Episode 149: A Zebra with SPOTS



SOMEONE forgot their flash drive at work, so here’s a short but hopefully interesting episode about a mystery animal, a zebra with spots instead of stripes!

Ordinary zebras:

A SPOTTED ZEBRA?!??

A BABY SPOTTED ZEBRA?!?

Show transcript:

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

This episode was going to be another listener suggestion, but I left my flash drive at work that has all my research and the half-written script on it. So that episode will be next week, and instead this week we’re going to learn about the mysterious spotted zebra.

Spotted zebras are occasionally, uh, spotted in the wild. They’re very rare but it’s well documented. A spotted zebra was photographed in a herd of ordinary plains zebras in Zambia in 1968, and much more recently, in September of 2019, a spotted zebra foal was photographed in Kenya.

A tour guide named Antony Tira in the Masai Mara National Reserve saw an unusual-looking zebra foal in the herd. Instead of the familiar black and white stripes of other zebras, with white belly, the foal was black all over except for small white spots. The foal has been nicknamed Tira after its discoverer.

Zebras, of course, are famous for their black and white stripes. But if a genetic mutation causes the ordinary striped pattern to be broken up, it can look like spots, or in some individuals narrow streaks. The only problem is, the spots on the zebra are white on a black background. You’d think that it would be the black stripes that would end up as black spots on a white background.

But, it turns out, we’re looking at zebras wrong. Zebras aren’t white with black stripes, they’re black with white stripes. So when a rare zebra is born with spots instead of stripes, the spots are white on a black background.

When a zebra embryo is developing inside its mother, its coat is entirely black. It develops its stripes late in its development, when skin cells form the pigments that will give the hair its color. The white fur grows from cells that contain less pigment than cells that grow black hair. Not only that, underneath the zebra’s hair, its skin is black.

Zebras live in parts of southern Africa on grasslands and savannas in both tropical and temperate areas. The common plains zebra is one of three species alive today, with a number of subspecies. It typically grows a little over four feet tall at the shoulder, or 1.3 meters, or about 12 hands high if you are measuring it the way you measure its close relation, the horse. It eats grass and other tough plants and lives in small herds. Each zebra’s stripe pattern is as unique as a fingerprint.

A zebra’s stripes serve several purposes. It helps camouflage the animal, which sounds absurd at first since there’s nothing quite as eye-catching as a zebra. But a bunch of striped animals milling about together can make it hard to figure out where one zebra ends and the next one begins. The pattern disrupts the body’s outline, too, which means a predator may have trouble figuring out where exactly the zebra is, especially when it’s partially hidden by tall grass and brush.

Not only that, the white hair helps reflect some of the sun’s heat away from the zebra. Dark colors absorb heat, and the zebra spends a lot of time in the hot sun. But having dark hair and skin helps keep the zebra from getting sunburned. That’s right, animals can get sunburned just like humans, although their fur generally helps block much of the sun’s infrared rays, which are the part of the light spectrum that causes sunburn. The dark pigment in the skin, called melanin, also helps block some of the infrared, stopping it from penetrating deeper into the skin.

Results of a study published in early 2019 shows that the cooling effects of the zebra’s coat are more complicated than just color, though. The zebra can raise the black hairs of its coat while the white hairs remain flat. The researchers propose that this helps transfer heat from the skin to the surface of the hairs by causing tiny air currents to form, which helps the zebra’s sweat evaporate more quickly and cool the body.

But another, more surprising reason for the stripes is to deter biting flies, especially the tsetse fly and the horsefly. Both carry diseases that can be fatal to zebras and other animals. Researchers had long noticed that zebras seem to be bitten less by flies than other animals are, and studies show that this is actually the case. In a study published at the beginning of 2019, some horses were given zebra-striped coats and monitored to see how flies reacted. It turns out that while the flies still approached the horses, they didn’t land on them nearly as often as they should have. Sometimes they’d even bump into the horse before flying away again without landing.

Researchers are still working out why. One hypothesis is that the tiny air currents caused by the raised black hairs make the air around the zebra just unstable enough that flies have trouble landing on the animal. Another is that the flies are attracted to linearly polarized light, which is disrupted by the stripes and make it hard for a fly to land on the zebra. In effect, they can’t actually see where the surface of the body actually is because their little fly eyes are dazzled by the pattern.

All this means that spotted zebras are at a disadvantage compared to ordinary striped zebras. The genetic mutation that causes the spots is called pseudomelanism, which basically causes more skin cells to produce more pigment than they should. The opposite of pseudomelanism is partial albinism, where the skin cells produce less pigment than they should. This results in a zebra that looks like it has cream-colored or pale gold stripes on a white background. Occasionally true albino zebras are born, where none of the cells produce pigment and the zebra is pure white without stripes at all.

Hopefully, little Tira will be fine despite having spots instead of stripes. The spotted zebra foal is definitely getting a lot of attention from photographers, tourists, and scientists.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any Es. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. We also have a Patreon at Patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us and get twice-monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 148: Gastric Brooding and Other Frogs



Thanks for Merike for suggesting the gastric brooding frog and to Hally for suggesting newly-discovered frogs!!

The Gastric brooding frog:

Darwin’s frog, round boi:

The Surinam toad carries her eggs and tadpoles in the skin of her back:

Kermit the frog and a newly discovered glass frog:

Show transcript:

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

This week we have another fantastic listener suggestion, about frogs! Merike is a herpetologist from Estonia, who suggested the gastric brooding frog, and another listener, Hally, also wanted to learn about some of the new frog species discovered recently.

The gastric brooding frog is native to eastern Australia, specifically Queensland. There are two species, and both of them live in creeks in separate rainforests. The habitat is specific and small, and unfortunately both species went extinct less than forty years ago. Researchers aren’t sure why they went extinct, but it was probably due to pollution and habitat loss.

The gastric brooding frog was a slender frog, with the northern gastric brooding frog being about three inches long, or about 8 cm, while the southern gastric brooding frog was about half that size. Females were larger than males. It was grey or brown-gray in color with some darker and lighter patches on the back with a lighter belly. During the day it spent most of its time at the water’s edge, hidden in leaf litter or among rocks, although it generally only fully came out of the water when it was raining. It ate insects and may have hibernated in winter.

As you may have guessed from its name, the gastric brooding frog had a unique way of taking care of its eggs. After the eggs were fertilized, the female would actually swallow the eggs and keep them in her stomach while they developed. Even after the eggs hatched into tadpoles, they stayed in the mother’s stomach. As they grew larger, the stomach also grew larger, until it pretty much filled up the mother’s insides, to the point where she couldn’t even use her lungs to breathe. Fortunately many frogs, including the gastric brooding frog, can absorb a certain amount of oxygen through the skin. Finally the tadpoles metamorphosed into little frogs, at which point the mother regurgitated one or a few of them at a time, or sometimes all of them at once if she felt threatened.

So how did the mother keep from digesting her own eggs or tadpoles? How did she eat when her stomach was full of babies? How did the babies eat?

The jelly around the gastric brooding frog’s eggs contained prostaglandin E2, also called PGE2, which causes the stomach to stop producing hydrochloric acid. That’s a digestive acid, so once the eggs were inside the stomach, the stomach basically stopped stomaching. There is some speculation that the first eggs the mother frog swallowed actually got digested, but then the acid production stopped and the rest of the eggs remained. Once the eggs hatched, the tadpoles also produced PGE2 in the mucus in their gills.

The tadpoles continued to live off the yolk sac from their eggs as they developed, and in fact their mouths weren’t even connected to their gut yet. As for the mother, she just didn’t eat until the babies were developed and released into the water on their own, which took about six weeks.

The gastric brooding frog is the only frog known to raise its babies this way, but other frog species have interesting variations of the usual way frogs reproduce. Most female frogs lay their eggs, and then the male fertilizes them. But about a dozen species of frog have developed internal fertilization, where the female retains the eggs in her body until the male fertilizes them. The tailed frog from California in the United States, in North America, gets its name from a structure that looks like a tail, but is actually an extension of the cloaca. That’s the opening used for both excretion and reproduction. Only males have the tail, and it works like a penis to fertilize the female’s eggs without her needing to lay the eggs first. Once they’re fertilized, she can choose just the right spot to lay the eggs.

Another weird way frogs take care of their eggs is something that Darwin’s frog does. Darwin’s frog lives in Chile and Argentina in South America, and grows to a little over an inch long, or 3 cm. It has a pointy snout that gives its head a wedge  shape something like a leaf, which helps keep it camouflaged on the forest floor. The female lays her eggs in damp leaf litter, and after the male fertilizes them he guards them for several weeks. When they start to move as they develop, the male swallows them—but instead of his stomach, he stores them in his vocal sac. That’s the expandable sac in the frog’s throat that males use to make their croaking sounds by filling the sac with air.

The eggs hatch into tadpoles, which the male carries around as they grow. They live off their egg yolks, but they also eat secretions from the lining of the vocal sac. Once the tadpoles metamorphose into little frogs, they hop out of the male’s mouth and are on their own. Until then, the male doesn’t eat.

The Surinam toad is a species of frog. Remember that all toads are frogs but not all frogs are toads. It lives in wetlands and forests in northern South America, and has a radically different way of keeping its eggs safe. The Surinam toad is a flattened, broad toad that can grow up to 8 inches long, or 20 cm, and looks a lot like a dead leaf. It lives in slow-moving water. Unlike other frogs it doesn’t have a tongue, so instead of catching insects with its sticky tongue, it grabs them with its hands. It’s sometimes called the star-fingered toad because its long, thin fingers have tiny star-shaped appendages that help it catch prey. Instead of croaking, male Surinam toads make a clicking noise by moving a small bone in the throat back and forth.

When the female is ready to lay her eggs, a male clasps her around the middle like most frogs do while mating. But instead of just releasing her eggs and letting the male release sperm to fertilize them, the female makes a sort of flipping movement in the water as she releases a few eggs at a time. The male fertilizes them, then presses them onto her back. The skin of the female’s back grows up over the eggs, embedding them in the skin in little pockets. When the tadpoles hatch they stay in these little pockets as they develop. They only leave when they’ve metamorphosed into tiny toads, at which point they emerge and live on their own. The mother then sheds the layer of skin on her back where her babies lived.

A frog described in 2014 that lives in parts of South Asia gives birth to tadpoles instead of laying eggs. It’s a species of fanged frog, which are frogs that do actually have teeth unlike most frogs. Limnonectes larvaepartus grows about 1 ½ inches long, or just under 4 cm. The eggs are fertilized internally, but instead of laying them the female keeps them in her oviducts until they hatch. They remain inside her until they no longer have any yolk left to nourish them, at which point the mother releases them into a slow-moving stream.

Lots of other interesting frogs have been discovered recently. A new frog discovered in southern India in 2018 was recently determined to be a member of its own genus. It’s called the narrow-mouthed frog and had gone unnoticed even though it lives in an area that’s been extensively explored by scientists. It only comes out into the open for less than one week out of the year during the short breeding season, and the rest of the time it hides. Obviously, we don’t know much about it yet.

In 2016 in the same area as the narrow-mouthed frog, researchers discovered a new species of frog with a tadpole that burrows through sand. It’s a member of the Indian dancing frog family, and not only do the tadpoles burrow through wet sand at the bottom of streams, they have ribs that help them move around more easily. Tadpoles are usually just squidges without bones. Dancing frogs get that name because the males wave their feet to attract females during mating season.

There are so many recently discovered frog species that it’s hard to know which ones to highlight. You know, like the new glass frog from Costa Rica described in 2015 that honestly looks just like Kermit the Frog, if Kermit had a translucent belly that showed his organs. Scientists don’t know why glass frogs have no pigmentation at all on their bellies. Or the three tiny frog species discovered in Madagascar and described earlier in 2019, all of them smaller than your thumbnail, that belong to a new genus, Mini. Their scientific names are therefore Mini mum, Mini scule, and Mini ature. The three are related to one of Madagascar’s biggest frogs, which grows over four inches long, or 10.5 cm, as opposed to the Mini frogs which top out at about 15 mm long. Hally sent me an article about eleven new species of frog discovered recently in the Andes, including the multicolored rain frog. It’s sometimes yellow, sometimes brown, sometimes green, speckled, splotched, spotted–so variable that at first scientists thought they were different related species. All eleven of the Andes frogs lay their eggs on land, and instead of hatching into tadpoles the eggs hatch into tiny froglets.

