Creature Feature: Manatees, The Ocean’s Pacifists


I firmly believe that if we replaced all hippos with manatees, the world would be a better place (I’m joking; hippopotamus dung is great for the environment but their attitude is not). Manatees are the most peaceful, serene animals in existence and it’s beautiful how simple they are. They’re such pacifists that they don’t even have any natural predators (aside from desperate crocodiles eating young calves), and their natural curiosity makes them friendly to other species! 

Manatee Biology

Evolutionarily, manatees are most closely related to elephants and surprisingly, hyraxes, which are a species of tiny furred mammals. 

A manatee’s diet consists of seagrass and other aquatic vegetation, which has informed how they’ve adapted over time. Because of their lack of natural threats and their highly specific diet, they only have about 6 teeth in each jaw. They lack incisors and canines, instead having 12 molar-like teeth towards the backs of their mouths. Their thick upper lip is prehensile, allowing them to grasp at grass, but preventing them from biting another creature. Their lack of sharp teeth, claws, or hooves means that they couldn’t hurt anyone if they tried. 

Manatee Behaviour

Manatees are typically solitary, spending half of their time in the water. They swim in the shallows at about 8km an hour, eating 10% of their body weight in aquatic plants. Using their front flippers to “walk” along the river floor, they push their food into their mouth. This food occasionally includes fish, but typically only when the manatee is lacking nutrients. 

As I mentioned before, manatees are extremely docile and peaceful creatures. They are also highly curious and have often come close to humans and human-built structures. Manatees share their homes with alligators, and with their inability to fight back, you might think they’d be easy prey. But alligators will more often leave them alone than attack. There are a few reasons for this: a manatee’s hide is too thick to bite through, and the alligator’s usual hunting method – drowning their prey – doesn’t work on an animal that can hold its breath for 20 minutes. So the manatee is free to go along its merry way. 


While they don’t have any natural predators, humans have accounted for a large number of manatee deaths. Manatees, with their curious nature, aren’t aware of man-made danger and will get too close to speedboats and aquatic vehicles. They are frequently injured and killed by propellers, as well as collisions with ships. Manatees are susceptible to any change in their habitat, diet, or health, making their stability as a species very shaky. There are many manatee conservation efforts, like the Save the Manatee Club, which raises money to protect these threatened species.


As I covered in an earlier post, sailors like Christopher Columbus mistook manatees for mermaids. Manatees are also important in West African folklore: they were believed to have once been human, and it is taboo to kill them.

I also just drew this cute little manatee for my RedBubble shop, which you can buy on a shirt, a mug, a sticker, or more!

Creature Feature: Hungry Hippos


Hippos are one of the few animals that genuinely freak me out. Hyenas? Love ‘em. Vultures? They’re my favourite bird! But the thought of meeting a hippo in the wild absolutely terrifies me. 

Hippopotamuses – meaning “rive horses” in Greek – should be just as cute and cuddly as manatees. They’re big lazy herbivores who float around in shallow water, and their cartoon depictions are simply adorable. They seem like gentle giants (being the largest mammal after elephants and rhinos), but they are anything but. 

Hippo Evolution

Despite looking similar to pigs and elephants, hippos are closer to cetaceans like dolphins and whales. If you look at a whale’s skeleton, you can see that the bones that make up the fins look like hands. Hippos and cetaceans evolved from a common ancestor, and though hippos adapted to walk on land, they still prefer water. 

Many hippopotamus species existed in the past, but the only ones that have survived are the modern hippo in sub-Saharan Africa and Egypt, and the pygmy hippo in West Africa. Among the modern hippos are subspecies with varying face shapes.


Like I mentioned, hippos are the third largest land animal. Weighing between 1365kg and 1480kg, the herbivorous animal must consume around 40kgs of grass a day. While their diet mainly consists of grass and some aquatic vegetation, they’ve also been reported to eat meat. Their stomachs are not suited to meat, but like most herbivores, they’ll resort to carrion if their diet is lacking in certain nutrients.

Though they look like they would be slow to move, they can run up to 30km per hour. Their large canine teeth are used only for combat; their molars do all of the work when they eat. 

