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7 adorable animals that are also murderous monsters

14 week-old twin polar bear cubs play at Hellabrunn zoo in Munich, Germany. Will they grow up to be cannibals too?
14 week-old twin polar bear cubs play at Hellabrunn zoo in Munich, Germany. Will they grow up to be cannibals too?
Alexandra Beier/Getty Images
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

The internet loves animals. Like a lot. It loves otters and sloths and bears and slow lorises. It really loves cats. "The Internet’s preference for cats runs so deep," Gideon Lewis-Kraus notes at Wired, "that when Google’s secretive X Lab showed a string of 10 million YouTube images to a neural network of 16,000 computer processors for machine learning, the first thing the network did was invent the concept of a cat." But just in general there's a strong affection for just about anything cute and/or fuzzy.

This predilection can lead us to ignore the overwhelming evidence that many animals are just monsters. Murderer, rapist, necrophiliac monsters. Now, even monsters deserve protection, and efforts to save these creatures from extinction are admirable and worth promoting. But we should be clear-eyed about the evils our furry brethren are capable of. Here are seven of the more disturbing adorable species:

1) Dolphins are unspeakably evil

dolphin bradbery
Danielle Bradbery, winner of season 4 of The Voice, tempts fate.
Mike Aguilera/SeaWorld San Diego via Getty Images

Dolphins are, as Business Insider's Jennifer Welsh put it in one of the greatest headlines of all time, "dangerous animals that could rape you and kill your baby."

That's a little unfair; the evidence that dolphins have tried to rape humans is not very compelling. But basically every other awful thing you can imagine a dolphin doing, they've done. "Gangs of male dolphins may isolate a female, slap her around with their tails, and forcibly copulate with her for weeks," The Straight Dope's Cecil Adams notes. Dolphin specialist Justin Gregg disputes that this counts as rape, but even he notes some horrific elements of coercion in dolphin sexuality: "Dolphins might use other tactics to persuade a female to mate with them, including committing infanticide (ie, killing calves) so that the females will come into estrus and be more receptive."

Dolphins are also known to brutalize baby porpoises. This is weird. They don't eat the porpoises, the porpoises aren't rivals for key resources, and the porpoises don't antagonize them at all. Dolphins are just assholes. One video captured by vacationers shows the dolphins sending the porpoise's "body spinning round with such force that its back was broken and its soft tissue shattered." A research team described injuries on a dolphin-ravaged porpoise as "perhaps the worst example of inter-specific aggression any of us had ever seen. This young female had literally had the life beaten out of her."

The scariest part is that dolphins are very, very smart. That only makes them more effective recreational killers. The marine biologist Ben Wilson at the University of Aberdeen told the Telegraph's Nigel Blundell that "dolphins use their incredible ultra sound abilities to home in on the vital organs of their victims that will cause most damage."


2) Ducks are brutal rapists

Forgive these ducklings, they know not what monsters they’ll become.
Junko Kimura/Getty Images

Talking about rape in the animal kingdom is tricky; we usually don't think of non-human animals as moral agents capable of consenting or not consenting to activities. But as long as we're anthropomorphizing, let's talk about how male ducks are brutal rapists.

In a 2012 paper on duck reproduction, the University of Massachusetts' Patricia Brennan and Yale's Richard Prum note that "up to 40 percent" of sex between wild mallards observed by researchers is forced. A 1983 paper, "Forced Copultation in Waterfowl," by Frank McKinney, Scott R. Derrickson and Pierre Mineau, describes the process in grisly detail. It often involves fast aerial pursuits, multiple aggressors, and male spectators:

When the mate was absent, the male often walked casually over to the female and proceeded to mount without pausing. Wild melees were often witnessed as males came in as 'spectators' and subsequently attempted FC [forced copulation]. Up to three males were seen piled over one another attempting to copulate with the same female and groups of 20 or more spectators commonly gathered.

Male mates of victimized female ducks sometimes try to intervene but often decline to help if the attack is big enough; McKinney et al cite a study that found that male urban mallards defended their mates "in 56 percent of 25 FC attempts involving 1 male but in only 27 percent of 64 multi-male attempts."

