Episode 228: Monkey Lizards and Weird Turtle…Things

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Thanks to Ethan for this week’s topic, two weird animals that developed after the Great Dying we talked about last week!

Further reading:

Monkey Lizards of the Triassic

Placodonts: The Bizarre ‘Walrus-Turtles’ of the Triassic

Drepanosaurus (without a head since we haven’t found a skull yet, but with that massive front claw):

Drepanosaurus’s tail claw:

Hypuronector had a leaf-like tail:

Placodus was a big round-bodied swimmer:

Some placodonts [art by Darren Naish, found at the second article linked above]:

Henodus was the oddball placodont that probably ate plant material:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.


Last week we talked about the end-Permian mass extinction, also called the Great Dying. This week let’s follow up with a couple of weird and interesting animals that evolved once things got back to normal on Earth. Thanks to Ethan who suggested both animals.


The great dying marks the end of the Permian and the beginning of the Triassic period, which lasted from about 251 million years ago to 201 million years ago. In those 50 million years, life rebounded rapidly and many animals evolved that we’re familiar with today. But some animals from the Triassic are ones you’ve probably never heard of.


We’ll start with a reptile called the drepanosaur. Drepranosaurs are also sometimes called monkey lizards for reasons that will soon become clear. Paleontologists only discovered the first drepanosaur in 1980, Drepanosaurus, and within a few years they recognized a whole new family, Drepanosauridae, to fit that first discovery and subsequent closely related specimens. Drepanosaurs were weird little reptiles that probably looked like lizards in many ways, although they weren’t lizards.


How weird was Drepanosaurus? Very weird. Very, very weird.


It was obviously a climbing animal that probably spent all of its life in the treetops. It had lots of adaptations to life in trees, such as hind feet where all the toes pointed in the same direction and were somewhat curved, sort of like a spider monkey’s hand. That would help it get a good grip on branches. But those hind feet aren’t why it’s called the monkey lizard.


Drepanosaurus and its relatives are called monkey lizards because of their tails. Many monkeys have prehensile tails, which act as a fifth limb and help keep the monkey stable in a tree by curling around branches and hanging on. Drepanosaurus had something similar. Instead of being mobile from side to side like most reptile tails, Drepanosaurus’s tail could mostly only curve downward. Modern chameleons have an even more pronounced downward-curving tail that helps them climb. But the chameleon’s tail is still just a tail. The end of Drepanosaurus’s tail had several modified caudal bones that were probably exposed through the skin. Those modified bones acted as a claw to help the animal grab onto tree trunks and branches. So Drepanosaurus had claws on its front feet, claws on its hind feet, and a claw on its tail. It’s sort of like having five feet.


As if that wasn’t weird enough, let’s talk about those claws on the front feet. It had five toes on each foot, and four of them had ordinary claws. They were sharp but fairly small, about what you’d expect from an animal that grew about 19 inches long at most, or 50 cm. But the second toe on each foot, which corresponds to the pointer finger on a human hand, had a much bigger claw. MUCH BIGGER CLAW. It was as big as its whole hand! Most researchers think it used the claw to dig into rotting wood, insect nests, and bark to find insects and other small animals to eat.


But that’s not all. Drepanosaurus also had a structure called a supraneural bone at the base of its neck, made up of fused vertebrae, that would have made it look like it had a little hunch on its shoulders. While we don’t have a skull of Drepanosaurus, since we only have three specimens so far, this structure is also present in other drepanosaur species where we do have the neck and head, and they all have fairly long, slender necks and birdlike skulls with large eyes. It’s possible that the supraneural bone was the attachment site for special muscles that helped Drepanosaurus extend its neck very quickly to grab insects and other small animals.


Drepanosaurs in general shared many of the traits seen in Drepanosaurus, although with some differences. Many drepanosaurs had opposing toes on the feet that would help them grasp branches and twigs more securely. Most don’t have the giant claw on the front feet although most do have the tail claw. But one monkey lizard doesn’t live up to its name at all.


A little drepanosaur called Hypuronector limnaios, which only grew about five inches long, or 12 cm, had a much different tail from its relations. Its tail didn’t curve downward at all—in fact, it stuck up behind it and was probably not very flexible. Not only was the tail longer than the body and head together, it had long points growing down from the vertebrae, called haemal arches, which made the tail extremely large top to bottom but flattened from side to side.


In other words, its tail looked like a leaf. The drepanosaur could cling to a branch with its tail sticking up, and any nearby predators would probably think it was just another leaf growing from the branch, especially if the tail was covered in green skin. Some researchers speculate that it could have used its tail as a sail to glide from branch to branch too, or it might have acted as a parachute if it had to jump from a branch to escape a predator. Hypuronector’s front legs were longer than its hind legs, unlike other drepanosaurs, which suggests it might have had a flap of skin that helped it glide.


Drepanosaur fossils have been found in parts of the United States and western Europe, but were probably more widespread than that. We still don’t know a whole lot about them, so every new specimen that’s found can give paleontologists lots of new information. Most drepanosaurs resembled weird chameleons with birdlike heads, but they weren’t related to birds or chameleons. We don’t actually know what they were closely related to.


Ethan also suggested placodonts, another reptile that evolved in the Triassic. Don’t confuse them with placoderms, the armored fish that went extinct in the great dying. The “placo” part of both words means tablet or plate. Therefore, placoderms have skin—that’s the “derm” part—covered in plates, while placodonts have flattened teeth, because the “dont” part refers to teeth. That’s why you get braces on your teeth at the orthodontist but you go to the dermatologist for skin problems.


What did placodonts do with their flattened teeth? They used them to crush the shells of shellfish and crustaceans. From that you can infer that they were marine reptiles, and you would be right. The earlier species had big round bodies with heavy bones, which helped them dive to the ocean floor to find food. They lived in shallow coastal waters and had large flattened ribs that helped protect them from injury if currents pushed them into rocks. While the teeth in the back of the mouth were flattened to crush shells, the teeth in the very front of the mouth were sharp and pointed forward to grab prey.


One of the most common early placodonts was Placodus [PLAK-oh-dus], which grew nearly six and a half feet long, or 2 meters. Its long tail was flattened laterally to help it swim and it probably had webbed toes. Since its legs were small and relatively weak considering how heavy its body was, it probably couldn’t get around very well on land, so it would have stayed close to the water. It probably looked kind of like the modern marine iguana, which we talked about in episode 92, but with longer jaws. On the other hand, unlike the marine iguana, placodus had a third eye.


THIRD EYE ALERT! If you remember way back in episode 3, where we talked about the tuatara, we learned a little bit about the parietal eye, or third eye. Parietal eyes are found on the top of a few animals’ heads, including the tuatara, but they aren’t the same as ordinary eyes. They’re very small photoreceptive eyes that can only sense light and dark. In Placodus’s case, researchers think that ability helped it figure out which way was up more easily when it was underwater. If you’ve ever been knocked down by a wave you’ll understand how easy it is to get disoriented underwater.


Placodus and other early placodonts had a ridge of bony scutes on the back to help protect it from predators. In later placodonts those scutes were bigger and bigger until they were more like armor, which added weight to the body and meant that the bones didn’t have to be so dense. This meant that instead of having barrel-like bodies, later placodonts were a little more streamlined. Their bodies were more flattened than round, but still broad across with big plates protecting the back. Their legs were more like flippers.


Does this make you think of something? Something like a sea turtle?


Later placodonts looked a lot like turtles, a classic case of convergent evolution because they weren’t related to turtles at all. If you saw Placochelys, for instance, you’d probably just think it was a weird sea turtle, unless you got a really close look at it. It grew about three feet long, or 90 cm, with a triangular head, a knobby shell, and flippers with clawed toes at the ends. It had a beak like a turtle’s instead of Placodus’s forward-pointing teeth, but unlike a turtle it also had teeth in the back of the mouth. These were still big flat teeth used for crushing shellfish, but like other placodonts the upper teeth grew from the palate, or the roof of the mouth.


Other placodonts would have looked strange to us, like Psephoderma. It grew up to six feet long, or 180 cm, and instead of a single turtle shell, it had two shells. One covered its body from the back of the head down to the pelvis. The other covered its pelvis and was smaller. It had a long tail and a pointy nose.


At least one placodont didn’t live in the ocean and didn’t eat shellfish and crustaceans. Henodus grew about three feet long, or one meter, and lived in brackish water or possibly freshwater. Its shell was twice as broad as it was long. It also had a lower shell, or plastron, on its belly. Its nose was short and squared-off and it had a turtle-like beak, and instead of teeth it had denticles on the sides of its jaws. Some researchers think it was a filter feeder, filtering tiny animals from the water through the denticles, while other researchers think it may have eaten water plants. It might have done both.


There’s a lot we don’t know about placodonts. We don’t know if they laid eggs or gave birth to live young, and we don’t know what exactly they ate. Obviously their teeth were best suited to crushing shells, but we don’t actually know what kind of shellfish they preferred or if they only ate crustaceans or something else. Placodont remains have been found in Europe, the Middle East, and China, but they were probably more widespread than that. During the Triassic, as the supercontinent Pangaea broke up, it created lots of shallow oceans and island chains that would have been ideal for placodonts.


Unfortunately for the placodonts, as the landmasses moved farther apart over millions of years, the shallow seas became deeper. Populations would have become isolated from each other. Eventually placodonts went extinct, probably by a combination of habitat loss and competition from other animals as dinosaurs and their relatives spread throughout the world.


You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or Podchaser, or just tell a friend. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us that way, and don’t forget to join our mailing list. There’s a link in the show notes.


Thanks for listening!

Episode 227: The Great Dying

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It’s another extinction event episode! This one’s about the end-Permian AKA the Permian-Triassic AKA the GREAT DYING.

Further Reading:

Ancient mini-sharks lived longer than thought

Lystrosaurus’s fossilized skeleton:

Lystrosaurus may have looked something like this but I hope not:

This artist’s rendition of lystrosaurus looks a little less horrific but it might not be any more accurate:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

It’s time for our next extinction event episode, and this week it’s the big one. Not the extinction event that killed the dinosaurs, but one you may not have heard of, one that almost destroyed all life on earth. I mean, obviously it didn’t and things are fine now, but it was touch and go there for a while. It’s the Permian-Triassic extinction event, or end-Permian, which took place just over 250 million years ago. It was so bad that scientists who aren’t given to hyperbole refer to it as the Great Dying.

