A lizard with no lungs, a deer with vampire fangs and a little black bird carrying around human baby teeth in its beak all walk into a country.
This is no joke set-up — this is a real snapshot of the eccentric biodiversity of South Korea (well, except maybe for the baby teeth thing… more on that in a minute).
As the 2018 Winter Games unfold in Pyeongchang, can the viewing public count on any surprise animal cameos akin to the 30 or 40 dog-size rodents called capybaras that invaded the golf links during the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro? Live Science investigated the funkiest fauna of the Korean Peninsula and compiled this list of the likeliest suspects.
Any Olympians who wander too far into the forested hills outside Pyeongchang might come home with horror stories about the smelly, vampire-fanged denizens of the woods. Male Siberian musk deer (Moschus moschiferus) may look fierce with their saber teeth, but they’re actually harmless herbivores. “The males have these long sabers to fight each other during the mating season,” Jack Tseng, a paleontologist at the American Museum of Natural History, previously told Live Science.
In fact, musk deer, which are native to mountainous habitats around Asia and Russia, have far more to fear from humans than the other way around: Male deer are routinely poached for their eponymous scent glands, which can be worth nearly $20,455 per pound ($45,000 per kilogram) on the black market, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). In 2016, South Korean researchers started work on cloning the musk deer to save the species from extinction.
The Korean magpie (Pica pica sericea) is a stocky, black, crow-like bird with a white belly and blue-striped wings. Korean magpies are popular enough in South Korea to land a spot on the Google Doodle inaugurating this year’s Winter Games — but these little black birds have had a foothold in culture for a lot longer than Google has been around. Magpies are a common symbol of luck in Korean folklore, and they sometimes even fill in for the tooth fairy. Some Korean children reportedly learn to throw their baby teeth onto the roofs of their homes so that a magpie will fly off with the discarded chompers and bring back healthy new ones in their place.
Despite their folkloric reputation, magpies probably don’t take kindly to repeated projectile tooth attacks. According to a 2011 study, Korean magpies can learn to recognize individual human faces and remember which individuals have posed a threat to the safety of their nests.
White-naped cranes (Antigone vipio) are elegant, endangered and apt to spend winter in the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea. In other words, they’re the perfect symbol of peace on the Korean Peninsula.
The species takes its name from the white stripe running down the back of its neck, but it might be more striking for the vivid red patches around its eyes. According to the International Crane Foundation, white-naped cranes breed primarily in northeastern China and Mongolia, but several hundred birds fly south to the Korean DMZ every winter. (Thousands of others continue on to one of several artificial feeding stations in Japan.) This Korean stopover may be critical to the species’ survival, the IUCNsays. Due to the ongoing loss of their wetland breeding grounds to human activities, the cranes are listed as vulnerable by the IUCN.
The scruffy swine spend most of their time in mountain ecosystems, but in recent years, they have become increasingly comfortable venturing down into cities. Wild-boar sightings in Seoul, for example, have increased 11-fold, from 56 city sightings in 2012 to 623 in 2016, the Seoul Metropolitan Fire and Disaster Headquarters said, mostly occurring between September and December, when there is less food available in the hills. As natural predators like tigers have become extinct from Korea, boars thrive — and that’s making human-boar interactions more common than ever.
Meanwhile, lurking under a nearby rock, a lungless salamander breathes through its skin. The Korean crevice salamander (Karsenia koreana) was only discovered in 2003, and scientists still don’t know much about it. The critter mostly keeps to itself underneath rocks in limestone forests and bears a lot of similarities to the North American lungless salamander family, also called Plethodontidae, which comprises most of the world’s salamander species. So far, K. koreana is the only lungless salamander to have been detected in Asia, but it was probably once just one among many others that are now extinct, researchers believe.
“The habitats in Asia are appropriate for these animals — so it is strange that they became extinct there and not here,” David Wake, a biologist and salamander expert at the University of California, Berkeley, previously told Live Science.
In other words: Amphibian enthusiasts hoping to see more lungless salamanders on the Korean Peninsula probably shouldn’t hold their breath.
Originally published on Live Science.