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Who you callin' ugly? These animals may look unsightly, but their odd features help them survive.

Most people consider fluffy kittens and waddling penguins cute. Show those same people the star-nosed mole with wiggling tentacles sticking out of its face, and you'll most likely hear, "Ick!" But often the features we find unattractive in animals are actually adaptations, or characteristics that help an organism survive in its environment.

Experts say that it's natural for people to think some animals are cute and others are ... well, gross. George & Feldhamer, a zoologist at Southern Illinois University, believes that if an animal looks too different from us or isn't cuddly, people perceive it as ugly. The reason: Our instincts tell us to stay away from anything that looks like a sign of sickness--for example, slimy skin or a body part that looks deformed. On the other hand, chubby bodies, button noses, and round heads--traits (biological characteristics) shared by human babies--make us want to hug the creature. Finding these features adorable is nature's way of malting sure people care for babies, who can't survive on their own.

Beauty, however, is in the eye of the beholder. "[Strange-looking] animals are no doubt highly attractive to others of their species," says Feldhamer. Take a look at six animals that score low on the beauty scale but offer examples of amazing adaptations.

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PROBOSCIS MONKEY

Of all the primates (animal group that includes humans and monkeys) in the world, proboscis monkeys have the biggest honkers around. The word proboscis actually means long, flexible snout. The nose of an adult male can be longer than 10 centimeters (4 inches) and hang lower than its mouth. Scientists think that the oversized nose acts as a resonating, or echo, chamber to amplify warning calls when there's danger. Males' large noses also help them attract a mate.

LEAF-TAILED GECKO

This gecko's unusual appearance is part of its camouflage. These reptiles live in trees and hide from predators by blending in with the tree's bark. To do this, they can change their skin color from a dark to a speckled gray and flatten their leaf-shaped tails against branches.

Leaf-tailed geckos are nocturnal When the sun sets, their eyes' large pupils widen to spot insects to eat. In bright light, their pupils become tiny slits.

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"Because their eyes need a lot of space to contract and expand, the leaf-tailed geckos don't have eyelids," says Adam Fink, a zookeeper at the Oakland Zoo in California. Without eyelids, the gecko's orange iris (colored part of the eye), which is patterned like cantaloupe skin, is always visible, making the gecko look a tad creepy.

WRINKLE-FACED BAT

With a skull that's unusually short and wide and skin that resembles a crumpled sheet of paper, this bat won't win an animal beauty contest anytime soon. Found in Central and South America, the fruit-eating wrinkle-faced bat has a fearsome bite that's almost 20 percent more forceful than the bite of other similar-size bats. Scientists think the bat's odd-shaped skull is what makes its bite so strong. It allows the bat to chomp into tough, unripened fruit when tender ones are unavailable.

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STAR-NOSED MOLE

The star-nosed mole's most startling feature is the ring of 22 fleshy appendages surrounding its snout. Why?. The mouse-size animal has poorly developed eyes. "If you spend almost all your life underground, you don't need visual acuity--it's dark," says Feldhamer. Instead, the animal uses its tentaclelike organs, which are much more sensitive than the nerves in human hands, to feel its way around underground.

This super digger also has long claws and a well-developed upper body. "If the moles bench-pressed, they could lift 36 times their body weight," says Feldhamer. "They are highly adapted and very good at what they do. We should appreciate the beauty of that.

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MARABOU STORK

When you think of a stork, you might picture the white, long-limbed bird fabled to deliver babies to doorsteps. The marabou stork looks nothing like that. These huge birds, which stand as tall as a person, are scavengers and feed on dead organisms.

The storks have bald heads and necks--an adaptation that allows them to feast on animal carcasses, garbage scraps, and even feces without getting too dirty. If they had feathers covering their tops, the birds would have trouble cleaning off the blood and gunk. Yuck! With its gruesome feeding habits, it's no wonder the marabou stork is nicknamed the "undertaker bird."

