10 Scary Animals That Are (Mostly) Harmless

These creatures don't deserve their fearsome reputations.

A Lappet-faced Vulture lowers its wings and looks like its flying directly at you.

Ben Cranke / Getty Images

The animal world is full of predators and nightmarish creepy-crawlies, but there are a few frightening-looking creatures that don't deserve such a fearsome reputation. Some of these animals look scary based on their massive size, while others have sharp teeth or fangs. However, all of these animals are mostly harmless to humans—as long as you don't catch them by surprise.

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An aye-aye staring straight ahead with little yellow eyes and tiny paws sitting on a palm frond.

Thorsten Negro / Getty Images

This gremlin-looking creature is a primate found in Madagascar. Perhaps due to their odd appearance, these gentle, harmless animals that weigh only four pounds are often killed because of a local superstition that they are harbingers of death. Aye-ayes have a number of unusual traits, including a long, bony, witch-like middle finger that these peaceful, nocturnal foragers use to pry insects and grubs from tree trunks. The aye-aye is also unafraid of humans and will approach for a closer look.

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Basking Shark

An open-mouthed basking shark swimming near the ocean's surface.

Grant M Henderson / Shutterstock

Seeing this shark’s wide-open mouth bearing down on you might seem like a diving nightmare—until you realize it's a basking shark. Unlike other carnivorous species of sharks, basking sharks are filter feeders. They prefer the taste of zooplankton and couldn't chomp down on you if they wanted to. The basking shark is endangered, so be sure to admire the beauty of these elegant beasts if you encounter one in the ocean. Stay back, though, since they are very large and their skin is extremely rough.

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Vampire Bat

A vampire bat hanging from a cave wall in Peru.

Hans Neleman / Getty Images

The vampire bat’s diet is mostly blood, plus they have ghoulish faces, live in dark caves and hollow trees, and only come out at night. But they typically prefer to feed on cattle, goats, and sometimes birds. Vampire bats don’t suck the blood of their prey, they use their teeth to make a tiny incision in the skin of their victim. They do it so lightly that they can sometimes drink for up to 30 minutes while their victim continues to sleep. Vampire bats can be quite tame and even friendly toward humans. National Geographic Kids said, "One researcher reported that he had vampire bats that would come to him when he called their names." But their bites can carry infections and disease, including rabies, so these animals are best avoided by humans.

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The profile of a vulture with its brown and white-tipped wings and fluffy white head.

Amikphoto / Shutterstock

Vultures are often demonized because of their frightening appearance, intimidating wing span, and inappropriate habit of only showing up when there's a dead carcass lying around. But they're completely harmless—as long as you're alive and kicking. In fact, they're enormously beneficial because, without them, we'd have dead, rotting carcasses lying around. Vultures perform a vital role in the life cycle. These scavengers have sharp beaks and razor-like talons, but they don't use these tools to kill prey. When food is scarce, vultures will occasionally prey upon a sick or weak animal, but they most often feed on carrion.

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Goliath Birdeater

A reddish brown goliath birdeater perched on its bent legs.

Audrey Snider-Bell / Shutterstock

This gigantic, hairy spider is a tarantula native to the rain forests of South America. One of the largest species of spiders in the world, the goliath birdeater earned its name from a 1705 copper engraving that showed the spider eating a hummingbird. Despite the goliath birdeater's appearance, the size of its fangs, and its reputation, this spider prefers to dine on snakes, lizards, and insects and is only likely to injure a human if provoked.

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A side angle of the face and snout of a Gharial in front of a green leafy background.

Becker1999 / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

A gharial looks like a crocodile in every respect except for its long, narrow snout. As a result, these critically endangered beasts from South Asia are often thought to be man-eaters, just like their crocodilian cousins. In reality, the gharial's thin jaws are fragile and incapable of consuming a large animal. Better adapted for hunting small fish, frogs, and insects, gharials are shy and prefer to avoid people entirely.

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Giant Arachnid

A brown giant arachnid, or camel spider on a flat surface of rocks and pebbles.

ShDmFch / Shutterstock

Despite often being referred to as camel spiders or wind scorpions, these giant arachnids aren't spiders or scorpions and instead inhabit their own distinct order, Solifugae. They can grow to be up to six inches long and can run as fast as 10 miles per hour. However, these hunter spiders do not possess poison, and, contrary to urban legend, they do not attack humans.

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Milk Snake

A red and black striped milk snake curled up in a figure eight.

Matt Jeppson / Shutterstock

These innocent serpents are famous for their biomimicry; they closely resemble a highly venomous snake, the coral snake. The most important difference between the two is that milk snakes are completely harmless to humans, which makes them a popular pet. But before you try to handle a colorful striped snake that you find in the wild, remember this handy mnemonic: "Red next to black is a friend of Jack; red next to yellow will kill a fellow."

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Giant African Millipede

A brown giant African millipede stretched out on a flat surface.

Bjørn Christian Tørrissen / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

It's hard to imagine anyone cuddling up to this nocturnal monster, one of the largest millipedes in the world. Giant African millipedes can grow up to 12 inches long, can be nearly four inches thick, and have 300 to 400 legs. They can also live as long as seven years, and despite their goosebump-inducing appearance, this oversized millipede is harmless; it feeds primarily on dead and decaying trees and plants. They are not poisonous, nor do they threaten humans or other animals. The worst they'll do is release a foul-smelling secretion that wards off predators—and will make you want to wash your hands.

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Manta Ray

The underside of a manta ray swimming in the ocean with the sunlight streaming down from above.

KKG Photo / Shutterstock

The largest species of ray in the world, these magnificent beasts (often called "devilfish") can grow as large as 29 feet across and have the largest brain-to-body ratio of all sharks, rays, and skates. Like many other mammoth fish in the sea, they are filter feeders that eat the smallest of prey. Unlike stingrays, manta rays don't have a stinger, so divers have nothing to fear. They have giant mouths, but these are designed only to consume plankton; they spit out any fish that might enter accidentally. A manta ray's only defense is swimming as quickly as it can to get away.

Which Characteristics Are 'Scariest' in Animals?

Psychologists have done immense research on what the human brain deems "scary," and it turns out the animals people are most afraid of are those we find dangerous, disgusting, and/or uncontrollable. The following characteristics are known to invoke a fear response:

  • Sliminess
  • Large teeth and/or venomous bites
  • Large, sharp beaks, largely associated with a carnivorous diet
  • Stingers and stinging spines
  • Too many legs
  • Nocturnality, associated with big, wild eyes lurking in the dark
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