POW! BLAM! KABOOM!
In the superhero lexicon, these "sounds" usually mean our hero is winning his or her epic battle with the villain of the day. The world will soon be restored to order; peace will prevail a little longer.
But in the animal kingdom, superheroes aren't as showy. When they maim an enemy or gain an upper hand over their environment, you probably won't hear much more than a quiet "ribbit." In the next few pages, we'll meet animals in our world – and some that can even survive outside our world -- with superpowers that might seem fantastic to even the folks at DC and Marvel.
So WHOOSH! On to the next page to learn more about the superheroes who protect their own little corner of the animal kingdom.
Froggy Went Awakin'
First on our list of animals with enviable powers is the seemingly innocent wood frog (Rana sylvatica). This little jumper's persona is as boring as Clark Kent. It lives in North America, up into the Arctic Circle. Most of its days are spent doing frog things like jumping and climbing. Nothing to see here.
Until, of course, the first sign of freeze.
Because as soon as these guys find their skin feeling the sting of serious cold, they freeze. The water in their bodies does indeed turn to ice, while the syrup-like liquid inside their cells stays viscous [source: Roach]. For all intents and purposes, a wood frog in winter imitates a dead frog: no organ function, no breath.
But come spring? The ice melts and the wood frog's blood begins circulating. The frog starts functioning about 30 minutes after the ice melts, no harm done.
The Hairy Bone-breaker
We usually don't like to have repeats on a list, but this frog – Trichobatrachus robustus, otherwise known as a hairy frog -- deserves to share space with other superhero animals. But no young, handsome leading man would ever want to be cast in the film adaptation of this super animal's story. The male hairy frog is horrifyingly ugly and sprouts hair-like threads of skin and arteries during mating season. Because the ladies love that.
His superpower is equal parts disturbing and awesome. When threatened, the frog can puncture claws out of his toe pads, just like Wolverine. Instead of cat or dog claws made of keratin, the hairy frog's claws are bone. More disturbingly, the frog appears to have to break the bones of its toes in order to push the claw out [source: Brahic]. Put it like that, and Wolverine suddenly seems more villain than hero.
Scientists can't figure out how the bone retracts, and they posit that the amphibian is regenerating tissue to help the wound heal. Which is really all you need to know to launch a thousand nightmares: a Wolverine frog with regeneration powers.
Spider, Hold the Man
There's a reason why Spider-Man makes for a better superhero than, say, Golden Retriever Man. Nothing against our canine friends, but spiders have the upper hand, or rather leg, when it comes to awesome biological functions and tricks. After all, it's not really a superpower to roll over and play dead.
But you know what is? Producing giant webs of shockingly strong silk to trap enemies. And that's exactly what Darwin's bark spider (Caerostris darwini) does. This species of spider weaves enormous webs that span across bodies of water, with anchor strands up to 82 feet (25 meters) long [source: Agnarsson et al.]. Such an impressive web won't do any good, however, if it falls apart when a fruit fly sneezes on it.
So scientists decided to test the spider's silk strength, and they found that the strands were twice as tough as any other silk studied and 10 times stronger than Kevlar [source: Agnarsson et al.]. It can take incredible amounts of kinetic energy before breaking, so no measly insect can escape the spider's web.
The Reluctant Superhero
Tardigrades, otherwise known much more adorably as water bears, are plump, little animals about a quarter to half a millimeter long [source: Goldstein and Baxter]. In fact, they even have their very own phylum. These microscopic invertebrates might live in your backyard; they love moss and beach sediment. They'd prefer to stay away from extreme climates, thanks very much. So what makes these tiny, quiet guys so super?
They've got a superpower they'd rather ignore. While they don't like extreme climates, tardigrades are shockingly adaptable to the craziest environments on the planet -- and off. We're not talking "can survive at the bottom of the ocean" here: We're talking can survive pressures more than six times those found in the deepest ocean. We're not just talking boiling temperatures; we're talking water bears surviving 300 degrees F water (149 degrees C). Their biggest accomplishment? Tardigrades can survive in space, a place not known for its abundant life [source: Simon].
How do they do it? A superpower called cryptobiosis, wherein the water bear dehydrates and can live for years with very little metabolic function [source: Clegg]. When in contact with water, the little guy rehydrates and comes back to life.
Worm Its Way Back
Nothing screams "superhero" like regenerating body parts. It's one of the cooler things about characters like Wolverine and Deadpool. Your head is beat to a pulp by the Hulk? Grow it back already.
And it's not just the stuff of comic book fantasy. The planarian (family Planariidae) is a harmless-looking flatworm that lives in bodies of water around the globe. But don't dismiss this squirmer as nothing special, because if you were to cut off any part of the planarian -- or split it down the middle, cut it into pieces, or any other combination -- each part of it regenerates into a whole new planarian. You can take one measly cell of the planarian and it will develop into an entire flatworm, which really deserves all-caps in comic book tradition because it's AMAZING [source: Krulwich].
Even cooler? It seems to have a superpower memory. One study "taught" a planarian to be attracted to light (which they're naturally averse to). The researchers than guillotined the worm and waited for a new head to grow back. And guess what? The worm with a whole new head and brain kept the attraction to light: The new brain had old memories [source: Shomrat and Levin].
