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Cute but Deadly

Meet four adorable animals with unexpectedly dangerous adaptations

JESUS VILORIA/MOMENT RF/GETTY IMAGES

AS YOU READ, THINK ABOUT how different adaptations help animals survive.

Warning: Never underestimate an animal just because it’s tiny, fluffy, or cuddly. Plenty of cute creatures look harmless. But be careful—looks can be deceiving!

Some animals you might not normally consider scary may be hiding dangerous adaptations, like sharp claws, powerful jaws, or deadly venom. You might be surprised to discover, for example, that domestic cats kill more than 14 billion wild animals per year. Or that roly-poly panda bears can crush your bones with just one bite.

People’s brains are programmed to fall for cuteness (see “The Science of Cute”). That can cause us to overlook some of the more dangerous traits animals have developed to help them survive. Read on to learn about four animals that are more fearsome than meets the eye.

An animal might be tiny, fluffy, or cuddly. Never think too little of it. Plenty of cute creatures look harmless, but be careful. Looks can fool you!

You might not normally think of some animals as scary. But they may be hiding dangerous adaptations. Some have sharp claws, powerful jaws, or deadly venom. The things they can do might surprise you. For example, domestic cats kill more than 14 billion wild animals each year. And roly-poly panda bears can crush your bones with just one bite.

People’s brains are programmed to fall for cuteness (see “The Science of Cute”). So we could overlook some of the more dangerous traits in animals. They’ve developed these traits to help them survive. Read on to learn about four animals that are more fearsome than they appear. 

BORN HUNTERS

House cats are found on every continent except Antarctica. In the U.S. alone, there are more than 165 million of these domesticated felines. Most are kept as pets. Others are feral—these are domesticated cats that live on their own outdoors and avoid contact with humans.

People’s love for these furry critters has helped cat populations soar. Today, cats are one of the most destructive invasive species in the world, says Carlos Driscoll, a geneticist who has studied the evolution of cats. Cats—both pets and feral—are terrible news for birds and other small animals. In the U.S., cats are responsible for the deaths of more than 2.4 billion birds and more than 12 billion small mammals, like moles, rabbits, and otters, each year.

Why are cats such efficient killers? Because they still have the sharp teeth and claws of their wild ancestors. They’re also just as good at stalking and pouncing on unsuspecting prey. Because of this, cats can do a lot of damage to local ecosystems— communities of living things interacting with their nonliving environment. For concerned cat owners, Driscoll recommends keeping these pets indoors.

House cats live on every continent except Antarctica. The U.S. has more than 165 million of these domesticated felines. Most are kept as pets. Others are feral. They’re domesticated cats that live on their own outdoors and avoid contact with humans.

People love these furry critters. That has helped cat numbers to rise. Today, cats are one of the most destructive invasive species in the world, says Carlos Driscoll. He’s a geneticist who has studied the evolution of cats. Both pet and feral cats are terrible news for birds and other small animals. In the U.S., cats kill more than 2.4 billion birds each year. They also hunt down more than 12 billion small mammals, like moles, rabbits, and otters.

Why are cats so good at killing? Because they still have the sharp teeth and claws of their wild ancestors. And they’re just as good at stalking and jumping, so they catch prey off guard. Because of this, cats can do a lot of damage to local ecosystems. These are communities of living things and their nonliving environment. What can concerned cat owners do? Driscoll suggests keeping these pets indoors.

WAHYUDI/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

SLOW BUT STEADY: A slow loris uses its strong fingers and toes to climb a tree in Pekanbaru, Indonesia.

VENOMOUS PRIMATE

The first thing most people notice about slow lorises is their big, round eyes. Lorises are nocturnal, and their huge eyes give them the ability to see at night. They also make the animal look super adorable. But don’t be fooled: This gentle-looking creature is the world’s only venomous primate. Primates are a group of animals that includes apes, monkeys, and humans.

When a slow loris feels threatened, it will cover its face with its arms. It’s not trying to hide, though. Slow lorises have a small gland on the side of their elbow. The gland produces a clear, strong-smelling toxin. When the loris licks the gland, the toxin mixes with its saliva. Now the loris is prepared to defend itself with a venomous bite.

Slow loris venom can trigger a response similar to an allergic reaction, says Stephanie Poindexter, a biological anthropologist at the State University of New York at Buffalo. This happens when the body’s disease-fighting immune system overreacts to an unknown substance. A person or animal who comes into contact with the venom of a loris can experience rashes, trouble breathing, and a potentially deadly drop in blood pressure. When scientists want to handle a loris, they need to wear thick protective gloves. “Whenever we’re doing research,” says Poindexter, “we’re careful to steer clear of the loris’s mouth.”

Slow lorises have big, round eyes That’s the first thing most people notice about them. Lorises are nocturnal, and their huge eyes allow them to see at night. They also make the animal look super cute. But don’t be fooled. This creature looks gentle, but it’s the world’s only venomous primate. Primates are a group of animals that includes apes, monkeys, and humans.

