Episode 287: Sand Crabs, Sea Slugs, and a Mystery Octopus



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It’s INVERTEBRATE AUGUST! Thanks to Elizabeth, Richard, and Llewelly for their suggestions this week!

Further reading:

Meet Phylliroe: the sea slug that looks and swims like a fish

Hey, so these sea slugs decapitate themselves and grow new bodies

Found, Then Lost, Then Found Again: Scientists Have Rediscovered the Sand Octopus

A sand crab in the air:

Sand crabs in the water, feeding:

Phylliroe is a sea slug that looks like a fish (pictures from article linked to above):

How I used to draw snails when I was a kid, adding an extra foot because I didn’t understand that the “foot” of a snail/slug is the flat part of the body that touches the ground:

The mysterious sand octopus in mid-swim:

Show transcript:

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

It’s the first week of invertebrate August and we’re heading to the ocean for our first episode! Let’s jump right in with an episode about sand crabs, a couple of sea slugs, and an octopus mystery that was recently solved. Thanks to Elizabeth, my brother Richard, and Llewelly for their suggestions!

We’ll start with Elizabeth’s suggestion. The sand crab is also called the sand bug, the mole crab, or similar names that refer to its habit of burrowing into the sand. It’s common throughout much of the world’s oceans, especially in warm areas, and can be extremely numerous. It’s also sometimes called the sand flea, but it’s not the kind of tiny jumping crustacean that bites, also called the sand flea. This little crustacean is harmless to humans. It doesn’t even have pincers.

The sand crab isn’t a true crab although it is closely related to them. It’s gray-brown and has a tough carapace to protect it when it’s washed around by waves and to help protect it from predators. Females are larger than males and can grow up to an inch and a half long in the largest species, or about 35 mm, and an inch wide, or 25 mm. So it’s longer than it is wide, unlike most crabs, and its carapace is domed sort of like a tiny tortoise shell. Overall, it’s shaped sort of like a streamlined barrel. I saw one site that called it the sand cicada and it is actually about the same size and shape as a cicada, which it isn’t related to at all except that they’re both invertebrates. Some species have little spines on the carapace while others are smooth.

The sand crab lives in the ocean, specifically in the intertidal zone right at the area where waves wash up on the beach. This is called the swash, by the way, which is a great word. The sand crab burrows into the sand tail-first, using its strong rear legs, and during the time that there’s water over the sand, it unfurls its feathery antennae to filter tiny food particles from the water. When the wave goes out, it retracts its antennae and works on staying buried in the sand as the next wave rolls in.

In some species, males are very similar to females, but smaller. In other species, they’re tiny, barely 3 mm long at most, and even as adults they resemble larvae. The male finds a female and grabs hold of her leg, and there he stays. I tried to find out more about this, but it doesn’t look like the humble sand crab gets a lot of attention. If you’re interested in becoming a scientist who studies invertebrates and you want to spend a lot of time on the beach, the sand crab would make a good study buddy.

Lots of fish and birds eat sand crabs, and people do too. In many places they’re considered a delicacy and grilled as a snack. This isn’t surprising since they’re related to other crustaceans people like to eat, like crabs and lobsters.

Next, let’s learn about two strange sea slugs. We’ve talked about sea slugs a few times before, including in episodes 215 and 129, but there are a lot of species, with more being discovered pretty often.

Llewelly sent me a link ages ago about a sea slug that’s related to the sea bunny, which we talked about in the cutest invertebrates episode, 215. It’s called Phylliroe and doesn’t look like a little bunny or a slug. It looks like a fish.

Phylliroe grows a few inches long at most, or 5 cm, and the article Llewelly sent, which I’ve linked to in the show notes, points out that it’s about the size of a goldfish. Its rear end is shaped roughly like a fish tail, which it uses just like a fish tail to propel itself through the water. It’s probable that Phylliroe’s shape doesn’t have anything to do with disguising it, but instead is just the result of convergent evolution. A body streamlined to move through the water with minimal resistance is always going to be fish-shaped, because that’s why fish are shaped the way they are. The fish-like tail is also an efficient way to move through the water relatively quickly.

Phylliroe mostly eats tiny jellyfish, which it grabs with its small foot. It doesn’t need a big flat foot to glide on, since it doesn’t live on the sea floor like some of its relations, so over many, many generations its foot has become smaller and smaller until it’s just a little tiny foot near its mouth. It’s still sticky, though, which means jellies stick to it, which means it’s easier for Phylliroe to eat the jellies.

Phylliroe is mostly see-through, although you can see its digestive system. It also has two so-called horns, called rhinophores, that it probably uses to sense the chemical signature of its prey in the water. If you remember the sea bunny, its rhinophores look like bunny ears. Phylliroe’s look more like thick antennae or barbels. Phylliroe also exhibits bioluminescence, which is not a typical trait for a sea slug.

My brother Richard alerted me to another sea slug a while back, this one referred to as the Deadpool slug. The reason why it’s called the Deadpool slug is lost on me because I haven’t seen that movie or read the comic book, but the sea slug can separate its head from its body when it wants to, and it just grows a new body. The old body eventually dies instead of growing a new head.

The Deadpool slug is one of a type of sea slug that we talked about back in episode 129, about the blurry line between plants and animals. It eats algae and incorporates the algae’s chloroplasts into its body to use. Chloroplasts are what allows a plant to photosynthesize energy from sunlight, and the sea slug absolutely uses them for the same thing. Researchers think the Deadpool slug uses the energy from photosynthesis to regrow its body even though it has no digestive system after it separates its head from its body.

The big question is why the Deadpool slug wants to grow a new body in the first place. It doesn’t seem to be a defensive strategy if the sea slug is attacked. Instead, researchers think it often happens when the body contains too many parasites, specifically a type of tiny parasitic copepod, which is a crustacean. It might also happen after a predator bites a big chunk off the slug. Instead of hauling around a damaged body, the sea slug just jettisons the old body and regrows it.

Let’s finish with a recently solved octopus mystery that goes back almost 200 years. In 1838, the United States launched a scientific expedition throughout the Pacific Ocean and parts of the Atlantic that lasted four years. While it was mostly for exploration and mapping of places seldom or never visited by outsiders, the expedition also brought along a team of scientists and artists to document and study all the animals and plants they found. One of the things they found was an octopus.

The scientists didn’t fish the octopus up themselves. They actually bought several of them at a fish market in Brazil. It was red with little white spots all over it and not very big, although a dead octopus tends to shrink, especially when it’s out of water. The specimens were preserved in a jar of alcohol and brought back to the United States, where in 1852 they were studied by an expert on mollusks, Augustus Addison Gould. Octopuses are in the phylum Mollusca and Gould had examined lots and lots of octopuses. He decided this one was a new species and named it Callistoctopus furvus.

At some point the specimens were either lost or destroyed. Decades passed, then a century, then almost two centuries. Modern scientists thought Gould was probably wrong and that the little red octopus was one known from the Mediterranean Sea, Calistoctopus macropus. It’s red with little white spots, and has a mantle length only about 8 inches long, or 20 cm, although it has long arms and has been measured as almost five feet long, or 1.5 meters, if you include the arms. It lives in shallow water, where it spends a lot of time hunting for small animals that live in coral or in sea grass. It’s sometimes called the grass octopus.

Then a graduate student in Brazil named Manuella Dultra was studying octopuses, and part of her research involved talking to local fishers. They told her about an octopus that lived in shallow water and often buried itself in sand to hide, which is why they called it the sand octopus. They also said it was generally only seen when the wind blew from the east, and was more likely to be out and about during the new moon. Naturally Dultra wanted to find one. She asked the fishers to keep an eye out, and in 2013 she was given a freshly caught specimen.

The biologists at Dultra’s university identified the octopus as C. macropus, the grass octopus. Dultra wasn’t so sure. She noticed a lot of differences that seemed significant, and decided to do more research. She and her team gathered genetic material from specimens the local fishers caught, and sure enough, it was different from the grass octopus.

At the same time, researchers in Mexico had also found a sand octopus that they thought might be C. furvus. When Dultra compared her specimens’ DNA profile with the DNA profile from the Mexican octopus, it matched.

The discovery is still very new and isn’t accepted by all scientists yet, not until more studies are completed. The sand octopus appears to be rare, and once it’s definitely identified as its own species or subspecies and we learn more about it, we can do more to protect it.

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 for as little as one dollar a month and get monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 286: Chimerism, Mosaicism, and Venus the Cat



Thanks to Vaughn for suggesting this week’s episode topic about Venus the cat and her unusual coat pattern!

Further reading:

Mystery Cats of the World Revisited by Dr. Karl P.N. Shuker

Further listening:

Half-siders and sea monkeys Patreon episode from December 2018 (unlocked episode)

Venus the cat:

“Half-sider” birds can be spectacular:

Half-side chimeras are not just restricted to birds:

Ranger the “black lion” (photo by Peter Adamson, from this site which you should also read). Note the black patch on his right front leg:

Show transcript:

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

This week I had planned to release our updates episode, but I didn’t have time to finish it. The 2022 updates episode will run in September instead, since we’re doing Invertebrate August again this year!

Way back at least a year ago and possibly more, Vaughn suggested we do an episode about “rare two-tone animals like Venus the cat.” I put the suggestion on my list and totally forgot about it until today, when I saw it and thought, “hmm, who’s Venus the cat?”

If you don’t already know, Venus is a beautiful cat whose coloration is mostly what’s called tortoiseshell, meaning she has a mixture of colors on her body, in her case black and orange. But Venus’s face is completely black on one side with a green eye, but orange tabby on the other side with a blue eye. She also has a white bib and white on her paws.

Venus became famous after the family who adopted her as a stray in 2009 posted pictures of her online. Her coloration is so unusual that everyone wondered what caused it. The answer is that we aren’t exactly sure, but veterinarians and experts in cat genetics do have some pretty good ideas.

There are probably several things going on genetically with Venus that resulted in her interesting coloration. Her different-colored eyes are one result. When an animal has different-colored eyes, called heterochromia iridis, there are a number of possible causes, from an injury to one eye to various genetic conditions. Sometimes it’s not complete, meaning one eye may be partly a different color. It even happens in people sometimes, although it’s rare.

In Venus’s case, researchers think her heterochromia may be due to a gene that produces what’s called piebaldism. A piebald animal has white markings when an ordinary animal of the same species doesn’t have any white markings. Some animals who naturally have a white pattern may have the word pie or pied or just bald hidden in their name, such as the magpie and the bald eagle, because it used to mean just an outfit with different contrasting colors. In the story of the pied piper, the piper had on a suit made of different colors.

The white patches of a piebald animal actually don’t have any pigment, and if a white patch is over an eye, the eye may also lack pigment and appear blue. That’s pretty common in piebald or pinto horses or in some dog breeds with white markings. The piebald gene may also affect one or both eyes even if a white patch doesn’t cover the eye, which some researchers think may be the case in Venus. Her left eye is blue even though the left side of her face is orange tabby.