The Cyclops of the piscine world, an archerfish (any one of the family Toxotidae) can target and hunt an enemy with serious precision. But while Marvel's Cyclops shoots optic blasts from his eyes that knock out nemeses, an archerfish has an arguably less elegant weapon of choice: a finely aimed stream of spit-out water that can take down villains.
What's so extraordinary about a spitting fish? Consider this: The archerfish hangs out at the surface of a body of water and is looking up at an insect above the water. The archerfish has to somehow compensate for the refraction of the water and the angle it's shooting at, since the fish don't hang out directly under their prey [source: Dill].
What happens is an impressive feat: The archerfish aims its jet so carefully that a tiny insect is struck prone, and the aquatic sharpshooter is there to catch it at the direct landing spot. ZAP, indeed.
The Brawniest Animal Is a ... Beetle?
No list of superheroes would be complete without an example of sheer brute strength, like the Hulk's bulging muscles ripping through his shirts. Or perhaps your mind jumps to the unrivaled brawn of the male horned dung beetle Onthophagus Taurus?
Well, maybe it should. Because the dung beetle is actually the strongest animal in the whole dang world, able to pull 1,140 times its own body weight [source: Courage]. And I can't even do a pull-up.
But our dung beetle hero becomes even more of an action star when you hear why he's so strong. It's his insatiable sexual appetite (or just the biological need to breed) that necessitates such burliness. A female dung beetle excavates under dung to create a cozy spot for mating. If more than one male enters the love den, the brutes must lock horns and push, pull and otherwise force the weaker competitor out [source: Courage].
But don't discount feebler beetles: These smaller guys can walk faster and sneak in to the tunnel easier -- and they even have higher testes mass to make their encounter more likely to result in impregnating the female [source: Knell and Simmons]. Who's super now?
Sea Snake? Nope. Lionfish? Nope. Octopus? Yep.
Look no further than Thor's nemesis, the shape-shifter Loki, as the doppelganger for our next super-powered animal. And to call this tricky sea creature a clone is right on.
The mimic octopus (Thaumoctopus mimicus) was first discovered in the late 1990s, where they live on murky seafloors around Indonesia and the Great Barrier Reef. And let's get one thing straight: Many members of the octopus family change colors or even skin texture to ward off predators and hunt. But no other octopus besides the mimic actually impersonates a wide variety of sea life to scare away danger [source: Roach].
From sea snakes to lionfish, the mimic takes on poisonous personas to keep enemies at bay. Researchers even believe that the mimic octopus decides which animals are most suitable to imitate at any given time based on what the threat appears to be [source: Norman et al.]. Within seconds, the mimic octopus can morph into all sorts of toxic sea creatures as it guards against predators on the ocean floor.
Naked Mole Rat to World: 'Who's Laughing Now?!'
Most superheroes don't get to bask in the glory of recognition from their communities; many live double lives, of course, or the public simply misunderstands their motivations. Batman doesn't get the keys to Gotham. Spider-Man doesn't always get a hero's welcome in New York.
But the amazing naked mole rat (Heterocephalus glaber) -- an animal with a superpower immune system -- was named Vertebrate of the Year in 2013 by Science magazine. Now don't be too outraged you lost out to a mouse-sized, hairless, bucktoothed competitor. These unnerving-looking creatures very much deserve the honor.
That's because instead of immunity to radiation or injury, the naked mole rat seems to be immune to cancer [source: Poppick]. And their superpower makes them a boon to scientists desperate to know more about the disease and how it affects humans. They've already discovered that mole rats have a peculiarly heavy form of the substance hyaluronon between tissues that seems to impede the creation of tumors, and that mole rats seem to build proteins spectacularly well -- both factors that could play into why their lifespan is around 30 years, nine times longer than mice [source: Poppick].
The Amazing Human
Hairy frogs with Wolverine claws, naked mole rats that don't have to worry about cancer -- must be nice, you might think. Animals get all the cool breaks when it comes to super abilities. But hold up. We humans -- while maybe not Vertebrates of the Year -- deserve some recognition for our own superpowers. Some seemingly innocent friends, neighbors and colleagues might actually be superheroes in our midst.
Consider that water districts employ some people with extremely heightened senses of smell or taste to sample water for quality. Then there are those folks with such abnormally sensitive hearing, they might actually suffer from it: Hyperacusis might be terrific when you want to hear a spider skitter across the floor, but it sure isn't great when sounds are so amplified that normal levels of noise seem intolerable [source: Weiss]. And let's not forget our friends with synesthesia, a condition where people experience one sense in a couple different ways: for instance, you might feel a certain sound or musical note is blue, or associate letters or numbers with colors.
It gets better, though, for us mere mortals: Scientists now believe that our senses don't have to stay fixed. How about "tasting" images, for example? BrainPort is an investigational device that uses a camera to record a visual image. The visually impaired user puts a sensor in his or her mouth, where microelectrodes tickle the tongue in a pattern, translated from the digital electrical images of the camera. The user essentially learns to "see" and "read" objects in a room (as well as their movement, shape and size) like a Braille display on their tongue [source: Wicab].
We look at how people use the bands of color on a woolly bear caterpillar to determine how harsh a winter will be – and whether it has any merit.
Author's Note: 10 Superhero Powers of the Animal Kingdom
As a non-superpowered human, I find the idea of "tasting" images very exciting. More thrilling, however, would be the invention of claw-like bones that could pierce through my toes or fingers whenever I needed to impress someone at a cocktail party or frighten my own villains.
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