Episode 208: The Happiest Animals in Australia



Thanks to Phoebe for suggesting the quokka and the wombat, two of the cutest, happiest-looking animals in Australia!

Further Reading:

Viral stories of wombats sheltering other animals from the bushfires aren’t entirely true

Satellites reveal the underground lifestyle of wombats

Giant Wombat-Like Marsupials Roamed Australia 25 Million Years Ago

Further Listening:

Animals and Ultraviolet Light (unlocked Patreon episode)

The adorable quokka with a nummy leaf and a joey in her pouch:

Quokka (left) and my chonky cat Dracula (right)

Some quokka selfies showing quokka smiles. That second picture really shows how small the quokka actually is:

Wombats!

A wombat and its burrow entrance:

A wombat mom with her joey peeking out of the rear-facing pouch:

Golden wombats. All they need is some Doublemint Gum:

Two (dead, stuffed) wombats glowing under ultraviolet light:

Show Transcript:

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

This week we’re going to look at two super-cute animals from Australia, both of them suggestions by Phoebe. Thank you, Phoebe!

Let’s start with the quokka. It’s a marsupial, which as you may recall means that it’s a mammal that gives birth to babies that aren’t fully formed yet, and the babies then finish developing in the mother’s pouch. It’s related to kangaroos and wallabies but is quite small, around the size of an ordinary domestic cat. It’s kind of a chonk, though, which means it’s probably closer in size to my big chonk cat Dracula. It’s shaped roughly like a little wallaby or kangaroo but with a smaller tail and with rounded ears, and it’s grey-brown in color.

You may have seen pictures of the quokka online, because the reason it’s considered so incredibly cute is because it looks like it’s smiling all the time. If you take a picture of a quokka’s face, it looks like it has a happy smile and that, of course, makes the people who look at it happy too. Those are real pictures, by the way. Because of the way its muzzle and mouth are shaped, the quokka really does look like it’s smiling.

This has caused some problems, unfortunately. People who want to take selfies with a quokka sometimes forget that they’re wild animals. While quokkas aren’t very aggressive and are curious animals who aren’t usually afraid of people, they can and will bite when frightened. The Nature Conservancy of Australia recommends that people who want to take a selfie with a quokka arrive early in the morning or late in the evening, since quokkas are mostly nocturnal, and that they let the quokkas approach them instead of following one around. Touching a quokka or giving it food or drink is strictly prohibited, since it’s a protected animal.

The quokka lives on a few small islands off the coast of western Australia and a few small forested areas on the mainland. The largest population lives on Rottnest Island, and in fact the island was named by a Dutch explorer who thought the quokkas were rats. It means rat’s nest. The island’s actual name was Wadjemup and it was a ceremonial area for the local Whadjuk Noongar people.

Only an estimated 14,000 quokkas live in the wild today, with most of those on Rottnest Island. It used to be much more widespread, but once white settlers arrived and introduced predators like dogs, cats, and foxes, its numbers started to decline. It’s also threatened by habitat loss. It reproduces slowly, since a female only raises one baby a year.

A baby quokka is born after only a month, but like other marsupial babies, called joeys, it’s just a little pink squidge when it’s born. It climbs into its mother’s pouch where it stays for the next six months. Once it’s old enough to leave her pouch, it still depends on her milk for a few more months. While she’s raising one baby, though, the mother has other babies still in her womb ready to be born but held in suspended animation. This means that if something happens to her joey and it dies, the mother can give birth to another baby very quickly.

The quokka is most active at night. It sleeps during most of the day, usually hidden in a type of prickly plant that helps keep predators from bothering it. It gets most of its water needs from the plants it eats, and while it mostly hops around like a teensy kangaroo, it can also climb trees.

The wombat is another adorable Australian marsupial. For some reason, I’ve talked about the wombat several times in Patreon episodes but have barely mentioned it in the main feed–but that’s about to change. Mostly because I am going to recycle a lot of the information from the Patreon episodes, but I’ve also added a lot of interesting new details.

The wombat mainly lives in southern and eastern Australia, including Tasmania. It looks a little like a cartoon bear, a little like a cartoon badger, and a little like a cartoon giant hamster. Perhaps you notice a theme here. It has short legs, no tail to speak of, and is about the size of a medium-sized dog but stockier, with a broad face and rounded ears. The female has a rear-facing pouch to keep dirt and debris from getting on her baby while digging. There are three species alive today.