Hippos have think skin, but very little hair. For an animal that lives in such hot climates, this could lead to a lot of skin issues. To combat this, their skin actually secretes a reddish-brown liquid known as blood-sweat. It’s not sweat or blood, but it acts like sunscreen to protect their skin from damage. 

Despite spending most of their time in the water, they’re not particularly good swimmers. They walk along the bottom of lakes and swamps, pushing up from the bottom to resurface every 3-5 minutes. 


If you weren’t already in the know, hippos kill more people than lions. They’re incredibly territorial in water, and generally extremely aggressive. They have overturned canoes full of people and brutally killed and injured them. Though they are herbivores, their jaw has a huge amount of force behind it and can leave massive wounds. They’ll even square up against crocodiles, no matter the size. 

In a rare, non-violent situation, hippos share a mutualistic relationship with some species of fish. The hippo visits a “cleaning station” and opens its mouth up wide underwater, letting the fish swim around and clean bacteria off of the teeth. 

If it weren’t for their aggression, hippos could be somewhat pleasant. But the reason I’m terrified of them is their over-the-top reaction to anything that moves. If you’re in the water with one, it’s already too late for you. You have no hope of outrunning one on land, either. Even crocodiles are scared of them.

Creature Feature: The Prehistoric Crocodile


This post comes at the request of my mum, who said “write about crocodiles and maybe I’ll like them!” And with the crocodile being one of Earth’s oldest creatures, I was more than happy to oblige. 

I’m Australian, which means I grew up watching Steve Irwin and worrying I’d see a crocodile in any body of water. I’ve never run into one in the wild before, but I have seen a few in zoos and held a baby one as a kid! 

Avoiding Extinction 

These massive reptiles have been around since the time of the dinosaurs, and haven’t evolved much since. In the Jurassic period, they came in a variety of species including those that ate plants, ran, and lived solely in water. The crocodile might seem like a simple creature, but it has a flexible lifestyle that has allowed it to outlive its prehistoric relatives like pterosaurs and other winged reptiles.

The crocodiles that survived the catastrophic meteor and survived into the modern age were very versatile. Their ability to thrive in and out of water meant that survival was easier for them than most. But the biggest factor in their longevity was the fact that they have a cerebral cortex, something only mammals and a few select reptiles possess. The cerebral cortex is vital for memory, perception, and recognising patterns. This means that crocodiles are a lot more intelligent than we give them credit for. Afterall, it’s not easy to be an apex predator.

Crocodile Biology

Crocodiles rose through the food chain by having advanced senses compared to their competition. Their eyes, ears, and nostrils are at the top of the head, so they can float near the surface of the water and scope out prey while still remaining hidden. As nocturnal hunters, they have great night vision and their sense of smell and hearing are excellent. 

A crocodile’s jaws are lined with tiny black sensors, which can detect the slightest disturbance in the water. This gives them a very good advantage when hunting.

Their bite is their most impressive feature. The crocodile has a bite force stronger than any other recorded animal, using a muscle that is almost as hard as bone. While they have incredible force them biting down, the muscle to open the jaw is surprisingly weak. Vets and other animal workers use simple tape to subdue them. Even a crab can hold a crocodile’s jaw shut! I found that fact so fun that I drew a picture of it, which you can buy on RedBubble!


Crocodile teeth are not equipped for tearing off chunks of flesh, like other predators. Instead, they use their bite force to clamp onto prey, keeping them from escaping, then engaging in the “death roll”. The death roll is basically the crocodile’s signature move, where it spins around so violently underwater that the prey becomes disoriented. This can cause the prey to drown, or snap their neck from the motion. They also use this death roll to assert dominance over other crocodiles. 


Crocodiles are actually the most social of reptiles. They don’t form groups necessarily, but they aren’t overly territorial and will put up with each other quite peacefully. Crocodiles are also the most vocal reptiles! Babies make an adorable peeping sound, and adults make a variety of noises including bellows, hisses, and screeches. 

Baby crocs break through their eggs with a “milk tooth” made from their skin. Then, their mother piles them into her mouth to safely deliver them to the water, as hatchlings are easy prey for birds. A crocodile mother is very protective of her young, and will guard them for months. 