Frogs and other amphibians are sensitive to environmental change, which means a lot of species have either recently gone extinct or are critically endangered. Habitat loss and an amphibian fungal disease that has spread around the world are also making things hard for frogs and their relations. Scientists have been working hard lately to find species that are rare, suspected to be extinct, or are unknown to science, to learn about them while we can and do our best to preserve the species, either in the wild or in captivity. There are even multiple genetic resource banks, or biobanks, to preserve genetic material of frogs and other animals so that future scientists might be able to clone them.

There’s always the possibility that the gastric brooding frog isn’t actually extinct. The southern gastric brooding frog hasn’t been seen since at least 1981 despite extensive searches, though, with the last captive individual dying in 1983. The northern gastric brooding frog was only discovered in 1984 but hasn’t been seen since 1985.

But even if there aren’t any left in the wild, all hope isn’t lost. The gastric brooding frog is a good candidate for de-extinction, and cloning has actually been successful to a limited degree already. In 2013 a living embryo was produced from preserved genetic material, although it didn’t survive. Researchers are still working to clone the frogs and keep them alive. With luck the attempt will be successful, and not only can a population of the frogs be kept in captivity, they can be reintroduced to their former habitat one day.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 147: Snails and the Gooseneck Barnacle



Thanks to Kim and Richard E. this week for two awesome suggestions! We’re going to learn about land snails and about the gooseneck barnacle!

Some baby snails and a mama snail, or at least an adult snail that is probably ignoring all those babies:

A giant African snail:

Unlocked Patreon episode about giant African snails (and other stuff)

A rare Polynesian tree snail, white-shelled variety:

A grove snail:

Gooseneck barnacles:

A barnacle goose. Not actually related to the gooseneck barnacle:

Show transcript:

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

We’re getting to some more excellent listener suggestions this week, this time about some interesting invertebrates. Thanks to Kim who suggested snails, and to Richard E for suggesting the gooseneck barnacle.

We’ve talked about various snails before, in episodes 27, 57, 81, and 136, but let’s dig in and really learn about them.

Snails are in the class gastropoda, which includes slugs, whether terrestrial, freshwater, or saltwater. Gastropods appear in the fossil record way back in the late Cambrian, almost 500 million years ago. Snails and slugs are so common that no matter where you live, you can probably find one within seconds, if you know where to look.

Snails have shells while slugs don’t, but there’s a third type of gastropod called a semi-slug. It has a shell, but one that’s too small for it to live inside. It’s more of a little armor plate than a snail shell. Slugs also have shells, but they’re vestigial and are actually inside the slug so you can’t see them.

Scientists have long tried to figure out if mollusks developed shells early or if they started out as a wormlike creature that later evolved a shell. A discovery of a 400 million year old mollusk fossil in Wales shows a wormlike body but also a shell—actually seven plate-like shells—which suggests that the shells developed early and that shell-less mollusks later lost them.

The snail has a spiraled shell that it can retract its body into, although not all snails can retract all the way into their shells. Snails that live on land are called terrestrial snails, or just land snails, and those are the ones we’ll talk about today. Land snails have lungs, or rather a single lung, although some land snails have gills instead and live in wet areas, although they’re not technically water snails.

Most land snails eat plant material, which they scrape up using a radula. You may remember from other episodes that the radula is a tongue-like structure studded with tiny chitinous teeth, microscopic ones in this case. Snails are sometimes so numerous that they can cause damage to gardens, so often people buy poison to kill the snails in their yard. But a 2014 study shows that killing snails isn’t very effective. The best way to get rid of snails, or at least minimize the damage they do to gardens, is to pick the snails up and transport them at least 30 yards away, or about 20 meters. Snails have a homing instinct, but distances more than about 20 meters are hard for them to navigate. The snails will probably just make a home where they end up. Also, no throwing them into your neighbor’s garden. That’s cheating.

Most land snails are hermaphrodites, which means the snail fertilizes the eggs of other snails and also produces eggs for other snails to fertilize. Some snails bury their eggs in soil while some hide them in damp leaf litter. The eggs hatch into teeny snails with teeny shells, and as the snail grows, its shell grows too by adding layers at the opening.

Snails need moisture to survive, so a snail secretes mucous that helps it retain moisture. The mucus is also thick enough to protect the snail from sharp objects as it travels around on the flat underside of its body, called a foot. Until recently researchers thought that the mucous also helped the snail move, but it turns out that gastropods move entirely due to muscular motions of the body, which start at the tail and travel in a sort of wave motion to the head. This isn’t the most rapid way to move—a typical snail can only advance about one millimeter per second—but it works for the snail. It can also climb walls and other vertical surfaces since the mucous helps it stick, even if it’s upside-down. The mucus a snail leaves behind in its track is visible until it dries after a few hours, usually called a snail trail or a slime trail.

If a snail’s environment becomes too dry, it will retract itself into its shell and secrete a layer of mucous that hardens, protecting its body from drying out. Later, when the environment is wetter, it softens the mucous and goes about its normal snail activities.

Scientists of all kinds study snails. One recently published study investigated the properties of snail mucous to try to develop an adhesive that can be turned from sticky to non-sticky and back to sticky. Another study from 2011 examined the way snails move to see if that can be adapted to various technologies.

Because snail shells are so common in the fossil record, scientists can measure the oxygen isotopes in shells to learn how dry or wet the environment was during the snail’s life. A recent study of snail shells from the Canary Islands indicates that 50,000 years ago the islands were much wetter than they are now. Also, there were more snails then than now.

The largest living snail known is the giant African snail, which can grow almost a foot long, or 30 cm. It’s native to East Africa but it’s an invasive species in many parts of the world. I actually covered this species of snail in a Patreon episode a few months ago, so I’ll unlock that episode and put a link to it in the show notes if you want to learn more about it. It’s kind of a weird episode and I spend entirely too much time at the end talking about my recent eye surgery, but you’ll learn about the giant African snail and a marine snail called the periwinkle.

New species of snail are discovered all the time, since snails are usually small, often hard to find, and many snails look sort of alike except to the trained eye. In 2012, two species of tiny snails were discovered in a cave in northern Spain. They’re called thorn snails and are less than 2 mm in size. Since they live in caves, like many cave animals they’ve lost pigment and are essentially transparent. More thorn snails new to science were discovered in Panama a few years ago. A snail specimen collected in South America in the 19th century was finally examined a few years ago and described as a new species in 2015. Those are just a few examples; so many snails have been described in the last few decades that it would get boring if I talked about all of them.

Not all snails are brown, of course. Some have lovely shells in different colors, patterns, and shapes. A colorful snail called the Polynesian tree snail, found in Tahiti and a few nearby islands, has been a puzzle to researchers for over a century, since they couldn’t figure out how the snail came to be on the islands. Not only that, but a few of the islands have a variety of the snail with a white shell, which isn’t found on Tahiti. It turns out that the people of the area just liked the white shells, which they used to make jewelry, so they introduced the snails to their islands for a better supply of the shells. The Polynesian tree snail is critically endangered now, but some zoos have started a captive breeding program.

People have eaten snails for thousands of years, and certain species of snail are considered delicacies today. A type of grove snail that lives in Ireland and southern France but not anywhere in between may be evidence that humans brought the snails with them when they first colonized Ireland. Researchers suggest humans arrived in Ireland by boat from southern Europe around 8,000 years ago and brought the snails with them, possibly to farm. They’re actually really pretty snails with a yellow or yellowy-white shell striped with brown.

Another invertebrate humans like to eat is the gooseneck barnacle, also called the goose barnacle. It’s actually a crustacean, and I’m glad I checked because I was honestly certain that it was another mollusk. I think I had it mixed up with certain types of clams with long siphons. But the gooseneck barnacle is a crustacean like last week’s roly poly, but unlike the roly poly, it actually tastes really good—if you can get it.

The gooseneck barnacle attaches itself to rocks and other hard objects in intertidal areas of the Atlantic and Pacific, and it prefers rough water. It can be dangerous to gather. Richard E., who suggested the topic, specifically mentioned the variety known as percebes, which is a delicacy popular around the Iberian peninsula, especially in Portugal and Spain. He mentions that people have died trying to get them, and that his own grandparents have a saying about them, “If you want to get, you have to get your backside wet.”

The gooseneck barnacle attaches itself to an object by its stalk, called a peduncle, which is strong and tough enough to withstand rough waves. At the end of the stalk is the capitulum, which contains the body and is protected with five plates. It extends its legs, which are called cirri and resemble feathers, from an opening in the capitulum, and uses them to filter tiny organisms out of the water that it eats.

Like the land snail and many other invertebrates, the gooseneck barnacle is a hermaphrodite. It mates with the nearest other gooseneck barnacle, and since it literally cements itself to its rock and can’t move afterwards, it’s a good thing that barnacles live in clusters or there wouldn’t be any new ones, since the gooseneck barnacle can’t fertilize its own eggs. The barnacle keeps its fertilized eggs inside its body until they hatch into tiny larvae, which it releases into the water. The larvae live in the sea as plankton for a few months, moulting six times before they metamorphose into cyprid larvae. You may remember that term from the horrifying zombie animals episode last month, but these cyprid larvae are just looking for a nice rock to cement themselves to.

The gooseneck barnacle gets its name from its long stalk, which resembles a goose’s neck, and the protective plates on the capitulum do kinda-sorta look like a goose’s beak from the right angle. Now, back in the olden days people didn’t know that birds migrate. People knew that some birds lived in their area in the winter or summer, but they didn’t know what happened to the birds the rest of the year. Some people believed some birds hibernated, others actually believed they flew to the moon during the winter. In the case of a goose called the barnacle goose, which mostly breeds on remote Arctic islands and then spends the rest of the year in various parts of Europe, in the early medieval days people actually thought it didn’t actually lay eggs or have babies. They thought it and the gooseneck barnacle were the SAME ANIMAL, but that the gooseneck barnacle was a young barnacle goose that was still developing. Therefore, people rationalized, they weren’t actually geese but some sort of fish so could be eaten during Christian fast days when meat wasn’t allowed. This lasted until 1215 when the pope said no, actually, wherever they come from, those things are birds and you can’t eat them on fast days.

The gooseneck barnacle is still causing consternation these days. In 2016, some pieces of driftwood washed up on a few New Zealand beaches, covered with gooseneck barnacles. No one knew what in the heck those things were. A species of gooseneck barnacle is native to the area, but they aren’t usually seen on sandy beaches where people like to swim. A picture of the barnacles caused a lot of speculation as to what they were until scientists and naturalists identified them. Fortunately, though, no one suggested they were baby geese.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. You can also support the show and get two bonus episodes a month by signing up as a patron at Patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 146: Three strange animals



The next few weeks will be all listener suggestions! This week, Dylan and Genevieve of What Are You? Podcast request a strange fish, Kim suggests a strange invertebrate, and Callum suggests a strange bird. Thanks for the great suggestions!

An archerfish, pew pew pew:

A regular roly poly and a spiky yellow woodlouse. Can you spot which is which??

A nightjar. Turn out light pls, is too bright:

A white-winged nightjar showing off his wings:

Show transcript:

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

I’m really, really behind in getting to suggestions, as you will probably know if you have sent in a suggestion and you think I’ve forgotten all about it. So before the end of the year, which is coming up frighteningly fast, I’m going to try to get to a lot of the older suggestions. So this week we’re going to learn about a fish, an invertebrate, and a bird.

We’ll start with the archerfish, suggested by Dylan and Genevieve, who are part of the What Are You? Podcast. If you don’t already listen to What Are You?, I really recommend it. It’s a new animal podcast that’s especially for younger kids. If you like Cool Facts About Animals, you’ll like What Are You? Anyway, Dylan and Genevieve both really like the archerfish, so let’s find out why it’s such a weird and interesting fish.

The archerfish isn’t one fish, it’s a family of fish who all catch insects in an unusual way. Most archerfish species are small, maybe 7 inches at the most, or 18 cm, but the largescale archerfish can sometimes grow up to 16 inches long, or 40 cm. All archerfish live in Asia or Australia, especially southeast Asia. They like rivers and streams, sometimes ponds, and a few species live in mangrove swamps and the mouths of rivers where the water is brackish. That means it’s saltier than ordinary fresh water but not as salty as the ocean.

The reason the archerfish is so weird is the way it catches insects. Think about its name for a minute. Archer-fish. Hmm. An archer is someone who uses a bow and arrow, but obviously the archerfish doesn’t have arms and hands so it can’t shoot tiny arrows at insects. But it can shoot water at insects, and that’s exactly what it does.

The archerfish has really good eyesight, and it learns to compensate for the way light refracts when it passes from air to water. When it sees an insect or other small animal, maybe a spider sitting on a branch above its stream, it rises to the surface but only far enough so that its mouth is above water. Then it forms its tongue and mouth to make a sort of channel for the water to pass through. Then it contracts its gill covers, which shoots a stream of water out of its mouth. But because it shapes it mouth in a really specific way, the stream of water turns into a blob as it flies through the air, like a tiny water bullet. The water hits the spider, which falls from its branch and into the stream, where the archerfish slurps it up.