Don’t worry, we won’t talk about extinction the whole time. We’ll also learn about some interesting animals that survived the extinction event and did just fine afterwards.

We have a better idea of what happened at the end of the Permian than we have about the earlier extinction events we talked about in episodes 205 and 214. Right about 252 million years ago, something caused a massive volcanic eruptive event in what is now Siberia. Some researchers speculate that the cause of the volcanic eruptions may have been a huge asteroid impact on the other side of the Earth, which was so powerful that it caused magma to move away from the impact like water sloshing in a jostled glass. The magma rose up toward the earth’s crust and eventually through it onto the surface.

The result was probably the largest volcanic event in the last half-billion years and it continued for an estimated two million years. Most of the eruptions were probably pretty low-key, just runny lava pouring out of vents in the ground, but there was just so much of it. Lava covered almost a million square miles of land, or 2.6 million square km. Ash and toxic gases from some eruptions also ended up high in the atmosphere, but one big problem was that the lava poured through sediments full of organic material in the process of turning into coal. Lava, of course, is molten rock and it’s incredibly hot. It’s certainly hot enough to burn a bunch of young coal beds, which added more ash and toxic gases to the air—so much ash that shallow water throughout the entire world became choked with ash.

The carbon dioxide released by all that burning coal caused severe ocean acidification and ocean anoxia—a lack of oxygen in the water. But it gets worse! A lot of lava erupted into the ocean right at the continental shelf, where the shallow coastal water becomes much deeper. This is exactly the place where you find methane deposits in the sediments on the ocean floor. When those deposits were suddenly disturbed by lava flowing into them, all the methane in the formerly tranquil depths was released and bubbled to the surface. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, meaning that if a whole lot of it ends up in the atmosphere in a short amount of time, it can cause rapid global warming—much faster than that caused by carbon dioxide. This global warming would have happened after a period of global cooling due to reduced sunlight reaching the earth through ash clouds, which lasted long enough and was severe enough that sea levels dropped as glaciers formed. Then everything heated way, way up. The ice caps melted, which may have led to a stagnation of ocean currents. This in turn would have contributed to the water’s anoxicity and toxicity. The average temperature of the ocean would have increased by almost 15 degrees Fahrenheit, or 8 degrees Celsius. Atmospheric warming may have been as much as 68 degrees Fahrenheit in places, or 20 degrees Celsius. That’s not the average temperature of the world, that’s the temperature increase.

So, basically, everything was terrible and it happened very quickly in geologic terms. A 2018 study found that everything looked pretty much fine for the 30,000 years leading up to the great dying. Some researchers even think the initial extinction event might have taken place over just a few centuries.

Marine animals were affected the most, especially marine invertebrates. Trilobites and placoderms went extinct, eurypterids went extinct, and corals went extinct until about 14 million years later when modern corals developed. Some researchers estimate that 95% of all marine species went extinct.

Things were better on land, but not that much better. At the end of the Permian, life was good on land and it was especially good for insects because of the high percentage of oxygen in the air and the variety of plant life in huge swamps around the supercontinent Pangaea. The largest insects that ever lived were buzzing around in the Permian. This included an order of insects called Meganisoptera, or griffinflies. Griffinflies looked like dragonflies and may be related to them. Some species had a wingspan 28 inches across, or 71 cm. The arthropod Anthopleura, sometimes called the giant millipede, lived in the Permian too. Some species grew six feet long, or 2.5 meters, and were about 18 inches wide, or 45 cm. It looked like a millipede but had even more legs. It probably looked scary, but it only ate plants as far as we know.

Instead of actively breathing the way most vertebrates do, most invertebrates use a passive system to absorb oxygen from the air. This is great when there’s a lot of oxygen. When the level of oxygen drops, though, the largest species can’t absorb enough oxygen to function and die out rapidly. That’s one reason why you don’t have to worry about spiders the size of bears. So all the large invertebrates and a lot of the smaller ones went extinct as oxygen was replaced with carbon dioxide, methane, and other toxic gases in the atmosphere.

The acid rain caused by toxic gases and the reduced sunlight caused by ash in the atmosphere also killed off plants. Forests died, so that the fossil record during and after the extinction event contains massive amounts of fungal spores from fungi that decompose trees. Some researchers think all of the world’s trees died. Forests disappeared for some four million years. Since trees absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and release oxygen, the lack of trees made oxygen levels drop even more.

Animals that depended on forests to survive also went extinct, including about two-thirds of all amphibians, reptiles, and therapsids. Therapsids were proto-mammals and it’s a good thing they didn’t all die out because they eventually gave rise to mammals.

Everything I’ve described sounds so incredibly bad, you may be wondering how anything survived. One stroke of luck was probably the size of Pangaea. That was the supercontinent made up of most of the world’s landmasses all smushed together. Before the extinction event, the middle of Pangaea was probably pretty dry with swampier climates around the edges. After the extinction event, the interior of the supercontinent was the safest place to be.

One of the most common land animals after the extinction event was a herbivore called Lystrosaurus. Lystrosaurus was a therapsid, and it was nothing exciting to look at unless you were also a lystrosaurus. Some species were the size of a cat while some were much larger, up to 8 feet long, or 2.5 m. It had a short snout, a short tail, and a semi-sprawling gait. A lizard walks with its legs stuck out to the sides, while a dog or cat or pig walks with its legs underneath its body. Lystrosaurus was somewhere between the two.

It probably lived in burrows that it dug with its strong front legs. While it had a pair of tusks that grew down from the upper jaw, those were its only teeth. Instead it probably had a turtle-like beak that helped it bite off pieces of vegetation.

Lystrosaurus lived in the central part of Pangaea, in what is now Asia, Antarctica, South Africa, and eastern Europe back when all those areas were all scrunched up close together. It survived the extinction event and expanded its range, and for millions of years it was almost the only big land animal in the world. It had almost no predators because they’d all gone extinct, and it had very few competitors for food because they’d all gone extinct. Lystrosaurus made up 90% of all land vertebrates for millions of years.

How did it survive when so many other animals died out? There are several theories, but the most important factor was probably its lack of specialization. It could survive on any kind of plant instead of needing to feed on specific species of plant. There’s also evidence that it could enter a torpor similar to hibernation where its metabolism slowed way down. This would have been a literal lifesaver during the time when the air and water were toxic and very little plant life survived. Lystrosaurus could hunker down in its burrow for long stretches of time, then come out and find enough food and water to keep it going for another stretch of torpor.

Just imagine the world back then, after the initial extinction event but before the world had recovered—say, a million years after the volcanic activity stopped. Picture a series of gentle rolling hills dotted with grazing animals. It’s peaceful and very open because there are no trees. Grass hasn’t evolved yet so the ground is covered in fern-like plants from the genus Dicroidium, which lives in dry conditions. As you look closer with your mind’s eye, you realize that every single one of those grazing animals—thousands of them visible in every direction—are the same kind of animal that looks sort of like a fuzzy pig with a stumpy lizard tail, clawed feet, and a turtle’s beak. Lystrosaurus, living the good life.

In the ocean, the situation was similar. The shallows were toxic waste dumps of ash where the water had so little oxygen that nothing could survive. But the deeper ocean was still livable for some animals.

For a long time, scientists thought a group of early sharks called cladodontomorphs had gone extinct during the great dying. Their distinctive teeth had been common in the fossil record, but after the extinction event they disappeared. Cladodontomorphs only grew about a foot long at most, or 30 cm, and may have had a weird-shaped dorsal fin that pointed forward. They lived in shallow coastal waters. You know, the worst possible place to be 252 million years ago.

Then palaeontologists found some of those teeth in rocks that were in much deeper water 135 million years ago. It turns out the little sharks had survived the extinction event by moving into the open ocean where conditions were better. And they didn’t just survive, they lasted for another 120 million years.

So let’s break it down. It was probably four million years before trees developed again from different plants. It was some 14 million years before coral reefs could rebuild as modern corals developed after their cousins went extinct. It took 30 million years for terrestrial vertebrates to recover from the great dying and 50 million years for all the ocean’s ecosystems to fully recover. That’s a colossally long time. But it did recover.

So what animals arose once the recovery was well underway? Icthyosaurs. Archosaurs, which eventually evolved into pterosaurs, crocodilians, dinosaurs, and birds. And therapsids that eventually gave rise to modern mammals.

I don’t usually tease the following week’s show, but next week we’re going to learn about some weird and interesting animals that developed in the early to mid Triassic, after the extinction event was over and life started evolving in new directions. As I’ve said in the previous extinction event episodes: no matter how bad things get, there’s always going to be some little animal stumping along out of the carnage to get on with the business of surviving and thriving.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or Podchaser, or just tell a friend. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 226: Brood X Cicadas

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It’s the 2021 brood of 17-year cicadas! Thanks to Enzo (and several others) who suggested it!

Further listening:

Varmints! Podcast – “Cicadas”

Our local Brood X cicada (photo by me!):

The holes that cicadas emerged from (photo also by me):

Discarded cicada shells. My work keys and Homestar Runner keychain for scale:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

This week we’re going to talk about cicadas, specifically the 17-year cicadas that you may have heard about in the news or in your own back yard, depending on where you live. Thanks to the several people who suggested the topic on Twitter, with special thanks to Enzo who emailed me about it.

I actually wasn’t going to do a cicadas episode because we already talked about cicadas way back in episode 28. We didn’t go into too much detail in that one, but Varmints! podcast did a great in-depth show about cicadas recently so I’ve been referring people to them, and check the show notes for a link if you don’t already listen to Varmints. Besides, I hadn’t heard any of the cicadas myself so I didn’t see what the big deal was.

Then I returned to work after taking some time off to take care of my cat Poe, who by the way is doing really well now and thanks for all the well wishes! The second I got out of my car, I heard them. The cicadas. Now, we get cicadas every year where I live in East Tennessee, so the sound is familiar to me and I actually like it. I find it soothing and the quintessential sound of summer. But this was something else. At only 8am the trees along the edge of campus were filled with what I can only describe as a high-pitched roar.

I went out at lunch and the sound was even louder. I got some audio, so here’s what a whole bunch of cicadas sound like when they’re calling at once.