Female ducks can resist by "hiding for hours, undertaking long flights in an attempt to rid themselves of unwanted males and struggling during forced copulations," Brennan and Prum note. But attacks are common nonetheless, and the trauma of forced copulation attacks, Brennan and Prum write, is enormous:

Females may lose their social partner and the direct benefits he provides—including feeding, territory defense, protection and, in some species, parental care. Females may even abandon their current reproductive effort with high levels of FEPCs [forced extra-pair copulations]. Finally, females can be injured or killed by males.

It's horrible. But female ducks also have an unusual ability: they can stop the sperm of their attackers from fertilizing their eggs. They can "shut that whole thing down" in cases of "legitimate rape," in the words of former Rep. and Senate candidate Todd Akin (R-MO).

To understand how it works, you have to know a bit about duck penises (whose existence is kind of strange; most bird species don't have males with penises). They're these corkscrew-like contraptions that are stored internally most of the time, but then will spring out when needed. They're also exceptionally long; Prum notes that they can be "up to 40 centimeters, which is over a foot long on a duck that is itself not even a foot long." Here's a duck penis bursting forth:

duck penis gif Patricia Brennan via Gawker

Duck penises are coiled counterclockwise. But in turn, female ducks have evolved vaginas that are coiled clockwise, "literal anti-screw devices," as Prum puts it. They also, Prum writes, have "dead end cul-de-sacs, so that if the penis goes down the wrong direction it’ll get bottled up." Meanwhile, with wanted partners, "sexually receptive females contract and relax their cloacal muscles in a way that could help the male achieve full penetration." The system makes female ducks enormously successful at resisting fertilization by unwanted mates. "Even under captive conditions where females are less able to escape FEPCs," Brennan and Prum write, "only 6–11% of offspring were sired by forced copulation males."

Oh, and one more thing: male ducks also sometimes engage in necrophilia. Well, it happened once, in any case. It's probably not fair to tar all male ducks with this one, but the account by Kees Moeliker in his seminal paper, "The first case of homosexual necrophilia in the mallard Anas platyrhynchos (Aves:Anatidae)" is too bizarre not to share (hat-tip to Donald MacLeod at the Guardian):

Next to the obviously dead duck, another male mallard (in full adult plumage without any visible traces of moult) was present (Fig. 2a). He forcibly picked into the back, the base of the bill and mostly into the back of the head of the dead mallard for about two minutes, then mounted the corpse and started to copulate, with great force, almost continuously picking the side of the head (Fig. 2b). Rather startled, I watched this scene from close quarters behind the window (Fig. 1) until 19.10 h during which time (75 minutes!) I made some photographs and the mallard almost continuously copulated his dead congener. He dismounted only twice, stayed near the dead duck and picked the neck and the side of the head before mounting again. The first break (at 18.29 h) lasted three minutes and the second break (at 18.45 h) lasted less than a minute. At 19.12 h, I disturbed this cruel scene. The necrophilic mallard only reluctantly left his 'mate': when I had approached him to about five metres, he did not fly away but simply walked off a few metres, weakly uttering series of two-note 'raeb-raeb' calls. (the 'conversation-call' of Lorentz 1953)

3) Polar bears eat other polar bears

polar bear christmas tree
Polar bears adorable nibble at fruit snacks placed on a Christmas tree at Hanover Zoo in Hanover, Germany. When the time comes, these beasts will devour each other as well.
Alexander Koerner/Getty Images

A lot of polar bear violence is pretty routine, as these things go. They attack and eat baby seals. Males fight viciously over female partners. Standard stuff, all around. But polar bears also have a penchant for cannibalism.

A 1985 paper by Mitchell Taylor, Thor Larsen, and R.E. Schweinsburg detailed dozens of instances of polar bears eating each other. The most common type of attack appeared to be adult males eating cubs, but basically every kind of cannibalism you can imagine is covered. Malnourished mothers have been observed eating their own cubs — usually just one of a two-cub litter (one really incompetent malnourished mother killed two of her cubs and didn't eat them). Two cubs ate their immobilized mother bear.