But the archerfish has to learn how to aim. Young archerfish aren’t very good at it, and they have to practice to shoot accurately and far. They can even learn by watching other archerfish shooting water, which is rare among all animals but practically unheard-of in fish.

Sometimes the archerfish will shoot underwater, sending out a jet of water instead of a bullet. It does this mostly to expose small animals hidden in the silt at the bottom of a pond or stream. And sometimes, of course, if the insect is close enough to the surface of the water, the archerfish will just jump up and grab it.

The archerfish shoots water with a force that’s actually six times stronger than its muscles would allow, and it does this by taking advantage of natural water dynamics. This means it uses a lot less energy to shoot water than if it was only using its muscles, and it gets a better result. It can shoot water up to ten feet away, or three meters, to bring down an insect or other small animal, although of course it prefers closer targets.

Archerfish do well in aquariums, so they’ve been studied by scientists to find out how smart they are. It turns out, they’re pretty darn clever. The archerfish takes into account the size of its target to adjust how strong a blob of water it needs to shoot. It also recognizes individual humans by their facial features. So it’s probably a good thing that they don’t have little arms and hands.

Next, Kim sent me some great suggestions way back in August, and I feel terrible that I’ve taken so long to get to any of them. We’ll look at one of those today, an invertebrate officially called a terrestrial isopod, although you may know it by one of a lot of different names. My preferred name for it is roly poly, but it’s also called a sowbug, a wood louse, a pillbug, a doodlebug, and many others.

You have probably seen roly polies, because they’re really common. The most well-known family are the various species that can actually roll up into a ball when threatened, Armadillidiidae, and someone with a sense of humor came up with that name. They’re native to Europe, but they’ve been introduced all over the world. They’re gray or brown-gray in color, armored on the back with overlapping segments, with seven pairs of little legs underneath and a pair of little antennae.

Roly polies eat decaying plant material and sometimes living plants, especially if the plant is wet. In a pinch, they will also eat dead insects and other decaying matter, but mostly they just want that yummy rotting leaf. As a result, they’re valuable decomposers in the food web. They also need moisture to breathe, so they’re often found in soil, under rocks and leaf litter, and in moss.

But Armadillidiidae isn’t the only family of roly polies. Most roly polies actually can’t roll up at all, so I should start using one of their other names, woodlouse. Technically, woodlice are crustaceans. You know, related to crabs and lobsters. But they are infinitely cuter than other crustaceans. And if you’re curious about whether they taste like lobster, apparently they taste awful, like urine. I don’t even want to think about how anyone knows what a woodlouse tastes like, or how anyone knows what urine tastes like. Yuck. Anyway, they’re descended from marine isopods that ventured out on land over 300 million years ago, but a few species have returned to the water and are aquatic.

All woodlice have segmented, flattened bodies with seven pairs of legs. When a woodlouse molts its exoskeleton, it does it in two stages. It molts the back half first, then the front half a few days later. This means that it’s not as unprotected as other arthropods that shed the whole exoskeleton at once.

There’s another arthropod called a pill millipede that looks a lot like a woodlouse, including being able to roll into a ball. But it’s actually not very closely related to the woodlouse. Pill millipedes have 18 pairs of legs and a smoother appearance.

Almost all woodlice are gray or brown, although a few may have small yellow spots. But one is actually yellow and looks very different from other woodlice. It’s called the spiky yellow woodlouse, which is a perfect description. It’s critically endangered, because it only lives in one part of the world, a volcanic tropical island in the South Atlantic, Saint Helena. It lives in trees, but it’s so threatened by habitat loss and introduced rats and other non-native species of woodlice that a captive breeding program is underway to save it. There may be as few as 100 individuals left in the wild, but fortunately it’s a lot easier to keep in captivity than, say, 100 rhinoceroses.

Let’s finish with a bird. Callum suggested caprimulgiformes, which includes nightjars, potoos, oilbirds, and whippoorwills. We’ve talked about a few of them before in previous episodes, including the oilbird in episode 121 and the Nechisar nightjar in episode 70. I know we’ve talked about the tawny frogmouth somewhere, but I can’t remember which episode. Maybe it was a Patreon episode. But we’ve never looked at most caprimulgiformes, so let’s do that now, because they are weird birds. We’ll focus on the nightjars, which are also sometimes called goatsuckers, not to be confused with the chupacabra, which also means goatsucker. In the olden days people used to think nightjars snuck into barns at night and suckled milk from dairy goats. They don’t, though. Birds can’t digest milk.

Nightjars and their close relatives are nocturnal, although some species are mostly crepuscular, which means they’re most active at dawn and dusk. Like the owl, the nightjar’s feathers are very soft so that it can fly silently. It eats insects, especially moths.

There are three subfamilies of nightjars: the typical nightjars, the eared nightjars, and the nighthawks, with lots of species in each group. They live throughout most of the world and they all look similar. We’ll take one typical nightjar as an example, the European nightjar. It lives throughout most of Europe and part of Asia, although it migrates to Africa for the winter. It’s brown and gray mottled with lighter and darker speckles, which makes it really hard to see when it’s sitting on a branch or on the ground in dead leaves. Its head appears flattened and it has a short, broad bill. Its feet are small. It has large eyes and sees well even in darkness. It grows to about 11 inches long, or 28 cm, with a wingspan of about two feet, or 60 cm.

The female nightjar lays her eggs directly on the ground instead of building a nest. Usually she’ll pick a spot where long grass or other vegetation hangs over to form a little hidden alcove. Since the nightjar is so well camouflaged, it can incubate its eggs on the ground in plain sight and probably won’t be seen. If a predator does approach the nest, the parents will pretend to be injured, so that the predator follows the supposedly injured bird hoping for an easy meal. Once the nightjar has drawn the predator far enough away from the nest, it flies away. Some nightjars can even pretend to be injured while flying.

Some nightjars have beautiful, haunting songs while some are nearly silent. The male chuck will’s widow, which lives in the southeastern United States and much of Mexico, sings at night and also claps his wings to show off for females. His song sounds like this.

[chuck will’s widow song]

Because nightjars are so well camouflaged and mostly nocturnal, they’re hard for birdwatchers and scientists to spot. As a result, there are undoubtedly nightjar species still unknown to science. This is the case with the Nechisar nightjar, which we talked about in episode 70. It’s only known from a single wing found on an otherwise squashed dead bird that was hit by a car. And until 1997, the white-winged nightjar from South America was only known from two museum specimens.

Since the first white-winged nightjar nest was discovered in 1997, researchers have learned a lot about it. It’s only been found in a few places in Brazil, Bolivia, and Paraguay, and it likes open lowlands and savannas. The male has white markings on his wings, and during breeding season he finds a termite mound to stand on, spreads his wings to show them off, and then flies up. As he does, his wings make a distinctive sound. Since most nightjars fly silently like owls, the beating of the male’s wings is intended to attract a female. This is what it sounds like:

[white-winged nightjar wings beating]

Like other nightjars, the white-winged nightjar female lays her eggs directly on the ground. Some researchers think she times the eggs to hatch around the full moon so the parent birds have more light to forage for insects. In years where there’s lots of food, the female may lay eggs in a second nest near the first one and incubate them while the male feeds the babies of the first nest.

Many nightjar species are endangered due to habitat loss, but it’s also killed by cars more often than other birds because of its habit of sitting in the road. That does not strike me as being very smart. Maybe it needs to talk to the archerfish for some advice.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!

This is what the little nightjar sounds like. It lives in South America:

[little nightjar calls]


Episode 145: The Cheetah



This week is another suggestion from Wyatt, all about the cheetah!

The cheetah moves fast and can zigzag at the same time:

Baby cheetahs have silvery manes on their backs:

Cheetahs and dogs get along well in captivity:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re talking about cheetahs! This is a suggestion from Wyatt, and it’s also an animal I’ve had on my list to cover for a long time.

You may think the cheetah is just another big cat, but it’s different from other felids in some interesting ways. It’s most closely related to the puma, also called the cougar, and to the jaguarundi, both of which live in the Americas, but the Cheetah mostly lives in Africa. It was once also common throughout parts of Asia, but there are probably fewer than 50 Asiatic cheetahs left alive in the wild today.

The cheetah’s genetic profile shows a bottleneck that occurred about 12,000 years ago. That means the worldwide population of cheetahs dropped so low that it became inbred, which lowered its genetic variability. This is about the same time that a lot of animals went extinct at the end of the Pleistocene, so we’re very lucky the cheetah survived. Since it migrated into Africa about 12,000 years ago, it’s possible that it only survived because it found the right combination of habitat and prey animal at just the right time. The cheetah’s genetic profile actually shows another bottleneck that happened around 100,000 years ago, which researchers think may have occurred as it migrated across Asia. Whatever caused these genetic bottlenecks, the result is that all cheetahs are genetically nearly identical.

Ordinarily, low genetic diversity means an animal is vulnerable to disease and infection due to a weak immune system. But cheetahs hardly ever get sick in the wild. A long-term study of cheetahs on protected land in Namibia found that zero of the 300 cheetahs showed symptoms of infection or disease. The team studying the cheetahs captured some of the cheetahs long enough to perform immunological tests on them—which didn’t hurt them—and compared the results with those of leopards also living in the region. They found that while the leopards had a stronger overall immune system, the cheetahs had a much stronger initial immune response.

The cheetah is tan or yellowish with a white belly and throat. It has black spots over most of its body, and partial or complete rings at the end of its long tail. It has black streaks on its face called tear streaks since they start at the inner corner of the eyes and trace down the sides of the nose and over the cheeks. No other felid has tear streaks, and some researchers think it may help the cheetah see better in bright sunlight.

The cheetah has a small head, long legs, and a long tail and stands about three feet tall, or 90 cm. Its tail is almost as long as it is tall. It’s lightly built. In fact, you might say it’s built for speed.

Because, of course, the cheetah is the fastest land animal alive. The fastest cheetah ever reliably clocked ran at 70 mph, or 112 km/hour. That’s as fast as a car racing down the interstate. Of course, the cheetah can’t keep up that pace for very long, but it can run at around 40 mph, or 64 km/hour, for longer. It has the real-life equivalent of a turbo button in some video games. If it’s chasing an antelope, which is mostly what it eats, and it’s close but not gaining, it hits that turbo speed and zoom! It accelerates long enough to catch the antelope. And it only needs about two seconds to reach its maximum speed. Not only that, it can run that fast while twisting and turning through brush, since antelopes also switch direction frequently to try to outmaneuver the cheetah.

Wyatt specifically wants to know how cheetahs run, and it’s definitely worth going into. The cheetah is incredibly well-adapted for high-speed hunting. It looks more like a greyhound than a big cat, with a deep chest and long slender limbs. The deep chest allows room for the cheetah’s oversized heart and lungs. It also has large nasal passages so it can get plenty of oxygen with every breath. Its long tail acts as a rudder, helping it turn quickly without slowing down. The cheetah also can’t retract its claws all the way like most felids. It can extend the claws somewhat, but they’re always partially extended. This means the cheetah has better traction, since the claws bite into the ground as it runs.

But there are other adaptations that aren’t so obvious. Its leg bones are arranged so that they’re more stable, reducing the risk of a cheetah putting a foot down wrong and wrecking. The cheetah’s spine is long and flexible, and it actually stretches as much as 30 inches, or 76 cm, while the animal is running, to give it an even longer stride.

Its inner ear is also unique. The inner ear is what allows a mammal to balance and move without getting disoriented or falling over. The inner ear consists of three tiny canals filled with fluid and sensory hair cells. The canals are oriented in different directions, so when you move your head around, the liquid in the canals moves too, and the sensory cells tell the brain which direction the liquid is moving, and the brain puts it all together and then you know exactly where you head is in comparison to the ground. And the best thing of all is, you don’t actually have to think about it, your brain just does it automatically. That’s good, because it sounds really complicated.

But the canals in the cheetah’s inner ear are different from those of all other felids. They’re bigger and longer, which allows the cheetah’s brain to fine-tune exactly where its head is even when it’s moving so fast that if it was a car, it would be pulled over for speeding. This means that the cheetah can adjust the position of its head as it runs so that it can get a better view of its surroundings, called visual stability.

