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Extreme Animals

Meet some amazing animals — from the present day to prehistoric times

They glide with furry capes, hunt with hooked fangs, or sport hairy coats of armor. Mythical monsters? No — just a few examples of some remarkable mammals.

To spotlight some of these creatures, SuperScience spoke with John Flynn, a paleontologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. He is helping to create a new museum exhibition called Extreme Mammals.

The exhibition features both prehistoric and modern mammals. Mammals come in all shapes and sizes — from humans and dolphins to the tiny field mouse. But some have special adaptations that are very unusual. Ancient animals help us unlock secrets about present-day creatures, says Flynn. And knowing the history of mammals helps us judge which ones are truly nature's oddballs.

So come along for an intriguing peek at mammals in the extreme.

Dagger Tooth
A saber-toothed cat, crouching in the bush, watches a deer grazing nearby. Suddenly, the cat pounces, knocking the deer to the ground. The saber-tooth slashes at the deer with its knife-like teeth.

Saber-toothed cats hunted throughout much of the world until they disappeared about 10,000 years ago. They had long, curved canine teeth for killing prey. To protect their long, delicate saber teeth, they did not try to grab prey with their mouths. Instead, the cats pinned down their dinner with muscular front limbs and sharp claws. Then they used their trademark teeth to go in for the kill.

The strategy made the saber-tooth an intimidating hunter. And the cat would have made quick work of catching and killing its prey, says Flynn.

Horn Head
A snake slithers into a beaver's burrow, looking for a meal. The digging beaver raises its head, preparing for a fight. BAM! It lunges at the invader with a pair of horns.

For about 10 million years, four species of horned beavers tunneled in the American Plains. Their horns served mainly to defend them from predators, says Flynn, not to help them dig. To burrow, they used their heads as a shovel, ramming the tips of their snouts into the soil.

Horned beavers died out about 5 million years ago. They were the smallest horned mammals ever known. Today, horned plant-eating mammals like sheep, goats, and buffalo roam across the same areas.

Night Glider
At sunset during the time of the dinosaurs, a furry hunter prowls in a tree. After munching on an insect snack, the mammal leaps from a branch into the air. But have no fear: A wide flap of skin between its limbs stretches like a kite and the little critter coasts to a neighboring tree.

About 125 million years ago in China, this bug-eating glider soared above the dinosaurs. Air travel may have allowed this mammal to capture new kinds of food like flying insects or helped it escape the dinosaurs' jaws, says Flynn. Sailing from tree to tree was also a time-saver — faster than climbing up and down trunks.

Similar mammals are alive today, like the sugar glider, an Australian possum. Gliding among the treetops helps it avoid predators like meat-eating possums and large lizards.

The Tank
A young leopard, prowling through the grass at night, finds a scaly brown animal that rolls into a ball to protect itself. Thinking it has found an easy meal, the hunter bats at the sharp plates. Ouch! The leopard gives up and limps away. Later, the prickly ball uncurls — and there stands a pangolin.

Pangolins could almost pass for tiny armored dinosaurs. Unlike other mammals, their bodies are covered with scales. But despite their scaly appearance, these animals aren't reptiles. Their scales are composed of a tough material called keratin, the same substance that makes up hair. It's thought that the scales developed like mammal hair and fingernails, from special parts of the skin covering the body, says Flynn. The overlapping scales, which are sharp-edged and hard, provide better defense than hair and bare skin.

The pangolin's scaly shield must be effective. According to fossil finds, insect-slurping pangolins have been around for at least 50 million years.

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