TV

Meet the world's most incredible animals with real-life superpowers

Move over Avengers – the most amazing feats aren't on the big screen. Presenter of CBBC's 'Beyond Bionic' Andy Torbet takes us through the real-life superheroes of nature

We tend to live a fairly sheltered existence. I’ve been out on the ice in the Arctic stalked by polar bears – and you realise that you are not top of the food chain. It doesn’t matter how smart you think you are, how many Instagram followers you have or whether there’s the latest phone in your pocket – if a polar bear wants to eat you, it’s going to eat you.

In Beyond Bionic I go up against the superheroes of the animal kingdom, looking at how amazing these creatures are by asking if a human can compete against them. Inevitably the answer is no, so we then look at how much technology I have to use to try to compete.

And even with the best technology in the world, sometimes you can’t get close.

One example is the ostrich, which is the fastest animal on two legs. We used jetpacks, special spring-loaded running boots and we still couldn’t come anywhere near to running as fast. The mako shark can swim at 60 knots and jump nearly 10 metres out of the water. Again, we tried to do that and failed miserably.

Then we have Darwin’s bark spider, a tiny little animal that lives in the rainforest in Madagascar, that can fire its web 25 metres to catch mayflies flying up and down the river. It’s the strongest web in the world, and far stronger than steel or titanium.

Pacu are like piranhas, but they’re vegetarian. They eat nuts that fall into the river and have teeth very much like ours – it looks like they have false teeth in. They’re the same body shape as piranhas but about a metre long and 50kg in weight. They’re like underwater rhinos.

We take butterflies for granted because they’re so common, but when you stop and think that this animal completely changes – this is not a juvenile growing up to be something slightly different, this is a complete morphological change. When a caterpillar turns into a butterfly, that’s werewolf technology right there.

The Pompeii worm is a fairly unimpressive-looking creature – basically it’s a little grey slug – but it lives on underwater volcanoes, deep hydrothermal vents, so it is amazingly heat-resistant. It produces a mucus that coats its body, which in itself doesn’t have any heat-resistant properties, but it feeds bacteria and so grows a bacteria layer around its body which insulates it.

You’ve got some amazing superhero animals, but from a survivalist point of view some of these animals are incredible because they’ve been around for such a long time. Fossil records show the African dwarf crocodile has been around for 250 million years. It saw the dinosaurs come and go. And hissing cockroaches are almost indestructible. It is an old cliche but it’s true, if there’s ever a nuclear war that devastates the world cockroaches would survive.

I think the peregrine falcon is the most superhero-like of animals

Biomimicry looks at the incredible talents of animals, and asks how we can use what we learn to advance technology. One example is the Geckskin. It’s still very much in the research and development stage, but engineers are looking at how a gecko’s skin operates. The physics behind it is phenomenal, basically a gecko’s skin sticks to a surface like glass at a molecular level – there are molecular bonds going on – so they’re looking at how they can replicate that in a synthetic material. They’re working on a set of gloves that one day you could use to climb up a glass building.

I think the peregrine falcon is the most superhero-like of animals. It is the fastest animal in the world, it will do 242 miles an hour head down, towards prey. And it is one of the most common birds of prey in Britain. We see it all the time in cities now because it’s a cliff-dwelling bird – a building to them is just a man-made cliff – and it likes to hunt pigeons.

Andy Torbet is the new virtual guide at SEA LIFE London’s new Rainforest Adventure exhibit. @AndyTorbet

The Big Issue Earth Day Special is out now

Main image: Steve Slater/Flickr

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