Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark
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Peruvian blonde tarantula (Lasiodorides polycuspulatus) at the Great Plains Zoo

Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark

8 Real-Life ‘Fantastic Beasts’ and Where to Find Them

From a “talking” tarantula to a mole with a many-fingered snout, nature is full of creatures with magical abilities.

The wizarding world’s premier expert on animal life hits the big screen in North America on November 18—with a menagerie of fantastical creatures in tow.

In Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the latest film based on J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, a wizard named Newt Scamander has traveled the world, studying and collecting magical creatures of all shapes, sizes, and descriptions—and then has to deal with the chaos of their escape from captivity.

The creatures in Scamander’s magical suitcase—and Rowling’s imagination—may be awe-inspiring, but the real world offers up creatures that are just as amazing.

From ancient snakes more than 40 feet long to explosive beetles, here are a few examples of what nature has to offer.


Real-Life Animal: Tarantulas (Family: Theraphosidae)

Range: Global

Size: 4.75 inches (12 centimeters) long; up to 11-inch (28-centimeter) leg span

IUCN Red List Status: Least Concern to Critically Endangered

In the wizarding world, acromantulas are enormous spiders—bearing a real-life resemblance to tarantulas, a group of spiders comprising more than 850 species. The similarities between fact and fiction are striking.

In Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Scamander describes acromantulas as large black-haired spiders native to Borneo. There really is a large black-haired spider native to the Sangihe Islands, east of Borneo: Lampropelma nigerrium, a tarantula first scientifically described in 1892. And like Aragog, the acromantula most featured in the Harry Potter books and films, Australian tarantulas can "talk” by rubbing together their chelicerae, or fang-tipped jaws, to create a hissing sound.

World's Weirdest: World's Biggest Spider

With a leg span nearly a foot wide, the Goliath birdeater is the world's biggest spider. And it has a special defense mechanism to keep predators from considering it as a meal.

But neither of these carnivorous spiders is the biggest living tarantula. That honor arguably goes to South America's Goliath birdeater (Theraphosa blondi), which can get up to 11 inches (28 centimeters) wide—and can prey on small birds, although it mostly eats arthropods. No tarantula living or dead has gotten as big as the fictional acromantula, however, which reportedly has a leg span of 15 feet (4.6 meters).


Real-Life Animal: Titanoboa cerrejonensis

Range: Colombia, 60 million years ago

Size: 42 feet (12.8 meters) long

IUCN Red List Status: Extinct

For centuries, the basilisk has slithered through European myth, a massive serpent with a crown-shaped crest and a reputedly lethal stare. In a sense, basilisks actually exist: The reptile family Corytophanidae consists of iguana-like lizards called basilisks, including the Jesus Christ lizard (Basilicus basilicus), which can run for short spurts across water. What’s more, early legends of the basilisk may have been inspired by cobras.

Meet the Jesus Christ Lizard

Thanks to super speed and specially adapted feet, the basilisk lizard can run on water—an ability that makes it deadly to insects, and has led people to call it the "Jesus Christ lizard."

But if you're looking for a massive serpent, your best bet is probably Titanoboa cerrejonensis, an anaconda-like snake that lived some 60 million years ago in what's now Colombia. The 42-foot-long (12.8-meter-long) serpent is the biggest known snake, living or extinct, and weighed some 2,500 pounds (1,134 kilograms).

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A female Diamma bicolor, a species of wingless flower wasp


Real-Life Animal: Blue ant (Diamma bicolor)

Range: Australia

Size: Up to one inch (2.5 centimeters) long

IUCN Red List Status: Not Yet Assessed

In Fantastic Beasts, a billywig is a blue stinging insect from Australia. In real life, it matches up well with the blue ant, an Australian insect that isn't an ant at all.

Instead, it’s a solitary flower wasp that parasitizes mole crickets. Female blue ants paralyze mole crickets with their stings and then lay their eggs on them, ensuring that the newborn larvae have a fresh meal. Adults, however, feed mainly on nectar.

According to Newt Scamander, the billywig’s sting is something to be desired, inducing momentary levitation and feelings of giddiness. The blue ant’s sting is less pleasant: The Australian Museum says that blue ant stings are rare but can happen, and they cause burning pain and swelling.

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An illustration of Brachinus crepitans, a species of bombardier beetle found throughout most of Europe.

Blast-Ended Skrewt

Real-Life Animal: Bombardier beetles (Subfamily: Brachininae)

Range: Every continent except Antarctica

Size: Up to one inch (2.5 centimeters) long

IUCN Red List Status: Not Yet Assessed

In the Harry Potter novels, the blast-ended skrewt is the product of a breeding experiment gone wrong—a crablike creature that smells of rotten fish and can explosively blast its enemies.

