Real-life animals that could have been invented
Text by Andrés Cota Hiriart
There is no need to point out that nature is so vast that we’ll never be able to study it in its totality. There’s no doubt about that. It would be pointless nonsense to dig into such appraisals. But we must not fall into the temptation of exaggerating either: it is not infinite. A number of strict physics and chemistry fundamentals and a limited number of materials confer it a quantifiable dimension. What we could propose, risking to refer to an abstract entity as if it were an individual, is that it is extremely imaginative. Creative to the extent only seen in the most serious cases of autism. Demented, almost. As meticulous as a watchmaker. Patient as a monk. Obsessive.
But above all, it expresses a strong interest in experimenting. It her hands, a few essential ingredients are transformed into a vast array of organisms, so different from each other that they could belong to different worlds. The toy inventor’s dream. The miniaturist delirium. Biodiversity in all its scope. From the most ephemeral yeast, to the Tule tree. From the fearsome tapeworms, to the glorious Bengal tiger. Mushrooms, mosses, betta fish. Hermit crabs, stray dogs and tree ferns. Beautiful, monstrous, cruel or disturbing beings. Endearing beasts.
The intricate evolutionary paths that lead to absurd results, at least under the magnifying glass of a few modest hominids. The natural selection that oftentimes favors unhinged examples that completely challenge the testing mechanism and biological error. Individuals that embody in the flesh the notion that reality exceeds fiction. What could be more disturbing than the aspect of the axolotl? More baffling than the amorphous ameba? More whimsical than the deformed flatfish? Is there a scarier beast than the giant squid? I don’t think so.
Us humans are good at the whole encyclopedic task. Our urge to make sense out of organic phenomena pushes us to create taxonomic listings, complex phylogenies. Classifications that conceptualize on paper, the endless wild inventiveness. A shy attempt at understanding the world that surrounds us.
We do not want to be listed only as witnesses of the artifact, we want to understand the inner workings.
However, there will always be specimens that jeopardize the judgments we make. Specimens that challenge sanity to a duel of probabilities. Borges’ fantastic zoology upside down. The bestiary of real animals that could be invented.
The list is long and works according to how much one knows on the subject. For the naturalist knowledgeable in the grotesque Barbirussa (a wild hog that inhabits the islands of the Indonesian archipelago, whose recurved tusks pierce out of its mouth and, making a hundred and eighty degree angle, get embedded back in its skull) this might not seem surprising. Neither would the Chinese giant salamander with its 1.6 meters in length and weighing more than 30 kilos. Even the distant lanternfish of the abyssal depths might seem familiar too.
But let’s imagine for a second that we didn’t know the platypus, the chameleon or the jellyfish. In that case, their biological qualities make them practically impossible to imagine. This brief catalogue is aimed at those who enjoy such organisms.
Aye-aye, Daubentonia madagascariensis, is a lemur native to the island of Madagascar and the largest existing nocturnal primate. They are covered in thick fur, have big yellow eyes and prominent ears. It is characterized by a peculiar feeding method called percussive foraging: it taps on trees (the way we knock on doors) to see if they’re hollow and thus makes holes where it might find its potential prey: grubs. Once it finds a promising entry, it gnaws the wood using its forward slanting incisors and inserts its “modified” middle finger – long with a protuberant nail – to delve into the hole. Hence it belongs to the same ecological niche that woodpeckers do.
Water deer, Hydropotes inermis, is a small deer that lives near the rivers of China and Korea. It is less than a meter long and it barely weighs 14 kg. However, it is a strong swimmer, it can go great distances against the current. Its fur tends to be light brown and doesn’t have antlers at any point of its growth. Except for the reproduction period; they are solitary beings and extremely territorial. Without a doubt, the most significant trait of the species are its two tusks that protrude from its mouth, nicknaming it the vampire deer. These long and sharp teeth can range in length up to 8 cm and have the distinctive feature of being movable; they can be drawn back when eating or thrust out when charging. They use them primarily when combating for territory.
Rhinoceros hornbill, Buceros rhinoceros, is a sizable bird that inhabits the humid rainforests of southeast Asia and Indonesia, including Borneo, Java, Sumatra, Singapore and the Malaysian Peninsula. It can reach up to 130 cm in height and weigh more than 3 kg (approximately the size of a swan but with a shorter neck). The orange and red tones of its conspicuous and elongated beak hold the upturned casque or “horn” that gives it its name and allows it to emit a deep sound. Its characteristic black plumage is shiny with white stripes. It feeds on fruits, berries, insects and small vertebrates it hunts on the canopy. It rarely flies down to earth. In captivity, it can live up to 60 years.
Hamlyn’s monkey, Cercopithecus hamlyni, is a primate of nocturnal habits that lives in the central jungles of the African continent, usually at elevations higher than 1000 meters. It has a thick and short tail, strong limbs and fur that ranges from speckled dark brown to black. Its characteristic face is crowned with two protuberant eyes of acute night vision and a characteristic white stripe that extends from the root of the nose to the upper lip, hence its nickname. It is medium-sized and reaches up to 50 cm long, weighing 7 kg. It feeds on different types of vegetables and fruits. They are shy animals, practically unknown to science with very rare wildlife sightings.
Malayan tapir, Tapirus indicus, is a herbivore mammal of funny aspect that inhabits the tropical lowlands of Myanmar, Thailand, the Malay Peninsula and Sumatra. It is the only representative of tapirs that is not endemic to the American continent, and unlike the rest of its kind, it has a light-colored patch divided in two tones: white and black (similar to that of a panda). Young tapirs have black hair with white stripes and spots; as they grow, the spots fade into each other. They have a sensitive trunk, feet resemble those of the rhinoceros and they like to spend long hours in the water. They are huge; they can measure up to 2.40 m long and weigh 320 kg. They are in danger of extinction.