Episode 164: The Pronghorn



This week let’s learn about the pronghorn!

Show transcript:

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

This week let’s finally look at an animal I’ve wanted to cover for at least a couple of years now, the pronghorn! We’ve talked about the pronghorn before a few times, but it definitely deserves its own episode.

The pronghorn is a cloven-hoofed mammal that lives in western North America, especially in open terrain where it can see any predators that might try to sneak up on it, because it has good eyesight. It stands up to about 3 ½ feet high at the shoulder, or 104 cm, and is tan or brown with black and white markings, including a black stripe down the top of the nose and a white rump and belly. Both males and females have horns, but the horns aren’t like bovid horns and they’re not like deer antlers. But they’re also not like giraffe ossicones either even though the pronghorn is most closely related to the giraffe.

I’m going to quote a couple of paragraphs from one of our previous episodes where we talked about the pronghorn briefly, episode 116 about deer and antelopes and other hoofed animals. This is what I said about the pronghorn’s horns:

Sure, the pronghorn looks like an antelope. It’s deer-like, runs extremely fast just like antelopes, and has short black horns. But look at those horns. It’s called a pronghorn because the horns of the males have a prong, or branch, so that the horn is shaped sort of like a Y, with the front branch of the Y shorter than the other, and the longer branch of the Y having a sort of hook at the top. Antelopes only ever have unbranched horns.

But the pronghorn also isn’t a deer. Its horns are horns, not antlers, and it keeps its horns throughout its life instead of shedding them every year. Except that it kind of does shed part of the horn every year, the sheath. The inside of a horn is bone that grows from the skull, but a sheath of keratin grows over it. If you’ve ever seen an old-fashioned drinking cup made of horn, it was made of a horn sheath, usually from a bull. Most horned animals keep the sheath their whole life, which grows as the horn grows underneath, but the pronghorn male sheds the sheath of his horns every year and then grows new ones.

As I mentioned a few minutes ago, although it looks like an antelope and is often referred to as an antelope, the pronghorn is most closely related to the giraffe. But it’s not very closely related to the giraffe and in fact it’s the only living member of its own family.

There used to be more members of the pronghorn family, though, and some of them had really weird horns. Hayoceros was a pronghorn relative that went extinct around 300,000 years ago. It had horns that looked similar to the pronghorn’s, but it also had two more longer horns that grew behind them and pointed almost straight up with no branches. Ramoceros was much smaller than the pronghorn and had a pair of horns with several branching forks that looked a lot like antlers, although they were actual horns. Hexameryx lived around 5 million years ago and had six horns that probably looked like a pointy crown on its head, while Ilingoceros had spiral horns that were straight except at the ends, where they forked. And Stockoceros had two horns, but they divided into two at the base so from a distance it looked like it had four horns, each about the same length but sticking up like a pair of Vs. Stockoceros actually survived until only about 12,000 years ago. All these animals and others lived in North America, although obviously not all at the same time, and filled the same ecological niches that bovids fill in other parts of the world.

The pronghorn eats plants, including grass, cacti, and shrubs. It can even eat plants that contain toxins that would kill or sicken other animals. It’s a ruminant that chews its cud, which is also something the giraffe does too if you remember the tallest animals episode.

In winter the pronghorn lives in herds, but in spring the young males form smaller groups together while older males go off by themselves and find a territory to defend from other males. Females stay together in groups, moving around to find the best plants. In late spring babies are born, often twins, and after the babies are a few weeks old, the herd takes care of them as a group, although each mother will only nurse her own babies.

As the summer ends, some females start traveling around by themselves to find a male they like. When mating season approaches in the fall, females who haven’t yet found a mate watch fights between males and mate with the winners.

But I haven’t even talked about the most interesting thing about the pronghorn. It’s the second-fastest land animal alive, with only the cheetah able to run faster. The pronghorn can run 55 mph, or 88 km/h, for half a mile, or .8 km, but it can hit 60 mph, or 96 km/h, for short distances, and possibly faster. Its hooves are cloven but it doesn’t have dewclaws, and even though it can cover as much as 20 feet, or 6 m, with a single stride, it’s not much of a jumper. It usually goes under fences instead of over them, because when it does try to jump a fence it often gets stuck. Some ranchers have started removing the lowest strand of barbed wire from their fences to keep pronghorns from getting hurt. Back before people started fencing off grazing land, the pronghorn migrated long distances in the summer, but these days the migration is much shorter because so much of the land is fenced off.

At the speeds pronghorns reach, obviously they can easily outrun any predator in North America, including wolves. The wolf can only run up to about 38 mph, or 61 km/h, which is way slower than the pronghorn. So why can the pronghorn run so very fast?

It’s not because of predators alive today, it’s because of a predator that went extinct some 12,000 years ago. I’m quoting again from myself, this time from episode 34 about saber-toothed animals.

The American cheetah once lived on the prairies of North America. Its body plan resembled the modern cheetah’s and it was built for speed, but researchers aren’t sure if it was actually closely related to the modern cheetah or more closely related to the cougar. It was a little larger and heavier than a modern cheetah. Either way, the pronghorn evolved to outrun the American cheetah, and even though it no longer needs to run so fast, it still can. Because you never know when you might need to hit that turbo button and go zoom.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online 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. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us and get twice-monthly bonus episodes for as little as one dollar a month.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 163: Three Weird Fish



Thanks to Nathan for his suggestions! This week we’re going to learn about three strange and interesting fish!

A northern snakehead:

A giant snakehead:

A Greenland shark, fish of mystery:

The upside-down catfish is indeed upside down a lot of the time (this is actually a picture of Synodontis nigriventris, closely related to the upside-down catfish we talk about in the episode):

An ancient Egyptian upside-down catfish pendant that ladies wore in their hair:

Show transcript:

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

We haven’t done a fish episode in a while, so this week let’s learn about three weird fish. Thanks to Nathan for suggesting the first two fish, the snakehead and the Greenland shark.

The snakehead is a freshwater fish that gets its name because while it’s an ordinary-looking fish for the most part, it has a flattened head that looks a little bit like a snake’s. Different species of snakehead look different in other ways, of course, so let’s examine a couple of typical species.

The northern snakehead is native to Asia, but it’s been introduced into other parts of the world by accident or as a food fish. It’s one of the largest species, with reports of some specimens growing up to five feet long, or 1.5 meters. It’s usually no more than three feet long, though, or 1 meter. It’s brown with darker blotches and has sharp teeth that it uses to catch fish, frogs, and other small animals.

Like other snakeheads, the northern snakehead can breathe air and survive out of water for several days as long as it stays damp. Young snakeheads can even wriggle considerable distances on land to find water. It likes stagnant or slow-moving water.

Because it’s a fierce predator that can find its way to new waterways, introduced snakeheads are invasive species that can cause havoc to populations of native fish. The northern snakehead has been introduced into many waterways in the United States in the last twenty years, as a result of people releasing unwanted aquarium fish and accidental release of snakeheads in fish-farming operations. Since snakeheads reach mature age quickly and females can lay thousands of eggs at a time, snakeheads are illegal to own in many places now and release snakeheads into the wild is even more against the law.

The giant snakehead also grows up to five feet long, or 1.5 m, and is from parts of southeast Asia. Young giant snakeheads are red, but when they grow up they’re black and white with a thick black stripe down each side. It’s also been introduced into a lot of places as a food fish and a game fish, but since it’s a tropical species it can’t survive colder weather and isn’t as invasive as a result, at least not outside of tropical and subtropical areas.

The giant snakehead can be aggressive, though, especially when it’s guarding its nest. Both parents act as guards of the eggs and the newly hatched babies, which follow their mother around wherever she goes. That’s actually really cute.

Next let’s talk about the Greenland shark. We covered it briefly in episode 74, about colossal squid and the things that eat them, but mostly we talked about its close relative the sleeper shark. The Greenland shark is similar in some ways but it’s much bigger than the sleeper shark. It lives in the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans where the water is barely warmer than the freezing point and it grows up to 24 feet long, or 7.3 meters, with females being larger than males.

But despite how enormous it is, it’s not a shark you need to worry about. First of all, what are you doing swimming in water that cold? Second, the Greenland shark is a slow swimmer, no more than about 1 ½ miles per hour, or 2.6 km/h. You can walk faster than that without even trying. You can probably dog-paddle faster than that.

And yet, the Greenland shark manages to eat seals and fish and other animals that move quickly. Since no one’s actually observed a Greenland shark hunting, no one knows how they catch prey. Some researchers speculate that it sneaks up on sleeping seals and grabs them. It also eats a lot of carrion, including dead moose and reindeer and polar bears that fall into the water and drown. One shark was found with an entire reindeer in its stomach.

The Greenland shark spends winter in shallow water where it’s warmer, but in summer it spends more time in deep water. At least one submersible observed a Greenland shark 7,200 feet below the surface of the ocean, or 2,200 meters. Occasionally a Greenland shark travels more widely, usually in deep water where the water is cold. In 2013 one was caught by researchers in the Gulf of Mexico, which is way far away from the Arctic. It was swimming at over 5,700 feet deep, or 1,750 meters.

The Greenland shark is adapted to the cold and pressure of the deep sea in many ways. Its blood contains three types of hemoglobin, which help it absorb as much oxygen as possible from water that’s poorly oxygenated to start with. Its muscles and other tissues contain high levels of urea and other compounds that increase its buoyancy, so that it doesn’t need to work as hard to stay in one place. But the presence of urea in its muscles means that the Greenland shark not only tastes horrible, it’s toxic. In Iceland Greenland sharks are considered a delicacy, but only after the toxins have been removed from the meat by long treatment. This includes burying it in the ground for weeks, partially fermenting it, and drying it for several months afterwards. Most people don’t bother and any commercial fishing boats that catch Greenland sharks just toss them back overboard.

The Greenland shark has a very slow metabolism and grows extremely slowly too. That’s okay, though, because it lives a very long time. A VERY long time. The biggest Greenland sharks may be as much as 600 years old. Researchers examine the crystals in dead Greenland shark eyeballs to determine when they were hatched.

And speaking of Greenland shark eyeballs…some of you know where this is going. I hope you’re not eating grapes or anything right now. There’s a type of copepod, a crustacean, that acts as a parasite of the Greenland shark and the Pacific sleeper shark, its close relative. The copepod grows to about an inch long, or 28 mm, and attaches itself to the shark’s cornea, which is part of the eyeball. This impairs the shark’s vision but it doesn’t seem to care and it doesn’t seem to have any trouble finding food.