We know so much about how cheetahs run because cheetahs in captivity enjoy chasing an artificial lure. Think of it like a scary version of your pet cat chasing the red dot. This allows scientists to study how the cheetah moves while running, using high-speed cameras and equipment called force plates that measure pressure. In a study published in 2012, researchers compared cheetahs and greyhounds and discovered that even when the two animals run at the same speed, the cheetah keeps its feet on the ground slightly longer than the greyhound. Even though the difference is small, it’s enough to reduce overall stresses on the cheetah’s legs, which means it can run faster without risking an injury. Its toe beans, also called foot pads, are also large and tough, more like a dog’s than a cat’s.

In fact, a lot of the cheetah’s adaptations for running make it resemble a canid more than a felid. That’s a good example of convergent evolution, since dogs and other canids mostly hunt by pursuing their prey while many felids use ambush tactics instead. Because of its adaptations to running, the cheetah can’t climb very well. It’s also active during the day, called diurnal, unlike most felids which are nocturnal.

It’s a social animal too. Males often live together in small groups called coalitions, either brothers or unrelated males. Females are more solitary, but when a female doesn’t have cubs to take care of, she usually spends at least part of her time with other cheetahs.

The cheetah can’t roar, but it makes a lot of other noises. Last week we heard a clip of a chirping cheetah that sounded like a bird, but that’s not the only sound a cheetah makes. It can purr, meow, chirp, growl, yowl, and so forth. Here are some of the sounds cheetahs make. I’ll put more at the end of the episode.

[cheetah sounds]

Cheetah cubs have a mane of silvery-gray fur on the back, which might act as camouflage but which also makes the cubs look a lot like tiny honey badgers. If you remember episode 62, about the honey badger, you may remember why. But even so, lots of animals eat cheetah cubs. Researchers estimate that in some habitats, only about 4% of all cheetahs born actually live long enough to grow up.

The cheetah is fast, but larger, stronger predators live in the same areas where it lives. Lions, leopards, hyenas, and other animals will wait until a cheetah kills an antelope, then will try to take the kill from the cheetah. Habitat loss is also a major factor in the survival of the cheetah. And, of course, people hunt cheetahs, either as trophies or because they mistakenly believe cheetahs kill livestock. Studies have proven that cheetahs actually much prefer antelopes and other wild animals.

Young cheetahs are also sometimes captured to sell as exotic pets. This isn’t a good thing, since quite often the cheetahs aren’t properly cared for, but it has been going on for a very long time. The cheetah isn’t a very aggressive animal and becomes tames fairly easily. In Egypt, tame cheetahs were used to hunt game as far back as 1500 BCE, and probably earlier, although only royalty owned them.

Despite this, cheetahs don’t do very well in captivity. They need a lot of space to move around, and if they don’t have enough space, they suffer from stress-related illnesses. Even the best zoos have trouble taking care of cheetahs properly. The reason you see so many photos of cheetahs and dogs together is that zoos have discovered that dogs make good companions for cheetahs, helping them stay calm. Cheetahs rarely breed in captivity.

So, while we’re talking about really fast animals, what’s the fastest living animal known? The cheetah is the fastest land animal, but the fastest flying animal is the peregrine falcon, which can dive at a recorded speed of 242 mph, or 389 km/hour. For regular flying, the white-throated needletail swift can fly at 105 mph, or 169 km/h, while the Brazilian free-tailed bat has been clocked at more than 99 mph, or 160 km/hour. The fastest swimming animal known is the black marlin, which can swim at 82 mph, or 132 km/h. But, of course, we haven’t measured every living animal to see how fast they can all run, swim, or fly. We didn’t even know about the Brazilian free-tailed bat’s speed until a study a few years ago. The researchers didn’t believe their data at first. But it seems pretty clear that the cheetah doesn’t have a whole lot of competition in the fastest land animal race.

[more cheetah sounds]

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 144: Strange Bird Sounds



This week we’re going to learn not about strange birds, but about strange sounds some birds make. Thanks to Sam for the suggestion, and thanks to Llewelly and Leo for suggesting two of the birds we feature today!

Further watching:

Greater prairie chicken courtship display

A bittern, weird swamp bird:

An American woodcock, adorable:

Ocellated turkey, beautiful and goofy:

Greater prairie chicken:

Show transcript:

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

Halloween is over and we’re all just about sick of candy, or maybe that’s just me. Either way, if you live in the northern hemisphere we’re heading into winter, but if you live in the southern hemisphere spring is in full swing! And spring means birdsong! Thanks to Sam for the suggestion that we do a whole episode about interesting bird calls, and thanks to Llewelly and Leo for some excellent bird suggestions.

But we can’t cover all the weird bird calls out there in one episode. I think I’ll make this a recurring topic, and every so often we’ll get a weird birdsong episode. This time we’ll learn about a few birds of North America, although one is from Central America. Let’s start with this unusual sound.

[Bittern call]

That’s the call of the male American bittern, a type of heron that lives throughout most of North America. It’s brown with paler streaks that help camouflage it in the reeds and water grasses where it spends most of its time. It likes freshwater marshes and other wetlands with lots of tall plants to hide in. When the bittern feels threatened, it stands still, points its long bill upwards with its neck stretched out, and sways slightly to imitate the reeds around it. But it still does this even if it’s standing out in the open, because while it’s a neat bird, it maybe is not exactly a genius.

The bittern eats fish, crustaceans, insects, and other small animals. Like many birds, whatever parts of its food it can’t digest, like fish scales and dragonfly wings, form into pellets in its digestive tract that it regurgitates later. Males sometimes fight over territories by flying upwards in a spiral, both birds trying to stab each other with their bills.

The male is the one that makes the weird call we just heard. He gulps air to inflate his esophagus, which is the inside part of the throat, and uses the air to make his call. This is more similar to the way frogs call than birds. He also clacks his bill. He only makes this call during breeding season, which is in the spring and summer.

Next, let’s listen to the call of another North American bird, the American woodcock:

[American woodcock sound]

The American woodcock is a relatively small bird with short legs, basically no tail, large black eyes, and a long pointy bill. It’s considered a game bird although I’m not sure why, since people don’t seem to eat it. It’s brown with black and lighter brown markings which camouflage it perfectly among dead leaves, and it looks like a shore bird because it’s actually closely related to shore birds like sandpipers. It lives in woodlands and pastures throughout eastern North America. It uses its long bill to probe the ground for earthworms, and the tip of the upper half of the bill, properly called a mandible, is flexible so the woodcock can grab a worm without actually opening its beak. It also eats small insects and other invertebrates, and seeds. It’s mostly active at dawn and dusk, and it migrates at night.

In spring, the male woodcock attracts females by a flight display called sky dancing. He spirals upward, then down again, chirping melodically while the wind through three specialized primary feathers in his wings make a twittering sound, which is what we just heard.

Next is this bird, which was suggested by Llewelly.

[ocellated turkey call]

That’s the ocellated turkey, also called the green peacock. It mostly only lives in a small area of Mexico called the Yucatan Peninsula. It’s a type of wild turkey and at first glance it looks and acts like an ordinary turkey. But when the male fans his tail as a display to females, the tail feathers have colorful eyespot patterns like a peacock’s tail.

The ocellated turkey has a bluish head bare of feathers, with a red wattle on its face. Its body feathers are black, copper, green, and white, which makes it even prettier than an ordinary turkey. I know people think turkeys are ugly, but wild ones are actually quite attractive birds. Both males and females have eyespots on the tail feathers.

The ocellated turkey is smaller than the wild turkey, which it’s related to. It’s also related to chickens, pheasants, partridges, and peacocks, more properly called peafowl. Like most of these other birds, it can fly but prefers to walk or run on its sturdy legs.

It eats seeds and other plant parts, insects, and other small animals. Most of the year, males form small bachelor flocks while females form larger flocks together with their half-grown babies. In breeding season, though, males will fight each other, although mostly they just want to impress hen turkeys with their elaborate display dances and gobbling calls, which we just heard.

The ocellated turkey is related to another bird with an interesting call, this one from the Midwestern area of North America, the greater prairie chicken. Thanks to Leo who suggested this one ages ago! This is what the greater prairie chicken sounds like:

[greater prairie chicken calls]

It’s about the size of an actual chicken with a short tail, rounded wings, and mostly brown and black feathers. The male has big round patches on either side of the neck that are bare of feathers. The skin on this patch is a yellowy-orange, as is the male’s comb. During mating season, the male inflates the neck patch to show off for females and performs a display dance.

The display takes place in groups where both males and females come together on what are called booming grounds. A male inflates his neck pouches, raises his tail to show a white patch of feathers, raises long black feathers on his neck to look like horns, and lowers his head. Then he stamps the ground, leaps in the air, makes cackling and loud cooing sounds, rushes at other males, and basically tries to impress as many females as he can. It’s actually really funny to watch. I’ll try to find a good video of it and link to it from the show notes.

There used to be a subspecies of greater prairie chicken called the heath hen that lived in the eastern United States, but it went extinct in 1932 from overhunting. It actually pretty much went extinct by 1870, maybe as early as 1840, with only a small population remaining on the island of Martha’s Vineyard. The Martha’s Vineyard birds were protected in 1908 and started to rebound from only 70 birds to nearly 2,000, but a combination of inbreeding, poultry disease, a fire that destroyed most of the nests in 1916, and several unusually severe winters sent the population plummeting again. In 1927, only 13 birds remained, and 11 of them were males. The next year only males remained, and by 1932 the very last male was seen all alone on the booming grounds. He died soon afterwards, and that was the end of the heath hen.

Modern conservationists have considered introducing greater prairie chickens to Martha’s Vineyard, since the heath hen was important to the local ecosystem. There’s even been speculation that the heath hen might be a good candidate for de-extinction, with genetic material collected from museum specimens and edited into the closely related greater prairie chicken genome.

We’ll finish up with a chirping song that some of you may recognize. See if you can figure it out.

[chirps]

Did you get that one? It was a trick question, because that’s not a bird! It’s a CHEETAH! And now you have a hint about what next week’s episode is about.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 143: Rats, Giant Rats, and Rat Kings



It’s almost Halloween!! We’ve got a great episode this week about rats–ordinary rats, giant rats, and the strange phenomenon called the rat king.

Speaking of bonus episodes, I’ve unlocked a few for anyone to listen to. Just click through and listen in your browser, no login required:

Spooky Animals Stories

Irrawaddy dolphins and Dracula ants

The Soay Island Sea Monster

Further viewing:

A squirrel king video (the squirrels were captured and freed by a veterinarian later)

A typical brown rat, a la Ratatouille:

A typical black rat:

A typical fancy (aka domesticated) rat:

A giant pouched rat heading to work to sniff out landmines:

Two rat kings (preserved):

An X-ray of a rat king’s tails (the arrows show places where the tails are fractured):

Show transcript:

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

It’s finally the Halloween episode! I hope you all have your costumes ready to go! This week we’re going to learn about an animal sometimes associated with Halloween, the rat, including some mystery rats.

But first, my yearly housekeeping and promo-ing! You can still pick up a copy of my fantasy adventure book Skytown, available from Fox Spirit Books. I’ll put a link in the show notes. It has some adult language but is otherwise suitable for younger teens through adults. I’m also working on a nonfiction book associated with Strange Animals Podcast, but we’ll see how that goes.

If you want to support the show financially, I am always happy to take your money. We’ve got a Ko-fi account where you can tip me the cost of a coffee, or more, and we’ve also got a Patreon account if you want to set up recurring donations and get bonus episodes in exchange, as well as other perks. There are links to both in the show notes and on the website, strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. Also on the website we’ve got two pages now that list what animals we’ve covered so far. One page is for everything, the other is just for cryptids for those of you who are just here for the mystery animals.

Speaking of Patreon bonus episodes, I’ve unlocked a few episodes so that anyone can listen to them. They won’t show up in your feed, but there are links in the show notes and you can just click on the link and listen in your browser. You don’t need a Patreon login or anything. This time I’ve unlocked some fun ones, including an episode about animal ghosts from last Halloween.

Now, on to the rats.

The presence of rats is usually considered bad luck, undoubtedly because rats evolved to take advantage of humans’ habit of storing grain for later. If rats ate the grain, humans and their livestock could starve. But rats are also considered bad omens or evil when they’re just going about their lives, being rats.

The rat is a rodent that resembles a big mouse, not surprising since they’re closely related. There are lots of rat species and subspecies, but the most well known are the black rat and brown rat. These are the ones most likely to live in cities and houses, especially the brown rat. The brown rat is also sometimes called the Norway rat even though it’s originally from Asia.

The brown rat is a relatively large rodent, up to about a foot long, or 30 cm, with a tail that’s nearly as long. The black rat is a little smaller and less bulky, with larger eyes and ears, and has a tail that’s longer than its body. Male rats are usually larger and heavier than females. A rat’s tail is bare of fur and has thin skin, and if a predator grabs it by the tail it can shed the skin of the tail, called degloving. The skin will grow back, but until it does the tail is prone to infection. That’s one of the reasons why you should never pick up a pet rat by the tail. Also, picking a rat up by the tail can injure it.

