Disappearing freaks of nature and the secrets going with them

The ultimate freak show is an understatement: Armed worms, sex-crazed fish, poison-hungry butterflies, polka-dotted flying good luck charms, and the most despicable creature born with a grin whose blood fights gravity. No one knows all the secrets they hold, but what’s clear is that the strangest amongst us are showing us a better way to live.

The catch? They are teaching us their survival skills as they disappear.

It’s natural to resist the idea that we can learn from what makes most do a double take for the wrong reasons. But no one can deny that these oddballs have passed the most brutal of selection tests by tinkering with their inherited traits. As other species were wiped out, they whipped up fascinating tricks to get by.

Maybe most perplexing is not how eccentric they are (and they are full-blown gloriously bizarre), but that we would be ambivalent about losing them. This is irreplaceable data. These creatures are a pure source of wonder and the linchpin to a thriving, humming planet. They have an inherent right to be here. If we are obsessed with, and arguably dependent on, cutting-edge technology, why are we wiping out the true masters of innovation?

Why we want to be more like the ugliest fish on the planet.

ORGANISM: Anglerfish (Lophiiformes); some species endangered
POTENTIAL APPLICATIONS: New ultra-black materials; biochemical tags; bioinspired lamps
A photograph of an anglerfish taken in the deep sea. The fish is orange with a bioluminescent lure dangling from its head.
Photo by Masaki Miya/Wikimedia Commons

Whoa. Whoa. WHOA. Where to start with this one? Anglerfish let it rip when it comes to weirdness. It’s a good thing they don’t know what they look like. They’ve been dubbed by National Geographic as “possibly the ugliest fish on the planet,” but it’s their life stories that make these carnivores fascinating.
Let’s start with the dudes: If you’re a male anglerfish, your mission in life is to find a mate — not for your species’ survival, but for your own. Males are unable to hunt, so their life depends on finding a woman who can. Only 1% of them do. Most of them starve to death as virgins.

Male anglerfish look and act nothing like females. About the size of a little goldfish, he uses his oddly large nostrils to identify a potential female partner by her unique pheromone scent. Then, once she’s close enough (and he can tell with his eyes she’s the right species), he hooks his teeth into her belly. This is where it gets really weird: He fuses his body to hers until he literally loses himself — his eyes, his teeth, his tummy — till what is left are his lungs (for breathing) and testes (to pump her with sperm). He uses her for everything else down to her blood. Now, that’s a stage-5 clinger.

Now, the females. Her dating profile would say she has teeny, saw-like teeth that are creepily see-through, cover the bottom of her mouth, and run down her throat. Fun party tricks include that she can grow to more than 60 times her man’s size, and her mouth and stomach can extend twice their size to swallow prey much bigger than her — a key feature when living in the pitch-black deep sea where food is harder to come by and she’s feeding up to eight males fused to her. Her most defining feature: She looks like she’s been permanently stabbed in the forehead with a glowing Q-tip. Think of that Q-tip, a modification of her dorsal fin, as her built-in fishing rod with glow-in-the-dark bait. The glowing bulb at the end is not controlled by her; it is actually a home to bioluminescent bacteria. The bacteria have a safe place to live while doing the anglerfish a life-saving favor: providing a light to attract prey and boys.

As if this glowing adaptation weren’t impressive enough, anglerfish also harness their skin for the opposite reason: to hide. Those living a mile below the surface benefit from hyper-dark camouflaging that helps them blend in with a black sea and stay safe from predators. Their skin’s unique architecture and the layer and shape of their melanosome means that their intensely dark pigmented skin almost completely blends into the darkness around them (<.5% reflectance). As noted by, “The simple architecture of strongly absorbing and highly scattering particles may inspire new ultra-black materials.” With these oddest of deep-sea residents, new approaches to manipulating light can be integrated into innovative materials with applications ranging from telescopes to solar panels.

Impressive for a wretched fish.

Ingesting this poison could kill a horse, but this butterfly can’t live without it.

ORGANISM: Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus); endangered
POTENTIAL APPLICATION: Chemical resistance

Photo by Willie Manalo/

You may know them as butterflies, but they are actually poison-hungry insects.

