If we can mash-up a tarantula with a volcano (in fiction, at least) we should be able to combine animals and plants into terrifyingly deadly combinations. Let’s look at animal-plant hybrids that would leave the world awash in blood and wonder.
Say what you will about grizzly bears, you generally know whether or not they’re in your basement. You know whether they’re spreading through your woodpile. You know whether they are lurking quietly under your favorite shade tree on a sunny day. You don’t get the same guarantee with fungus. The spores can travel on the wind. When they hit the ground they form vast networks of filaments. These networks can span thousands of acres. Right now, a 2,400 year-old fungus is considered the world’s largest living thing. (And it’s old enough to fit squarely into the “ancient evil” category of most horror movies.)
And just when everyone thinks they’re safe, mushrooms sprout. They come up through the dirt, they spread over the woodpile. My friend once found them growing on her basement rug. The bearungus would lay low, spreading through town, getting into people sheds and unfinished basements, and then, suddenly, bears! Bears everywhere! Bears under every tree for hundreds of miles! No one is safe from the bearungus!
The boa constrictor is one of the most successful invasive animal species in the United States, and is slowly taking over Florida. It’s big, predatory, and females don’t need males to reproduce. The kudzu vine is one of the most successful invasive plant species in the United States. It can grow a foot a day, and kills all other plants in its territory.
What I’m saying is, if these two get together, goodbye southeastern United States. It’s been a hell of a ride, but you’re the snake-vine’s country now.
The leopard seal has the face of a crocodile and the size of a grizzly bear. It’s purely carnivorous, and though one leopard seal was featured in a famous series of photographs because it was trying to feed an underwater photographer penguins, more recently a leopard seal dragged a scientist underwater and killed her.
Scientists speculate that one of the reasons that leopard seals haven’t killed many people is they live in the Antarctic, and up until recently they haven’t been exposed to many people. So what would really up their deadliness factor is bringing them into warmer waters, like those inhabited by a particular tropical seaweed. But why stop there, especially when that tropical seaweed produces poison? Galaxaura filamentosa is in constant competition with the coral around it. When it finds itself overwhelmed, it produces chemicals that kill off the coral.
That’s not all it can do, chemically speaking. When animals start nibbling on it, the seaweed produces chemicals that make it either unpalatable or inedible to its predators. A cross between the plant and the animal would mean that a bear-sized seal would roam from Antarctica to Fiji. It would produce chemicals that killed off its competition (us), and season itself with chemicals that made it inedible to its predators (also us). Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water.
There are many types of piranha. Some are big, some are small, some are known for their viciousness, some are said to be relatively relaxed. Although they don’t live up to their reputation of being constantly eager to strip a cow to the bone in a few minutes, they still do regularly attack and kill people.
There are also many types of tree that produce samaras. Samaras are winged seeds. They can be sycamore seeds, with two wings, which are produced in the thousands and can drift for kilometers. They can be maple seeds, which are one-winged seeds which tend to only drift for a few meters. Either way, the tree produces plenty of them, and tends to let them go whenever the wind kicks up. That’s right. Piranha storms.
I don’t like chimpanzees. I don’t like that their muscle fibers are stronger than ours, or that they have giant teeth, or that they have charmed their way into humanity’s good graces by wearing cowboy hats in commercials. And I definitely don’t like that they’re smart and organized. These are animals that form strategic raiding parties to go out and kill rival tribes, and that use spears to hunt bushbabies and eat them alive. I only put up with that kind of thing from humans.
I’ll say this for them, at least they don’t smell good. But that would change if the chimp took on the behaviors of the venus flytrap. This doesn’t even need to be a genetic mash-up. These things are intelligent. They can learn to imitate this plant. And if any animal were crafty enough to lure a human in with enticing smells and sights, organized enough to trap that human, and mean enough to slowly dissolve the human with acid and enzymes, it would be a chimp. Fun fact, the venus flytrap doesn’t really feed on its prey. It doesn’t need energy from the flies it traps, it just needs nutrients. We know that chimps are curious and will investigate nearly anything, so get ready to be dissolved for your baseball cap, your iPhone, or the little plastic chimp toy you bought because you thought chimps were so cute.
The irukandji jellyfish is 0.2 inches long, nearly invisible, and has a sting that induces heart failure in one-third of its victims. The sting can also bring on brain hemorrhages. It can fill the lungs with fluid. It can make a person’s blood pressure skyrocket. There are a wide variety of ways this thing can torment people. The one thing that someone who has been stung by this jellyfish knows they’re in for is excruciating and lasting pain. It won’t let up for at least 24 hours, and can last for two weeks. The one positive thing that can be said for the irukandji jellyfish is that a single sting is rarely fatal. A few stings, however, can be.