Before this post gets too long, I wanted to add a few things to wrap this up!

It’s hard to know how long crocodiles live, but scientists use growth rings in their teeth to predict that they can live around 60-70 years. 

Crocodile meat is eaten in Australia. It’s not very common in most states and I’ve only tried it once on a school camp. But crocodile farms are big in the warmer parts of the country! 

Crocodiles appear in many mythologies, but my favourite is the Egyptian goddess Ammut. She is a funerary deity with the head of a crocodile, the forelegs of a lion, and the back legs of a hippo. In the Ancient Egyptian afterlife, your heart was weighed against a feather on a scale. If the heart was impure and outweighed the feather, Ammut would eat it and doom the soul to wander eternally. Ammut embodied everything the Ancient Egyptians feared, being a combination of their three deadliest animals. 

I’m sure I’ll talk about hippos soon, but you should know they’re so dangerous that crocodiles will let the babies lick salt off of them, because they know an angry mumma hippo is watching. Crocodiles may be apex predators, but even they know not to mess with a hippopotamus.

Creature Feature: The Slimy Salamander


The salamander is not a singular species, but a family of amphibians (animals that can live on land and water). This family includes true salamanders, newts, and some fun names like hellbenders and mud puppies. They all have tails, stumpy bodies, and generally slimy skin. Some of them are plain, some are brightly coloured, but all of them are wonderfully bizarre creatures. 


Unlike lizards, the salamander actually has a larval stage not unlike fish and bugs. These larval forms have gills and teeth, but no eyelids. Some species of salamander keep these traits throughout their lives, like mudpuppies and axolotls. They come in many different sizes, with the smallest being 6 inches long, and the Japanese giant salamander is the largest at 6 feet from head to tail. 

Some salamanders use their skin as camouflage to hide from predators, while others boast impressively bright colours as a warning to other animals. These vibrant hues in nature are often bluffs to seem like a creature is poisonous, but for some salamanders, it’s not a lie. These species have special glands that emit toxic fluid. Salamanders can also regrow their tail if they lose it.

In fact, scientists are studying limb regeneration in salamanders to learn how we can apply it to humans! Axolotls have been genetically engineered so that their cells are fluorescent and cell division can be tracked. 


The salamander lives on a carnivorous diet of insects, worms, snails, small lizards, and even other salamanders. They need to absorb water through their skin, so they make their homes close to water and in humid areas. To preserve body heat, they hibernate when the temperature goes below freezing. Because they are cold-blooded, it takes them a lot of energy to stay warm during the winter. Hibernation saves them from having to burn this energy and lets them rest instead. Most of them are nocturnal, hunting by night and hiding during the day. 

While a few select species give birth to live young, nearly every salamander lays eggs. Baby salamanaders are similar to tadpoles: they are born without legs in clear, jelly-like eggs and released into the water. 

Salamanders have quite a long lifespan for amphibians. Depending on their size, they can live to 55 years


The salamander appears frequently in different mythologies. If you’re like me, you might associate salamanders with fire. Many stories sprang from the tendency of salamanders to hide in rotting logs. When people used these logs for firewood, the salamander would scurry out, making it look like they were created from the fire. 

Pliny the Elder, my favourite natural philosopher, wrote that “A salamander is so cold that it puts out fire on contact. It vomits from its mouth a milky liquid; if this liquid touches any part of the human body it causes all the hair to fall off, and the skin to change color and break out in a rash.” They were thought to be so toxic that it could poison a fruit to such a degree that if that fruit fell into a well, it would kill anyone who drank from it. 

There are so many distinct salamander species that I’d love to get into someday, but hopefully this was a good general overview! They’re such interesting creatures, and I’ll admit I only knew the tiniest amount before writing this post. Leave a comment on what animal you’d like me to write about next!

Also, I have a RedBubble store now! You can buy prints of my illustrations, like this salamander, for mugs, shirts, pins and more!

Top 3 Symbiotic Relationships in Nature


“Survival of the fittest” is an oft-quoted, oft-misunderstood saying that implies it’s every animal for themselves in the wild. But the truth is, many animals of different species co-exist peacefully, even having mutually beneficial relationships. When two different kinds of animals work together in symbiotic relationships, it’s known as mutualism. Unlike parasites, both parties get something out of this arrangement. There are so many incredible examples it was hard to narrow it down to just three, but here goes!  