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SEA PIG

Sea pigs, a species of sea cucumber, get their name from their plump appearance. Like many deep-sea dwellers, these creatures are invertebrates that lack backbones. Their gelatinous bodies can withstand pressure under thousands of meters of water. Sea pigs live on soft sediment and sport four to six legs, which they use to walk across the seafloor. They also have tentacles around their mouths that snag tiny particles of food that fall to the seafloor. "The appearance of sea pigs is unusual," says Christopher L. Mah, a zoologist at the Smithsonian Institution. "But I wouldn't consider them ugly as much as I would think of them as interesting."

THE UGLY SCALE

A recent online poll ranked on a scale of zero to five the ugliness of a selection of animals. What score would you give these critters? Go to www.scholastic.com/ scienceworld to participate.

5 UGLIEST 0 LEAST UGLY

3.9 Matamata turtle

3.3 Warthog

2.9 Moray eel

2.6 Muscovy duck

2.3 monkfish

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SOURCE: LIVE SCIENCE.COM

[VIDEO EXTRA] Watch how the star-nosed mole "sees" with its nose at: www.scholastic.com /scienceworld

IT'S YOUR CHOICE

1. A(n) -- is a characteristic that helps an organism survive in its environment.

(A) instinct

(B) adaptation

(C) trait

(D) feature

2. Why does the wrinkle-faced bat have such an unusual skull?

(A) it allows the bat to bite through tough fruit when tender fruit is unavailable.

(B) it acts as a helmet to protect its skull if the bat crash lands.

(C) Its head shape makes it look unappetizing to predators.

(D) The skull helps with echolocation to find insects.

3. Why don't leaf-tailed geckos have eyelids?

(A) so they look creepy to predators

(B) their eyes need space to expand and contract

(C) so they can keep an eye on insects all the time

(D) none of the above

4. A -- feeds on dead organisms.

(A) carnivore

(B) decomposer

(C) herbivore

(D) scavenger

1. b 2. a 3. b 4. d

PRE-READING PROMPTS:

* What characteristics or behaviors do you think make an animal cute? What makes an animal ugly?

* Can you think of some unique animal adaptations?

* Why is it important for an animal to adapt to its environment?

DID YOU KNOW?

* A hagfish is an ugly animal with unique adaptations. When captured, the hagfish excretes slimy mucus that gets thick and sticky as it combines with water. But that isn't all! After escaping, the hagfish will tie itself into a knot. It is thought that the knot helps the hagfish escape as well as to clean off the mucus.

* Neoteny is when an adult of a species still retains traits--like big eyes--usually seen only in babies and juveniles.

* Charles Darwin did extensive research on evolutionary biology, specifically his theory of natural selection. Natural selection is the observed process that, over time, traits that allow a species to smwive in their environment better will become more common in a population.

CRITICAL THINKING:

* Much of our communication today is through computers or Internet-enabled phones. We use our fingers and thumbs more than ever in this type of conmmnication. Do you think it is still important for us to learn how to write with a pen and paper? Do you think our hands will eventually adapt so we are more efficient at typing and texting?

PROJECT-BASED LEARNING:

LANGUAGE ARTS: Many fables and stories have ugly animals or people who are rejected at the beginning of the story. One example is The Ugly Duckling. By the end of the story, the "ugly" character proves his or her worth and is accepted by those around him. Choose one of the animals mentioned in the article and create a fable about it.

RESOURCES

You can access these Web links at www.scholastic.com/scienceworld.

* VIDEO EXTRA: Watch how the star-nosed mole "sees" with its nose at: http://animal.discovery.com/videos /fooled-by-nature-star-nosed-mole.html.

* Learn more about animal adaptations with Scholastic's Dirtmeister's investigative report on animal adaptations at: http://teacher.scholastic.com/dirtrep/animal.

* Check out Animal Planet's slide show of the top 10 animal adaptations at: http://animal.discovery.com/tv/a-list /creature-countdowns/adaptations/adaptations.html.
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Title Annotation:BIOLOGY: ADAPTATIONS; proboscis monkeys, leaf-tailed geckos, wrinkle-faced bat, star-nosed mole, marabou stork and sea pig
Author:Goudarzi, Sara
Publication:Science World
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 14, 2011
Words:1431
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