[cicada sounds]

I also got pictures, which you can see in the show notes.

The cicadas emerging in such numbers this year are 17-year cicadas. They spend almost all of those 17 years as nymphs underground, where they eat sap from the roots of trees and other plants. At the end of the 17 years, when the soil is warm enough, they emerge from the ground and molt into their final form, the full-grown adult cicada!

The adult cicadas have wings but aren’t very good fliers. I can definitely attest to that because when I was taking pictures of them, I kept having to dodge as cicadas flew from bush to tree and either didn’t see me standing there or thought I was a weird tree or maybe just couldn’t maneuver well enough to avoid me. They’re pretty big insects, up to two inches long, or five cm, with gray or black bodies and orangey-red legs and eyes. The wings have pale orange veins.

The first cicadas to emerge are mostly males, in such numbers that predators get too full to care when the females emerge a few days later. That way more females survive to lay eggs. At first the cicadas that emerge still look like nymphs, but within about an hour they molt their exoskeleton and emerge as full adults with wings. They’re pale in color until the new exoskeleton hardens and the wings expand to full size, which takes a few days.

This, of course, leaves behind a cicada shell, which is the shed exoskeleton. When I was very small, I was terrified of cicada shells even though they’re just empty and perfectly harmless. They look scary because of those big pointy legs and big round eyes. You can frequently find cicada shells still stuck to tree bark, and it’s okay to pick them up and collect them if you like. The cicada doesn’t need it anymore. You can see the slit along the back of the shell where the cicada climbed out.

The emerged cicadas climb or fly into trees where the males start singing. Males produce their loud songs with a structure called a tymbal organ in their abdomen. The abdomen is mostly hollow, which helps amplify the rapid clicking of a pair of circular membranes. The clicking is so fast, up to 480 times a second, that humans hear it as a continuous buzzing noise and not individual clicks. Some cicada songs are louder than 120 decibels, which is the same decibel level as a chainsaw.

A reminder: this is what they sound like:

[more cicada sounds]

A female finds a male by listening to his song. After a pair mates, the female makes little cuts in twigs at the end of a tree branch, usually new-growth twigs because they’re softer. She lays her eggs in the cuts, then soon dies and falls to the ground.

Within a few weeks, all the adult cicadas have died. But around eight weeks later, the eggs hatch. The new nymphs are teensy, only a few millimeters long. They drop to the ground and burrow into the soil up to a foot deep, or 30 cm. There they stay for the next 17 years, growing larger very slowly until it’s time to emerge.

The current big group of cicadas consists of three species that look very similar. It’s called brood ten although I agree with Varmints who think it should be brood X because the Roman numeral ten is an X and every time I see it, I read it as Brood X. There are plenty of other cicadas, though, including some that emerge every 13 years instead of 17 years, and some that emerge every year or every few years.

Cicadas have been around for some 4 million years and most species live in tropical areas. Brood X is only found in the middle to northern areas of the eastern United States. It used to be even more widespread, but habitat loss has reduced its range considerably. Every time a forest is bulldozed to build a lot of houses, the nymphs underground either die outright or emerge later to find no trees to protect them and their eggs. Brood eleven went extinct in the 1950s, so even though there are millions of cicadas now, there may come a summer when no Brood X nymphs survive to emerge 17 years later.

The sudden emergence of thousands upon thousands of big loud insects in a short amount of time can be alarming, but cicadas are completely harmless to people, pets and other animals, and plants. They don’t eat as adults and they only make noise for a few weeks. They also don’t live everywhere. Even on the college campus where I work, the cicadas are only present in certain places. On the edge of the parking lot they’re everywhere. If I walk down to the far end of the duck pond, nothing. So if you happen to have Brood X cicadas in your yard or on your street, just remind yourself that that makes your home special and they’ll all shut up soon.

Of course, depending on where you live, in three years the enormous brood 19, called the great southern brood, will emerge throughout the southeastern United States, along with the smaller but just as loud brood 8, called the Northern Illinois Brood. But that gives you three years to buy a good pair of earplugs.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or Podchaser, or just tell a friend. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 225: Talking Animals

Talking animals! It’s not what you’re thinking about. No parrots here, just mammals.

Our new logo is by Susanna King of Flourish Media! If you’d like to JOIN OUR MAILING LIST!, I’ll be sending out a discount code soon for merch with our logo on it–but only for people on the mailing list (and patrons).

Further listening:

The MonsterTalk episode about Gef the Talking Mongoose (this episode has no swearing that I recall but some other episodes may have a little bit of salty language)

Mongolian Throat Singing

Further reading:

‘Talking’ seals mimic sounds from human speech, and validate a Boston legend

How do marine mammals produce sounds?

Elephant communication

Hoover the talking seal:

Janice, a gray seal who learned to mimic human speech and song:

Wikie, the orca who mimics human speech:

Kosik, an elephant who mimics human speech:

Gef the “talking mongoose”:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

Before we get started, I have some announcements! First, you may have noticed we have a new logo! It’s by Susanna King of Flourish Media, who did a fantastic job! Susanna is also a listener, which is awesome. I’ve put a link to Flourish Media in the show notes if you have a company or something that needs professional graphic design.

If you’re interested in getting a shirt or mug with the new Strange Animals Podcast logo on it, I’m figuring out the best company to use for merch. If you sign up to our mailing list, as soon as merch is available I’ll be sending an email out about it, and I’ll include a discount code you can use to save some money! I’ve linked to the mailing list in the show notes, and it’s also linked on the website and my social media, but if you can’t find it, just send me a message and I’ll reply with the link.

The final announcement is that my cat Poe is finally home and recovering from a scary illness. He developed what’s called pyothorax, which is an infection in the chest, and in Poe’s case we still don’t know what caused it. After a week in the veterinary intensive care unit, he’s finally home and getting better all the time. That’s why last week’s episode was so short, and if you messaged me this week about something and I seemed impatient when I replied, that’s why. I just haven’t had any mental energy to concentrate on anything but Poe. Thank you to everyone at the Animal Emergency and Specialty Center of Knoxville for taking such good care of him.

We’ve got something fun and a little different this time, inspired by two things. First, I saw a tweet about a captive beluga whale who had apparently learned to mimic human speech and one night told a diver in his pool to get out. Then the awesome podcast BewilderBeasts had a segment about a harbor seal in Maine who was rescued by a fisherman as a pup, which reminded me of a similar situation with another harbor seal in Maine, Hoover the Talking Seal. That’s right, it’s an episode about mammals that can talk, including one of my favorite cryptozoological mysteries ever.

Before we learn about talking animals, we need to learn a little bit about how humans talk. Humans produce most vocal sounds using our larynx, which is sometimes called a voicebox. The human larynx is situated at the top of the throat, and it helps us breathe, helps keep food from going down the wrong tube and into the lungs, and enables us to make sounds. It consists of cartilage, small muscles, and flaps of tissue called vocal folds or vocal cords. There are two kinds of vocal folds: the true vocal folds that are connected to muscles and actually produce sound, and the false vocal folds that don’t have any connected muscles and just help with resonance.

Usually resonance just makes the sound louder, but humans have learned to do amazing things with our voices. Some cultures use the false vocal folds to create a secondary tone. It’s called overtone singing, throat singing, or harmonic singing. I’m still completely in love with the Mongolian folk metal band the Hu and am now delighted that I can mention them again, because they use throat singing in their music. Throat singing produces overtones with various different sounds, depending on the technique used, but it can be hard to pick them out of a song if you’re not sure what you’re hearing. So instead of playing a clip of a Hu song, here’s a clip of a musician demonstrating various kinds of throat singing while also playing along on the morin khuur, or horsehead fiddle. The morin khuur only has two strings so the drone and whistle sounds you’re hearing are not from that instrument, they’re made by the musician’s voice. [Musician is Zagd Ochir AKA Sumiyabazar.]

[clip of throat singing]

When you think of animals that could potentially talk in human language, naturally you’d assume our closest relatives, the great apes, could learn to talk. But while apes have larynxes that are similar to ours, they don’t have the fine control over their vocal cords that humans do. But the larynx isn’t the only part of the body involved in human speech, it’s just the part that makes noise. We use the tongue and lips to form sounds into words, which takes a lot of fine control over very small muscles. Apes don’t have that kind of control of the mouth muscles. More importantly, they don’t have the same language centers in the brain that humans do. Apes can learn to use very simple versions of sign language or indicate words on a computer, but they aren’t able to use speech and language the way we do. In the wild, apes communicate with sounds, but they also communicate a lot more with gestures and body language, so they don’t need to speak words.

In the 1940s and 50s, a human couple who were both primate biologists worked with a young chimpanzee named Viki, trying to teach her spoken language as well as signs. While Viki was a quick learner and showed high intelligence, she only managed to ever speak seven words, and only four of those clearly. Those four words were mama and papa, cup, and up. I found a clip of Viki saying the word ‘cup,’ and while the audio was really bad, I don’t think she was actually vocalizing the word, just making the consonant sounds with her mouth.

But there are other animals that can mimic human speech, even if they don’t necessarily understand what they’re saying. Parrots and some other birds are the prime examples, of course, but we’re talking about talking mammals today.

Back in episode 23 I mentioned Hoover the talking seal and played this clip of his voice, one of only a few recordings we have of him.

[talking seal recording]

That may sound like a gruff man with a strong accent, but it’s a seal. In spring of 1971, in Cundy’s Harbor, Maine, which is in the extreme northeastern United States, a man found a baby harbor seal. He and his brother-in-law George Swallow hunted around for the seal pup’s mother, but sadly they found her dead body. George Swallow decided to take the baby seal home and see if he could keep him alive.

The baby seal ate so fast that Swallow and his wife named him Hoover, after the vacuum cleaner brand. Hoover stayed in a pond in the back of their house, and he not only survived, he did really well. Swallow basically treated Hoover like a dog and the two hung out together all the time. If Swallow had to go somewhere, Hoover rode along in the car. Before long, Hoover started imitating Swallow’s speech.

Finally, though, Hoover got so big and was eating so much fish that the Swallows couldn’t keep him. The New England Aquarium in Boston, Massachusetts agreed to take him in, and there Hoover stayed, happy and healthy until he died in 1985. When Swallow brought Hoover to the aquarium, he mentioned that the seal could talk. No one believed him. I wish I could have seen the keepers’ faces when Hoover first said, “Hello there!” in a voice that sounded just like George Swallow’s.

