By Joy H. Montgomery, Animal Planet
Not everything is as it seems with many wild animals. While most people have heard about lizards that blend into their surroundings and the metamorphosis of butterflies, there are many truly amazing animals with transformative powers that protect them from predators or help them find food — or a mate. From an octopus that pretends to be other animals to a creature with an uncanny ability to disappear in an instant, discover the best animal transformers in the wild, and find out why there’s more to them than meets the eye.
10. SEA SQUIRT
A sea squirt sounds more like something that would come out of an aquatic animal than the name of an actual creature, but this obscure being is, in fact, real. Often found hanging out on boat hulls or docks, the sea squirt has a transparent outer body that gives it the appearance of a sponge or plant. However, its transformative powers begin while it’s still in the larval stage.
As a tadpole, the sea squirt has a functioning brain, spinal cord and tail, but once it takes root on the ocean floor or other area, the tadpole absorbs those organs as it develops into a mature sea squirt. According to researchers, the presence of a spinal cord in the larval stage means this creature is a vertebrate and more closely related to species like fish — or even people — than invertebrates like worms. Sea squirts can grow up to 7 inches (18 centimeters) in diameter and are also able to heal damaged parts by regenerating cells. All things considered, the sea squirt is a magnificent creature that continues to intrigue scientists, who are currently researching the sea squirt’s healing abilities to see if they might unlock the answer to curing diseases such as Alzheimer’s and heart disease in people.
Tadpoles are amphibian larvae that eventually turn into fully developed frogs or toads, and by the time these tiny swimmers make their transformations, they don’t look anything like their former selves. As tadpoles, they live in shallow water and do not have any appendages other than a tail. As they mature into frogs or toads, they begin to grow legs and arms while absorbing their tails. They go from having small mouths to growing large ones that span the width of their heads. Even their insides transform to make way for a new way of eating — going from a mostly plant-based diet to one that includes insects.
Chameleons are probably most well known for their ability to blend in with the majority of environments, but according to the San Diego Zoo (SDZ), they can’t match any background, so you shouldn’t expect one to blend in with the wallpaper. They are usually able to camouflage themselves in natural settings thanks to their four layers of skin. Each layer contains a different pigment that allows the outer skin to change depending on the amount of light, temperature and level of humidity in the air. SDZ also says nerves and hormones play a part in the chameleon’s ability to change colors. This natural ability certainly helps hide chameleons in the wild, but they don’t just change color to avoid being detected by predators; they also use this talent as a form of expression, making them nature’s mood rings.
7. COMMON SCOPS OWL
There are more than 45 different types of scops owls living throughout the world, with most residing in Africa and southern Europe. Like most owls, the common scops owl is a nocturnal species. Its tiny height of about 6.5 inches (16.5 centimeters) makes it excellent prey for other predatory birds, so these owls have adapted a cool trick to avoid becoming a midnight snack. With feathers that have coloring similar to tree bark, a scops owl can blend easily into tree branches, becoming virtually invisible to predators. In addition to having camouflaging feathers, the scops owl can also stretch its body to make it look leaner, and when it sways back and forth, it looks even more like a tree branch blowing in the breeze.
Caterpillars might be the ultimate transformers, since they literally transform from wiggly worms into beautiful butterflies, but that’s not their only transformative trait. Caterpillars are often disguised among plants due to their coloring, and their fuzzy skin often looks like thorns on a twig. This camouflaging ability helps caterpillars survive until they reach full maturity and begin their metamorphosis — called chrysalis — into a butterfly. Chrysalis begins with an adult caterpillar attaching itself to tree bark or another solid object and then splitting its skin to reveal a pupa. The transformation happens inside the pupa as the caterpillar begins to disintegrate into liquid, with only a few remaining cells that reorganize into an adult butterfly. After the caterpillar has completed its metamorphosis into a butterfly, the pupa will split open and the butterfly will emerge. It doesn’t waste any time mating and laying eggs, as most butterflies have a short life span of a few weeks. The butterfly’s eggs hatch to reveal caterpillar larvae, and the cycle begins again.
5. ARCTIC FOX
The Arctic fox lives in the Arctic tundra and is capable of changing its fur color to fit the seasons. A fully grown Arctic fox can weigh up to 10 pounds (4.5 kilograms), making it stouter than its relative, the red fox. The Arctic fox has a unique coat that adapts to the changing seasons and helps it avoid predatory animals. In early spring, it sheds its winter coat for a shorter, brown coat that helps it blend in with dirt and the forest floor during the summer. And by November of each year, the fur has completely changed again to a thick, fully white winter coat. This white coat allows the fox to blend into the snow and makes it nearly undetectable to potential predators. For example, the Arctic fox often follows polar bears, waiting for them to leave behind any scraps from their kill, and thanks to their snow-white fur, they are able to have leftovers without becoming a polar bear’s next meal.
4. TIGER SALAMANDER
The largest salamander in the world, this amphibian gets its name because of how closely its markings resemble those of its feline namesake. Tiger salamanders grow up to 14 inches (35 centimeters) in length, and are normally brown-skinned with bright yellow stripes or spots, although patterns can vary and some don’t have any markings at all. The most fascinating trait of the tiger salamander is how it can transform during mating in order to be most successful. In the tiger salamander’s reproduction ritual, the male will leave a packet of sperm called a “spermatophore” in the path of a female tiger salamander who will ingest it into her body. Sometimes, a male tiger salamander will crash a mating ritual in progress by impersonating a female. He mimics her behavior so that the other male salamander doesn’t feel threatened by his presence, then places his spermatophore on top of his rival’s so that the real female will pick up his packet instead.
Image credit: marlin harms / Flickr
Flatfish means “side-swimmers” in Greek, and that definition describes exactly what these odd fish do. To avoid becoming a bigger fish’s lunch, the flatfish will lay on its side on the ocean bed, blending in with the scenery. Its eyes even accommodate the fish’s need to lay flat. They are born with eyes on both sides, like normal fish, but one eye will begin to migrate to the side that faces up, making the fish permanently blind on the side that lays on the ocean floor. Some flatfish can even change their coloring to match the seabed. This fish is such a pro at concealing its presence that other sea creatures, such as the mimic octopus, pretend to be flatfish when predators are around.
2. MIMIC OCTOPUS
With the ability to transform itself into the shapes of many other species found in the ocean — and adopt their behaviors — this octopus is the ultimate master of disguise. Native to Indonesia, the mimic octopus is very good at hiding from hungry predators by twisting and shaping its tentacles until it closely resembles the form of another animal, such as a flatfish or a snake, to avoid detection by ravenous predators looking for their next meal. It also uses the same movements of the species it’s mimicking to take the disguise one step further. These tactics don’t always completely conceal a mimic octopus, but they can confuse would-be predators long enough for the octopus to make an escape.
Image credit: prilfish / Flickr
1. STICK INSECT
These aptly named insects look like little twigs, and if you don’t see one moving, you might not notice it all. These insects are so great at blending in to their environment that you won’t find them hiding out with real sticks; instead, they will sit right out in the open. Even their movements are camouflaged as they sway back and forth to mimic a twig blowing in the wind. According to the San Diego Zoo, stick insects are also capable of a type of asexual reproduction in which unfertilized females produce eggs that hatch into females. If a male fertilizes the egg, it might turn into a male, otherwise, the egg hatches into a female and continues a girls-only lineage. The stick insect might be the best at transforming into an inanimate object, but as our countdown proves, there are many wild animals that use the power of transformation to survive and thrive in a natural world full of challenges.