Venus’s unusual facial fur coloration may be due to a condition called chimerism. Chimerism happens long before an animal is born—in fact, it happens within a few hours after an egg cell is fertilized. I’ll do my best to explain it. A lot of the next section comes from a Patreon episode from 2018, and if you want to listen to the original I’ve unlocked it for anyone to listen to and put a link in the show notes.

As soon as an egg cell is fertilized, it starts to divide into more cells, which divide into more cells, which divide into more cells, and on and on. After a while, the groups of cells start to differentiate into parts of the body. Some cells become a heart, others become toes, and so on. Eventually there’s a whole finished baby ready to be born or hatched.

If there are two fertilized egg cells, they develop into two separate babies, which are fraternal twins that don’t necessarily look alike. Occasionally, a fertilized egg cell will split and each of the two resulting cells will start to develop separately. In that case, you get identical twins.

But very rarely, you start with two egg cells that should develop into fraternal twins—but for some reason, in those very first hours when each egg cell has only divided a few times, the egg cells fuse together. The cells continue to divide and develop into not two babies, but one that contains the genetic markers for both twins.

Since the resulting single baby has genes for both twins, sometimes it will show physical traits of both twins. For instance, if one twin’s genetic makeup would have developed into a green budgie, and the other twin’s genetic makeup would have developed into a blue budgie, you get a budgie that’s green on one side and blue on the other. Occasionally one side has the markings and coloration of a male, and the other side has the markings and coloration of a female. An animal with this kind of genetic anomaly is properly called a tetragametic chimera, but it’s often called a half-sider.

This doesn’t just happen in birds. Occasionally someone will come across a butterfly where the pair of wings on one side is colored like a male of that species and the pair of wings on the other side is colored like a female. Occasionally someone will adopt a kitten that’s one color on one side and a totally different color and pattern on the other side.

So I bet now you’re wondering if it happens in humans. Yes, it does! It happens occasionally in everything, including plants. Usually no one knows if a particular animal is a chimera because most of the time it doesn’t show. It’s only when it produces a spectacular coloration difference like in half-siders that anyone takes a second look.

Venus’s facial markings look a lot like those of a half-sider, but the markings on the rest of her body don’t, so she’s probably not a half-sider. That doesn’t mean she isn’t a chimera, since while all half-siders are chimeras, not all chimeras are half-siders. However, she might have a genetic mutation called mosaicism instead.

Mosaicism is similar to chimerism, but instead of being caused by two fertilized egg cells fusing together, it’s caused by a chromosomal mutation in one cell during the embryo’s very early development. The mutation is replicated as that cell divides, and then replicated in the divided cells, and so on, so that when the organism has finished developing into a baby, part of its body contains the mutation while the rest doesn’t. The part of the body with the mutation has a different genetic profile from the rest of the body.

Mosaicism can result in various physical conditions, but for the most part you can’t tell by looking if an organism exhibits mosaicism. But sometimes you can. In 1975 a lion cub was born in Glasgow Zoo in Scotland, and he had a big black patch on his chest and right front leg, with a less dark patch on his left hind leg. Since black lions are rumored to exist but have never been scientifically documented, or even photographed, this was a big deal. When Ranger the lion grew up he was introduced to several different females in hopes that he would sire cubs that also had black patches, or which were even black all over. Unfortunately Ranger seemed to be sterile and none of his mates got pregnant.

Ranger lived to be 22 years old but died before genetic testing became widespread and sophisticated. These days we know a lot more about big cat genetics and researchers are pretty sure Ranger’s black patches resulted from somatic mosaicism, which affected some of his skin cells. Since the right side of Venus’ face is solid black, some researchers think she might have a similar condition.

Whatever the cause or causes of Venus the cat’s coloration, though, one thing is for sure. She’s an absolutely beautiful cat!

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 for as little as one dollar a month and get monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 285: The Mysterious Hueque



This week we have a mystery animal from South America, the hueque!

Further reading:

Llamas are having a moment in the U.S., but they’ve been icons in South America for millennia

Whatever happened to the hueque? Seeking the lost llama of Chile

First complete mitochondrial genome data from ancient South American camelids – The mystery of the chilihueques from Isla Mocha (Chile)

A dressed up person and her dressed up llama (picture from llama article linked above):

The noble guanaco:

Cuddly alpacas!

The noble vicuña:

A 1646 picture of a hueque:

A 1776 engraving of four camelids of South America, including the hueque. The “guemul” in the upper left is actually a llama (the huemul is a type of deer found in a small part of southern Patagonia):

A 1716 engraving supposedly depicting a hueque (central figure) alongside a llama (on the left with the carry-bags over its back):

Show transcript:

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

We’ve done a lot of listener suggestions lately and I still have lots more, but this week let’s look at a mystery animal that I really want to learn more about. It’s a South American animal, specifically from central Chile, called the chilihueque or hueque.

Whether the heuque turns out to be an animal unknown to science or not, it’s definitely a camelid of some kind. Camelids include camels, llamas, and their relations, four of which are native to South America. Those four are the guanaco, the llama, the vicuña, and the alpaca, which are all closely related.

The vicuña lives in high elevations in the Andes Mountains while the guanaco lives in lower elevations. The vicuña is smaller and more delicate than the guanaco. It grows not quite three feet tall at the shoulder, or about 85 cm, with a long, slender neck and small head, and a short fuzzy tail. Its legs are long and slender too. It’s white and light brown with thick, incredibly soft fur that keeps it warm in its mountain home. It eats grass and other plants.

The vicuña lives in small groups, usually consisting of a male, several females, and their babies. When the babies are about a year old or a little older, males leave and initially form small bachelor groups while females leave and form small groups too, called sororities. Eventually both males and females of various bachelor groups and sororities will seek each other out during mating season.

Vicuña wool is extremely soft and fine, and in the days of the Inca Empire, around 500 to 600 years ago, only royalty were allowed to wear clothes made of it. It’s actually not wool like sheep wool but a fiber similar to cashmere from goats or angora from bunnies. Because the vicuña is a wild animal, it has to be captured and its fur cut off, or shorn, but it’s hard to catch. Not only that, since the vicuña is small, it doesn’t give very much fiber so you need to shear a whole lot of the animals to get enough to make a single piece of clothing.

In the olden days, the Inca people constructed traps and worked together to herd vicuña into the traps. Then they would shear the animals and release them again, but only once every four years. These days the practice has been re-instituted by the Peruvian government, although the capture and shearing is done every three years. The fiber is only supposed to be sold outside of Peru after it has been certified by the government as being gathered lawfully and humanely, and most of the money remains with the villagers who gather it. It’s extremely expensive to buy, but unfortunately that means that poachers will sometimes kill the animals to shear and sell the fiber illegally, even though it’s a protected species.

I don’t remember if I’ve ever mentioned this on the podcast, but one of my hobbies is spinning. I can take raw wool from a sheep or fiber from some other animal and turn it into yarn or thread using my spinning wheel or hand spindle, and yes, I have bought legal vicuña fiber and spun it into thread. I bought a single gram of it ages ago, and spun it using a very small support spindle, because the fibers are so fine and short that they’re hard to spin any other way. My single gram produced enough thread to knit into a square about the size of a small handkerchief, which I made for a quilt the handspinning guild I was part of at the time was putting together to showcase all sorts of different animal fibers. It was a pretty amazing quilt, by the way. One woman cut her own hair short and spun her hair into thread which she then wove into a square with a small hand loom. Human hair is actually really coarse when you spin it, because the ends stick out and are prickly.

Anyway, the guanaco is very similar to the vicuña but it’s a larger, more robust animal that’s brown above and white underneath, with a gray face. It’s common in the lower elevations of the Andes and throughout much of Patagonia. It also produces soft fiber, but it’s not quite as fine or soft as the vicuña’s.

The alpaca is the domestic descendant of the vicuña while the llama is the domestic descendant of the guanaco. One interesting thing is that all four of these animals have quite thick skin on the neck. This helps protect their necks from the bites of predators.

All these animals are in the genus Lama, and they all look very similar, like small, delicate camels without humps. But until just a few hundred years ago, there might have been a fifth member of the genus Lama in parts of Chile, the hueque.

As reported by Spanish and Dutch explorers and colonizers, the hueque was a domesticated animal kept for its meat and its fine, soft, very long fur. Its fur was so long that it supposedly brushed the ground. It wasn’t supposed to be the same animal as the guanaco, which lived in the area and was also sometimes kept as a semi-domesticated animal. It was smaller than a llama or guanaco but larger than a vicuña, standing up to four feet tall at the shoulder, or about 1.2 meters.

As more Spanish colonized Chile and other parts of South America, bringing sheep and cattle with them, the hueque became less and less common. Not only did the introduced animals compete with the hueque and other South American camelids for resources, they brought diseases that camelids could catch. Eventually the local people switched to raising sheep for wool and meat and the hueque was supposed to have died out completely by the late 18th century.

Many people have suggested that the hueque was actually another word for the alpaca, which did decline in numbers during this time, although of course it didn’t go extinct. The hueque might have been a particular variety of alpaca or even a subspecies that looked somewhat different. Remember that the alpaca is a domesticated animal descended from the vicuña. Other people hypothesize that the hueque was a type of llama or guanaco, and remember that the llama is the domesticated descendant of the guanaco.

In December of 2016, the scientific journal Nature published a genetic study of camelid remains found on Isla Mocha, a volcanic island off the coast of Chile. The people living on the island in the early 17th century kept hueques, according to reports of Dutch and Spanish explorers. People have lived on the island for about 1,500 years but the hueque probably didn’t. Instead, it was transported to the island in small boats on special occasions, to be used as ritual sacrifices where the meat was then eaten. Then again, there is at least one report that the animal did live on the island and was used to pull plows or possibly wagons.

A 1615 report by a Dutch captain who saw the hueque is that it was like a “sheep of a very wonderful shape, having a very long neck and a hump like a camel, a hare lip and very long legs.” This is strange because while it is otherwise a good description of any South American camelid, no South American camelid has a hump like a camel. The hump the captain reported might actually have been thick fur that can look a little bit like a hump above the shoulders.

The 2016 report looked at DNA samples extracted from the subfossil remains of 14 camelids found on the island, including the complete genomes of three individual animals. Then the samples were compared to those of other South American camelids. They most closely matched the DNA profile of the guanaco.

The study suggests that “chilihueque” was the local term for the guanaco, especially a guanaco kept as a domesticated or semi-domesticated animal.

That’s just one study of one specific island, of course. Hopefully genetic analysis of other camelid remains will be made soon and we can learn more about what exactly the hueque might have been.

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 for as little as one dollar a month and get monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 284: Billy Possum and Teddy Bear



Thanks to Pranav and Zachary for their suggestions this week, where we learn the story behind two cuddly toys and the animals that inspired them!

