Borneo wildlife - Western tarsier
Western tarsier on Kinabatangan River

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

The world of wildlife is filled with weird and wonderful creatures – fantastic beasts that are so unlike us that they seem to belong on alien worlds. Some of the adaptations these animals developed for their unique environments and lifestyles are fascinating and mind-boggling. 

Here is the list of some of my favourite aliens that I have encountered in my travels


Weird animals - Western tarsier on Kinabatangan River
Western tarsier on Kinabatangan River, Borneo

A distant relative of the more familiar primates, the Tarsier is so strange, you would think it is made out of spare parts. Its enormous eyes take up most of its face. In fact, each of its eyeballs is as big as its entire brain. Its fingers are so long that some of them reach the length of its entire upper arm. It is a little gremlin out of children’s fairy tales, but a very cute one at that.

Active mostly at night, tarsiers are the only strictly carnivorous primates. While their main prey is insects, they occasionally take birds, snakes, bats and lizards.

Tarsiers range across several Southeast Asian islands including the Philippines, Borneo, Sumatra and Sulawesi. The best place to find one is Danum Valley conservation area in the Malaysian state of Sabah on the island of Borneo.

Thorny devil

Weird animals - Thorny devil King Canyon
Thorny devil in King Canyon, Northern Territory, Australia

Here is a creature that looks as alien as it behaves. Living in one of the harshest climates on earth – the arid centre of Australia, the Thorny devil is a lizard-like no other. 

Aside from an intimidating array of conical spikes that cover the top half of its body, the Thorny devil is endowed with a false head on the back of its neck. The lizard presents its fake head to the potential predators by dipping its real head when sensing danger. The bite on the squashy false head is unlikely to be life-threatening.

Avoiding predators is not the only challenge for the creatures of the desert, they also have to find water to survive. The Thorny devil’s ingenious solution lies in the shape of its scales, which are ridged in such a way that they direct water to its mouth. All the devil has to do is stand in the puddle or rub past dew-covered vegetation and the water will be delivered straight to its mouth.

The best places to spot a Thorny devil is around the Uluru and the Kings Canyon in Australia’s Northern Territory.

Long-tailed widowbird

Weird animals - Long-tailed widowbird
Long-tailed widowbird in Kruger National Park, South Africa

The male Long-tailed widowbird is an evolutionary mystery that has the scientists baffled. During the breeding season, this bird grows such a remarkably long tail that it becomes detrimental to its survival. The bird itself is less than 20 centimetres long, yet some of its tail feathers often reach more than half a meter in length.

It is a mesmerising sight to see the male in flight, yet it makes you wonder how in the world it doesn’t get blown away by the wind. The scientists agree that the widowbird’s opulent tail seems to oppose the forces of natural selection. Perhaps there is more to the story of evolution than we currently understand.

The Long-tailed widowbird is common and quite easily seen in the national parks of Kenya, Botswana and South Africa.

Spotted hyena

Weird animals - Spotted hyena in Kruger
Spotted hyena in Addo National Park, South Africa

If there is one mammal on earth that traces its origins to an extra-terrestrial world, it is the Spotted hyena. For starters, both sexes possess a penis. The females got the rough end of the deal – they have to give birth through their penis-like appendage. Many first-time mothers and their young die as a result.

The pups that do make it into this world immediately find themselves locked into mortal combat with their littermates. Their mother has only two nipples, meaning that the cubs have to fight each other for food, often to the death.

As adults, Spotted hyenas are cannibals that would attack and eat others of their kind, including their young. Their society is ruled by a dominant female that is larger and more aggressive than the males.

The Spotted hyena is the most common large carnivore in Africa and can be seen with a bit of luck on a safari anywhere south of the Sahara.

Bumblebee bat

Weird animals - Kitti's hog-nosed bat Kanchannaburi
Kitti’s hog-nosed bat in Kanchanaburi, Thailand

Not as much alien, as absolutely incredible, the Bumblebee bat is the world’s smallest bat and arguably the world’s smallest mammal.  It grows to a whopping 3 centimetres in length and weighs on average 2 grams.

Its tiny face looks distinctly hog-like, which earned it the name of Kitti’s hog-nosed bat.

Equally incredible is its very narrow distribution range. The tiny bat occurs only in a small region of limestone caves in Thailand’s Kanchanaburi province and one cave across the border in Myanmar.

While looking for the roosting sites of Bumblebee bats may not be the best idea, it is not too difficult to see them flying over the tapioca fields in Western Kanchanaburi just after sunset. At first, they look just like moths, but the speed at which they tear through the sky eventually gives them away.

Hoffmann’s two-toed sloth

Weird animals - Hoffmann's two-toed sloth in Tirimbina Reserve, Costa Rica
Hoffmann’s two-toed sloth in Tirimbina Reserve, Costa Rica

When it comes to extreme adaptation, sloth is up there with the weirdest of them all. To survive on its low energy diet of leaves and shoots sloth is a master of preserving its meagre energy budget.

It moves around with the dizzying speed of 0.14 m/s. Never moving far from its food supply, the sloth spends most of its life hanging upside-down in the forest canopy. It sleeps, eats, mates and gives birth hanging upside down.

Over time its internal organs have shifted to accommodate its upside-down lifestyle. Even its hair is parted along its stomach and flows from belly to back so that rainwater would run off.

Another interesting thing about sloth’s fur is that it has special groves to house algae. Sloths sedentary lifestyle allows algae to grow, giving its fur a greenish tint that helps the animal blend with its environment and avoid predators.

Sloths can be seen quite easily on night walks in Costa Rica’s national parks, such as Monteverde and Manuel Antonio


Weird animals - Colugo in Deramakot, Borneo
Colugo with a young in Deramakot Forest Reserve, Borneo

Looking like something between a squirrel and a bat, Colugo is also known as a Flying lemur. Of course, it doesn’t fly, nor is it a lemur, but what it is really good at, is gliding.

When a Colugo decides to move to a different tree, it launches itself from the canopy, spreads its legs as wide as it can, stretching the fringe of extra skin between them, and effectively turns itself into a parachute, as it soars through the jungle without losing much altitude.

While it is not the only gliding mammal in Borneo, it is considered to be the best. An adult Colugo is capable of clearing distances of up to 70 meters in a single jump. And if this is not enough of a feat, female Colugos do so with their young clinging to their bellies.

The best places to see Colugo are Danum Valley conservation area and Deramakot forest reserve in Borneo.

Spencer’s burrowing frog

Weird animals - Spencer's burrowing frog, Australia
Spencer’s burrowing frog in the Simpson Desert, Northern Territory, Australia

Of all the places you can think to find a frog, the desert is one of the most unlikely environments. Yet the burrowing frogs live exclusively in the dry environment of Australia’s arid centre.

To avoid desiccation during the dry periods, these frogs burrow underground where they remain until the heavy rains wake them from their slumber for a brief period of activity. They then climb out, feed, reproduce, absorb as much water as they can and disappear back underground.

 The burrowing frogs come well-equipped for their odd lifestyle. During their time on the surface, they are able to absorb large quantities of water and store it between their muscles and their skin, which gives them their round shape. 

When its time to burrow again, they dig into the sand backwards, using the specialized digging implements on the sides of their back feet.  

Finding burrowing frogs is the matter of timing of course. They are common throughout the central part of Australia after heavy rains. Western MacDonnell Ranges in the Northern Territory is a good place to start.


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