Weird Animal Brain: Narwhal

Narwhal tusks used to be sold as unicorn horns and were believed to contain magical powers. Now we know a little bit more about these unique tusks, and the truth is just as interesting. Learn more in the infographic below:


For more info:

Broad, W. J. (2005, December 13). It’s Sensitive. Really.

Nweeia, M. T., Eichmiller, F. C., Hauschka, P. V., Donahue, G. A., Orr, J. R., Ferguson, S. H., . . . Kuo, W. P. (2014). Sensory ability in the narwhal tooth organ system. The Anatomical Record, 297(4). doi:10.1002/ar.22773

Weird Animal Brain: Leaf Sheep Slug

Remember photosynthesis: How plants capture energy from the sun. Chloroplasts (the green parts of leaves) are where the sun’s energy is captured.

Sea Slug-01.png

For more info:

Andrew, Elise. “These Cute Sea Slugs Are The Sheep Of The Sea.” IFLScience, IFLScience, 15 Aug. 2016,

Händeler, Katharina, et al. “Functional chloroplasts in metazoan cells – a unique evolutionary strategy in animal life.” Frontiers in Zoology, vol. 6, no. 1, 2009, p. 28., doi:10.1186/1742-9994-6-28.

Weird Animal Brain: Dolphin

Marine mammals, such as dolphins, whales, and porpoises, spend their entire lives at sea.  Like us, they need to breathe, avoid danger, and care for their young.  Like us, they need to sleep, which — for us — involves almost total unconsciousness and paralysis.  So how do these marine mammals not drown when they sleep?

Different species use different strategies, but bottlenose dolphins use an especially interesting one: they sleep with only one half of their brain at a time!  The other half of the brain stays awake in order to watch out for predators, avoid obstacles, and signal to the dolphin to rise to the surface to breathe.

This ability to sleep with half a brain is particularly important for new dolphin mothers.  A newly born calf doesn’t float very well and can’t swim for long periods of time, so its mother must continue to swim for the first few weeks of her calf’s life to keep it afloat.  Her ability to stay awake is critical to keep both her and her calf from drowning!


For more info:

Hecker, B. (1998). How do whales and dolphins sleep without drowning? Retrieved from

Ridgway, S. (2006). Dolphin continuous auditory vigilance for five days. Journal of Experimental Biology,209(18), 3621-3628. doi:10.1242/jeb.02405

Ridgway, S. H. (2002). Asymmetry and Symmetry in Brain Waves from Dolphin Left and Right Hemispheres: Some Observations after Anesthesia, during Quiescent Hanging Behavior, and during Visual Obstruction. Brain Behav Evol Brain, Behavior and Evolution, 60(5), 265-274. doi:10.1159/000067192

Weird Animal Brain: Woodpecker

Brain damage is a major concern for us humans – car accidents, football, falling backwards. It’s pretty easy to cause a concussion. Woodpeckers, however, pound away daily using much more force than would cause brain damage for us. How are they able to protect their little noggins?


For more info:

Soniak, M. (2014). Why Don’t Woodpeckers Get Brain Damage?

Wang, L., Cheung, J. T., Pu, F., Li, D., Zhang, M., & Fan, Y. (2011). Why Do Woodpeckers Resist Head Impact Injury: A Biomechanical Investigation. PLoS ONE, 6(10). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0026490

Weird Animal Brain: Tuatara

The tuatara lizard is called a “living fossil” because it is the last surviving member of the Rhynchocephalia order. Learn more about the tuatara in the infographic below!


For more info:

Tuatara: Sphenodon punctalus.

Ung, C. Y., & Molteno, A. C. (2004). An enigmatic eye: the histology of the tuatara pineal complex. Clinical and Experimental Opthalmology, 32(6), 614-618.

Weird Animal Brain: Strawberry Squid

Also known as the cock-eyed squid, this beautiful and weird creature is unique not only because of its similarities to a strawberry, but also because of its two very special eyes. Like many others creatures who live in the deep ocean, the strawberry squid has figured out a special way to spy on prey in little to no light. Learn more in the infographic below:


For more info:

Higgins, C. (2016). The Case of the Green-Eyed Squid. Retrieved August 27, 2017, from

Simon, M. (2016). Absurd Creatures: Why the Strawberry Squid Has One Tiny Eye and One Giant Eye. Retrieved August 27, 2017, from

Thomas, K. N., Robison, B. H., & Johnsen, S. (2017). Two eyes for two purposes: in situ evidence for asymmetric vision in the cockeyed squids Histioteuthis heteropsis and Stigmatoteuthis dofleiniPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 372(1717), 20160069. doi:10.1098/rstb.2016.0069

Weird Animal Brain: Fly

Fly lips are called labellum and fly feet are called tarsi. Both the labellum and tarsi contain taste receptors which help the fly find food. Think about that the next time a fly lands on your donut! Butterflies also have taste receptors on their feet, but only use them to avoid poisonous plants.



