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Weird creatures in the Museum

12 March 2007

Bizarre animals featured in the wildlife programme Weird Creatures are revealed behind the scenes at the Natural History Museum.

Some of the most unusual animals you will ever see, such as the blood-squirting lizard and the star-nosed mole, were researched in the galleries and behind-the-scenes in the vast corridors, shelves and jars of the Museum.

As a child, presenter Nick Baker visited the Museum and was amazed at the zoological specimens on display. Nick was longing to track down some examples of these bizarre animals and now had the chance.

In Weird Creatures, Nick speaks to scientists about the animals and then travels to some remote and inhospitable places around the world to try and find them in the wild.

Blood-squirting lizard

The blood-squirting lizard, Phrynosoma cornutum , is the star of the first episode. It is a spiny reptile that, when threatened, squirts blood from its eye sockets and inflates itself like a puffer fish.

'The blood-squirting response rarely occurs when the lizard is handled by humans so capturing it on film presented quite a challenge,' says Dr Colin McCarthy, reptile expert at the Museum.

'However the discovery that this defensive behaviour is stimulated by the presence of dogs allowed some spectacular footage to be shot'.

Star-nosed mole

The star-nosed mole, Condylura cristata , (pictured above) is from North America. It has 22 bright pink fleshy tentacles on the end of its nose. The male positions its tentacles over its nostrils when burrowing to prevent soil entering its nose. The tentacles are used for other purposes, including navigation and locating prey.

'The tentacles are constantly moving whilst the mole is foraging,' says Louse Tomsett, Museum mammal expert.

'There are over 25,000 Eimer's organs (sensory organs) on the star, each with three types of tactile receptors. This makes it extremely sensitive and enables the mole to identify prey in less than half a second.'

Pink fairy armadillo
Pink fairy armadillo in the Museum Mammals gallery.

Pink fairy armadillo in the Museum Mammals gallery.

The pink fairy armadillo, Chlamyphorus truncatus, is an elusive creature. It is the smallest of the armadillos at around 10 centimetres long and was very hard to find. The Museum has one on display in its Mammals gallery and also has an Ice Age Glyptodon , an extinct and distant relative of the armadillo (a Glyptodon is on display in the Museum Central Hall).

'The Glyptodon must have looked more like a small armoured car than a living creature and weighed about as much too,' says Andy Currant, Ice Age mammal expert at the Museum.

'It shares a number of features with the living armadillos - the armoured body, the shielded head, big feet and a chunky skeleton.'

Giant armadillo

The Glyptodon was one of the 'giant armadillos'. It had a domed carapace, rather like tortoise shells, but was made of bone with a rich blood supply and hairs poking through. This shell was made up from many discrete pieces of bone, over 1,000 individual pieces, which grew in the skin of the young animals and fused together to form a solid mass about three centimetres thick in the adults.

'The bony shell was joined onto the bones of the hip girdle and rather like a tortoise the animals seem to have been able to contract into their shells for protection.'

Andy concludes, 'Nick and I had a lot of fun trying to imagine how they moved, what noises they made and how they interacted with each other.' 

These plant-eating creatures were quite common throughout much of South America and they spread north into southern North America. Like so many Ice Age giants, Glyptodon became extinct at about the time of their first contact with modern humans, about 12,000 years ago.

The Museum looks after 55 million animal specimens , 28 million of those being insects, and has the largest and most important natural history collection in the world.

Watch Weird Creatures at 9pm Mondays from 5 March on Animal Planet channel or visit the Museum to get a taste of some of the truly bizarre animals that grace our planet.

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