If you want to steer clear of the irukandji, just stay out of the water. After all, what on land could possibly produce such tiny filaments, filaments that fly through the air, sometimes in big clouds, as if dispersed by the wind... uh oh.
We know that ants are numerous, organized, and self-sacrificing. We know that they can ford water and climb over nearly any kind of terrain. We know that they can subdue and kill things much larger than themselves. We know that some explode their own guts to use as chemical weapons. We know that they can farm, herd, and fool other animals. Hell, we know that one species of ant is so ruthless that it drinks the blood of its own offspring. The only thing they can’t stand up to is fire.
Guess what eucalyptus trees are designed to do? There are plenty of trees that rely on fire to propagate their seeds, but eucalyptus won’t stop there. It is so well-designed to survive fire that its leaf litter is flammable. The tree spreads leaves around specifically so they can start a fire and take out its competition. Eucalyptus is such an acknowledged fire hazard that some people believed that not clearing the eucalyptus leaf litter contributed to the 1991 Oakland Firestorm. It would be tough to design a fire-resistant ant, but the ants themselves might not need to survive a firestorm. They could die, provided that they left behind a hive full of offspring ready to be the first ones out of the gate when the fire moved on, healthy and able to take over the disasterscape.
One of the notable down sides to being a plant is immobility. If something wanders up and begins eating you, you can’t run away. That means you have to get sneaky. We’re still figuring out all the ways that plants resist their predators. We know that, when they’re under attack, trees often give out signals to other trees, making an entire grove bump up their production of natural pesticides, or release a chemical that makes them taste bitter. What we didn’t know until recently is that trees don’t just signal to each other. They also signal to predators.
Apple trees infested with caterpillars send out signals that attract birds. The moment an apple tree starts getting eaten, it calls out to whatever will kill the animal eating it. This means that one of the most dangerous animal-plant hybrids might consist of those two iconic staples of the American diet, apples and cows. Sure, cows may look defenseless, but, having been preyed on by humans for years, the minute anyone tried to slaughter one for hamburgers the entire herd might send out signals attracting anything from wolves, to lions, to flu viruses, to meth-addled muggers. Anything that kills the person killing the cow would come running.
The hippopotamus doesn’t need to kill humans. Although we do encroach on its habitat through urbanization, we don’t do it any harm by walking around or paddling through its rivers. Animals aren’t a part of its diet. We don’t interfere with its chances to mate. It has no reason to attack us.
But it does attack us. Hippos have overturned boats full of people. They drag people underwater and drown them, or spit them with their forearm-sized teeth. They’ve even been known to bite off people’s heads. Hippos, many believe, are more dangerous than lions, leopards, or crocodiles. They kill people simply because they do not like having people around. Fortunately, they are confined to the water, where they spend their days and nights feeding to maintain their bulk.
You know what doesn’t need to eat? An epiphyte. You know what can grow anywhere? An epiphyte. Epiphytes are not one species of plant. They can be orchids, cactuses, or mosses. Whatever species they belong to, they grow on the branches, the leaves, or the trunks of trees. Unlike parasitic plants, they do no damage to their hosts. They are entirely self-sufficient, taking their nutrients from the air, the rain, and sometimes the incidental dirt that also rests on the trunk of their host tree. Oh, how sweet, you think. How harmless! And then you realize something. These plants aren’t constrained by anything. They don’t need food. They get all the water they need from the rain. They can grow anywhere. And they don’t sleep. All they have to do is wait and watch. Wait and watch.
The gympie-gympie makes you go insane with pain whenever you touch it. It has needles that keep re-injecting poison into the skin whenever they are touched. Some people who have been stung by the gympie-gympie report pain and sensitivity in the area for years after their encounter with the plant. But that’s no problem, really, because you don’t have to touch the thing, do you?
Just keep your hands off and you’ll be fine. Actually, you know what? You probably don’t even want to get too close, because the gympie-gympie can shed needles into the air around it, and can scatter them on the ground. But how hard is it to avoid this one plant? It’s easy. No problem.
People have literally shot themselves after touching this plant. It cannot, it absolutely cannot, be hard to resist putting your hands on it. After all, it’s rumored that the British government collected samples of the plant so it could use gympie-gympie poison as a weapon. Why would anyone want to touch it? Why would that ever happen?
Yeah. If this mashup happens, we’re all dead.
All of us.
Kudzu Image: G. Smith, Leopard Seal Image: Cyfer13, Samara Image: lofaesofa, Chimp Image: Chi King, Dandelion Image: Sage Ross, Ant Image: USGS, Apple Image: Schuyler S, Hippo Image: Art G., Gympie-Gympie Image: CSIRO.