Humans have long prized uniqueness. Many people wear it like a badge of honor if they are “not like other people” and march to the beat of their own drum. If you have a unique skill or ability, this is even more highly prized. After all, who wouldn’t want to be the best at something?
In the animal kingdom there are tons of creatures with unique skills, too. And some of them are so unique only one organism can lay claim to them.
10. Sponges Can Reassemble Themselves After Being Destroyed
Toughness is a nebulous term to define, especially as it relates to a living thing. It can mean strength or resilience or endurance. Is a gorilla tougher than a blobfish because it has more physical strength while a blobfish can endure crushing ocean depths? It’s all relative.
By most any metric, a sea sponge has to be considered tough thanks to one remarkable skill it has that you won’t find in any other creatures. You can almost completely destroy a sponge and it will pull itself together.
Like the T-1000 in Terminator 2, you can break a sponge down to its very cells and it will reassemble. If you force a sponge through a fine cloth, the individual cells can reconnect where they fall on the other side over several days and form into new sponges, making it nearly indestructible in terms of physical damage.
9. Elephants Can Understand Pointing Without Being Trained
Have you ever tried to point something out to your cat or dog? As in literally pointing at something you wanted them to notice? Chances are your cat rubbed its face on your outstretched finger if it paid you any mind at all. And if your dog has not been trained to understand this gesture, it might just look at you expectantly.
Pointing is not a gesture animals understand naturally because animals are not inclined to use such a gesture or link it to the meaning humans ascribe to it. Elephants, however, have been shown to have such a complex social system that they also use non-verbal gestures to communicate which includes using their trunks to point. As such, elephants can understand the meaning of a human pointing like no other animal.
Research has shown that elephants can be trained to understand vocal commands, but they could spontaneously and without explanation understand when humans pointed things out and used the gesture to locate food. Even chimpanzees cannot grasp what pointing is for right away.
8. Pronghorns Are The only Animal With Horns That Branch and Shed Like Antlers
There are a good number of animals in the world that have horns or antlers and they take on a variety of shapes and sizes. One of the fundamental differences between horns and antlers is that horns grow as a permanent fixture of the animal while antlers grow, shed, and then regrow later. This is true of all animals except the pronghorn.
For most creatures, antlers are an extension of the skull. They are bone and usually only found in males. Horns have a two-part structure. Bone is on the inside but the outside is a coating like human fingernails. While antlers continue to branch as they grow, as seen in elk and moose, horns do not branch. Except, again, for the pronghorn.
Unlike all other similar creatures, a pronghorn grows branched horns and they will shed them and regrow them again. So, in function, they are like antlers but in form they are horns.
7. Australian Firehawks Are The Only Animals That Use Fire to Hunt
With a name like firehawk you have to assume there’s a cool story behind these Australian birds and there definitely is. According to Aboriginal stories, firehawks are sacred and brought the gift of fire to humankind. The reason these stories exist is that firehawks are the only animals that actively use fire to hunt.
The firehawks, which constitute several species of bird of which some can grow to about two feet, have been observed many times. They actively seek fire and large groups of them have been seen circling above man made fires or forest fires. They have learned that fire will flush out prey animals and give them an opportunity to hunt.
More interesting, however, is that the birds now take a proactive approach to fire. They will pick up burning branches and carry them a distance across a road or even across a human made firewall so they can set new fires.
6. Ants Are The Only Creatures to Have Domesticated Another One
Humans began domesticating animals over 10,000 years ago and we’ve done it many times. Not just dogs but goats, sheep, horses, chickens, all have been domesticated to a greater or lesser degree. Domesticating animals was one of the cornerstones of civilization as it allowed for farming and community to thrive. It is a unique trait that humans have developed but it is not wholly unique. One other creature has pulled it off – ants.
In the simplest of terms, ants have domesticated aphids and farm them. Like humans with livestock, ants can herd aphids to where they want them. The aphids feed on plants and produce a sweet liquid called honeydew that the ants eat. When the plant runs dry in a spot because of overfeeding, the ants will herd the aphids to a new spot. This is good for the aphids who get more food and good for the ants who get more honeydew.
The relationship does not end here, either. Ants will also protect the aphids from predators and even from the cold when the weather turns by carrying them into their dens. The aphids, in turn, let the ants milk them just like small, six-legged cows.
The relationship is so complex that there are some ant colonies that have farmer ants. Just like some care for the eggs and some forage for food, some will only tend to aphids. Their sole duty is to care for them and carry them around.
