These bizarre animals range from cute to terrifying, and you might even see them on your next trip if you know where to look.
This Australian peacock spider was discovered inside the woodland forests of Wondul National Park, near Brisbane, in 2015. Scientifically named maratus jactatus, sparklemuffin earned its colloquial name from University of California researcher Madeline Girard, who discovered the species. These colorful spiders measure just five millimeters in length and display a signature mating dance, where male spiders raise a leg to signal females.
With a look that suggests a cross between a cockatoo and a bird of prey, the harpy eagle is one of the most distinctive birds on the planet. Their wings can span over seven feet in width, carrying these 20-plus pound birds over the rainforests of Central and South America, where they hunt down large mammals like sloths and monkeys. Harpy eagles are threatened by habitat loss, but this bird can be seen at the Belize Zoo, a sanctuary for native species about an hour outside of Belize City.
A bizarre sight in most of the United States, the coatimundi is a common species in Central and South America that can occasionally be seen in the American Southwest. There, it takes on the role of the raccoon in the food chain, scavenging for fruits, lizards, rodents, and eggs — as well as raiding the occasional trash can. You can find coatimundis from Uruguay to Texas but be warned — though they might look cute and cuddly, coatimundis reportedly make terrible domestic pets.
The glaring, dark stare of a five-foot-tall stork can be a frightening thing for the weary traveler. These mesmerizing birds can exhibit territorial tendencies, as seen in an infamous incident that occurred at the Belize Zoo. That stork’s exhibit now features a roof above the visitor viewing platform after a jabiru stork once tried to stab unsuspecting patrons with its 14-inch-long bill. Jabiru storks are native to Central and South America, where they typically feed on small mammals, fish, and amphibians.
This remarkable amphibian is native to a small series of lakes and canals near Mexico City. Once numbering in the thousands and providing an important food source for the Aztec, the wild population of the axolotl is thought to have dwindled to just a few individuals due to habitat loss. Axolotl can grow to lengths of 18 inches, and they are characterized by a unique set of external gills along with the ability to completely regrow lost limbs.
Naked Mole Rat
Naked mole rats are a common sight in East Africa, where they burrow into the dry grasslands of Ethiopia, Somalia, and Kenya. The naked mole-rat has baffled scientists for decades thanks to a series of unusual biological traits. Naked mole rats are unusually long-lived for rodents; some have been documented at 32 years of age. They are also resistant to cancer and are capable of living in an environment with just a tiny amount of oxygen for hours on end. They are a common sight in zoos across America.
Pangolins are the only known mammal with scales. Their habitat covers parts of Central and West Africa, India, and Southeast Asia. When threatened by predators, pangolins roll up into a defensive ball, protected by their armor-like coating of keratin scales. Sadly, these insectivores are one of the most illegally trafficked mammals in the world. Their scales are thought to have medicinal powers in parts of Asia, and though an international ban exists on their trade, the numbers of wild pangolin have dropped drastically as a result of poaching.
The Tasmanian devil is the largest carnivorous marsupial in the world. Though devils may resemble a small dog, these nocturnal animals carry their young in pouches and are more closely related to wallabies than canines. In recent years, Tasmanian devil populations have plummeted in the wake of a naturally occurring cancer called Devil Facial Tumor Disease. However, caretakers at the Tasmanian Devil Unzoo — a wildlife sanctuary dedicated to rehabilitating devils and researching the disease — say that the animals are adapting to fight back.
The echidna inhabits some of the same territories as the Tasmanian devil, though its range extends onto mainland Australia as well. Echidnas are one of only two mammals that lay eggs. Though they resemble a porcupine, echidnas are actually a distant relative of the platypus, believed to have evolved 20 to 50 million years ago from an aquatic ancestor. Echidnas forage on the forest floor for ants and termites, using their long snouts to capture prey.
The only flightless bird native to Australia, the cassowary can grow to over six feet tall and weigh nearly 190 pounds. Travelers can spot a cassowary in their native habitat at Australia’s Daintree National Park. Though cassowary dines exclusively on fruit, caution should be exercised around them. They’ve earned a reputation as "the most dangerous bird in the world," thanks to razor-sharp talons that they will use to defend themselves against dogs and people who tread too closely.
Twenty million years ago, the bilby branched off from the bandicoot family, creating a marsupial that looks like a combination of a piglet, a rabbit, and a bandicoot. Today, the bilby enjoys iconic status as Australia's version of the Easter Bunny. Each April, chocolate bilbies populate store shelves Down Under in an effort to raise awareness for the native animal that has lost some 80 percent of its population in the past 200 years.
This fearsome fish is a relic of the dinosaur age, dating back some 100 million years and growing to over eight feet in length. Their reptile-like snouts house rows of sharp teeth and an adaptation allows this fish to actually breathe air. Though intimidating in size and weaponry, the alligator gar is a docile creature that can be found peacefully swimming freshwater rivers and lakes from the Rio Grande to the Missouri River.
The world’s largest rodent is ubiquitous across much of South America, where it plods through savannas and rainforests grazing on grasses and aquatic plants. Capybara is an incredibly social animal, sometimes congregating in groups of up to 100. These gentle creatures have a reputation for cohabitation with other animals and living over a decade in captivity. Capybara is less successful in the wild where they don't tend to live as long — a favorite prey for jaguars, cougars, and crocodiles.
Unlike other bats, which feed on fruits and insects, vampire bats have evolved to feed on blood. Only three species exist, all of which can be found in the Americas, though none as far north as the United States. Vampire bats detect sleeping animals — like capybara — by sound then use infrared sensors to locate feeding hot spots on their prey before digging in with oversized incisors and canines.
The kinkajou is the only known tree-dwelling mammal unrelated to primates. Growing to about two feet in length and tipping the scales at just 10 pounds, these small mammals make their homes in forests from the Yucatan to the Amazon. Kinkajou uses a prehensile tail to access and devour fruit high in the forest canopy. They are most active at night and can occasionally be spotted descending on rainforest resort patios like the one seen here at Sweet Songs Jungle Lodge in Belize.