Here’s another clip of Hoover talking:

But if a chimpanzee can’t manage to speak human words, how can a seal? Seals of all kinds have a larynx that’s very similar to the human larynx, which allows a seal to physically imitate human vowel sounds. It also has the mental drive to imitate sounds and the mental flexibility to do a good job imitating sounds that aren’t normal seal noises. Seals are highly social animals and communicate with each other with a complex range of sounds.

A study published in 2019 focused on a trio of young gray seals, named Janice, Zola, and Gandalf, who learned to imitate vocal tones, even tunes, proving that Hoover’s ability to imitate his caregiver wasn’t just a fluke. The seals were released into the wild after a year. This is a clip of one of them singing in response to a computerized tune:

[clip of seal singing]

It’s not a coincidence that animals learn to imitate human speech while in captivity. Seals and other animals who communicate with sound learn to imitate what they hear most often. In wild animals, that’s almost always the calls of other animals of their own species, but animals in captivity often hear humans most of the time.

In the case of Wikie, an orca, or killer whale, she was taught to imitate human sounds by researchers. Wikie was born in captivity in 2001 and in 2018, researchers reported that they had taught her to imitate several words, including hello.

Whales and other cetaceans have very different anatomy from seals. They make lots of sounds, from clicks and whistles used for communication and navigation, to the incredibly loud, complex songs that some baleen whales use to attract mates. But they don’t always make those sounds with their larynx.

Toothed whales, including dolphins, make a lot of sounds with the blowhole, which is the specialized nostril at the top of the whale’s head that allows it to take a breath without having to stop moving or put its head out of the water. Toothed whales have specialized air sacs near the blowhole that allow a whale to make high-frequency sounds for echolocation, and it uses its larynx to make whistles and other noises. It may also clap its jaws together and slap the water with its tail or flippers to make sounds, especially ones that signal aggression.

Baleen whales have an inflatable pouch called the laryngeal sac that allows a whale to make extremely loud sounds with its larynx. Many animals have something similar to the laryngeal sac, including some primates. If you remember episode 76, where we talked about the siamang, a type of gibbon, it has a throat pouch called a gular sac that increases the resonance and loudness of its voice.

Orcas in particular imitate sounds made by other orcas, so much so that when an orca pod moves into new territory, it will adopt the sounds made by the local orcas. They will also imitate the sounds made by sea lions and bottlenose dolphins. It’s not surprising, then, that Wikie was able to learn to imitate human words. Here’s some audio of Wikie saying hello (sort of):

[orca speech]

Another mammal that can learn to imitate human speech, at least occasionally, is the elephant! One famous talking elephant is Kosik [koh-shik], an Indian elephant in South Korea who has learned to say yes, no, sit, and several other words, in Korean of course. Kosik puts the tip of his trunk in his mouth and exhales while moving his trunk around to produce the sounds.

The elephant does use its larynx to make sounds, but it also has the option to use its trunk as a resonant chamber to make the sounds deeper. Some of the sounds an elephant makes are below the range of human hearing, as are many sounds baleen whales make. The elephant’s larynx is especially flexible too compared to most mammals, and as if its trunk wasn’t enough, it also has a pharyngeal pouch at the base of the tongue that it uses to produce low frequency calls.

This pharyngeal pouch is different from the baleen whale’s laryngeal sac and the siamang’s gular sac, although all three are used for similar purposes. The elephant actually stores water in the pouch, several liters of water. If an elephant can’t find water and is thirsty, it will stick its trunk deep into its mouth and into the pouch, then constrict the muscles around the pouch to push the water up. Then it can drink the water. It’s like having a built-in water bottle that also allows you to make deep noises.

Batyr was another elephant who reportedly learned to imitate some words and phrases, these in Russian and Kazakh. He lived in a zoo in Kazakhstan until his death in 1993. Like Kosik, Batyr produced the words by sticking his trunk in his mouth, with one keeper reporting that he actually moved his tongue into place with his trunk to make the right sounds. It’s possible that’s exactly what he was doing, since an elephant’s trunk is much more dexterous than an elephant’s tongue. He would also sometimes imitate other animals heard in the zoo.

All the animals we’ve discussed so far were only imitating human words. While they may have learned to use the words appropriately, for instance saying the word water when they wanted a drink, there’s no evidence that any of these animals truly understood the meaning of the words they learned to imitate. But there is one talking animal that was supposed to understand every word he said, a strange and elusive animal only seen by a few people but heard by many more. He’s called Gef the talking mongoose, and he’s one of my very favorite cryptids.

Gef’s story starts in 1931 on the Isle of Man, a British island in the Irish Sea. A family lived in a remote farmhouse near the village of Darby: James Irving (who went by Jim), his wife Margaret, and their twelve-year-old daughter Voirrey. They also had a sheepdog named Mona. The house was a big stone one with wood paneling inside, but with a gap between the stone and wood. These days that would be where the insulation would go to keep the house warmer, but this was before modern insulation and as far as I’ve read the gap was empty. The house didn’t have electricity either.

One night in 1931 the family heard an animal rustling and scratching around inside the gap. This probably wasn’t an unusual occurrence, since there are mice and rats on the Isle of Man along with stoats and ferrets. Any of those might decide to investigate the house and make a little home in the gap between the outer and inner walls.

In this case, though, the animal started out making little animal sounds but soon started trying to talk. At first it sounded like a baby babbling, but within a few weeks it was speaking clearly in English.

The family didn’t know what to think. At first they actually tried to poison the animal, but before long they made peace with it and named him Gef. They rarely saw Gef, just talked to him through the walls. Occasionally they’d see a bright eye peering at them through a knothole or see Gef outside, whisking across the fields. He wasn’t very big, only about a foot long, or 30 cm, including his bushy tail. He was yellowish in color with a slender ferret-like body, and his tail had a black tip. But he wasn’t a ferret, and apparently his front feet were shaped more like tiny human hands than like an animal’s paws. Gef described himself as a mongoose, specifically, “a little extra, extra clever mongoose.”

The weird thing is, there were mongooses on the Isle of Man at the time even though the mongoose is native to Africa, southern Asia, and southern Europe—but only where it’s warm most of the time. They certainly don’t live on the Isle of Man ordinarily. A man who owned a neighboring farm had imported some to kill rabbits, since there are no foxes on the island to keep the rabbit population down. There are even occasional sightings of what might be mongooses on the island today. The mongoose resembles mustelids like weasels and ferrets, but isn’t very closely related to them, and some species are yellowish in color. But the mongoose is much larger than Gef and has a more tapered tail. Also, mongooses don’t actually talk.

The meerkat is a type of mongoose, so if you ever watched Meerkat Manor you know a lot about mongooses already.

Anyway, Gef was clearly not actually a mongoose. The question is whether he was a real animal at all. In many ways, he had more in common with supernatural entities like poltergeists and brownies than with ordinary animals. He sometimes seemed to know about things before they happened, he seemed able to vanish when he didn’t want to be seen, and he made fantastic claims about his history. He also sprinkled words and phrases from other languages into his speech.

At the time, most people on the island thought Voirrey had invented Gef for attention, or maybe in an attempt to get her family to move somewhere more comfortable. She didn’t like living on a farm where the nearest neighbor was two miles away. But Voirrey claimed to the very end of her life—and she lived until 2005—that she hadn’t invented Gef and in fact Gef had ruined her life in some ways. She was teased about him in school and hated all the attention surrounding him, so much so that when she grew up and moved away, she actually changed her name to try and avoid any further publicity. She almost never gave interviews about Gef, and her family certainly never made any money off their resident talking animal even though they were very poor.

These days, a lot of suspicion focuses on Voirrey’s father, Jim Irving. Almost all of the information we have about what Gef said and did comes from Jim’s diaries and letters. He wrote a lot about Gef and apparently planned to write a book about the family’s experiences. The famous investigator of mysterious phenomena, Harry Price, told Jim there was no money in a book about Gef—and then promptly published his own book about Gef, which was a mean trick. Harry Price thought Voirrey was speaking as Gef by somehow throwing her voice, probably by using the acoustic properties of the double-walled house.

It’s possible, of course, that Gef was invented by Jim as a way to make Voirrey happier about having little animals scrabbling about in the walls. It might have started as a family joke that got out of control when people outside the family heard about it. Jim sounds like he was a little bit of a showman and had big dreams. He might have decided that his little family in-joke about Gef the talking mongoose would make a good book, and started spreading the story around as though it was real. Before long, people were swarming to his farmhouse to listen for Gef, Voirrey was being teased and blamed for the phenomenon, and people were demanding proof that Gef was real. Jim couldn’t admit he’d made the whole thing up and risk everyone getting angry.

Jim had traveled widely when he was younger and knew a smattering of words from other languages—the same words that Gef sprinkled into his speech. And remember, Jim is the main source of information about Gef. I wonder if Voirrey understood that her father had painted himself into a corner by telling people about Gef, because she tried to help prove the talking mongoose was real. She produced some hairs she said came from Gef, but when analyzed they were found to be identical to Mona the sheepdog’s fur. Voirrey produced some footprints and tooth prints supposedly made by Gef in plasticine, but they look a lot like they were made by someone poking designs into the plasticine with a sharp stick.

Gef became less and less active over the years, disappearing for months at a time, and by 1939 he was pretty much gone. Voirrey was grown by then and probably long tired of the joke. Jim died in 1945.

Whatever or whoever was behind the talking mongoose story, it’s definitely fun to think about. Gef was snarky, clever, sometimes funny, always weird. For instance, when Jim told Gef “We are having a dictaphone to record your voice,” Gef replied, “Who’s we? Is it that spook man Harry Price? Why, I won’t speak into it. I’ll go and smash his windows. I’ll drop a brick on him as he lies in bed. Me, at the age of 83?” Gef claimed he was born in India on June 7, 1852. Sometimes he said he was an earthbound spirit, sometimes he said he was not a spirit, just a mongoose. Once he said, “I am a ghost in the form of a weasel, and I shall haunt you with weird noises and clanking chains.” Mostly, though, he just recounted village gossip and demanded treats. Occasionally he killed a rabbit and left it for Voirrey like a pet cat leaving a mouse for its owner.