Oxpecker Birds 

These African birds form symbiotic relationships with a number of large mammals. You might have seen, in any number of cartoons, a small bird perched on top of a rhino. That’s an oxpecker, and they also make friends with zebras, wildebeest, antelope and more! The birds, as their name suggests, peck ticks and other parasites off of their host. It keeps the larger animal clean and healthy, and provides the oxpecker with an easy meal. These relationships go beyond free food; the oxpecker will raise the alarm when danger is approaching, which is especially helpful for rhinos with terrible eyesight. 

Clownfish and Anemones 

Many of you will recognise this from Finding Nemo. Clownfish shelter within  anemones, a tentacled sea creature whose stinging neurotoxins the clownfish are immune to. The anemone uses these tentacles to catch and eat small invertebrate, but the brightly-coloured clownfish attracts bigger prey for the anemone to devour. Not only that, but clownfish also help out their tendriled friends by eating up parasites and scaring away potential threats. It’s still unknown why the fish aren’t affected by the anemone’s neurotoxins; it could be due to a layer of mucus on the fish’s body. Either way, these are a great example of symbiotic relationships. 

Ravens and Wolves

This is my favourite! Sometimes an unkindness of ravens and a pack of wolves will form symbiotic relationships in the wild that go beyond a mere transactional exchange. Ravens are incredibly intelligent and tactical, and have a great vantage point when it comes to seeking prey. But they’re not as equipped to open up a carcass as wolves are, so they invite them to the hunt. Ravens are often at the sight of a wolf’s kill, and sometimes make off with the majority of the food. It really seems like ravens form a close bond with certain wolves, seeing them more as team members than a free meal ticket. Ravens will play with wolf cubs, engaging in games of tug-of-war and teasing them by holding sticks in the air for them to jump for. Ravens have even been known to tug on a grown wolf’s tail, purely just to cause mischief. Usually, the wolves don’t mind too much. 

There are plenty more examples of this kind of relationship: aphids and ants, bats and pitcher plants, sharks and tiny fish. Nature is full of different species working together to survive, and it really shows just how diverse the ecosystem is. 

Creature Feature: Spotted Hyenas


I know what the common perception of hyenas is: cruel, cowardly scavengers who leech off of other predators’ hunts. When we think of these animals, we most often think of the trio from The Lion King

Disney actually got in a bit of trouble over its depiction of spotted hyenas. The animators went to the University of California to sketch captive subjects and promised the researchers that they would portray the animals in a positive light. One of the researchers, jokingly, called on people to “boycott The Lion King” to help preserve wild hyenas and that the film “set back hyena conservation efforts” with its depiction of them as craven, simple-minded comic relief. However, the researchers did admit that the film drew more attention to hyenas. 

Hyenas vs. Lions

But if people hate hyenas for stealing from other animals or killing young and weak prey, then they should also hate lions for the same reasons. I love lions, but they certainly do not have the moral high ground over hyenas. 

Spotted hyenas, which live in Africa, are pack hunters. They operate in a very strict hierarchy, with a matriarch at the top. While their close relatives, the striped hyena, are primarily scavengers, these hyenas kill up to 95% of their own prey (meanwhile a large part of a lion’s diet is made of carrion stolen from a hyena). It’s not the case of lions being at the top of the food chain while the hyena struggles to best them; both animals are essentially on equal footing with how much they hunt, and how often they fight each other. 

Hyena Hierarchy

Hyena “clans” can number in the eighties, and their clan structure and social dynamics are much more complicated than most carnivores. Every hyena has a rank, starting with the matriarch. Typically adult males are at the bottom, unless he’s the son of the matriarch (yes – hyenas have nepotism). While the males don’t have much to do with raising cubs, they recognise and play with their daughters, who show less aggression to their fathers than other males. A hyena hierarchy is determined not by strength, but by social networks. Their ranks often depend on their relationship to the matriarch, and hyenas will fall into groups that work cooperatively in the clan. 