The domesticated rat, also called the fancy rat, is descended from the brown rat. Rat catchers, especially a man named Jack Black, whose title was Royal Rat Catcher and who lived in the mid-19th century, kept interestingly patterned or colored rats he caught in his job. At the turn of the 20th century, fancy mice were a popular pet in Europe, and in 1901 a woman named Mary Douglas suggested the UK group called the National Mouse Club also accept rats. I don’t know about you, but I would totally join the National Mouse Club just for the name. It’s actually still around today, in fact, and I just looked and it costs money to join, so never mind. It’s not like I have any pet mice anyway. Domesticated rats are intelligent, clean pets, and friendly if they’re properly socialized. Rats do leave scent trails for other rats by releasing small amounts of urine as they move around, though, so be aware of this before you let your pet rat run around the house.

The rat has good hearing, smell, and sense of touch, with lots of sensitive whiskers to help it find its way even in the dark. Many of the sounds it makes are in the ultrasonic range so aren’t audible to human ears, including laughter. That’s right, rats laugh. It’s more of an ultrasonic chirping sound, but it occurs when rats are playing, and when a pet rat is tickled by its owner. Young rats laugh more than old rats.

This is what a rat laugh sounds like, slowed down so it’s audible to human ears.

[rat laughing/chirping]

The rat can also swim well, dig well, and shows signs of being surprisingly intelligent. It’s an omnivore that will eat anything it can find or catch. It will kill and eat small animals or sometimes even larger animals like ducks. Some rat populations have learned to dive for mollusks and catch fish.

Rats are social animals and live in large groups, usually in burrows with extensive tunnel systems. In cities, instead of digging burrows rats will live in sewers, alleys, and buildings. Rats go where people go, and they live where people live. While the rat is mostly nocturnal, it’s not unusual to see a rat during the day too.

Rats do carry diseases which they can spread to humans and other animals through their urine and feces, through bites, or through fleas or mites. You’ve probably heard that rats carry a type of flea that spreads the black death, which killed millions of people throughout the 14th century and later. Researchers think that the black death was an especially dangerous version of the bubonic plague. The bubonic plague is actually still around, but these days it’s rare, usually not as dangerous as the version of the disease spread in the middle ages, and can be cured with modern medicine. Humans aren’t the only animals that can catch the plague, by the way. So can cats, dogs, and the rats themselves.

So a rat can grow to about a foot long not counting the tail, or 30 cm. Even a big rat doesn’t weigh more than about two pounds, or a little under a kilogram. But what about giant rats? Or, you might say, rodents of unusual size.

Occasionally someone reports seeing or killing a rat twice the normal size or more, but while you can find pictures of giant dead rats online, it’s really easy to fake that kind of picture. Some are obviously examples of forced perspective, where the rat looks big because it’s actually quite close to the camera, some are plain old photoshopped, and some aren’t actually rats at all.

There are some rodents that look a lot like regular old rats but are much larger. Most are rare or not well known outside of its native habitat, like the Sumatran giant rat that grows up to two feet long, or about 61 cm, not counting its tail. It’s brown with longer fur than the actual brown rat, and it lives in parts of southeastern Asia, but it’s only distantly related to the rat.

The African giant pouched rat is also only distantly related to the actual rat although it looks quite similar. Unlike rats, but like some other rodents, it has cheek pouches that it uses to carry food. It’s bigger than the brown rat, up to about a foot and a half long not counting the tail. or 45 cm, and until 2003 it was a popular exotic pet in the United States. But in 2003, some giant pouched rats imported to the midwest from Africa spread a disease called monkey pox to other animals that were then all sold as pets, especially prairie dogs. In the next five weeks 71 people were infected with the disease. Fortunately no one died, but monkey pox is related to smallpox and can be deadly to humans. As a result of the outbreak, the United States no longer allows any rodent to be imported from Africa.

Also in 2003, the remake of a horror movie about a man named Willard and his rats was released. The rat named Ben was played by a giant pouched rat. I have not seen the movie because I’m a wimp about horror movies, but if you like them and are, you know, a grown-up type person, apparently that was a pretty good one. The original movie was released in 1971 with a sequel in 1972, and all I know about it is that Michael Jackson sang the theme song, which is probably the only song I know that’s about a rat. It’s a pretty song.

The giant pouched rat is sometimes trained to detect landmines, since it has a good sense of smell and isn’t heavy enough to set off the landmines. The problem is that the giant pouched rat doesn’t actually breed well in captivity, so breeding pouched rats that are especially tame and good at detecting explosives is proving to be difficult. Researchers aren’t even sure what causes the females to come into season so that they can have babies. In other rodents, the release of certain hormones controls this cycle, but that doesn’t seem to be the case in giant pouched rats.

As if the bomb-sniffing and acting skills weren’t enough, the giant pouched rat has also been trained to detect tuberculosis in children. The rat does this by sniffing samples of spit taken from children, and a trained rat is so good at detecting the infection that it’s actually 68% more accurate than the standard medical test.

Not to be outdone, researchers in North America are working on ways to train brown rats as search and rescue animals for areas where search and rescue dogs can’t enter.

We got a little off-topic there but you have to admit, the giant pouched rat is a pretty neat rodent, even if it’s not actually part of the rat family.

Another rodent once thought to be a type of rat was a mystery for centuries. In 1503 the Florentine explorer Amerigo Vespucci reached Brazil, and while he was there he visited the volcanic island Fernando de Noronha and wrote about it later. One of the things he mentioned was that the island was home to very large rats.

Since Vespucci was the first European ever to visit the island, and no one from anywhere in the world was living on it at the time, the rats he saw can’t have been the rats he was used to. That would have been the black rat, since the brown rat hadn’t spread throughout Europe yet. It did so later, outcompeting the black rat in most environments. But in 1503, the black rat was the one Vespucci would have known, and the rats he saw on the island were bigger.

Other explorers and sailors visited the island in the years after 1503, and by 1888 when biologists came looking for the very big rat, all they found were the descendants of black rats brought there by ships.

Then, in 1973 paleontologists from Brazil and the United States visited the island to see what had once lived there. And they found remains of the very large rat. It turns out that the rat wasn’t actually a rat, although it was a rodent. And while it was larger and heavier than the black rat, it wasn’t enormous. It was about the size of a typical brown rat, in fact. Ironically, it was probably driven to extinction by the ship rats that colonized the island soon after Vespucci visited.

Vespucci’s rat has been named Noronhomys vespuccii and was given its own genus. Reseachers think that its ancestor might have been semiaquatic like some rodents that still live in South America and that are related to Vespucci’s rat. Rodents that were already in the water would have been occasionally swept out to sea and floated or swam to the island. But once a population of the rodents was established on the island, they evolved to be exclusively terrestrial.

But let’s get back to actual rats. A lot of people are afraid of rats, and it’s true that a cornered rat will bite to defend itself. Rats still carry diseases too. As a result, there are lots of superstitions about rats. For instance, according to folklore than goes back almost two thousand years, the best way to get rid of rats is to write the rats a polite letter requesting that they leave. Fold it up carefully and slide it into the rat’s hole. I am pretty sure that one doesn’t work.

Rats are supposed to be able to foretell misfortune and death. If a rat chews up someone’s clothes or belongings, that person is supposedly going to die soon. If you see rats leaving a ship, it’s an omen that the ship is going to sink. I’ve been reading about superstitions, and it’s amazing how many animals are supposed to foretell death and bad luck. It’s almost like people are trying to blame an animal for random events.

Finally, it wouldn’t be Halloween without something spooky, weird, or gross, or better yet, all three. So let’s learn about something called the rat king.

A rat king isn’t one animal but a group of rats joined together by their tails. This sounds like something out of folklore but it’s actually a real occurrence, although it’s rare. The oldest report known dates to 1564, but specimens are occasionally uncovered even today. All reliable reports of rat kings are of black rats. The black rat has a long, thin, flexible tail that it uses to help it climb.

Not much is known about how rat kings form, but the most widely accepted suggestion is that a group of rats huddling together for warmth get their tails tangled together without realizing it. When each rat tries to separate itself from the group by pulling, the knot tightens. Eventually the rats are permanently stuck together.

It seems reasonable to think that a bunch of rats stuck together by their tails wouldn’t survive long. They’d starve to death or kill each other trying to get free. But a rat king made up of seven rats found in the Netherlands in 1963 was examined and even X-rayed to learn more about it, and where the tails were intertwined there was some evidence of calluses forming. This suggests the rats may have survived for some time.

Most rat kings are made up of young rats, possibly siblings sharing a nest. It’s possible the mother of the 1963 rat king fed them and kept them alive until they were discovered by a farmer, who killed them.

Rats aren’t the only animals found with their tails knotted together. It happens to squirrels occasionally too. If you check the show notes, I’ve included a link to a video of a squirrel king. In the case of squirrels, pine sap and nesting material can glue or tangle the tails of young squirrels together, and we have not just video evidence from 2013 and 2018, but the evidence of veterinarians who managed to separate the squirrels in both cases so they wouldn’t die.

So the rat king sounds horrifying and kind of is, but it’s also sad and not really spooky at all. It’s funny how often understanding something that sounds scary makes you realize it’s not actually all that scary after all. People and rats may not always get along, since rats are very interested in eating food people want to keep for ourselves. But rats laugh, so they can’t be all bad.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening, and happy Halloween!


Episode 142: Gigantic and Otherwise Octopuses



Happy birthday to me! For my birthday, we’re all going to learn about octopuses, including a mysterious gigantic octopus (maybe)! Thanks to Wyatt for his question about skeletons and movement that is a SURPRISE SPOOKY SKELETON SEGMENT of the episode, or maybe not that much of a surprise if you read this first.

Further reading:

How octopus arms make decisions

Octopus shows unique hunting, social and sexual behavior

Kraken Rises: New Fossil Evidence Revives Sea Monster Debate

The larger Pacific striped octopus is not especially large, but it is interesting and pretty:

The giant Pacific octopus is the largest species known. It even eats sharks, like this one:

Show transcript:

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

Today happens to be my birthday, and not just any birthday. It’s a significant birthday that ends with a zero. That’s right, I’m TWENTY! Or maybe a little bit older than that. So for my birthday celebration, and one week closer to Halloween, let’s learn about the octopus. The episode was going to be about possible giant octopuses, but as I researched, octopuses in general turned out to be so interesting and weird that that’s what the episode is about. But we will talk about some mystery gigantic octopuses at the very end.

The first thing to know about the octopus is what the correct plural is. Sometimes people say octopi but that’s actually technically incorrect, although it’s not like you’ll be arrested if you say octopi. The correct plural of octopus is octopuses, although octopodes is also correct. No one says octopodes because that sounds weird.

But who cares about that, because we’re talking about awesome creepy weird cephalopods! The octopus lives in the ocean but it can come out of the water and walk around on land if it wants to, although it usually only does so for a matter of minutes. The octopus breathes through gills but it can also absorb a certain amount of oxygen through its skin, as long as its skin stays moist. Generally people don’t see octopuses come out of the water because most octopuses are nocturnal.

Most octopuses spend their time on the ocean floor, crawling around looking for food. When it’s threatened or frightened, though, it swims by sucking water into its body cavity and shooting it back out through a tube called a siphon, which allows it to jet propel itself quickly through the water headfirst with its arms trailing, so that it looks like a squid. But most of the time the octopus doesn’t swim like this, because when it does, the heart that pumps blood through most of the body stops. The octopus has three hearts, but two of them are only auxiliary hearts that move blood to the gills to make sure the blood stays oxygenated.

Octopus blood is blue because it’s copper-based instead of iron-based like the blood of mammals and other vertebrates. This allows it to absorb more oxygen than iron-based blood can. Since many octopuses live in cold water that doesn’t contain very much oxygen, they need all the help they can get.

The octopus also uses its siphon to release ink into the water when it’s threatened. Of course it’s not ink, but it is black and resembles ink. Also, people have used octopus ink to write with so, you know, I guess maybe it is sort of ink. Anyway, when the octopus releases ink, it can choose to mix it with mucus. Without the mucus, the ink makes a cloud of dark water that hides the octopus while it jets away, and it may also interfere with the predator’s sense of smell. With the mucus, the ink forms a blob that looks solid and in fact looks a lot like a dark-colored octopus. This is called a pseudomorph or false body, and the octopus uses it to confuse predators into thinking it’s still right there, when in fact the octopus is jetting away while the predator attacks the false body. Researchers have found that young sea turtles who attack the false body thinking it’s the real octopus later ignore real octopuses instead of trying to eat them.

