10 Absurdly Strange Animals You Can Actually Go See in Zoos

The world is full of incredibly strange animals, and zoos are a great place to see many of those creatures from the comfort of a paved path or through thick enough glass to ensure your protection. Sure, we all go to zoos expecting to see the mainstays that come with each city’s set-up: tigers, lions, elephants, bears, and more animals like that.

If you’re really into it (or, more likely, your kids are), you’ll look out for cheetahs, zebras, wildebeest, crocodiles, and more. And, of course, every zoo seems to have a big stillwater pond filled with flamingos, too. What’s up with that? But the typical wild animals on display don’t even begin to tell the story of Earth’s crazy biological diversity. At some zoos, you can see some really, really strange animals, and the sight of them will stay with you forever.

In this list, we’ll explore the stories of ten incredibly creepy animals that actually exist in the real world and how they are being conserved and studied by zoos all over the globe. It’s honestly hard to believe some of these animals weren’t made up by Maurice Sendak for his book Where the Wild Things Re. But they are very real—and for the price of a simple zoo admission, you can see them for yourself!

Related: Top 10 Most Singular Encounters with Unidentified Creatures

10 Aye-Aye, Captain!

The aye-aye (Daubentonia madagascariensis) is one of the most bizarre primates on planet Earth. This little animal is native to Madagascar, and because its only natural habitat is on the island nation, it has a very limited spread in terms of where it can go—and how it has evolved through the ages.

But once you see one, you will never forget it. It has a perpetually shocked look on its face with big, bright eyes. Those eyes make sense, though; they are perfect for existing at night, as the aye-aye is the world’s largest fully nocturnal primate.

Beyond the face, though, it’s the aye-aye’s long and creepy middle finger that will make you remember it forever. It uses that middle finger to tap on trees and extract insects for food. Imagine being a little bug just trying to live your life when one night, under cover of darkness, a big creepy primate comes by, tapping and tapping until it slides its long, thin middle finger into your home and plucks you out for a (literal) midnight snack. Yikes!

The aye-aye is extremely endangered in Madagascar, sadly. But several zoos around the country have had them on exhibit in recent months, including Denver, San Diego, Omaha, and the Bronx.[1]

9 They’re NAKED Down There?!

If you’ve ever seen the cartoon Kim Possible, then you no doubt remember Rufus, the naked mole rat. And while the very concept of Rufus as a creature might seem strange on its own, the true story of the real naked mole rat (Heterocephalus glaber) is even more bizarre!

They were only first discovered in the late 19th century in the horn of East Africa. There, these nearly hairless rodents live underground for their entire lives. They are blind, their skin is translucent, and they work in massive colonies much like bees and ants—but they are mammals!

Weirdly, naked mole rats are one of the only “eusocial” mammals anywhere in the world. That means that they live together in massive groups underground for relative safety. Within those groups, only one female member actually breeds. The rest of the females and all the males are constantly burrowing out dirt for food, territory, and the survival of the colony. They rarely come above ground at all, though they are known to sometimes leave their subterranean habitats and migrate on top of the earth for a chance to find and form new colonies and breeding groups.

Because of what they do, how tiny they are, how sensitive they are to the greater world around them, and the relatively small location in which they live, naked mole rats are not commonly seen in zoos. And since it’s unlikely you’ll be going to Somalia anytime soon, you probably won’t get to see any out in the wild, either. (Besides, even if you did make it to Mogadishu, do you have the patience and presence to dig underground and wait for these naked mole rats to come to you?)

Thankfully, there is one place you can see them: the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington, D.C. They have multiple live camera feeds set up so you can watch these naked mole rats burrow and work far underground![2]

8 A Venomous Shrew

The solenodon is a very venomous and very rare shrew that lives only in two places: one species makes its home on the island of Cuba (Atopogale cubana), while another sister species (Solenodon paradoxus) calls the nearby island of Hispaniola (shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic) as its home. These animals are highly endangered, sadly, and also extremely unique.

They are mammals, but they have venomous saliva like what you might expect a snake to employ. They are very primitive, and their presence on the islands and nowhere else in the world has allowed their evolutionary traits to cut off and make it so that they are one of the few venomous mammals on Earth (the slow loris and platypus are also venomous). They use their long snouts to hunt out insects, at which point they shoot venomous saliva through a groove in their front teeth to kill and feast on their prey.

Pound for pound, considering how big these little guys are, they are actually pretty venomous. While they are not lethal to humans, lab studies have indicated that their venom can kill mice and rats under the right conditions. And since they are so entirely rare being a venomous mammal, there is a lot of pressure to keep them alive.

Zoos and conservation societies in both Cuba and the Dominican Republic have stepped up efforts to alert locals not to mess with their habitats. The Dominican Republic’s national zoo, ZOODOM, holds a few solenodons in its collection in order to try to maintain the population and keep them from extinction.[3]

7 A Very Rare Find

The platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus) is a duck-billed semi-aquatic mammal that is native to only Australia. And it is kept in zoos only in Australia, too—and even then, only rarely. The platypus is a very bizarre kind of mammal that lays eggs and has venomous spurs on its hind legs that it can sometimes use both to defend itself and to capture its own prey.