Hyena Biology

Hyenas might seem like a type of wild dog, but they’re actually more closely related to cats. They belong to a suborder of mammals called feliform, which include mongooses, meerkats and other cat-like carnivores. They do have similarities to canines, and that’s to do with something called convergent evolution. Convergent evolution is when very different species develop similar traits to fill an ecological niche. Hyenas, despite not being canids at all, developed similar bone-crushing jaws as dogs. And just like dogs, they catch prey with their teeth instead of their claws. 

Hyenas have a bite force nearly twice the strength of a lion’s. This allows them to easily break through the thickest bones of their prey, granting them access to the delicious bone marrow. 

Hyenas in Mythology

In West Africa and Tanzania, hyenas often have negative associations as omens of immorality and treachery. They have more supernatural connotations in the Middle East, appearing as cannibalistic lycanthropes. The Greeks believed that the bodies of werewolves who died on the battlefield would rise as vampiric hyenas that feast on dying soldiers.

Unlike my post on bearded vultures, I’m not trying to convince you that hyenas are actually nice and friendly animals. They’re still quite vicious and cruel, and their sadistic laughter is certainly creepy. But hopefully, I’ve dispelled some of the misconceptions around them. These animals are intelligent, with complex social structures. They aren’t cowards; they’ll go up against a lion with no qualms. They’re also closer to cats than dogs, and have jaws strong enough to shatter bones.

Creature Feature: Elephants, the Gentle Giants of the Land


Elephants are truly gorgeous creatures. While I usually write about the weird and unnerving animals on this blog, I want to also appreciate these gentle giants. 

Elephants are known for their size and strength, and are symbols of wisdom and peace. They are the largest land mammals on earth and have caused their fair share of destruction, but they also harbour incredible intelligence and empathy. In India and Africa, elephants are symbols of war and peace, representing both victory and protection. 

The reason for this is understandable; elephants have become increasingly aggressive as humans encroach on their territories and food sources. An angry elephant is a dangerous thing to be around, contributing to around 500 deaths a year. With the largest members of the species weighing up to 6,800 kilos, elephants should not be underestimated. 

Despite their strength, elephants possess incredible emotional intelligence. Their herds function as a close community, with aunts, sisters and cousins helping to raise calves. Elephants play with their young, bond with other animals, and grieve over their loved ones. 

Elephants have their own funeral rites and mourning periods. This process involves the herd standing vigil over the dead elephant, touching it with their trunks to signal their grief. The herd will sleep alongside the body for a time, and will fiercely defend it against predators. 

Just like humans, each elephant processes their grief differently. Those who have formed strong friendships with the dead will isolate themselves from the rest of the herd, refusing to eat. Some have even died of a broken heart.

Their empathy extends to elephants from different herds, and even members of different species. Lawrence Anthony was a conservationist and environmentalist who worked to rehabilitate traumatised elephants. A herd of nine elephants were acting aggressively and destroying property, and were about to be shot before Anthony intervened. 

He calmed the herd’s matriarch with his body language and tone of voice, which, amazingly, the elephant understood and respected. These elephants had been moved to a reserve for their own safety but didn’t understand that, so they lashed out. Earning himself the name “the elephant whisperer”, Lawrence formed an incredible bond with the animals. 

Anthony died years later of a heart attack. Despite not seeing him in a very long time, the elephants heard somehow knew he was dead and made their way to his house, standing vigil for two days. Apparently, that same herd comes back every year to mourn him, the man who saved their lives. 

You may have heard the saying, “an elephant never forgets”. While the animals do have great memories, this is a bit exaggerated. They don’t remember everything, but they will rarely forget a face. Elephants also have excellent spacial memory, which helps them remember the paths to vital watering holes. 

There are more myths about elephants to debunk; they are not afraid of mice, despite what cartoons have told us. Nor do they drink through their trunks or eat peanuts, either; they use their trunks as a hand, but they will suck water partway up their trunks to then spray it out while playing. 

There’s a lot to learn about these majestic creatures. Thankfully, efforts are being taken to preserve the species, but both African and Indian elephants are still in great danger of becoming extinct, mostly due to human interference.