The wombat is mostly nocturnal and sleeps in a burrow during the day, although it will come out during the day when it’s overcast. It eats grass and other plants. It can dig really well and some people in Australia consider it a pest because it digs under fences.

The wombat has a big round rump with tough skin reinforced with cartilage. If a dingo or other animal chases a wombat, it dives into a hole and blocks the hole with its rump. The predator can’t get a purchase on the tough hide and there’s no tail to grab. The wombat isn’t helpless, though. It can kick hard, bite hard, and if the dingo gets its head over the wombat’s back to grab for its neck, the wombat will push upward and crush the dingo’s head against the roof of the tunnel. The wombat takes no prisoners and presents its butt to danger. Also, its poop is square, as you may remember if you listened to the animal poop episode.

The wombat has a very slow metabolism and takes a week or even two weeks to fully digest a meal. It can run fast when it needs to, although it can’t keep up a fast pace for long. Wombats have even been known to knock people down by charging them, which I personally find hilarious. It can also bite ferociously if it feels threatened, and while it mostly uses its long claws for digging, they also make fearsome weapons. So it’s best to leave the wombat alone.

The wombat’s fur can be gray, tan, brown, black, or any variation on those colors, but there are rare reports of wombats with golden fur. In a 1965 letter to The Times, an anonymous writer reported spotting a golden wombat but couldn’t get anyone to believe him. “Of course you were mistaken, my family said. They said it with an irritating sureness… The golden wombat became the subject of family jokes.” And then two years later, the letter-writer saw the golden wombat again. I thought that would be a fine cryptozoological mystery to share, but when I did a search for golden wombat sightings, actual golden wombats in zoos turned up. Golden wombats are a real thing, just extremely rare. The sunshine golden fur is due to a mutation in coat color.

The Cleland Wildlife Park in Adelaide has a pair of golden hairy-nosed wombats that were discovered in 2011 and sent to the park in 2013. Golden wombats don’t survive long in the wild since their coloring makes them stand out to predators. Wombats in general are having trouble in the wild anyway due to habitat loss, introduced predators like domestic dogs, introduced rabbits and other animals that compete with it for food, the mange mite, also introduced to Australia and spread by domestic dogs, and drought.

Last year, during the awful summer bushfires in Australia, there were reports of wombats saving other animals by herding them into their deep burrows when fires approached. It’s a great story, but like many other stories that seem too good to be true, it’s not completely accurate. The wombats didn’t herd other animals into their burrows like little furry firefighters, but lots of animals did take shelter in wombat burrows to escape the fires. A wombat’s burrow isn’t just a little tunnel with a bedroom at the end. It’s way more elaborate than that, with lots of entrances and adjoining tunnels. One wombat’s burrow complex had 28 entrances and almost 295 feet of tunnels, or 90 meters. A wombat usually only sleeps in one particular burrow for a day or two before moving to a different one, and other animals routinely use the other burrows for themselves. As long as the other animal isn’t a threat, the wombat doesn’t seem to mind. So it’s not surprising that lots of animals hide in wombat burrows to escape fire.

In October of 2020 a team of scientists published a paper about ultraviolet fluorescence in the platypus, which glows greenish in ultraviolet light. The discovery was made by accident but prompted scientists throughout the world, and especially Australia, to borrow black lights from other departments to shine on their mammal collections. It turns out that a lot of nocturnal or crepuscular animals have fur that glows various colors under ultraviolet light. This includes the wombat.

There’s more ultraviolet light at dawn and dusk than during full daylight or at night, so some researchers think the glow may be a way for the animals to blend in with the increased ultraviolet light at those times. If this is the case, it’s a new type of camouflage, or rather a very old type since it’s found in animals like the platypus that have been around for a really, really long time.

Ultraviolet light is the wavelength of light beyond purple, which humans can’t see. Most humans, anyway. In April 2019 I released a Patreon episode about animals and ultraviolet light, and I’ve decided to unlock that episode for anyone to listen to. I’ll put a link in the show notes so you can click through and listen. Be aware that I did make a mistake in that episode, where I mentioned that a black light allows humans to see into the ultraviolet spectrum, but actually what people see when they shine a black light around is fluorescence and ordinary violet light.