If my cats could speak, I’m pretty sure Poe would be complaining nonstop about having to be in the hospital for a whole week. Actually, he is complaining nonstop about it, just not in actual words. But I understand him anyway.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or Podchaser, or just tell a friend. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 224: Diprotodon and Friends

Thanks to Ruby and Tex for their suggestions this week!

Diprotodon was big and had a big nose:


The bush thick-knee looks like it has regular knees, actually:

Show Transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

This week let’s head to Australia for a short episode about three interesting animals. Thanks to Ruby and Tex for their suggestions!

Recently, we had an episode about the wombat—episode 208, to be exact. Ruby suggested we talk about an extinct giant wombat called Diprotodon too, because while we touched on it in the wombat episode, an animal that awesome deserves more attention. Also, Ruby had just gone to the Australian Museum and learned about it, and naturally wanted to share that knowledge. So let’s find out more about Diprotodon!

Diprotodon was the largest marsupial ever known. It stood around 6 ½ feet tall at the shoulder, or two meters, and up to 12 feet long, or 4 meters. It was related to the wombat but probably didn’t look much like one, although I bet it was pretty cute. It was heavily built and its legs were pillar-like, similar to a rhinoceros’s legs, but its feet were actually kind of small in comparison. It had massive flat front teeth and long claws.

So did those big teeth and claws mean it ate meat? Nope, it was a plant-eater, just like the wombat. It ate plants of all kinds in the savannas and plains where it lived, and its teeth were adapted to shear through branches and roots like chisels and grind up plant material at the same time. It also did a lot of digging, which is what it used its long claws for. The female had a rear-facing pouch so dirt wouldn’t get on her joey while she was digging.

Diprotodon had a larger nasal aperture in its skull than would be expected for an animal its size. It probably just had a really big nose, but some researchers think it might actually have had a short trunk sort of like a tapir’s.

Diprotodon probably lived in small groups made up of related females and their babies, while males probably spent most of their time either solitary or in small bachelor groups. It may have been migratory too. It went extinct somewhere between 42,000 and 25,000 years ago, along with many other species of Australian megafauna. Researchers think climate change was probably the main cause of its extinction, as the climate where it lived became drier.

Diprotodon was also related to the modern koala. We talked about the koala in episode 94, but Tex wanted to know more about it.

In episode 94 we learned that the koala smells like a cough drop because of all the eucalyptus leaves it eats. Eucalyptus oil is a common ingredient in cough drops. Here’s some other basic information about the koala from that episode, and then we’ll go on to learn something new about it.

The koala is a marsupial that lives near the coasts of eastern and southern Australia in eucalyptus trees, also called gum trees. It’s gray, gray-brown, or brown in color, with no tail, short floofy ears, a flat face with a big black nose, and long claws that help it cling to tree trunks. Almost its entire diet is made up of eucalyptus leaves, which are toxic, but the koala’s liver produces a type of protein that breaks down the toxins so it doesn’t get sick. It spends almost its whole life in trees except when it needs to move from one tree to another one.

In a study published in May 2020, researchers finally figured out how the koala gets water. Until this study, everyone assumed that the koala usually got enough moisture from the leaves it eats that it didn’t need to drink water most of the time. Now, though, researchers have observed koalas licking water from tree trunks during rain. This makes sense, because koalas prefer to stay in a tree whenever possible. The study determined that the koala gets about three-quarters of the moisture it needs from leaves, and during droughts it will come down from its tree to drink from streams. But in ordinary circumstances, it licks water from the tree trunks during and just after rain, and will do so even when other water sources are available.

I bet if you called someone a tree-licker, they would think it’s an insult, but really it’s adorable. You can say, “You’re such a tree-licker” to someone, and if they get mad at you, you can explain about koalas, hopefully before they hit you.

Let’s finish this short episode with a type of bird. It’s called the bush thick-knee. It’s nocturnal and while it can fly, it spends most of its time walking along the ground looking for small animals to eat. It’s a large, slender bird with a wingspan over three feet across, or one meter, and long legs.

The bush thick-knee eats frogs, lizard, small snakes, small mammals, crustaceans and mollusks, and insects and spiders. It will sometimes eat seeds or other plant material too. During the day it hides in long grass where it’s hidden from predators and has some shade, and at night it comes out and walks around. It’s especially active on moonlit nights.

And during those moonlit nights, or dark nights, it makes a sound like this:

[bush thick-knee sound]

Apparently people who live where the bush thick-knee is common find the sound really annoying, but I think it’s awesome and creepy.

Okay, that’s it. I actually have a serious reason for this episode being so short, which I won’t bother you with, but next week we’re going to have a good long episode. Until then, listen to this bird, just listen to it!

[more bush thick-knee calls]

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or Podchaser, or just tell a friend. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 223: The Elephantnose Fish and the Burmese Star Tortoise

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This week let’s learn about an amazing little fish and an awesome tortoise! All the pictures here were taken by ME at the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga!

Further Reading:

Star tortoise makes meteoric comeback

The astonishing elephantnose fish:

Burmese star tortoises:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw. I’m fully vaccinated now so I’m able to go out and about cautiously, still wearing a mask of course, and this weekend I went to the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga. I had a fantastic time and saw lots and lots of amazing fish and other animals! If you ever get a chance to visit, it’s definitely worth it.

When I got home, I kept thinking about one particular fish. I wanted to learn more about it. So I decided to make an episode about that fish and another animal I saw at the aquarium.

The fish that captivated me so much is called the elephantnose fish. I’d never seen anything like it. The one I saw was about the length of my hand, dark gray or black in color, and looked like a pretty ordinary fish except for the proboscis that gives it its name. The fish has a flexible projection from its nose that it was using to probe around in the gravel at the bottom of its river habitat.

I should mention that the Tennessee Aquarium has enormous displays, beautifully designed to mimic the animals’ natural habitat and give them plenty of room to move around. There’s one tidal animals display in the ocean side of the aquarium where the water sloshes through and around rocks to mimic the tide. It’s fascinating to watch the fish in that exhibit stay pretty much motionless despite the water’s movement, because that’s what they’re adapted for. So there’s plenty of opportunities to see an animal’s behavior.

Anyway, I took lots of pictures of the elephantnose fish and when I got home, I started researching it. It turns out that it’s way more interesting even than I thought!

It lives in rivers and other freshwater in central Africa and grows up to 9 inches long, or 23 cm. That’s according to the info display next to the exhibit. The display also said the fish was a species called Peter’s elephantnose fish, although it’s possible they have more than one species on display. There are a lot of elephantnose fish, more properly called mormyrids or freshwater elephantfish, and many of them have this interesting proboscis.

The proboscis isn’t actually a nose like an elephant’s trunk. It’s technically a modified chin and mouth, called the Schnauzenorgan. The elephantnose fish mostly eats small worms and insect larvae, and it especially loves mosquito larvae.

The elephantnose fish uses electroreception to navigate the muddy waters where it lives and find food. Its whole body, and especially its Schnauzenorgan, is covered with electrocyte cells that can detect tiny electrical pulses. If you remember way back in episode ten, about electric animals, many animals can sense the weak bioelectrical fields that other animals generate in their nerves and muscles. It’s especially common in fish since water conducts electricity much better than air does. But the elephantnose fish also generates a stronger electric field of its own, which it uses as a sort of sonar. It generates the field in special electric organs in its tail, and as it moves around in the water, the electric field comes in contact with other things—plants, rocks, other fish, and so on. It’s not strong enough to give an animal a shock, but it’s strong enough for the elephantnose fish to easily sense changes in its environment. The fish can tell what it’s near because its electrical field interacts differently with different things. A rock, for instance, doesn’t conduct electricity so the fish probably senses it as a blank spot in its electrical field, while a plant may conduct electricity even better than water and therefore changes the shape of the fish’s electrical field in a particular way. But it doesn’t generate its bioelectric field all the time. It can control when it discharges pulses of electricity the same way a dolphin can control when it sends out pulses of sound. If the fish feels threatened, maybe by another elephantnose fish nosing in on its territory, it will pulse much faster so it can keep tabs on what the other fish is doing—plus, of course, the other elephantnose fish can sense its pulses and can interpret how aggressive the first fish is. Female elephantnose fish generate a slightly different electrical field than males, which allows males and females to find each other to spawn.

You may be thinking about all this and wondering how the elephantnose fish can sense the tiny bioelectric charges of its tiny prey over its own electric field. Its electric field is much stronger than that of a teensy worm hiding in the mud, after all. It would be like trying to hear a bird chirping outside through a closed window while someone is playing music really loudly in the room you’re in. It turns out that the elephantnose fish is able to filter out its own electrical field so it can sense other things—but at the same time it’s still able to navigate using its electrical field.

The elephantnose fish needs a large brain to interpret all these complicated bioelectrical signals, and it has a brain to body size ratio equivalent to birds and possibly equivalent to primates. It’s not a social fish, and intelligence seems to develop from complex social interactions, although the fish is considered pretty intelligent. I mean, generally fish are not masterminds, so it’s not hard to be considered an intelligent fish, but the elephantnose fish has the brainpower to pull it off.

The elephantnose fish lives along the bottom of rivers and ponds, usually murky ones, and is mostly nocturnal. For a long time researchers thought it probably couldn’t see very well. It turns out, though, that it sees extremely well. Its retina is made up of cup-shaped cells that act like tiny mirrors, reflecting light and concentrating it so it can see better even in low light.

The elephantnose fish is a popular pet, but it is hard to keep. You have to really know what you’re doing and have a really big aquarium that’s set up just right. The males are aggressive toward each other and while the fish isn’t threatened in the wild, from what I could find out it has never bred in captivity.

Speaking of breeding in captivity, our other animal this week isn’t a fish but a reptile. It’s called the Burmese star tortoise and unlike the elephantnose fish, it’s critically threatened in the wild. It also doesn’t have a Schauzenorgan and instead just has a short little snub nose and lives on land in dry forests in Myanmar. It’s basically the opposite of the elephantnose fish.

