The sea lamprey is a parasitic, blood-sucking fish. It is not pretty. In fact, it’s quite hideous. And it’s the social media darling of a one-minute creature feature, racking up 7.7 million views at TikTok’s “oddanimalspecimens.”

It’s a mystery as to why anyone would seek out this slippery tube of an animal. The little monster’s mouth is an open circle ringed in sharp teeth so it can suction itself onto the flesh of unsuspecting fish. TikTokers are treated to an extreme close-up of its tongue, layered with bony plates spiked with sharp points. A chipper voiceover explains: “Once the lamprey fastens onto its victim, it extends this tongue and begins to scrape, boring into the flesh of its prey and feeding on its blood.”

Cue the disgusting sound effects. This is the stuff of nightmares.

The mastermind

Director Charlie Engelman, BS ’14, sees things differently. It’s no mystery to this evolutionary biologist why 1.6 million viewers flock to his fascinating TikTok account. He’s sharing the “exciting and mysterious gems and jewels” in one of his favorite places on the planet: the research specimens collection at U-M’s Museum of Zoology (UMMZ). The educator, entertainer, and videographer has generated 25.3 million “likes” for his informative take on two-headed snakes, sawtooth leafhoppers, and gilt-headed breams, to name just a few.

Engelman’s professional interest transcends cool specimens, though. As a data-driven scientist and video producer, he is chasing down a winning formula to deliver entertaining science content to the masses. The secret: bucking conventional wisdom.

“One of the most interesting discoveries I’ve found is that you don’t need to be super silly and super fast and have a lot of stimuli in your videos for people to be interested,” Engelman says, “which is a little counterintuitive.”  

Meeting the moment

The medium meets the message — and the moment — at Engelman’s popular TikTok account oddanimalspecimens.

In a makeshift studio at UMMZ, he marries media and message by exploring the climate-controlled rooms lined with shelves and drawers holding 15 million specimens: mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, mollusks, insects, and mites. From jars of tiny organisms stored in liquid to drawers of giant bear skulls, these samples offer the best tangible record we have of life and evolution on Earth.

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