A relative of the wombat, Diprotodon, is the largest marsupial ever known. It went extinct around 45,000 years ago, not long after the first humans populated Australia, and is also an ancestor of the koala. It and some other of the Australian megafauna may have influenced Aboriginal myths of dreamtime monsters. It stood around 6 ½ feet tall at the shoulder, or two meters, and like the wombat it had a rear-facing pouch and ate plants. Recent analysis of the front teeth, which were large and flat and grew continuously throughout the animal’s life, indicated it might have been migratory. Researchers also think it lived in social groups something like elephants do today. Its feet were flat and toed inward like modern wombat feet, and although it had claws it probably only used them to dig plants up.

A partial fossil found in 1973 in South Australia was finally described in mid-2020 as a wombat relation, although it may not be a direct ancestor to modern wombats. It lived about 25 million years ago and was the size of a bear, and had powerful front legs with claws used for digging up roots. It’s named Mukupirna nambensis and is different enough from other wombat relations that it’s been assigned to a new family of its own.

There have been reports for centuries of giant wombats or wombat-like animals in Australia and even from nearby Papua New Guinea. Some cryptozoologists think the sightings are of a smaller relative of the wombat, Hulitherium tomasetti. Hulitherium lived in the rainforests of New Guinea, and probably went extinct about the same time as Diprotodon, possibly due to hunting from newly arrived humans. It was about three feet high, or one meter, and may have eaten bamboo as a primary part of its diet. Like the panda, it seems to have a number of adaptations to feeding on a bamboo diet, including very mobile front legs, more like an ape’s than a wombat’s. It may have been able to stand on its hind legs like a bear too.

An October 26, 1932 story in The Straits Times, a Singapore newspaper, is interesting in light of the hulitherium’s size and possible appearance. I’ll quote the story, which appears in the 2016 Fortean Zoology Yearbook:

“One of our strangest visits was reserved for this morning, when Mr. Paul Pedrini, wild animal hunter and trainer, arrived leading a curious beast, brown, furry, about two feet high and four feet long and looking like no animal one could call to mind. It was very fat and adorning its neck was a large pink bow. This latter fact was the chief cause of the uneasiness shown by the oldest sub-editor. Mr. Pedrini explained that he found his little pet in Australia eighteen months ago.

“He calls it the ‘What Is It?’ because nobody can give it a name. Described as being something like a wombat, it is certainly not a wombat neither does it belong to any other known family. The ‘What Is It?’ is very tame and friendly and has kind eyes. Its chief diet is bananas and toast. We said good bye to Mr. Pedrini, patted the strange animal and returned, slightly shaken, to the normal round.”

The story isn’t sensational enough to feel like a hoax, but it doesn’t really give enough of a description of the animal to be sure it wasn’t just a larger than usual wombat. After all, the wombat does have kind eyes.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 207: The Dire Wolf!



This week we’re on the cutting edge of science, learning about the brand new genetic study of dire wolves that rearranges everything we know about the dire wolf and other canids! Also, a bonus turtle update.

Further reading:

Dire Wolves Were Not Really Wolves, Genetic Clues Reveal

An artist’s rendition of dire wolves and grey wolves fighting over a bison carcass (art by Mauricio Anton):

The pig-nosed face of the Hoan Kiem turtle, AKA Yangtze giant softshell turtle, AKA Swinhoe’s softshell turtle:

Show transcript:

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

You may have heard the news this past week about the new study about dire wolves. I thought it would make a great topic for an episode, and we’ll also have a quick update about a rare turtle that’s been in the news lately too.

Dire wolves show up pretty often in movies and TV shows and video games and books, because as far as anyone knew until very recently, the dire wolf was an extra big wolf that lived in North America during the Pleistocene until it went extinct around 13,000 years ago. Researchers assumed it was a close cousin of the modern grey wolf.

Well, in a brand new study published in Nature literally less than a week ago as this episode goes live, we now have results of a genetic study of dire wolf remains. The results give us surprising new information not just about the dire wolf, but about many other canids.