If we really pay attention to the life of a monarch butterfly, it is beyond comprehension. Their lives may be closer to magic than science, but what’s captured the attention of innovators is their lesser-known ability to handle and survive because of one poison — so lethal it could kill a horse.

First a reminder of these seemingly mindless insects’ stunning life story: Brain the size of a pinhead. Perfectly engineered yet outweighed by a feather. So dainty it could be crushed in the most gentle of hands and yet powers through whipping winds that could break a human neck. They may appear mindlessly fluttering around, but they are on an epic, purposeful journey to keep their species alive, and each one will die without ever completing all of it.

No single butterfly makes the entire migration on its own. It takes three to five generations. That means it’s a family’s team effort to make it from the fir forests of Mexico, up to Canada, and all the way back to Mexico. They lay their little eggs on one specific type of poisonous plant along the way. Milkweed is the only leaf picky monarch caterpillars will eat, and it’s an interesting choice because by eating milkweed, monarchs consume deadly toxins that can give small animals a heart attack and can kill a horse at some quantities.

Monarchs leverage these poisons to their benefit. The toxins remain in their bodies throughout their lifetimes — even through metamorphosis. The toxins become part of their natural defense system because, while an animal may not die from eating a monarch, its taste means predators won’t seek them out for a snack in the future.

Innovators are looking at the genetic mutations that enable monarchs to consume poisonous milkweed without dying and then keep the toxins safely in their bodies to deter predators. Their trick is that they don’t actually digest the poison. Genetic mutations in their sodium pump gene have made them immune to it; rather than digesting it, they are placing it in a protective, quarantined safe in their bodies.

What is the most incomprehensible part of a butterfly? The mind-blowing wonder that they transform from caterpillar into that iconic silhouette? Or that at the weight of a paperclip they can carry poison in their bodies, through every stage of their lives, that would give other animals a heart attack? Or that even though a descendant usually completes the final leg of their epic migration — to a country they’ve never even been in — they can somehow return to the very same tree where their great-grandparents lived? It’s impossible to pick.

But as beloved and resilient as monarch butterflies are, they are now an endangered species. These pollinators have declined more than 90% in the last few decades.

If we are obsessed with cutting-edge technology, why are we wiping out the true masters of innovation?

What do killer worms have to do with ending plastic pollution? (They don’t eat it.)

ORGANISM: Velvet Worm (Onychophora); endangered
POTENTIAL APPLICATIONS: Biodegradable plastic and adhesives

Photo by Jacob Littlejohn/Wikimedia Commons

How does a nearly blind, slow-moving creature so small that it’s measured in centimeters and with a name like “velvet worm” become a feared predator? These tiny meat eaters don’t need good vision — they can sense you in the air because of their attunement to air currents. Forget fangs and speed. Their weapons include two pistols jutting out of their face — think high-pressure garden hoses gone bonkers — that shoot slimy saliva that quickly hardens, paralyzing victims and liquefying their insides. Then, the velvet worms sidle up to sink their blade-laced mouth into a meat milkshake.

Scientists are looking at the composition and sequence of the proteins in the velvet worm’s slimy ammunition — specifically at how the slime hardens — as inspiration for a greener, better bioplastic. Its unique composition gives it bonds as strong as nylon that can dissolve when exposed to water.

Who could have predicted that the slime from a worm would give us new possibilities for bioplastics and adhesives to help fight plastic pollution? While we’d think they are safely ignored hanging out under leaves, even velvet worms are victims of the exotic pet trade based on their unusual look and behaviors. They are also at risk due to habitat loss, primarily due to draining and burning of their wetland homes for industrialization and agricultural use. Their role inspiring more sustainable alternatives to replace traditional plastics and materials made from fossil fuels means there are even more reasons to protect this little guy.

How sloths master engineering (even when they’re dead).

ORGANISM: Pygmy Three-Toed Sloth (Folivora); endangered
POTENTIAL APPLICATIONS: Infrastructure; energy; robotics

Photo by Banu R/

If you’ve ever seen a sloth right side up, you know something’s not right. The 19th century naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon said, “Slowness, habitual pain, and stupidity are the results of this strange and bungled conformation. These sloths are the lowest form of existence. One more defect would have made their lives impossible.” If he flipped his human-obsessed lens, he’d see something else entirely: Their oddities are their superpowers. Sloths are living examples of exquisite design.