"While the frequency of cannibalism among polar bears is unknown," Taylor et al write, "Observed levels of Trichinella larvae in polar bear populations across the circumpolar basin suggest that cannibalism is not rare." Of 1,333 polar bears the authors analzyed in several different studies, 38.9 percent were infected with Trichinella. Common polar bear prey, like seals, have comparatively much lower levels of Trichinella, meaning they're not likely the main vector of transmission. Cannibalism, by contrast, makes a lot more sense as an explanation. "We suggest that cannibalism could be an important if not the primary vector of Trichinella propagation in polar bears," the authors conclude.

More recent research continues to find polar bears eating each other, with some researchers arguing that the practice is on the rise due to global warming. "As the climate continues to warm and sea ice continues to break up and melt at earlier dates, thus making seals less available earlier in the summer," Ian Stirling and Jenny Ross write in the December 2011 issue of Arctic. "the frequency of intraspecific predation and cannibalism may increase."

4) Hippos are incredibly deadly

“Mama, will you teach me how to kill man for sport?”
Anthony Dorian/Taronga Western Plains Zoo via Getty Images

"Hippopotamuses are difficult to study in the wild," Slate's LV Anderson writes, "both because they tend to attack humans who get too close to them and because so much of their lives take place underwater." It's true. Hippos are bloodthirsty murderers who sometimes viciously maul people, sometimes without any provocation. They're also herbivores. They don't eat the people. They're just huge assholes.

A paper by Adrian Treves and Lisa Naughton-Treves in the Journal of Human Evolution examined wildlife attacks in Uganda from 1923 to 1994. They mostly focused on large carnivores like lions and leopards, but included some data on hippos too. They found that hippo attacks had the highest mortality rate of any animal examined. 86.7 percent of the 30 hippo attacks examined were fatal, compared to 75 percent of the lion attacks and only 32.5 percent of leopard attacks.

It's hard to know how many people are at risk of hippo attack, and thus to calculate the rate at which those people are in fact attacked by hippos, but there's nonetheless plenty of cases of hippos killing or severely injuring humans.

In a 1999 article in the Journal of Travel Medicine, David Durrheim and Peter Leggat reviewed press records to count wild animal attacks on tourists in South Africa from 1988 through 1997. Over that 10 year period, there weretwo fatal and five nonfatal hippo attacks on tourists. In none of the cases did humans actually try to hurt the hippos.

During May 1991 a Johannesburg businessman visiting Mabalingwe Reserve, Warmbaths, was bitten, and suffered eight broken ribs, while walking along a river-bank and unwittingly blocking a hippo's path to water.

Perhaps the saddest case involves someone who tried to tend to an injured hippo's wounds. The hippo showed his appreciation by trampling the guy:

A 69-year-old tourist from Howick, near Durban, was attacked in the KNP [Kruger National Park] by an injured hippo when he got out of his car to inspect its wounds. His concern was rewarded by being trampled but he miraculously suffered only minor injuries.

Durrham and Leggat do say that tourists were "more fortunate" than villagers, against whom "hippos are responsible for many attacks."

There are also first-person accounts by researchers of hippo aggression. The late zoologist Stewart Keith Eltringham, who in his book The Hippos: Natural History and Conservation recounts several instances in which he, personally, was menaced by hippos. For example:

I once met a hippo head-on at night in Queen Elizabeth Park, Uganda. It appeared out of the darkness and hammered the front bumper, to which a radio antenna was attached with steel bolts. The bolts were bent back by the force of the collision, demonstrating the tremendous power generated by a ton and a half of fast-moving hippo but the encounter was not completely one-sided as there were blood stains on the bolts. On another occasion, in daylight, I was subjected to an unprovoked charge from a hippo as I drove past its wallow. Glancing in my driving mirror as I tried to escape, all I could see was the inside of the hippo's throat shortly followed by its muzzle as its jaws closed over my rear light, which was sliced off as neatly as if chopped off with an axe.


5) Seals rape penguins

You think seals are cute, right? Of course you do. Look at this seal befriending a dog:

And you think penguins are cute too, no? Here's a super-cut of them being adorable:

So it might trouble you to learn that seals hunt and eat penguins. They "repeatedly beat them on the surface of the water" in part because they don't have strong enough teeth to cut up prey, and thus need to violently beat penguins to "tear and rip off the flesh":

Unsettling, but what are you going to do? Seals are carnivores. They eat other animals without any preferences as to those animals' adorableness. What's truly bizarre is that seals have recently taken to raping female penguins. In a recent article in Polar Biology highlighted by the BBC, William Haddad, Ryan Reisinger, Tristan Scott, Marthán Bester, and PJ Nico de Bruyn describe four instances of sexual harassment of king penguins by Antarctic fur seals. These are brutal affairs; in one case, "penetration was seen at least once and blood was evident between the bird's legs immediately after the interaction." In another case, the seal killed and ate the penguin after copulating with it.