It gets the name star tortoise because of its pretty shell markings that look sort of like stars. It can grow up to a foot long, or 30 cm, and eats grass, fruit, and other plant material, but will also eat mushrooms, insects, and snails. It has a steeply domed carapace, the proper name for its shell, with big bumps on it. It lives in central Myanmar in south Asia, but by the late 1990s it was almost extinct in the wild. The tortoise was eaten by locals, but mostly it was captured and sold as a pet or as a medicine ingredient even though it’s a tortoise, not a medicine. This was despite the tortoise being a protected species in the country.

Conservationists realized they had to act fast before this lovely tortoise went extinct. In 2004, authorities caught smugglers with 175 of the tortoises, so Myanmar’s conservation group created tortoise breeding facilities within three of the country’s wildlife sanctuaries. They consulted zoo veterinarians and tortoise experts from all over the world to make sure the rescued tortoises were as happy and healthy as possible. The first captive-bred Burmese star tortoise babies had only been hatched the year before, since it’s hard to breed in captivity.

Each sanctuary has guards that protect it from anyone who wants to sneak in and steal the animals to sell, and 150 of the tortoises have little radio trackers attached to their shells so conservationists can keep an eye on exactly where they are. They go out and check on the tagged tortoises every other week.

Since 2004, over 16,000 Burmese star tortoises have hatched in captivity and about a thousand have been returned to the wild. They’d release more into the wild, but the conservationists are worried that poachers would collect them to sell. The country of Myanmar is in a long-running civil war, unfortunately, and that makes it hard for the people living there to concentrate on conservation. Their main goal is just to stay safe. Hopefully things will get better soon for the people of Myanmar, and when they do, the tortoises will be waiting.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or Podchaser, or just tell a friend. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 222: Two Dangerous Birds of New Guinea

This week let’s learn about a couple of dangerous birds of New Guinea! They’re not what you might think.

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Further Reading/Watching:

How Dangerous Are Cassowaries, Really?

Inside the Cassowary’s Casque

Breakfast Club Ep. 34: Jack Dumbacher on Poisonous Birds (a long video but a really great deep dive into the pitohui)

The mighty cassowary with a mighty casque on its head, looking like a modern dinosaur, which it is:

A cassowary and babies:

A hooded pitohui, looking surprised to learn it’s toxic:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

It’s time to revisit New Guinea and its weird and amazing birds! This week we’re going to look at two dangerous birds of New Guinea. Thanks again to M Is for Awesome for the suggestion.

Lots of birds are pretty or cute, and that’s great. But some birds…are dangerous. For instance, the cassowary. There are three species alive today, all of which live in New Guinea along with some other nearby islands. The southern cassowary lives in northeastern Australia too.

It’s a big, shy, flightless bird that lives deep in the rainforest. The biggest species is the southern cassowary, which can grow up to six and a half feet tall, or 2 meters. Its wings are small but it can run extremely fast, up to 30 mph, or 50 km/h. It can also jump and even swim extremely well. This is surprising not just because it’s such a big bird but because it looks ungainly. It’s shaped sort of like its relation, the emu, although its neck is shorter, with a big chunky body, long strong legs, and a little head in comparison. Females are larger than males on average with more brightly colored necks.

The cassowary’s body is covered with black feathers while the legs are bare, as is the neck and head. The neck is bright blue in females, paler blue in males, with red wattles that hang down as decoration. The face is a lighter blue with a black bill. It has spine-like feathers that grow from its small wings, which appear to be for decoration too, or at least the cassowary doesn’t seem to use those spiny feathers for anything. But the most unusual thing about the cassowary is the casque on its head.

The casque is a sort of plate that grows on the top of the bird’s head. Different species of cassowary have different shaped casques, and there’s some variation in size and shape of casques from individual to individual. The dwarf cassowary is the smallest, naturally, and has a relatively low casque. The northern cassowary has a larger, taller casque and the southern cassowary has the largest, tallest casque, shaped sort of like your hand if you keep it flat with all your fingers together, only instead of flat it’s sticking up from the top of the bird’s head. Looking at a cassowary is like looking at a dinosaur with a beak.

The casque consists of a bony core made up of two layers around an open space, and it’s covered with a keratin sheath. This is similar in structure to the kind of horns many hoofed animals have, like cattle and sheep, but there are plenty of differences. The sheath isn’t as hard as the keratin sheath on a mammal’s horn, for one thing. It’s actually a little bit leathery. It also contains a pocket inside the skull beneath the casque that’s full of delicate tissue made up mostly of tiny blood vessels.

No one except the cassowary knows for sure what the casque is for. Over the years, researchers have suggested it might be used as a weapon, it might act as a shield to keep falling fruit from injuring its head when it’s under a fruit tree, it might knock the casque against a tree to make fruit fall, it might use it to dig with, it might use the empty space inside as a resonant chamber to make noise with, or it might use the empty space inside to help it hear faint sounds.

Most likely, the casque is primarily for display. Since the cassowary does communicate with low-frequency booming sounds to attract mates, it might also help with resonance or amplification of its calls.

The cassowary mostly eats fruit, which it swallows whole, even large fruit like apples. This is good for the plants, since it poops out seeds which are then ready to sprout in their own little pile of fresh fertilizer. It will also eat flowers and other plant material, but if it can catch a frog or mouse, or other small animal, including insects and snails, it will eat them too. It even sometimes eats carrion.

A female’s territory overlaps that of several males, and she seems to form a bond with all of them. In breeding season she makes deep, booming calls, which a male answers with a running dance. The female often chases the male into water and follows him in, where he then chases her out of the water before they mate. Then the male builds a nest on the ground, basically just a pile of grass and leaves, and the female lays her eggs in the nest. The male takes care of the eggs and the chicks when they hatch. Meanwhile, the female leaves and finds one of the other males in her territory. She will usually have a clutch of eggs with each male.

So, why is the cassowary considered dangerous? Because of its big, strong legs and big feet with claws. Its first claw is especially long and sharp. A cassowary will kick if it feels threatened or if it’s protecting its eggs or chicks, and many people consider it the most dangerous bird in the world.

In reality, though, while many people have been injured by cassowaries, usually ones kept in captivity for their feathers, only a few have died. One 16yo boy died in 1926 when a cassowary kicked him in the neck, but that’s the most recent death known. Dogs are in more danger.

These days, a lot of people are chased or injured by cassowaries demanding food. This happens when a cassowary is fed by tourists or even locals who think they’re cute and maybe want to take selfies with them. The cassowaries lose their fear of humans and get aggressive. Don’t feed wild animals and don’t get too close to them. If you must take a selfie with a wild animal, the quokka is a lot less dangerous.

Next, let’s talk about the hooded pitohui. It lives in forests throughout much of New Guinea and eats seeds, insects and other invertebrates, and fruit. It’s related to orioles and looks very similar, with a dark orange body and black wings, head, and tail. Its eyes are red. It’s a social songbird that lives in family groups where everyone works to help raise the babies.

Obviously, it’s not kicking anyone to death. Instead, it’s toxic.

The people who live in New Guinea know all about its toxicity, of course. They know not to bother killing the pitohui because it tastes nasty and will make you sick. They mentioned this to European naturalists as long ago as 1895. But ha ha ha, birds aren’t toxic, obviously that’s just superstition by “primitive natives,” right? So it wasn’t until 1989 that a grad student studying birds of paradise made a surprising discovery.

Jack Dumbacher was trying to net some birds of paradise to study but kept catching pitohuis in his nets. He would untangle the birds and let them fly away, but naturally they were upset and one scratched him. He was in a hurry so he just licked the cuts clean. His tongue started to tingle, then burn, and then it went numb. Uh oh.

Fortunately the effects didn’t last long, but when he mentioned it to another researcher who turned out to have had the same thing happen, they realized something weird was going on. Dumbacher asked some of the local people what the cause might be, and they all said, “Yeah, don’t lick the pitihui bird.”

Dumbacher did, though, because sometimes scientists have to lick things. The next time his nets caught a pitihui, Dumbacher plucked one of its feathers and put it in his mouth. His mouth immediately started to burn.

Dumbacher was amazed to learn about a toxic bird, but it took a year for anyone else to take an interest, specifically Dr. John W. Daly, an expert in poison dart frogs in Central and South America. Back in the 1960s while he was studying the frogs, in order to determine which ones were actually toxic and which ones weren’t, he frequently poked a frog and licked his finger, so Daly completely understood Dumbacher putting a feather in his mouth.

Maybe don’t put random stuff in your mouth. Both Dumbacher and Daly were lucky they didn’t die, because it turns out that poison dart frogs and pitihuis both contain one of the deadliest neurotoxins in the world, called batrachotoxin.

A chemical analysis determined that both animals excrete the exact same toxin. If you remember episode 204, where we talked about poison dart frogs, you’ll remember that in captivity, poison dart frogs lose their toxicity. Daly was the one who figured this out, but he couldn’t figure out why except that he was pretty sure they absorbed the toxins from something they were eating in the wild. He thought the same might be true for the pitihui.

Dumbacher agreed, and after he achieved his doctorate he started making expeditions to New Guinea to try to find out what. Both he and Daly thought it was probably an insect. But there are a lot of insects in Papua New Guinea and he couldn’t stay there and test insects for toxins all the time. He came and went as often as he could, and to make his trips easier he left his equipment in a village rather than hauling it back and forth with him.

What he didn’t know is that one villager, named Avit Wako, had gotten interested in the project. When Dumbacher was gone, he continued the experiments. In 1995 Dumbacher sent a student intern to the village, since he didn’t have time to go himself, and Avit Wako said, “Hey, good to see you! I solved your problem. The toxin comes from this particular kind of beetle.” He was right, too. The toxin comes from beetles in the genus Choresine.

We still aren’t sure what beetle or other insect supplies toxins to poison dart frogs. Maybe they should get Avit Wako on the case.

The hooded pitohui, along with its close relation the variable pitohui, is the most toxic, but there are other species and many of them are toxic too. The pitohuis are separated into three different families that aren’t as closely related as originally thought, although they all look pretty similar.

But the pitohui isn’t the only toxic bird in New Guinea. The blue-capped ifrit is another little songbird that lives only in the rainforests of New Guinea. It’s brownish-yellow with a yellow belly and black and white markings on the head. It isn’t closely related to the pitohui but its skin and feathers contain the same toxin that the pitohui’s does, which researchers think they also get from the same beetle.

