From snaggletoothed sharks to giant crabs, nature is full of animals that frighten people — often for no good reason. Here's a collection of critters that give people the creeps, but that pose little or no risk to humans.
Sea lampreys are equipped with circular rows of hooked teeth that might have made surrealist and special effects artist H.R. Giger squeamish. But sea lamprey expert Joseph Zydlewski, a U.S. Geological Survey researcher and professor at the University of Maine, said "the risk to people is actually pretty tiny."
"A sea lamprey would have to be attached for quite some time for it to rasp its way through your skin and feed — and we have hands," Zydlewski said. "We'd never just let the lamprey stay attached."
In addition, when people usually come into contact with sea lampreys, in shallow coastal waters or inlets, the lampreys aren't eating, he added. They're coming back from the ocean into freshwater streams to breed and have already absorbed their digestive systems. Without a digestive system, they can't really feed. "They have one interest," Zydlewski said, "and it's not eating." (Photo Credit: Courtesy of Michigan State University)
Whip spiders aren't spiders, but they are arachnids (a group that includes spiders, scorpions, mites and ticks). These creatures, called amblypygids, belong to their own order of arachnids and are also known (erroneously) as tailless whip scorpions. And though their beady eyes, spindly legs and bulbous bodies make the creatures look fearsome, they are utterly harmless. [In Photos: The Amazing Arachnids of the World]
"They possess no venom glands and many species are quite passive," said Eileen Hebets, a biology researcher at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln who studies amblypygids. "I often collect animals by pinning them to a tree trunk with two fingers and then using my thumb underneath their bodies to pull them off of the tree. Despite this intrusive approach, I have never had an animal attempt to injure me in any way."
What amblypygids lack in "teeth" — they don't even have stingers — they make up for in smarts, as they sport impressive brains. Specifically, they have the largest known "mushroom body" (a brain structure found in some invertebrates) of any arthropod, relative to their body size.
"The arthropod mushroom body is a higher-order processing center that is thought to be involved in learning and memory," Hebets said. "Based solely on neuroanatomy, amblypygids are hypothesized to be quite intelligent!" (Photo Credit: © AMNH/R. Mickens)
Townsend's Big-Eared Bat
The Townsend's big-eared bat has a face only a mother could love. And whether it's because of their odd looks or bats' general association with Dracula, a lot of people are terrified of nocturnal fliers like this one and the hundreds of other bat species. They shouldn't be.
"These bats would never attack a person, there's no reason for them to do so," said Micaela Jemison, a bat ecologist and author of a bat blog called theinvertedperspective.com. "They'd only come near people if they are hunting the insects that are congregating around lights. Bats do us a great service in eating insects like mosquitoes and agricultural pests. They are an important part of our environment." [See more photos of bats]
People also fear bats because infected ones can transmit rabies. "The vast majority of bats do not carry the rabies virus," Jemison said. "I mean we're talking about a really tiny number of bats that become infected. The most common way rabies is transmitted is through the bite from an infected animal, and as long as you don't try to catch or handle bats, you are extremely unlikely to get bitten. If you see a sick bat, do not touch it or try to kill it." (Photo Credit: Public Domain)
Sand Tiger Sharks
The sand tiger shark has a mouth like a barbed-wire fence, featuring row after row of sharp, slender teeth. Add in the fact that it's bigger than an NFL linebacker, and the beast is enough to keep many beachgoers out of the water.
But sand tigers want nothing to do with people — their diet consists of small fish, rays, squids and shellfish.
"They look scary with their big teeth, but are slow-moving and docile creatures," said David Shiffman, a shark biologist and doctoral student at the University of Miami. "They have never harmed a person who wasn't harassing them."
In other words, you should be fine as long as you don't step on one. (Photo Credit: MP cz | Shutterstock.com)
These basement-dwelling insects, also known as cave crickets or sprickets, often startle homeowners with their spiky legs and frenzied jumping. But you don't need to freak out.
"There is simply no reason to fear them," said Piotr Naskrecki of Harvard University's Museum of Comparative Zoology. "They are not venomous, don't bite, don't transmit any diseases and are not pests."
In fact, Naskrecki said, "I cannot think of a more innocuous, friendly cohabitant of our houses. Although hard evidence is lacking, they are probably beneficial in removing organic debris (including dead bodies of other insects) that accumulate in our houses." (Photo Credit: Lauren Nichols, YourWildlife.org)
With its pointy nose and protruding jaws, the goblin shark looks like a swimmer's nightmare — but human swimmers can rest easy.
