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The weird world of narwals, nudibranchs, and aye-ayes—and how to see these creatures in the wild.
The World's Strangest Animals
What it is: The closest thing the planet has to a unicorn (albeit a swimming one), this medium-sized, speckled whale has a long, spiraling horn—technically a tooth—that can grow up to nine feet in length for males.
What’s strangest about it: Though no one knows exactly what the narwhal’s horn is for, it’s thought to play a part in mating rituals. Males have been spotted battling with their horns, as if fencing with swords (apparently to impress females); occasionally, narwhal skulls are found with other narwhals’ horns embedded in them.
Where to see it: In Arctic waters, especially off the eastern and western coasts of Greenland. The High Arctic Explorer and Spitsbergen & East Greenland cruises run by Mountain Travel Sobek give narwhal fans the best chance of glimpsing the creatures, which swim in the icy clear water between floes and bergs.
While hiking through the flat savannah lands of western Brazil, you emerge from some shade trees and suddenly find yourself just yards away from the most outlandish creature you’ve ever seen. Lumbering forward on its front knuckles, its monstrous bushy tail sweeping the ground, the animal swings its long, bottle-shaped head from side to side. As you watch, it scratches open a termite mound, roots around with its snout, and then propels a two-foot-long tongue to flick up insects.
That’s when you realize: none of your nature TV shows or YouTube searches have adequately prepared you for this moment. Some animals, like this giant anteater, are so strange they have to be seen to be believed.
These days, it’s possible to encounter all kinds of exotic creatures without ever leaving home: Animal Planet and The Discovery Channel run endless repeats of Shark Week and Meerkat Manor; zoos have round-the-clock panda-cams and baby-rhino-cams; and web sites let armchair naturalists download the sounds of rare animals (croaking leopard frogs, bellowing polar bears) as cell-phone ringtones.
With all these virtual animal adventures just a click away, it’s easy to forget the value of actual face-to-face wildlife encounters. After all, tracking down wild animals—especially really unusual ones—can be time-consuming, difficult, expensive…is it really worth the trouble?
Absolutely, says Greg Greer, the staff naturalist for adventure-tour outfitter International Expeditions. As a guide for wildlife expeditions all over the globe—including western Brazil—he’s seen the reactions people have when they first come face-to-snout with creatures like the giant anteater.
“Their jaws just drop,” Greer says of his tour participants. “No matter how much people think they know about these animals, they’re always blown away by seeing them for real. They are just way, way more bizarre in person.”
Like the anteater, some creatures are unique in ways that don’t really come through onscreen. Proboscis monkeys, for instance, look plenty strange in photos—but nothing compares to the all-sensory experience of having them leap among trees right over your head, shaking branches and snorking through their huge Groucho noses. Other animals move so slowly that they’d never make for scintillating video—yet scuba divers who happen upon psychedelically colored nudibranchs (sea slugs) can use up half a tank of air just hovering over them as they flutter across corals and sponges. Safari trekkers lucky enough to spot a three-horned Jackson’s chameleon may not be rewarded with much action, either; the prehistoric-looking lizards’ movements are almost exasperatingly slow. But being able to closely inspect the chameleon’s long spiraling tail and crayon-hued scales, and look it right in its independently rotating eyes, is gift enough.
There’s also something singular about seeing rare animals where they belong—in their native habitats, going about their ordinary business (which can be much different than their behavior on camera or in captivity). Since many of the world’s most unusual creatures are also endangered, encountering them in the wild can inspire a new sense of awe—even reverence.
“People instinctively whisper in the wild,” says Dennis Pinto, managing director of Micato Safaris (which leads group treks to remote locations in Africa). “They don’t want to disturb the moment. It’s more than just seeing the animals—it’s being a part of their world.”
In that world, perhaps, it’s us—humans—who are truly strange.