The platypus is very sensitive to its environment, too. In fact, only a few platypuses have ever made it to be housed alive in Australian zoos throughout history, and fewer still have lived to make it outside of Australia for any length of time. New York’s Bronx Zoo housed several platypuses for a short time more than seven decades ago but hasn’t had any in the latter half of the 20th century or into the 21st century.

Winston Churchill famously wanted a platypus for Britain during World War II, but the animal died en route to the UK. So imagine our surprise when, in 2019, the San Diego Zoo announced that it had secured two platypuses to be put on display in southern California. It is the first time a platypus has been shown in a zoo outside Australia in nearly a century. And it’s a big deal for conservation activists and fans of strange animals alike![4]

6 A Creepy Looking Shark

The goblin shark (Mitsukurina owstoni) is a horrifying-looking creature that lives thousands of feet down in the sea. It has a very long, very haphazardly designed snout to go along with multiple rows of messy, sharp, needle-like teeth. The snout, commonly called a rostrum, is covered with a series of special organs that help these goblin sharks locate their prey far down in the depths of the ocean.

Since sunlight doesn’t penetrate down there, they must use this non-visual help to figure out the electric fields being sent out by other fishes. In turn, their long and terrifying teeth are visible even when the shark’s mouth is fully closed. There are so many teeth in its mouth that they don’t all fit inside, even when they chomp down. If that’s not the stuff of nightmares, well, we’re not sure what would be.

Goblin sharks are really interesting to scientists because they live so far down in the ocean’s depths. Since their habitat is pretty much impossible to observe their behavior for long periods of time, scientists have mostly been in the dark (pun intended) over how goblin sharks feed, swim, communicate, migrate, mate, and more.

Thankfully, there are at least a couple in captivity that have allowed scientists to begin to figure some of these things out. Most notably, you can visit the aquarium in Yokohama, Japan, to see a real, live goblin shark and be freaked out in person by its unsettling appearance. Somebody get that thing a toothbrush![5]

5 The Creepiest Salamander Ever

The (Ambystoma mexicanum) is a very unique type of salamander that retains its juvenile form throughout its life—and can regenerate parts of its body like new pretty much up until the day it dies! See, most amphibians undergo a metamorphosis when reaching adulthood and moving from water onto land. (Recall, please, your past school lessons on tadpoles.) But the Axolotl doesn’t do that.

In fact, unlike other salamanders and the rest of the amphibian world, it remains in the water and stays living with its gilled breathing apparatus rather than moving onto dry land as an adult. Then, if it gets injured or hurt or otherwise feels physical problems as an adult, it can actually regenerate parts of its body naturally. Very few animals can do that, and when you combine that shocking situation with its permanent watery habitat, that makes the axolotl an incredibly rare animal.

Sadly, it’s also incredibly rare because it is very nearly extinct. The axolotl is only found in one place in the world: natural freshwater lakes in the region around Mexico City. And there’s just one problem with that—centuries of human development in that area have dried up and destroyed pretty much every single natural lake in central Mexico where the axolotl previously called home.

Because of that, biologists now believe that there are at most 1,000 living axolotl specimens in the wild—and there could be as few as fifty. Thankfully, the Chapultepec Zoo in Mexico City has been working to track, conserve, and breed them in captivity. And a new museum in the Mexican capital is also focused entirely on this wildly unique and horribly endangered salamander. It’s not just to preserve the species, either.

It turns out that the Axolotl’s regenerative abilities are so rare and unique that biologists are desperate to study them to see if we can learn anything about how we might be able to better combat aging and decline in human populations through the years. In that way, perhaps the axolotl has something very important to teach us, even despite its small numbers in the wild.[6]

4 The Sea Cow’s Cousin

Surely, you’ve heard of the manatee before. While not super common, manatees are native to the Florida coastline in addition to other seaside locales around the world. And they have an even wilder, weirder, crazier cousin who lives in very, very few places in southeast Asia and Australia: the dugong.

This is an ocean-going mammal somewhat closely related to the manatee but entirely different in its specific species. Known as Dugong dugon, this large marine mammal has a forked tail that makes it resemble more of a whale than its manatee cousins.

Worldwide, scientists estimate that there are 10,000 dugongs left in the wild—if that. That’s a big issue for conservationists because its closest relative, the Steller’s sea cow, was previously hunted to extinction in the 18th century. So, to lose the dugong, too, would mean losing another branch of the order Sirenia. That would leave manatees—which are already threatened—as the only living creatures left in that order of the animal kingdom.