In addition to their ninja-like ability to disappear behind a smoke screen, or ink screen, the octopus can also change its color and even its texture to blend in with its background. Its skin contains cells with different-colored pigments, and tiny muscles can change both the color and the texture of the cells. Think of it like being able to shiver to give yourself goosebumps whenever you want, but at the same time you can change the color and shape of the goosebumps. An octopus species that lives in shallow water and is active during the day generally can camouflage itself better than a species that lives in deeper water and is nocturnal, and small species are typically better at camouflage than large ones. Some species mimic rocks or algae with six arms and use the other two arms to creep along the ocean floor, inching away from a potential predator without it noticing.

But the octopus doesn’t just use its ability to change colors to hide from predators. It also communicates with other octopuses by changing colors. And some species have a special threat display of bright colors that warns predators away. This is especially true of the blue-ringed octopus that lives in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, which will display bright blue spots if it feels threatened. Since the blue-ringed octopus has the strongest venom of any octopus, if you see this particular threat display, swim away quickly. I don’t know why I’m assuming my listeners include sharks and whales. Actually, the place you’re most likely to encounter a blue-ringed octopus is in a shallow tide pool on the beach, so watch where you step.

You probably already know what an octopus looks like, but I haven’t actually mentioned it yet. The octopus has a bulbous body with two large eyes, eight arms lined on the bottom with suckers, and in the middle of the arms, a mouth with a beak. The beak looks sort of like a parrot’s beak and is made of chitin, a tough material that’s similar to keratin. Inside the mouth, the octopus has a radula, a tongue-like structure studded with tiny tooth-like bumps.

Until about ten years ago, researchers thought that only the blue-ringed octopus was venomous. The blue-ringed octopus is tiny but super venomous. Its venom can kill humans, although that’s extremely rare. But now we’ve learned that all octopuses appear to have venomous saliva, most of it relatively weak, but enough to kill mollusks and other small animals. The octopus eats anything it can catch, for the most part, including crabs, shrimp, small fish, mollusks, and so forth. Its suckers can attach so firmly to a bivalve’s shells that it can pull the shells apart. If it can’t manage this, though, it will cover the shells with its toxic saliva. The toxin dissolves tiny holes in the shell and kills the mollusk, allowing the octopus to open the shells easily and eat the animal inside. It can also inject the toxins into crabs to paralyze them, then uses its beak to bite the shells open without the crab being able to fight back.

The octopus can regrow an arm if it’s bitten off or otherwise lost. Some species will even drop an arm like some lizards can drop their tails in order to distract a predator. In the case of the lizard, its tail thrashes around after it’s detached, while in the case of an octopus arm, the arm continues to crawl away and tries to escape from being hurt. This is creepy to the extreme, especially when you realize the arm acts this way because it contains a sort of brain of its own.

An octopus’s brain doesn’t fully control its arms. In fact, the arms contain about twice the number of neurons that the brain contains, which means they can act autonomously in a lot of ways. Basically, each octopus arm processes information the same way that a brain does, without involving the actual brain. The arms have an excellent sense of touch, naturally, and the suckers have chemical receptors that act as a sense of taste as well. When an arm touches something, the arm decides whether it’s food, or if it’s dangerous, or if it’s in the way, or so forth. Then it decides what it should do about it. The arms use the peripheral nervous system, again not the brain, to make decisions that require arms to work together. The result is that the arms can all work at different tasks, together or separately, while the central brain is processing other information, primarily from its eyes. But also as a result, the octopus doesn’t have a good sense of where its body is in space at all times. You don’t have to see your arms to figure out where they are in relation to your body, but the octopus does.

This is all very different from the way our brains work. Researchers study the octopus to determine how its brain works with the arms to help the octopus navigate its environment. Some researchers point out that the octopus’s intelligence is so different from the intelligence of other animals we’ve studied that it’s as close as we can come to studying intelligent life from another planet.

The main reason why the octopus has such a different nervous system is that it’s an invertebrate. Humans and other mammals, birds, reptiles, and fish are all vertebrates, meaning they have a backbone of some kind. The backbone contains a spinal cord that is the main pathway for the nervous system, connecting the brain with the rest of the body. The brain processes everything that the body does. But invertebrates and vertebrates started evolving separately over half a billion years ago, and while most invertebrates don’t demonstrate a lot of what we would consider intelligence, the octopus does. Instead of a central spinal cord of nerves, the octopus, like other invertebrates, has concentrations of neurons throughout its body, called ganglia. The ganglia form a sort of neural net. This actually means the octopus can process information much more quickly than a human or other vertebrate can.

And the octopus is intelligent, probably as intelligent as parrots, crows, and primates. An octopus can learn to recognize individual humans and solve complex puzzles, can learn from watching another octopus solve a problem, and many species use tools in the wild. Some species of octopus spend the day in dens that they make out of rocks, including a rock door that they close after they go inside. The veined octopus will collect pieces of coconut shells, stack them up, and carry them around. If it’s threatened, or if it just wants to take a nap or rest, it uses the coconut shells as a hiding place.

Octopuses in captivity can cause a lot of trouble because they’re so intelligent. They will dismantle their tanks out of curiosity or just escape. An octopus in an aquarium in Bermuda escaped repeatedly in order to eat the fish and other animals displayed in nearby tanks. A common New Zealand octopus named Inky, kept at the National Aquarium, was famous for causing mischief, and one day in 2016 he managed to move the lid to his enclosure just enough to squeeze out. Then he walked around until he found a small pipe. He squeezed into the pipe, and fortunately for him it was a pipe that led directly outside and into the ocean.

The reason that octopuses can squeeze through such tiny openings is that they have NO BONES. There is not a single bone in the octopus’s body. The only hard part of the body is its beak. As long as the octopus can get its beak through an opening, the rest of the body can squish through too.

And that brings us to a surprise spooky SKELETON SECTION, thanks to a suggestion by Wyatt!

[spooky scary skeletons song!]

Wyatt wants to know how bones work and move, which is a good question and will help us learn about octopuses too. Bones have many purposes, including making blood cells and protecting the brain—that would be the skull part of the skeleton, of course—but mainly bones help your body move. Muscles are attached to bones, and when you contract a muscle, it moves the bone and therefore the rest of that part of your body. Without muscles, your bones couldn’t move; but without bones, your muscles wouldn’t do much. Also, you’d look sort of like a blob because bones provide structure for your body.

But if you need bones to move, how does an octopus move? An octopus has no bones! Do I even know what I’m talking about?

The octopus’s muscles are structured differently than muscles in animals with bones. Our muscles are made up of fibers that contract in one direction. Let’s say you pick up something heavy. To do so, you contract the fibers in some muscles to shorten them, which makes the bone they’re attached to move. Then, when you push a heavy door closed, you contract other muscles and at the same time you relax the muscles you used to pick up something heavy. This pulls the arm bone in the other direction.

But in the octopus, the fibers in its muscles run in three directions. When one set of fibers contracts, the other two tighten against each other and form a hard surface for the contracted fibers to move. So they’re muscles that also sort of act like bones. It’s called a muscular hydrostat, and it actually can result in muscle movements much more precise than muscle movements where a bone is involved.

There are exceptions to the “bones and muscles work together” rule, of course. Your tongue is a muscle. So is an elephant’s trunk, or at least it’s made up of lots and lots of muscles that aren’t attached to bones. Tongues and elephant trunks and worms and things like that all use muscular hydrostatic functioning to move.

The octopus has a lifespan that seems abbreviated compared to other intelligent animals. It typically only lives a year or two and dies soon after it has babies. After the female lays her eggs, she stops eating and instead just takes care of the eggs, which she attaches to a rock or other hard surface. It usually takes several months for the eggs to hatch, and all that time the female protects them and makes sure they have plenty of well-oxygenated water circulating around them. She dies about the time the babies hatch. As for the male, he doesn’t take care of the eggs but after he mates with a female he starts showing signs of old age and usually dies within a few weeks. That’s if the female doesn’t just decide to eat him after mating. Most male octopuses stay as far away as they can from a female while mating, and uses one of his arms to transfer a packet of sperm into her mantle, which she uses to fertilize her eggs.

At least one octopus species has been observed to brood its eggs for four and a half years, guarding them from predators and keeping them clean. Researchers studying life in an area of Monterey Bay called Monterey Canyon, off the coast of western North America, regularly survey animals in the area. In May of 2007 they saw a female octopus on a rocky ledge about 4,600 feet, or 1,400 meters, below the surface. She had distinctive scars so the researchers could identify her, and she didn’t leave her eggs once during the next four and a half years. She also didn’t appear to eat or even be interested in the small crabs and other delicious octopus food within easy reach of her. As the years went by she became thinner and paler. She and her eggs were still there in September of 2011 but when the researchers returned in October, she was gone and her eggs had hatched.

Babies are teensy when they’re first hatched, typically only a few millimeters long. The babies drift with the currents and eat tiny animals like zooplankton as they grow. One exception is the same deep-sea octopus species that spends so long protecting its eggs, Graneledone boreopacifica. Because they develop in the egg for so long, babies of this species are much larger than most baby octopuses and can even hunt for small prey immediately.

Another exception to the usual octopus habit of only reproducing once before dying is the larger Pacific striped octopus, which lives in the eastern Pacific Ocean in warm, shallow water. Not only is it gregarious, instead of mostly solitary like other octopus species, it can reproduce repeatedly without dying. Mated pairs sometimes live and hunt together and even share food. Despite the word “larger” in its name, the larger Pacific striped octopus only grows to about three inches across, or 7 cm. It is striped, though. It’s quite attractive, in fact. And its many differences from other octopus species show just how little we know about octopuses.

So how big can an octopus grow? We don’t actually know. The species that grows the largest is called the giant Pacific octopus, and the biggest one ever measured had an armspan of about 30 feet, or 9 meters.

But there are always rumors and sightings of octopuses of colossal sizes, often referred to as the gigantic octopus or the colossal octopus. In 2002 a fishing trawler brought up the incomplete carcass of a dead octopus near New Zealand, and estimates of its armspan when it was alive are around 32 feet, or 10 meters. In 1928 a man named Robert Todd Aiken reported seeing six octopuses off the coast of Oahu, Hawaii with armspans of nearly 40 feet, or 12.5 meters. In 1950, also off the coast of Oahu, a diver named Madison Rigdon reported seeing an octopus with each arm alone measuring almost 30 feet, or over 9 meters.

But because octopuses are soft-bodied animals that are eaten by so many predators, and because the biggest ones typically live in deeper water, we just don’t know that much about how big they can get. When we do find a big dead octopus, its size is difficult to estimate since cephalopods actually shrink quite quickly after they die.

We only have a few remains of ancient octopuses, mostly body impressions and fossilized beaks. In 2009, paleontologists working in Lebanon reported finding five specimens of fossilized octopus that date to 95 million years ago. The specimens are remarkably well preserved, too, which allows researchers to determine that the octopuses belong to three different species that appear to be unchanged from their modern counterparts. In 2014 the impressions of cephalopod beaks dated to around 80 million years ago were found in Hokkaido, Japan. The impressions were well preserved and paleontologists have determined that all but one belonged to an extinct species related to the vampire squid, that we talked about in episode 11. They estimate its body to have been about two feet across, or 60 cm, without the arms. The other beak impression was from a different species, one related to modern squid.

If you listened to episode 86 about ammonoids and nautiloids, which are related to octopuses, you may remember that some extinct species grew enormous, probably over 19 feet long, or 6 meters. Since those species have shells, we have a lot more fossilized remains.

But we have almost no remains of ancient octopuses, so we have no way of knowing how big some species once grew. The colossal squid was only determined to be a real animal a matter of years ago (and we talked about it and giant squid in episode 74). I wouldn’t be one bit surprised if the colossal octopus was one day found to be a real animal too.

Let’s finish with an ancient cephalopod mystery. The octopus is a messy eater, so sometimes researchers can identify an octopus’s territory by the way it leaves shells lying around. Some species of octopus arrange shells and other items in heaped-up patterns around its den. In 2011 a pair of paleontologists named Mark McMenamin and Dianna Schulte McMenamin examined an unusual pattern of ichthyosaur remains in Nevada and suggested that they might have been arranged by an octopus after eating them. But since the nine ichthyosaurs are 45 feet long, or 14 meters, the octopus would have had to be equally enormous. Dr. McMenamin and other Dr. McMenamin think the octopus might have killed the ichthyosaurs by either breaking their necks or drowning them, or both. In 2013 the team investigating the site found what may be part of a fossilized cephalopod beak, further backing up the theory. Then again, that species of ichthyosaur, Shonisaurus, ate squid and other cephalopods, so it’s possible the beak was actually inside an ichthyosaur stomach when it died and that a giant octopus or other cephalopod had nothing to do with the deaths. Still, it’s fun to think about, and it might be true!

