From the darkest depths of the ocean to the lustrous fringes of the rainforest, from cloud-topped mountain peaks to the windswept dunes of the desert, have you ever stopped to think about the wondrous animals who call these places home? Our world is alive with creatures beautifully adapted to every possible permutation of land, sea and air. But survival isn’t easy, and every day brings a new array of challenges – not least the need to eat (and to avoid being eaten). Each animal has its own way of coping with life, but some hold truly marvellous secrets – indeed, secrets that science can’t wait to get its hands on…
Yes, in this piece, inspired by our recent interview 🎧 with daring jungle biologist Dillon Jones (@dillonthebiologist), we want to take you on a tour of some of the world’s most amazing animals. Some you may already know, some not, but what they all have in common is a wealth of incredible talents, abilities and secrets that science would just love to unlock. Want to find out what they can do, and how they might be able to help us in the future? Read on, and let’s get started!
Axolotl (Ambystoma mexicanum): The Peter Pan of Salamanders
This cute and unassuming little character, a type of salamander, hosts an astonishing hoard of miracles inside its tiny body. You may be familiar with the smiling face and black eyes of the pink-skinned form, but this is actually one of several colour mutations available to the axolotl, favoured and intensified by eager breeders. In the wild, the axolotl is typically a muddy greenish-brown, with leopard-like speckles all over its body. The species has had a difficult history, and today is confined to just one lone body of water, Lake Xochimilco in Mexico City. So, what makes these amphibians so special?
You might think this is interesting enough, but the axolotl has a few other tricks up its (multiple) sleeves. What science is really interested in is the fact that this little amphibian can regenerate lost limbs in a matter of months. In some cases, if it loses part of a leg, the mechanism that allows it to regrow the original limb will also cause an entirely new leg to develop alongside it. It doesn’t stop there either, as axolotls can regrow their tails, eye or heart tissues, and even some parts of the brain. This has obvious implications for regenerative medicine, and scientists are determined to understand how the process works, and if it can be applied to humans in some way. Perhaps in the future some of the magic of the axolotl will be used to help tissue repair in the human world.
Coelacanth (Latimeria chalumnae/Latimeria menadoensis): “Living fossil” of the Deep
Plunging deep into the coastal waters of the West Indian Ocean, just off Africa, we find the ancient and mysterious coelacanth. This hulking monster of a fish is remarkable not only for its powerful presence and size – adults can grow up to around 90kg in weight and live for as long as a human – but above all for its place in evolutionary history. Indeed, we humans didn’t even know it was still alive until less than a hundred years ago. So, before we get to the tale of its modern discovery, let’s go back in time a few hundred years (and then a few million).
In the nineteenth century, new discoveries in palaeontology were taking place all over the world. It was an exciting time, with countless fossils being found, excavated, studied and categorised. The first coelacanth fossil was discovered in Africa, and scientists were confident to conclude that the species had gone extinct, along with plenty of dinosaurs and pterosaurs, at the end of the Cretaceous Period around 66 million years ago. But this was, of course, no ordinary fish. Lobe-finned instead of ray-finned (unlike most of the fish we know today) the coelacanth was seen as a ‘missing link’ in the chain of evolution between ancient fish and four-legged land animals. At some point in our distant past, it is hypothesised that lobe-finned fish like the coelacanth began to haul themselves onto land with their powerful fins, and over millions of years develop the changes that transformed them into our land-dwelling ancestors.
You can imagine, then, the excitement that arose in 1938 when the first living coelacanth was discovered by a South African fisherman off the continent’s coast. Here was an animal that had been thought extinct for tens of millions of years, alive and well in the deep West Indian waters. Since that first discovery, many others have been found, as well as a second species that lives off Indonesia. These wonderful creatures continue to fascinate scientists due to the special place they occupy in our evolutionary history, with a landmark study from 2013 delving into the fish’s genome to clarify its incredible heritage. And, as studies continue today into this unique animal, a link between the sea and the land, who knows what secrets it has still to yield?
Want to discover some of those secrets? Listen to this amazing paper on coelacanth behaviour in their cavernous undersea home!
Jararaca (Bothrops jararaca): Pain or Panacea?
This beautiful streamlined serpent dwells in the sweltering rainforests of South America, with a range spanning parts of Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina. Stunningly venomous, it belongs to a subfamily of vipers known as pit vipers, which also includes the famous rattlesnake. Together they form a truly striking family – these snakes are exceptionally well adapted to hunting and killing small prey, and the jararaca is no exception.
