The World's Strangest Animals
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.
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.
What it is: The name says it all; this creature (while not quite giant—it’s about the size of a golden retriever) is more or less built to consume huge quantities of ants and termites (some 35,000 per day). Its four-inch claws are strong enough to crack even petrified termite mounds; its giant bushy tail allows it to balance on its back legs while digging; and its long prehensile snout and darting, sticky tongue give it easy access to its favorite food.
What’s strangest about it: Giant anteaters walk on their front knuckles, with their claws curled off the ground. This keeps them super-sharp for their main task: excavating.
Where to see it: The forests and savannahs of Central and South America. Giant anteaters are particularly populous in the Pantanal region of western Brazil; travelers who take guided treks here with International Expeditions will spot plenty of them.
What it is: A reddish-brown, leaf-eating monkey that (there’s really no polite way to put this) appears to have been crossed with Jimmy Durante. Proboscis males have huge, fleshy, and pendulous noses that look like some kind of joke; unfortunately, the species has been declared endangered, which isn’t so funny.
What’s strangest about it: Apart from the noses (which can be so big that male monkeys have to push them aside before they can eat) proboscis monkeys are amazingly good swimmers. Their secret weapon: webbed fingers.
Where to see it: Only in the mangrove forests and swamplands of Borneo. Wildlife-viewing expeditions with World Primate Safaris bring travelers to these remote areas, where they often see proboscis family groups—or at least hear the weird honking noises they make through their big schnozzes.
What it is: A particularly wild-looking species of chameleon, with a three-horned head that gives it the appearance of a miniature Triceratops.
What’s strangest about it: Like all chameleons, the Jackson’s has independently swiveling eyes, a projectile tongue that moves about a hundred times faster than the rest of its body, and the ability to change color to avoid detection by predators. Male Jackson’s, though, tend to be particularly aggressive with their horns, especially when another chameleon invades their “territory” (usually just a tree branch). Since chameleons move in slow motion, though, these macho shoving matches tend to be more comedic than dangerous.
Where to see it: Almost exclusively in the forests of Kenya, with a smaller population in Tanzania. Sharp-eyed travelers who participate in Kenya/Tanzania expeditions offered by Micato Safaris may see Jackson’s chameleons, especially in the cooler-climed forests around Mt. Kenya National Park.
What it is: The oddest and rarest of lemur species, the aye-aye isn’t nearly as cute as the fuzzy ring-tailed stars of Animal Planet’s Lemur Kingdom. In fact, its ghoulish appearance—enormous staring eyes, bat-like ears, and creepily long fingers—have caused natives of Madagascar (where it’s endemic) to consider it a harbinger of bad luck.
What’s strangest about it: Aye-ayes have especially long, spidery middle fingers on their front paws, which they use to tap on tree trunks in search of food. If they hear insects moving under the tree bark, they use those same middle fingers to scoop out the bugs and eat them.
Where to see it: Only in the eastern forests of Madagascar. Travelers wanting to see aye-ayes will have the best chance by arranging an expedition with UK-based Reef & Rainforest Tours to the islet of Nosy Mangabe, off Madagascar’s northeastern coast; it has a healthy population of aye-ayes (although they are endangered and very shy). Treks in other parts of Madagascar commonly include sightings of many other lemur species—including the red-bellied, black-and-white ruffed, and (everyone’s favorite) ring-tailed varieties.
What it is: The more commonly known name for nudibranchs—sea slugs—is far too pedestrian for these flamboyantly colorful, bizarrely shaped, and ingeniously adaptable creatures. Some 3,000 different nudibranch varieties live in the world’s coral reefs; spotting (and photographing) them is a favorite pastime of scuba divers around the globe.
What’s strangest about it: Nudibranchs come in a mind-boggling array of shapes and colors. Some are striped like tigers, others covered in neon spots; some varieties have feathery horns, others trailing streamers or Crayola-colored spines, and still others are ruffled like lettuce leaves. But the message that all these garish exterior displays tell is the same: Eat me at your peril. Since they feed on toxic corals and sponges—whose venoms they store in their own bodies—most nudibranchs are highly poisonous.
Where to see it: Coral reefs worldwide. Dive operators everywhere—from Australia’s Great Barrier Reef to the Middle East’s Red Sea to California’s San Miguel Island—run trips where nudibranchs are part of the underwater scenery.
What it is: Though its long tail, stippled golden fur, and hairy mane make it look something like a tiny lion, the pygmy marmoset is actually the world’s smallest monkey. A male weighs only about 5 or 6 ounces when full-grown—which means it’s about the size of a lemon.
What’s strangest about it: The pygmy marmoset has an impressive repertoire of communicative calls. These range from bird-like twitters to shrieks, squeals, and whistles to ultrasonic cries of alarm (the last are inaudible to humans).
Where to see it: Lowland rainforests of the Upper Amazon region, including parts of Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, and Colombia. Travelers who take part in the Amazon Voyage offered by International Expeditions find pygmy marmosets fairly often—usually by following the scratch marks they leave on tree trunks (tree sap is their favorite food) and the sound of their distinctive calls.
Magnificent Frigate Bird
What it is: A fairly common, deceptively ordinary-looking species of seabird—whose males have a rather (ahem) inflated sense of their own sex appeal.
What’s strangest about it: The male magnificent frigate bird has what’s called a gular sac covering its throat and chest—which functions the same way as a balloon. Every year during mating season (March and April), the males inflate their bright-red sacs to outrageous proportions, the better to attract females. Since they can’t fly when puffed up, they basically stand around on tree branches and rocks, waiting to be noticed—and reinforce their pneumatic charms by clattering their beaks and waving their wings around.
Where to see it: Though magnificent frigate birds winter as far north as the southeastern U.S. (including costal Florida and the Carolinas), the best place to see their springtime courtship displays is the Galapagos Islands. Abercrombie & Kent runs Galapagos expeditions almost year-round—although arranging a custom itinerary is the surest way to catch the birds at their gaudy best.
What it is: The largest and most dramatic-looking of the tapirs (large, herbivorous mammals related to rhinos), the Malayan has black-and-white markings similar to a panda’s, and a long, flexible snout that it uses like a snorkel when swimming in rivers.
What’s strangest about it: Adult tapirs’ bold coloring is tame compared to the crazy stripes and squiggles that cover the coats of their young. These arty-looking designs help baby tapirs hide from predators among dappled forest shadows; they fade by the time the tapirs are about six months old.
Where to see it: The rainforests of southern Thailand, the Malay Peninsula, and the island of Sumatra. Though not endangered, the Malayan tapir isn’t easily seen in the wild; the best place for travelers to find them is in Malaysia’s Taman Nagara National Park. A wildlife expedition in the park with the UK-based NatureTrek may yield sightings for a lucky few.
What it is: Probably the world’s best-known animal oddity, the platypus looks like something slapped together from parts of other creatures. With its flat, beaverish tail, seal-like flippers and pelt, and leathery, oversized duck bill, it’s no wonder the platypus stymied the first scientists who examined it (they actually thought the specimen was a practical joke).
What’s strangest about it: Weird though its appearance may be, it’s the platypus’ reproductive process that’s truly wild; it’s one of only two mammals on the planet that lay eggs (the other is the echidna, also endemic to Australia).
Where to see it: Rivers and freshwater lakes of southeastern Australia. Platypuses are timid and largely nocturnal, so the best way to see them is to book a twilight tour with Platypus Eco-Tours, which operates nightly out of the small Cumbungi Sanctuary in South Australia’s Adelaide Hills.