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 141: Zombie Animals



We’re inching closer to Halloween and it’s getting spookier out there! This week let’s learn about some animals that get zombified for various reasons. This is an icky episode, so you might not want to snack while you’re listening. Thanks to Sylvan for the suggestion about the loxo and mud crabs!

Further reading:

Zombie Crabs!

Ladybird made into ‘zombie’ bodyguard by parasitic wasp

A mud crab held by a dangerous wizard:

A paralyzed ladybug sitting on a parasitic wasp cocoon:

A cat and a rodent:

Show transcript:

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

It’s another week closer to Halloween, so watch out for ghosts and goblins and zombie animals! Zombie animals?! Yes, that’s this week’s topic! Thanks to Sylvan for suggesting the loxo parasite, which we’ll talk about first. Brace yourself, everyone, because it’s about to get icky!

Before we learn about loxo, let’s learn about the mud crab, for reasons that will shortly become clear. Mud crab is the term for a whole lot of small crabs that live in shallow water, mostly in the Atlantic or eastern Pacific Oceans but sometimes in lakes and other fresh water near the ocean, depending on the species. Most are less than an inch long, or under about 30 mm. The largest is called the black-fingered mud crab, which grows to as much as an inch and a half long, or 4 cm. Most mud crabs are scavengers, eating anything they come across, but the black-fingered mud crab will hunt hermit crabs, grabbing their little legs and yanking them right out of their shells. It also uses its strong claws to crack the shells of oysters.

Loxothylacus panopaei is actually a type of barnacle. You know, the little arthropods that fasten themselves to ships and whales and things. But loxo, as it’s called, doesn’t look a bit like those barnacles except in its larval stages. After it hatches, it passes through two larval stages; during the first stage, it molts four times in only two days as it grows rapidly.

Then, during the cyprid larval stage, the microscopic loxo searches for a place to live. The male remains free-swimming but the female cyprid larva is looking for a mud crab. She enters the crab’s body through its gills and waits for it to molt its exoskeleton, during which time she metamorphoses into what’s called a kentrogon, basically a larva with a pointy end. As soon as the crab molts its exoskeleton, the female loxo uses her pointy end, called a stylet, to stab a hole in the crab’s unprotected body. Then she injects parasitic material that actually seems to be the important part of herself, which enters the crab’s blood—called hemolymph in arthropods like crabs. Like most invertebrates, crabs don’t have blood vessels. The hemolymph circulates throughout the inside of the body, coming into direct contact with tissues and organs. This means that once the loxo has infiltrated the hemolymph, she has access to all parts of the crab’s body.

At this stage, the loxo matures into something that isn’t anything like a barnacle, but is an awful lot like something from a horror movie. She grows throughout the crab, forming rootlets that merge with the crab’s body and changes them. Basically, the female loxo becomes part of her crab host. Eventually she controls its nervous system and molds it to her own needs. She even molds the body to her own needs, since if she’s parasitized a male crab she has to widen its body cavity so it can hold her eggs.

The crab stops being able to reproduce and doesn’t want to. It only wants to care for the eggs that the female loxo produces. She extrudes an egg sac so that it hangs beneath the crab’s abdomen, where a male loxo can fertilize it when he swims by. The crab then treats the egg sac as if it contains its own eggs, protecting them and making sure they get plenty of oxygenated water. This is true even for male crabs, which ordinarily don’t take part in protecting their own eggs. The loxo eggs hatch in about a week, and as soon as they do, the female loxo inhabiting the crab starts the process over again. While a mud crab in the wild can live for a few years, once it’s taken over by the loxo parasite it only lives around 45 days.

Most mud crab populations are reasonably resistant to the parasite, but where the loxo has been introduced to areas where it didn’t live before, it can decimate the local mud crab population. This happened in Chesapeake Bay in the 1960s in North America. The local oysters had been so over-fished that they were nearly completely gone, also nearly destroying the local oyster industry. They imported oysters from the Gulf of Mexico to replenish local stocks, but no one realized they were bringing the loxo with those oysters. These days, up to 90% of the Chesapeake Bay mud crabs are infected with the loxo parasite, while only up to 5% of the Gulf of Mexico mud crabs are infected. Researchers at the Chesapeake Bay Parasite Project are working to figure out more about how the loxo infiltrates its host and changes it genetically, and are monitoring infection rates in the wild.

If you think that’s gross, it’s not going to get any better the rest of this episode.

Next let’s learn about another zombie animal, this one a spider. A number of spiders are parasitized by a tiny wasp called Zatypota percontatoria. It lives throughout much of the northern hemisphere and prefers forested areas with plenty of web-building spiders in the family Theridiidae, also known as cobweb spiders.

Cobweb spiders are really common with around 3,000 species that live throughout the world, including the black widow, which by the way is not nearly as dangerous as people think. Some cobweb spiders are kleptoparasites, which means they steal food and other resources from another animal, in this case larger spiders. A kleptoparasite cobweb spider actually lives in the web of a larger spider, and when a small bug gets caught in the web, it steals it. Sometimes the cobweb spider will kill and eat the spider that built the web in the first place too.

But most cobweb spiders are ordinary spiders, and most are quite small, usually only a few millimeters long. Many are marked with pretty patterns in brown, white, black, and other colors. Different species build different kinds of webs, but they all eat small insects.

As for the wasp, it’s about the same size as the spider it’s trying to parasitize, and sometimes smaller. It has long wings, long antennae, and a long abdomen that in the female ends in a sharp ovipositor. The female finds a spider, usually a young spider that’s less able to defend itself, and stabs it in the abdomen with her ovipositor. Then she lays a single egg inside the spider and flies away.

The egg doesn’t bother the spider, although once the egg hatches into a larva it starts to feed on the spider’s hemolymph. Remember, that’s the equivalent of blood in the invertebrate world. At the same time, it’s releasing hormones into the spider that change its habits. Basically the wasp larva controls the spider so that it acts to the benefit of the larva, not itself.

All this takes about a month. When the larva is ready to pupate and metamorphose into an adult wasp, it secretes a final hormone that influences the spider’s behavior. This one causes the spider to spin a strong, cocoon-like web. When the web is finished, the larva bursts out of the spider’s body, killing it, and eats the spider. Then it enters the cocoon and develops into an adult wasp.

Because spiders are good at defending themselves, only about 1% of spiders end up parasitized. I’m sure the spiders think that’s 1% too many. There are other parasitic wasp species in other places, but they all act about the same as Zatypota.

Another wasp, Dinocampus coccinellae, parasitizes ladybugs. Like Zatypota, the female wasp lays one egg in the ladybug’s body. When it hatches, the larva eats the ladybug’s insides while the ladybug continues to go about its ordinary activities. But after several weeks, the larva is ready to pupate. It paralyzes the ladybug, bursts out of its body, and spins a cocoon that the ladybug sits on.

But the ladybug isn’t dead. It protects the cocoon from other insects by twitching and making grasping motions with its legs.

After about a week, the adult wasp emerges from its cocoon and flies away. The ladybug usually dies, but not always. About a quarter of infected ladybugs recover and are fine. Researchers aren’t sure how the wasp larva causes the paralysis. It may release a virus that infects the ladybug or it may have something to do with venom released by the larva.

This wouldn’t be a proper zombie episode if I didn’t talk about that disgusting parasitic fungus that affects certain carpenter ants in the rainforests in Brazil and Thailand. It completely squicks me out so I’m going to explain it very, very quickly.

Fungal spores float through the air and land on an ant, where they stick. They release enzymes that eventually break down the ant’s exoskeleton, allowing the fungus to spread inside the ant’s body. Finally it’s able to control the ant and makes it crawl up the stem of a plant and bite into a leaf vein. The ant is unable to move at this point and eventually dies. The fungus sprouts from inside the ant and grows into stalks, especially from the ant’s head. About a week later it releases spores that go on to infect other ants. Ugh. So glad I’m not an ant.

Ants can sense when one of the colony has contracted the fungus, and will carry the infected ant far away from the colony so it’s less likely to infect others. The ants also groom each other to remove any spores that may have attached. The fungus can completely destroy ant colonies, but it has a parasite of its own, another fungus that stops the first fungus from releasing spores. A related parasitic fungus also infects certain caterpillars.

Look, I’m totally over talking about fungus, so let’s move on.

So is there any chance that a parasite will turn you into a zombie? There’s not, but a behavior-changing parasite does sometimes infect humans. It’s called Toxoplasma gondii, and while its effects on human behavior has been studied extensively, the effects are so minor as to be nearly nonexistent in most cases.

Toxoplasmosis is a disease caused by a single-celled parasite, and it’s one that not only infects humans, it’s really common. I probably have it but I’m not going to think too hard about that. For most people, it never bothers them and never causes any symptoms, or only mild short-term symptoms like a lowgrade cold that takes a few weeks to clear up. But it can be more serious in people with a suppressed or weak immune system, and can cause problems for the baby if its mother gets infected while she’s pregnant.

There are estimates that up to half the people in the world are infected with toxoplasmosis but never know. The reason it’s so common is that the parasite targets cats, and can be spread in cat feces. And, you know, if you scoop out the cat’s litter box you might be exposed. That’s why pregnant women shouldn’t clean up after a cat. Infection can also result from eating undercooked meat from an infected animal, eating unwashed fruit or vegetables, drinking unpasteurized milk, and drinking untreated water.

Any mammal or bird can contract the parasite, but it can only reproduce in a cat’s digestive system. It doesn’t hurt the cat, it just wants to get inside the cat so it can reproduce. And the best way to get inside a cat is to be part of a rodent that a cat eats.

When a rat or other rodent is infected with Toxoplasma gondii, its behavior changes. Suddenly, it starts to like cats. You can probably see where this is going. Not only does it stop avoiding cats, it actually seeks them out. The cat, naturally, can’t believe its luck, kills and eats the rodent, and may become infected.

If you have a pet cat, the best way to reduce the risk of contracting toxoplasmosis is to scoop the litter box daily, then wash your hands. It takes about a day for the parasite to become active after being shed in cat poop, so if you scoop the litter box right away the risk is lower. Researchers are working on vaccines, and they’ve actually already developed a vaccine that’s now used in sheep. If you keep your cat inside, where it’s safer anyway, it’s much less likely to be exposed to the parasite in the first place.

So, take ordinary precautions but don’t worry too much about toxoplasmosis. Unless, of course, you are a rodent.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 140: Rains of Fish and Frogs (and other things)



We’re starting off October (you know, MONSTER MONTH) with accounts of animals that fall from the sky like rain, mostly fish and frogs! Is this a real thing that actually happens, and if so, what causes it?

Further reading:

Raining Frogs

Recent observations of “mystery star jelly” in Scotland appear to confirm one origin as spawn jelly from frogs or toads

Not a real photo of an octopus falling in a storm:

This photo is probably real, two shrimp/prawns on a windshield in the same storm as above (in 2018):

A photo of people picking up fish in the street but I have no idea where it was taken:

An arctic lamprey found in someone’s yard:

Some of the stuff called star jelly, star rot, or star snot:

A walking catfish:

Show transcript:

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

It’s finally October, and that means monsters and other spooky stuff! I have lots of fun episodes planned this month, but first, an important announcement!

A few weeks ago I got a message from someone on Podbean, and I feel terrible because I can’t reply or even see the whole message or who it’s from! Podbean does not like me. I get an email with the first couple of lines of the message but when I click through and log in to Podbean to see the whole message and respond, Podbean goes, “Message? What message? You don’t have any messages.” So please, person who messaged me with a suggestion I can’t see, I’d love it if you email me at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com! And if anyone else has ever messaged me somewhere but never received a reply, email is the best way to get hold of me. I always reply, so if you don’t get an answer it means I never saw your message and you should totally send it again. Thanks!

So, back to the October fun! Let’s start off the month right with a strange phenomenon that’s been reported for untold centuries all over the world. Do fish and frogs and other animals actually sometimes fall from the sky like rain?

It seems pretty certain that while this is a rare event, and not all reports are of animals that actually fell from the sky, it does sometimes happen. In fact, lots of weird stuff falls from the sky from time to time. For instance, after a heavy rain over Punta Gorda, Florida at the end of August 1969, the streets were full of golf balls, dozens of them if not hundreds. But there wasn’t a golf course near the town.