There’s also a bird called the rufous shrikethrush that lives in New Guinea and Australia. It’s a little gray-brown bird with a reddish-brown breast, and it mostly eats insects. It is actually related to the pitohui, and like the pitohui its skin and feathers are toxic—but only in the subspecies that live in New Guinea. Australian shrikethrushes aren’t toxic because the toxic beetles aren’t found in Australia.

New Guinea undoubtedly has bird species that haven’t been described scientifically yet. Who knows how many of them may also be toxic? Just to be on the safe side, don’t lick any of them.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or Podchaser, or just tell a friend. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 221: Arachnids in the Antarctic!

Thanks to Ella for this week’s suggestion. There may not technically be spiders in the Antarctic, but there are mites.

A nunatak (note the size of the research vehicles at the bottom left):

I don’t have any pictures of the Antarctic mites, so here are some red velvet mites, although they’re giants compared to their Antarctic cousins:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

This week we’re going to have a short episode, because I get my second Covid-19 vaccine on the Thursday before this episode goes live and I want to have the episode all finished before then. That way if I feel bad afterwards I can rest. Thanks to Ella for this week’s suggestion!

Back in episode 90, about some mystery spiders, I mentioned that spiders live everywhere in the world except Antarctica. Well, guess what. Ella sent me some links about spiders that live in…Antarctica!

Antarctica is a landmass at the South Pole, specifically a continent about twice the size of Australia. It looks bigger than it really is because ice projects out from the land and is only supported by water, called an ice shelf. It’s not a little bit of ice, either. It’s over a mile thick, or nearly 2 km. The ice is called the Antarctic ice sheet and it covers 98% of the continent. The only places not covered in ice are some rock outcroppings and a few valleys, called dry valleys because they basically get no precipitation, not even snow and certainly not rain. Researchers estimate that it hasn’t rained in these dry valleys in almost two million years. There are no plants, just gravel. There are no animals but some bacterial life that live inside rocks and under at least one glacier. Scientists have used these dry valleys to test equipment designed for Mars. This is not a hospitable land. Everything that lives in Antarctica is considered an extremophile.

That doesn’t mean there’s no life in Antarctica, though, just that it’s only found in a few places, mostly along the coast or on nearby islands. Emperor penguins and Adelie penguins, several species of seal, and some sea birds live at least part of their lives in and around Antarctica, as do some whales. There are lichens, algae, and a few low-growing plants like liverwort and moss. And there are some invertebrates, although not very many and not large at all. The largest is a flightless midge that only grows 6 mm long. But what we’re interested in today are mites found only in Antarctica.

We talked about mites in episode 186 when we learned about the red velvet mite. Mites are arachnids, although they’re not technically spiders, but frankly we’re just quibbling at this point. It has eight legs and is in the class Arachnida, so I say there are spiders in Antarctica. Or close enough.

There are 30 species of mite in Antarctica. They mostly live on islands throughout the Antarctic peninsula, which sticks out from one side of the continent like a tail pointing at the very tip of South America. All the mites eat moss, algae, and decomposing lichens. They’re also teeny-tiny, less than a millimeter long.

One type of mite is found on the mainland of East Antarctica instead of just on islands. It’s called Maudheimia and it only lives on big rock outcroppings that stick up through the ice. These rocks are called nunataks and are covered with lichens. But nunataks are far apart, sometimes hundreds of miles apart, and the mites are so tiny they’re just about microscopic. How did they get from one nunatak to the next?

To find out, we have to learn some history about Antarctica. It hasn’t always been at the South Pole. It was once part of the supercontinent Gondwana, and 500 million years ago it was right smack on the equator. You know, tropical. As the centuries passed and the continents continued their slow, constant dance around the Earth, Gondwana drifted southward and broke apart. Antarctica was still connected to Australia on one side and South America on the other, and was still subtropical. Then it broke off from Australia around 40 million years ago, drifted farther southward, and ultimately, about 25 million years ago, separated from South America. Ever since it’s been isolated at the South Pole, and by 15 million years ago it was ice-covered.

Fossils of dinosaurs and other ancient animals have been discovered in Antarctica, but it’s hard to find fossils and excavate them when the ground is under a mile of ice. The animals and plants that once lived in Antarctica went extinct gradually as its climate became less and less hospitable, and most of the remaining holdouts went extinct when the ice age began and the continent’s climate was even colder and harsher than it is now.

But one animal remains, toughing it out on rock outcroppings where the temperature can drop to -31 degrees Fahrenheit, or -35 Celsius. Maudheimia, the brave little mite.

Maudheimia was probably common throughout Antarctica’s mountains before the big freeze happened, and would have already been well adapted to the cold of high elevations. As the continent grew colder and colder, the little mite adapted even more. The fluids in its body contain an organic antifreeze agent so it doesn’t freeze solid. As the ice covered more of its home, it migrated, in its tiny way, to the rocks that stayed ice-free and allowed lichen to survive too. It’s reasonably common despite its restricted habitat, which is good because the female Maudheimia only lays one egg every year or two. There are four species known.

Maudheimia probably isn’t the only animal that survived Antarctica’s ice age, though. Species of springtail only found in Antarctica live alongside Maudheimia, and there are tardigrades and tiny nematode worms around too. All these were probably around long before the end of the ice age around 12,000 years ago.

There may be other microscopic or nearly microscopic animals we haven’t discovered yet. The Antarctic is the only place in the world that humans have never colonized, although a small number of people live in scientific outposts while conducting research of various kinds. There’s a lot we don’t know about the continent.

For instance, there are at least 400 subglacial lakes in Antarctica. The lakes form between the bedrock and the ice sheet, like a little bubble of water. Iceland, Greenland, and Canada have some too. They’re hard to study, naturally, because it requires drilling through over a mile of ice to get a water sample. So far researchers have discovered extremophile microbes in these lakes, but so few samples have been taken that we certainly don’t know everything that’s down there. Most of the lakes occasionally overflow into nearby subglacial lakes, but at least some appear to have been isolated under the ice for potentially millions of years. They may contain bacteria and other microbial life that are radically different from modern species.

There’s one other place that we know has a subglacial lake, discovered in 2018. It’s on the planet Mars. I wonder if there’s anything living in that one.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or Podchaser, or just tell a friend. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 220: Panda Mysteries, Solved!

This week let’s learn about a mystery panda and a few small panda mysteries!

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Further Reading:

Mystery of the brown giant panda deepens

The Qinling panda is not like other pandas:

The giant panda is subtly different from the Qinling panda. Can you spot the difference?

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

I usually like to shake things up from week to week, but April has turned into mammal month. We’ve got another interesting mammal this week, a panda that until recently was a mystery. But first! A quick correction from last week. Pranav emailed to let me know that I got infrasound and ultrasound mixed up. Tarsiers communicate and hear in ultrasound. Infrasound is below human hearing while ultrasound is above.

We’ve talked about the giant panda before in episodes 42 and 109. Pretty much everyone is familiar with the panda because it looks so cuddly. It’s a bear, but unlike every other bear it eats plants. Specifically, it eats bamboo, although it will also sometimes eat bird eggs and small animals. It’s mostly white but its ears are black, it has black patches around and just under its eyes, and its legs are black. It also has a strip of black around its body at about its shoulders.

But what if I told you there was another kind of panda that wasn’t black and white? I’m not talking about the red panda, which is not actually very closely related to bears. I’m talking about the Qinling panda.

Qinling refers to the Qinling Mountains in central China, which is where the pandas live. There aren’t many of them, although to be fair there aren’t many pandas in the wild at all. Estimates vary from around 200 to 300 Qinling pandas in the wild. They live in two big nature reserves, and there’s only one in captivity.

The reason you’ve probably never heard of the Qinling panda is because until 2005, no one realized it wasn’t a regular panda with slightly different color fur. In 2005 a genetic study determined that the Qinling panda has been isolated from other pandas for at least 12,000 years and is different enough that it’s considered a subspecies of panda.

The Qinling panda is sometimes called the brown panda or sepia panda, because instead of being black and white, it’s brown and brownish-white. Where an ordinary panda has white fur, the Qinling panda has light tan or light brown fur. Where an ordinary panda has black fur, the Qinling panda has brown fur. It’s not dark brownish-black, just a medium brown. It also has a smaller, rounder head than other pandas.

In 1989, before anyone realized the Qinling panda was a different subspecies, a female was captured as a mate for a captive giant panda. The pair had a baby who looked like an ordinary black and white panda cub, at least for the first four months of his life. At four months old his fur started to look more and more brown, until he was a brown and pale brown panda instead of a black and white panda. Unfortunately, the baby didn’t survive to grow up, and the mother panda died in 2000.

The Qinling panda lives in high elevations and eats bamboo, just like other pandas. Because there are so few of them, and because they’re hard to keep in captivity and hard to find in the wild, we still don’t know a whole lot about them. We do know that the Qinling panda tends to have more tooth problems than regular pandas, sometimes losing its teeth or just fracturing them. This may be due to inbreeding, but it may be genetic.

The Qinling panda’s genetic profile indicates that it has more traits in common with the ancestor it shares with giant pandas than the giant panda does. In the time that the populations have been separate, the giant panda has evolved more quickly than the Qinling panda. The giant panda’s teeth may be better adapted to its diet than the Qinling panda’s teeth are.

Now that I’ve told you that the Qinling panda has a different color coat than giant pandas, let me back that up a little. Not all Qinling pandas have brown fur. Most are black and white, although they may have a brown tinge to the coat. The brown pandas were first noticed in the 1960s and researchers worry that it’s a sign of inbreeding. Then again, the genetic studies done on Qinling pandas show a healthy amount of genetic diversity with little sign of inbreeding. The brown coloration might be due to other factors.

While we’re talking about panda coloration, why does the giant panda have such unusual markings? Even animals that are black and white aren’t patterned like the panda. I’m happy to report that the researcher who led the study that determined that zebras have black and white stripes to confuse biting flies, which we talked about in episode 149, seems to have solved the panda markings mystery too.

Because the panda’s diet is so low in calories and nutrition, it can never build up the kind of fat stores that other bears do. As a result, it doesn’t have fat reserves that would allow it to go dormant during the winter and sleep most of the time. The white fur helps hide it in snow during the winter. Adult giant pandas don’t have to worry too much about predators because they’re so big, up to a little more than six feet long, or 2 meters, but young pandas are vulnerable to snow leopards, eagles, black bears, and other predators. The black markings help break up the body’s pattern and help hide it in the bamboo forests where there’s lots of dappled shade.