Creature Feature: Cuckoo Birds and Brood Parasites


When we think of parasites, we typically think of unpleasant creepy-crawlies like leeches or ticks. Today I’d like to introduce you to the brood parasite, the most famous of those being the cuckoo bird. You might recognise the cuckoo as the little bird that pops out of old clocks, but it’s really their parenting habits – or lack thereof – which make them truly noteworthy.

Parasitic relationships are those where the parasite is dependent on the host, while also causing them harm. There are six different methods of parasitism, all of them unsettling. Brood parasites don’t feed on their hosts, but these birds do lay their eggs in another’s nest, shunting off the responsibility of raising their children and dumping them onto someone else. 

Cuckoos are the most famous brood parasites, but others include cowbirds, whydahs, and black-headed ducks. Unlike vultures, these birds have earnt their none-too-positive reputations. You might think that the host would recognise their own eggs, or failing that, realise the mistake once the chick had hatched. But brood parasites have developed several strategies to work around this. 

A female cuckoo will wait for the host to leave its nest before laying its own eggs. The common cuckoo even resembles a sparrowhawk so that it can invade the host’s nest without interruption. They’ll even lay every egg in a different nest to improve the chick’s chances of survival. 

Some brood parasites count on their victims not falling for the trap. Certain birds are smart enough to recognise an egg that doesn’t belong. But evolution is an amazing thing; over the years, some eggs have adapted to have harder shells so that the hosts can’t break them; yet others have adapted to resemble the eggs of the host to blend in. 

Once the parasitic egg has hatched, it would be easy for the host to refuse to feed the changeling chick. It’s still not certain why they raise cuckoo birds, but there are some interesting theories. It’s not uncommon for birds to raise the offspring of other species; even entirely different animals! Chickens in particular are known to care for ducklings, rabbits, and even kittens! So it could be that the host bird’s parental instincts are so strong that they just see a hungry mouth, and don’t pay any mind to the fact that it’s much, much bigger than their own young. 

However, this clearly doesn’t apply to every kind of bird. Some hosts are quick to spot an imposter, and will take extra measures to prevent them from hatching. They’ll weave grass and sticks over the egg, or build an entire new nest on top of it. 

But the brood parasites don’t give up that easily. To ensure that their eggs are being properly taken care of, some of them employ a strategy known at the “mafia hypothesis”. The parasite will watch the host’s nest, and if their egg is rejected, the parasite will destroy the nest and injure or kill the host’s offspring. It’s theorised that threat of this scares the host into complying. 

These brood parasites and their hosts are great examples of an evolutionary arms race; as the parasites adapt to make their eggs harder to reject, the hosts become more able to recognise an intruder. It’s really in the host’s best interest to avoid parasitism; the cuckoo chicks pose a real threat for the specie’s survival. The invading chicks take up valuable resources from the host chicks, seeing as they’re typically much larger in size and require more food. They’ll even fight their adoptive siblings for a meal and let them starve. On top of that, cuckoo chicks make an incredibly loud begging call when hungry, sounding like entire brood of chicks. This increases the amount of time the host spends finding food, but it also has the added drawback of attracting predators to the nest. 

If we apply human morality to these birds, it’s a pretty insidious practice. Cuckoos and other brood parasites avoid the responsibility of building a nest and raising a child by making other birds do it for them. No matter how well the poor victims try to escape this forced adoption, the parasites always find a way to sneak their way back into the family. With the host family suffering major disadvantages from taking in a parasite brood’s egg, it seems like an especially malicious way to live. But to these birds, it’s just a matter of survival.

The American “Fearsome Critters” and Other Tall Tales


I’m an Australian, and playing some good-natured pranks on tourists is a time-honoured tradition. Our most famous of these pranks is probably the Drop Bear, an aggressive relative of the koala that drops from trees onto unsuspecting prey. I was delighted to discover that we are not the only country that does this! It’s a tradition in some places to prank people as part of a “hazing” ritual on hunts for creatures that don’t exist. 

These creatures could fall under the “cryptid” umbrella, but in my mind they’re a little different. These “fearsome critters”, as they’re known in North America, are like a mass inside joke: nearly everyone knows they’re entirely made up (except for Drop Bears, which are 100% real). 

