’s your story, your artwork. But when you have more complex creatures that are a bit more ‘out there’ and unique, possessing this knowledge is really valuable. Having ears close to the ground may help pick up on vibrations a creature otherwise wouldn’t. Ears facing up may help out on spotting prey or predators in the sky. And to tackle the next subject of asymmetrical ears right away: It will make your creature a master in determining where sound is coming from. What epic creature can you think up knowing that?

Asymmetric ears

Not done yet learning about animal ears? Try the owl! Owls look fairly symmetric, like most other birds. But did you know that in some of them, like the barn owl, their ears are a-symmetrical? It’s a unique adaptation that allows owls to not only hear what distance a sound is coming from but also from which height because sound reaches the ears at a slightly different time. They don’t only have a unique sight, but also a unique sense or of hearing.

One of their ears is slightly angled up while the other is slightly angled down, often up to 10mm or 0.4 inches. In some species, you can see this even in their bone structure, like that of the boreal owl. Its wonderful plumage however makes up for the lopsided skull,

An owl with asymmetric ears will keep turning its head at different angles until the sound reaches both ears at the same time. The owl then knows exactly where its prey is.

Navigation with magnetic fields

Have you ever wondered how many whale species navigate their way from tropic waters to the poles in the middle of the blue deep? It’s not just currents, or smell, or sound, vision, or even memory. There is solid evidence for whales to navigating accurately to their destination with the help of magnetic fields from the north and south poles. Most magnetic fields in the ocean also run in the same direction as the coastlines. And although many things can cause a whale to strand, like sickness, or a change in the environment: Solar flares are very likely causing this as well.

Solar flares cause magnetic fields, disrupting the existing ones on our planet. When they are persistent, it can mess up the sense of direction of whale species that make use of magnetic fields to navigate.
Many birds and also quite a few whales have a substance in their bodies called biomagnetite. Whales have biomagnetite in their retinas (a part of their eyes). It’s likely that it helps the whales sense what direction they’re going. Another event that seems to prove this theory is the fact that whales also tend to strand themselves in areas where the magnetic fields turn landward, rather than following the coastline or turning into the open ocean.

Magnetic fields always fluctuate. Take external factors like solar flares into account and you have a very unreliable navigation system that would send us people right into a cornfield instead of keeping us on the road. So, animals that use magnetic fields to navigate also tend to navigate by memory, scent, sound, communication, and landmarks.

Both bird- and whale species can navigate with the help of magnetic fields.
Photo by Gabriel Dizzi on Unsplash

Using this knowledge in your creature designs

The ability to use magnetic fields is one that’s marveled about a lot in the past. In movies, but also in our daily lives. Think of compasses for example. In other words: There is an enormous source of inspiration out there that will help you on your way. Just be creative with it, and be that a little more than the one that came before. Draw from their knowledge and ideas, and make something more out of it. That is how you become a better version of everyone else, and yourself.

More on weird animal features

Not done reading yet? This article is part of a series and has more related articles.

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