Weird animal features – Part 2

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Weird animal features, things you may have heard of, or never knew before. In creature and character design it can add true interest to your design when it's well thought through. Habitat, behavior, and diet play a great role in this. But there is so much more to animals that can add a whole new layer to them! And also to your story that's built around them. So you better be aware of every weird animal feature out there!

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)

This article is part of a series.
Part 1

Extending skin folds

We all know that Platypus are strange animals. They are one of two egg-laying mammals, the males have poison barbs on their back legs, they have a bill that’s not exactly a bill. They live in shallow clear waters of eastern Australia and can survive from the tropical areas all the way to Tasmania. Platypus are mostly solitary creatures. They tend to have their own burrows, but share bodies of water with other platypus.

So, skin folds you say, isn’t this creature not weird enough already? Well yea, but why stop there? Platypus also have skin fold around their eyes, nose, and ears. These skin fold completely close the eyes, nose, and ears, making the Platypus effectively deaf and blind while hunting. These strange creatures feed on insect larvae, freshwater shrimps and crayfish. With their eyes and ears fully closed they’re completely dependent on their sensitive bill-like snout which picks up electrical signals of moving prey.

As soon as they dive under, the skin folds get into place. but they don’t only close off body parts. They also reveal another strange feature: Webbed feet! On land the webs pull back so they can run and dig really well. But underwater the webs between their digits reveal themselves and extend beyond the claws, turning them into really effective swimmers as well.

The Platypus is arguably one of the strangest mammals out there, what do you think of these fellows? Check out more fun facts about them in the channel called Animalogic (Not part of LtL, but absolutely worth it to check out).

Using this knowledge in your creature and character designs

It may seem like a simple feature, like humans closing their eyelids. But we can’t close our ears. or nostrils. We need tools for that. Tilt your head a bit too much and you have ears full of water. And we need tools to keep our nose shut when we swim for sports. But changing digging claws into webbed feet, who would think of that? Right here you have a creature that didn’t only master living in water and on land, but is also has skin flaps that makes it quick animals on land that can dig really well, but also amazing swimmers and hunters underwater. Few animals are as effective on land as they are in the water. So if you ever end up in need of an animal that does well in both habitats: Don’t forget the Platypus! And of course, don’t forget all their other weird features.

Using polarized light to navigate with your butt up in the night sky

Did you know that dung beetles navigate better when there is moonlight available? Well, okay, you probably do too, like many other creatures. But you, unlike a dung beetle, don’t navigate backwards with your butt up in the sky, pushing around poop balls larger than yourself. I mean, I would love to see that, but I don’t see anyone volunteer. But anyway! Dung beetles. Dung beetles are nocturnal, so they rely on light at night. But there is more to it than the human eye meets. And I mean, literally.

Dung beetles are capable of seeing polarized light, This kind of light falls right outside our visible spectrum and shows tension of, and around all kinds of objects and organisms. It can however be made visible in some way to the human eye. I explained about polarized light before, if you’d like to learn more about it. There is a nice video that explains polarized light perfectly. This remarkable skill kicks in when there’s almost no moonlight available, or in areas where there is a lot of light pollution. It was a mystery for a long time how dung beetles could navigate under these conditions, and this is how!

Moonlight polarizes when it strikes particles in the upper atmosphere on its journey to out planets surface. Even when there’s little moonlight, this polarized light is still somewhat visible, aiding dung beetles in their nightly battles to obtain the juiciest dung ball out there.

Using this knowledge in your creature and character designs

Polarized light is a very effective way to see the world around you. We are not that familiar with it, so it won’t make as much sense to us as the world we see around us every day with our own eyes. But imagine having a mount or a pet that can guide you through even the darkest nights, or a predator that is most effective at moonless nights because it has such a big advantage over creatures that don’t see anything at all on moments like this. Imagine this creature is an insect, and it’s head is turned into a mask after being slain, protecting the wearers head, as well benefiting from polarized sight. The possibilities are endless!

Internal barometers

Weird animal features, a barometer? Well, that’s what we people call it, but birds sport something similar, guiding them through different weather conditions.
Photo by Thijs Kennis on Unsplash

You probably heard a lot about the remarkable features of bird that help them navigate. Well, a barometer, or a ‘tool’ that can measure air pressure is one of them. When air pressure goes down, it’s an omen for bad weather. When air pressure goes up, it’s telling the birds that weather will be favorable, and especially migratory birds benefit from it.
Migratory birds fly at different heights than non-migratory birds. They sometimes fly even that high that, on moonless nights, they can’t see the earth’s surface. Their internal barometers help them to maintain their altitude effortlessly.