“Snipe hunt” is another term for this sort of creature-related prank. I’d only heard it before from the movie Up, but apparently, in America, it’s a real thing. Snipes are actual birds, but the “snipe hunt” really just involves sending the hapless victim off in the woods until the joke’s over. This is often done as a sort of initiation ritual as a bit of good-natured teasing. The description of the “snipe” isn’t even consistent; sometimes it’s a bird with the neck of a snake, sometimes it’s taller than a human, and so on.

In a similar vein is the French Dahu. They are mountain-dwelling, goat-like creatures where the legs on one side are longer than on the other. This, apparently, allows the dahu to run around the mountain faster, but only in one direction. There are two different sub-species of this creature; one with shorter legs on the left, and the other on the right. A more elaborate version of this prank involves two people; one to hold the bag and catch it, and the other to hide and imitate the noise of the dahu. The dahu will turn at the sudden noise, and tumble down the mountain. 

The Fearsome Critters of North America stem from tall tales around the Great Lakes region. Often these critters are so ridiculous that they’re spoken of with the understanding that they don’t exist, while at the same time being presented as fact. I find this kind of storytelling very charming; there’s no trickery involved, just a fun way to bond around a campfire. We listen, not with the expectation that what we’re hearing is true, but because the sheer act of sharing a story is entertaining.

Some of these fearsome critters include the squonk, which dissolves into tears if anyone sees its ugliness; the spiny cactus cat which gets drunk off of cactus juice; the hoop snake, a snake that bites the end of its tail and rolls down a hill to catch prey; and of course the jackalope, the rabbit with antlers like a deer. There’s usually not a lot of depth to these creatures, so anyone can make up a tall tale about a sighting. Unlike most cryptids, fearsome critters aren’t malevolent; their mere existence is enough of a story.

I really recommend going through the list on the wiki page for fearsome critters! There are some brilliant ones out there, and I’ve just cherry-picked a few of my favourites. Some of them are just simply absurd, like the fur-bearing trout, and some of them are silly explanations for things going missing in the woods (see the axehandle hound that eats unattended axes). I love the fact that even though we know more about the natural world than ever, we continue inventing strange creatures just for the love of imagination. I hope we never stop telling these kinds of stories.

Nature’s Clean-Up Crew: An Ode to Vultures


Winged heralds of death and decay, they say, circling the skies in a halo of doom. 

When it comes to judging a book by its cover, vultures have it the worst. 

They’re nature’s clean-up crew, tidying up the messes that would otherwise fester and rot in the sun. Their stomachs kill diseases from prey that other predators would catch and spread, like rabies. Vultures are efficient and leave nothing to waste, using their sharp pointed beaks to tear apart flesh in seconds. The bare skin on their heads and necks that make them “ugly” to some allow them to clean themselves of blood. 

Some vultures are covered in feathers. The Bearded Vulture dyes its feathers with the rusty red soil of its habitat as a sign of status. It is war paint, showing the other vultures that it is powerful and resourceful. The Cinereous vulture more resembles an eagle, with a massive wingspan and dark colouring save the white around its beak and eyes. The King vulture is mostly white, except for its black head and the kaleidoscope of colours on its face. 

Vultures are scavengers. They eat the leftovers no one else will, and for this noble vocation they are demonised, seen as bad omens, despised and hunted to near extinction. Vultures do not circle when something is about to die, or lurk in wait to feast on the corpse. They must be careful and stealthy because to begin eating before their time means being torn apart by lions and other predators. 

These birds were not always seen as these cowardly harbingers of death and misfortune. In ancient Egypt, it was believed that all vultures were female. They became associated with the mother goddesses Nekhbet, Mut and Isis, and were symbols of femininity and maternal protection. Vultures are social birds, fiercely defending their young. They are resourceful and necessary to the ecosystem, but they continue to be associated with the filth and disease that they work so hard to destroy. 

Vultures are my favourite type of bird for all of these reasons. They are beautiful in my eyes, even more so because of the eeriness of their form. They are haunting and they have become emblematic of gothic settings and tales of death, which of course cements my love for them further. 

There are many, many more vulture facts I could share with you, but I’ll stop here. I might not have convinced anyone to love vultures as much as I do, but hopefully you’ve learnt something interesting. 

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