They can pump blood against the force of gravity; fart through their mouths; hold their breath for 40 minutes under water; process toxins others can’t due to their hyper-slow digestive systems (it takes up to a month to process one leaf); fall asleep and give birth upside down; harness their gas to help stay afloat; and create their own built-in camo coats by moving so slowly that cockroaches and algae hide out in their fur. (Scientists are also looking at sloth fungus to fight cancer.) Arguably most impressive is their signature spine, which is not a “bungled conformation,” but a true master of engineering. Sloths can be found hanging upside down on tree limbs after they are dead.

Can the living embodiment of a deadly sin and poster child of sluggishness help shape the future of infrastructure or energy? Maybe. What is possible if engineers look to their built-in curved spines’ ability to handle balance of tension and compression so gracefully? While bridges have been around for centuries, sloths designed to resist tension forces could be meaningful inspiration for a new generation of suspension bridges.

Or perhaps we look to sloths — which British zoologist Lucy Cooke calls “energy-saving icons” — for energy breakthroughs. They are already the inspiration for a new breed of tech conservationist (half biologist/half robot) that channels a sloth’s vibe: slow on purpose, energy efficient, recharges in the sun, collects data over long periods of time, and charms whoever gets a chance to sneak a peek.

This polka-dotted cutie’s
 most interesting part is one we rarely see.

ORGANISM: Nine-Spotted Lady Beetle (Coccinella novemnotata); endangered
INNOVATION/PROBLEM SOLVED: Curved vein shape allows for self-locking

Photo by Levon Biss/

Red, round, polka-dotted charmers linked to good luck, ladybugs are welcomed little encounters for most. We feel like a million bucks if they choose to land on us, but they are happy most anywhere from cities to outer space (NASA sent four on the space shuttle with their favorite food, aphids, to study gravity). They smell with their feet, suck down about 5,000 insects in their lifetime, and were named after the Virgin Mary after seemingly miraculously helping farmers control crop pests. For a beetle measured in millimeters, they have quite a fan club.

While these retro-looking fashion icons are one of the more recognizable insects, it’s a part of their bodies we generally don’t see that interests researchers. “The ladybug’s technique for achieving complex folding is quite fascinating and novel, particularly for researchers in the fields of robotics, mechanics, aerospace, and mechanical engineering,” said Kazuya Saito of the Institute of Industrial Science at the University of Tokyo.

Innovators are looking to the ladybug’s unique qualities — such as wings that are quickly deployable, compact, foldable, and resilient under high-frequency flapping — for design inspiration. They are particularly intrigued by the ladybug’s unique curved vein, a shape that enables energy to be stored within the vein and swiftly spread out. They compare the strategy to the curve of carpenter tape that allows it to curve and flex straight. Ultimately, scientists hope that this novel skill can contribute to advanced wings for aircrafts, space technology (such as folding antennas), or next-generation robots with multiple functions (glide, crawl, jump, flap, perch).

The nine-spotted ladybug — once so prevalent in its range that it is the official state insect of New York — is endangered. With a figure more reminiscent of a halved tennis ball with legs than a sleek machine, it can seem surprising that they’re teaching us about cutting-edge robotics and aviation, but maybe that’s partly the point: Good innovation comes from unexpected places. We don’t know the extent of what we’re losing as we lose them.

This bird saves more energy flying than plopped on a nest.

ORGANISM: Albatross (Diomedea exulans); endangered
POTENTIAL APPLICATIONS: Decarbonized aerospace industry; wind-powered drones; aircraft design on Mars

Photo by Manakin/

Imagine a bird that can save more energy flying across oceans than plopped on its nest, go years without touching land or flapping its wings, and fly more easily against the wind than without any wind at all. Maybe you’d guess these birds’ epic 11-foot wingspan carries them, but you’d be wrong. Their secret? They lock in tendons in their shoulders and catch the wind. Watching them, you can almost see them manipulate the wind as their engine.

Other party tricks include the ability to fly more than 10,000 miles at once (that’s farther than from Los Angeles to Sydney); circumnavigate the world in 46 days; drink salt water; fly 50 mph; and make their stomachs so acidic they match a corpse-eating vulture’s (which helps them quickly digest food that crosses their path). Maybe rarest: they are committed mates for life.