Sleeping in the lush vegetation of the forest during the day, the jararaca stirs by night to lay in wait for its victims – small mammals, frogs, insects and spiders – blending seamlessly into its backdrop thanks to its camouflaged skin. Equipped with a set of organs near its snout that allow it to detect thermal radiation, the hunter can sense warm-blooded animals approaching from several metres away. Young snakes have been known to employ caudal luring, wriggling their white-tipped tail in imitation of a smaller, less harmful creature to draw prey in hypnotically. Once a victim comes close, the golden-eyed, black-tongued jararaca strikes with lightning speed. If its fangs hit home, the victim is as good as dead – powerful venom gushes from glands at the back of the jaw, squeezing through the snake’s hollow teeth and directly into the bloodstream of the prey. This secretion plays havoc with the body of a small animal, causing shock, paralysis, blood haemorrhaging, and very likely death. And it’s precisely this venom that is of such interest to scientists.
In the 1960s, a small component of the jararaca’s venom, a specific type of peptide, was identified and isolated by a Brazilian scientist. Can you guess what medical treatment this peptide went on to form? Well, after decades of work and development, what emerged from the venom was a highly effective treatment for hypertension and heart failure, commonly known as an ACE (angiotensin-converting enzyme) inhibitor. These drugs work at a microscopic level to lower blood pressure, thinning the blood and decreasing tension on its vessels. It seems incredible, and perhaps ironic, that a lifesaving concoction was born from one designed to kill, but this is not an isolated case. In fact, science continues to be fascinated by the secret possibilities of snake venom.
To find out more about the magic mixtures inside snake venom, and how they continue to inspire new medicines, check out this excellent paper on the subject.
House Spider (Tegenaria domestica): A Magically Ordinary Arachnid
Now, you might be asking why out of all the weird and wonderful spiders that roam the habitats of this world – from wolf spiders to jumping spiders to the Goliath birdeater – we’ve chosen to focus on the humble house spider. Well, there is a good reason for this. You see, the house spider may be less exotic than its cousins – less extravagant, less notorious, and certainly smaller – but it nonetheless works a miracle inside its body.
It weaves silk.
This magical, impenetrable substance connects the house spider to every other species in its taxonomic order, Araneae. There are more than 45,000 different species of spider living in the world today, but wherever they dwell, whatever they look like, and whatever they actually do with their silk, they all spin it. The house spider itself builds a funnel web, confining itself to a cool, dark corner and constructing a hollow tunnel of silk that radiates outwards from its chosen spot. The merest touch of prey against the outer strands of the web sends vibrations running down to the waiting arachnid, and in an instant, it hurtles towards its victim to attack, dragging its prize hungrily back to its corner. The trap is an ingenious use of silk, and orb-web spiders, which construct the classic circular web to snare flying insects in your garden, use a similar technique.
Some species, however, are a little more creative in their use of silk. Take for example the bolas spider (e.g., mastophora phrynosoma). Not content with simply building a web, this spider will hang upside down from a leaf, wielding a long thread of silk with a sticky orb at the end. Using pheromones to lure unsuspecting moths closer, the spider will swing its weapon with enough precision to entangle the fluttering prey.
Whatever the technique an individual spider uses to hunt, none of this would be possible without the truly amazing properties of silk. This is, of course, where science sees possibilities for the future. Silk is astoundingly resilient, elastic and tough, with some species producing threads of a tensile strength many times greater than Kevlar. Research often focuses on how silk could be used to make sustainable, hard-wearing fibres for clothing, but beyond this its unique properties mean it has the potential to help with construction, transportation, medical materials like surgical thread, or even the creation of biodegradable bottles. Not bad for the humble house spider eh?
Eager for more? For an in-depth explanation of the possibilities of spider silk, listen to this comprehensive paper!
The relationship between nature and science is complex and ever-changing – yesterday’s certainties can become uncertainties in a moment of chance discovery, and possibilities once thought merely fantasies can begin to take shape when viewed in the correct light. The animals here are only a few of many, and there are countless more incredible secrets just waiting to be discovered. Nature, after all, is infinite in its mysteries, and we have no doubt that science will continue to be fascinated by them for many generations to come.
Keep striving, researchers! ✨