Sometimes colored rain falls instead of ordinary clear water. This happens because raindrops form around tiny specks of dust or pollen in the air. When the dust is colored, the rain will be too. Red rains come from dust blown into the atmosphere from the Sahara while yellow rain results from dust from the Gobi Desert. Volcanic eruptions, soot, and other pollutants in the air can cause black rain. And a red rain that fell in Kerala, India in July 2001 was analyzed and the color found to be due to fungal spores. Snow is occasionally colored too, just like rain.

But sometimes frogs, fish, or other small animals do apparently fall from the sky, with or without rain. Here’s a typical report of a rain of frogs. It comes from the book The Unexplained by zoologist Karl Shuker, whose honesty and scholarship I trust. Not only that, it’s something that happened to his own grandmother, Gertrude Timmins. In 1902, Gertrude was only eight years old. She and her mother were walking across a field in the West Midlands in England when it started to rain. They opened their umbrellas, but a moment later Gertrude noticed that amid the regular pattering of rain on an umbrella there were some heavier thumps. Then she noticed that the thumps were caused by small frogs falling onto her umbrella and bouncing off onto the ground. Gertrude was frightened at first, naturally, because that’s just a weird thing to happen to anyone. But her mother told her not to be scared, it was just a rain of frogs.

Remember, Gertrude and her mother were walking across a field. There weren’t any trees or buildings around that the frogs might have fallen from. So where did they come from?

The main hypothesis is that the animals are picked up by a water spout or small tornado and carried on the wind until they’re dropped elsewhere, miles away. When I was a kid I thought this was a dumb suggestion. If a dissipating water spout dropped everything it had picked up out of a pond, why do people just report one kind of frog falling from the sky or one kind of fish? Where’s the algae, water plants, turtles, mud, and other stuff presumably also picked up and carried out of a pond?

The answer may be pretty simple. When the wind velocity is high, the tornado or water spout can carry heavy objects, but as the wind slows and loses energy, it starts to drop the heaviest items. But the wind is still moving, so as it moves across the land and slowly loses more and more energy, it drops the heaviest items first, then the next heaviest items, then the next heaviest, and so on.

It might not even be a tornado or water spout. A powerful updraft, which is often associated with storms, can lift light items like sticks, leaves, and pool toys and drop them miles away. Small frogs often weigh no more than a penny does and during breeding season can be incredibly common in a small area, hopping everywhere. It’s reasonable to assume that sometimes these little frogs get lifted from one area by a strong updraft and dropped elsewhere, astonishing anyone who happens to see it. If you doubt the strength of an updraft, keep in mind that storms can also generate downdrafts and they can be so powerful they destroy or uproot trees.

No one has witnessed frogs or other animals get sucked up into the air and dropped elsewhere, so we don’t know if it actually happens this way. But the animals are obviously getting into the air somehow.

Frogs aren’t the only animals witnessed to fall from the sky. Fish are actually probably the most common animals that fall with rain. It doesn’t even have to be raining.

On October 23, 1947 fish fell over Marksville, Louisiana in the United States. A biologist was having breakfast with his wife in a local restaurant when the server said that fish were falling from the sky. Naturally he went to look. He identified the fish as several different freshwater species common in the area, including two species of sunfish, a type of bass, and a few others, all ranging from 2 to 9 inches long, or 5 to 23 cm. It was a foggy but calm morning with no reports of tornados or strong winds in the area.

It’s possible that a small waterspout formed over one of the many nearby lakes, sucked up whatever fish happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and deposited them a few miles away. Waterspouts form the same way tornados do except that it happens over water. The inside of a waterspout, like the inside of a tornado, is a low-pressure tunnel inside a high-pressure cone of air. It acts like a vacuum cleaner, sucking up water as it moves, and anything that’s in the water near the surface gets sucked up too.

There are two types of waterspouts. Tornadic waterspouts are tornados that happen to touch down over water instead of land. They can be dangerous and are usually reported in the local news and weather if they’re spotted. But fair-weather waterspouts aren’t associated with storms, although they do form ahead of developing storm systems. They’re typically smaller, much less dangerous, and much less likely to be reported to the news. So it’s possible that the 1947 fish fall was the result of a fair-weather waterspout.

This phenomenon isn’t something that used to happen in the olden days and doesn’t happen now. In June of 2009, there were tadpole rains in parts of Japan on two different days in slightly different areas. One man saw over a hundred dead tadpoles on car windshields in one parking lot after a rain shower.

On June 13, 2018, shrimp and possibly other sea creatures fell on the coastal city of Qingdao [zhing-daugh], China during a storm. The media reported it as a “seafood rain” since people posted photos of octopus, squid, starfish, mollusks, and shrimp that they claimed had fallen during the storm. Some of the photos are hoaxes, especially the ones of octopuses flying through the air, but at least some of them are real. Some people speculate that the source of the animals may have actually been a market stall, but since the city is on the coast of the Yellow Sea and the storm’s winds were measured at 77 mph, or 125 km per hour, it’s just as likely that the animals were lifted into the air from shallow water as from a market stall.

Sometimes we can figure out what the cause is of falling animals. In 2015 the Alaska Department of Fish and Game received four separate calls from people who’d found arctic lampreys on their property, including the parking lot of a store and someone’s front yard. If you remember from waaaaay back in episode 3, where we talked about the sea lamprey, lampreys are jawless fish with suckerlike mouths. They latch onto a fish and use their rasping teeth to parasitize it. The arctic lamprey grows to about a foot long on average, or 30 cm, but occasionally one will grow twice that long. It lives in cold freshwater lakes and rivers in the arctic, although it’s found as far south as Japan. An investigation revealed that all four lampreys found on land had cut marks and bruises in a specific pattern, which indicated that they’d been picked up in the beak of a seagull and then dropped, probably by accident when the lamprey wriggled too much. In 2015 there were an unusually high number of arctic lampreys in the Chera River, near where the four lampreys were reported on land.

A substance often referred to as star jelly or star rot has been seen in various parts of the world for centuries, usually connected in folklore with comets and shooting stars. In late 2008 through February 2009 the BBC’s Scotland Outdoors website collected photos and accounts of star jelly people had encountered in Scotland and other places. People reported finding lumps of the usually clear or white, jelly-like substance in their gardens, on walkways, on fence posts, stumps lawns, on the side of the road, in pastures, on rocks, and so on. One person found a lump of it on his tractor, another on a 3rd floor balcony.

Even hundreds of years ago some people suspected star jelly had something to do with frogs. At least some of it looks like the jelly-like matrix that surrounds the eggs of many frog and toad species. This is backed up by the presence of small black eggs in some star jelly that look like frog eggs. But it’s clearly not exactly frog spawn and is often found in places where a frog would never lay its eggs, even if it could for instance get up onto a third floor apartment balcony.

Many samples of star jelly have been examined by scientists and found to be the spawn jelly of frogs and toads, which is produced by the female to surround the eggs and keep them damp. As the female lays her eggs, each one is coated with a layer of spawn jelly, which absorbs water in the environment and increases in volume. Sometimes when a predator tears a frog or toad into pieces to eat it, the reproductive tract is torn open and its contents falls to the ground. When the spawn jelly is exposed to the air, it starts to absorb moisture from whatever it’s touching. This will make it swell up and become much more noticeable to people, especially if it’s rained and the spawn jelly has absorbed a lot of water.

Often an animal will eat a frog or toad, then later regurgitate the less digestible parts. This includes spawn jelly and some parts of the reproductive tract, specifically the oviducts since they contain the spawn jelly. Sometimes eggs are mixed in too. Star jelly has been examined and tested frequently, although most DNA testing has been inconclusive since samples are contaminated with bacteria. But a 2015 DNA test determined that the star jelly was from a frog. The test also found traces of magpie DNA, so we can probably guess what ate the frog.

Some star jelly doesn’t have anything to do with amphibians, though. Instead, some are slime molds or a type of freshwater algae-like bacteria known as nostoc. Neither slime molds nor nostoc fall from the sky but they can appear suddenly, so people may assume that’s what happened. Many birds that eat frogs and toads will eat them in midair, and may also regurgitate the indigestible portions while flying, so at least some star jelly does fall from the sky.

Sometimes people assume an animal has fallen from the sky when it actually hasn’t. For instance, the walking catfish will wriggle across dry land to find water when its pond dries up. It can grow up to 1 ½ feet long, or half a meter, and is usually grayish-brown with little white spots. Its skin is covered with mucus that helps keep it from drying out when it’s out of water. It’s native to parts of Southeast Asia, but it’s been introduced to other places, including southern Florida. In places where it’s not native, people may not be familiar with its ability to breathe air and move around out of the water, so when they see the walking catfish on land they may assume it fell from the sky.

The walking catfish is an invasive species in many areas. It’s an omnivore and can tolerate all kinds of habitats, including stagnant water where other fish can’t survive, since it can breathe air. Fish farmers in areas where the walking catfish lives have to put fences up around their ponds to keep walking catfish out. And if you see one, don’t pick it up. Its fins have spines that help stiffen them so it can use them to move more effectively on land, but that make them sharp.

We obviously don’t know everything about animals that fall from the sky, so let’s finish with a real mystery. It’s called the Kentucky Meat Shower and it happened on March 3, 1876 in a tiny community called Olympia Springs, Kentucky.

Olympia Springs is east of Lexington, Kentucky, in the southeastern United States. These days it’s in the Daniel Boone National Forest and just outside of the Olympia State Forest, so there’s not much in the area except wilderness. This was probably also the case in 1876 except that in 1876 there probably wasn’t a Dairy Queen restaurant a ten minute drive away. Wikipedia says it happened in a community named Rankin in the same county, but most other sources say Olympia Springs. Either way, it was an isolated, remote area at the time.

On this particular day, a woman only identified as Mrs. Crouch was in the yard, making soap. It was a perfectly clear day, not a cloud in the sky, when suddenly it started raining meat. She said it fell like big snowflakes all around her, but presumably not as pretty as snow, and lasted for several minutes. It was fresh meat, looked like beef or other red meat, and the pieces were irregularly shaped and gristly. Some were as big as 4 inches across, or 10 cm, but most about half that size. The meat landed all around, including on fences, in an area estimated to be about 100 yards across and 50 yards wide, or 91 by 46 meters.

Mrs. Crouch and her husband were understandably shaken by this event, and records don’t report whether the soap got finished that day but I suspect not. The next morning, the meat was still lying around, but it had dried out overnight and was starting to spoil. A couple of men stopped by and actually tasted it—ugh, I hope they at least cooked it first—and said they thought it might be venison or mutton. That’s meat from deer and sheep, respectively.

Samples of the meat were sent to various experts who examined it. Keep in mind that this was 1876 so they couldn’t do much more than look at it under an old-timey microscope. Two samples were identified as lung tissue, two as cartilage, and three as muscle.

As soon as the story hit the newspapers, people were quick to offer solutions that didn’t actually fit the reported facts. One person suggested that it was just nostoc that hadn’t actually fallen from the sky, it had been on the ground all along but that rain had made it swell up, which is something nostoc does. Never mind that nostoc is a slimy bacteria that looks nothing like meat—remember, it’s sometimes identified as star jelly—and that it wasn’t raining at the time and that Mrs. Crouch actually saw it fall and that pieces of it were found draped over fences. Plus, nostoc doesn’t taste like venison or mutton. Plus, samples were identified as actual meat.

The main suggestion is that some vultures were flying overhead and had disgorged some meat they had eaten, which had been caught by the wind and fell across a wide area. But while even nowadays people claim that is what must have happened, it has one big flaw. Vultures don’t disgorge meat while they’re flying. They disgorge it as a way to deter predators approaching their nest, and they may disgorge if a predator approaches while they’re feeding so they can get into the air quickly, but not while flying. Not only that, but any meat disgorged by a vulture would smell and taste horrible, since it would have already been rotting before the vulture ate it, and it would then be coated with caustic vulture digestive juices.

So what might have caused the Kentucky Meat Shower? If it wasn’t a newspaper hoax, which were really common in the late 19th century, it might have been the result of some poor animal that was swept up by a tornado, torn apart, and the smallest pieces dropped over the Crouch’s farm after the winds had dissipated. Presumably the heavier pieces, like bones, fell earlier and probably landed in the forest where no one saw them fall. I looked for a weather report for Kentucky for that day, but couldn’t find one. Eastern Kentucky is not too far north from where I live in East Tennessee, so I can verify that March can be a very warm month with unsettled weather. It wouldn’t be at all unusual to have a storm strong enough to generate a small but powerful tornado in March, although this usually happens at night after a hot day.

I don’t know if I believe the Kentucky Meat Shower really happened or if it was a hoax. But either way, we can stop blaming vultures.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!