Bittel, J. (2017, August 03). Four Weird Ways Animals Sense the World. Retrieved August 06, 2017, from

Montell, C. (2009). A taste of the Drosophila gustatory receptors. Current Opinion in Neurobiology, 19(4), 345-353. doi:10.1016/j.conb.2009.07.001

Weird Animal Brain: Brittle Star

Brittle stars are covered in protective outer plates, but they also have another structure of internal plates. A particular species of brittle star seems to be able to use these internal plates for vision: it reacts to visual stimuli, like the presence of a predator or a safe place to hide.

Scientists hope we can improve existing technology and invent new technology by understanding how the brittle star uses these calcite lenses.


For more info:

Burgess, Daniel S. (2014). Brittle Star Features Calcite Lenses. Photonics Media. Photonics Media, 10 Jan.

Ye, Xiaozhou, Fei Zhang, Yurong Ma, and Limin Qi. (2014). Brittlestar-Inspired Microlens Arrays Made of Calcite Single Crystals. Small. 1677-682.

Roach, John. (2001). Brittle Star Found Covered With Optically Advanced “Eyes”. National Geographic. National Geographic Society, 22 Aug. 2001.

Weird Animal Brain: Moth

These beautiful little creatures are incredibly skilled at sniffing out mates. The pheromone the females release is called bombykol. Scientists are on the hunt for exactly how this pheromone activates the male brain.


Weird Animal Brain: Platypus

The platypus and the echidna are the only mammals that have the power of electroreception, which means they can sense electrical changes. Check out this new Weird Animal Brain to learn how the platypus uses its bill to catch prey underwater!


For more info:

Scheich H., Langner G., Tidemann C., Coles R.B., Guppy A. (1986). Electroreception and electrolocation in platypus. Nature. 319(6052):401-2.

Pettigrew, J.D., Manger, P.R., and Fine, S.L. (1998). The sensory world of the platypus. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B. 353(1372): 1199–1210.

Patel, M. (2007). Platypus Electroreception. Retrieved June 26, 2017, from

Weird Animal Brain: Shark

This quote from a Scientific American article on the ampullae of Lorenzini articulates just how powerful the shark's electrical sense is:

"This effect is equivalent to the intensity of the voltage gradient that would be produced in the sea by connecting up a 1.5-volt AA battery with one pole dipped in the Long Island Sound and the other pole in the waters off Jacksonville, Fla. Theoretically, a shark swimming between these points could easily tell when the battery was switched on or off. (Later measurements of brain response indicate that sharks can discern 15 billionths of a volt.) No other tissue, organ or animal exhibits such extreme sensitivity to electricity. Indeed, engineers have difficulty measuring such weak fields in sea-water using modern equipment."


Weird Animal Brain: Octopus

The octopus almost reaches alien status when it comes to its brain and nervous system.  And yet, the differences can help us understand more about the human brain as well as unique solutions nature has come up with for difficult problems like camouflage.  Octopuses can see polarized light, but cannot see color.  However, their skin changes both color and texture to camouflage with the surroundings.


For more info:

Courage, Katherine Harmon. “How the Freaky Octopus Can Help Us Understand the Human Brain.” Wired. Conde Nast, 1 Oct. 2013. Web.

Groskin, Luke. “I, Octopus – Science Friday.” Science Friday. N.p., 16 June 2016. Web.

Weird Animal Brain: Sea Squirt

The brain is one of the most complex and amazing structures in the universe. It allows us to experience the world, feel, remember, and plan for the future. But for at least one organism, the brain is only a means to an end. Learn more in the infographic below!


For more info:

Karaiskou, A., Swalla, B. J., Sasakura, Y., & Chambon, J. (2014). “Metamorphosis in solitary ascidians.” Genesis,53(1), 34-47.

Mehra, Rohan. “Autocannibalism is when you eat bits of your own body.” BBC. 13 Dec. 2016. Web.

Weird Animal Brain: Ray

Last month, on the big island of Hawaii, I swam with giant, beautiful aliens.  Or at least that’s what it felt like.  I went night snorkeling with manta rays and had the privilege of seeing 10 or 11 graceful behemoths.  Some had a wingspan of over 10 feet long.  Before our group got in the water, to prepare us for what we were about to see, our guide reassured us that manta rays are like sharks, but only the good parts, none of the scary parts.  They don’t have teeth, they only eat plankton, and they have no stinger like their sting ray counterparts.

In addition to these unique characteristics, they also have a special mechanism to allow for a big brain to function deep in the ocean.  Manta rays have the largest brain-to-body ratio of all the elasmobranchii (sharks, rays, and skates).


Weird Animal Brain: Jewel Wasp

The jewel wasp’s venom is potent on two levels.  With the first stab of its stinger, the wasp paralyzes the much larger cockroach.  The neurotransmitter GABA, inserted into the thorax of the cockroach, causes temporary paralysis by shutting down motor neurons.  The paralysis allows for the second stab — a perfectly targeted attack on a specific area of the cockroach brain (the subesophageal and supraesophageal ganglion).  Scientists think a dopamine-like compound in the venom causes the careful cleaning behavior, while the GABA again works to shut down neurons, to ensure the cockroach doesn’t run away.  This guarantees it will be there waiting to be eaten alive by the wasp’s offspring.  That’s a pretty horrific way to die!