The natural world is filled to the brim with ingenious, complex and breathtakingly beautiful creatures. Each is the product of millions of years of evolutionary work, and each is perfectly adapted to thrive in its own environment.
7) The Methuselah Tree
The world’s oldest living organism is over four thousand years old. It was alive when the Giza pyramids were being built in Ancient Egypt, it witnessed the era of Alexander the Great, and lived through the rise and fall of Ancient Rome. It is the Methuselah Tree (or Bristlecone Pine) of the White Mountains in Inyo National Park, California. It gets its name from the oldest man mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, Noah’s granddad, who is fabled to have lived to the ripe old age of 969. It was discovered by Edmund Schulman in 1957 and is currently 4789 years old.
6) Turritopsis Nutricula
One small invertebrate of the Pacific distinguishes itself by achieving what mankind can only dream about – immortality. Turritopsis nutricula, the immortal jellyfish, escapes death altogether though Benjamin Button-style backwards growth. Turritopsis is the only known animal that can revert from a mature to an immature state and begin its lifecycle from scratch. Unlike human cells, every cell in this adult jellyfish can undergo transdifferentiation and become a different type of cell. The medusa (bell-shaped tentacle-ly thing) reabsorbs all its extra appendages and turns back into a polyp (colonial, sedentary tree-like thing) and attaches itself to a substrate. Thus, through endless cycles of forwards and backwards growth, this very special jellyfish permanently tangles itself in its mortal coil.
When Lewis Carroll’s Queen of Hearts took to playing an eccentric version of croquet she would have done well to replace hedgehogs with armadillos. This is because armadillos can roll themselves into little balls (and they are less prickly than hedgehogs). The ball-reflex is a very clever mechanism for defending oneself against predators and it’s also one of the cutest things I have ever seen.
The next creature of interest is the world’s tiniest bear, the ever-loveable Tardigrade or water-bear. This adorable eight-legged, (1.5mm) invertebrate is the smallest creature I know to have inspired a soft toy. Its real stand-out feature is its incredible resilience to extreme environments. By returning to a state of dormancy (known as cryptobiosis) Tardigrades can tolerate one thousand times more radiation than any other animal and can live in temperatures ranging from absolute zero (-273.15°C) to 151°C. They can go ten years without water and even shooting them into the vacuum of space appears to have no effect on them (scientists tried this in a 2007 space mission). Tardigrades can exploit every environment on earth and are can be found everywhere from the top of the Himalayas, to the Northpole and even 4000m under the sea.
3) Giant Tube Worm
Sunlight is the ultimate source of all biological energy, right? Guess again. Deep beneath the sea on the ocean floor where no sunlight can reach there are thriving communities of organisms surrounding geothermal vents (underwater volcanoes). These creatures rely on chemo-autotrophic bacteria to build biological chemicals. Hydrothermal vent worms have no gut; all they need is a body stuffed with bacteria that can turn dissolved sulphur dioxide, oxygen and carbon dioxide into sugar. This symbiotic relationship forms the basis of the mysterious deep sea community; other forms of life-like crabs and fish flock to the vents to feed on the worms.
2) Sarcastic Fringe-Head
Next let me introduce the best fish of all time: the sarcastic fringe-head. Possibly, the best name for a fish ever. This territorial Californian makes a conch its home and gets very irritable when other fringe-heads swim too close. It can open its jaw insanely wide to make a kite-like weapon, which it uses to deal with unwelcome visitors.
Finally we have humans. For all our flaws (namely, systematically destroying the planet), humans are really pretty fascinating animals. We are the most intellectually developed species on earth and are the only living thing (as far as we know) to have acquired a conscious awareness of ourselves and our world. As Carl Sagan puts it: “We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” And that is what makes us very special.