The cartoon that inspired the toy:

My own teddy bear:

An American black bear (not William Taft although yes, there is a resemblance, including a willingness to eat entire possums in one sitting):

William Taft:

A Virginia opossum:

A possum with babies!

Stop trying to make Billy Possum a thing:

Admittedly it was pretty cute:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to learn about two cuddly animals, one of which you’ve definitely heard of, the other you might not have. Oh wait, you’ve heard of both animals for sure—but you might not have heard about the toys based on the animals. Thanks to Pranav and Zachary for their suggestions.

The president of the United States at the beginning of the 20th century was Theodore Roosevelt, who served from 1901 to 1909. He was sometimes called Teddy instead of Theodore, although he didn’t actually like the nickname. Roosevelt is widely considered to have been a very good president, as well as an interesting and sometimes eccentric man, but his main contribution to history as far as most people are concerned is the teddy bear.

Roosevelt was an active man who spent a lot of time horseback riding, playing tennis, hiking, swimming, boxing, and lots of other things. He also liked to read, spoke several languages, and wrote poetry—and he was an avid hunter and would travel the world to kill things. That’s what he was doing in November 1902, when the governor of Mississippi invited him on a bear hunting trip.

The hunting party killed several bears that day, but Roosevelt hadn’t shot anything. Some of the president’s attendants decided to help things along, and they chased a bear down with hounds until it was exhausted, beat it until it was almost dead, and tied it to a tree. I know, this is awful. I’m sorry. Then they said, “Hey, Mr. President, we found you a bear to shoot.”

Not only did Roosevelt refuse to kill the bear, he was angry at the people who had treated it so badly. He requested that the poor animal be shot to put it out of its misery, since by that point it was already dying from its treatment.

Because Roosevelt was the president, everything he did made its way into the newspapers, including this event. A political cartoonist used the bear hunt in a cartoon, only instead of an adult bear he made the bear a cute little cub. This inspired an inventor named Morris Michtom and his wife Rose to make a little bear cub doll to sell at their candy shop in Brooklyn, New York. They labeled it “Teddy’s bear” and the rest is history.

Most teddy bears don’t look much like an actual American black bear. The black bear lives in forested areas throughout much of North America and used to be even more widespread, but was hunted to extinction in many areas. It’s more closely related to the Asian black bear than it is to other bears found in North America, including the grizzly and polar bears. Its fur is usually black although some black bears are gray, various shades of brown, or sometimes even a rare cream color. The biggest American black bear ever measured was just barely under 8 feet long, or 2.41 meters, and probably weighed 1,100 pounds, or 500 kg. Most black bears are a lot smaller than that, though.

Black bears mate in summer but the fertilized egg cells don’t start developing until November. This gives the female plenty of time to gain lots of healthy weight before she finds a safe place to spend the winter. Black bears hibernate in cold weather, although scientists are still debating whether its metabolic changes constitute true hibernation. A bear will use a hollow tree or small cave as a den, or will dig a den. It gets comfortable in its den and soon its heart rate starts to drop until it only beats about 8 times a minute. Its body temperature stays about the same as usual and unlike many other animals that hibernate, it’s not sound asleep the whole time. It spends a lot of time awake and may even get up and move around, maybe even go out on nice days and look for food. Mostly, though, a hibernating bear doesn’t eat or drink, and it doesn’t need to defecate or urinate. Once the weather starts warming up, it emerges from its den and spends a few weeks just roaming around, eating whatever it can find while its body returns to non-hibernation status.

Babies are born during the winter, and they’re extremely small and underdeveloped at birth, only about 8 inches long on average, or 20 cm. A mother bear usually has two or three cubs, sometimes just one and occasionally four. The mother bear nurses her babies and keeps them warm through the rest of the winter, and once the weather warms up they’re big enough to come outside with her for the first time.

The American black bear is an omnivore, but it eats a lot more plant materials than it does meat. It especially likes berries and other fruit. It also eats a lot of insects, including ants, bees, and an especially nasty type of wasp called a yellow jacket. The bear has thick fur to help protect it from stings, but it also eats up the insects really fast. You can’t sting a bear if a bear just crunched you up with its big teeth. The black bear will catch fish whenever it can, will eat fawns and other baby animals when it can find them, will eat small animals like rodents when it gets the chance, will eat eggs when it comes across a nest, and will eat carrion, especially when it first emerges from hibernation.

Although black bears are dangerous, they’re also shy and avoid people when they can. The exception is when they get used to people food, either because they were given food by people, or because they found food that people left. That’s why it’s so incredibly important to never feed wild animals, especially dangerous ones like bears, and why you should learn how to properly hang your backpack from a tree when you’re camping so a bear can’t get it. If a bear learns to associate humans with food, it will become aggressive. When that happens, forest rangers have to make the hard decision to kill the bear before it hurts or kills a person.

While other species of bear growl, the American black bear doesn’t. The closest it comes to a growl is a deep call it makes in its throat, and it also makes huffing sounds, moans and grunts, squeals, clicks and pops that it makes with its mouth, including tongue clicking, and when it’s comfortable a bear may make a rumbling sound something like a hum or a purr.

This is what a black bear sounds like:

[bear sounds]

So, back to teddy bears. Plush toy bears were incredibly popular while Teddy Roosevelt was in office, but toy manufacturers were pretty sure the fad would drop in popularity once Roosevelt was no longer president. William H. Taft became president after Roosevelt, and in January 1909 he attended a banquet in Atlanta, Georgia where the main course served was possum and sweet potatoes.

These days most people don’t eat the Virginia opossum, more commonly called the possum in the United States, but it used to be considered a delicacy. Taft wolfed down an entire roast possum by himself, so fast that a doctor sitting at the table with him said he needed to slow down. Taft liked his food and he especially liked possum, and when his supporters presented him with a plush toy possum after the meal, he found it amusing.

But the people who’d given him the toy possum weren’t playing around. Ha ha, get it? Playing? Toy? They were certain their possum was going to be the next big thing. They formed a company called the Georgia Billy Possum Company and advertised the toys with the slogan, “Good-bye, Teddy Bear. Hello, Billy Possum.” They also released postcards, pins, songs and sheet music, and all sorts of other stuff branded with Billy Possum in hopes of hyping up their toy and becoming millionaires.

The problem, of course, is that while everyone cared about the poor bear that Roosevelt refused to kill, no one cared that Taft could eat a whole roast possum in one sitting. Besides, Taft was boring. Billy Possum never took off and people kept their teddy bears.

In many articles about Billy Possum, the whole idea of a possum being cute enough to make a cuddly toy from is laughed at. But possums are adorable! The Virginia opossum is a nocturnal marsupial that lives throughout much of the eastern United States, especially the southeast, and just about all of Mexico. It’s gray and white with a bare pink nose and bare pink toes, and it also has a long prehensile tail that’s mostly bare of fur that it uses to help it climb around in trees. Most possums are about the size of a cat but with much shorter legs. It’s the only marsupial that lives in North America.

The possum is omnivorous and eats fruit, carrion, eggs, nuts, vegetables, insects, and other small animals like mice and frogs. It’s resistant to the venom of snakes, bees, and scorpions, and will happily eat all three of these types of animals. It’s even less picky than the bear about what it eats and will genuinely eat pretty much anything, from birdseed and cat food it finds in people’s yards, to crayfish and baby rabbits, to ticks and persimmons, to slugs and snails.

The possum doesn’t live very long, and pretty much anything that can catch it will eat it, but it reproduces efficiently. Like other marsupials, the female has two vaginas and wombs and the male has a double penis. The female can have more than 20 babies at a time, although 8 or 9 is more common, and like other marsupials they’re born extremely early. The newborn babies are the size of a bean or a honeybee, but they’re strong enough to crawl into their mother’s pouch to find a teat. Since the possum has 13 teats, and each baby needs a teat to stay latched onto while it finishes developing, even if the mother has more than 13 babies, only 13 babies will survive.

The babies stay in their mother’s pouch for 2 1/2 months, at which point they start riding on her back instead. She carries them around for the next couple of months, teaching them how to be possums.

The possum has one real defense against predators, which it only resorts to when running away or hissing with its fur puffed up doesn’t help. It will flop onto its side with its tongue hanging out but its eyes open, and its heart rate drops and its breathing becomes shallow and slow. It also expels a stinky fluid from its anal glands. In short, it looks, acts, and smells like it’s already dead. It’s called “playing possum,” and it actually works pretty well…until the possum plays dead when threatened by a car. That’s why possums are so often killed by cars.

Many people think the possum is dirty or carries diseases, but this isn’t actually true. The possum grooms its fur and keeps it clean, and it’s actually less likely to have a disease than many other mammals. It’s even resistant to rabies, possibly because its body temperature is lower than that of most mammals and this helps keep the rabies virus from reproducing.

The Virginia opossum also has a secret that scientists only recently discovered. Its fur glows bright pink under ultraviolet light. No one is sure why.

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 for as little as one dollar a month and get monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 283: Crocodylomorphs and Friends



Thanks to Max and Pranav for their suggestions this week! We’re going to learn about some crocodylomorphs and a few other ancient non-dinosaur reptiles.

Further reading:

Mammal-like crocodile fossil found in East Africa, scientists report

Ancient crocodiles walked on two legs like dinosaurs

Fossil Footprints Help Uncover the Mysteries of Bipedal Crocodiles

Fossil mystery solved: super-long-necked reptiles lived in the ocean, not on land

Kaprosuchus had TEETH:

Anatosuchus earned its name “duck crocodile”:

Ancient bipedal croc footprints (picture taken from link above):

Tanystropheus had a super long neck:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going back in time to learn about some prehistoric reptiles that aren’t dinosaurs. Most are crocodylomorphs, which Pranav suggested a while back, but not all. Thanks to Pranav and Max for their suggestions this week! Max even made some clay models of two of these animals and sent me pictures, which was amazing! I have some really talented listeners.

Pranav and Max both wanted to know about kaprosuchus, also called the boar crocodile. The boar croc lived around 95 million years ago and probably grew nearly 20 feet long, or 6 meters, although all we know about it right now comes from a single nearly complete fossilized skull. The skull was found in Niger, a country in West Africa, and only described in 2009.

The boar croc gets its name from its teeth. It had lots of teeth, because it was a crocodyliform, although not actually an ancestral crocodile. It was related to modern crocs, though. Three sets of its teeth were especially long and large and projected out of its mouth much farther than ever found in any croc or croc relative, with one pair of teeth so big the upper jaw had little grooves for them to fit into so it could actually close its mouth. The teeth look like boar tusks, especially warthog tusks.

The boar croc also had some other differences from other croc relatives. The tip of its snout is unusually heavy, and some researchers think it might have had a keratin sheath over it. It might have used its heavy snout as a battering ram, possibly to stun prey before grabbing it with its huge teeth. It most likely hunted on land instead of in the water, since its eyes were lower on its head than crocs that hunt in water. Modern crocodiles and their relations mostly have eyes at the top of the head, which allows them to stay submerged except for their eyes. Whether it hunted in water or on land, though, the boar croc definitely killed and ate small dinosaurs, or maybe not so small dinosaurs.