The study started in 2016, when an archaeologist, Angela Perri, who specializes in the history of human and animal interactions, wanted to learn more about the dire wolf. She went around the United States to visit university collections and museums with dire wolf remains, and took the samples she collected to geneticist Kieren Mitchell. Perri, Mitchell, and their team managed to sequence DNA from five dire wolves that lived between 50,000 and 13,000 years ago.

Then the team compared the dire wolf genome to those of other canids, including the grey wolf and coyote, two species of African wolf, two species of jackal, and the dhole, among others. To their surprise, the dire wolf’s closest relation wasn’t the grey wolf. It was the jackals, both from Africa, but even they weren’t very closely related.

It turns out that 5.7 million years ago, the shared ancestor of dire wolves and many other canids lived in Eurasia. At this point sea levels were low enough that the Bering land bridge, also called Beringia, connected the very eastern part of Asia to the very western part of North America. One population of this canid migrated into North America while the rest of the population stayed in Asia. The two populations evolved separately until the North America population developed into what we now call dire wolves. Meanwhile, the Eurasian population developed into many of the modern species we know today, and eventually migrated into North America too.

By the time the gray wolf populated North America, the dire wolf was so distantly related to it that even when their territories overlapped, they avoided each other and didn’t interbreed. We’ve talked about canids in many previous episodes, including how readily they interbreed with each other, so for the dire wolf to remain genetically isolated, it was obviously not closely related at all to other canids at this point.

The dire wolf looked a lot like a grey wolf, but researchers now think that was due more to convergent evolution than to its relationship with wolves. Both lived in the same habitats: plains, grasslands, and forests. The dire wolf was slightly taller on average than the modern grey wolf, which can grow a little over three feet tall at the shoulder, or 97 cm, but it was much heavier and more solidly built. It wouldn’t have been able to run nearly as fast, but it could attack and kill larger animals. Its head was larger in proportion than the grey wolf’s and it had massive teeth that were adapted to crush bigger bones.

The dire wolf lived throughout North America and even migrated into South America and back into east Asia. It preferred open lowlands and its most important prey animal was probably the horse, although it also ate ground sloths, camels, bison, and many others. It probably also scavenged dead animals and probably hunted as a pack.

Researchers think the dire wolf went extinct due to a combination of factors, including increased competition with grey wolves and maybe with humans, climate change, and the extinction of the megaherbivores that made up its diet. It will probably be reclassified into a different genus, Aenocyon, instead of staying in its current genus, Canis.

Before this study, most researchers thought that the ancestor of North American canids evolved in Eurasia, but had already migrated into North America before developing into dire wolves, grey wolves, coyotes, and other canid species. But now the history of canids has changed a lot. From what we now know, pending further study, the dire wolf was the only canid in North America for millions of years. Grey wolves, coyotes, and their relations are relative newcomers. It’s an exciting time for scientists studying ice age megafauna. Hopefully we’ll learn more soon as more studies are conducted into the dire wolf’s history.

Next, let’s look briefly at a type of turtle that’s been in the news lately too. Swinhoe’s softshell turtle is considered the most endangered turtle in the world. In early 2019 there were only two individuals known, a male and a female, but they had never bred despite being kept together in captivity. Then the female died in April of that year. No females meant no eggs, no baby turtles, no more Swinhoe’s softshell turtle. The species would be extinct.

But in October of 2020, researchers found a female Swinhoe’s softshell turtle in the wild! Not only that, they spotted what they think is a male turtle in the same lake, and found evidence of what may possibly be a third turtle nearby.

Swinhoe’s softshell turtle is also known as the Yangtze giant softshell turtle and used to be found in many lakes and rivers in Asia. Unfortunately, people killed it for its meat and dug up its eggs to eat, and pollution and habitat loss also killed off many of the turtles. This is the same turtle we talked about in episode 68, the Hoan Kiem turtle of Vietnam. It’s probably the largest freshwater turtle in the world, and the largest one ever measured weighed 546 lbs, or 247.5 kg. It can grow over three feet long, or 100 cm.

The newly discovered wild turtles are being monitored carefully to make sure they’re healthy, their environment is clean and safe, and to see if the female lays eggs this spring. The female was captured briefly, just long enough to take blood samples and verify that she was healthy. Then they released her back into the lake. Fingers crossed that she hatches some baby turtles soon!