Scientists and engineers are interested in the albatross’s unique technique of “dynamic soaring,” which enables them to be one of the most epic, efficient flyers of decarbonized aerospace. Albatrosses have a locking mechanism in their shoulders. This strut-like tendon passively holds their wings horizontal, allowing them to gracefully soar during flight. Researchers are looking at how the albatross is hyper-skilled at maneuvering strong winds, sensing the changes in wind and air speed, harnessing the lift between quick and slow air, and changing direction — think climbing and descending S-patterns on repeat. They can fly against the wind more gracefully than without any wind because their dynamic soaring technique requires toggling among varying velocities and air masses. The locked-shoulder adaptation also reduces energy inefficiencies.

In 2022, NASA planetary scientists and University of Arizona aerospace experts tested albatross-inspired gliders in various atmospheres, aiming for long distances and long duration while using limited energy. This glider plane shared the bird’s 11-foot wingspan, was motorless, and harnessed wind energy. This would be an attractive glider design for navigating Martian skies, which have a thin atmosphere that makes it challenging to fly a traditional plane.

Nature nerd question: What do an albatross glider, ladybugs, and the James Webb Space Telescope have in common? Origami! Satellites might transport an albatross folder-glider to Mars, where it would unravel its origami-like folded wings and take flight, just like the James Webb Space Telescope, which also folded in an origami style to fit into its launch rocket.

Extinctions are happening 10,000 times faster now than ever in history.

Can we be obsessed with knowledge and indifferent to permanently losing it?

Many of us straddle being both deeply uncomfortable with and intrigued by death. At times, we can be so hellbent on avoiding death that it’s not uncommon to keep alive someone who may never have the capacity to experience joy or connection again. Yet, we can be oddly indifferent as the last breath of an entire species goes unnoticed. It’s a weird, unsettling thought.

While “extinct” is a word once reserved for dinosaurs, this status is attached to up to 150 new species every day. Extinctions are happening 10,000 times faster now than ever in history. The ecological collapse is disturbingly quick. Our only reference point in all of history that compares is the Permian extinction; think doomsday. It killed about 90% of the species that once roamed the planet.

The world is becoming a different place.

That’s partly why, while writing this piece, I called Kenneth Lacovara, a dinosaur expert and the visionary behind the world-class, first-of-its-kind Edelman Fossil Park and Museum, scheduled to open in Spring 2024 in New Jersey. Lacovara is revered for many things, maybe most notably unearthing what he later named Dreadnoughtus. At 65 tons and as long as a high school basketball court, it was one of the most massive dinosaurs to walk on our planet. Growing up, I thought paleontologists focused on the past, but (maybe counterintuitively) paleontologists like Lacovara understand more about our future than most ever will.

He’s an expert on why dinosaurs matter to us now, specifically how dinosaurs can be a humbling mirror to our own blind spots and what we could learn from “the indomitable masters of the planet” if we had access to their legendary superpowers before getting decimated by an asteroid. For example: how they grew their own body armor, managed self-powered flight, regulated body temperature, moved their massive bodies across swampy terrain, and repurposed features. That’s worthy of its own article I’d be honored to write, and it’s unsettling, knowing the avalanches of life that are on their way to joining the dinosaurs in extinction. There’s a fundamental link between what we’ve lost, what we’re losing, and our own survival. We so quickly miss it.

I admire the way Lacovara put it in his book Why Dinosaurs Matter. He writes, “We’re all freaks of nature, us species, in that everything has to line up just right for us to be. It’s remarkable that the same mechanisms of natural selection, amplified over deep time but modified by circumstance, led to both dinosaurs and us. Their story is not our story, though we share the first few chapters, yet the common themes of evolution — such as efficiency, resilience, adaptation, competitiveness, and dispersal — carry through and resonate with our own experience.”

What if we accept and embrace that we are dependent on the secret worlds around us — including the strangest, most bizarre, and least relatable? They challenge our perspectives and show us that sometimes life’s most brilliant tricks are buried in the spit and the spines and the poisons that surround us. They expand what is possible for our world by letting their freak flags fly — and invite us to honor that part of ourselves.

A version of this piece was first published in September 2022 on the blog of the Biomimicry Institute (