The boar croc also had some horn-like projections on the back of its head. I don’t want to alarm you, because this animal went extinct millions and millions of years ago, but this thing was basically a dragon.

Anatosuchus was another crocodylomorph whose fossils have been found in Niger, but it’s much smaller and weirder than you’d expect. It was a tiny little thing, estimated to grow only a little more than 2 feet long, or 70 cm, and it was lightly built with relatively long legs for a croc relation, although it was still smaller than a cat. Its small teeth curve backwards but its snout has a little pointy projection at the front, although its head is broad and flat so that from above, its snout looks kind of like a duck’s bill. That’s why it’s sometimes called the duck crocodile. It lived around 145 million to 100 million years ago. Researchers think it may have waded in shallow water to catch small animals like fish and frogs, something like a heron.

Around 105 million years ago, another small croc relation lived in what is now Tanzania in East Africa. It was first discovered in 2008 and has been named Pakasuchus, which means cat crocodile. It was even smaller than the duck crocodile, only 20 inches long, or 50 cm, with long legs and a delicate build. The really weird thing, though, is its teeth. Unlike other crocodile relations and in fact unlike reptiles in general, it had teeth that were specialized for different functions. Its teeth looked like they belonged to a mammal. It had sharp teeth at the front of its short jaws and broader teeth in the back of its mouth that it used to chew its food. It was a terrestrial animal that would have been active and fast-moving. It probably ate insects and other small animals, but some researchers think it may have eaten plants.

There were definitely some croc relatives that were herbivorous, like the aetosaurs. Aetosaurs lived a little over 200 million years ago and were a successful group, with fossils found in Europe, India, Africa, and North and South America. They had osteoderms that are really common in the fossil record, so common that they’re used as index fossils to date fossil sites. If you’re not sure how old a layer of rock is, and you find some aetosaur osteoderms, you can be pretty certain you’re looking at the late Triassic. The osteoderms are flattened like big scales, and in fact when they were first discovered, people thought they were actually fish scales. Aetosaurs were probably terrestrial animals and most were either herbivorous or omnivorous, although at least one known species had the kind of teeth that indicate it hunted small animals.

A typical aetosaur had a small head and a bulky body with relatively small front legs but stronger hind legs. Its tail was long and tapering like a modern crocodile’s tail. It had lots of armor in the form of interlocking osteoderms, including armor on its belly and the underside of its tail. It might have looked like it had a carapace something like a weird reptilian armadillo. Depending on its species, our typical aetosaur may have also had spikes or spines on its back sort of like modern crocodiles have.

One species of aetosaur, Desmatosuchus spurensis, had massive shoulder spikes. Desmatosuchus grew almost 15 feet long, or 4.5 meters, and was heavily armored, with a spike on each shoulder blade. The spikes curved up and out kind of like a bull’s horns, but instead of pointing forward, they pointed backwards. It also had smaller spikes down its sides, some of which pointed out, some up. The big shoulder spikes could be almost a foot long, or 28 cm.

If you look at Desmatosuchus’s skeleton, it looked like it must have been a dangerous animal, and this would have been true when it comes to worms and plants. Its head was small and ended in a shovel-like snout, probably covered in a keratin sheath like a turtle’s beak. Scientists think it probably used its snout to dig plants up from soft mud along waterways, and it would probably also eat any small animals it found in the mud too. It lived in groups and despite its size and all its spikes, it got eaten a lot by an even bigger reptile, Postosuchus.

Postosuchus wasn’t a dinosaur, and was in fact a crocodylomorph just like the other reptiles we’ve talked about so far, but it sure looked like a dinosaur in a lot of ways. Its front legs were about half the length of and not very strong compared to its hind legs, so it probably walked on its hind legs only. It also had an oversized claw on one of its toes that it probably used to slash at prey, while its big head had a mouth full of big, sharp teeth. In other words, it looked a lot like a theropod dinosaur and lived at about the same time as the first theropods.

Despite not being a dinosaur, Postosuchus was one of the biggest land animals around, growing up to about 23 feet long, or 7 meters, although it probably only stood about 4 feet high, or 1.2 meters. Its remains have only been found in North America.

Other bipedal croc relations have been found in Asia, though, specifically in South Korea where almost 100 beautifully preserved footprints have been found. The tracks are of hind feet only, and from their size, depth, and the length of stride, the animals were probably almost 10 feet long, or 3 meters, and had hind legs the length of an average adult human’s legs. The footprints are almost 9 ½ inches long, or 24 cm.

At first researchers thought the tracks belonged to giant pterosaurs, which were flying reptiles, and that the pterosaurs were walking on their hind legs so their wings would stay out of the mud. But the footprints are so well preserved that it was obvious they belonged to a crocodylomorph once paleontologists examined them closely. In fact, all footprints supposed to belong to pterosaurs walking on their hind legs have turned out to belong to bipedal croc relations. Pterosaurs had to use their wings as front legs when walking on the ground, like bats do but not like birds, and some crocs, which ordinarily walk on four legs, were walking on two. It’s topsy-turvy land!

The tracks in South Korea are dated to a little over 113 million years ago, which is something like 100 million years more recent than Postosuchus. Postosuchus went extinct around 201 million years ago, at the end of the Triassic. By the time the Korean croc relation was walking around, it was the middle of the Cretaceous and dinosaurs ruled the earth. Gondwana was breaking up, the climate was warm worldwide and sea levels were high, mammals were tiny and unimportant, and little birds were flying around along with gigantic pterosaurs like Quetzalcoatlus. Crocodile relations lived in the mid-Cretaceous, sure, but not bipedal ones…or so paleontologists thought.

All we have of these croc relations are their tracks. We don’t have any fossils so we don’t know what they looked like. Hopefully one day some fossils will come to light and paleontologists will be able to match them up with their footprints.

Max specifically asked about Titanoboa, a gigantic extinct snake that lived around 58 million years ago in what is now northern South America. We talked about Titanoboa in episode 197 but I was certain I could find some new information for this episode. Unfortunately, there haven’t been any new studies about Titanoboa published recently, so Max, I’m going to keep it on the suggestions list until I find some interesting new information to share.

Titanoboa is estimated to have grown as much as 42 feet long, or 13 meters, and it probably spent most of its time in the water, eating giant lungfish and other animals. But, to wrap things back around to crocodylomorphs, it probably also ate a croc relation called Cerrejonisuchus. Cerrejonisuchus had a short, narrow snout and probably ate lots of frogs, fish, and other small animals. It grew a little over 7 feet long, or 2.2 meters, which is small but respectable for a crocodile but nowhere near big enough to make Titanoboa think twice about eating it. It wasn’t even the biggest croc relation living in its river habitat. Acherontisuchus grew to an estimated 21 feet long, or almost 6.5 meters. It had a long snout and lots and lots of big teeth, and probably ate the same fish that Titanoboa also liked.

Let’s finish with a non-crocodylomorph ancient reptile, Tanystropheus, and two mysteries associated with it that science solved in 2020. Tanystropheus lived during the mid to late Triassic, around 240 million years ago, and its fossils have been found in parts of Europe, the Middle East, and in China. It grew up to 20 feet long, or 6 meters, but literally half its length was its incredibly long neck.

When the first Tanystropheus fossils were discovered in the 19th century, paleontologists didn’t know what it was. There were some long, thin bones associated with the skeleton and they thought those might be elongated finger bones. Tanystropheus was classified as a type of pterosaur. But as more and better fossils were discovered, it was obvious that this animal wasn’t flying anywhere. The finger bones were actually cervical ribs, rod-like structures that helped stabilize the long neck and keep it from bending very far.

Tanystropheus was reclassified as a long-necked reptile, but no one was sure if it lived in water or just around water. Even more confusing, fossils of smaller long-necked reptiles, only about 4 feet long, or 1.2 meters, started being found too. No one was sure if this was a different species or juvenile Tanystropheus specimens.

To solve the first mystery, a research team took CT scans of some complete but crushed Tanystropheus skulls and generated a 3D image, which allowed them to put the pieces together and examine an image of a complete, un-crushed skull.

The skull had nostrils at the top of its snout, indicating that it probably spent a lot of time in the water. Some researchers suggest it was an ambush predator in shallow water, resting on the bottom of the ocean with its long neck raised so its nostrils were just above the surface. When a fish or other animal swam by, it could grab it without needing to move more than its head. Since its body was chonky with short legs, it probably wasn’t a very fast mover.

Next, the team took cross sections of bones from the smaller long-necked reptile and examined them for growth rings. They found a lot of them, indicating that the animals weren’t juvenile Tanystropheus hydroides, they were adults of another species, which has been named Tanystropheus longobardicus. The two species also had differently shaped teeth, which suggests that they were eating different types of food.

Even though Tanystropheus’s neck was really long, it was also much lighter than the rear half of its body, which had strongly muscled hind legs. Some researchers think it swam by kicking its hind legs sort of like a gigantic frog’s. We have some fossilized trackways from a shallow marine environment that show paired prints from hind legs, but no front leg prints, which may be from a small species of Tanystropheus.

There’s still a lot we don’t know about Tanystropheus, just as there’s a lot we don’t know about a lot of long-extinct animals. All we know for sure is that they were awesome.

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 for as little as one dollar a month and get monthly bonus episodes. There are links in the show notes to join our mailing list and to our merch store.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 282: Little Longtailed Birds



Sign up for our mailing list!

Thanks to Elaine for suggesting one of our long-tailed birds this week!

Happy birthday to Jasper!! Have a great birthday!

Further reading:

Fossil of Ancient Long-Tailed Bird Found in China

All adult scissor-tailed flycatchers have long tails:

The long-tailed sylph male is the one with the long tail:

The long-tailed widowbird male has a long tail:

The long-tailed widowbird female has a short tail:

The pin-tailed whydah male has a long tail:

A pin-tailed whydah baby (left) next to a common waxbill baby (right):

Kompsornis longicaudus had a really long tail:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw. This week is a short episode all about little birds with really long tails. The tails are longer than the episode. Thanks to Elaine for suggesting one of the birds we talk about today!

But before we start learning about birds, we have a birthday shout-out! Happy birthday to Jasper, who has the best name and who will hopefully have the best birthday to go along with it!

Let’s start with Elaine’s suggestion, the scissor-tailed flycatcher. I’m embarrassed to admit that Elaine suggested this bird way back in 2020, so it’s about time we talked about it.

The scissor-tailed flycatcher lives in south-central North America during the summer, especially Texas and Oklahoma, and migrates to parts of Mexico and Central America in winter. It’s pale gray with black and white wings and tail, and salmon pink markings on its sides and under its wings. It also has a really long tail. It gets the name scissor-tail because its tail is so long and forked that it’s sort of the shape of an open pair of scissors. The male’s tail is typically longer than the female’s, longer than the rest of its body. The bird is about the size of an average songbird, with a body length of about 5 inches, or 13 centimeters, but with a tail that can increase its overall length to over 14 inches, or 36 cm.

