Matt Gaffney’s Wall Street Journal contest crossword, “Creature Features”—Laura’s review
I sure fell into a rabbit hole on this one, while looking for a five-letter animal. We have six animals in the grid, all clued as “Featured creature,” with an enumeration of letters:
- [20a: Featured creature (four letters)]: NARWHAL
- [25a: Featured creature (five letters)]: KANGAROO
- [30a: Featured creature (four letters)]: DROMEDARY
- [44a: Featured creature (five letters)]: PORCUPINE
- [50a: Featured creature (five letters)]: STARLING
- [59a: Featured creature (five letters)]: SCALLOP
My first idea was to think about “feature” in the sense of “movie” and so I was looking for “creatures” that had been in “features” and whose names were enumerated thus:
NARWHAL == NALA (from The Lion King)
KANGAROO == RANGO (from Rango [he’s a lizard of some kind])
DROMEDARY == DORY (from Finding Nemo and its sequel, Finding Dory)
But this fizzled out after I couldn’t apply the extraction method (i.e. find letters from the cartoon animal’s name anagrammed within the entry) to the rest of the entries. A solving pal suggested thinking about “feature” in the more literal/specific sense, like a body part, and, yes! I looked at the first across entry — [1a: Play on the sidewalk, maybe]: BUSK — and realized that if you change one letter, you get TUSK, which is a “feature” of the NARWHAL. Thus was on my way to find other entries that become “creature features” if you change one letter, like so:
[1a]: BUSK == TUSK (feature of a NARWHAL)
[57d]: POACH == POUCH (feature of a KANGAROO)
[35a]: LUMP == HUMP (feature of a DROMEDARY)
[15a]: QUELL == QUILL (feature of a PORCUPINE)
[67a]: WINES == WINGS (feature of a STARLING [a little inconsistent with the plural])
[50d]: SNELL == SHELL (feature of a SCALLOP)
If you take the changed letters in order of the corresponding grid entries, you get BALEEN, which is a feature of the creature known as a WHALE, which is a five-letter animal, and our answer. I thought this was fun! Ewe?
A fun puzzle. I felt this was very guessable because of the missing “e” in narwhal (which is another way to spell narwhale) seemed a bit “fishy” to me. ?????
Wow. Somehow I got BELUGA with the same method and submitted WHALE…lucky coincidence!
Perfect level of difficulty for me.
I saw WHAL (4 letters) in NARWHAL and ARLIN (5 letters) in STARLING, pointing to WHAL(E) and (M)ARLIN respectively. That hung me up for a while, thinking we’d have to find other animals and then amass their missing letters.
I queried along with my submission whether minke would also be accepted, but received no response.
Figured the theme pretty quickly but got hung up on what I thought was a narwhal HORN, plus the upper left quadrant was a tricky one for me. Felt great relief when it all came together and I realized the B/TUSK connection. Phew. Great puzzle!
But….if you look at the rest of the clues using the same strategy….change one letter from SNELL and you get SMELL ..which is a feature of a SKUNK – a five letter animal !
Didn’t get the starling “feature” right away, and once I solved the meta without it, didn’t even try.
Fun puzzle, but if I can pick a nit I’d say that the “starling” clue was a bit inconsistent with the others in that wings are common to all birds whereas the other creatures had features that are relatively uniquely associated with the creature. To me, “bat” (the only mammal with wings) would have been a much better clue than “starling”.
Lot of moving parts; I was lucky that even STARLING worked. To begin with there there, BAT wouldn’t work because it needs to be an 8-letter animal to offset KANGAROO.
Also, IIRC, baleen was the only well-known feature I could find that was unambiguously unique to one animal, which is what the meta answer required. So all the others weren’t unique at all (koalas et al. have pouches, for example).
Oh, I got that the features weren’t unambiguously unique to the animals. That’s why I used the term “relatively uniquely associated”. To me, “wings” for starling still seems like a bit of an outlier compared to the others. And probably the only reason I’m even mentioning it is because I couldn’t easily back solve that one with a quick glance even after I solved the meta (granted, didn’t spend too much time trying).
I picked up on “‘creatures” and hadn’t even noticed that they were positioned symmetrically in the puzzle. Is that a common convention for a puzzle like this? Just curious, on the spectrum of “requirement” to “I just kind of like symmetry”, where does that fall in the big scheme of things? Once I picked up on the “creature” ‘aspect of the puzzle I’d have easily identified “bat” no matter where it was in the grid.
Just curious how people would rate this one on a difficulty scale. After whiffing for weeks on end, I saw this one almost immediately. Trying to decide whether that means my instincts are improving, or if it was simply on the easier side.
i’d rate it between week 2 and 3 on the mgwcc scale, but it’s hard to quantify. going back to the grid to find additional required information seems like a step up in degree of difficulty, so maybe an easier week 3. the beauty of metas is that mileage varies for every solver. i’ve whiffed on “easy” ones, and breezed through incredibly tough ones.
I think this would be a week 2. Once you think of “feature” meaning a bodily feature, it comes pretty quickly. And with the exception of STARLING, most of these creatures are distinctive for specific bodily features. Maybe STARLING makes it a week 2.5?