"Goblin sharks live in the deep ocean, more than 200 meters [660 feet] down, where they would never encounter a human," said Chip Cotton, a fisheries ecologist at Florida State University. "There have been rare records of them in shallower water, but those were sick or dying animals that were barely capable of swimming, let alone molesting a human."
Still scared? Cotton notes that goblin sharks are also slow swimmers with soft, flabby bodies, and that while the jaws look menacing, they're designed to snag squid — not people.
"I've had my finger poked by the teeth of a dead one — they are needle-sharp — but that's probably about the extent of damage a goblin shark could do to a human," Cotton said. (Photo Credit: Carl Moore)
Coconut crabs are, frankly, enormous — weighing as much as 9 pounds (4 kilograms) and measuring 3 feet (1 meter) across. In addition, as the name suggests, their claws are powerful enough to open coconuts – which are common on their home islands in the Indian and western Pacific oceans. But no need to worry about a coconut crab attack any time soon.
"They are not aggressive," said Jakob Krieger, a researcher at Universität Greifswald who studies coconut crabs. "They are slow-moving creatures, comparable to land turtles." The easiest way to avoid a coconut crab injury? Don't touch one or pick it up. And if, somehow, you find one in the wheel well of your car (as Krieger saw when studying them in the field), you can lure it out with a stinky piece of fish.
Another reason to respect these giant arthropods? They can live for up to 100 years. There are crabs walking around right now that were cracking open coconuts when Woodrow Wilson was president. (Photo Credit: Jakob Krieger, University of Greifswald)
Aye-ayes are nocturnal lemurs, native to Madagascar. With their incredibly long fingers, staring eyes and batlike ears, aye-ayes could easily frighten someone who stumbles across them in the dark. In fact, folk superstitions in their native Madagascar cause many locals to dislike or fear these nocturnal lemurs as omens of bad luck. But these creatures are completely harmless to humans.
"They will not bother people at all, and like most wild animals will flee when encountering a human," said Charles Welch, the conservation coordinator at the Duke Lemur Center. "The worst that they do is sometimes eat people's coconuts or sugar cane." [See more images of aye-ayes]
"Aye-ayes are extraordinary examples of evolution at its weirdest and maybe its best," said Chris Smith, an educational specialist at the Duke Lemur Center. "Aye-ayes tap along branches, actually building mental maps of the hollow tunnels they find. They chisel a hole into the bark to reach inside with their thin, flexible middle finger and extract beetle larvae. The only bad luck they bring is to grubs hiding beneath the bark of a tree." (Photo Credit: Ed Louis)
Goliath Bird-Eating Spider
If you don't like spiders, you really won't like Goliath bird-eating spiders, as these hairy tarantulas have a leg span that can reach up to 11 inches (28 centimeters). But humans don't have much to worry about.
For one thing, Goliaths make a loud hissing noise (by rubbing their leg hairs together) when alarmed. That means you would have plenty of warning before making contact with one, and they won't bite you if you leave them alone. In addition, while their bite might hurt, their venom is not lethal to humans.
"The Goliath bird-eating tarantula is big and 'fangy,' and both factors cause some people to fear them," said Chris Buddle, an arachnologist who studies arthropod ecology at McGill University. "However, their name is not 'Goliath human-eating tarantula' for good reason: We are not their prey. We shouldn't be fearful of them because they pose no risk to us.”
In fact, they don't pose much of a risk to birds, either. While they have been known to eat small birds, amphibians and other creatures, their diet consists primarily of insects. (Photo Credit: B & T Media Group Inc. | Shutterstock.com)
No list of unnerving animals would be complete without cockroaches, which manage to terrify people despite the fact that they don't pack lethal bites or stings.
There are more than 4,500 known species of cockroach, and they can be found on every continent — including Antarctica (where they were inadvertently introduced, presumably by researchers). But the cockroaches most people in the United States are familiar with are the American and German cockroaches.
"Those species do tend to move germs from one place to another, but they're not parasites. They don't do anything that directly harms us," said Dominic Evangelista, a doctoral student at Rutgers University who studies cockroaches. Though Evangelista notes that cockroaches can give off allergens that may trigger asthma attacks in some people, so they aren't as harmless as camel crickets or aye-ayes.
Still, Evangelista argues that American and German cockroaches give all of the other cockroaches a bad rap.
"Cockroaches come in all colors of the rainbow — blue, red, green, orange, a whole array of colors," Evangelista said. "And because they are so abundant and they'll eat almost anything, they play an important role in the ecosystem — they clean up after everything else." (Photo Credit: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported | Gary Alpert)