But fear not! You can go see a dugong in captivity! There are only a handful of places on Earth where they are successfully being held in captivity, though. One is at Underwater World in Pattaya, Thailand. Another is at the Toba Aquarium in Toba, Mie, Japan. There, a female dugong originally from the waters of the Philippines lives happily under the watchful eye of very shrewd conservationists and marine biologists.[7]

3 Look Out, Don’t Touch!

The Glaucus atlanticus, also commonly known as the blue glaucus or blue dragon, is a sea slug species that is very small, very unique, and very venomous. These sea slugs live by floating upside down in the ocean water. Then, they use the currents at the very top of the water—as well as winds that affect the very surface of the sea—to propel them all over the world.

They are poisonous, too, with venom concentrated in specialized sacs called “cnidosacs” on the tips of their body. That poison is not a lot in raw amount, but it is very concentrated and potent. One string from the blue glaucus can produce more toxin than that from a man o’ war jellyfish (which, coincidentally, is the blue glaucus’s main prey).

These creatures are pretty rare as far as human contact goes, but they do wash up from time to time on sandy beaches along coasts all across the world. Because they are so visually distinctive with their crazy shapes and bright blue markings, it’s hard to miss them. And when you do see them, scientists demand you stay away! Their venom is too great of a risk to be near for too long. A sting can cause nausea, pain, vomiting, and hyperpigmentation of the skin.

Thankfully, you can see the blue glaucus at the Sea Life Sydney Aquarium in Australia, as well as the Texas Sea Life Center in Corpus Christi. And there will (hopefully) be no danger there![8]

2 That’s a HUGE Salamander!

The Japanese giant salamander (Andrias japonicus) is one of the biggest salamanders in the world. Endemic to Japan (hence their name!), these beasts can grow to be as much as 5 feet (1.5 meters) long and very often weigh the same as a human child. They are closely related to several other giant salamander species that are found in China.

While the Chinese versions of the massive salamanders do not pose a threat to humans, biologists believe Japanese giant salamanders could potentially attack and injure people on purpose. To that end, they caution people to stay away from these salamanders if they spot them out and about around the island nation.

They certainly are creepy-looking enough to make you want to stay away. In fact, many biologists like to think of them as “living fossils” because they are so primitive and rudimentary in their large, blog-like, off-putting shape. Their murky, dark coloring doesn’t help much, either. In all, the Japanese giant salamander is the third biggest in the entire world behind its two aforementioned Chinese counterparts—and both are the most feared and the most threatened.

However, you can see them from behind the safety of an enclosure, thankfully! Not only are they on display at several aquariums in Japan, but Washington D.C.’s Smithsonian National Zoo actually has a Japanese giant salamander on display coming from a loan from Asa Zoo in Hiroshima Prefecture. So, for the first time ever, these salamanders have made it to the United States… by zoo![9]

1 The Mystery Beast

At first glance, the okapi (Okapia johnstoni) probably shouldn’t be on this list. It’s a large animal, looks like a mixture of a zebra and a giraffe, and seems like a pretty basic thing to see in a lot of zoos, right? It’s got a very long and powerful tongue that it uses to snap leaves off trees to eat, and it hangs out under the canopy of the rainforest.

You’re right about all that, but here’s the crazy thing: Nobody actually knew okapis existed until the very first part of the 20th century! Think about that for a moment; an animal as large as the okapi went completely undetected for, well, all of time before explorers finally found evidence that they existed right at the turn of this past century.

For centuries before that, tribesmen in Central Africa told stories of some mythical, quiet beast haunting the local jungles. They knew the animal wasn’t a predator—or at least, it didn’t ever attack humans moving along in the forest. But these okapis were so absurdly secretive, especially considering how big they are, that nobody was able to get a good look at them. Nobody before London Zoo fellow Sir Harry Johnston that is. He went on a trip to the remotest jungles deep in Africa in 1901 and painstakingly tracked down the first okapi ever confirmed by the world of wildlife biology and animal husbandry.

Today, okapis are endangered out in the real world, as their habitats in the Democratic Republic of the Congo are under threat from deforestation, political instability, and war. But thankfully, there is actually a decently strong okapi breeding program going on in zoos in the modern age. Many zoos around the world host okapis, including London, Los Angeles, and San Diego.

So, when you visit one of those world-famous zoos and see these striped beasts hanging out and eating leaves, just think about how shy they really are. So shy that nobody could tell you they actually, undoubtedly existed until just a couple years before the Wright Brothers took to the sky! Oh, and there’s one more aspect to this relatively recent discovery: The fact that the okapi was confirmed to exist so recently has been a major focal point for cryptozoologists to argue that other large beasts do, in fact, exist—we just haven’t found them yet!

If the okapi was able to hide out in jungles until the turn of the 20th century, what about Bigfoot? The Yeti? The Loch Ness Monster? Who knows! Maybe a hundred years from now, we’ll be seeing Bigfoot in zoos across the world just as okapis have been spread out in global conservation drives.[10]

Comments are closed.