Every once in a while, nature surprises us humans with a truly bizarre display that changes how we perceive our planet and the creatures we share it with. Below are seven examples of unbelievable natural phenomena, Earth’s reminder of how wacky, occasionally gross, and wonderful it can be.
1. Moroccan Tree Goats
I’ve talked a fair quantity of trash about sheep during my brief tenure here at The Portalist. While sheep, as a species, are duller than Ben Stein’s Antique Furniture Podcast, their less idiotic goat cousins have some surprising tricks up their tiny goat sleeves.
Apparently, goats are badasses—particularly the Moroccan tree goat, an animal that subsists on the berries and leaves of the Argan tree. That’s right, goats in Morocco graze in and climb on trees, which leads to the objectively hilarious image of about 12 full-sized adult goats sharing the branches of the same fairly small tree. Now picture hundreds of trees like that, lining the breadth of the Moroccan desert, and hundreds of goats, suspended in the branches, waiting for the right moment to attack.
Mind you, I’m not in any way suggesting that Moroccan goats are planning a coordinated assault from above, all I’m saying is they have the capacity to plan that kind of assault because while they’ve been teaching themselves to climb trees (and, I assume, perform cool goat karate moves), we’ve all been vastly underestimating their intelligence.
2. Frogs Attract Mates Via Terrible Interpretive Dancing
At least 14 new, separate species of “Indian Dancing Frogs” have recently been discovered, wherein the males of the species tries to attract mates via a weird, limb-stretchy mating dance. Sort of like frog yoga or high-kicks.
Penitentes are snow and ice structures that form in high-altitude areas, like the Andes, and were first observed and described by Charles Darwin. They can be as high as 2 to 5 meters tall; they’re shaped like thin blades or pikes, which point in the direction of the sun; and they’re not singular formations, either—there are fields and fields of them in the Andes. So what in the world causes them to occur?
First, the air in the Andes is super dry. Second, sublimation. Sublimation means that the sun’s heat turns snow directly into vapor, without ever having made it liquid first. The way this works is the smooth snow surface develops small depressions as some regions randomly sublimate faster than others (since, as self esteem seminars world-over have taught you, all snowflakes are different). At that point, the curved surfaces actually help concentrate the heat of the sun, and accelerate the process, which eventually leaves a forest of six-foot ice spikes that look like they were designed by Antoni Gaudi. Voila! Penitentes.
4. Psychic, Mind-Controlling Fly Larvae
Every spring, a fly larva called Xenos vesparum works its way into the body and brain of the European Paper Wasp.
It’s not unheard of for a parasite species to manipulate the thinking of its host. One internet-famous example is Toxoplasma gondii, which alters rats brains so they’re attracted to the smell of cat urine.
Xenon vesparum‘s methods are a little different. First, it makes the host wasp become reclusive and shirk its responsibilities to the hive. Then, Xenos vesparum does something pretty incredible: It relays directions to the wasp about a specific location, and instructs it to fly to there. When the wasp arrives, it finds tons of other wasps already there, all with similarly infected brains. The males and females Xenos vesparum can then get together and do what consenting adult fly larvae are wont to do.
Extraordinarily, these larvae all psychically communicate to each other about the coordinates of a place they’ve never been, before mind-controlling their host-wasps to that exact location for an unfettered boning session. That is just two-dogs-riding-a-tandem-bicycle-level bonkers.
5. Giant Corpse Flowers Are Nature’s Identity Thieves
The corpse flower (Rafflesia) is one of the largest flowers in the world—averaging about three feet across—and it smells like, as the name suggests, a decaying corpse. Scientists have only recently started unlocking a lot of the secrets of the species.
The corpse flower blooms from within another species, stealing nutrients from massive vines that are draped across the rain forest floor. It emulates the stench of rotting flesh to attract flies and cross-pollinate and perpetuate the species (which is on tenuous grounds nonetheless, thanks in part to deforestation).
The weirdness doesn’t stop there, though. Remember how corpse flowers bloom inside a vine? Scientists recently discovered that the corpse flower has also been pirating the DNA of its host organism—which they didn’t even know was a thing organisms could do. How much does the corpse flower resemble the vine it’s stealing from? Up to 40 percent of its mitochondrial DNA is the same as its host organism’s.
It also used to be a lot smaller. Since prehistoric times, the corpse flower has ballooned in size up to 80 times.
6. Tapirs are Fearless, Amphibious Maniacs
A tapir is a South American animal that somewhat resembles a pig wearing the face of a koala.
That’s just run-of-the-mill adorable mammal stuff, you might be thinking. And you’d be right … except that whenever they feel like it, tapirs will traipse right into a lake or a river and walk around on the bottom like rules don’t apply to them. I’m not talking about quick 30-second dips underwater, in between gasps for air, either. These koala-faced cuties trot along in the briny depths like they’re out for a casual stroll, which they might well be, because they’re the master of both land and sea, damn it. Everyone needs to get a new favorite animal this instant, and it needs to be this one.
7. Naga Fireballs
Every October on the border of Thailand and Laos, egg-sized fireballs appear on the surface of the Mekong river, hover there a moment, and then rocket up into space. The phenomenon is attributed by locals to a mythical dragon that lives on the Mekong and is, apparently, both very camera-shy and very punctual. On the empirical side, nobody’s positive about the actual scientific explanation for the tiny little reverse-asteroids that rise from the river annually.
An ITV documentary back in 2002 prompted a national uproar when it suggested that what Thai people were really idolizing were the light signatures of tracer bullets fired into the air from the Laotian side of the Mekong. Some eyewitnesses argued that the fireballs often materialize much closer than the far shore—but then again, eyewitness accounts are notoriously unreliable.
Another explanation has been offered by Manas Kanoksin, a doctor who’s spent the last ten years observing the phenomenon, and even designed his own underwater methane detector. Thailand’s Tourism Authority endorsed the good doctor’s research, emphasizing in a press release that the bubbles are caused by “the presence of conditions that are conducive to the formation of methane-nitrogen gas with 19 percent level of purity, the presence of aerobic and anaerobic bacteria coexisting in a habitat at depths of 4.55 to 13.40 meters with organic deposits forming on a bed of clay or sand, average surrounding temperatures of higher than 26 degrees centigrade at 1000, 1300 and 1600 hours, and a pH value between 6.4 to 7.8.”
So there you have it, right? Except the methane theory also doesn’t account (at least not yet) for why the fireballs appear only once a year, as opposed to say, every month, or at the very least, on occasions not in October when identical conditions prevail. So take your pick from those explanations. Or, like the tens of thousands of people who flock to the Naga to watch the phenomenon each year, just enjoy the fireworks.
Featured photo: Wikimedia Commons