The scissor-tailed flycatcher prefers open areas like pastures and fields, where there’s lots of space but some brush, trees, or fences nearby to perch in. It mostly eats insects, but it will also eat berries, especially in winter. It’s related to kingbirds and pewees and will even hybridize with the western kingbird where their ranges overlap. Its long tail is partly for display, but mostly it helps the bird maneuver in midair as it chases insects, or hover in midair as it looks around for an insect to catch. It especially likes grasshoppers, and when it catches one, it will usually kill it before eating it by smashing it against a tree limb or other perch.

Another little bird with a long tail is the long-tailed sylph, which is a type of hummingbird! It lives on the eastern slopes of the Andes Mountains in northwestern South America, mostly along forest edges, in gardens, grasslands, and other mostly open areas. It migrates to different parts of the mountains at different times of year to follow the flowering of its favorite plants. It’s larger than many species of hummingbird even if you don’t count the tail.

It eats nectar like other hummingbirds do, but also eats tiny insects and spiders. Its bill is black and not very long compared to most of its relations. Sometimes it will jab the tip of its bill straight through the base of a flower to get at the nectar, instead of inserting it into the flower like other hummingbirds do, and while it can hover, sometimes it perches to feed instead.

Both the male and female long-tailed sylph are a beautiful metallic blue and green in color, although the male is brighter and has purplish-brown wings. The female is about 4 inches long, or 10 cm, including her tail, and while the male is about the same size as the female, his tail is really long—up to 4.5 inches long, or 12 cm. His tail is forked like the scissor-tailed flycatcher’s, but unlike the flycatcher, the sylph’s tail makes it harder for the bird to fly. During breeding season the male attracts a mate by flying in a U-shaped pattern that shows off his tail and his flying ability.

The male long-tailed widowbird also attracts a mate with a flying display to show off his long tail. It lives in grasslands in a few parts of Africa, with the biggest population in South Africa. It forages in small flocks looking for seeds, and it also eats the occasional insect or spider. It’s a sparrow-like bird only about 4 inches long, or 10 cm, not counting its tail. The female is mostly brown with darker streaks and has a short tail. The male is black with red and white patches on the shoulders of his wings, called epaulets. His coloring, including the epaulets, is almost identical to that of a totally unrelated bird, the red-winged blackbird of North America, but he has something the blackbird doesn’t: a gigantically long tail.

The male widowbird’s tail is made up of twelve feathers, and about half of them grow up to 20 inches long. That’s nearly two feet long, or half a meter. Like the long-tailed sylph, the long-tailed widowbird’s tail actually makes it harder for him to fly. If it’s raining, he can’t fly at all. Fortunately for him, outside of the breeding season his tail is much shorter. During display flights, he spreads his tail feathers to show them off better and flies very slowly. Males with the longest tails attract the most females.

Similarly, the pin-tailed whydah is another little sparrow-like bird where the male grows a really long tail to attract females. It lives in grasslands, savannas, and open woodlands in sub-Saharan Africa, which just means south of the Sahara Desert. It mostly eats seeds.

During breeding season, the male is a striking pattern of black and white with a bright orangey-red bill and really long tail plumes. He’s about the size of the long-tailed widowbird but his tail grows about 8 inches long, or 20 cm. The female is brown with darker streaks and looks a lot like a sparrow, although it’s not related to sparrows. To impress a female, the pin-tailed whydah will hover in place near her, showing off his long tail plumes and his flying ability.

A lot of whydah species grow long tails. A lot of whydahs are also brood parasites, including this one, meaning that instead of building a nest and taking care of her own eggs, the female sneaks in and lays her eggs in the nest of a different species of bird. Then she flies away, probably whistling to make her seem extra nonchalant, and leaves the other bird to take care of her eggs and the babies when they hatch. She mostly lays her eggs in the nests of various species of finch, and not only do her eggs resemble the finch’s eggs except that they’re bigger, the babies resemble finch babies when they hatch, except they’re bigger.

Specifically, the babies have a really specific gape pattern. When an adult bird approaches its nest, a baby bird will gape its mouth wide to beg for food. This prompts the parent bird to shove some food down into that mouth. The more likely a baby is to be noticed by its parent, the more likely it is to get extra food, so natural selection favors babies with striking patterns and bright colors inside their mouths. Many finches, especially ones called waxbills, have a specific pattern of black and white dots in their mouths that pretty much acts as a food runway. Insert food here. The whydah’s mouth gape pattern mimics the waxbill’s almost exactly. But as I said, the whydah chick is bigger, which means it can push the finch babies out of the way and end up with more food.

The pin-tailed whydah is a common bird and easily tamed, so people sometimes keep it as a pet. This is a problem when it’s brought to places where it isn’t a native bird, because it sometimes escapes or is set free by its owners. If enough of the birds are released in one area, they can become invasive species. This has happened with the pin-tailed whydah in many parts of the world, including parts of Portugal, Singapore, Puerto Rico, and most recently southern California. Since they’re brood parasites, they can negatively impact a lot of other bird species in a very short time. But a study released in 2020 about the California population found that they mostly parasitize the nests of a bird called the scaly-breasted munia, a species of waxbill from southern Asia that’s been introduced to other places, including southern California, where it’s also an invasive species. So I guess it could be worse.

There are lots of other birds with long tails we could talk about, way too many to fit into one episode, but let’s finish with an extinct bird, since that seems to be the theme lately. In May 2020, an ancient bird was described as Kompsornis longicaudus, and it lived 120 million years ago in what is now China. Its name means long-tailed elegant bird. It was bigger than the other birds we’ve talked about today, a little over two feet long, or 70 cm, but a lot of that length was tail.

Kompsornis is only known from a single fossil, but that fossil is amazing. Not only is it almost a complete skeleton, it’s articulated, meaning it was preserved with all the body parts together as they were in life, instead of the bones being jumbled up. That means we know a lot about it, including the fact that unlike other birds of the time, it didn’t appear to have any teeth. It also shows other features seen in modern birds but not always found in ancient birds, including a pronounced keel, which is where wing muscles attach. That indicates it was probably a strong flier. It also had a really long tail, but unlike modern birds its tail was bony like a lizard’s tail although it was covered with feathers.

During their study of Kompsornis, the research team compared it to other birds in the order Jeholornithiformes, which seem to be its closest relations. There were six species known, with Kompsornis making a seventh—except that during the study, the team discovered that one species was a fake! Dalianraptor was also only known from one fossil, and that fossil was of a different bird with the arms of a flightless theropod added in place of its missing wings. Send that fossil to fossil jail!

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 281: The Humpback Whale



Thanks to Clay for suggesting the topic of this week’s episode, the humpback whale!

Happy birthday to Emry!

Further reading:

How humpback whales catch prey with bubble nets

Study: Humpback whales aren’t learning their songs from one another

Stanford researchers observe unexpected flipper flapping in humpback whales

Ancient baleen whales had a mouthful

The humpback’s long, thin flippers help it maneuver:

Humpbacks are active, jumpy whales:

A humpback whale’s big mouth:

Show transcript:

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

Thanks to Clay for suggesting this week’s topic, the humpback whale!

But first, we have a birthday shout-out! A great big happy birthday to Emry! I hope your birthday is so epic that in the future, when people look up birthday in the dictionary, your name is listed there.

I’m amazed we haven’t talked about the humpback whale before because when I was little, it was my favorite whale until I learned about the narwhal. Sorry, humpback, you’re now my second favorite whale.

The humpback is a baleen whale, specifically a rorqual, which is a group of related baleen whales. I don’t think I’ve mentioned the term rorqual before because I find it really hard to pronounce. Rorquals are long, slender whales with throat pleats that allow them to expand their mouths when they gulp water in. We talked about this in episode 211 about the fin whale, which is another rorqual. I’ll quote from that episode to explain again what the throat pleats are.

A baleen whale eats tiny animals that it filters out of the water through its baleen plates, which are keratin structures in its mouth that take the place of teeth. The baleen is tough but thin and hangs down from the upper jaw. It’s white and looks sort of like a bunch of bristles at the end of a broom. The whale opens its mouth wide while lunging forward or downward, which fills its huge mouth with astounding amounts of water. As water enters the mouth, the skin stretches to hold even more, until the grooves completely flatten out.

After the whale fills its mouth with water, it closes its jaws, pushing its enormous tongue up, and forces all that water out through the baleen. Any tiny animals like krill, copepods, small squid, small fish, and so on, get trapped in the baleen. It can then swallow all that food and open its mouth to do it again. This whole operation, from opening its mouth to swallowing its food, only takes six to ten seconds.

The humpback mostly eats tiny crustaceans called krill, and little fish. Since gulp feeding takes a lot of energy, finding a lot of food in a relatively small space is important to the whale. Many little fish that live in schools will form what are called bait balls when they feel threatened, where the fish swim closer together and keep moving around. Any given individual fish has a good chance of avoiding being eaten when behaving this way. Think about last week’s episode, where the spinner shark swims straight up through a bait ball, biting biting biting. It eats some fish, but most are fine. But a big filter feeder like the humpback can gulp a whole lot of fish at once, so it really likes bait balls.

To help maneuver prey animals into a small area, groups of humpbacks sometimes employ a strategy called bubble-net feeding. The whales will dive below the fish or krill and swim in a ring, blowing bubbles the whole time. The bubbles startle the animals, who move away from them. But since the bubbles are all around them, and the whales swim closer and closer together so that the ring of bubbles shrinks, eventually the fish or krill are all clustered in a small space as though they’re caught in a net. Then the whales open their mouths and gulp in lots of food. This is actually a simplified explanation of how bubble-net feeding works, which requires several different types of bubbles and various actions by the whales to make it work right.

The humpback is closely related to the fin whale and the blue whale. In episode 211 we learned that fin and blue whales sometimes interbreed and produce offspring, and in at least one case a marine biologist identified a whale that appeared to be the hybrid of a blue whale and a humpback.

The humpback grows up to 56 feet long, or 17 meters, with females being a little larger than males on average. It’s mostly black in color, with mottled white or gray markings underneath and on its flippers. Its flippers are long and narrow, which allows it to make sharp turns. It also has tubercles on its jaws and the fronts of its flippers which are probably sensory organs of some kind, since they contain nerves attached to a very thin hair in the middle that’s about an inch long at most, or almost 3 cm.

This is a good time to remind you that even though they look very different from other mammals, all whales are mammals. Mammals are warm-blooded animals that produce milk for their babies. Mammals also have hair, unless they don’t have hair, except that the humpback whale does have hairs in its tubercles. So there you go, humpback whales have hair.