Okay let’s stop talking about that. Our third and final weird fish for this episode is a type of catfish that’s sometimes kept in aquariums. It’s called the upside-down catfish.

There are actually a number of closely-related catfish known as upside-down catfish, but the one we’ll talk about today is Synodontis batensoda. It lives in parts of Africa in marshy areas and slow-moving water. It grows to a little over a foot and a half long, or 50 cm, and eats plankton, algae, mollusks, insects and larvae, and crustaceans.

But the upside-down catfish gets its name from its habit of swimming upside down. Because it’s kept as an aquarium fish so often, many people assume that the upside-down swimming is something it developed because it’s kept in an enclosed aquarium habitat. But that’s actually not the case.

The catfish used to be well-known in Egypt, and there’s even an Egyptian tomb carving depicting a catfish swimming upside down, dating to the Middle Kingdom around 4,000 years ago. The upside-down catfish was often depicted in jewelry, too, including hair ornaments so beautifully made that the species of catfish can be determined. Young women in Egypt traditionally wore fish ornaments to decorate their braids. There’s a story about one young woman who was helping row a king across a lake when her fish pendant fell into the water. She stopped rowing, naturally, which messed up the other rowers. The king wanted to know why the boat had stopped, and when the woman explained, he offered to give her a new fish pendant. But no, she said, she wanted that one, the one that was now at the bottom of the lake. But the king had a magician who said no problem, and caused the water to fold back like a blanket, exposing the lake’s bottom so the pendant could be retrieved. I didn’t make that story up, either. It’s from the Westcar Papyrus that dates to around the 17th century BCE.

So why does the upside-down catfish swim upside down? Like other catfish, its mouth is angled downward so it can find food in the mud at the bottom of the water. So when it wants to grab an insect on the water’s surface, or eat algae off the bottom of a submerged leaf, it can only do so by turning upside down.

So that’s it for this week’s episode. I don’t know what else to say because I’m just sitting here trying to imagine how I’d manage if someone told me I had to swim upside down. But then, I can barely swim right side up. Good job, upside-down catfish!

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online 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. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us and get twice-monthly bonus episodes for as little as one dollar a month.

Thanks for listening!


BONUS! Two more Mongolian animals!



It’s a bonus episode because some people are too disturbed by the thought of diseases to listen to this week’s regular episode. I’m really sorry about that! To make it up to you, here are two adorable fluffy animals that live in Mongolia and other parts of Asia.

Super floof! Pallas’s cat, AKA the manol or manul (photo by Julie Larsen Maher, looks like):

I would deny you nothing, round boi:

we all died of cute right here:

The handsome corsac fox would break your heart in an instant if it felt like it:

Show transcript:

Hello, it’s a bonus episode of Strange Animals Podcast, because it turns out that some people couldn’t listen to this week’s episode because they get too creeped out about diseases. I feel terrible about that so I’ve put together a short bonus episode to make up for it. Let’s learn about two more Mongolian animals, because I am still completely obsessed with the Mongolian band The Hu and in fact I have tickets to see them live in May in Lexington! If you’re going to be there too, let me know so we can hang out.

Our first animal is called the manol or Pallas’s cat, a type of wildcat native to parts of central Asia. It’s about the size of a domestic cat with plush grayish-brown fur that gets very thick in winter. It has black spots and stripes, including a long ringed tail, and ears that are set low on the head. It is magnificently fluffy, especially in winter, with especially long fur on its belly.

In fact, it gets so fluffy that it looks a lot like a longhaired domestic cat. The zoologist Peter Pallas, who first described the manol in 1776, thought it must actually be the ancestor of the Persian breed of domestic cat, especially since the manol has a relatively short nose and flat face like Persian cats, and has a stocky build like Persians. But the manol is actually not very closely related to domestic cats, and is in its own genus instead of the genus Felis. For one thing, its pupils are round instead of vertical like a domestic cat’s pupils.

The manol is solitary and doesn’t get along well with other manols, not even family members. One zoo was concerned about a litter of manol kittens that had just been born, since it sounded like they were making little wheezing noises. But a closer inspection revealed that the kittens were just growling at each other.

The manol eats small animals, especially a small rabbit relative called a pika, but also gerbils, voles, insects, and other animals. It lives in the steppes of central Asia and often lives at high elevations. It mostly lives in dry habitats where there isn’t much snow, especially rocky areas or grassland. Because its rounded ears are set so low on its head, the cat can hide among rocks and among plants without its ears giving away its position by sticking up too far. If it feels threatened, it will flatten itself to the ground and freeze, where it looks kind of like a fluffy gray rock.

Our other Mongolian animal is the corsac fox, which lives in very similar habitats as the manol and which also grows a lovely fluffy coat in winter. In the summer its coat is much shorter. It’s yellowish-gray or pale gold in color, paler underneath and with a dark stripe down the back in winter.

The corsac fox isn’t very big, a little over two feet long, or 65 cm, not counting the tail, which adds another 14 inches, or 35 cm, to its length. Since it lives in areas where it’s usually dry, it doesn’t need to drink water very often. It gets most of its water from its diet, which is very similar to the manol’s diet—mostly small animals like hamsters, gerbils, and pikas, although it also eats insects, carrion, and fruit and other vegetation. Its teeth are small compared to other foxes.

Unlike many fox species, which are mostly solitary, the corsac fox usually lives in small packs. The pack lives in a series of shallow burrows that the foxes either dig themselves or take over from other animals. The burrows are usually connected to each other and have several entrances. The corsac fox is also a good climber because of its claws, which are more hook-shaped than most canid claws.

Both the corsac fox and the manol are threatened by habitat loss and poaching. People hunt both animals for their fur. But they’re both still doing well otherwise, with the corsac fox in particular given a conservation rating of least concern. The manol is considered near threatened, but it’s protected in most countries where it lives with a captive breeding program in place across a number of the world’s zoos.

That’s all for this bonus episode. Again, I apologize to anyone who had trouble with this week’s regular episode. I hope you feel better now thinking about these adorable fluffy animals!

Thanks for listening!


Episode 162: Some Seals and the END OF THE WORRRRLLLDDDD



Thanks to Kim and Pranav for their unsettling suggestions for this episode! I swear the reason I decided to do this episode this week was to celebrate getting over my cold, but then I realized I needed to address the virus everyone is talking about right now. I hope you all stay well and safe out there!

The Hawaiian monk seal OMG LOOK YOU CAN SEE ITS BELLY BUTTON, SO CUTE:

Show transcript:

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

I’m finally over my cold, so to celebrate let’s do a little bit of an unusual episode. Last year Kim suggested we do an episode about zoonotic diseases and diseases found in polar ice, and Pranav suggested an episode about what happens after humans go extinct. Those two topics seemed to go together, muahahaha.

Zoonotic diseases are diseases that humans can catch from other animals. Rabies is a good example, since it affects all mammals and is passed from one animal to another. In fact, let’s learn a little bit about rabies since naturally people are afraid of catching it but most people don’t know much about it.

Rabies is caused by a virus, specifically the lyssavirus. It acts on the body’s central nervous system, eventually infecting the brain. After that, it infects the salivary glands in order to be transmitted to other animals through a bite wound.

When an animal is infected with rabies, it may not show symptoms for a long time—sometimes years, although it’s more usually a few days to a few months. It starts as a fever and a headache, which are also symptoms of many other diseases. But within a few days of the first symptoms, the animal becomes aggressive, attempting to bite any other animal that it encounters. It has difficulty swallowing, which is why in cartoons animals with rabies are shown foaming at the mouth. This actually happens, but it doesn’t look like shaving cream and you’re not fooling anyone. The foam is just saliva that the animal can’t swallow. In the old days, rabies was called hydrophobia, which means fear of water, because in addition to not being able to swallow, the infected animal actually shows a fear of water. This all happens because the virus wants to be transmitted to other animals, and it does so through contact with infected saliva. If an infected animal could swallow its saliva and drink water, it would be much less likely to transmit rabies. So the virus hijacks the central nervous system to make the animal afraid of water and unable to swallow.

Of course, mammals can only live a few days without water, so once an animal reaches this stage it dies within a few days. Occasionally a human who contracts rabies and starts showing symptoms is rushed to the hospital and treated, but once they’ve reached the final stages of hydrophobia, it’s extremely rare that they survive even with the best medical care available.

So that’s horrifying. Some species of mammal are resistant to rabies and while they may get sick, they don’t usually die from it, including the vampire bat and the Virginia opossum. Birds can catch rabies but usually don’t show symptoms and recover without spreading it. Rabbits and hares, and many small rodents like guinea pigs and rats, almost never catch rabies and as far as researchers know, don’t pass the disease to humans.

And, of course, a vaccine was developed as long ago as 1885, with a more effective vaccine developed in 1967. The vaccine is mostly given to dogs, cats, and other pets, but humans who work with certain wild animals, like bats, are also given the vaccine. In some areas with widespread rabies among wild animals, vaccine-laced baits left for animals to find and eat have helped limit the spread of the disease.

If you are bitten by an animal, even if the animal doesn’t show symptoms of rabies, you should get the rabies vaccine and treatment as soon as possible. Rabies is most commonly spread to humans by dogs, especially stray dogs.

Feeling nervous yet?

What about diseases that spread from animals to humans that aren’t as well-known as rabies, or which appear to be new diseases? This is what has happened with the COVID-19 virus, also called the coronavirus, that has people worried at the moment. If you’re listening to this long after it came out and have no idea what COVID-19 is, at the time of release it’s March of 2020. Also, what’s the future like? Do we have flying cars yet?

The COVID-19 virus was first reported in China and researchers think it may have originated in bats, since it’s very similar to another coronavirus found in bats. There’s also some discussion that it may have originated in pangolins, or that there may be two strains of the disease. It’s still so early in the disease’s study that we don’t know for sure, but it does appear to be a zoonotic disease.

But how would a bat virus get into a human? It’s not like rabies where infected animals are trying to bite and infect others. I mean, when’s the last time a bat sneezed on you? Well, in parts of China people still catch and eat wild animals, including bats. Most of the initial cases of COVID-19 were in people who had gone to a market where bats and other animals were for sale as meat.

Wildlife trafficking is a source of many zoonotic diseases, and it doesn’t matter whether the animal is caught to be shipped live or killed and sold as meat or body parts. Not only is it really bad for endangered species, and of course for the individual animal killed, it also puts people at risk. China has put some stricter guidelines in place to limit the practice, and hopefully other countries will do the same.

COVID-19 is a virus with flu-like symptoms, spread the same way colds and flu are spread. While most people who catch it recover after a few weeks, it can be especially dangerous for people who already have other health issues. I know you’ve been told this constantly the last few weeks, but wash your hands with soap and hot water before you eat or rub your eyes or chew on that fingernail or pick your nose. Your mouth, nose, and eyes are lined with mucus membranes, which are easy for viruses to penetrate. Regular skin is too tough for the virus to get through. That’s also why you should cover your nose and mouth when you sneeze, so no one breathes in the germy droplets you just sneezed out. Hopefully it won’t be long before a vaccine is developed, but until then, if you feel sick the best thing is to stay home and take care of yourself, and not go out and potentially get other people sick.

Right, that’s enough about your run-of-the-mill zoonotic diseases because we’re all feeling icky and nervous now. Let’s move on to diseases found in polar ice!

As you probably also know, right now the earth’s overall global temperature is rising. This is causing more ice to melt at the poles, including some of what’s called the permafrost. The permafrost is a layer of soil that remains frozen and never thaws out, or at least it doesn’t thaw completely for years—sometimes thousands and thousands of years. That kind of permafrost is mostly found near the north and south poles. But now that the earth is warming, more permafrost is starting to melt. That means everything in the permafrost is thawing out too. That includes bacteria and viruses that were frozen thousands of years ago.

Some bacteria and viruses can remain dormant in ice, then thaw out and be just fine. Researchers have found active viruses in dead bodies that are thawing after sometimes hundreds of years. The only known outbreak so far has been a case of anthrax in Siberia that spread to living reindeer from a thawed corpse of a reindeer that died some 75 years ago. The infected reindeer herd then spread the disease to some people living nearby, and one twelve-year-old boy died.

But anthrax is a well-known disease that’s still around today. What makes us all uneasy about this is that there might be unknown diseases or especially dangerous strains of known diseases that could spread to animals and people. So could that happen? Are we all DOOMED?

No, we’re not all doomed, no matter what you keep hearing on the news. Even if a virus or bacterium is fine after being thawed out, it still needs to find a host quickly or it will degrade and die anyway. The reason the anthrax virus was able to infect reindeer was because they were grazing in the area where the dead reindeer thawed out. That virus got lucky, but most don’t. The areas of the world with permafrost are ones that are difficult to live in, so there aren’t as many animals around in the first place. There are even fewer people. Instead of being worried about catching a disease from permafrost, we should probably worry about other issues stemming from climate change. If you’re like me, of course, you can manage to worry about EVERYTHING at once, but you can put polar ice diseases near the bottom of the list.

Of course, there is another aspect of melting ice and disease. In 2004 some sea otters in Alaska were diagnosed with a version of distemper that was only known from eastern North America and Europe. This population of sea otters had never been anywhere but in Alaska, so how did they catch the virus? It wasn’t until researchers noticed that outbreaks of distemper corresponded with the melting of Arctic sea ice that they realized that infected animals from other parts of the country were moving west into newly ice-free territories, spreading the virus to otters that wouldn’t have been exposed otherwise. This particular strain of distemper affects otters, seals, and other marine mammals. It’s dangerous enough that conservationists are now vaccinating Hawaiian monk seals against distemper just in case it spreads to them, since only about 1,400 Hawaiian monk seals are alive to start with.

We haven’t talked about any particular kind of animal yet this episode, so let’s learn about those seals. The Hawaiian monk seal lives around the Hawaiian islands in the Pacific Ocean, but its closest relatives, the Mediterranean monk seal and the extinct Caribbean monk seal, are both native to the Atlantic Ocean.

Hawaii, of course, is an archipelago of 137 volcanic islands, most of them quite small, that span 1,500 miles, or 2,400 km. Seven of the eight biggest islands are the ones where humans live, and many of the islands are part of a protected marine wildlife reserve. The oldest island in the archipelago is probably 28 million years old, while the youngest, which is actually called Hawai’i or just the Big Island, is only about 400,000 years old and is still volcanically active. There’s another volcanic island southeast of Hawai’i that’s still growing underwater, too.

All the islands are so far away from any continent that there are only two mammals native to the area, the Hawaiian monk seal and a species of bat. The bat probably colonized the islands after being blown there by storms, but how did seals whose ancestors were native to the Atlantic reach these islands in the middle of the Pacific? The Atlantic and Pacific Oceans are separated by two big continents on either side. Even humans didn’t settle on Hawaii until 1700 years ago at most.

Before around 3 or 4 million years ago, though, North America and South America were separate continents with a seaway between. It wasn’t until around 3 million years ago that the Isthmus of Panama formed as two tectonic plates collided, forming volcanic islands and pushing the land up. When the oceans were finally separated by this new land, it stopped marine animals from being able to pass back and forth, but of course it also allowed land animals to pass between North and South America, the Great American Interchange which we’ve talked about in previous episodes from time to time. The Hawaiian monk seal’s ancestors probably lived in the shallow seaway between North and South America, and around three million years ago one population was cut off from the rest. That population eventually migrated to the Hawaiian islands and evolved into the seals that live there today.

The Hawaiian monk seal mostly lives around the smaller islands, although sometimes it comes to the larger ones. It’s gray with a pale belly, and a big female can grow up to 8 feet long, or 2.4 meters, while males are a little smaller. Babies are born with black hair. Most of the time the seal is in the water, hunting fish, cephalopods, and crustaceans, but for about ten days out of the year it spends most of its time on land because that’s when it molts. It doesn’t just shed its hair, it also sheds the outer layer of its skin. This is probably itchy and uncomfortable until the new hair and skin grow back. The seal can hold its breath for up to 20 minutes and can dive deeply, but it usually hangs out in shallow water around the islands. It usually sleeps on the beach but sometimes in underwater caves where there’s trapped air to breathe. It also gives birth on the beach. I have to say, it sounds like it has a pretty sweet life, except the part where sharks eat it.

In the 19th century many species of seal, including the Hawaiian monk seal, were either driven extinct or nearly driven extinct by hunters. The hunters wanted the oily fat that seals produce to keep them warm in cold water, which burns really well. Fortunately, once electricity was invented and became widespread, no one wanted to burn stinky whale and seal oil for light. But many species of seal, just like many species of whale, are still having trouble recovering. The Hawaiian monk seal is so endangered that conservationists provide veterinary care when appropriate, especially to young seals that are injured by aggressive older males and by fishing equipment. And, of course, they also provide vaccines to protect the seals from diseases like distemper.

Let’s finish up with Pranav’s question. What will happen after humans go extinct?

That won’t happen for a very, very long time—hopefully millions of years, if we’re careful with our resources and wash our hands. But everything ends eventually. One day we’ll all be gone but the earth will continue without us until the sun burns out and becomes a red giant, destroying the inner planets of our solar system. That won’t be for another 5 billion years or so, so you don’t need to lie awake and worry about it happening any time soon. The earth is only about 4 ½ billion years old now so it’s probably not even halfway through its lifespan.

In the meantime, continental drift will continue to happen just as it always has. Australia will eventually crunch into eastern Asia. Africa will merge into Europe. The Americas might end up squished up with Europe and Africa again, or they might end up merging with Asia on the other side of the landmass. Either way, there will probably be another supercontinent for a while, until the tectonic plates start separating again in their constant, slow dance. Oceans will expand and contract, mountains will build up and wear down, and through it all, for thousands of millions of years, animals of all kinds will continue to evolve.

When I was a kid, I had a book called After Man by Dougal Dixon, which speculated about what animals would look like in the future. I remember being kind of disappointed that they mostly didn’t look too different from the animals we have today. Rabbits were going to do well, I remember that. But of course that’s just speculation, and we can’t possibly know what will evolve in the future. It is fun to wonder, though. Mammals have been going strong for a long time now, but that doesn’t mean they always will. Various extinction events will occur as they always have, wiping out the dominant species and opening up ecological niches for new species to evolve. It might be birds next instead of mammals. It might be reptiles again. It might be something else that hasn’t even evolved yet.

I know we all secretly want to go back in time to see what dinosaurs and other extinct animals really looked like. But we’re very lucky to be alive right now. Travel is reasonably safe, quick, and inexpensive compared to how it used to be in the olden days, so we can go to different parts of the world and see animals where they live. If we can’t travel far, we can go to zoos where animals are usually kept in habitats that mimic their natural habitats as much as possible. We can watch high-quality videos of animals in the wild. We can listen to podcasts that talk about how we’re all going to die one day, sorry about that. We even happen to live at the same time as the largest animal ever known to live, the blue whale, which always just blows my mind. We are so lucky that the blue whale is still around and wasn’t killed off for whale oil along with all those seals!

And, best of all, we know a lot more about how the world works these days. We know the mistakes we’ve made in the past, like killing whales and seals for oil, and we know how to make things better in the future for everyone, people and animals alike. So instead of worrying too much about what horrible things might happen, do your best to make the world a better place every day and wash your hands with soap and warm water. Whenever you do start to worry, just think about a blue whale swimming around in the ocean happily eating krill, or a Hawaiian monk seal lounging on a sunny Hawaiian beach. I think I need a vacation.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online 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. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us and get twice-monthly bonus episodes for as little as one dollar a month.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 161: Strange Bird Sounds 2



I still have a cold, so let’s let some birds do part of the talking in this episode about more weird bird calls!

Further reading:

Listen to the Loudest Bird Ever Recorded

Further listening/watching:

A video of the screaming piha. You need to see this.

The yellow-bellied sapsucker is a real bird, and an adorable one too:

The mute swan is not actually mute:

The white bellbird is the loudest bird ever recorded (photo by Anselmo d’Affonseca):

The screaming piha is hilariously loud. Left, sitting like a normal bird. Right, screaming:

Show transcript:

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

I still have this rotten cold, although I’m getting over it. As you can hear, my voice is pretty messed up, so for this episode I’ll let birds do some of the talking for me. Yes, it’s another weird bird calls episode!

We’ll start with this cute little call:

[yellow-bellied sapsucker call]

That’s not a dog’s squeaky toy, it’s a yellow-bellied sapsucker. Yes, that’s a real bird. It’s a type of woodpecker that lives in much of eastern and northern North America, breeding in Canada and spending winters in the eastern United States and Mexico. I get them in my yard sometimes. The sapsucker will also drum on dead trees and other items to make a loud sound to communicate with other sapsuckers.

It mostly eats tree sap, but it also eats berries, small insects, and fruit. To get the tree sap, it drills small holes in tree bark, usually in neat rows, and licks up the sap that oozes from the holes. If you ever see a tree with rows of little holes in the bark, that was done by a sapsucker. It can sometimes even kill trees this way, but for the most part it doesn’t hurt the tree unless the tree is already dying.

Males and females both forage for insects to feed their babies. They usually dip the insects in tree sap before feeding them to the chicks. Yummy!

Next up is this little grunty call:

[mute swan call]

Maybe it’s not exciting or loud, but it’s made by a bird you wouldn’t expect to hear, the mute swan. I mean, the word mute is right there in its name but it’s not mute at all. The mute swan is a big white waterfowl from Eurasia, although it’s been introduced to other parts of the world since it’s so pretty. Its legs are black with an orange and black bill, and it has a long neck that it uses to reach plants that are deeper underwater than ducks and most geese can get at. Its wingspan can be seven and a half feet across, or 2.4 meters. It’s more closely related to the black swan of Australia and the black-necked swan of South America than it is to other swan species from Eurasia.

Mute swans get their name not because they can’t make sounds, obviously, but because they’re not as noisy as other swan species. Not only does it make the little grunting sounds we just heard, it will sometimes hiss aggressively if a person or animal gets too close to its nest. Also, swans can give you such a wallop with their wings that they could knock you out stone cold, so it’s best to just watch them from a distance and not get too close. When mute swans fly, their wings make a distinctive thrumming sound that helps them stay in contact with other mute swans. This is what their wingbeats sound like:

[mute swans flying]

That sounds more like a UFO than a bird, just saying.

Next is a weird metallic call that doesn’t sound like a noise a bird could make either. It sounds like an industrial machine of some kind:

[white bellbird call]

That’s the sound the male white bellbird gives to attract a female. It also happens to be the loudest bird call ever recorded. In late 2018, an ornithologist from Brazil teamed up with a bioacoustician from the United States. They traveled into the mountainous forests of the Brazilian Amazon to record both the white bellbird and our next bird, which I’ll get to in a minute.

The male white bellbird is white with a black bill with a long wattle hanging from it. The female is green streaked with brown. It’s about the size of a pigeon but the male is as loud as a piledriver hammering rock. The male sits on an exposed perch to call, usually the top of a tree. If a female is interested, she’ll join him. The male will turn his back on the female, then turn around quickly to face her during the call, which adds an extra level of drama to an already dramatic call. These birds are the rock stars of the bird world.

The white bellbird eats fruit, some of it rather large, so the bird can open its beak really wide. This makes its beak act as the bell of an instrument like a trumpet, which helps increase the volume of its call. It also has a robust syrinx and unusually strong abdominal muscles. Its call can reach 125 decibels, which is louder than a firetruck’s siren, a rock band, and even a thunderclap.

Let’s finish with another extremely loud bird:

[screaming piha call]

That’s the male screaming piha, which is related to the white bellbird and lives in the same areas in South America. It’s a drab-looking bird, plain grayish in color, and it looks like a type of thrush. It’s a little bit bigger than an American robin. But drab as it is, keep in mind the bird has “screaming” right in its name. It’s almost as loud as the white bellbird.

The screaming piha eats fruit and insects, and it especially likes figs, which it often swallows whole. I like figs too but I chew them. Also, I don’t scream to attract a mate. The male usually perches in a tree and starts with a couple of relatively ordinary-sounding notes. But when he does the actual screaming part, he tips backwards on his perch, pulls his head back into his shoulders, so to speak, opens his beak wide to show how orange it is inside, and SCREAMS. It’s hilarious to watch. I’ve linked to a video in the show notes and you really do owe it to yourself to give it a watch.

The male gives these calls to attract a female, but it’s also useful to define his territory to other males. During mating season the males gather in a group called a lek to show off for females, and then pairs return to the male’s territory to build a nest. We don’t know a whole lot about the bird’s nesting behavior, but they appear to only lay one egg. Fortunately the screaming piha is a common bird that’s doing well, because if you’ve watched that video of one screaming you’ll agree that it’s probably the funniest bird ever and we definitely need them in the world.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online 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. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 160: Two Rare Bees



I feel like I’m coming down with a cold, so here’s a short episode that I can get finished before I start to croak like a bullfrog or a raven. It’s time for some astonishing bees! Thanks to Richard J. for the suggestion!

Wallace’s giant bee compared to an ordinary honeybee:

Osima avosetta makes her nest out of flower petals:

Show transcript:

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

I think I’m coming down with a cold, so to avoid another potential bullfrog and raven episode where I croak to you for fifteen minutes in an increasingly hideous voice, this week we’ll have a short episode that I can get ready to go quickly. Let’s learn about two types of interesting bee!

The first is an insect called Wallace’s giant bee, or the giant mason bee, which was suggested by Richard J. That’s the Richard J who isn’t my brother. Richard sent me an article about Wallace’s giant bee, and it’s amazing.

Wallace’s giant bee (Megachile pluto) is an all-black bee that lives in Indonesia and is the largest species of bee known. The female is larger than the male, which is barely an inch long, or about 2.3 cm. The female’s body is over an inch and a half long, or 4 cm, with a wingspan of about three inches, or 7.5 cm. The female also has huge jaws that she uses to burrow into termite nests, and to keep the termites from evicting her and her sisters, she lines the galleries inside with tree resin. The female gathers the resin from specific types of trees, forms it into large balls, and uses her jaws to carry the ball back to her nest.

The bee was described in 1858 and found in forests on three islands in Indonesia. But palm oil plantations have destroyed so much of the forests that it was thought to be extinct. Then, in 1981, an entomologist found six nests and determined that it was still hanging on—but that was the last anyone saw of it until 2018 when two specimens were listed on eBay. That prompted a scientific expedition.

In January 2019, a small team of scientists searched two of the islands where the bee had once been known to live. They searched every termite nest they could find without luck, but when they were about ready to give up and return home, they searched one last termite nest. It was in a tree about eight feet off the ground, or 2.4 meters. And one of the scientists spotted a giant-bee-sized hole in the nest. He poked around the hole with a blade of grass, and a single female Wallace’s giant bee emerged from the hole.

The scientists caught the bee and observed her for a short time before releasing her so she could return to her nest. The lead scientist, an entomologist named Eli Wyman, said, “She was the most precious thing on the planet to us,” which is exactly how a good entomologist should feel when rediscovering the world’s biggest bee.

Hopefully Wallace’s giant bee will be protected now that more people know how special it is.

Our other interesting bee is named Osima avosetta, and it’s also a type of mason bee. Mason bees use mud, resin, or other materials to make or line their nests. In the case of O. avosetta, she uses flower petals to create nests for her babies. O. avosetta is a solitary bee instead of one that lives in colonies. It lives in southwest Asia and parts of the middle east. The female digs a small hole in the ground and lines it with overlapping flower petals, which she sticks together with mud, then pastes more petals on top of the mud. One hole may have a number of chambers in it, or the bee may make separate nests for each egg. She lays a single egg in each chamber, generally a total of about ten eggs. She makes a mixture of nectar and pollen and leaves it next to the egg, and when all the chambers are full she seals the top of the nest by folding petals over it and covering them with more mud. The mud hardens and protects the eggs from weather and from drying out. When the babies hatch, they eat the nectar and pollen their mother left them. About ten months later they emerge from the nest as fully grown bees.

No one knew about this behavior until around 2009, when two different research teams working in two different countries observed the bee making nests. But the great thing is, the two teams weren’t associated. They only found out later that they’d both observed the same thing on the exact same day. The two teams got together and co-wrote a scientific article about O. avosetta, which is awesome. It seems pretty clear to me that people who like bees are pretty great.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online 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. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us and get twice-monthly bonus episodes for as little as one dollar a month.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 159: Sky Animals



To celebrate my new book, Skyway, this week let’s learn about sky animals! They’re fictitious, but could they really exist? And what animals are really found in the high atmosphere?

You can order a copy of Skyway today on Kindle or other ebook formats! It’s a collection of short stories published by Mannison Press, with the same characters and setting from my novel Skytown (also available)!

Further reading:

“The Horror of the Heights” by Arthur Conan Doyle (and you can even listen to a nice audio version at this link too!)

Charles Fort’s books are online (and in the public domain) if not in an especially readable format

Further Listening:

unlocked Patreon episode The Birds That Never Land

Rüppell’s vulture:

The bar-headed goose:

The common crane:

Bombus impetuosus, an Alpine bumblebee that lives on Mount Everest:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’ve got something a little different. Usually I save the weirder topics for Patreon bonus episodes, and in fact I had originally planned this as a Patreon episode. But I have a new book coming out called Skyway, so in honor of my new book, let’s learn about some sky animals!

Skyway is a collection of short stories about the same characters in my other book Skytown, so if you’ve read Skytown and liked it, you can buy Skyway as of tomorrow, if you’re listening on the day this episode goes live. I’ll put links to both books in the show notes so you can buy a copy if you like. The books have some adult language but are appropriate for teens although they’re not actually young adult books.

Anyway, the reason I say this episode is a little different is because first we’re going to learn about some interesting sky animals that are literary rather than real. Then we’ll learn about some animals that are real, but also interesting—specifically, animals that fly the highest.

Back before airplanes and other flying machines were invented, people literally weren’t sure what was up high in the sky. They thought the sky continued at least to the moon and maybe beyond, with perfectly breathable air and possibly with strange unknown animals floating around up there, too far away to see from the ground.

People weren’t even sure if the sky was safe for land animals. When hot-air balloons big enough to carry weight were invented in the late 18th century, inventors tried an important experiment before letting anyone get in one. In 1783 in France, a sheep, a duck, and a rooster were sent aloft in a balloon to see what effects the trip would have on them. The team behind the flight assumed that the duck would be fine, since ducks can fly quite high, so it was included as a sort of control. They weren’t sure about the rooster, since chickens aren’t very good flyers and never fly very high, and they were most nervous about the sheep, since it was most like a person. The balloon traveled about two miles in ten minutes, or 3 km, and landed safely. All three animals were fine.

After that, people started riding in balloons and it became a huge fad, especially in France. By 1852 balloons were better designed to hold more weight and be easier to control, and that year a woman dressed as the goddess Europa and a bull dressed as Zeus ascended in a balloon over London. But the bull was obviously so frightened by the balloon ride that the people watching the spectacle complained to the police, who charged the man who arranged the balloon ride with animal cruelty. The bull was okay, though, and no one made him get in a balloon again.

After airplanes were invented and became reliable, if not especially safe, the world went nuts about flying all over again. In 1922 Arthur Conan Doyle published a story called “The Horror of the Heights,” about a pilot who flew high into the sky and came across sky animals. You can tell from the story’s title that things did not go well for the main character.

The story is written as though it’s an excerpt from a journal kept by the main character, named Joyce-Armstrong. Early on, Joyce-Armstrong is talking about height records achieved by pilots and that no one has had any trouble that high in the sky. He says,

“The thirty-thousand-foot level has been reached time after time with no discomfort beyond cold and asthma. What does this prove? A visitor might descend upon this planet a thousand times and never see a tiger. Yet tigers exist, and if he chanced to come down into a jungle he might be devoured. There are jungles of the upper air, and there are worse things than tigers which inhabit them.”

After that are some really lovely descriptions of the pilot’s ascent into the sky, trying for both a height record and to see the so-called jungle of the upper air. In the story, he climbs to over 41,000 feet in an open cockpit monoplane without any special equipment. He’s wearing, like, a nice warm hat and wool socks. In actuality, at 40,000 feet, or 12,000 meters, the temperature can be as low as -70 degrees F, or -57 Celsius.

Anyway, Joyce-Armstrong writes in his journal, “Suddenly I was aware of something new. The air in front of me had lost its crystal clearness. It was full of long, ragged wisps of something which I can only compare to very fine cigarette smoke. It hung about in wreaths and coils, turning and twisting slowly in the sunlight. As the monoplane shot through it, I was aware of a faint taste of oil upon my lips, and there was a greasy scum upon the woodwork of the machine. Some infinitely fine organic matter appeared to be suspended in the atmosphere. There was no life there. It was inchoate and diffuse, extending for many square acres and then fringing off into the void. No, it was not life. But might it not be the remains of life? …The thought was in my mind when my eyes looked upwards and I saw the most wonderful vision that ever man has seen. …Conceive a jelly-fish such as sails in our summer seas, bell-shaped and of enormous size—far larger, I should judge, than the dome of St. Paul’s. It was of a light pink colour veined with a delicate green, but the whole huge fabric so tenuous that it was but a fairy outline against the dark blue sky. It pulsated with a delicate and regular rhythm. From it there depended two long, drooping, green tentacles, which swayed slowly backwards and forwards. This gorgeous vision passed gently with noiseless dignity over my head, as light and fragile as a soap-bubble…”

After that, Joyce-Armstrong sees more of the sky jellyfish and some long smoke-like creatures that he calls the serpents of the outer air. And then he’s attacked by a huge purplish creature sort of like a sky octopus with sticky tentacles. He escapes and flies home, writes his journal entry, and says he’s going back to capture one of the smaller sky jellyfish and bring it back to show everyone. And after that, the journal ends except for a terrible addendum scrawled in pencil on the last page. It’s a fun story that you can read for free online, since it’s in the public domain. I’ll put a link in the show notes.

Arthur Conan Doyle is the same author who invented Sherlock Holmes, if the name sounds familiar. But he wasn’t the first one to imagine strange high-altitude sky animals. He was influenced by the writings of a man named Charles Fort. Fort liked to collect the accounts of weird happenings reported in newspaper articles and magazines, and he published his first book in 1919. If you’re a Patreon subscriber you may remember Fort from a bonus episode last October where I talked about a few of his animal-related cases. I’d unlock the episode for anyone to listen to except that I just re-listened to it myself, and at the end I talk about my recent eye surgery in really way too much detail. So I won’t unlock it, but I will say that Fort had a weird writing style that can be hard to follow. He likes to present outlandish theories as though he’s deadly serious, then claim that he’s only joking, then say, “Well, maybe I’m not joking.” His main goal is to make readers think about things that would never have occurred to them.

Fort was especially interested in falls of fish and frogs and other things, which we talked about in episode 140 last October. In his first book he suggested there are places in the sky where items collect, and that occasionally things fall out of those places. He called this the Super-Sargasso Sea, after the Sargasso Sea that’s supposed to be a becalmed area of the ocean where sailing ships get caught because there’s no wind or currents. The Sargasso Sea is a real place in the North Atlantic Ocean that has clear blue water and which is full of a type of seaweed called Sargassum. It’s also full of plastic, unfortunately, since that’s where the North Atlantic garbage patch is.

But Fort described his Super-Sargasso Sea as something between another dimension and an alien world that just brushes up against the earth’s atmosphere. He pointed out that this theory made as much sense as any other explanation for falling frogs and other things, which of course is why he suggested it. He didn’t actually believe it.

This is how Fort describes the super-Sargasso Sea: “I think of a region somewhere above this earth’s surface in which gravitation is inoperative…. I think that things raised from this earth’s surface to that region have been held there until shaken down by storms…. [T]hings raised by this earth’s cyclones: horses and barns and elephants and flies and dodoes, moas, and pterodactyls; leaves from modern trees and leaves of the Carboniferous era…. [F]ishes dried and hard, there a short time; others there long enough to putrefy…. [O]r living fishes, also—ponds of fresh water: oceans of salt water.

“But is it a part of this earth, and does it revolve with and over this earth—

“Or does it flatly overlie this earth…?

“I shall have to accept that, floating in the sky of this earth, there often are fields of ice as extensive as those on the Arctic Ocean—volumes of water in which are many fishes and frogs—tracts of lands covered with caterpillars—

“Aviators of the future. They fly up and up. Then they get out and walk. The fishing’s good: the bait’s right there. … Sometime I shall write a guide book to the Super-Sargasso Sea, for aviators, but just at present there wouldn’t be much call for it.”

That quote is actually cobbled together from pages 90-91, 179, and 182 of my copy of The Complete Books of Charles Fort, because one thing Fort is not good at is a straightforward, clear narrative. Reading his books is like experiencing someone else’s fever dream. But you can definitely see where Conan Doyle got his inspiration for “The Horror of the Heights.”

These days we know a lot more about the sky—or, more technically, about the atmosphere that surrounds the Earth. Researchers have labeled different parts of the atmosphere since the different layers have different properties. The layer closest to the earth, the one that we breathe and live in, is the troposphere. That’s where weather happens, that’s where most clouds are, and that’s where 99% of the water vapor in the entire atmosphere is located. The troposphere extends about 6 miles above the earth, or 10 km, or 33,000 feet. Mount Everest is 29,000 feet high, by the way, or 8,850 meters. Above the troposphere is the stratosphere, which extends to about 31 miles above the earth, or 50 km.

The jet stream, a steady wind that commercial jet planes use to help them cross oceans and continents faster, occurs roughly where the troposphere becomes the stratosphere. Above the jet stream, there’s hardly any turbulence. There are no updrafts, basically no weather, just increasingly thin air. Weather balloons and spy planes ascend into the stratosphere and that’s also where the ozone layer is, but there’s basically not much up that high.

Above the stratosphere is the mesosphere, where the air is too thin for any animal known to breathe, plus the air pressure is only about 1% of the pressure found at sea level. There just aren’t very many air molecules in the mesosphere. This is where meteors typically burn up, and the only vehicles that fly there are rockets. It extends to about 53 miles above the earth, or 85 km, and above that is the thermosphere, the exosphere, and then empty space, although it’s hard to know exactly where the thermosphere and exosphere end and space begins. It’s so far away from the earth’s surface that some satellites orbit within the thermosphere, and that’s where the northern and southern lights are generated as charged particles from the sun bounce against molecules.

But let’s return to the troposphere, our comfortable air-filled home. As far as we know, there aren’t any animals that live exclusively in the air and never land. Even the common swift, which lives almost its entire life in the air, catching insects and sleeping on the wing, has to land to lay eggs and take care of its babies. But what animals fly the highest?

As far as we know, the highest-flying bird is Rüppell’s vulture, an endangered bird that lives in central Africa. It’s been recorded flying as high as 37,000 feet, or 11,300 meters, and we know it was flying at 37,000 feet because, unfortunately, it was sucked into a jet engine and killed. There’s so little oxygen at that height that a human would pass out pretty much instantly, but the vulture’s blood contains a variant type of hemoglobin that is more efficient at carrying oxygen so that it gets more oxygen with every breath. It has a wingspan of 8 ½ feet, or 2.6 meters, and is brown or black with a lighter belly and a white ruff around the neck. Its tongue is spiky to help it pull meat off the bones of the dead animals it eats, but if there’s no meat left on a carcass, it will eat the hide and even bones. The more I learn about vultures, the more I like them.

Any bird that migrates above the Himalayas has to be able to fly incredibly high, since that’s where Mount Everest is and many other mountains that reach nearly into the stratosphere. The bar-headed goose has been recorded flying at 29,000 feet, or 8,800 meters, and in fact, mountaineers climbing Mount Everest have claimed to see and hear the geese flying overhead. The bar-headed goose has the same variant hemoglobin that Rüppell’s vulture has so it absorbs more oxygen with every breath.

The bar-headed goose is pale gray with black and white markings, especially black stripes on its head. It’s not an especially big goose, with a wingspan of about five feet, or 160 cm. It nests in China and Mongolia during the summer, then migrates to India and surrounding areas for the winter, and it generally crosses the Himalayas at night when winds aren’t as high.

The common crane is another high-flying bird, which has been recorded flying at 33,000 feet, or 10,000 meters, above the Himalayas. It’s a large bird with long legs and a wingspan of nearly 8 feet, or 2.4 meters. It’s gray with a red crown on its head and a white streak down its neck, and a tail that’s not so much a tail as just a bunch of floofy feathers stuck to its butt. Supposedly it flies so high to avoid eagles, but it’s a strong bird with a stabby beak that has been observed fighting eagles that attack it. It nests in Russia and Scandinavia but flies to many different wintering sites across Europe, Africa, and Asia.

So those are the three highest-flying birds known, but what about insects? How high can an insect fly?

Most insects can’t fly if the air is too cold, typically if it’s below 50 degrees Fahrenheit, or 10 degrees Celsius. Since the air is that cold just a few thousand feet above ground, that means most insects don’t fly very high, especially small ones. But not all of them.

Because insects are so small and lightweight, they’re often carried by the wind even if they aren’t technically flying, an activity called kiting. In 1961 during a study of insect migrations, an insect trap installed on an airplane caught a single winged termite at 19,000 feet, or 5.8 kilometers above sea level. An insect trap on a weather balloon collected a small spider at 16,000 feet, or 5 km. If you’re wondering how the spider got in the air in the first place, many small spider species travel to new habitats by ballooning, which in this case has nothing to do with a balloon. The spider lifts its abdomen until it feels a breeze, and then it spins a short piece of silk. The breeze lifts the silk and therefore the spider and carries it sometimes long distances.

Some bumblebee species live and fly just fine at high altitudes. The bumblebee Bombus impetuosus lives on Mount Everest, although not at its very top because nothing grows that high. It lives at around 10,600 feet, or 3,250 meters, and studies of how it flies show that it actually beats its wings in a different way from other bumblebees in order to fly at high altitudes where the air is thin.

So maybe there aren’t weird jellyfish-like creatures floating around in the stratosphere, but there are certainly other animals that occasionally reach incredible heights. So I guess the only thing the fictional pilot Joyce-Armstrong really had to worry about was freezing to death.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online 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. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us and get twice-monthly bonus episodes for as little as one dollar a month.

Thanks for listening!

 


Episode 158: Legless Lizards and Other Not-Snakes



What’s the difference between a snake and a legless lizard? Find out this week and learn about all kinds of interesting reptiles without legs that aren’t actually snakes!

The slow-worm. Not a snake:

Burton’s legless lizard. Not a snake:

The excitable delma. Not a snake:

The Mexican mole lizard. Not a snake or a worm:

The red worm lizard (Amphisbaena alba). Also not a snake or a worm, but honestly, it looks a lot like I imagine the Mongolian death worm to look:

The giant legless skink. Not a snake:

Stacy’s bachia. Not a snake:

Further reading (and this is where I got the Stacy’s bachia picture above):

Bachia lizards–look, no hands!

An Explosive Enigma from Kalmykia—the ‘Other’ Mongolian Death Worm?

Show transcript:

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

A couple of weeks ago we discussed the Mongolian death worm and the possibility that it was an animal called an amphisbaenian, which is a reptile without legs that’s not a snake. But there are lots of other legless reptiles that aren’t snakes. So this week we’re going to learn about legless lizards and their friends.

Researchers have determined that leglessness evolved in reptiles many different times in species that aren’t related, often in species that spend at least part of their time underground. If the legs get in the way of burrowing or other movement, over time individuals born without legs or with much smaller legs end up finding more food than those with legs. That means they’re more likely to reproduce, and their offspring may inherit the trait of no legs or smaller legs.

Some legless lizards look so much like snakes at first glance that it can be hard to tell them apart. The common slow-worm, for instance, lives throughout most of Europe and part of Asia. It grows to about a foot and a half long, or 50 cm, and is brown. It mostly eats slugs and worms so it spends most of its time in damp places or underground. But while it looks superficially like a snake, it’s not a snake. It’s a lizard with no legs. Like some other lizard species, including many legless lizards, it can even drop its tail if it’s threatened and then regrows a little tail stump.

So how can you tell the difference between a legless lizard and a snake? The one big clue is if the reptile blinks. Snakes don’t have eyelids; instead, their eyes are protected by a transparent scale that covers the eye completely. Lizards have eyelids and blink. Legless lizards have a different head shape from snakes too, usually more blocky and less flattened. The tongue is not so much forked as just notched, and shorter and less slender than a snake’s tongue.

Species of one family of legless lizards do sometimes have legs. Honestly, this is almost as confusing as the whole deer and antelope mix-up from episode 116. The family is Pygopodidae and they’re actually most closely related to geckos although they don’t look much like geckos. They look like snakes, and to make things even more complicated, geckos and Pygopodids don’t have eyelids. I know I know, I just said lizards have eyelids but geckos are an exception. Pygopodids don’t have front legs at all, but some do have vestigial hind legs that look more like little flaps than actual legs. They’re sometimes called flap-footed lizards as a result. They live in Australia and New Guinea.

One Pygopodid is Burton’s legless lizard, which does actually have vestigial hind legs. It lives in parts of Australia and Papua New Guinea and is kind of a chunky reptile with a pointed nose. It’s brown or gray, sometimes with long stripes, and can grow to more than three feet long, or one meter. It eats other lizards, especially skinks, but will also sometimes eat small snakes.

Burton’s legless lizard mostly stays in leaf litter in forests. Sometimes it will twitch the end of its tail to attract a lizard, which it then grabs by the neck. It will swallow small lizards whole, but if it’s too big to swallow, it will just hold onto its neck until the lizard suffocates or just gives up out of exhaustion. It can also retract its eyes so they’re less likely to be injured if its prey fights back.

The excitable delma is another pygopodid, this one without any legs at all. It lives in many parts of Australia and can grow nearly two feet long, or 54 cm, but almost half that length is tail. It’s shy and nocturnal, so even though it’s very common, it’s seldom seen. It’s brown or grayish with darker stripes on its head. The reason it’s called the excitable delma is because it uses its long tail to jump, twisting and changing directions as it jumps repeatedly up to six inches off the ground, or 15 cm. It does this to escape from predators but it also sometimes just jumps around for the heck of it, according to observations of excitable delmas in captivity. It can also make a squeaky sound. It likes dry, rocky areas and eats insects.

There are other reptiles that look like snakes but aren’t, in addition to the legless lizards. We talked about the amphisbaenians in the Mongolian animals episode a few weeks ago, and also in episode 10. Amphisbaenians are sometimes called worm lizards because they look less like snakes than they do worms. They’re related to both legless lizards and snakes but lost their legs independently.

The amphisbaenian moves like a worm, not a snake. Its skin is loosely attached to its body so that it can move freely, and it bunches up its skin the way a worm bunches up its body, then extends it to move forward or backward. This kind of action is called peristalsis, by the way. Unlike worms, the amphisbaenian has scales because it’s a reptile, but the scales are often arranged in rings that make it look even more like an earthworm. Many amphisbaenians are pink like many earthworms, too.

Most amphisbaenians live underground their entire lives, hunting worms, insect grubs, and other small animals. In most cases they only come to the surface at night or after a heavy rain. Most have no legs at all, but one family consisting of four species, all of them native to Mexico, has little front legs. One of these species is the Mexican mole lizard, which can grow over a foot long, or more than 30 cm. It mostly eats soft-bodied animals like worms and termites, but it will occasionally eat small lizards. It’s pink and has little black dots for eyes and is actually really cute, but don’t let that fool you. If you are a worm, the Mexican mole lizard is a murder machine. It has sharp little teeth that it uses to bite pieces from its prey instead of swallowing them whole.

All the other known amphisbaenians have no legs at all, and for most species we know very little about them. The red worm lizard, for instance, lives throughout much of western South America and appears to be common, but it lives underground and is hardly ever seen. It’s the largest amphisbaenian known and can grow nearly three feet long, or 85 cm, although it’s only a few inches thick, or around 6 cm. It’s brown, reddish, or yellowish in color with a white belly and has tiny eyes that are barely visible. Its tail is blunt and rounded like other amphisbaenian tails, but its tail is tough enough to withstand bites from predators without being injured. If the red worm lizard feels threatened, it raises its head and tail and bends itself into a U shape so that it looks like it has two heads.

That’s why the amphisbaenian has that name, by the way. In ancient mythology, the amphisbaena was a serpent with a head on each end of its body. It was said to mostly eat ants, and that’s actually a good observation of the real amphisbaenian, which often eats ants, termites, and other insects.

Legless skinks are another group of lizards that either have no legs at all or just little flaps instead of hind legs. The males are the ones with the hind leg flaps, which they use to hold onto the female while mating. Most legless skinks look sort of like amphisbaenians, with a blunt-ended tail that’s sometimes hard to tell from the head, but more snakey than wormy for the most part.

One example is the giant legless skink, which is dark gray or black with no legs, and which lives in South Africa. It grows almost a foot and a half long, or 42 cm, and is a little bit of a chonk. We still don’t know much about it but it probably eats insects and other invertebrates like most legless skinks do.

A while back, Llewelly sent me a link to an article about Stacy’s bachia, a lizard that lives in the tropics of South America. It’s a member of the spectacled lizards, which all have lower eyelids that are transparent. That way the lizard can see even if its eyes are closed. I put a link to the article in the show notes if you want to read it.

Stacy’s bachia usually has no hind legs, although it may have little stubby ones, but it hatches with small front legs. But it spends most of its life burrowing in soil and in leaf litter as it hunts termites, ants, and other small animals, and eventually all its legs wear away to nothing.

Let’s finish with a mystery animal. Kalmykia is a small region of Russia, and the native people of the area are called Kalmyks. The Kalmyks report that there’s an animal that lives in both the steppes and in sand dunes in the desert that looks like a snake but isn’t a snake, which they actually call the short gray snake. It grows around 20 inches long, or 50 cm, and has smooth skin and a tail that’s short and rounded at the end. It has no legs. This report is from zoologist Karl Shuker’s blog, and check the show notes for a link. The person who told him about this animal also says it’s about six to eight inches thick, or up to 20 cm, so if that’s correct it’s even more of a chonk than the giant legless skink.

Kalmykia is west of Kazakhstan, which is west of Mongolia, so there’s always the possibility that this legless animal is related to or the same animal as the Mongolian death worm that we talked about in episode 156. But Kalmykia is actually pretty far away from Mongolia, and the short gray snake is different from the death worm in two important ways. One, reports say it has no bones. If this is true, it must be some kind of invertebrate, not a reptile. It’s also supposed to move like a worm, although remember that the amphisbaenian does too and it’s a reptile.

But the other thing reported about the short gray snake is much weirder than having no bones. Apparently if someone hits the animal in a particular place on its back—presumably with a stick—it EXPLODES. It explodes into goo that spreads for several feet in every direction, or about a meter, leaving nothing else behind.

It’s possible this isn’t a real animal but a folktale, something like American tall tales about the hoop snake that’s supposed to grab its tail in its mouth and roll itself along like a hoop. The hoop snake is not a real animal, in case you were wondering. There’s no way of telling whether the exploding boneless short gray snake is a real animal, a folktale, or reports of more than one real animal that have gotten mixed up in translation. Hopefully someone who lives in Kalmykia will investigate and find out more. In the meantime, don’t hit any animals with sticks. For one thing, that’s mean. For another, it might explode and leave you covered in goo.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online 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. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us and get twice-monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 157: Rodents of Unusual Size



Uh, yeah, not the legless lizard episode. But just as interesting! This week let’s learn about the largest rodents in the world! Hint: way bigger than a rat.

Further reading:

Rodents of Uncertain Systematics

The mellow and photogenic capybara:

Oh to be a capybara in an open bath with an orange on its head:

Hey, pacarana:

Oh to be a paca with half an orange:

Oh to be a chevrotain with a piece of orange. (The chevrotain is not a rodent. It has hooves. Episode 116 explains this creature):

Show transcript:

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

Yes, I know, last week I said we might have an episode this week about legless lizards and other snakey things that aren’t snakes, but I got this episode ready first so instead, this week we’re going to learn about some rodents of unusual size!

Rodents are mammals in the order Rodentia, and there are thousands of them throughout the world. Mice and rats are rodents, of course, but so are chipmunks and squirrels, hamsters and gerbils, prairie dogs and guinea pigs, and many others. But you may notice that all the animals I just mentioned are pretty small. That’s because most rodents are on the small side. But not all of them.

The biggest rodent alive today may be one you’ve heard of, the capybara. It’s native to much of South America and lives in forests, rainforests, and other areas, but always near water. It really likes water and eats a lot of aquatic plants, although it also eats grass, fruit, tree bark, and other plants. Like other rodents, its teeth grow throughout its life but constantly wear down as it eats tough plants.

So how big is the capybara? It grows to about two feet tall, or 62 cm, and four feet long, or 1.3 meters. Females are usually a little larger than males. Basically they’re the size of a big dog, but a big dog with webbed toes, small ears, big blunt muzzle, basically no tail, and a calm outlook on life. Because unlike many rodents who tend to be nervous and quick-moving, the capybara is pretty chill.

The capybara is semiaquatic and likes to hang out in the water, often in social groups. It can hold its breath underwater for up to five minutes, and can even sleep while submerged with just its nose above water. That’s why its nose, eyes, and ears are close to the top of its head, so it can be alert to predators while remaining safely underwater.

The capybara has a scent gland on its nose called a morillo. The female has a morillo but the male’s is bigger since he scent marks more often by rubbing the gland on plants, trees, rocks, other capybaras, and so on. During mating season, the female capybara attracts a male by whistling through her nose, because who doesn’t like a lady who can whistle through her nose? The capybara will only mate in water, so if a female decides she doesn’t like a male, she just gets out of the water and walks away from him.

The female usually gives birth to four or five babies in one litter. If the female is a member of a group of capybaras, all the babies stay together in the middle of the group and all the females care for them. In most mammals, the female will only let her own babies drink her milk, but a female capybara will suckle any babies in the group who are hungry. Like I said, they’re pretty chill.

There are actually two species of capybara, but some people consider the lesser capybara to be a subspecies of capybara and anyway, we don’t know much about it. Other than that, though, the capybara is most closely related to the guinea pig. Like the guinea pig and like humans, the capybara can’t synthesize vitamin C in its body and has to get it through its diet. That means if a capybara in captivity doesn’t receive fruit and other plant material containing vitamin C, eventually it will show symptoms of scurvy.

The capybara is killed for its meat and hide, but it’s also sometimes kept as a pet. It’s not a domesticated animal and it’s as heavy as a full-grown human, so while the capybara isn’t specifically dangerous it’s not really a good pet. Also, it will eat your garden and wallow in mud and if you don’t have a pool it’s going to wander around until it finds one. It’s probably better to get a dog.

While the capybara is a strong swimmer, it can move fast on land when it wants to. It can run up to 22 miles per hour, or 35 km/hour. This is what a capybara sounds like.

[capybara sounds]

Big as the capybara is, even bigger rodents used to live in South America. Around 8 million years ago a rodent called Phoberomys pattersoni [foe-barommis] lived in what is now Venezuela and nearby areas, especially around the Orinoco River. It was discovered in 2000 when an almost complete skeleton was found, and it was really big. We’re talking nine feet long, or 2.75 meters, and that doesn’t even include its tail. It stood over four feet tall, or 1.3 meters. It was described in 2003 and is a relative of guinea pig and the capybara.

But since then, paleontologists have found fossils of rodents that are estimated to be even bigger. Around 3 million years ago an animal called the giant pacarana grew to an estimated five feet tall, or 1.5 meters, with a body ten feet long, or 3 m. But we don’t know for sure if it was bigger or smaller than that estimate, since so far all we have is a fossilized skull discovered in 1987 and described in 2008. Another closely related rodent is only known from some teeth. Some researchers think it used its massive teeth like elephants use their tusks, to fend off predators and fight each other.

So if there was once a giant pacarana, what’s a regular pacarana? It’s another South American rodent, and while it’s not exactly capybara size it’s much larger than a mouse. It grows more than 3 ½ feet long, or 100 cm, and is shaped sort of like a capybara with a tail, although its head is more rodent-like. It’s dark brown-gray with rows of white spots down its sides and a thick tail covered with fur. It’s the only living member of the family Dinomyidae and it has many unusual features compared to other rodents. I’d tell you what they are but they’re all things like “it has a flatter sternum,” which wouldn’t mean a whole lot to most of us. Shout-out to any rodent experts listening, though.

The pacarana was discovered by scientists in 1873 when a Polish nobleman traveling in Peru shot one and sent its skin and skeleton home, where it was studied by the director of the Berlin Zoo. But after that one specimen was killed, the pacarana seemed to vanish. Then in 1904 someone sent two pacaranas to a museum in Brazil. The museum’s director gave them to the local zoo where they could be taken care of, although the female died after giving birth shortly afterwards.

It turns out that the pacarana isn’t all that rare, but it’s shy and hard to spot in its habitat, forested mountains in South America. But because it’s seldom seen, not very many zoos have them, but zookeepers all report that pacaranas are docile and friendly. I can confirm that they are very, very cute although I haven’t seen one in person.

The pacarana is named after another rodent called the paca, which looks similar but has a shorter tail and is smaller than the pacarana, although still a pretty big rodent. The paca grows up to about two and a half feet long, or 77 cm, not counting its 9-inch tail, or 23 cm, and is dark brown with rows of white spots on each side. It looks kind of like a chevrotain, which as you may remember from episode 116 is also called the mouse deer even though it’s not a mouse or a deer. The paca lives in a burrow that can be ten feet long, or 3 meters, usually with two entrances that it covers with leaves to hide it. It likes fruit, leaves, flowers, fungi, and other plant material, but it will also eat insects.

The paca likes to swim and can stay underwater even longer than the capybara, as much as 15 minutes. It usually mates in the water too. It’s mostly nocturnal, although some populations may be crepuscular, and it lives in much of Central and South America, although it’s also present in southern Mexico.

After her babies are born, the mother paca tucks her babies in a hole she digs that’s too small for predators to enter. But the hole is also too small for her to enter. To let the babies know it’s safe to come out, she calls to them in a low trill. The paca, in fact, makes a lot of sounds, and its voice is way louder than you’d think. It has resonating chambers in its cheeks to make its voice even louder.

Here are some sounds that a paca makes:

[paca calls]

Ages ago, Llewelly sent me a link to an article about some interesting rodents of South America. I’ve included a link to it in the show notes in case you want to learn more about South American rodents that aren’t quite as big as the ones we’ve covered today, but which are just as interesting.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online 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. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening! Oh, and this is what a baby capybara sounds like.


Episode 156: Animals of Mongolia



In honor of my new favorite band, The Hu, let’s learn about some animals from their country, Mongolia! (You can also watch the “Wolf Totem” video with English lyrics.)

The Hu. Oh my heart:

If you need the podcast’s feed URL, it’s https://strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net/feed/podcast/

A handsome prize-winning domesticated yak and rider (photo taken from this site):

The saiga, an antelope with a serious snoot:

A Bactrian camel (photo by *squints* Brent Huffman, looks like):

The taimen, a fish that would swallow you whole if it could:

Further watching:

A clip from the TV show Beast Man showing how moist the soil is in parts of the Gobi

Show transcript:

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

Recently, podcaster Moxie recommended a band she liked on her excellent podcast Your Brain on Facts. The band is called The Hu, spelled H-U, and she mentioned they were from Mongolia. I checked the band out and FELL IN LOVE WITH THEM OH MY GOSH, so not only have I been recommending them to everyone, I also want to learn more about their country. So let’s learn about some interesting animals from Mongolia.

But first, a quick note. About six months ago I had to migrate the site to an actual podcasting host, since I’d run out of memory on my own site. Well, there doesn’t seem to be any point to keep the old site open anymore since all the podcasting apps I checked appear to have the new feed and everything is on the new website. So in another week or two, the old site will close. If you suddenly stop receiving new episodes, please email me at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com and let me know what app you use for podcast listening, so I can get it updated. In the meantime, if your app gives you the option of entering a podcast feed manually, I’ve made a new page on the website, strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net, where you can copy and paste the feed URL. It’s also in the show notes. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions or if something isn’t working. Now, back to Mongolia and its animals.

Mongolia is located in Asia, north of China and south of Russia, with the Gobi Desert to the south and various mountain ranges to the north and west. You actually probably know some Mongolian history without realizing it. You’ve heard of the Great Wall of China, right? Well, it was built to keep out the Mongols, who would ride their horses into China and raid villages. Genghis Khan was the most famous Mongol in history, a fearsome warrior who conquered most of Eurasia in the early 13th century.

While you’re thinking about that, here’s a short clip of my favorite Hu song, called “Wolf Totem.” There’s a link in the show notes if you want to watch the official video.

Oh my gosh I love that song.

Anyway, Mongolia has short summers but long, bitterly cold winters. Many people are still nomadic, a traditional culture that’s horse-based. A lot of Mongolia is grassland referred to as the steppes, which isn’t very good for farming, but which is great for horses. Domesticated animals include horses, goats, and a bovid called the yak. Let’s start with that one.

The yak is closely related to both domestic cattle and to bison, and is a common domesticated animal in much of Asia. The wild yak is native to the Himalaya Mountains in Eurasia. It’s a different species from the domesticated yak and is larger, with a big bull wild yak standing up to 7.2 feet at the shoulder, or 2.2 meters. A big bull domesticated yak is closer to 4 ½ feet high at the shoulder, or almost 1.4 meters. The wild yak is usually black or brown, but domesticated yaks may be other colors and have white markings. Occasionally a wild yak is born that has golden fur.

Both male and female yaks have horns, although the males usually have larger horns with a broader spread than the females. The male also has a larger shoulder hump than the female, much like bison, and males are also larger and heavier. The reason the domesticated yak is so popular in the mountains and in areas where winters are long and cold, like Mongolia, is that it has long, dense hair with a soft undercoat that keeps it warm. It’s also naturally adapted to high altitudes where there’s less oxygen, with large lungs and heart. As a result, it doesn’t do well in lower altitudes and can even die of heat if it gets too warm, since it can’t sweat.

The yak is domesticated for its meat and milk, to pull plows, as a riding animal, and for its soft undercoat which is combed out in spring and used to make yarn. Even the yak’s droppings are useful, since they’re mostly undigested plant fibers that burn really well once they’re dry, so they can be used instead of wood to build fires.

In Mongolia, yak milk is used to make butter, cheese, and yogurt. And vodka. Yak races and yak festivals are increasingly popular as tourist attractions, but yak herding is a tradition dating back thousands of years.

The wild yak is a protected species where it still lives, mostly in China, India, and Tibet, but it’s still threatened by poaching and habitat loss due to domesticated yak herds pushing out their wild cousins. In the wild, the yak prefers to live in elevations too high for trees to grow. It eats grass and other plant material and can survive on a diet too poor to sustain cattle. This is because it has a larger rumen and the plants it eats can stay in its digestive tract for longer to extract as many nutrients as possible.

It’s rare for a domesticated animal to also be endangered, but yak herding in Mongolia is in steep decline, with 70% fewer yaks raised now than there were twenty years ago. There are a number of reasons for the decline. More people are moving to cities in Mongolia since they can make more money there instead of farming. Some farmers have started raising cattle or yak-cattle hybrids instead of yaks, since cattle and cattle hybrids produce more milk and meat even though they eat considerably more than yaks do. Worse, cloth made of sheep’s wool and other fibers is being exported by Chinese farmers labeled as Mongolian yak wool, which has caused the market for actual yak wool to crash. Yak wool is as soft and warm as cashmere, which comes from goats, but yaks are much better for the fragile mountain environment in Mongolia than goats are. Hopefully, increased tourism, including yak festivals, will help farmers make money from their traditional ways of life.

Instead of mooing like a cow, the yak grunts, although wild yak are usually silent. This is what a domesticated yak sounds like:

[yak grunting]

Another bovid, this one found only in Mongolia, is the Mongolian saiga. Some researchers consider it a subspecies of the saiga that was once found throughout Eurasia while others consider it a separate species. It’s critically endangered, possibly with as few as 5,000 animals left in the wild, threatened by poaching and competition with livestock. But the saiga frequently has twins instead of just one baby at a time, which helps its numbers increase quickly as long as people stop shooting the males for their horns. Some people think have medicinal qualities. They don’t, of course. The saiga almost went extinct back in the 1920s, but it recovered, so it can recover again as long as people leave it alone.

The saiga stands nearly three feet tall at the shoulder, or 81 cm, and its coat is usually a sandy pale brown in color. In winter it grows a long coat to keep warm. It’s also rather stocky in shape compared to other antelopes, which helps keep it warm too. But the main adaptation it has for cold weather is its nose. The saiga has a remarkable snoot. It almost looks like it has a little trunk. Its muzzle is considerably enlarged to make plenty of room for large nasal passages, which warms air before it reaches the lungs and also filters dust from the air. The nostrils point downward. The males have pale-colored horns that can grow nearly nine inches long, or 22 cm, although the closely related Russian saiga has horns that are almost twice that long. The horns grow upward and slightly back. The saiga migrates across the steppes and lives in herds that are sometimes quite large.

Another animal that’s domesticated but still lives wild in some parts of southern Mongolia and northern China is the Bactrian camel. That’s the camel that has two humps instead of just one. Like the yak, the domesticated and wild Bactrian camels are different species although they’re closely related. The wild Bactrian camel is smaller with a flatter head. A domesticated Bactrian camel can stand up to 7 ½ feet high at the shoulder, or 2.3 meters.

The wild Bactrian camel is critically endangered due to poaching and habitat loss, although it’s protected in both Mongolia and China. There may be only 1,000 of them left in the wild, and some of those are hybrids of wild and feral domesticated Bactrian camels. Since they’re different species, offspring of wild and domesticated Bactrian camels are often infertile. A wild Bactrian captive breeding program in Mongolia is underway and has been successful so far.

When you think of a camel, you probably think of a hot desert. Camels of all kinds are well adapted to desert life. The one-hump camel is a dromedary, which is a domesticated animal native to the Sahara Desert in northern Africa and other arid regions. But the two-humped Bactrian camel is adapted to a different kind of desert, the cold desert. Although it can get hot in the Gobi Desert in summer, winters are long and very cold, but mainly a desert just doesn’t get much rain. In the case of the Gobi, what little moisture it receives in winter is mainly from snow and frost, although it also gets an average of almost 8 inches of rain in the summer, or 19 cm.

The wild Bactrian camel, therefore, has to be able to survive without a lot of water. Some people think camels store water in their humps, but the humps are actually made up of fat. Fat is full of water, though, and when the camel can’t find any food or water, its body will reabsorb the fat to keep itself alive. If you see a camel with floppy or skinny humps, you know it’s not had much to eat recently and has had to use up its fat stores.

The wild Bactrian camel grows thick fur in winter to keep it warm in temperatures that can drop to -27 degrees Fahrenheit in winter, or -32.8 Celsius, but it sheds a lot of this heavy coat in summer when temperatures can soar to 99 F, or 37 C. Unlike most animals, it can safely eat snow without risking hypothermia, where the body core temperature falls to dangerous levels. It can also safely drink water that’s even saltier than the ocean. It lives in small herds that travel across the desert from one water source to another, since if it stayed in one area it would soon eat all the food available. It eats any plants it can find.

Mongolia has several rivers and lakes, so naturally it has some interesting water animals too. The taimen [TIE-min] is a large fish sometimes called the Eurasian river trout or Siberian giant trout, but it’s actually more closely related to the salmon. It lives in parts of Mongolia and Russia but is threatened by overfishing and water pollution. Until recently in Mongolia, people didn’t eat much fish, plus the taimen was considered the offspring of an ancient river spirit so was left alone. These days, unfortunately, not only are more people eating fish in Mongolia, sport fishing has become a big tourist draw. Conservationists are encouraging anglers to practice catch and release to save the remaining population.

The taimen grows up to six feet long, or two meters, and is a vicious predator. It will eat anything it can catch, including smaller taimen, and in fact will occasionally try to swallow a fish that’s too big, and will suffocate and die as a result. It lives in swift-moving water but is sometimes found in lakes. It grows slowly and lives a long time, and there are rumors of it hunting in packs. As a result, it’s sometimes called the river wolf. Stay away from anything called the river wolf, that’s my advice.

It wouldn’t be an episode about Mongolian animals if we didn’t talk about a mystery animal called the Mongolian death worm. We talked about it once before way back in episode ten, about electric animals, but that was a long time ago so let’s look at it again now.

The story goes that a huge wormlike creature lives in the western or southern Gobi Desert, and most of the time it stays below ground. During the rains of June and July it sometimes comes to the surface. It’s generally described as looking like a sausage or an intestine, red or reddish in color, as thick as a person’s arm, and as long as three or four feet, or up to about 1.5 meters. Its head and tail look alike, sort of like a giant fat earthworm, although some reports say it has some pointy bristles or spines at one end. Touching a death worm is supposed to lead to a quick, painful death, because why would you name something a death worm if it didn’t kill you? Some people report that it can even spit venom or emit an electrical shock that can kill people or animals at a distance.

The National Geographic Channel has a show called Beast Man, or used to, I don’t know, but in 2018 it aired an episode about the Mongolian death worm. I didn’t watch the whole episode, just clips, and while they didn’t actually find one, it was interesting. One lady they interviewed, who saw a death worm when she was a little girl, said it was about two feet long, or 60 cm, reddish in color, and its head and tail looked the same. This matches up with what other people have reported. In one clip, the show’s host tests the soil moisture content in the southern Gobi and is surprised that underneath the dry surface, the ground is actually quite moist. I’ll put a link to that one in the show notes.

There are actually earthworms that live in parts of the Gobi, including two species described in 2013. The earthworms don’t resemble reports of the Mongolian death worm, but if an earthworm can survive, other soft-bodied creatures can too. That’s assuming that the death worm is actually a worm and not a reptile or amphibian of some kind.

The best suggestion for what the death worm might be is an animal called the amphisbaenian. It’s sometimes also called the worm lizard, and while it’s not any kind of lizard, it is a reptile. Amphisbaenians live in many parts of the world, including most of South America and parts of North America, parts of Africa, southern Europe, and the Middle East. But since amphisbaenians live almost all of their lives underground, it’s very likely that species unknown to science live in other places. And much of Mongolia is extremely remote and probably not very well explored by scientists.

Amphisbaenians resemble snakes but they also resemble worms. The eyes are tiny and can be hard to spot, and the head and tail look very similar as a result. Many species are pink or reddish in color, although some are blue or other colors, including spotted, and many have scales that grow in a ringed pattern that make it look even more like an earthworm. But they’re not big animals, generally around six inches long, or 15 cm. Also, they’re slender like an earthworm, not as big around as someone’s arm. And they’re completely harmless to humans and large animals.

That doesn’t mean there can’t be a big amphisbaenian living in the remote parts of the Gobi, rarely seen even by the people who live there. Or, of course, the Mongolian death worm might be a completely different kind of animal, one totally unknown to science—maybe one that’s related to the amphisbaenian but radically different in appearance. Or it might be a mythical monster, although there are enough plausible-sounding witness sightings to think there’s something in the Gobi that looks like a big fat red horrible worm, even if it’s not actually dangerous.

What worries me, though, is that there don’t seem to be any sightings from recent times. Only old people report having seen a death worm back when they were young. Considering that so many Mongolian animals are endangered, it could be that the death worm is also declining in numbers so that fewer of them are around to be seen. Let’s hope Mongolian scientists are out there looking for the death worm and that they figure out what it is so it can be protected and studied in its natural habitat.

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