Another rare species of ant has been shown to engage in what is called predatory mutualism. These ants live in huge colonies with insects similar to aphids but research into their stomach contents has shown they don’t farm these ones for honeydew, but meat. They protect the entire colony at the cost of eating a few.
5. Sea Slugs Are the Only Animal Capable of Photosynthesis
Photosynthesis is the process through which plants turn light into chemical energy. In rudimentary terms, while animals like humans eat food, plants like a maple tree eat sunlight. Both are converted to energy to sustain life and so far so good for all of us.
The sacoglossan sea slug stands alone as the bizarre bridge between us and maple trees. These animals can eat food for chemical energy. But, in a pinch, they can also photosynthesize it.
The method by which the slugs have a foot in both worlds is just as bizarre as you’d think. They can’t naturally engage in photosynthesis but what they can do is co-opt the chemical process thanks to the food they eat. Sort of like how a poison dart frog gets its poison from the bugs it eats, these sea slugs eat algae that is capable of photosynthesis and store the chloroplasts in their flesh.
The chloroplast doesn’t seem to care where it is when it turns light into energy so the cells can keep working for months in the bodies of the slugs, providing extra energy for the animal host. It’s unclear to science how the slugs can preserve the cells in their own body but they do a decent job of it.
4. Owls Can Do a Full Head Rotation of Over 400 Degrees
Most of us have seen images or video of an owl turning its head around backwards in a cool if somewhat spooky display of their range of neck motion. It’s a unique trait of the owl but that trait is a lot more significant than it seems at first.
To start with, an owl doesn’t just turn its head around. That would be a mere 180 degrees of motion and who cares about such a paltry range? A tarsier can turn its head almost 180 degrees. If you consider turning left and right that means the tarsier has a nearly 360 range of motion. Owls are not about to be beaten by the tarsier.
An owl can actually extend beyond 180 degrees when it turns its head. The range of motion for a half turn like that is over 200 degrees for an owl, some up to 270 degrees in each direction. That means that the full range of motion for an owl is over 400 to 540 degrees. It can see around itself in a full circle and then some.
Owls have fixed eye sockets, so they can’t follow things just by moving their eyes. Their necks adapted to make it easier for them to track prey without having to lose sight of it no matter where it went. The head of an owl is only connected by a single pivot point unlike humans which have two, thus limited out range of motion. Because everything is more flexible, owls can exploit this remarkable range like no other animal.
3. Pangolins Are The Only Mammals With Scales
Every classification of life seems to have one or two of those weirdos who don’t seem to fit in. A platypus is a mammal, but it lays eggs. Fish like lungfish and snakeheads can breathe oxygen out of the water for days. And the pangolin is a mammal that has scales.
The scales of the pangolin are made of keratin, like hair and fingernails. They use the scales on their tails defensively and they also roll into a ball when threatened, making them very hard for most predators to get to.
The animals are threatened in many areas because of the illegal trade in their meat and scales. Efforts to study them have been hindered by the fact they do very poorly in captivity. Studying them is so hard, in fact, we don’t even know what their natural lifespan is.
2. Firefly Squid Produce Light Through Protein Crystals
Many organisms can produce light, from luminescent algae to certain mushrooms and, of course, fireflies. The firefly squid, however, has an entirely unique method of doing this.
Fireflies produce light chemically inside of themselves but the squid, which emit blue light at the tips of their tentacles, are the only animals capable of making light from protein crystals. But they are chemically similar to what makes a firefly glow, despite the species being so different. They’re also unique among other luminescent squid since the other species glow thanks to bacteria and not light produced by the animal itself.
1. A Salmon Parasite Is the Only Animal That Doesn’t Need Oxygen
One thing that seems to unite the animal kingdom is breathing. Whether through lungs or across gills, everything needs to breathe something. That’s what we thought, anyway. Opinions changed in 2020 with the study of the parasite Henneguya salminicola.
The parasite is remarkably small and has less than 10 cells. They inhabit the flesh of salmon and have adapted to not breath while still thriving. The little critter, the only multicellular organism we know of that doesn’t need air, is related to jellyfish and coral. Instead of oxygen it steals the nutrients it needs from the body of the salmon, bypassing the need to do such things itself.
While most creatures have cell mitochondria converting food to energy, the parasite doesn’t. They have no mitochondria genome so their cells don’t need to worry about energy production and gene copying.