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 206: The Bowerbird and the Victoria Crowned Pigeon



This week let’s learn about two birds of New Guinea, bowerbirds and the Victoria crowned pigeon! Both are beautiful and the bowerbird is kind of weird. Thanks to M Is for Awesome for the suggestion!

Further Reading:

The Women Who Removed Birds from People’s Hats

Various bowers made by various species of bowerbird:

The golden-fronted bowerbird:

Not a bowerbird but a close relation, a dead bird of paradise from New Guinea, decorating an old-timey lady’s fancy hat. I would not want to put this on my head:

A Victoria crowned pigeon, wearing a built-in fancy hat:

A Victoria crowned pigeon baby. Such miniature floof:

Show transcript:

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

This week we are finally going to look at some birds of New Guinea, a topic suggested ages ago by M Is for Awesome! There are so many weird and amazing birds in New Guinea that instead of trying to talk about a bunch of them very briefly in one episode, I’m going to make this another ongoing series throughout the year. Every so often we’ll revisit New Guinea (in our minds, anyway) and learn about a few more birds. In this episode we’ll learn some basic information about New Guinea and then learn about two really interesting birds that live there.

New Guinea comes up in lots of episodes because so many animals live there. It’s almost the world’s largest island, second only to Greenland. Australia is considered a continent, not an island. New Guinea is actually pretty close to Australia so there’s a lot of overlap between animals that live in Australia and animals that live in New Guinea.

A big reason New Guinea has so many animals is its geography. It has everything from ridiculously high mountains with glaciers to lowland rainforests, savannas, wetlands, mangrove forests, rivers, lakes, alpine tundra, and coral reefs off the coast. About the only thing it doesn’t have is a desert. Most of the island is warm and humid with lots of rain.

Of course people live in New Guinea too, and have for at least 40,000 years, possibly as long as 60,000 years. Back then, New Guinea was connected to Australia by a land bridge similar to the one that has connected North America with Asia when sea levels were low. Some of the earliest humans to migrate out of Africa settled in New Guinea, and the people there developed agriculture independently of the people who settled in the Middle East. More people arrived much later, only around 3,500 years ago, from parts of Asia. But because the land is so hard to navigate due to the mountains and rivers and so forth, people who moved to a new part of the island were largely isolated from the people in other parts. Some 7,000 languages are spoken on the island right up to the present day, with several hundred more languages once spoken.

Unfortunately, as happens so often, after European explorers discovered the island in the 16th century, they decided they would like to have it for themselves. So they took it, which is just rude. The eastern half of the island is now independent as of 1975, called Papua New Guinea, while the western half, usually just called Papua, is now part of Indonesia. Indonesia is an Asian country and unfortunately, they’re being just as bad to the indigenous people of the area as Europeans were.

There are still lots of places in New Guinea that scientists haven’t explored, mostly in the mountains, and undoubtedly lots and lots of animals and birds that are completely unknown to science. Some of the animals and birds of the mountains may never have been seen by any person at all.

M specifically wanted us to cover bowerbirds, so let’s start with them. Bowerbirds live in Australia and New Guinea along with a few smaller islands, with twenty species known. You may have heard about them before, because a male bowerbird builds what’s called a bower and decorates it with items he selects to attract a female. A bower is a nice little shady area where you’d like to have a picnic, unless you’re a female bowerbird in which case you’d like to examine all the things a male has collected and evaluate his elaborate courtship dance.

Because the female builds a nest and takes care of her eggs and chicks by herself, she’s really picky about who she mates with. She wants the strongest, healthiest male she can find so her babies will be healthy too. She looks for a male who has the energy to build a bower, collect pretty items to decorate it, and then perform an elaborate courtship dance when the female shows up. She will visit numerous bowers before she makes a decision, narrowing them down over the course of several days or even weeks until she chooses between the best candidates.

Researchers think the bowerbird is most closely related to corvids, which as you may remember includes birds like crows, magpies, and jays, but they’re also closely related to birds of paradise. Some bowerbirds are plain black or brown, some are mostly black or brown with green or other colored markings, while some are brightly colored overall. For instance, the male flame bowerbird that lives in rainforests in New Guinea has a bright orangey-red head and shoulders shading to bright yellow body and wings, with a black tail tipped with yellow. The female is more brown but she has a bright yellow belly.