Despite its huge size, the humpback is an active whale. It frequently breaches, meaning it rises up out of the water almost its full length, then crashes back down into the water with a huge splash. It also often slaps its flippers or its tail on the surface. Some researchers think these behaviors may have something to do with communication with other whales, or that the whale is trying to get rid of parasites, or that the whale is just having fun.

Humpback whales are famous for their elaborate songs, which are produced by males. The whales breed in winter, and the males start singing as winter gets closer, so the songs must have something to do with mating season. Scientists aren’t sure what, though. Females don’t seem to be very interested in individual males who are singing, but they will sometimes be attracted to a group of singing males. Some researchers suggest that singing might be a general call to attract all whales in the area to the breeding grounds. Then again, sometimes a male will interrupt another male who is singing and the two will fight.

The songs vary and new song elements can spread quickly through a population. Generally, researchers think males hear a new element and incorporate it into their own songs, but results of a study published in 2021 found that similar new song elements often show up in whales that could not have heard other whales sing it. This indicates that instead of copying other songs, each whale modifies his own song individually and sometimes the changes are similar. That’s just one study, though. It’s probable that the way males change their songs depends on many factors, only one of which is hearing and imitating other songs.

The study suggests that the way we think about whale songs might be wrong to start with. Researchers generally think that a whale probably sings for the same reasons that birds sing: to stake out a territory, to advertise to potential mates that it’s healthy enough to spend energy singing, and to warn rivals away. But because whales live in an environment so different from birds, and so different from what we as humans understand, it’s possible that whalesong carries meanings and intentions that we can’t interpret. A different study published in 2019 discovered that male humpbacks sometimes sing in feeding grounds, especially when a population of whales decides to overwinter at their feeding grounds instead of migrating, as sometimes happens.

What, precisely, a whale’s song means to other whales is something that only the whales know for sure. This is what a humpback song sounds like:

[humpback song]

Humpbacks make other sounds other than songs, though. Mothers and calves need to communicate so that the calves get the care they need and don’t stray too far away, but since any sounds could attract predators, they have to communicate very quietly. They make little grunting sounds to each other.

The main predator of the humpback whale is the orca, which will attack and kill calves and sometimes even adults. As a result, the humpback really does not like orcas. Humpbacks will sometimes protect seals and other animals from orca attacks.

Humpbacks migrate from their summer habitats in either the Antarctic or the Arctic, depending on what hemisphere they live in, to their winter breeding grounds in tropical waters. Then they return to colder waters in summer where there’s more food, since krill is a cold-water species. These migrations can be as long as 5,000 miles, or 8,000 kilometers. Unlike some animals that migrate in huge herds, humpbacks mostly travel in small groups that are often widely spaced.

The humpback was almost driven to extinction by commercial whaling, but after it was declared a protected species, its numbers have increased. It still has the same human-caused dangers that many other marine animals face, including habitat loss and water pollution, climate change, drowning after being entangled in nets, and noise pollution that can keep whales from communicating.

There’s always a lot we don’t know about any given species of whale, since whales are hard to study. For instance, a 2017 study discovered that humpbacks sometimes swim in a way never documented in whales before. Whales swim by flexing their massively powerful tails, and use their flippers to maneuver. Think of the tail as the engine of a car and the flippers as the power steering system. The humpback’s flippers are uniquely shaped, which as we mentioned earlier means it can maneuver skillfully, turning much more quickly than a great big whale would otherwise be able to turn. But in video studies of whales in the wild, very rarely a whale would flap its flippers like a bird flapping its wings—or, more accurately, like a seal or sea lion swimming with its flippers. The researchers who analyzed the videos suggest that the flapping is used for accelerating quickly, and because it takes a lot of energy, the whales don’t do it often. The researchers also think the humpback may be the only whale species that can accelerate using the motion of its flippers, since other whales have much smaller flippers relative to their size.

As far as we know, baleen whales don’t use sonar the way toothed whales do. Their songs and sounds are for communication, not navigation. But while humpbacks mostly hunt for food near the surface of the water where there’s plenty of light, they do occasionally dive deeper and hunt for food near the bottom. They especially like an eel-like fish called the sand lance, which spends a lot of time buried in the sand on the sea floor. In 2014, a study of humpbacks diving to find these fish indicated that when a whale dives alone, it remains silent, but when it dives to hunt with some friends, they communicate with a sound described as a tick-tock. Not the app, just a sound like the ticking of a clock. Sometimes more humpbacks come to join the whales when they hear their tick-tock sounds. But we still don’t know how the whales find the fish in the first place, since there’s no light for them to hunt by. It’s possible they can detect the fish’s chemical signature in the water when they’re close enough to one.

Baleen whales don’t have teeth, although when a baby whale is developing in its mother’s womb it does grow teeth. But at some point during its development, these embryonic teeth are reabsorbed and baleen plates form instead.

The extinct ancestors of modern baleen whales still had teeth. One genus was called Aetiocetus, which lived between about 34 and 23 million years ago in the north Pacific Ocean. It probably wasn’t directly related to modern whales, since baleen whales do actually appear in the fossil record before Aetiocetus. It was a small whale that probably only grew about 11 feet long, or 3.5 meters, although some species might have grown twice that length. The first Aetiocetus fossils were discovered in the 1960s and it was initially described as a toothed whale, since it had teeth.

But not everyone agreed. Aetiocetus showed some adaptations to filter feeding seen in modern baleen whales. For instance, its lower jaw bones weren’t fused at the chin end as they are in toothed whales. Modern baleen whales don’t have connected lower jaw bones, and in fact they have a sensory organ at that spot that scientists think helps the whale keep from engulfing too much water and hurting itself.

Recently, a team of scientists examined a CT image of a skull of Aetiocetus weltoni and discovered something surprising. Baleen is made of keratin, and keratin is only preserved in fossils very rarely, but in baleen whale fossils, the upper jawbones do show grooves where the baleen once connected. These grooves were present in the Aetiocetus skull, even though it also had teeth.

Researchers think Aetiocetus may have used its teeth to filter larger fish from the water the way some animals like crab-eater seals do today. Its teeth interlocked, which would allow it to trap fish in its mouth while pushing water out between its teeth. Its baleen probably helped catch smaller fish and other animals. The baleen was far enough away from the teeth that the whale would have still been able to bite at fish and other prey without accidentally biting its own baleen. But, as the researchers mention in their 2021 paper, Aetiocetus had a really crowded mouth.

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 for as little as one dollar a month and get monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 280: Lesser-Known Sharks



Thanks to Tobey and Janice this week for their suggestions of lesser-known sharks!

Further reading/watching:

CREATURE FEATURE: The Spinner Shark [this site has a great video of spinner sharks spinning up out of the water!]

Acanthorhachis, a new genus of shark from the Carboniferous (Westfalian) of Yorkshire, England

150 Year Old Fossil Mystery Solved [note: it is not actually solved]

The cartoon-eyed spurdog shark:

The spinner shark spinning out of the water:

The spinner shark not spinning (photo by Andy Murch):

A Listracanthus spine:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to learn about three sharks you may have never heard of before! The first was suggested by my aunt Janice and the second by listener Tobey. The third is a mystery from the fossil record.

You may have heard about the findings of a study published in November of 2021, with headlines like “Venomous sharks invade the Thames!” My aunt Janice sent me a link to an article like this. Nobody is invading anything, though. The sharks belong where they are. It was their absence for decades that was a problem, and the study discovered that they’re back.

The Thames is a big river in southern England that empties into the North Sea near London. Because it flows through such a huge city, it’s pretty badly polluted despite attempts in the last few decades to clean it up. It was so polluted by the 1950s, in fact, that it was declared biologically dead. But after a lot of effort by conservationists, fish and other animals have moved back into the river and lots of birds now visit it too. It also doesn’t smell as bad as it used to. One of the fish now found again in the Thames is a small shark called the spurdog, or spiny dogfish.

The spurdog lives in many parts of the world, mostly in shallow water just off the coast, although it’s been found in deep water too. A big female can grow almost three feet long, or 85 cm, while males are smaller. It’s a bottom dweller that eats whatever animals it finds on the sea floor, including crabs, sea cucumbers, and shrimp, and it will also eat jellyfish, squid, and fish when it can catch them. It’s even been known to hunt in packs.

It’s gray-brown in color with little white spots, and it has large eyes that kind of look like the eyes of a cartoon shark. It also has a spine in front of each of its two dorsal fins, which can inject venom into potential predators. The venom isn’t deadly to humans but would definitely hurt, so please don’t try to pet a spurdog shark. If the shark feels threatened, it curls its body around into a sort of shark donut shape, which allows it to jab its spines into whatever is trying to grab it.

The spurdog used to be really common, and was an important food for many people. But so many of them were and are caught to be ground into fertilizer or used in pet food that they’re now considered vulnerable worldwide and critically endangered around Europe, where their numbers have dropped by 95% in the last few decades. It’s now a protected species in many areas.

The female spurdog retains her fertilized eggs in her body like a lot of sharks do. The eggs hatch inside her and the babies develop further before she gives birth to them and they swim off on their own. It takes up to two years before a pup is ready to be born, and females don’t reach maturity until they’re around 16 years old, so it’s going to take a long time for the species to bounce back from nearly being wiped out. Fortunately, the spurdog can live almost 70 years and possibly longer, if it’s not killed and ground up to fertilize someone’s lawn. The sharks like to give birth in shallow water around the mouths of rivers, where the water is well oxygenated and there’s lots of small food for their babies to eat, which is why they’ve moved back into the Thames.

Next, Tobey suggested we talk about the spinner shark. It’s much bigger than the spurdog, sometimes growing as much as 10 feet long, or 3 meters. It lives in warm, shallow coastal water throughout much of the world. It has a pointy snout and is brown-gray with black tips on its tail and fins, and in fact it looks so much like the blacktip shark that it can be hard to tell the two species apart unless you get a really good look. It and the blacktip shark also share a unique feeding strategy that gives the spinner shark its name.

The shark eats a lot of fish, especially small fish that live in schools. When the spinner shark comes across a school of fish, it swims beneath it, then upward quickly through the school. As it swims it spins around and around like an American football, but unlike a football it bites and swallows fish as it goes. It can move so fast that it often shoots right out of the water, still spinning, up to 20 feet, or 6 meters, before falling back into the ocean. The blacktip shark sometimes does this too, but the spinner shark is an expert at this maneuver.

There’s a link in the show notes to a page where you can watch a video of spinner sharks spinning out of the water and flopping back down. It’s amazing and hilarious. Tobey mentioned that the spinner shark is an acrobatic shark, and it certainly is! It’s like a ballet dancer or figure skater, but with a lot more teeth. And fewer legs.

Because spinner sharks mainly eat fish, along with cephalopods, they almost never attack humans because they don’t consider humans to be food. Humans consider the spinner shark food, though, and they’re listed as vulnerable due to overhunting and habitat loss.

We’ll finish with a mystery shark. I’ve had Listracanthus on my ideas list for a couple of years, hoping that new information would come to light, but let’s go ahead and talk about it now. It’s too awesome to wait any longer.

We know very little about Listracanthus even though it was around for at least 75 million years, since it’s an early shark or shark relative with a cartilaginous skeleton. Cartilage doesn’t fossilize very well compared to bone, so we don’t have much of an idea of what the shark looked like. What we do have are spines that grew all over the fish and that probably made it look like it was covered with bristles or even weird feathers. The spines are a type of denticle that could be up to 4 inches long, or 10 cm. They weren’t just spines, though. They were spines that had smaller spines growing from their sides, sort of like a feather has a main shaft with smaller shafts growing from the sides.

The spines are fairly common in the fossil record from parts of North America, dating from about 326 million years ago to about 251 million years ago. Listracanthus was closely related to another spiny shark-like fish, Acanthorhachis, whose spines have been found in parts of Europe and who lived around 310 million years ago, but whose spines are less than 3 inches long at most, or 7 cm.

Some researchers think the spines were only present on parts of the shark, maybe just the head or down the back, but others think the sharks were covered with the spines. Many times, lots and lots of the spines are found together and probably belong to a single individual whose body didn’t fossilize, only its spines. Some researchers even think that the flattened denticles from a shark or shark relation called Petrodus, which is found in the same areas at the same times as Listracanthus, might actually be Listracanthus belly denticles.

The spines probably pointed backwards toward the tail, which would reduce drag as the fish swam, and they might have been for display or for protection from predators, or of course both. The main parts of the spine were also hollow and there’s evidence there were capillaries inside, so they might have had a chemosensory or electrosensory function too.

Modern sharks have denticles that make their skin rough, sort of like sandpaper. One modern shark, the sandy dogfish, Scyliorhinus canicula, which is common in shallow water off the coasts of western Europe and northern Africa, and in the Mediterranean, has especially rough denticles on its tail. They aren’t precisely spines, but they’re more than just little rough patches. The sandy dogfish is a small, slender shark that barely grows more than about three feet long, or about a meter, and it eats anything it can catch. Young dogfish especially like small crustaceans, and sometimes they catch an animal that’s too big to swallow whole. In that case, the shark sticks the animal on the denticles near its tail, which anchors it in place so it can tear bite-sized pieces off. Some other sharks do this too, so it’s possible that Listracanthus and its relations may have used its spines for similar behavior.

We don’t know much about these sharks because all we have are their spines. Only one probable specimen has been found, by a paleontologist named Rainer Zangerl. Dr. Zangerl found the remains of an eel-like shark in Indiana that was covered in spines, but unfortunately as the rock dried out after being uncovered, the fossil literally disintegrated into dust.

In August of 2019, a fossil hunter posted on an online forum for fossil enthusiasts to say he’d found a Listracanthus specimen. He posted pictures, although since the fossil hasn’t been prepared it isn’t much to look at. It’s just an undulating bump down a piece of shale that kind of looks like a dead snake. Fortunately, the man in question, who goes by RCFossils, knew instantly what he’d found. He also knew better than to try to clean it up himself. Instead, he’s been working on trying to find a professional interested in taking the project on. In May of 2022 he posted again to say he’d managed to get an X-ray of the fossil, which shows a backbone but no sign of a skull. He’s having trouble finding anyone who has the time and interest in studying the fossil, but hopefully he’ll find someone soon and we’ll all learn more about this mysterious pointy shark.

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 for as little as one dollar a month and get monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 279: Mean Piggies



Thanks to Molly for suggesting andrewsarchus and entelodont, our mean “piggies” we learn about this week!

Further reading:

Andrewsarchus, “Superb Skull of a Gigantic Beast”

Dark Folklore by Mark Norman and Tracey Norman

Further listening:

The Folklore Podcast

Andrewsarchus (taken from article linked above):

Andrewsarchus’s skull. I’m not sure who the guy holding it is, but I like to think his name is Andrew:

Entelodont:

Show transcript:

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

I’m getting really backed up on listener suggestions, so over the next few months I plan to cover as many of them as possible. We’ll start with two suggestions by Molly, who wanted to learn about Andrewsarchus and the related Entelodont. We talked about entelodonts briefly back in episode 116, and if you remember that episode, you may remember that entelodonts are sometimes referred to as the terminator pig or the hell pig. So yes, we are going to learn about some mean piggies this week, with a bonus fun mystery piggy at the end.

Andrewsarchus mongoliensis lived in what is now central Asia about 42 million years ago. It’s only known from a single skull found in 1923 in Inner Mongolia, which is part of China these days. The skull has a long snout and is big and wide, over 2.5 feet long, or 83 cm. It has huge, strong teeth that look ferocious.

When the skull was first found, some paleontologists on the team thought it was from a huge wolf-like carnivore. But others weren’t so sure. They thought it was the skull of a pig relative, and pigs are omnivores. Without more fossil remains, we can’t know for sure what Andrewsarchus’s body looked like, but these days scientists mostly think it was closely related to entelodonts.

Despite being called the terminator pig, entelodonts weren’t very closely related to pigs, although they and Andrewsarchus are in the order Artiodactyla. That’s the order that includes all even-toed hoofed mammals and their close relations, including pigs, but also including hippos and whales. Hippos and whales are actually pretty closely related, and entelodonts and Andrewsarchus were more closely related to hippos than to pigs.

Daeodon [DIE-oh-don] was the biggest entelodont known, and it may have stood up to 7 feet tall at the shoulder, or just over 2 meters. It lived in North America, but there was another species from Eurasia, Paraentelodon intermedium, that was probably close to the same size. Both lived about 22 million years ago.

Entelodonts had big, wide skulls with flared cheekbones and knob-like bony protrusions, so its head may have looked something like a warthog’s head. It also had cloven hooves. We don’t know if Andrewsarchus had hooves since we haven’t found anything but that one huge skull. The larger species of Entelodont had a humped shoulder something like a bison for the attachment of strong neck muscles to support the head’s weight, and Andrewsarchus probably had this too. The rest of the body was much more lightly built, with short, slender legs and a skinny little tail.

Even though Entelodont teeth are fearsome-looking, and at least some species of Entelodont were probably active hunters, they’re considered omnivores and Andrewsarchus probably was too. In fact, because Andrewsarchus was found on what was once a beach along the ocean, some researchers think it might have used its big forward-pointing front teeth to dig shellfish out of the sand. Most likely it ate pretty much anything it could find or catch, including shellfish, turtles, and other small animals, carrion, and plant material like fruit, nuts, and roots.

The teeth of some entelodont species show wear marks that indicate it probably bit through bones pretty frequently, possibly while scavenging already dead animals but possibly also when killing prey. One fossil skull of a herbivorous artiodactyl that lived in North America was found with an entelodont incisor embedded in it.

On the other hand, we have a set of fossil tracks in Nebraska, in the United States, that shows the behavior of what may have been an entelodont called Archaeotherium. Archaeotherium lived around 30 million years ago and grew up to 5 feet tall at the shoulder, or 1.5 meters, although most specimens found were closer to 4 feet tall, or 1.2 meters. The fossil tracks are from three animals: a type of rhinoceros, a predator of some kind, possibly the hyena-like Hyaenodon, and a species of Archaeotherium. The rhinoceros tracks show that it was walking along, then suddenly took off at a run. The Hyaenodon tracks are nearby and possibly indicate pursuit of the rhino, or it might have just happened to be nearby and frightened the rhino. The Archaeotherium tracks, meanwhile, zigzag back and forth. What on earth is going on with that?

Entelodonts had a very good sense of smell, much like pigs do, and walking in a zigzag pattern would allow Archaeotherium to smell things more efficiently. Some researchers suggest it might have been keeping an eye on the rhino hunt, and that if the Hyaenodon managed to bring down its prey, Archaeotherium might have decided to chase Hyaenodon away from its kill. It might also have been waiting for one or both animals to become tired, and then it could attack. Then again, it might just have been looking for some yummy fruit to eat. While some places online will tell you Archaeotherium was hunting the rhino, that’s not what the tracks indicate.

Entelodonts could open their mouths really, really wide. If you’ve ever seen a hippo with its humongous mouth open, that’s what we’re talking about here. Male hippos sometimes fight by jaw-wrestling each other, and researchers think entelodonts might have done something similar. A lot of entelodont skulls show healed puncture wounds in places consistent with jaw-wrestling. The knobby protrusions on its skull might have been an adaptation to this behavior, with thickened skin over them to keep a rival’s teeth from biting too deeply. This is the case with some pigs with similar skull protrusions, which we talked about in episode 128. The head bite wounds are only seen in adult animals, and younger animals didn’t have the massive cheek and jaw muscles seen in adults.

The big question is whether Andrewsarchus was actually an entelodont or just closely related to the entelodonts. That’s the same thing paleontologists have been discussing for the last century. Until we find more Andrewsarchus fossils, though, there’s only so much we can determine about the animal, including how similar it was to the entelodonts. For instance, while entelodonts did have cloven hooves, the two halves of the hoof could spread apart like fingers, which is similar to the way camel feet are structured. This would have helped it walk on soft ground, like sand or mud. If Andrewsarchus turns out to have similar feet, it was probably an entelodont.

Finding more Andrewsarchus remains will allow us to get a good idea of how big it could grow, too. Estimates based on the same proportions seen in entelodonts suggest it might have stood about 6 feet tall at the shoulder, or 1.8 meters.

As we’ve established, entelodonts and Andrewsarchus weren’t actually pigs, although they probably looked a lot like weird oversized warthogs with some features seen in wild boars. There’s no evidence they had a pig-like snout, called a nasal disk, which is flattened at the end. Entelodonts had nostrils on the sides of the snout, something like a horse’s nostrils.

But let’s finish with an actual pig, the mystery of the sewer pig. I got this information from a fantastic book called Dark Folklore by Mark and Tracey Norman, and I read the book because I listen to The Folklore Podcast, which is by folklorist Mark Norman, although I think Tracey Norman helps out with it too. I’ll just quote from the book, and definitely check the show notes for a link if you want to order your own copy.

“Foreshadowing the 1980s panic about baby alligators being taken home as pets and subsequently flushed down the toilet into the sewer system of New York, 1859 London was overtaken by a panic about the Sewer Pigs of Hampstead.

“The sewer pigs were thought to be a monstrous porcine family living entirely below ground in the London sewer system, and even featured in the Daily Telegraph newspaper. A sow had apparently become trapped, it was said, and had given birth to a litter of piglets, the entire family living off the rubbish that accumulated in the sewers and producing litter after litter. The population lived in fear of these terrible creatures escaping from the sewer system and running riot throughout London.

“Obviously, there is nothing within a sewer system that would sustain a pig, let alone a number of them. The fear connected to this particular urban legend is disease and it arose after the hot summer of 1858 caused a devastating outbreak of typhoid and cholera in the city. Unsurprisingly, there has never been any evidence of pigs in London’s sewers, monstrous, lost or otherwise.”

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 for as little as one dollar a month and get monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 278: Gender Diverse Animals



This week is Connor’s episode, and we’re going to learn about some animals that don’t conform to “typical” gender roles, one way or another.

I’ll be at ConCarolinas this week, from June 3 through 5, including recording a live crossover episode with Arcane Carolinas!

Further reading:

Species of algae with three sexes that all mate in pairs identified in Japanese river

How a microbe chooses among seven sexes

Facultative Parthenogenesis in California Condors

The sparrow with four sexes

Chinstrap penguins make good dads:

Laysan albatrosses make good moms:

Black swans make good dads:

Some rams really like other rams (photo by Henry Holdsworth):

New Mexico whiptail lizards are all females:

California condor females don’t always need a male to produce fertilized eggs:

Clownfish change sex under some circumstances:

The white-throated sparrow essentially has four sexes:

You are awesome (photo by By Eric Rolph)!

Show transcript:

“Hey y’all, this is Connor. Welcome to a very special Pride Month edition of the Strange Animals Podcast.”

This week we have Connor’s episode! We decided to make it the very last episode in our Kickstarter month so that it’s as close to the month of June as possible, because June is Pride Month and our episode is about gender-diverse animals! Don’t worry, parents of very young children, we won’t be discussing mating practices except in very general terms.

Pride month celebrates people’s differences when it comes to gender expression and sexuality. That’s why its symbol is the rainbow, because a rainbow is made up of all different colors the same way there are different kinds of people. Sometimes people get angry when they hear about Pride month because they think there are only two genders, and that those two genders should only behave in certain ways. Pffft. That’s not even true when it comes to animals, and humans are a lot more socially complicated.

For instance, let’s start by talking about a humble creature called algae. If you remember episode 129, about the blurry line between animals and plants, you may remember that algae isn’t actually a plant or an animal. Some species resemble plants more than animals, like kelp, but they’re not actually plants. In July of 2021, scientists in Japan announced that a species of freshwater algae has three sexes: male, female, and bisexual. All three sexes can pair up with any of the others to reproduce and their offspring may be male, female, or bisexual at random.

Even though the algae has been known to science for a long time, no one realized it has three sexes because most of the time, algae reproduces by cloning itself. The research team thinks that a lot of algae species may have three sexes but researchers just haven’t been looking for it.

Yes, I realize that was a weird place to start, but it’s also fascinating! It’s also not even nearly as complicated as a protozoan called Tetrahymena thermophila, which has seven sexes.

Let’s look at a bird next, the penguin. You’ve probably heard of the book And Tango Makes Three, about two male penguins who adopt an egg and raise the baby chick together. For some reason some people get so angry at those penguins! Never trust someone who doesn’t like baby penguins, and never trust someone who thinks animals should act like humans. The events in the book are based on a true story, where two male chinstrap penguins in New York’s Central Park Zoo formed a pair bond and tried to hatch a rock, although they also tried to steal eggs from the other penguins. A zookeeper gave the pair an extra penguin egg to hatch instead.

The most interesting thing about the story is that same-sex couples are common among penguins, in both captivity and in the wild, among both males and females. Since penguins sometimes lay two eggs but most species can only take care of one chick properly, zookeepers often give the extra eggs to same-sex penguin pairs. The adoptive parents are happy to raise a baby together and the baby is more likely to survive and be healthy. Occasionally a same-sex penguin couple will adopt an egg abandoned by its parents.

If you remember episode 263 a few months ago, where we talked about animals that mate for life, you may remember the Laysan albatross. In that episode we learned about a specific Laysan albatross named Wisdom, the oldest wild bird in the world as far as we know. While I was researching Wisdom, I learned something marvelous. As many as 30% of all Laysan albatross pairs are both females. Sometimes one of the females will mate with a male and lay a fertilized egg, and then both females raise the baby as a couple. Sometimes one of the females lays an unfertilized egg that doesn’t hatch. There are many more Laysan albatross females than males, which may be the reason why females form pairs, but it’s perfectly normal behavior. It’s also been a real help to conservationists. Sometimes an albatross pair will nest in an area that’s not safe, like on an airfield. Instead of leaving the egg to be smashed by an airplane, conservationists take the fertilized egg from the unsafe nest and use it to replace the unfertilized egg of a female pair. The egg is safe and the chick has adoptive parents who raise it as their own.

Many other birds develop same-sex pairs too. This is especially common in the black swan, where up to a quarter of pairs are both male. One or both of the males will mate with a female, but after she lays her eggs the males take care of them and the cygnets after they hatch. Cygnets raised by two dads are much more likely to survive than cygnets raised by one mom and one dad. The males are stronger and more aggressive, so they can defend the nest and babies more effectively.

Birds aren’t the only animals that form same-sex pair bonds. Many mammals do too. It’s been documented in the wild in lions, elephants, gorillas, bonobos, dolphins, and many more. In species that don’t typically form pair bonds, homosexual behavior is still pretty common. It’s so common among domestic sheep that shepherds have to take into account the fact that up to 10% of rams prefer to mate with other rams instead of with ewes. Some rams show attraction to both males and females. This happens in wild sheep too, where rams may court other rams the same way they court ewes. Some ewes also show homosexual behavior.

The New Mexico whiptail is a lizard that lives in parts of the southwestern United States and northern Mexico. It can grow over nine inches long, or 23 cm, and is black or brown with yellow racing stripes. It eats insects and is an active, slender lizard that’s common throughout its range. And every single New Mexico whiptail lizard is a female.

The lizards reproduce by a process called parthenogenesis. That basically means an animal reproduces asexually without needing to have its eggs fertilized. The lizards do mate, though, but not with males. Females practice mating behaviors with each other, which researchers think causes a hormone change that allows eggs to develop. Females who don’t mate don’t develop eggs.

Female birds can sometimes reproduce asexually too. It’s been documented in turkeys, chickens, pigeons, finches, and even condors. A study published in late 2021 detailed two instances of parthenogenesis in California condors in a captive breeding program. In both cases the females were housed with their male mates, and in both cases the pairs had produced offspring together before. But in both cases, for some reason the females laid eggs that hatched into chicks that were genetically identical to the mothers. It’s possible parthenogenesis is even more common in birds than researchers thought.

In many species of reptile, whether a baby is a male or female depends completely on how warm its egg gets during incubation. For example, the American alligator. The mother gator builds a nest of plant material and lays her eggs in it. As the plant material decays, it releases heat that keeps the eggs warm. How much heat is generated depends on where the mother alligator builds her nest and what plants she uses, which in turns affects the eggs. If the temperature in the nest is under 86 degrees Fahrenheit, or 30 Celsius, during the first few weeks of incubation, most or all of the eggs will hatch into females. If the temperature is 93 F or 34 C, most or all of the eggs will hatch into males. If the temperature is between the two extremes, there will be a mix of males and females, although usually more females.

Because climate change has caused an overall increase in temperatures across the world, some already vulnerable reptile populations, especially sea turtles, are hatching almost all males. Conservationists have to dig up the eggs and incubate them at a cooler temperature in captivity, then release the babies into the ocean when they hatch.

Other animals change from male to female or vice versa, depending on circumstances. The clownfish, for example. Clownfish start out life as males but as they grow up, most become females, although only the dominant pair in a colony actually reproduces. Clownfish live in colonies led by the largest, most aggressive female, with the largest, most aggressive male in the group as her mate. If something happens to her, her former mate takes her place, becoming a female in the process. The largest juvenile male then becomes her mate and remains male even though he puts on a growth spurt to mature quickly. If Finding Nemo was scientifically accurate, it would have been a much different movie.

Another group of fish that live around reefs are wrasses, which includes the famous cleaner fish that cleans parasites and dead tissue off of larger fish. Wrasses hatch into both males and females, but the males aren’t the same type of males that can breed. Those develop later. When the dominant breeding male of the group dies, the largest female or the largest non-breeding male then develops into a breeding male. But sometimes a non-breeding male will develop into a female instead.

The term for an animal that changes sex as part of its natural growth process is sequential hermaphroditism. It’s common in fish and crustaceans in particular. Other animals have the reproductive organs of both a male and a female, especially many species of snail, slug, earthworm, sea slug, and some fish. We talked about the mangrove killifish in episode 133, and in that episode I said it was the only known vertebrate hermaphrodite. That’s actually not accurate, although I was close. It’s the only known vertebrate hermaphrodite that can self-fertilize. Almost all mangrove killifish are females, although they also produce sperm to fertilize their own eggs. The eggs hatch into little clones of the mother.

We’ve talked about seahorses before too, especially in episode 130. Seahorse pairs form bonds that last throughout the breeding season. The pair participate in courtship dances and spend most of their time together. When the eggs are ready, the female deposits them in a special brood pouch in the male’s belly, where he fertilizes them. They then embed themselves in the spongy wall of the brood pouch and are nourished not only by the yolk sacs in the eggs, but by the male, who secretes nutrients in the brood pouch. So basically the male is pregnant. The female visits him every day to check on him, usually in the mornings. When the eggs hatch after a few weeks, the male expels the babies from his pouch and they swim away, because when they hatch they are perfectly formed teeny-tiny miniature seahorses.

Let’s finish with a little songbird that’s common throughout eastern North America, the white-throated sparrow. It has a white patch on its throat and a bright yellow spot between the eye and the bill. There are two color morphs, one with black and white stripes on its head, one with brown and tan stripes on its head. Both males and females have these head stripes. The male sings a pretty song that sounds like this:

[white-throated sparrow call]

A 30-year study into white-throated sparrow genetics has revealed some amazing things. The color morphs are due to a genetic difference that affects a lot more than just feather colors. Black morph males are better singers, but they don’t guard their territory as well or take care of their babies as well as brown morphs do. They also aren’t as faithful to their mates as the brown morph males, which are fully monogamous and are diligent about helping take care of their babies. Despite their differences in raising offspring, both morphs are equally successful and equally common.

All this seems to be no big deal on the surface, maybe just pointing to the possibility that the species is in the process of splitting into two species or subspecies. But that’s not the case.

Black morphs always mate with brown morphs. A black morph male will always have a brown morph mate, and vice versa. Genetically, the two morphs are incredibly different—so different, in fact, that they seem to be developing a fully different set of sex chromosomes. In other words, there are male and female black morph birds and male and female brown morph birds that are totally different genetically, but still members of the same species that only ever breed with each other. In essence, the white-throated sparrow has four sexes.

Usually I try to end episodes with something funny, but today I’m going to speak directly to you. Yes, you! If you’re listening to this or reading the transcript, my words are meant just for you. You are an amazing person and I love you. You deserve to be happy. If anyone has ever told you there’s something wrong with the way you are, or the way you wish you were or want to be, they’re wrong. They probably also don’t like penguins, so you don’t have to believe anything they say. If you’ve ever read books by Terry Pratchett, you may recognize this quote: “Be yourself, as hard as you can.”

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 for as little as one dollar a month and get monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!