The non-wizarding world has a creature capable of similar pyrotechnics: the bombardier beetle. When threatened, the beetle can produce a noxious spray that can reach temperatures of 212 degrees Fahrenheit (100 degrees Celsius) and can fly at predators at up to 22 miles an hour (10 meters per second). (Find out more about how the bombardier beetle generates these explosions.)

In fact, bombardier beetles have a skill that even blast-ended skrewts don’t seem to have: rapid-fire. Bombardier beetles’ outbursts pulse rapidly instead of going all at once. The result? Pulses of spray that fire out between 300 and a thousand times per second.

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A giant prickly stick insect (Extatosoma tiaratum) at the Omaha Henry Doorly Zoo. Extatosoma tiaratum is endemic to Australia.


Real-Life Animal: Stick insects (Order: Phasmida)

Range: Global, mainly in the tropics and subtropics

Size: Up to 24.6 inches (62.4 centimeters) long

IUCN Red List Status: Least Concern to Critically Endangered

In Scamander's telling, bowtruckles are stick-shaped insects that guard the trees that yield wood for magical wands. In reality, insects of the order Phasmida invoke a magic themselves—by resembling a dizzying variety of leaves, twigs, sticks, and branches.

Some 3,000 Phasmid species live worldwide. Their shapes, colors, and sizes vary spectacularly: Timema cristinae, a stick insect native to North America, is only half an inch (1.3 centimeters) long, while Phryganistria chinensis Zhao, found in China in 2014, is a staggering 24.6 inches (62.4 centimeters) long.

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The dodo (Raphus cucullatus) is an extinct flightless bird that was endemic to the island of Mauritius, east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean.


Real-Life Animal: Dodo (Raphus cucullatus)

Range: Mauritius

Size: 3.3 feet (one meter) tall; 23 to 46 pounds (10 to 21 kilograms)

IUCN Red List Status: Extinct

According to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the non-magical world knows the diricawl as the dodo, a flightless bird once found on the island of Mauritius. In Scamander's telling, people don't see the dodo today because it can vanish at will when it senses danger. The truth of the dodo's disappearance is much sadder: Habitat loss and run-ins with human-introduced predators drove the dodo to extinction by the late 1600s.

Current research on the dodo's closest living relative, the Nicobar pigeon, could present its own form of magic by letting scientists understand the details of the dodo's genome, which was sequenced in 2015. Don't get your hopes up for reviving the dodo: Scientists haven't yet cloned a bird successfully, much less brought a bird species back from the dead.

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These 15 specimens of Dendrogramma reflect two different species. The three largest specimens to the left represent Dendrogramma discoides, while the rest represent Dendrogramma enigmatica. Annotations have been removed from this photograph.


Real-Life Animal: Dendrogramma

Range: Waters off southeastern Australia, between 1,310 and 3,280 feet (400 to 1,000 meters) deep

Size: Disk up to 0.7 inch (1.7 centimeters) wide; stalk up to 0.3 inch (0.8 centimeter) tall

IUCN Red List Status: Not Yet Assessed

In the Harry Potter world, the horklump is an animal that resembles a mushroom, and few mushroom-shaped animals have proved as mysterious, and controversial, as Dendrogramma. First described in 2014, the deep-sea creature—comprising two closely related species—first defied classification, preventing biologists from assigning it to an existing branch of the tree of animal life.

However, an analysis in 2016 revealed that Dendrogramma isn't in a league of its own: In fact, it's a deep-sea genus of Cnidaria, the animal phylum that includes jellyfish, corals, and box jellies.

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The bizarre-looking snout of the star-nosed mole (Condylura cristata) is one of nature's most sensitive touch organs.


Real-Life Animal: Star-nosed mole (Condylura cristata)

Range: Canada and the United States of America

Size: 7.6 inches (19.3 centimeters) long

IUCN Red List Status: Least Concern

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them describes the niffler as a mole-like creature with an affinity for stealing shiny objects. While the star-nosed mole doesn't have great eyesight, it has another heightened burgling sense: touch.

World's Deadliest: Is This the World's Weirdest-Looking Killer? Looking like a cross between a rat and an octopus, the star-nosed mole is a good candidate for the title of world's weirdest-looking creature. Its super-senses also make it a lethal hunter.

The star-nosed mole's 22-fingered nose is one of the most touch-sensitive organs in the animal kingdom, studded with thousands of microscopic sensory receptors called Eimer’s organs.

This stellar nose lets the mole "see" its environment with remarkable detail and hunt for small invertebrates underground with startling efficiency. A star-nosed mole can identify, catch, and finish eating its prey in less than a quarter of a second—making it the world's fastest-eating mammal.