But the giant panda’s black ears may actually help deter predators. Many animals signal aggression with their ears, and because the panda’s ears are large and black against its white-furred head, potential predators may perceive the panda as being aggressive.

All pandas have to travel sometimes long distances to find enough food to eat, and they need more than one species of bamboo. Some bamboo species contain more nutrients than others, while different species of bamboo sprout, flower, and die back at different times of the year. Female pandas will also sometimes wander widely to find a mate, although she will often return to her home territory to give birth.

Most animals are active at one of three sections of the day. Diurnal animals are mostly active during daytime, nocturnal animals are mostly active at night, and crepuscular animals are mostly active at dawn and dusk. The giant panda, however, including the Qinling panda, is mostly active in the morning, in the afternoon, and at midnight. We don’t even have a term for that pattern because it appears to be unique to the panda. But you know what? If that makes the panda happy, that’s fine. The panda can get up at midnight to snack on bamboo all it wants.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or just tell a friend. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us that way. Oh, and we have a mailing list sign-up now too!

Thanks for listening!

Episode 219: The Strange and Mysterious Tarsier

Thanks to Phoebe for suggesting the tarsier, this week’s strange and interesting primate!

Further Reading:

Decoding of tarsier genome reveals ties to humans

Long-lost ‘Furby-like’ Primate Discovered in Indonesia

Tarsiers look like weird alien babies:

A tarsier nomming on a lizard:

A tarsier nomming on an insect:

The pygmy tarsier and someone’s thumb:

There’s probably not much going on in that little brain:

Show Transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

This week we’re looking at a weird and amazing little primate, but it’s not a monkey or ape. It’s the tarsier, with thanks to Phoebe who suggested it. It’s pronounced tarsiAY or tarsiER and both are correct.

The tarsier is such a little mess that until relatively recently scientists weren’t even completely certain it was a primate. A 2016 genetic study determined for sure that it is indeed a primate even though it differs in many ways from all other primates alive. For instance, it’s a carnivore. Most primates are herbivores and some are omnivores, including humans and chimpanzees, but only the tarsier is an obligate carnivore. That means it has to eat meat and only meat, whether it’s invertebrates, birds, reptiles, or small mammals like rodents.

Scientists divide primates into two groups informally, into wet-noses and dry-noses. Wet-nose doesn’t refer to a nose that’s runny but to a nose that stays moist, like a dog’s nose. This splits along the same lines as simians and prosimians, another way to group primates. Humans and other apes, along with monkeys, are simians, and also dry-noses. If you’re not sure if that’s accurate, just touch the end of your nose. Make sure you’re not standing in the rain or just got out of the bathtub, though. All other primates are wet-noses, and also prosimians, except for the tarsier. The tarsier is sort of in between. It’s grouped with the wet-nose primates, but it turns out to be more closely related to the dry-nose primates than the wet-noses. Also, its nose is actually dry.

One interesting difference between prosimians and simians concerns vitamin C. Vitamin C is found in a lot of foods, but especially in fruit and vegetables. If you don’t have any vitamin C in your diet, you will eventually die of scurvy like an old pirate, so make sure to eat plenty of fruit and vegetables. But most animals don’t need to eat foods containing vitamin C because their bodies already produce the vitamin C they need. Humans, apes, and monkeys have to worry about scurvy but prosimians don’t. But the tarsier does need vitamin C even though it’s a prosimian. A lot of researchers think the tarsier should be grouped with the simians, not prosimians.

The tarsier currently lives only in southeast Asia, mostly on forested islands, although tarsier fossils have been found throughout Asia, Europe, and North America. Genetic studies also indicate it probably started evolving separately from other primates around 55 million years ago in what is now China.

As it happens, we have a fossil that appears to be an early ancestor of the tarsier. Archicebus achilles was discovered in 2003 and studied for an entire decade before it was described in 2013, and it lived about 55 million years ago in what is now central China. It looks a lot like a tiny tarsier, but with smaller eyes that suggest it was active during the day. Its feet were shaped like a monkey’s, though, not like a tarsier’s feet. It probably only weighed about an ounce, or 28 grams. That’s about the same weight as a pencil. It had sharp little teeth and probably ate insects. So far the 2003 specimen is the only one found, but it’s remarkably complete so researchers have been able to learn a lot about it. If I’d been one of the scientists studying it, there is no way I could have waited ten whole years to tell people about it. I’d have studied it for like six months and then thought, “Okay, good enough, HEY EVERYONE LET ME TELL YOU ABOUT THIS COOL ANIMAL.”

The tarsier is nocturnal and has enormous eyes to help it see better in the dark. Its eyes are so big and round, and frankly the tarsier is not the brainiest animal, that its eyes are actually bigger than its brain. The tarsier also has mouse-like ears, long fingers and toes with sucker-like discs at the end to help it grip branches, and an extremely long tail that’s scaly on the underside. It spends almost its whole life in trees, where it climbs and jumps from branch to branch. When it climbs up a tree, it presses its long tail against the trunk to help it balance.

It’s not a big animal, though. A typical tarsier measures about six inches long, or 15 cm, from the top of its little round head to the bottom of its bottom, not counting its tail. Its tail can be almost a foot long, or 25 cm, though, and its hind legs are also extremely long, about as long as the tail. Its body is rounded with short plush fur, usually brown, gray, or dark gold in color.

With its big eyes and chonky body, if you wrapped up a tarsier in a little robe so you can’t see how small its ears are and how long its legs and tail and fingers are, it would kind of look like a miniature baby Yoda guy from that Mandalorian TV show. Someone please do that. Also, it kind of looks like a cute and furry Gollum from the Lord of the Rings movies.

Unlike other primates, the tarsier can turn its head 180 degrees in both directions. Basically it can turn its head like an owl. This is helpful because its eyes are so big it can’t move them. It can only look straight ahead, so it needs to be able to move its head all around instead. This is actually the same for the owl, too.

The tarsier mostly eats insects, but it will eat anything it can catch, including venomous snakes. It doesn’t just eat the meat, though. It eats just about everything, including bones. It has a wide mouth and strong jaws and teeth, and it’s so agile that it’s been observed to jump up and catch a bird as it flies past. Current speculation is that the tarsier gets enough vitamin C from the insects it eats that it doesn’t need to eat fruit, but no one knows for sure yet. Some species of bat can’t synthesize vitamin C in the body and have to get it from their diet, which is made up of insects.

We talked about the tarsier a little in episode 43, about the Chinese ink monkey, and also way back in episode eight, the strange recordings episode, because the tarsier can communicate in ultrasound [not infrasound]—sounds too high for humans to hear. It has incredibly acute hearing and often hunts by sound alone. Researchers speculate that not only can the tarsier avoid predators by making sounds higher than they can hear, it can also hear many insects that also communicate in ultrasound. As an example of how incredibly high-pitched their voices are, the highest sounds humans can hear are measured at 20 kilohertz. The tarsier can make sounds around 70 kh and can hear sounds up to 91 kh.

The tarsier also makes sounds humans can hear. Here’s some audio of a spectral tarsier from Indonesia:

[tarsier sound]

Some species of tarsier are social, some are more solitary. All are shy, though, and they don’t do well in captivity. Unfortunately, because the tarsier is so small and cute and weird-looking, some people want to keep them as pets even though they almost always die quite soon. As a result, not only is the tarsier threatened by habitat loss, it’s also threatened by being captured for the illegal pet trade. Fortunately, conservation efforts are underway to protect the tarsier within large tracts of its natural habitat, which is also beneficial for other animals and plants.

The smallest species is the pygmy tarsier, which is only found in central Sulawesi in Indonesia, in high elevations. It’s four inches long, or 10.5 cm, from head to butt. You measure tarsiers like you measure frogs. It’s basically the size of a mouse but with a really long tail and long legs and big huge round eyes and teeny ears and a taste for the flesh of mortals. Or, rather, insects, since that’s mostly what it eats.

For almost a century people thought the pygmy tarsier was extinct. No one had seen one since 1921. Then in 2000, scientists trapping rats in Indonesia caught a pygmy tarsier. Imagine their surprise! Also, they accidentally killed it so I bet they felt horrible but also elated. It wasn’t until 2008 that some live pygmy tarsiers were spotted by a team of scientists who went looking specifically for them. This wasn’t easy since tarsiers are nocturnal, so they had to hunt for them at night, and because the wet, foggy mountains where the pygmy tarsier lives are really hard for humans to navigate safely. It took the team two months, but they managed to capture three of the tarsiers long enough to put little radio collars on them to track their movements.

One of the things Phoebe wanted to know about tarsiers is if there are any cryptids or mysteries associated with them. You’d think there would be, if only because the tarsier is kind of a creepy-cute animal, but I only managed to find one kinda-sorta tarsier-related cryptid.

According to a 1932 book called Myths and Legends of the Australian Aboriginals, a little red goblin creature lives in trees in some parts of Australia, especially the wild fig tree. It’s called the yara-ma-yha-who and it looks sort of like a frog but sort of like a monitor lizard. It’s bright red and stands around four feet tall, or 1.2 meters, with skinny arms and legs. The ends of its fingers and toes are cup-shaped suckers. Its head is large with a wide frog mouth and no teeth.

When a person comes along, the yara-ma-yha-who drops down from its tree and grabs them by the arm. It uses the suckers on its fingers and toes to drain blood from their arm, then swallows the person whole. Then later it horks them back up, but they’re smaller than before and their skin is starting to turn red. Eventually the person turns into a yara-ma-yha-who, unless they manage to escape in time.

Some cryptozoologists speculate that the yara-ma-yha-who may be based on the tarsier. The tarsier has never lived in Australia, but it does live in relatively nearby islands. Most tarsier species do have toe pads that help them cling to branches, but frogs also have toe pads and frogs are found in Australia. Likewise, by no stretch of the imagination is the tarsier bright red, four feet tall, toothless, or active in the daytime. It’s more likely the legend of the yara-ma-yha-who is inspired by frogs, snakes, monitor lizards, and other Australian animals, not the tarsier. But just to be on the safe side, if you live in Australia you might want to walk around wild fig trees instead of under them.

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