There are videos of these attacks at the BBC site which you should not watch. I did and regret it deeply.

6) Otters are murderous, necrophilic aqua-weasels

otters holding hands
They hold hands to gain strength for their crimes.
Joe Robertson

The evils of these disease-ridden, murderous, necrophilic aqua-weasels are explained in much greater detail here. Other species may do more killing. But few species are violent in quite as disturbing a way as the otter.

For one thing, sea otters murder other animals even when they don't get food out of it, just for fun or something. A 2010 article from veterinarian Heather Harris and her coauthors Stori Oates, Michelle Staedler, Tim Tinker, David Jessup, James Harvey, and Melissa Miller in Aquatic Mammals documented about 19 cases of sea otters attacking baby seals. In one particularly egregious case, well:

A weaned harbor seal pup was resting onshore when an untagged male sea otter approached it, grasped it with its teeth and forepaws, bit it on the nose, and flipped it over. The harbor seal moved toward the water with the sea otter following closely. Once in the water, the sea otter gripped the harbor seal’s head with its forepaws and repeatedly bit it on the nose, causing a deep laceration. The sea otter and pup rolled violently in the water for approximately 15 min, while the pup struggled to free itself from the sea otter’s grasp. Finally, the sea otter positioned itself dorsal to the pup’s smaller body while grasping it by the head and holding it underwater in a position typical of mating sea otters. As the sea otter thrust his pelvis, his penis was extruded and intromission was observed. At 105 min into the encounter, the sea otter released the pup, now dead, and began grooming.

To recap: the sea otter attacked and raped a baby seal for an hour and a half until it died, then began licking its paws like a goddamn serial killer.

Female sea otters are often similarly victimized. Another study found that, over an observation period from 2000 to 2003, 11 percent of otter deaths were caused, primarily or in part, by mating-related trauma. "Copulation normally occurs in the water where the male sea otter will approach the female from behind, grip her around the chest with his forepaws, and grasp her nose or the side of her face with his teeth," Harris and her coauthors write. That biting can be fatal.

Otters have also been known to practice necrophilia. "In one prior report on breeding-associated mortality," Harris et al write, "a tagged territorial male sea otter held a struggling female underwater until her body became limp and then copulated repeatedly with her carcass. Ten months later, this same male was observed with the carcass of another female sea otter."

Sometimes otters have an underlying motivation for their crimes; it's not all just for the hell of it. For example, biologists Heidi Pearson and Randall Davis describe a case in which a male otter forced a pup under water as its mother dived for food, in an attempt to extract some of that food for itself.

Otters, man.

7) Humans are responsible for unbelievable mass slaughter

woman baby
Think about what you’ve done, baby.

So otters sometimes viciously attack baby seals. And dolphins kill porpoises for sport. But when it comes to mass carnage, no species comes close to humans.

Sure, humans might be getting less brutal toward each other; both individual and state-level violence is on the decline. But we're pretty damned good at killing other animals. A recent World Wildlife Fund study found that the number of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish in the world fell 52 percent from 1970 to 2010. The primary threats causing these population declines, the WWF finds, are human exploitation (eg hunting and fishing) and habitat degradation or loss (which is primarily human-caused). Climate change and pollution are also factors, albeit smaller ones. Humans, in other words, are the driving factor behind the precipitous drop in vertebrate populations.

To a certain extent (hunting/fishing, for example) this can be characterized as food-gathering behavior by an omnivorous species, and just as I avoided condemning the carnivores above merely for being carnivores, maybe humans should get a pass there. But that can't account for the entire decline, and it doesn't come close to excusing humans' roles in causing outright extinctions. Plant and animal species are going extinct at about 1,000 to 10,000 times the rate they did before humans came around. In fact, we may be causing the sixth mass extinction event of the past half billion years — and the first five all involved over three quarters of the world's species vanishing: