Episode 253: The Sand Striker



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This week let’s learn about a weird marine worm and its extinct ancestor!

Further reading:

Eunice aphroditois is a rainbow, terrifying

The 20-million-year-old lair of an ambush-predatory worm preserved in northeast Taiwan

Here’s the money shot of the sand striker with its jaws open, waiting for an animal to get too close. The stripy things are antennae:

The fossilized burrow with notes:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going back in time 20 million years to learn about an animal that lived on the sea floor, although we’ll start with its modern relation. It’s called the sand striker and new discoveries about it were released in January 2021.

Ichnology is the study of a certain type of trace fossil. We talked about trace fossils in episode 103, but basically a trace fossil is something associated with an organism that isn’t actually a fossilized organism itself, like fossilized footprints and other tracks. Ichnology is specifically the study of trace fossils caused by animals that disturbed the ground in some way, or if you want to get more technical about it, sedimentary disruption. That includes tracks that were preserved but it also includes a lot of burrows. It’s a burrow we’re talking about today.

Because we often don’t know what animal made a burrow, different types of burrows are given their own scientific names. This helps scientists keep them organized and refer to a specific burrow in a way that other scientists can immediately understand. The sand striker’s fossilized burrow is named Pennichnus formosae, but in this case we knew about the animal itself before the burrow.

The sand striker is a type of polychaete worm, and polychaete worms are incredibly successful animals. They’re found in the fossil record since at least the Cambrian Period half a billion years ago and are still common today. They’re also called bristle worms because most species have little bristles made of chitin. Almost all known species live in the oceans but some species are extremophiles. This includes species that live near hydrothermal vents where the water is heated to extreme temperatures by volcanic activity and at least one species found in the deepest part of the ocean that’s ever been explored, Challenger Deep.

A polychaete worm doesn’t look like an earthworm. It has segments with a hard exoskeleton and bristles, and a distinct head with antennae. Some species don’t have eyes at all but some have sophisticated vision and up to eight eyes. Some can swim, some just float around, some crawl along the seafloor, and some burrow in sand and mud. Some eat small animals while others eat algae or plant material, and some have plume-like appendages they use to filter tiny pieces of food from the water. Basically, there are so many species known—over 10,000, with more being discovered almost every year, alive and extinct—that it’s hard to make generalizations about polychaete worms.

Most species of polychaete worm are small. The living species of sand striker generally grows around 4 inches long, or 10 centimeters, and longer. We’ll come back to its size in a minute. Its exoskeleton, or cuticle, is a beautifully iridescent purple. It doesn’t have eyes, instead sensing prey with five antennae. These aren’t like insect antennae but look more like tiny tentacles, packed with chemical receptors that help it find prey.

The sand striker lives in warm coastal waters and spends most of its time hidden in a burrow in the sand. It’s especially common around coral reefs. While it will eat plant material like seaweed, it’s mostly an ambush hunter.

At night the sand striker remains in its burrow but pokes its head out with its scissor-like mandibles open. When the chemical receptors in its antennae detect a fish or other animal approaching, it snaps its mandibles on it and pulls it back into its burrow. Its mandibles are so strong and sharp that sometimes it will cut its prey in half and then, of course, it pulls both halves into its burrow to eat. If the prey turns out to be large, the sand striker injects it with venom that not only stuns and kills it, it starts the digestive process so the sand striker can eat it more easily. It does all this so quickly that it can even catch fish and octopuses. The mandibles are at the end of a feeding apparatus called a pharynx, which it can retract into its body.

If a person tries to handle a sand striker, they can indeed get bitten. The sand striker’s mandibles are sharp enough to inflict a bad bite, and if it injects venom it can make the bite even more painful. Not only that, the sand striker’s body is covered with tiny bristles that can also inflict stings, with a venom strong enough that it can cause nerve damage in a human that results in permanent numbness where the person touched it. Don’t pet a sand striker.

Remember how I said the sand striker grows 4 inches or longer? That’s actually the low end of its size. The average sand striker is about 2 feet long, or 61 centimeters, but it can sometimes grow 3 feet long, or 92 centimeters, or even more. Sometimes a lot more.

In January 2009, someone noticed something in a float along the side of a mooring raft in Seto Fishing Harbor in Japan. The mooring raft had been in place for 13 years at that point and no one knew that a sand striker had moved into one of the floats. It had a nice safe home to use as a burrow. Sand strikers grow quickly and this one was living in a more or less ideal situation, so it just grew and grew until when it was found, it was just shy of 10 feet long, or 3 meters. Even so, it was still only about an inch thick, or 25 millimeters.

There are unverified reports of even longer sand strikers, some up to 50 feet long, or 15 meters. Look, seriously, do not pet it. Since sand strikers spend most of the time in burrows, it’s rare to get a good look at a full-length individual in the wild and we don’t know how long they can really get.

In case you’d forgotten, though, we started the episode talking about a fossilized burrow. In a fossil bed in northeast Taiwan, a team of paleontologists uncovered hundreds of strange burrows dating to about 20 million years ago. The burrows were L-shaped and as much as 6.5 feet long, or 2 meters, and about an inch across, or 2.5 centimeters. Even more confusingly, the fossilized sediment showed feather-like shapes in the upper section of the burrows.

The team of scientists studying the burrows had no idea what the feather-like structures were. The burrows were mysterious from start to finish anyway, since they were so much larger than most burrows in the seafloor.

They decided to do something unusual to solve some of the mysteries. They reached out not only to marine biologists but to marine photographers and aquarium keepers to get their insights. And, as you’ve probably guessed by now, the fossilized burrows most closely match those of the sand striker.

They even found out what the feather-shaped structures were. When a sand striker grabs a fish or other prey and drags it into its burrow, a lot of time it’s still alive, at least at first. Its struggles to get away can cause the sides of the burrow to shift. The sediment can’t collapse all the way because the worm lines it with mucus, so the partial collapsing and shifting results in feathery shapes.

These fossilized burrows are the first trace fossils known to be made by a marine ambush predator, which is pretty awesome. It’s even more awesome that some modern sand strikers are using the same type of burrows over 20 million years later.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 252: Mini Rex



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Thanks to Zachary for suggesting this topic! Let’s learn about some sightings of what look like miniature theropod dinosaurs running around in the American Southwest!

Further reading:

All About Birds: Wild Turkey

A collared lizard running (photo by Joe McDonald from this page):

Basilisks running:

A female wild turkey:

A male wild turkey (note the tuft of hair-like feathers sticking forward, called a beard) (picture from this page):

Show transcript:

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

Thanks to Zachary for his email a while back that helped shape this episode. Zachary has kept a lot of different kinds of pets, which we had a nice conversation about, and one of the reptiles he’s kept as a pet is in this episode. I’ll reveal which one at the end.

But first, a small correction, maybe. Paul from the awesome podcast Varmints! messaged me to point out that the word spelled A-N-O-L-E is pronounced a-NOLL, not a-NO-lee. I’d looked it up before I recorded so that confused me, so I looked it up again and it turns out that both pronunciations are used in different places and both are correct. So if you’ve always heard it a-NOLL, you’re fine, but now I can’t decide which pronunciation I should use.

This week we’re going to learn about an interesting mystery of the American southwest. Even though non-avian dinosaurs went extinct 66 million years ago, occasionally someone spots what they think is a little dinosaur running along on its hind legs. They’re sometimes called mini rexes.

Many reports come from the American southwest, especially Colorado, Arizona, and Texas. For instance, in the late 1960s two teenaged brothers were looking for arrowheads near their home in Dove Creek, Colorado when they were startled by an animal running away from them at high speed. The boys said it looked like a miniature dinosaur, only about 14 inches tall, or 35 centimeters. It was kicking up so much dust as it ran on its hind legs that the boys had trouble making out details. They did note that it seemed to be brown and possibly had a row of spines running down its back, maybe even two rows of spines, similar to an iguana’s. It had long hind legs and shorter front legs that it held out in front of it as it ran.

The animal left behind three-toed footprints that the boys followed until they disappeared into some brush. The boys were familiar with turkey footprints but these were different, with the toes closer together and no rear-pointing toe prints.

In April 1996, in Cortez, Colorado, a woman saw an animal run past her house on its hind legs, seemingly from a nearby pond. It was greenish-gray and stood about 3.5 feet tall, or about a meter. It had a long neck and long, tapering tail. She didn’t notice its front legs but its hind legs had muscular thighs but were thinner below the hock joint.

One night in July 2001, a woman and her grown daughter were driving near Yellow Jacket, Colorado when they noticed an animal at the edge of the road. At first the driver thought it was a small deer and slammed on the brakes so she wouldn’t hit it, but when it darted across the road both women were shocked to see what looked like a small dinosaur pass through the headlight beams of the car. They reported it was about 3 feet tall, or 91 centimeters, and that it had no feathers or fur. Its legs were thin and long, while its arms were tiny and held out in front of its body. It had a slender neck, a small head, and a long tapering tail.

The witnesses in both the 1996 sighting and the 2001 sighting noted that the animal they saw ran gracefully. They also all agreed that the animals’ skin appeared smooth.

Lots of dinosaurs used to walk on their hind legs, but the reptiles living today are all four-footed. There are a few lizards that run on their hind legs occasionally, though, and one of them lives in the American southwest. The collared lizard, also called the mountain boomer, will run on its hind legs to escape predators. Females are usually light brown while males have a blue-green body and light brown head. The name collared lizard comes from the two black stripes both males and females show around their necks, with a white stripe in between. During breeding season, in early summer, females also have orange spots along their sides.

The collared lizard can run up to 16 miles an hour, or 26 kilometers per hour, for short bursts on its hind legs. It uses its long tail for balance as it runs, and its hind legs are three times the length of its front legs. This makes it a good jumper too. It mostly eats insects but will occasionally eat berries, small snakes, and even other lizards. It hibernates in winter in rock crevices.

While the teenaged boys probably saw a collared lizard in the 1960s, the other two sightings we just covered sound much different. The collared lizard typically only grows up to 14 inches long, or 35 centimeters, including its long tail.

A few other lizards are known to run on their hind legs, such as the basilisk that lives in rainforests of Central and South America. It’s famous for its ability to run across water on its hind legs. It’s much larger than the collared lizard, up to 2.5 feet long, or 76 centimeters, including its long tail. It holds its front legs out to its sides when running on its hind legs, and the toes on its hind feet have flaps of skin that help stop it from sinking. It has a crest on its head, and the male also has crests on his back and tail. It can be brown or green in color.

The basilisk is sometimes kept as an exotic pet. In 1981 in New Kensington, Pennsylvania, four boys playing along some railroad tracks saw a green lizard that they thought was a baby dinosaur. It was 2 feet long, or 61 centimeters, and had a crest and an extremely long tail. It ran away on its hind legs but one of the boys, who was 11 years old, managed to catch it. It startled him by squealing and he dropped it again, and this time it got away. It sounds like an escaped pet basilisk.

But let’s go back to our mini rex sightings from 1996 and 2001, the ones of dinosaur-like animals running gracefully on their hind legs with a long neck and long tail. These don’t sound like lizards at all. When lizards run on their hind legs, they don’t look much like how we imagine a tiny raptor dinosaur would look. They appear awkward while running, with their arms sticking out and their heads pointing more or less upward. While all the lizards known that can run on their hind legs have long tails, they all have relatively short necks.

There’s another type of animal that’s closely related to the dinosaurs, though, and every single one walks on its hind legs. That’s right: birds! All the birds alive today are descended from dinosaurs whose front legs evolved for flight. Even flightless birds are well adapted to walk on two legs.

Let’s look at the details of those two sightings again. Both were of animals estimated as about three feet tall or a little taller, or up to about a meter, with long neck, small head, long tapering tail held above the ground, and long, strong legs that were nevertheless thin. Both also appeared smooth. In one of the sightings, the front legs were tiny and held forward; in the other, the witness didn’t notice the front legs.

My suggestion is that in these two sightings, at least, the witnesses saw a particular kind of bird, a wild turkey. That may sound ridiculous if you’re thinking of a male turkey displaying his feathers, but most of the time turkeys don’t look round and poofy. Most of the time, in fact, the wild turkey’s feathers are sleek and its tail is an ordinary-looking long, skinny bird tail instead of a dramatic fan. Its feathers are mostly brown and black, the upper part of its long neck is bare of feathers, as is its small head, and its legs are long and strong but relatively thin. It also typically stands 3 to 3.5 feet tall, or up to about a meter, although some big males can stand over 4 feet tall, or 1.2 meters. As for the front legs seen by witnesses in 2001, a full-grown male turkey has a tuft of long, hair-like feathers growing from the middle of his breast, called a beard. It sticks out from the rest of the feathers and might look like tiny arms if you were already convinced you were looking at a dinosaur instead of a bird.

That’s not to say that all mini-rex sightings are of turkeys, of course, but some of them probably are. The wild turkey lives throughout much of the United States, including most of Colorado. Since birds are the closest animals we have to dinosaurs these days, though, that’s still pretty neat.

Finally, the reptile Zachary kept as a pet was the collared lizard. I didn’t want to say so at the beginning and potentially spoil part of the mystery for some people!

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 251: Modern Mimics and HIREC



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This week let’s look at some animals that have evolved rapidly to adapt to human-caused environmental pressures. Thanks to Otto and Pranav for their suggestions!

Further reading:

Long-term changes of plumage between urban and rural populations of white-crowned sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys)

A light-colored peppered moth (left) and darker-colored peppered moths (right):

Soot is hard to clean off buildings and other items (image from this page):

A white-crowned sparrow in the California countryside:

A (deceased museum specimen being photographed) white-crowned sparrow from the city of San Francisco, CA (taken from the study linked above):

A decorator crab that has attached bits of plastic and other trash to its body (image from this page):

The hermit crab sometimes uses trash instead of shells to hide in:

Show transcript:

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

This week we have two listener suggestions. Otto suggested we learn about camouflage that mimics modern things, and Pranav suggested animals that show rapid evolution due to humans.

We’ve talked about animals that use camouflage in lots of episodes, especially episode 191, Masters of Disguise. If you want to learn more about camouflage itself, that’s a good one to listen to. In addition, rapid evolution due to humans is a hot area of research right now. It even has its own scientific term, human-induced rapid evolutionary change, often shortened to the acronym HIREC.

Let’s start this episode with the story of a humble moth, because it’s a classic example of both HIREC and modern camouflage.

The peppered moth lives throughout much of the northern hemisphere. Its wingspan is a little over 2 inches across, or about 6 centimeters, and its caterpillar looks just like a little twig. Not only that, the caterpillar can change its coloring to match the twigs of the tree it’s on. But it’s not the caterpillars we’re talking about today.

The peppered moth gets its name from the coloring of its wings, which are white with black speckles, like pepper spilled on a plate. The pattern of speckles is unique to each individual, with some moths having more pepper speckles than others. Some moths have so many speckles that they look gray. But in the 19th century, geneticists studying moths in England noticed that the peppered moth seemed to be changing color as a species. Specifically, some of the peppered moths were completely black.

Black peppered moths had never been documented before 1811. They were still rare in the mid-19th century, but by 1900 almost all of the peppered moths in cities in England were black. Scientists noticed this and tried to figure out what was going on.

Pollution is what was going on. The industrial revolution was in full swing, but all those factories and trains and even ordinary houses were burning coal. Burning coal results in soot that’s carried on smoke and settles on everything. If you have a coal fire in your house, your walls and furniture are going to end up dark with soot. My aunt and uncle renovated a house from the late 19th century and had a lot of trouble cleaning soot from the walls and woodwork, even the old curtains that had been in the house. Similarly, when I lived briefly near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, there were still a lot of brick and stone buildings that were black from soot, but one beautiful old church had recently been cleaned and it turned out that the stone it was built from was pale gray, not black.

It wasn’t coal soot getting on the moths, though. It was coal soot on the trees where the moths spent most of their time. Most tree trunks are gray, but with all that coal soot in the air, the trees were coated with it and were much darker gray or even black. A light-colored moth that settled on a black tree branch showed up to predators, but a black moth on the same branch was camouflaged. The black moths survived more often to lay eggs while the white or gray moths didn’t, passing on the genetic likelihood that their babies would grow up to be dark-colored instead of light-colored.

It wasn’t just peppered moths that this happened to, either. More than 100 species of moth were documented to be dark gray or black during this time when they were ordinarily much lighter in color. Scientists call this industrial melanism.

Soot is made up of tiny particles that work their way into the crevices of wood and stone and everything else they come in contact with. You can’t just wipe or rinse it off. It’s acidic too and will kill plants, especially lichens that grow on trees, and it even eats away at stone and brick. It’s dangerous to breathe because the tiny particles lodge in your lungs and eventually stop you from being able to absorb oxygen as efficiently. If you’ve heard of the infamous London smog from the olden days, a big contributor to the smog was coal smoke. In 1952 a five-day smog event in London killed an estimated 12,000 people. That led directly to the Clean Air Act of 1956, and these days London doesn’t have that kind of deadly smog anymore.

Once factories and homes switched to electricity, natural gas, or other alternatives to burning coal, and trains switched to diesel fuel, trees stopped being coated with soot. Older trees that had survived were still dark, but young ones grew up with normal colored trunks and branches. Gradually, the black moths became less and less numerous compared to light-colored moths.

Cities in general result in rapid evolution of animals, including how they camouflage themselves. A study published in May of 2021 found that some birds living in cities are developing different colored feathers. Specifically, white-crowned sparrows living in San Francisco, California have much duller, darker feathers on their backs than white-crowned sparrows living outside of the city. Other studies have found that birds in cities sing much louder and at a higher pitch than birds in the countryside, since they have to compete with traffic and other noise.

A Swiss study on the effects of light on ermine moths indicated that while moths who developed from caterpillars collected from the countryside showed a normal attraction to light, moths from caterpillars collected in the city ignored the light. Since moths often die when they collide with electric lights, the city moths who survived to lay eggs were the ones who didn’t fly into a hot lightbulb.

Another study compared the genomes of white-footed mice that live in various parks in New York City with white-footed mice that live in state parks well outside of the city. The mice in city parks showed a lot less genetic diversity, naturally, since those mice are isolated populations. Mice can’t take cabs to visit mice in other parks, much less leave the city for a vacation. But the city mice showed another surprising difference. Their digestive systems have adapted to a much different diet than their country cousins. Some researchers suggest that the city mice may eat more junk food, which people throw away and the mice find, while other researchers think it’s just a difference in the kinds of insects and plants available in city parks for the mice to eat. Either way, it’s a distinct genetic difference that shows how the city mice are evolving to adapt to their urban environments.

Another example is a type of reptile called the crested anole. It’s related to the iguana and is native to the Americas. There are lots of species and subspecies of anole, many of which live on islands and show distinct adaptations to various habitats. The crested anole lives in Puerto Rico and on some nearby islands and grows up to 3 inches long, or 7.5 cm, not counting its long tail. The male is more brightly colored than the female, usually green or brown with darker spots. It’s not related to the chameleon but it is able to change color. It eats small animals, including insects, worms, even other anoles. Anoles are really interesting animals that deserve their own episode one day, so let’s just talk about how the crested anole that lives in cities has adapted to urban life.

One thing the crested anole is known for is its ability to climb right up tree trunks and even perch head-down in a tree. Its toe pads have microscopic scales and hairs that help them adhere to smooth surfaces, something like a gecko’s toes. But there’s a big difference in a tree trunk, no matter how smooth it is, and a pane of glass. Anoles in cities can climb up and down windows and painted walls. Researchers examined the toe pads of city crested anoles and compared them to the toe pads of crested anoles who lived in the countryside. They found that the city anoles had larger toes with more scales, and they even had longer legs. The research team also raced anoles along various surfaces and filmed them in slow motion to study how they were able to maneuver, which sounds like a great day at work.

The crested anoles have only lived in cities for a few decades, so their differences from country anoles evolved very quickly. But not all species of anole can adapt as well and as rapidly as the crested anoles have. Other city anole species don’t show differences from their country cousins.

Human-induced rapid evolutionary change isn’t restricted to cities. Trophy hunters who target the biggest animals with the biggest horns or antlers and leave smaller individuals alone have resulted in only smaller males with smaller horns or antlers surviving to breed. Many populations of bighorn sheep now actually only have small horns. Similarly, elephants have been killed for their tusks for long enough that many elephants are being born without tusks, because tuskless elephants are the ones that survive to breed. Entire populations of some fish species are smaller overall after many generations of being caught with nets, because only the individuals who are small enough to escape the nets survive to breed.

I tried hard to find more examples of animals that camouflage themselves to blend in to human-made items like roads. I’m sure this is happening throughout much of the world, but I couldn’t find any scientific studies about it. If any of you are thinking of going into biology, that might be an interesting field of study. But I did find one other example.

Self-decoration is a type of camouflage I don’t think we’ve talked about before. It’s where an animal decorates its body with items that help it blend in with its surroundings. Some caterpillars will stick little bits of lichen or other plant pieces to their bodies to help them hide, and some invertebrates of various kinds actually pile their own poop on their back as a disguise.

A group of crabs called decorator crabs will stick plants, sponges, and other items to their backs, and different species have preferences as to what items they use. Some species prefer stinging or toxic decorations, such as certain sea anemones which they basically pick up and plant on their backs. Researchers think the sea anemones actually benefit from being used as camouflage, because crabs are messy eaters and the anemones can catch and eat pieces of food that float away from the crab’s mouthparts. A decorator crab’s carapace is often rough in texture with tiny hooks to help things stick to it like Velcro.

Some decorator crabs don’t seek out particular decorations but just make use of whatever small items they find in their local environment. In the past few decades, scientists, divers, and other people who find crabs interesting have noticed more and more decorator crabs using little pieces of trash as decoration. This includes fragments of plastic and pieces of fishing nets.

This is similar to what’s happening with hermit crabs, which we talked about in episode 182. In many places hermit crabs are using trash like bottle caps instead of shells since there’s so much trash on beaches these days. This is your reminder to pick up any trash you find on the beach, but be careful not to cut yourself and also make sure you’re picking up actual trash and not a camouflaged crab.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 250: Mystery of the Golden Toad



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This week let’s look at a scientific mystery: what caused the golden toad to go extinct, and is it still alive after all?

Further reading:

A deadly fungus is killing frogs, but the bacteria on their skin could protect them

The male golden toad:

The female golden toad (photo by Mary Crump):

Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve is gorgeous and hopefully still hides some golden toads:

Show transcript:

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

This is our 250th episode, not counting the various bonus episodes, and I should have prepared a special show as a result but I didn’t notice until just now. But let’s pretend this is a special episode 250 show. It’s all about the golden toad.

The golden toad is from a tiny area of Costa Rica in Central America. I really do mean a tiny area. North of the city of Monteverde is the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, and the toad was only known from one small part of the reserve that was less than two square miles in size, or about four square kilometers. Specifically, it’s from a single ridge in the nature reserve.

A cloud forest is a type of high altitude rainforest. Because temperatures tend to be much cooler than in an ordinary rainforest, a cloud forest can look very different and sometimes wonderfully strange. Cloud forests are foggy a lot of the time and the trees are often covered in thick mosses. In some cloud forests the trees are quite small while ferns and other plants can grow extremely large.

The Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve is home to thousands of plant and animal species, many of them found nowhere else in the world. That includes the golden toad.

The golden toad gets its name from the male’s coloring. The males are a beautiful golden orange while the females are mostly gray or black with yellow, red, or green markings. As in many frogs and toads, females are larger than males, with a big female growing over two inches long from nose to butt, or about 5.5 centimeters.

The golden toad was only discovered by scientists in 1964 and described in 1966. The last golden toad was a male observed in May of 1989 during what should have been the mating season, but he was all alone. The golden toad was declared extinct in 2004 after repeated searches turned up no toads at all.

It’s easy to think that because the golden toad was restricted to such a small area, it was inevitable that it would go extinct, but the toads were actually common throughout their range until suddenly they weren’t. We’re not sure what happened. Here’s the story.

When the toad was first discovered, researchers estimated that there were around 1,500 adult toads living on the ridge. Most of the time the toads were hard to find, since during the dry season, or when they weren’t actively hunting the insects they ate, they’d stay in underground burrows where it was always nice and damp. But when the spring rains started, the males would hop out and gather around shallow puddles at the base of trees. Females would join the males, and because there were always more males than females, they’d all try to be the one to fertilize her eggs. During this time researchers were able to observe and count the toads, which they described as looking like living jewels.

The female golden toad laid her eggs in the pools of rainwater. The eggs hatched quickly but the tadpoles needed to live in their pool for at least four more weeks until they metamorphosed into toadlets that lived on land. If there was too much rain, the pools would overflow and the tadpoles were in danger of being washed out to die. If there wasn’t enough rain, the pools would dry out and the tadpoles would also die. But most years conditions were pretty good and lots of tadpoles lived to grow up. Until 1987.

A behavioral ecologist who specializes in amphibians, Martha Crump, was studying the golden toads in 1987. In April things seemed normal. The females laid their eggs in the shallow pools as usual, but then the rains stopped. The pools dried out and the eggs and tadpoles all died. When it rained again in May, the females laid more eggs and Dr. Crump counted them, because scientists do a lot of counting. She counted about 43,500 toad eggs. But the pools dried up again, and it was sadly easy for Dr. Crump to count how many tadpoles survived. It was only 29.

The next year, in 1988, there were only ten adult golden toads found. In 1989, one golden toad. In 1990 and beyond, zero golden toads.

The unusually dry spring of 1987 was a devastating blow to the golden toad population, but the adults weren’t affected. They had their nice damp burrows to live in and lots of insects to eat. Dry conditions happen every so often but not every year. Obviously something else happened between 1987 and 1988 to kill off almost all the adult toads too.

Researchers couldn’t figure out what might have happened. One hypothesis was that drought caused by the El Niño weather pattern was unusually severe in 1987 and killed off the adults as well as that year’s eggs and tadpoles. Another was that pesticides had found their way into the environment and killed the toads. Many researchers hoped that the toads were actually still alive, just hiding in their burrows until conditions improved, and every spring for many years toad experts waited to see if the living jewels would emerge during the spring rains. But they never did.

At the same time, though, toads, frogs, and other amphibians around the world were declining in numbers and going extinct. A veterinarian named Lee Berger, who was working toward her doctorate degree, discovered why in 1998. It’s a disease called chytridiomycosis, which is caused by a fungus. The disease infects the animal’s skin, and since amphibians absorb water, oxygen, and some essential minerals through their skin, the disease kills them rapidly.

Chytridiomycosis doesn’t kill every frog. Some species are more or less immune to the disease’s effects, but when infected frogs are taken to other places by people, as pets or food or whatever reasons people have for moving frogs around, the disease spreads rapidly. By the time Dr. Berger identified the cause, dozens of species of amphibian had already gone extinct as a direct result of the disease, and it’s continued ever since. The fungus spreads through water, so if a healthy frog moves into an infected pond, it’s likely to contract the disease.

There’s no cure for chytridiomycosis and treatment isn’t always effective. It doesn’t mean all amphibians are doomed, though. Studies of species that show natural immunity reveal that some amphibians have beneficial bacteria on their skin that stops the fungus from infecting it. Frogs from parts of Costa Rica show various levels of resistance to the fungus even though Costa Rica is particularly hard-hit when it comes to the disease.

The fungus especially thrives in cooler areas in high elevations—exactly the kind of place where the golden toad lived. Even so, the golden toad might have survived and developed a resistance to the disease, except for the bad luck of a drought year that killed off all the eggs and tadpoles at the worst possible time.

But while researchers have searched for the golden toad for years without luck, it might still be around. In 1991 one farmer reported seeing a pool full of healthy golden toads in a remote part of the cloud forest, including young toads. Other people have reported sightings too.

The important thing is that the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve is still protecting the golden toad’s habitat, along with all the other animals and plants in the reserve. If the golden toad is still hanging on, hopefully with individuals that have developed a resistance to chytridiomycosis, it has a safe place to increase in numbers.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 249: Strange Seals



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Thanks to Richard from NC for his suggestion that leads us to learn about some interesting seals!

Further reading:

Mystery of Siberian freshwater seal food choice solved

Under Antarctica’s ice, Weddell seals produce ultrasonic vocalizations

Further listening/watching:

Rarely-heard Weddell Seal Sounds in Antarctica

The bearded seal Wikipedia page with audio so you can listen over and over and over

The Baikal seal, the world’s only fully fresh water seal species:

Baikal seal, round boi:

The Baikal seal’s teeth have teeth:

A Weddell seal mama with her pup who seems to be practicing singing:

Look ma, no ears!

The bearded seal. Can you tell where its name comes from? (Moustachioed seal might be more accurate.) (Also, note the ear opening with no external ear flap.)

Show transcript:

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

This week let’s learn about some interesting seals. Thanks to Richard from NC who suggested freshwater seals, which is where we’ll start.

Most seals live on the coast and spend most of the time in the ocean. But there’s one species of seal that lives exclusively in fresh water. That’s the Baikal [bay-CALL] seal, and the only place it lives is a big lake in Siberia called Lake Baikal.

Lake Baikal formed where two sections of the earth’s crust are being pulled apart by continental drift. That’s called a rift lake or rift valley lake. The lake gets bigger every year, but only by a tiny amount—just under an inch, or 2 cm. Since this has been going on for an estimated 25 to 30 million years, though, it’s an extremely big, deep lake. It is, in fact, the deepest lake on earth, and is also the oldest lake on earth. It’s more than twice as old as Lake Tanganyika in East Africa, which is also a large, deep rift lake but only about 12 million years old at the most.

Lake Baikal is almost 400 miles long, or 636 km, and nearly 50 miles wide, or 80 km. At its deepest point, it’s 3,893 feet deep, or 1,186.5 meters. That’s from the surface of the water to the muddy bottom. But that mud and sediment on the bottom has been building up for a very long time and there’s a lot of it—4.3 miles of it, in fact, or 7 km. The water is very clear and very oxygenated, but the surface freezes for several months out of the year. Then again, there are some hydrothermal vents, especially in the deepest areas, that heat the water around them to 122 degrees Fahrenheit, or 50 Celsius.

Because Lake Baikal is so deep, so big, so oxygenated, and so old, lots of species of animal live in and around it that live nowhere else in the world. That includes the Baikal seal.

The Baikal seal is related to the Arctic ringed seal but has lived in the lake exclusively for probably two million years. It only grows five and a half feet long at most, or 1.65 meters, and is usually closer to four feet long, or 1.2 meters. It’s gray in color and has no external ears, so that its head appears smooth. It can still hear, but because it doesn’t have ears sticking out of its head, it’s more streamlined than seals with external ears. It has large eyes, a pair of front flippers that it uses to maneuver in the water and on land, and a pair of hind flippers that act like a tail instead of legs.

That’s actually the main difference between earless and eared seals. Earless seals are more streamlined in general and more adapted for life in the water and for deep diving, but they’re awkward on land because they can’t use their hind limbs for walking. Eared seals have little flaps of external ears and while their hind flippers act as a tail in the water, the seal can turn its hind flippers over to walk on them on land.

The Baikal seal is quite small for a seal, which keeps it from needing as much food as a bigger animal. For a long time people thought the Baikal seal mostly ate fish, but a study published in late 2020 determined that it eats a whole lot of amphipods. Lake Baikal is home to a species of amphipod that grows up to about 10 millimeters long. Amphipods are a type of crustacean and all other freshwater amphipods known are bottom-dwellers. Only the Lake Baikal amphipod is free-floating.

The seal catches these tiny amphipods by sucking them up in a big mouthful of water, closing its teeth tightly, and using its tongue to force the water out through its teeth. The amphipods get caught against the teeth and the seal swallows them, yum. This is a type of filter feeding used by some other species of seal too, including the crabeater seal. Like the crabeater seal, it’s so well adapted to filter feeding that it has specialized teeth with curved projections all around their edges. These projections interlock closely when the seal closes its mouth. Because it doesn’t have to depend on eating fish, the Baikal seal isn’t threatened by commercial fishing. As long as it has plenty of amphipods to eat, it’s happy.

While the Baikal seal is the only truly freshwater seal species, a subspecies of ringed seal lives in a lake in Finland. Unlike the Baikal seal, though, which are numerous and doing just fine, the Saimaa ringed seal is endangered, with only around 400 individuals left in the wild. They’re strictly protected these days, fortunately, and the population is growing after it reached a low of only about 100 animals in 1983.

During the Pleistocene, the land mass that is now Finland was pressed down by the weight of glaciers. Once the glaciers melted, the land began to slowly rise back up until the lake where a population of ringed seals lived was cut off from the ocean.

Some other seals live in lakes that are cut off from the sea, including a population of harbor seals in Iliamna Lake in Alaska and a subspecies of harbor seal in northern Quebec, Canada, but let’s move on to seals that live in the ocean instead of fresh water.

Specifically, let’s discuss two earless seals that make interesting sounds. You may think you know what a typical seal sounds like, such as this kind of barking call:

[barking sound]

That’s actually not a seal but a closely related pinniped called a sea lion. Even though it’s not a seal, it is sort of technically a seal because it shares a family with fur seals and walruses, Otariidae, also called the eared seals that we talked about earlier. Some seals bark like sea lions and make lots of other noises, but it’s the earless seals that can really make weird sounds.

For instance, listen to this eerie sound:

[Weddell seal call]

That’s not a whale, it’s a seal. The Weddell seal lives around Antarctica and can grow quite large, up to 11 ½ feet long, or 3.5 meters. Males and females look alike although females tend to be slightly larger. It eats fish, squid, crustaceans, and pretty much anything else it can catch. It dives deeply and can stay underwater for up to 80 minutes, and while it has good eyesight, it doesn’t need to see to find food. The whiskers on its snout are incredibly sensitive and can sense tiny movements of water that indicate exactly where a fish or other animal is swimming.

Both male and female Weddell seals make various vocalizations, including some that can be described as songs, although the songs seem to be rare and researchers aren’t sure what the seals communicate with them. There’s still a lot we don’t know about these seals. Because Antarctica is so far away from most human activity, it’s extremely quiet most of the time. The seals can hear each other without having to compete with the noise from cars and boats and things like that. A seal sitting on the ice can hear other seals calling from deep in the water below the ice, and in fact the ice can amplify the sounds so well that scientists living in the Antarctic report being able to feel the sounds as well as hear them.

Here’s another clip of Weddell seals. These sounds are taken from an amazing youtube video I’ve linked to in the show notes. It’s short and has two scientists talking a little bit about their experiences hearing the seals, and then there’s about a minute of seal calls afterwards.

[Weddell seals calling]

Another seal with a loud, amazing vocalization is the bearded seal. It lives on the other side of the world from the Weddell seal, in the Arctic Ocean, and can grow almost nine feet long, or 2.7 meters. It eats fish and squid but mostly eats animals that live on the sea floor, including clams, polychaete worms, sea anemones, and many others. Like the Weddell seal and many other seals, its whiskers are incredibly sensitive. The bearded seal uses its long whiskers to feel around in the soft mud at the bottom of the ocean, looking for food.

In the spring, male bearded seals sing loudly and rhythmically, either to attract a mate or to defend a territory, or maybe both or something else—we don’t know. This is what the bearded seal sounds like underwater. I grabbed this audio off Wikipedia if you need to listen to it on repeat for a very long time. It’s an incredible sound.

[bearded seals singing]

This is what a bunch of bearded seals sound like when they’re singing together. This audio was taken on land although the seals sing underwater.

[more bearded seals singing]

These vocalizations sound so much like whale calls that I wondered if some seals can echolocate the way whales and dolphins can. There are quite a few studies into this topic, but right now most of the evidence points to no, seals don’t use echolocation to navigate underwater. Of course, studies in the future might discover something new about potential echolocation in seals. It’s only been very recently that sophisticated studies on bats have discovered that many species use different types of echolocation.

Conclusions of a two-year study published at the very end of 2020 show that a lot of Weddell seal vocalizations are ultrasonic, meaning they’re much higher than humans can hear. While the study doesn’t show any evidence of echolocation, they weren’t actually looking for it either. So you never know.

It’s possible, of course, that even if seals don’t echolocate right now, they might one day evolve the ability. Earless seals are well adapted to the water but still spend part of the time on ice or on land, especially to give birth. Many millions of years from now, the descendants of today’s seals might be completely aquatic the way whales and dolphins are. Because most scientists today think that seals can’t echolocate because their ears need to be useful on land as well in water, a fully aquatic seal that doesn’t need to hear well in the air might then develop echolocation to help it navigate underwater.

I’ll do a follow-up episode about seals and echolocation in a few million years when we can determine whether that’s happening.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 248: The Giant Jellyfish Revisited



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We’re down to the last few days to back our Kickstarter!

We’ve got a slightly different type of episode this week. Follow along as I try to find out more about the giant jellyfish that nearly sank a ship!

Further reading:

Kraken: Monster of the Deep

A lion’s mane jellyfish:

A giant squid:

The first photo ever taken of a giant squid:

Show transcript:

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

Halloween is behind us and we’re all now ready to head into winter, if we live in the northern hemisphere, or summer, if we live in the southern hemisphere. This week’s episode is a little different, but hopefully you’ll like it.

Before we get into this week’s topic, let me give you the very last Kickstarter update, I promise! From here on out you’ll only get updates through the Kickstarter page if you backed the project. If you’re listening to this episode within a day or two of its release on November 1, 2021, you still have time to back the Beyond Bigfoot & Nessie book! The campaign ends on Nov. 5, but at 12:03 am eastern time, and one of the many things I’ve learned about running a Kickstarter is maybe don’t launch the project at midnight because then it ends at midnight. Remember that if we reach 100 backers before the end, I’ll release a second bonus episode from the audiobook. I’m really late getting this episode done so it’s actually Halloween as I record this, and we currently have 67 backers, which is amazing! Remember, we have a $1 tier if you just want to pitch a dollar in.

That reminds me, after the campaign is over I’m going to update the first bonus episode and take out the ten minutes of Kickstarter talk that starts it. Thanks again to everyone who’s backed the project. I’m blown away by everyone’s support! If you want a copy of the book but not right now, it’ll be available to buy from your regular book-buying places but only after all the Kickstarter backer rewards are sent.

As it happens, this week’s episode is connected with the Beyond Bigfoot & Nessie book. Specifically, I decided to add a chapter about the giant jellyfish we talked about in episode 16, but to do that I needed to do a lot more research.

That story has actually bothered me for a long time. When I first started the podcast, I wasn’t always as diligent in my research as I am now. If a story came from a source I trusted or had enough realistic-sounding details, I’d assume it was accurate. This story met both criteria but whenever I thought about it, something felt off. So I was glad to dig in and find out more.

This episode is about the research process I went through, which will give you a little bit of a behind-the-scenes look at how I approach each episode. We’ll also learn about a couple of other weird events where a ship or boat was seemingly attacked by a sea monster.

Let’s start with the story as I reported it in episode 16. I think you will appreciate how much better our audio quality is these days. Here it is:

“In 1973, the Australian ship Kuranda collided with a huge jelly in the South Pacific while traveling through a storm on her way to the Fiji Islands. The jelly was so enormous that the deck was covered in jellyfish goo and tentacles up to two feet deep [61 cm]. One crew member died after getting stung. The weight of the jelly was so great, an estimated 20 tons [18 metric tons] that it started to push the ship nose-down and the captain, Langley Smith, sent out an SOS. The salvage tug Hercules arrived and sprayed the Kuranda’s deck with a high-pressure hose, dislodging the jelly. Samples were sent to Sydney and tentatively identified as a lion’s mane jelly.”

My first step was to find where I got that story. I was pretty sure it was from Karl Shuker’s blog but when I looked, it wasn’t there. I checked his books that I own and it wasn’t there either. A quick internet search turned up the story in a lot of places with more or less identical wording, but no one said where they’d found the story—except one site, which referenced a book called Mysteries and Monsters of the Sea.

I looked it up and discovered it was a 1998 book, also published as Mysteries of the Deep, made up of articles from FATE Magazine. One of those articles is titled “Giant Jellyfish” and is by Karl Shuker.

The story appeared in the March 1994 issue of FATE, so my next step was to find the article. Karl Shuker is a zoologist who writes a lot about mystery animals, and he’s very good about sharing his sources.

FATE Magazine is still around and isn’t giving its old issues away for free. Then, in one of those amazing, wonderful coincidences, I found an ebay auction for that very issue that had nice clear photographs of several pages to show how good a condition it was in. One of those pages just happened to be the one I needed. I grabbed a screenshot and enlarged it so I could read the text. Shuker writes, “One of the most dramatic cases on record was documented by James Sweeney in Sea Monsters (1977), and took place in January 1973.”

Bingo! Now I just had to find a copy of that book. I found a used copy online that wasn’t very expensive and ordered it, but a little more searching online led me to a digitized version that I was able to access by logging in to the Internet Archive.

I found the story on pages 73-76. It has lots of details that should be easily corroborated, although unfortunately there isn’t a specific date. My next step was my newspapers.com account to see how the event was reported at the time.

This is where I came up against a blank wall. There was nothing in any of the hundreds of digitized newspaper archives available. I searched for the name of the ship, the Kuranda. I searched for the name of the captain, Langley Smith. I couldn’t find a single mention of either, never mind an encounter with a gigantic jellyfish.

It wasn’t looking good for the story, but I had one more clue. The account starts out in Sweeney’s book:

One of the strangest, and probably best documented, sea monster stories to be found anywhere is recorded in the Colonial Secretary’s File of the Archives, State Library, Melbourne, Australia. Written testimony submitted by the officer of the watch and others tells clearly what happened to the steamer Kuranda.”

Melbourne is in Victoria, so after some searching online for the archives mentioned in the book and not finding them, I used the Ask a Librarian feature on the State Library Victoria website. I got a response only a few hours later asking for a little more information, which I supplied. I gave the gist of the story, including the details of the ship’s name, the captain’s name, and so forth, and I even gave the link to the digitized version of Sweeney’s book.

A few days later I got a response from a librarian named Jane. I’ll break it down for you.

Jane discovered there were two ships named Kuranda. One was broken up in 1936, the other wrecked in 1969.

In 1973, when this story was supposed to have taken place, there was no longer a colonial secretary in any Australian state. Therefore there is no Colonial Secretary’s File of the Archives from 1973 or after.

And there are no records of a Langley Smith who is a ship’s captain.

At this point I decided, reluctantly, that the story is probably fiction. I actually dug around looking at the table of contents of various 1970s magazines that might have published a fictional story about the giant jellyfish and claimed or implied it was real. I even thought about finding Sweeney’s email and just asking him if he remembered where he learned about this story. Sadly, it turns out that he died in 2019.

According to his obituary, Sweeney worked as a forest ranger for most of his life and was also a voracious reader. I don’t want to believe that a forest ranger who likes to read could possibly stretch the truth so I assume he read about the giant jellyfish somewhere, thought it was a true story, and added it to his book. This was long before the internet so he couldn’t just look stuff up online like I’m doing.

Just to make sure, though, let’s take a look at something else Sweeney mentions in his book. He writes, “Perhaps those aboard Kuranda were luckier than they realized. For the Times of London carried a story somewhat similar. Unfortunately, it ended in absolute horror.”

Back I went to newspapers.com, and by the way, a big thanks to the podcast’s Patreon supporters whose contributions allow me to subscribe. The Times isn’t listed on the site, which mostly focuses on American newspapers, but when I did a search for the name of the ship given in Sweeney’s book, the steamer Strathowen, during the 1870s when he reported it occurred, I got lots of hits.

Here’s an excerpt from The Freeman’s Journal of Dublin, Ireland from July 2, 1874.

“The octopus is likely to lose none of its popularity in the Brighton Aquarium, if we are to believe a strange story which comes from India. The master of the screw steamer Strathowen, on his way to Madras, observed a little schooner lying becalmed, and between him and her what he at first thought to be a bank of weed. The mass was perfectly quiet, but after a time began to move towards the schooner. Suddenly it struck her, and sunk her to the bottom. The master of the Strathowen put about, dropped boats, and saved five men from the sunken ship. James Floyd, the master, was rescued, and he tells his story in the most circumstantial fashion. The Pearl schooner, 150 tons, was bound from the Mauritius to Rangoon. On the 10th of May about five in the evening he observed a great mass rising slowly out of the sea. It remained stationary, and looked like the back of a huge whale. In a hapless moment he took his rifle and hit the monster, which began to lash about furiously. … All the men were then ordered up, and knives and hatchets and cutlasses were grasped, and all awaited the advent of the terrible stranger. The narrator proceeds: ‘We could now see a huge oblong mass moving by jerks just under the surface of the water, and an enormous train following; the oblong body was at least half the size of our vessel in length, and just as thick. The wake or train might have been 100 feet long. In the time that I have taken to write this, the brute struck us, and the ship quivered under the thud; in another moment, monstrous arms like trees seized the vessel, and she heeled over. In another second the monster was aboard, squeezed in between the two masts…. [T]he brute holding on by his arms, slipped his vast body overboard, and pulled the vessel down with him on her beam ends.” The general opinion amongst the sailors is that the big bank of sea-weed was an octopus, but we dare say a little confirmation of the story would be welcomed by us all whether naturalists or not.”

This is actually a brief and measured account of the story that appeared in the Times and which later hit the American papers. The longer account reads very much like fiction. The Dublin paper’s tone of interested skepticism matches what I feel, but the story does corroborate what Sweeney wrote in his book about sea monsters, so at least Sweeney wasn’t making stuff up.

I found a 2019 article in Skeptical Inquirer that did all the research about the octopus or squid sinking the Pearl. According to the author, there’s no record of a ship named the Strathowen or a captain named James Floyd. The author also points out that Jules Verne’s novel Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea was published in 1869, only five years before, and included an attack on the submarine by giant cephalopods.

Before you get too discouraged, though, the Skeptical Inquirer article also talks about a giant squid attacking a small boat, and that one actually happened.

In October 1873 in Conception Bay, Newfoundland, two fishermen and a boy were crossing the bay in a rowboat and noticed something floating in the water. As they neared it, it grabbed the boat with two tentacles and pulled so hard that the boat started to take on water. Luckily there was a hatchet in the boat, and the boy grabbed it and chopped off the tentacles. Later he sold the longer tentacle to a minister who lived nearby and who was interested in squid, which were often referred to as devil-fish back then. The minister, Moses Harvey, wrote about it later and reported that the partial tentacle was as thick as a man’s wrist and measured 19 feet long, or almost 6 meters.

Only a few weeks later Harvey bought a giant squid that had been tangled in a fishing net and hauled ashore. He arranged to get a photograph of it because he knew a lot of people wouldn’t believe how big it was otherwise, and his photo was the very first one taken of a giant squid. It wasn’t until 2004 that the first photographs of a living giant squid were taken.

We talked about the giant squid in episode 74 and we talked about some other types of huge squid in episode 235. I’m willing to bet that there are even larger squid living their quiet squid lives in the depths of the ocean, just as there are probably jellyfish larger than any human has ever seen. Let’s just hope they leave ships and boats alone.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or Podchaser, or just tell a friend. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us for as little as one dollar a month. This month’s Patreon episode is about two hikers in the Pyrenees Mountains who heard a ferocious, terrifying roar out of the darkness near their camp.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 247: Shapeshifters



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Happy Halloween! Let’s learn about some shapeshifters of folklore, including the werewolf and kitsune (thanks to Joel, Pranav, and Emma!), and a real-life shapeshifter.

Don’t forget the Kickstarter, as if I’d let you forget it: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/kateshaw/beyond-bigfoot-and-nessie

Further reading:

Folklore and Mythology

Breeding Butterflies

Further listening:

MonsterTalk (note: sometimes there’s adult language or really scary themes)

Sandman Stories Presents podcast

A death’s head hawkmoth, looking spooky:

A death’s head hawkmoth caterpillar, not looking spooky at all:

Show transcript:

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

It’s Halloween week and that means we need to talk about a truly spooky monster! Both Joel and Pranav suggested the werewolf a while back and Emily suggested the kitsune [kee-tsoo-neh], so let’s learn about shapeshifters and were-animals of all kinds. “Wer” is an Old English word that just means “man,” and just to get confusing, the word “man” used to refer to any person. The word “wif” referred to a woman, with wifman actually meaning woman. From those words we get the modern uses of wife, woman, and man, while “wer” is obsolete except in werewolf.

Let me derail myself from talking about language by reminding you about our Kickstarter! It ends pretty soon, on November 5, 2021, so if you’ve been thinking about backing the project this would be a great time. It’s to help me publish a book all about mystery animals, called Beyond Bigfoot and Nessie: Lesser-Known Mystery Animals from Around the World. The book has a foreword by Blake Smith of MonsterTalk, the science show about monsters, and if you don’t already listen to that podcast, it’s a whole lot of fun and informative too. Thanks to everyone who has already backed the project!

Now, Happy Halloween and on to the spookiness!

The important first question we need to answer is if werewolves really exist.

No. They do not exist outside of folklore and fiction, and I’ll explain why later so you don’t ever have to worry about werewolves or any other shapeshifters. But first, let’s learn what werewolves and kitsunes are.

Werewolves are supposed to be people who can turn into wolves. Depending on the story, this can happen when the person wants to turn into a wolf or it can happen during the full moon whether the person wants to be a wolf or not. Sometimes the person has a magical wolfskin or some other item that they put on in order to transform. Sometimes they have to cast a magic spell, but sometimes it’s a curse that someone else has inflicted on them. Some stories say that the only way to kill a werewolf is by shooting it through the heart with a silver bullet, especially one that’s been blessed by a priest.

The werewolf is mainly from European folklore, where for many centuries all werewolves were also supposed to be witches. Until about the 18th century in some areas, if someone accused you of being a werewolf, you could be put on trial as a witch. Lots of people were convicted of witchcraft and killed during waves of witch-hunts in various parts of Europe. Most of the people accused were women, especially elderly women, especially women who were widowed or single, especially women who owned land that someone else wanted. Hmm.

The kitsune is a creature of Asian folklore, especially from Japan, that’s basically a fox that can work magic. It’s sometimes said that all foxes can turn into humans if they want, especially older foxes. The older and more powerful a kitsune is, the more tails it’s supposed to have, up to nine. Kitsunes sometimes play tricks on people but they can also act as guardians and friends.

About the same time that old ladies were being accused of being werewolves in Europe, though, around the 15th to the 18th centuries, something similar happened in Japan. People were much more superstitious during this time and thought the kitsune was a dangerous goblin-like creature that could possess people and make them act like animals. These days the kitsune is back to being considered mostly a friendly trickster.

Werewolves weren’t the only shapeshifters in the folklore of Europe, although they were the most common. A German story collected in 1879 is about someone who could transform into a fox using an item called a strap.

“In the village of Dodow near Wittenburg there lived an old woman who possessed a fox strap. With its help she could transform herself into a fox, and thus her table never lacked for geese, ducks, and all kinds of poultry.

“Her grandchild knew about it, and one day when the schoolmaster was talking about magic in the school, the child told about the fox strap, and the next day brought it to school.

“The schoolmaster took it into his hand and unintentionally approached his head with it. Suddenly he was standing before the children, transformed into a fox. They broke out with a deafening noise. This so frightened the little schoolmaster that he jumped out the window with a single leap.

“He ran to the hill that lay near the village and there built himself a den.

“One day a great hunt was organized, and our fox was among those pursued by the huntsmen. A bullet hit him, and suddenly a schoolmaster was lying there before the bewildered huntsman. The bullet had struck the fox strap and ripped it apart.”

Witches were also supposed to be able to transform themselves into hares, cats, dogs, even geese in European folklore. In other parts of the world, though, folklore is full of people who can turn into different animals, and the animals are always ones local to the area. In various parts of Africa there are stories of people who transform into hyenas, leopards, and lions, while in various coastal areas of the world there are stories of seals, orcas, dolphins, and other water animals that can transform into people or which are humans in disguise.

The nagual is a story from many places in Mesoamerica, dating back to the ancient Aztecs and Olmecs and other people who lived in what is now Mexico and parts of Central and South America. The nagual was supposed to be someone who could shapeshift into a jaguar. Some people today still believe in the nagual the same way some people still believe in werewolves, and like many other shapeshifters it’s often connected with witches. Modern nagual stories are about witches who can transform into various animals at night, including owls, bats, turkeys, pumas, and even wolves. In some stories they’re thieves and murderers, while in other stories they help people.

Of course, not all folktales about shapeshifters are spooky. Sometimes they’re just meant to be funny, like this story from India.

Once there was a boy who herded buffaloes, and he noticed that at noon every day a dog would visit some nearby pools of water in a little valley. One day he hid to watch the dog. To his surprise, when the dog reached the water, it took its skin off and out stepped a beautiful young woman! She bathed in the pool, then put her dog-skin back on and left. The boy followed her to see what house she went to, then went back to watching his buffaloes.

Later that year the boy’s parents decided it was time for him to marry and began to look for a wife for him. But he told them he wanted a dog as his wife and even had a particular dog picked out. Everyone laughed at him, but he was determined to marry the dog and so his parents agreed.

The wedding took place and that night the new bridegroom pretended to fall asleep, and when the dog got up he watched to see what she would do. She took her dog-skin off and started to leave the house, but the groom jumped up and threw the dog-skin on the fire, where it burned up. His wife remained in her human form and they lived happily ever after.

Here’s another story, this one from Korea and published in 1911. Once a very poor old couple lived on the edge of a town, where they grew just enough rice to keep from starving. The old man caught fish to sell for extra money, but one day when he went to the lake, it was almost dried up and all the fish were gone. In the middle of the lake was a giant frog.

The old man shouted at the frog, “How dare you drink up the lake and eat up all the fish!” But the frog said, “You’ll thank me for it one day. Take me home and let me live in your house, and you’ll see how lucky you’ll be.”

The old man didn’t know what to do. Without the water from the lake, his rice would die, and without the fish from the lake, he had nothing to sell. He took the giant frog home.

The old man and his wife gave the frog the best room in their small house and the best food they had. In return, the frog turned out to be a very pleasant lodger and would talk and laugh with the couple long into the night, telling stories and singing songs.

After a week, the frog said he needed to take a wife, but she had to be beautiful and of noble birth. The old man went to the town’s magistrate, whose youngest daughter was the most beautiful woman in the land, and explained that a giant frog would like to marry the magistrate’s daughter.

The magistrate laughed at first, but when he realized the old man was serious, he ordered him to be beaten. But immediately, hail began to fall from the sky—first tiny hailstones, then bigger and bigger ones. The magistrate hastily changed his mind and said his daughter could marry the frog, and the hail stopped.

In this time and place, a bride went to her wedding with her eyes closed and painted over with wax so she couldn’t see her husband until after the ceremony. Imagine the bride’s horror, after the wax was removed and she took her first look at her new husband, when she discovered he was a giant frog! The bride was furious, but the frog said, “You’ll be glad you married me. Will you take these scissors and loosen the skin of my back? It’s too tight and hurts me.”

The bride was so angry that she took the scissors and cut the frog’s skin open all the way down his back. Then, to her astonishment, he wriggled right out of his skin and out stepped a handsome prince wearing fine silk clothes. He had been enchanted and the spell could only be broken when he married a human woman. He and his wife lived happily ever after, and the poor old couple who had helped him were given all the riches they desired and lived in a palace to the end of their days.

I could keep going forever, because there are a whole lot of stories about shapeshifters from around the world. If you want more folktales, I recommend the podcast “Sandman Stories Presents.” Each episode is another folktale. It’s really interesting and the host’s voice is soothing if you need a podcast to help you fall asleep.

Outside of folklore and mythology, shapeshifters aren’t real. To understand why, we have to look at a very different animal, the butterfly—or, since this is a Halloween episode and most moths are nocturnal, the moth. Let’s learn about an especially Halloween-y moth, the African death’s-head hawkmoth. It gets its name from a pattern on its back that looks sort of like a human skull. Its upper wings are black and its lower wings are usually yellowy-orange. Its wingspan is as much as 5 inches across, or 13 cm. It lives in parts of Africa and migrates to Europe for the summer.

The deaths-head hawkmoth caterpillar can grow up to 6 inches long, or 15 cm, and has a curved horn-like structure basically on its butt. After it hatches, it spends the next month or two eating leaves, especially the leaves of potato and tomato plants. During this time it will go through five stages of development, called instars, where it sheds its skin and grows larger. Finally, the caterpillar burrows into the ground and forms a little nesting chamber in the dirt. For the next few weeks it just sits in the chamber while moisture evaporates from its body and it forms a hard shell-like structure called a pupa.

Inside the pupa, the caterpillar transforms into a moth by breaking down its own body with digestive juices. The resulting goo of undifferentiated cells reforms into a moth body, a process that takes weeks. Finally the newly formed moth emerges from the shell of its pupa and from the ground, climbs onto a leaf or twig, and hangs there for a little while as its wings uncrumple and extend to their full size.

The transformation of a moth or butterfly, or other insects that go through the same process, is astounding and not fully understood. What we do know is that it takes massive amounts of energy. A caterpillar eats all the time in order to store up energy to metamorphose into a moth or butterfly. If there was an easier way, for instance if a caterpillar just had to cast a magic spell or put on a mothskin coat to transform, they would do it the easy way. But they don’t, because this is the most efficient way to transform from one body to another that nature has developed. It takes weeks, it’s messy and dangerous because the animal is helpless the whole time, and it only happens once in an insect’s lifetime.

So that’s that. Werewolf movies are a lot of fun to watch, especially this time of year, but you don’t have to lie awake at night afterwards worried that a werewolf is going to bite you.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or Podchaser, or just tell a friend. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us for as little as one dollar a month and get monthly bonus episodes. There are links in the show notes to join our mailing list and to our merch store.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 246: MOTHMAN!



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We’re getting so close to Halloween! This week we’ll learn about Mothman! Is it a moth? Is it a ghostly entity from another world? Is it a bird? (hint: it’s probably a bird)

Sandhill cranes (not mothmen):

A Canada goose (not mothman):

A great bustard (not mothman):

A green heron (definitely not mothman but look at those big cute feets and that telescoping neck):

A barn owl’s eyes reflecting red (photo taken from Frank’s Barn Owls and Mourning Doves, which has lots of lovely pictures):

Barn owls look like strange little people while standing up straight:

Barn owls got legs:

All owls got legs:

Show transcript:

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

This week for monster month, let’s cover a spooky monster with a silly name, mothman! We’ll go over the facts as clearly as possible and see if we can figure out what kind of creature mothman might be.

First, though, a quick reminder that our Kickstarter is still going on if you’re listening to this before Nov. 5, 2021! There’s a link in the show notes if you want to go look at it. We actually reached our funding goal on the very first day, so thank you all so much for backing the project, sharing the project on social media, or just putting up with me spamming you about it all month.

Now, on to mothman.

As far as anyone can tell, it all started in 1966, specifically November 12, outside of Clendenin, West Virginia, in the eastern United States. Five men were digging a grave in a cemetery outside of town when one of them saw something big fly low across the trees and right over their heads. The witness thought it looked like a man with wings, but with red eyes and an estimated wingspan of 10 feet, or 3 meters. This definitely happened, even though it sounds like the opening scene of a scary movie.

That story didn’t come to light until after the next sighting hit the newspapers and caused a lot of excitement. The second sighting took place only three days later near Point Pleasant, West Virginia, in the McClintic Wildlife Area. Locals call it the TNT area, since explosives were stored there during WWII. The TNT area is about 70 miles, or over 110 km, away from Clendenin, which has led to a lot of people discounting the gravedigger’s sighting. We’ll come back to that later, though.

On Nov. 15, 1966, two young couples decided to go out driving. They were bored and it was a cold, clear Tuesday night. Remember, this was the olden days when there weren’t as many things to do as there are today. You could watch TV, but only if there was something you wanted to watch on one of the three TV stations available in the United States. If you wanted to watch a movie, you had to go to a movie theater, and so on.

Anyway, Steve Mallette and his wife Mary and their friends Roger Scarberry and his wife Linda went out driving that Tuesday night. Toward midnight, as they drove through the TNT area, their car came over a hill and they saw a huge creature in front of them.

Some 35 years later, in July 2001, Linda gave an interview to the author of the book I used as my main reference for this episode, called Mothman: The Facts Behind the Legend. She mentioned details that aren’t in any of the newspaper articles from 1966, or that give a better explanation of what happened than the articles did. There’s always a possibility that after 35 years, her memory wasn’t accurate, so I’m mostly going by the newspaper articles for my information, but she does mention something interesting in that interview.

She says this about the very first sighting of the creature:

We had just topped a hill in the TNT area, and when the headlights of our car hit it, it looked directly at us, as if it was scared. It had one of its wings caught in a guide wire near a section of road close to the power plant, and was pulling on its wings with its hands, trying to free itself. Its hands were really big. It was really scared. We stopped the car and sat still while it was trying to free itself from the wire. We didn’t sit there long, just long enough to scare it, I think. It seemed to think we were going to hurt it. We were all screaming, ‘Go! Go! Go!’ But, we couldn’t perform the actual action of leaving the scene. It was like we were hypnotized. It finally got its wing loose from the wire and ran into the power plant. I felt sorry for it.”

In the original reports from 1966, the couples said the creature was 6 or 7 feet tall, or 1.8 to 2.1 meters, with a wingspan of 10 feet, or 3 meters. Its eyes were big and glowed red in the car’s headlights and its wings were white and angel-like. Its body was gray. While it was a clumsy runner, it could fly at an estimated 100 mph, or 161 km/hour.

Let’s stop right here before we talk about what else happened that spooky night. A ten-foot wingspan is big for a bird but not unheard-of. The trumpeter swan, several species of vulture, Andean condor, Marabou stork, two species of pelican, and several species of albatross have wingspans of at least ten feet across. Some of those have wingspans of 12 feet, or 3.7 meters.

The heaviest bird that can still fly is probably the great bustard, which has a wingspan of up to 8 feet, or 2.5 meters. A big male can weigh up to 44 lbs, or 18 kg. Mothman is described as a man-sized creature with wings. Even if it was stick-thin, a person that tall would weigh far too much to get off the ground with a wingspan barely longer than its armspan.

So that’s one thing to keep in mind. Let’s find out what happened next on that cold November night.

After their initial fright, Roger Scarberry, who was driving, naturally decided to get out of the TNT area. He headed back to town. The newspaper articles report that the strange creature followed them for some distance, gliding above their car. All four of the people in the car were frightened, and after about half an hour they decided to go to the police. In her 2001 interview, Linda said,

“We wouldn’t have went to the police, but it kept following us. We saw it sitting in different places as we drove back down Route 62 toward Point Pleasant, and saw it sitting in various places once we got in town, too. It was as if it was letting us know that it could catch up to us, no matter where we went, or how fast we went there. When we first left the TNT area, it was sitting on the sign when we went around the bend and when the headlights hit it, it went straight up into the air, very fast. That’s when it followed us and hit the top of the car two or three times while we were going over one hundred miles per hour down Route 62, toward Point Pleasant. The last place we saw it was sitting on top of the flood wall. It was sitting crouched down, with its arms around its legs and its wings tucked against its back. It didn’t seem scared, then. I guess it figured out that we weren’t going to hurt it, so it followed us. We didn’t know what else to do but go to the police station.”

So, the people in the car initially saw the creature with its wing caught in a guide wire, and when it got its wing free, it ran clumsily into a nearby abandoned building. But Linda says they then saw it as they were driving away from the TNT area, presumably just a few minutes later, and that it was sitting on a sign and flew straight up in the air when the headlights lit it up.

Next, she said the car was going about 100 mph but the creature was flying above it, keeping pace, and even hit the top of the car a few times. No one said they had their head out the window to look up, so how did they know the creature was flying over their car? Presumably they assumed that’s what it was doing because it thumped the roof of their car a few times—but how do they actually know that’s what happened? They heard some thumps and made an assumption because they were scared, but at 100 mph on a back road a car is naturally going to be making a lot of noise and shaking a lot as it goes over uneven pavement. Not to mention that none of the newspaper reports mention that the creature hit the roof of their car.

I don’t think the creature was ever flying above their car. I also think the creature they saw initially was not the same creature they saw fly up from the sign. I especially don’t think the thing they saw repeatedly as they drove to town was the same one as the others. But we’ll come back to that again too in a few minutes.

The story appeared in the papers on Wednesday, November 16 and that evening, half the town went to the TNT area to look for the creature. They spotted it, too. Four people reported seeing a huge bird at 10pm on Wednesday night. The creature stared at them as they sat in their car, then flew away. Reporters also turned up another sighting of a creature with red-reflecting eyes a few hours’ drive away, also on Tuesday night, and the gravedigger’s story from several days before. By Thursday night an estimated 1,000 people arrived at the TNT area to look for the creature.

By the end of November 1966, though, things were quieting down. A November 22 article in the Huntington Herald-Dispatch is titled “Mason Bird-Monster Presumed Gone Now.” I’ll read part of the article.

“It was a week ago today that the first sighting was reported of a large red-eyed winged creature in the McClintic area. Since then there have been about 10 or more similar reports.

“The latest report was by four teenaged youths who said they saw a large bird with red eyes fly away from their car at a very high rate of speed. This was 3 a.m. Sunday.”

The article goes on to quote various authorities, including a wildlife biologist who suggested it might be a sandhill crane. It also ends with the suggestion that the sightings may lead to an eventual legend and tourism draw, which is exactly what happened, although it took almost 50 years for it to really gain traction.

The sandhill crane theory is repeated in a lot of newspapers and occasionally crops up today, so let’s learn a little bit about the sandhill crane and see if it makes any sense as a solution.

The sandhill crane is a big bird. A big male can have a wingspan of almost 8 feet, or 2.3 meters. It’s mostly gray in color and since it has long legs, it can stand 4 ½ feet tall, or 135 cm. In the dark, this might look like a man-sized gray creature with angel wings.

But actually, the sandhill crane theory is nonsense and here’s why. First, sandhill cranes don’t migrate through West Virginia. By mid-November the nearest sandhill cranes are in their wintering grounds in Alabama or Florida, where they congregate in wetlands in the thousands, or on their way to those areas from their breeding grounds in Canada. Second, sandhill cranes are not nocturnal. They’re not active at night at all. They also aren’t clumsy on the ground—quite the opposite, since they’re well known for the elegant dances mated pairs perform. Third, the sandhill crane has a long neck, a small head, and a long bill, very different from the description given of Mothman. I’ve seen sandhill cranes and they’re beautiful birds, but there’s nothing spooky about them.

Other birds were suggested as culprits too, including a Canada goose, an Andean condor, and an oversized green heron. The Andean condor has never been seen in North America and isn’t nocturnal anyway, plus it looks like a gigantic vulture, which it is. The Canada goose is a common, well-known bird that has a long neck but short legs, and isn’t nocturnal. The green heron is a small and humble bird with a wingspan barely more than two feet across, or 68 cm. It has long yellow legs with really big feet and a long, heavy bill.

It’s worth noting that none of the newspaper reports mention a bill, although they do stress that the creature had big eyes that glowed red in the light. The head isn’t prominent either, with one newspaper quoting Roger Scarberry as saying the head was “not an outstanding characteristic.”

By the end of November, newspapers had started calling the creature Mothman more and more, and that’s the name that stuck even though it didn’t actually look like a moth. It did look like another animal, though, and the newspapers even picked up on that by the end of December 1966, when a snowy owl was shot in the area.

The snowy owl is also a large bird, mostly snow-white although young birds have black and gray markings. Its eyes are yellow. Its wingspan can be as much as six feet across, or 1.8 meters. It lives throughout the Arctic and nearby regions and is migratory, sometimes traveling long distances to find food. It mostly eats small animals like lemmings although it will also kill birds, including ducks. It’s rare for one to stray as far south as West Virginia, but the bird killed in December 1966 fits the description of a snowy owl. Its wingspan was almost five feet across, or 1.5 meters.

The newspapers declared that the snowy owl was the culprit behind the mothman sightings. Linda doesn’t agree according to her interview, and I actually don’t either. I do think it’s an owl, just not a snowy owl.

I don’t even think mothman was inspired by a very big owl, like a great horned owl. I think it was a much smaller, more common bird. The barn owl is common throughout much of the world, including West Virginia. Its wingspan is 3.5 feet across at most, or just over one meter.

The reason I think that mothman was a barn owl is because the four people in the car saw several of them around midnight, although they assumed they were seeing the same creature over and over. It’s nocturnal, although it’s also sometimes active at dawn and dusk or even in daytime, and it hunts low over the ground listening for the sound of small animals like mice. Because it flies so low, the barn owl is sometimes hit by cars and would certainly be vulnerable to getting a wing caught in the guide wire of a power pole.

The barn owl has a heart-shaped face that is usually white. Its body is pale underneath and gray or brown above. It doesn’t have ear tufts. Its eyes are large and completely black, but they reflect red at night. It also has an inconspicuous beak with a ridge of feathers at its base that can look like the suggestion of a human-like nose. In other words, it can look superficially like it has a human head and face, especially when seen at night in the glare of headlights, but weird and eerie because it doesn’t quite match up with human features.

One thing people usually don’t realize is that owls actually have quite long legs. An owl standing with its legs extended and its body straight genuinely looks like a tiny, creepy person with wings instead of arms. The male barn owl even shows off his legs and his flying ability in a courtship display called the moth flight, where he hovers in front of a female with his legs dangling.

The gravedigger who supposedly saw a manlike creature with wings fly over him only came forward after the story hit the newspapers. People who doubted it was the same creature because it was seen so far away from the TNT area are assuming Mothman was a single entity when it was probably different birds being seen in different places.

If you’re still doubtful, let’s go back to Linda’s interview that we quoted earlier. She says repeatedly that she thought the creature was scared and she also mentions she felt sorry for it. We can infer several things from these statements. First, Linda is obviously a compassionate person who can feel sorry for a creature even when she’s terrified by it. Second, she must be honest because she hasn’t changed her story to make Mothman seem menacing or dangerous. She seems to be reporting exactly what she remembers seeing and feeling. Third, Mothman does not actually seem to be very big.

When you’re scared, especially if it’s dark, anything threatening or out of place seems larger than it really is, especially when you think back on it. Combine that with most people not knowing that an owl has really long legs and not knowing how huge a big bird’s wings really are when they’re unfolded, and that’s the recipe for a monster story.

Linda does specifically say the creature had huge hands that it was using to pull at its wing. My suggestion is that the owl was standing on one leg, which was extended to its full length because it didn’t want to put any more pressure on its wing than it had to. It was either using its other foot to pull at its wing or, more likely to my mind, to try and grab the guide wire to hoist itself up to a better angle. In addition to having very long legs, owls have huge talons, and in the dark that huge talon would have looked like a human-like hand. With one leg on the ground and one leg stretched up toward its wing, Linda naturally assumed it had the ordinary compliment of two legs and two arms in addition to two wings.

Once the creature freed its wing, it didn’t fly away. Its wing was probably hurt and it ran toward the nearest shelter, an abandoned building. The witnesses said it was a clumsy runner, and that’s true of owls too. Their talons are made for grabbing, not walking on.

Then, a few minutes later, the witnesses saw the creature—or something that looked like it—on a sign as they left the TNT area. I don’t know the size of the sign but even if it was a big sign, would a human-sized creature really perch on it? It flew straight up, which also seems unlikely for a creature as heavy as a human six feet tall. Heavy birds can’t fly straight up, but an owl can because it’s actually not very heavy at all. It looks big because owls have such thick, fluffy feathers.

Later, Linda reports seeing the creature—or, again, something that looked like it—sitting on a wall. She says “It was sitting crouched down, with its arms around its legs and its wings tucked against its back.” This actually sounds like the way an owl usually sits except of course that an owl doesn’t have arms. Linda thought it had arms so she would have assumed they were wrapped around its legs, which is why she couldn’t see them.

Obviously the people who saw the creature were terrified. That’s a natural reaction to seeing something at night that you can’t identify and think might be dangerous and even supernatural. I don’t think any of the initial witnesses were lying or stupid or drunk, or anything like that. They had a frightening encounter they couldn’t understand, and that’s nothing to be ashamed of. Last year I woke up in the middle of the night and heard a little girl’s voice say, “Oh, hello there!” in the darkness of my bedroom in my locked house with no other people in the house with me. It was absolutely terrifying–but then I woke up better and realized that I’d been dreaming and my cat Dracula was snoring, and as I woke up my brain interpreted the little cat snores as a person talking. That doesn’t mean I was stupid and that doesn’t change the fact that I was really scared even after I realized what happened.

The trouble is that many people, after they’ve had a frightening experience like this, refuse to consider that they might have been wrong about what they saw. They say things like, “I know what I saw!” without taking into account that maybe their brain was doing its best to fill in details so they could better evaluate the potential danger. You brain is hard-wired to give you as much information about danger as possible so you can decide whether to run away or prepare to fight or just laugh and tell your little brother he didn’t actually scare you. If you can’t see details properly because it’s dark and the car’s headlights are making weird shadows, your brain fills in the details based on what you can see (and what you expect to see), and it’s not always correct. If in doubt, your brain assumes the thing you’re seeing is dangerous. That’s how our far-distant ancestors survived when movement in tall grass might actually have been a cave bear and not just the wind.

In other words, after a scary experience is over and you’re thinking back about what happened, ask yourself if it’s more likely that you saw a flying man with wings and red eyes, or if you saw an owl and your brain added other details to convince you to run just in case you were in danger.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 245: The Devil-Pig



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Don’t forget the Kickstarter, as if I’d let you forget it: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/kateshaw/beyond-bigfoot-and-nessie

Our next monster for monster month is the devil-pig! It’s probably not a devil although it might be a pig.

The Asian tapir and its remarkable snoot:

The New Guinea carving:

The “gazeka” as imagined in the early 20th century:

Domestic and feral hogs are common in New Guinea:

Show transcript:

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

Don’t forget that our Kickstarter is still going on to fund the mystery animals book Beyond Bigfoot & Nessie! There’s a link in the show notes so you can click through and look at the different tiers available. We’re doing really well so far, so thanks to those of you who have already backed the project or just shared it with your friends! https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/kateshaw/beyond-bigfoot-and-nessie

Our next monster month episode is about a mystery animal from New Guinea. We’ve learned a lot about New Guinea’s birds this year, and it comes up repeatedly in other episodes too because it’s such a huge island with varied ecosystems. It also has steep mountains that have hardly been explored by scientists or even locals. If you want to learn more about New Guinea itself, I recommend episode 206, which is the first of our episodes this year about strange birds of New Guinea. But this week, let’s learn about the devil-pig! It’s also sometimes called the gazeka, but we’ll come back to that later.

The story starts in 1875, when a man named Alfred O. Walker sent a letter to the journal Nature about a discovery on the north coast of Papua New Guinea. It wasn’t the discovery of an animal itself but a big pile of dung from an unknown animal. The dung pile was so big that the people who found it thought it must be from some kind of rhinoceros. The problem is that New Guinea doesn’t have any rhinos.

The dung pile was discovered by a British expedition led by Lt. Sidney Smith and Captain Moresby from the ship H.M.S. Basilisk. After the report was published in Nature, a German zoologist wrote to say he’d been to New Guinea too and that the people living there had told him about a big animal with a long snout, which they referred to as a giant pig. It supposedly stood 6 feet tall at the shoulder, or 1.8 meters, and was very rare.

If you do a search for the devil-pig online, you’ll see it called the gazeka in a lot of places. Let’s discuss the word gazeka, because it doesn’t have anything to do with New Guinea. In fact, it comes from an adaptation of a French musical called The Little Michus. I bet you didn’t expect that. The musical is about two girls with the last name of Michu. One girl was given to the Michu family as a baby by her father, a general, who had to leave the country. The Michus had a baby daughter of the same age, and one day without thinking the father decided to give both babies a bath at the same time—and mixed them up. So no one knew which girl was which, but they grew up as sisters who think they’re twins and are devoted to each other. The play takes place when they’re both seventeen and the general suddenly shows up demanding his daughter back.

It’s a funny musical and was popular in the original French in 1897, but in 1905 an English translation was performed in London and was a huge hit. It ran for 400 performances and became part of the pop culture of the day. So where does the gazeka come in?

George Graves was a famous English comic actor, and he added an extra line or two to the play to get a laugh. He tells about a drunken explorer who thought he had seen a strange animal called the gazeka while under the influence of whiskey. The play was so popular, and the gazeka was considered so funny, that the idea just took off. The theater manager ran a competition for people to make drawings of the gazeka, and the winning drawing was made into a design that appeared on little charms, toys, and even in some advertisements for Perrier. The gazeka was even spun off into its own little song and dance in another play.

That was in 1905. In spring of 1906 an explorer called Captain Charles A.W. Monckton led an expedition to Papua New Guinea, and on May 10 two members of the team were sent to investigate some tracks the expedition had found the previous day. The team members included an army private named Ogi and a village constable called Oina who acted as Ogi’s guide. The two became separated at some point, and while he was looking for Oina, Ogi stumbled across two weird animals grazing in a grassy clearing. The devil-pigs!

The animals were only sort of piglike. Later Ogi reported that they were dark in color with a patterned coat, cloven hooves, horse-like tail, and a long snout. They stood about 3.5 feet tall, or 106 centimeters, and were 5 feet long, or 1.5 meters. He shot at one but missed, probably because he was so scared, but he claimed later that his hands were shaking because he was cold.

The tracks the two men were investigating were of a large cloven-footed animal. Captain Monckton thought the tracks must be made by the devil-pigs.

The story hit the newspapers while the gazeka craze was still popular. People started calling the devil-pigs Monckton’s Gazeka. Monckton didn’t appreciate this, because he didn’t like being compared to someone who saw imaginary animals while drunk.

So what could the devil-pig actually be?

One guess is that it was an unknown species of tapir. We talked about the tapir in episode 18, where I chose the only pronunciation of tapir that no one else in the world uses. The tapir looks kind of like a pig but it’s actually much more closely related to horses and rhinos. It has four toes on its front legs, three on its hind legs, and each toe has a large nail that looks like a little hoof. It also has a rounded body with a pronounced rump, a stubby little tail, and a long head with a short but prehensile trunk.

There are four known species of tapir alive today, three in Central and South America and one in Asia. It’s a shy, largely solitary, mostly nocturnal animal that prefers forests near rivers or streams. It spends a lot of time in water, eating water plants and cooling off when it’s hot. It swims well and can use its short trunk as a snorkel. Technically the trunk is called a proboscis, and the tapir mostly uses it to help gather plants.

As far as we know, there have never been any tapirs in New Guinea. The only tapir that lives in Asia today is the Asian tapir, which is mostly white or pale gray with black or dark gray forequarters and legs. It lives in lowland rainforests in Thailand, Sumatra, Myanmar, and a few other places, but not New Guinea. It’s the largest species of tapir alive today, up to 3 feet 7 inches tall, or 110 centimeters.

In 1962 some stone carvings were discovered in Papua New Guinea. The carvings are a few thousand years old and depict a strange animal. It looks a little like an anteater sitting up on its bottom with its front paws on its round belly, although there’s no tail. Its ears are small, its eyes are large, and it has a long nose with large nostrils at the end. It’s usually said to depict the long-beaked echidna, a small spiny monotreme mammal that lives in New Guinea, although it doesn’t look a lot like one.

In 1987 a mammologist named James Menzies looked at the carvings and made a suggestion. Instead of an echidna, he thought the carvings might depict a marsupial called a palorchestid diprotodont. The word diprotodont may make you perk your ears up, because we talked about it earlier this year in episode 224. Palorchestes is a genus of marsupials related to the diprotodont we talked about in that episode, but generally smaller, with the largest species being about the size of a horse. It had large claws on the front feet and a long tongue like a giraffe’s. Until recently, it was thought to have a short proboscis like a tapir, but a June 2020 study indicates it probably had prehensile lips instead. It used all these adaptations to strip leaves from branches.

Since Palorchestes probably didn’t have a trunk after all, and since its fossil remains have only been found in Australia, and since it went extinct around 13,000 years ago, the carvings probably don’t depict it. It probably also doesn’t depict a tapir. New Guinea is close to Australia and all of its native mammals are marsupials. The tapir is a placental mammal. That doesn’t mean a species of tapir didn’t once live on the island, but we have no fossil remains and the carvings don’t resemble a tapir all that much.

One animal that definitely lives in New Guinea is the pig, which was introduced to the island thousands of years ago by humans. Wild boars might be responsible for the huge cloven hoof prints found by explorers in New Guinea.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t an unknown hoofed animal hiding on the island, though. New Guinea is still not very well explored by scientists or even locals, so there are certainly animals living there that are completely unknown to science. Maybe one is a giant tapir or some other, more mysterious animal.

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

Thanks for listening!


Kickstarter bonus! The Ningen



THE KICKSTARTER IS LIVE AND I’M SO EXCITED!

The Kickstarter campaign is HERE! If you’re not sure how Kickstarter works, that’s what we talk about at the beginning of this episode. I then go over the different rewards available and finally we have a very short chapter from the audiobook.

Kickstarter FAQ

I talk about the Kickstarter for way too long, so if you don’t care you can jump ahead to 9:56 to listen to the actual chapter. Also, I am definitely going to re-record that chapter for the actual audiobook because I recorded it before I made adjustments to my mic.

One of the pictures of a ningen you’ll find online. It’s art, not a photograph:

Show transcript:

Welcome to a special bonus episode of Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

The Kickstarter funded successfully so there’s no need to have a ten-minute explanation of the Kickstarter tiers. I’ve cut all that out so anyone who wants to listen to this little bonus episode about the Ningen can do so without fast-forwarding a lot first. This is one of the new chapters from the book Beyond Bigfoot & Nessie: Lesser-Known Mystery Animals from Around the World, although I will be re-recording it for the audiobook version now that I’ve learned a little more about making the audio sound good.

The Ningen

The seas around Antarctica are cold and stormy. To humans it seems unhospitable, a deadly ocean surrounding an icy landmass. But the Antarctic Ocean is home to many animals, from orcas and penguins to blue whales and colossal squid, not to mention the migratory birds, cold-adapted fish, and many small animals that live in the depths. New animals are constantly being discovered, but it’s also not very well explored.

Stories from Japanese whalers who visit the area supposedly tell of a strange creature called the ningen, which is occasionally seen in the freezing ocean. It’s usually white and can be the size of a big person or the size of a baleen whale. It’s long and relatively slender, and while details vary, it’s generally said to have a human-like face, or at least large eyes and a slit-like mouth. It also has arms instead of flippers and either a whale-like tail or human-like legs.

These stories don’t come from long ago, though. The first post about the ningen appeared in 2002 in a Japanese forum thread about giant fish. Interest in the topic died down within a few months, until 2007 when the ningen was the subject of both a manga and a magazine article.

The ningen didn’t start appearing in English language sites until 2010. While it’s never been as well-known as many so-called cryptids, it has been the subject of short stories and books, creepy art, a J-pop song, and lots of speculation.

The question, of course, is whether the ningen is a real animal or a hoax. The initial post was made by an anonymous woman who claimed to be repeating something an unnamed whaler friend told her he’d experienced, and her friend also said that the Japanese government was baffled, and that the government was engaged in a cover-up so no one else would learn about the mystery animal. This has all the hallmarks of a modern urban legend. I don’t think the ningen is a real animal.

Just for fun, though, if it was a real animal, what might it be? The beluga whale is the first thing I thought of, since it’s white, grows around 18 feet long, or 5.5 meters, and has a small rounded head with features that look sort of human-like. But the beluga whale only lives in the Arctic, not the Antarctic. That’s the opposite side of the world.

Of the whales that do live around the Antarctic for at least part of the year, none are white all over and most are dark gray or black. Very rarely, though, a whale is born with albinism, which means its skin lacks pigment. As a result, it looks white or very pale gray. An albino humpback whale called Migaloo has been spotted off the coast of Australia repeatedly since 1991, for instance.

An albinistic bowhead or right whale living in the Antarctic might be seen occasionally by whalers who don’t realize they’re all seeing the same individual. Both the bowhead and right whales have deep, rounded rostrums that could potentially look like a human-like face—slightly, if you were looking at it through fog or darkness, and were already aware of the story of the ningen.

Then again, if the ningen is a real animal, it might be a whale that’s completely unknown to science. There are still a lot of beaked whales we know almost nothing about, and new species of beaked whale are occasionally discovered. The ningen might not even be a whale at all but something else entirely.

Still, while it’s a fun story, it’s probably not real. You can’t believe everything you read on the internet.

Thanks for supporting the podcast and the Kickstarter! When we reach 100 backers on the Kickstarter, we’ll have a second bonus episode with another of the new chapters from the audiobook, even if all 100 pledges are just for a dollar.

Thanks for listening!