5 unique species with extraordinary features

Some species developed features that are so rare that they're almost unbelievable, while others kept ancient traits alive long after all of their close relatives had gone extinct. These animals and plants may seem "odd" to us, but they truly show us just how diverse life on Earth can become...

Leaf insect on a leaf

Walking leaves are the masters of mimicry... (By Bernard DUPONT from FRANCE - Giant Leaf Insect (Phyllium giganteum), CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40737396)

1. Ginkgo biloba tree

Ginkgoales appeared 270 million years ago and inhabited many parts of the Earth, and were common in disturbed environments near rivers and steams, but nowadays the only living species that represents the order is the Ginkgo biloba. This unique tree is found in the wild only in some parts of China, but due to its aesthetic looks, pretty leaves and extraordinary resistance to urban environments, it's cultivated all over the world.

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Some of the distinctive features of the Ginkgo biloba are the fan-shaped leaves, on which the veins are radiating out into the leaf blade in a "fork-like" manner. The seeds also show noticeable differences compared to those of other plants - they have several layers, of which the outer one is soft, yellowish, and quite "smelly" when it falls down. The inner layer consists of the hard "shell", the endotesta, the nucellus and the gametophyte. Another interesting fact about the ginkgo is that it's used as a herb, and the seeds are also considered a delicacy in some parts of Asia - but none of the plant's parts should be consumed without proper knowledge and caution.

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2. Red panda (red bear-cat)

Did you know that the relatives of the now endangered red panda lived all across Europe? However, the only living species of the Ailuridae family is now the red panda, that inhabits the eastern Himalayas and southwestern China. According to estimates, there are only 10,000 mature red bear-cats living in the wild, and beside poaching, habitat loss is one of the greatest threat to the survival of the Ailuridae family's last living member. Despite the canine-like teeth, these popular and much-beloved animals mostly eat bamboo, leaves, flowers, eggs, fruits, and occasionally small vertebrates too.

3. Phylliidae

Leaf insects, also known as walking leaves, mastered the art of mimicry over the millions of years to an extent that they now look exactly like leaves. Some of them even have brownish spots that make them look like scarred of drying plant leaves, while on the bodies of other walking leaves, you can see veins similar to those of leaves.

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Most leaf insects feed on only certain kinds of plants, and because they are herbivore, it's quite obvious that they use their mimicry as a kind of protection from carnivores - and not for hunting, as in the case of several camouflaged spiders and mantises. One of the best-known species of walking leaves is the huge and spectacular Phyllium giganteum, which is a popular hobby animal. Most individuals are females, because - just like many other stick insects - the giant walking leaves don't necessarily need males for reproduction. So, if you have a female, it may surprise you with small "clones" of herself even if there's not a single leaf insect anywhere near its terrarium.

4. Dragon blood tree

The dragon blood tree - also known as Socotra dragon tree - is native to the Socotra archipelago, which is currently a part of Yemen. It's named after the blood-red sap that becomes visible when the tree is scarred or cut. These spectacular trees can be recognized easily from their dense crown, which almost looks like a green hill placed on top of a bare tree trunk, or somewhat like an opened umbrella. These incredible plants can live up to several hundreds of years, but according to the IUCN Red List, they are vulnerable due to logging, overgrazing and the loss of habitat.

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5. Maned wolf

While the maned wolf resembles both foxes and wolves, it's only a far, far relative of them - and the only living species of the genus Chrysocyon. Its closest living relative is the bush dog, that lives in Central and South America, and looks almost like the opposite of the long-legged, slim, bright reddish and elegant-looking maned wolf. Beside being the tallest of all wild canids, the maned wolf also has a strange gait - when walking, it uses its legs not diagonally, like almost all other mammals, but laterally. While it's one of the largest living canids, it's omnivorous, and beside fruits and other parts of the plants, it eats smaller vertebrates (like rodents, fish, birds and rabbits), rather than larger mammals. One of its favorite treats is in fact the wolf fruit. Unlike some canids, the maned wolf doesn't form packs, and is quite territorial and shy - this is why it's relatively hard to see it, or just hear the bark-like sounds it makes.

Anita Diós

July 2018