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The Week’s Most Eerily Fascinating Stories

I can’t look away.

That’s the mark of an eerily fascinating story, and this week served up a pile of them. Whether it’s the clown who scaled a cemetery fence in Chicago and then stood waving very, very slowly to passersby, or the discovery of a snake with four little grasping “hands,” it just seemed like a creepier-than-average week. So here’s a little roundup of spooky science that had me riveted.

(OK, the scary clown has nothing to do with science, but I made you look.)

Art + Science

Artist Kate Clark does taxidermy with a twist: she molds human faces from clay and shapes an animal’s skin over the face to create surreal hybrid creatures.

“This is not in an effort to create a creature from fantasy or nightmares,” writes Kathryn Carlson on National Geographic’s photo blog PROOF.

VIDEO: Human-Looking Faces on Animal Bodies—Taxidermy as Art

Instead, the artist hopes to “confront the viewer with mankind’s innate connection with the animal kingdom by evoking empathy, curiosity, and, sometimes, discomfort,” she says.

It is uncomfortable. To be honest, the first word that popped into my head when I saw the kudu with a human face was “abomination.” But then I watched the video and looked more closely at the creatures, and I was entranced by their eerie beauty. Consider this: Clark uses recycled pelts—ones rejected for normal taxidermy—and turns them into art with a conservation message.

People are, in some sense, wired to seek out human faces (hence pareidolia, seeing faces in inanimate objects like the moon, or toast). And we relate to them. So maybe seeing a reflection of our own faces in animal form does evoke a stronger sense of empathy for animals. Try it yourself and see.

Creepy Animals

Tetrapodophis_reconstructio
Behold Tetrapodophis in its leggy glory.
Credit: Julius Cstonyi.

The four-legged snake takes the prize this week. The strange fossil was discovered lurking in a drawer in a German museum and inspired many colorful exhortations from the scientist who found it (“Bloody hell!”), much to the delight of science journalists.

As our own Ed Yong described, if the animal is indeed a four-legged snake, it is the only one ever found. Its discover calls it the Archaeopteryx of the snake world, linking snakes and their lizard ancestors as Archaeopteryx linked birds with dinosaurs.

But is it even a snake? As Yong and others note, some scientists are not convinced. Maybe it’s an offshoot in one of many experiments in leglessness that reptiles have played out over the millenia. Either way, it’s an important find. “This is the single most extraordinary fossil that I’ve ever seen,” vertebrate paleontologist Bhart-Anjan Bhullar told Sid Perkins in Science. And the idea of a constrictor holding its prey with tiny feet is also pretty creep-tastic.

Also of note on the nightmare-animals beat: the plant that covers itself in insect corpses to attract bodyguards. It’s a “beneficial coating of death.”

Spooky Trick

The skeleton flower turns from white to clear when wet. As the flowers transform, pieces of petal appear to almost melt away, revealing white “bones” before the whole petal disappears.

Super cool, but how does it work?

I had trouble finding a satisfying explanation in short blog posts and videos, but here’s a paper that tells more. Jiale Yong and colleagues used the flowers as inspiration for new materials that turn clear underwater. “The color does not come from a natural white pigment; rather it results from the highly loose cell structure of the plant petals,” they write.

Here’s how it works. On a sunny day, light reflects off the interface between plant cells and air pockets between them, creating the white color. When it rains, water floods the spaces between cells and because light passes similarly through both the rainwater and the fluid in the plant cells (technically, they have about the same refractive index), the whole petal turns transparent!

Oh No, Not Dolls
Oh yes. Linda Rodriguez McRobbie has a long story on Smithsonian.com about the history of creepy dolls. It’s currently listed as the most popular story on the website, which says a lot about the concept of morbid curiosity.

Lara604/Flickr
Lara604/Flickr

The story traces some well-worn turf about the uncanny valley and movies featuring murderous playthings, but also points out some interesting research on whether the uncanny valley is real and on what creepiness really is: possibly a state of hyper-vigilance when faced with ambiguity. Or as McRobbie puts it, “If someone is acting outside of accepted social norms—standing too close, or staring, say—we become suspicious of their intentions. But in the absence of real evidence of a threat, we wait and in the meantime, call them creepy.”

Bonus: the story links to an article on the history and psychology of scary clowns. Heaven help us.

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