The species most people have heard of is the satin bowerbird, where the male has black feathers that shine iridescent blue in sunlight and who collects almost exclusively blue items to attract a female. The satin bowerbird lives in Australia, not New Guinea. The bowerbirds that live in Australia are more well studied than the ones in New Guinea because it’s easier to find them.

Not all bowerbirds build bowers, though. The catbirds of Australia and New Guinea are mostly green, and instead of the males building bowers to attract a mate who then goes off to lay her eggs and take of the babies herself, both parents take care of the babies.

Let’s talk a little more about these bowers. There are two main types, the maypole bower and the avenue bower, and a particular species of bowerbird will only ever build one or the other. A male who builds a maypole bower chooses a sapling tree or large fern and places sticks against it all around. Some maypole bowers look like little huts. An avenue bower is made of two walls of sticks with a walkway between. These structures can be big, sometimes up to three feet high, or about a meter, although most are smaller. Most bowerbirds are fairly big too, about the size of a jay or magpie.

Once he’s built the bower, the male finds and places items around it that he hopes a female will like. He will spend hours arranging and rearranging them. Some species put light-colored objects down first, then display colored items on top. Some birds will place smaller items in front, larger items in back, so that when the female is inside the bower all the items appear to be about the same size. Different species of bowerbird prefer different colors of item.

The items a male chooses for decoration vary from bird to bird depending on what he can find, or what he can steal from other males, and can include shells, stones, coins, pieces of glass, berries, feathers, bones, flowers, leaves, bottle caps, dead beetles, fungus, moss, snail shells, bark, nuts, and many other things.

Bowerbirds mainly eat fruit, but they also eat insects and some also eat nectar and flowers.

Let’s look into the story of a particular bowerbird before we move on to another type of bird. The male golden-fronted bowerbird is a rusty reddish-brown with a long golden crest, while the female is olive brown. The species was described in 1895 from skins imported to decorate hats.

In the 19th century women wore fancy hats, at least in Europe and America and other places that were influenced by this fancy-hat-wearing trend, and the more well-to-do a woman was, the fancier she wanted her hats. This was before synthetic dyes, so the brightest, fanciest, and most expensive way to decorate a hat was with the feathers of exotic birds. Sometimes it wasn’t just a few feathers or even a lot of feathers, but an entire wing or a bunch of bird wings. As the style grew more and more elaborate, often it was an entire dead bird, stuffed and mounted on a hat. I am not known for my sense of style, but that just seems really gross. But it was the style at the time and it meant hat-makers would pay a lot for exotic birds, especially ones with brightly colored feathers. The demand for feathers was so high, it nearly drove some species to extinction.

When an American woman named Harriet Hemenway heard about the slaughter of birds happening all around the world just so women could have fancier and fancier hats, she and her cousin Minna Hall started spreading the word to all the women they knew: stop buying and wearing hats with dead birds on them. The women attracted more and more supporters, both among hat-wearing ladies and people who just liked birds, and Hemenway and Hall pushed for a boycott of the feather trade. They even started the Massachusetts Audubon Society, the forerunner of the National Audubon Society that’s still around today.

You would think that this would be an obvious law to put into place. I mean, yes, don’t kill millions of rare birds just for hat decorations. But there was a lot of money involved in feather imports back then. People who were getting rich off dead birds called the Audubon Society extremists who wanted to put people out of jobs. Fortunately, the women persisted, and in 1900 the first federal conservation act was put into place in the United States to stop the import of feathers.

But before the feather trade was banned, some scientists made a habit of looking through imports of feathers and bird skins to find new species. That’s how one ornithologist discovered the golden-fronted bower bird, but he didn’t know where it was from. He described the species from the skin and that’s where the story ended for almost a century.

In 1979, a biologist named Jared Diamond was hired to survey New Guinea for the site of a national park. He spent a month hiking through areas where no scientist had ever been before, and returned in 1981 for another few weeks to look for bowerbirds specifically. And as you may have guessed, he saw golden-fronted bowerbirds alive and well in the Foja Mountains. The mountains are steep and inaccessible, which has helped protect the bird from hunters and habitat loss. The first photographs of the bird were only taken in 2005.