When a slow loris feels threatened, it covers its face with its arms. But it’s not trying to hide. Slow lorises have a small gland on the side of their elbow. The gland produces a clear, strong-smelling toxin. The loris licks the gland, and the toxin mixes with its saliva. Now the loris can defend itself with a venomous bite.

The response to slow loris venom can be like an allergic reaction, says Stephanie Poindexter. She’s a biological anthropologist at the State University of New York at Buffalo. This happens when an unknown substance enters the body, and the disease-fighting immune system overreacts. If loris venom touches a person or animal, it can cause rashes, trouble breathing, and a dangerous drop in blood pressure. What if scientists want to handle a loris? They must wear thick protective gloves. Poindexter says, “Whenever we’re doing research, we’re careful to steer clear of the loris’s mouth.”

SHUTTERSTOCK.COM

EATING ITS GREENS: To keep up its energy, a giant panda must eat about 40 pounds of bamboo every day.

JAWS OF DEATH

Giant pandas are one of the most endearing creatures on the planet. Instead of having a long snout, like most bears do, pandas have short snouts with flat faces. “This is one of the reasons why pandas look so cute,” says Adam Hartstone-Rose, a biologist who studies animal anatomy at North Carolina State University.

Pandas’ round, chubby faces house strong jawbones and massive chewing muscles. Together, these features give pandas one of the strongest bites of any mammal. “Could a panda produce enough force to bite your head off? Yes,” says Hartstone-Rose. Luckily, he says, pandas can’t open their mouths wide enough to do that kind of damage. Pandas have, however, delivered nasty bites to people’s limbs when they’ve felt threatened.

While a vicious bite helps protect pandas, this crushing power is more often used to help them eat. About 99 percent of a panda’s diet is bamboo, a hard and fibrous plant. The animals use their superstrong jaws to crunch through the tough stalks.

Giant pandas are one of the most lovable creatures on Earth. They don’t have a long snout, like most bears. Instead, pandas have short snouts with flat faces. “This is one of the reasons why pandas look so cute,” says Adam Hartstone-Rose. He’s a biologist who studies animal anatomy at North Carolina State University.

Pandas’ round, chubby faces contain strong jawbones and huge chewing muscles. These features give pandas one of the strongest bites of any mammal. “Could a panda produce enough force to bite your head off? Yes,” says Hartstone-Rose. Luckily, pandas can’t do that kind of damage, he says. They can’t open their mouths wide enough.

But pandas have delivered nasty bites to people’s limbs when they felt threatened. A fierce bite helps protect pandas. But more often, this crushing power helps them eat. About 99 percent of a panda’s diet is bamboo. This plant is made of hard fibers. The animals’ powerful jaws can crunch through the tough stalks.

SHUTTERSTOCK.COM

GEM OF THE RAINFOREST: This colorful poison frog lives in the tropical Amazon rainforest in Peru.

DON'T TOUCH

Poison frogs live in the jungles of Central and South America. Their brightly colored skin can range from brilliant red to neon yellow to sky blue. The fact that these amphibians are tiny enough to rest on a person’s finger only adds to their cuteness.

The frogs get their name because they store toxins in their skin. Their coloring warns predators that they’re dangerous to touch or eat. These toxins usually have no effect on humans—most can only hurt smaller animals, like birds or snakes. But there is one notable exception. “In the field, there’s only one frog I’d be cautious about,” says Rebecca Tarvin, a biologist from the University of California, Berkeley. That’s the golden poison frog (Phyllobates terribilis). It carries a type of poison called batrachotoxin—one drop is powerful enough to kill 10 people!

To stay safe, scientists handle these critters carefully, says Tarvin. The rules are simple: “Don’t lick your hand after touching the frogs. Wash your hands. And wear gloves when handling P. terribilis!”

Poison frogs live in jungles in Central and South America. Their skin is brightly colored, from brilliant red to neon yellow to sky blue. These amphibians are tiny enough to rest on a person’s finger. That only adds to their cuteness.

The frogs store toxins in their skin. That’s how they get their name. Their coloring warns predators that they’re dangerous to touch or eat. These toxins usually don’t affect humans. Most can only hurt smaller animals, like birds or snakes. But there’s one big exception. “In the field, there’s only one frog I’d be cautious about,” says Rebecca Tarvin, a biologist from the University of California, Berkeley. That’s the golden poison frog (Phyllobates terribilis). It carries a type of poison called batrachotoxin. One drop is powerful enough to kill 10 people!

Scientists handle these critters carefully to stay safe, says Tarvin. The rules are simple. “Don’t lick your hand after touching the frogs. Wash your hands. And wear gloves when handling P. terribilis!” 

OBTAINING INFORMATION: Research another cute animal. What types of adaptations help it survive? Are any of them surprisingly dangerous?

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