How do they do it? You may wonder, well, nobody really knows… But the best guesses are that they can detect the pressure with their inner ears. We people can do the same, but only with large pressure changes, like quickly descending or ascending a mountain, or during travel with a plane. But it’s also thought that they might be able to feel the changes in the air sacs around their lungs.

Using this knowledge in your creature and character designs

Travel on the back of a bird, and know how the weather will be. Nils Holgersson did that. There is a reason why farmers keep a close eye on birds, it will help them to pick the right moment for their harvest, and warn them for storms coming. Knowledge like that is very useful in storytelling, it adds that little extra layer of knowledge and believability. But it doesn’t stop there. If birds can have this, why not dragons? Phoenix? Hyppogriff… You get my drift? Although terrestrial animals don’t sport this ability, that doesn’t mean they can’t have it in your story or creature design. Be creative and use it to your advantage!

Life saving blue blood

Well, not the royal kind, But lifesaving blood. Blue blood is a thing, literally. Horseshoecrabs, one of the most ancient creatures on this planet, has blue blood. These ancient and primitive crab-like creatures are not crabs at all, They are most closely related to arachnids, which hold animal species like spiders, scorpions, ticks, mites, etc. Over the course of 450 million years they barely changed. They were there before dinosaurs, and they outlived them as well.

Their bright babyblue blood may play part in that. It contains immune cells that are exceptionally sensitive to toxic bacteria. These cells clot around invading bacteria, creating a gel-like substance, which and quickly makes an end to harmful bacteria, keeping the horseshoecrabs body free from toxins. Their blood is used to test vaccines for bad bacteria before they’re put to use on humans. When a vaccine is free of bacteria, the clotting won’t occur.

But how does it turn blue then? Well, our blood turns red because of iron, which helps with building red blood cells. These blood cells then transport oxygen around the body, among other things. In the case of horseshoe crabs, its copper that does the job, turning the blood baby blue.

Using this knowledge in your creature and character designs

This really is an oddball, but just think about it, an animal, looking like a crab, but more of a spider. Saw the oceans even before dinosaurs roamed the earth, saw the dawn of men, and are now helping them survive the most horrific deceases by detecting harmful bacteria in vaccines… What can you learn from that? Just think about it for a moment…

Pausing fertilization

A wombat, one of many creatures that can pause fertilization.
Photo by Meg Jerrard on Unsplash

Embryonic diapause, or delayed implantation is a fairly common thing among mammals. After an egg is fertilized it normally would implant in the womb of the animal to start its development. But in the case of embryonic diapause, this egg stays in a dormant state and doesn’t nestle. Little to no development takes place in this period. The normal gestation period is extended, allowing the mother to be to survive unfavorable conditions like long periods of bad weather, a lack of food, and stress.

There are many animals that undergo embryonic diapause, think of bears, marsupials (like kangaroos), mustelids (like badgers and weasels) armadillo’s, roe deer and many different rodents. In some animal species groups, all of the species can undergo embryonic diapause, with others, like deer, there may only be one.

Using this knowledge in your creature and character designs

You’re traveling with your pack animals, long long distances, through areas unknown. Your trusty pack animals follow you docilely. They were bred before you left, and you mean to sell them at a destination far away, a destination unknown. You already know that these animals can develop their offspring at different speeds, but little did you know that they wouldn’t even gestate to begin with in the conditions they’re now kept. Out of their safe herd, away from familiar habitats, into the cold, and with little food available. It’s beneficial for the animals, but not so much for the character trying to sell them as pregnant females. Because, even after months of traveling they still didn’t develop a belly. He sells them for a low price, only to find out later that they were pregnant all along.

Next time said character, or its children, will understand what’s going on and anticipate. If the problem was the cold, they will take another route. If the problem was the sense of safety, they might bring a male animal along. And if the problem was food, they might travel slower to allow the females to feed enough. It might even be beneficial for a farmer to travel in wintertime. The animals on the farm may require more care, but there is no crop to tend to. A culture could be built around breeding these animals in late autumn, so the farmer can travel with them through winter, when there is no crop to tend to, to sell a bunch of animals in another country before spring comes, knowing that most animals will arrive pregnant, without having to carry a heavy young in their wombs.

There are way more things to come up with, and considering the fact that many animals sport this remarkable feature, it’s helpful to study their habitat and behavior to obtain more ideas.

More on weird animal features

Want to learn more on the topic? This article is part of a series and has more related articles.

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