Animals come in a dizzying array of shapes and sizes, from tiny ants to huge elephants and blue whales (the largest wildlife that ever lived on Earth [PDF]). With around 8.7 million species of plants and animals sharing the planet, it’s a safe bet we’ll find some ugly, weird, or scary. Here is a list of some terrifying creatures that might haunt your dreams.
1. Basking shark
The basking shark (Cetorhinus maximus) may sound scary, but it’s actually the epitome of The world of NemoThe shark mantra: “Fish are friends, not food.” According to Oceana, these beasts are the second largest fish in the world, second only to the whale shark; they weigh up to 10,000 pounds and reach 45 feet. That’s longer than a telephone pole or a London bus, or six Shaquille O’Neal standing on top of each other. Fortunately, they are harmless. Basking sharks mainly eat zooplankton by swimming with their mouths wide open, and they like to sunbathe on the surface of the ocean. So the next time you see a yawning shark coming towards you, and if it is in fact a basking shark, you have nothing to worry about.
The yes-yes (Daubentonia madagascariensis) is both charming and scary. With large, shiny eyes, long fingers and bat ears, this lemur native to Madagascar is the largest nocturnal primate in the world. According to the World Wildlife Fund, they are the only species in their taxonomic family, which means that no other animal is closely related to them. Like bats, they use echolocation to find food: with a technique called percussion foraging, they use their long fingers to tap hollow trees and find where insect larvae are. Unfortunately, yes-yeses are extremely threatened: according to some local popular beliefs, they are symbols of death and people often kill them.
3. Giant flying fox with golden crown
Found in the Philippines, the giant golden-crowned flying fox (Acerodon jubatus) is the largest bat in the world, with a wingspan of about 5 feet 6 inches. It’s wider than the average American adult is tall. Fortunately, they are nothing like the vampire bats that feed on the blood of mammals (and sometimes birds). Giant golden-crowned flying foxes are herbivorous and harmless to humans. They are, however, endangered due to poaching and habitat destruction, which is bad news for the environment. These fruit bats help spread new plants when they poop seeds from previous meals. Organizations like Bat Conservation International strive to protect these charismatic creatures.
4. Stork in hoof
Imagine walking peacefully through east-central Africa and suddenly seeing this massive bird staring at you like it wants to kill you. The shoebill stork (Balaeniceps rex) isn’t actually a stork – they’re actually more closely related to pelicans. Shoebills grow up to 5 feet tall with an impressive 8-foot wingspan. Their feathers are often blue-gray with a white belly; their large beaks allow them to behead their favorite food (lungfish); and they make a chattering noise when they see other shoe slippers. As frightening as these creatures may seem, they’re harmless as long as you’re not a fish or a crocodile, according to the National Audubon Society. They tend to be united birds and their biggest threats come from poaching and black market demands. And that scary look they throw in your path? This is how they activate their binocular vision.
5. Southern cassowary
Speaking of scary birds, how about one that looks like a dinosaur? Southern cassowaries, native to northern Australia, have long, sharp claws and a helmet on their head. Adult southern cassowaries (Casuarius casuarius) can weigh between 121 and 157 pounds, so it’s no surprise that they are unable to fly. That doesn’t stop them from jumping up to 7 feet in the air or running up to 30 miles per hour. If they feel threatened they make themselves appear bigger, and if that doesn’t defuse the threat they will attack by kicking and stabbing with their giant claws. In 2019, a man in Florida was killed by his pet cassowary after falling into his enclosure.
But you will probably hear the southern cassowary long before you see it; they utter low, deep roars when they sense danger.
6. Star nosed mole
While babies are sort of adorable adult moles with star noses (Condylura cristata) look like creatures from space with facial tentacles. The 22 “arms” of their star-shaped noses are filled with sensory receptors much more sensitive than human fingertips, allowing these nearly blind moles to navigate their surroundings. They spend most of their time digging underground with their huge claws and feeding on insects. According to National Geographic, they are the fastest eaters in the animal kingdom and can gobble up an insect in a quarter of a second. They can be found throughout eastern North America and help maintain the health of their habitat by aerating the soil and roots of plants with their burrows. They are also semi-aquatic and have been recorded playing in the snow. You, star-nosed mole!
7. Crocodile monitor
Weighing an average of 44 pounds, crocodile monitors (Varanus salvadorii) are large lizards native to New Guinea that like to relax in trees. They are often considered one of the longest lizards in the world, some reaching 8 feet long; a few were over 10 feet tall. Most are black with green or yellow spots. Some people keep them as pets, but due to their huge size, they need massive enclosures that don’t always keep them captive (in 2017, one escaped from his home in California ). Crocodile monitors are the supreme predators of their environment, hunting and devouring a varied buffet of small mammals, birds and their eggs, reptiles and amphibians.
8. Portuguese Man O ‘War
Portuguese man of war (Physalia physalis) looks like an alien straight out of the latest sci-fi blockbuster and is a perfect reminder not to play with the ocean. These sea creatures are not actually jellyfish, but siphonophores, a type of colonial organism made up of different and smaller organisms. According to Oceana, they are incredibly poisonous and some of their tentacles can grow up to 160 feet long. They often hang out in groups of no more than 1,000, which is why, in 2020, a North Carolina beach town warned vacationers to be careful when large numbers washed up on the sand. While Portuguese man-of-war bites – which cripple the tiny fish they eat – are rarely fatal to humans, they still hurt like dickens.
9. Giant hatchet fish
“Giant” is sort of a misnomer here: at about 4 inches long, the giant axfish (Argyropelecus gigas) is much smaller than the other animals on this list. They are shaped like a hatchet and eat small fish. Like other inhabitants of the bathypelagic zone, where no sunlight filters, hatchet fish create their own light through bioluminescence. Their bodies contain light-producing organs called photophores, which makes them essentially underwater fireflies. They attract their prey with their light while the rest of their body remains camouflaged in the dark water, then grab their food before it can even figure out what is going on.
10. Goliath bird-eating spider
Some people find all spiders scary, but this colossal tarantula (Theraposa blondi) surely takes the cake. The dark brown, hairy body of the Goliath bird-eating spider can measure over 4 inches with legs up to 11 inches long. These natives of the rainforests of northern South America are not only the largest tarantulas in the world; they can munch on any organism smaller than themselves, including birds, lizards, frogs, and even bats. They ambush their prey, hiding under rocks until they strike. When threatened, the bird eater Goliath utters a loud hissing sound as it rubs its two front paws against each other. We just hope a few tarantula hawks can get them away from us.