Next, let’s look at a pigeon that lives in New Guinea. New Guinea has a whole lot of pigeons and doves, something like 60 species although some are now extinct due to habitat loss and other factors. The Victoria crowned pigeon is a beautiful bird that lives in the lowlands and swampy forests. It’s increasingly threatened in the wild due to habitat loss and hunting, but it’s so pretty that many people keep it in captivity. Unfortunately that also means people trap the wild birds to sell, even though it’s illegal and the birds are hard to take care of properly, although they do tend to be easy to tame. Some zoos let them wander around the grounds the same way peacocks often do.

The Victoria crowned pigeon is indeed a pigeon. It’s a soft blue-grey all over with a reddish patch on its breast, lighter blue wing bars and tail tip, red eyes in a dark blue mask, and a gorgeous spray of feathers on its head that are tipped with white. It’s just lovely. It’s the sort of bird that people would have put on hats in the olden days, but I’m glad they don’t anymore. It’s an especially large bird, too, at least twice as big as ordinary pigeons you see in cities. Basically it’s the size of a big chicken. It mostly eats fruit, especially figs, although it will also eat seeds and small animals like insects, and it doesn’t fly much. It mostly eats fruit that has fallen from trees.

Like all pigeons it’s a sociable bird that usually forages in a small flock or in pairs. It only lays one egg at a time and its baby is blue with white streaks. Both parents feed the baby with crop milk, which we’ve talked about before in various episodes. It’s not actually milk, just a nutritious shed lining of the crop.

During courtship, the male dances for the female to show off his crest, and he also makes a loud booming noise that doesn’t actually sound like a pigeon call. It sounds more like a special effect from a movie set in space. This is what it sounds like:

[pigeon booming]

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 205: Sea Scorpions and the Late Ordovician Mass Extinction Event



Happy new year! This week we’ll learn about the oldest mass extinction event, some 450 million years ago, and also sea scorpions.

Further reading:

Coming up for air: Extinct sea scorpions could breathe out of water, fossil detective unveils

Sea scorpions could get really, really big:

A fossil Eurypterus:

Show transcript:

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

Hello, 2021, please be better than 2020 was. I’ve got lots of fun, interesting episodes planned for this year, but let’s start the year off right with an episode about, uh, a major extinction event. Specifically it’s the Late Ordovician mass extinction, which occurred around 450 million years ago. This is the first of a series of episodes about extinction events I have planned for this year, which I hope you’ll find interesting. We’ll also learn about an animal called the sea scorpion.

If you’ve listened to episode 69, about the Cambrian explosion, you may remember that the fossil record shows that around 540 million years ago life on earth evolved from simple organisms into much more complicated ones. This happened relatively quickly in geologic terms, about 15 to 25 million years for life to go from microbial mats, simple worms, and single-celled animals to fantastical creatures with shells and spikes and novel ways of feeding as animals adapted to fit new ecological niches.

But what happened after that? A series of extinction events, that’s what.

The first extinction event researchers can identify from the fossil record is called the End-Botomian extinction event, which happened around 510 million years ago in two phases. We’re not sure what caused the extinctions, but the main theory is that a series of massive volcanic eruptions caused climate changes that led to acidification of the oceans and a resulting loss of oxygen from the water. This was followed by another extinction event around 500 million years ago. All told, during these ten million years or so, about 40% of all species of animal went extinct.

But remember, all we have to work with is the fossil record. Researchers know how old particular rock strata are, strata being the term for layers, so when they find a fossil embedded in a rock they know roughly how long ago it lived. Only a small percentage of animals that ever live end up fossilized, and only a small percentage of fossils are ever found by humans, and only a small percentage of fossils found by humans get studied by experts. So while scientists do their best, they’re working with a limited amount of data to determine what happened half a billion years ago. It’s like trying to determine the rise and fall of empires from a series of random photographs.

But when older rocks show a whole lot of fossils of various kinds, and then slightly younger rocks show way fewer or no fossils, researchers can be pretty sure that something catastrophic happened to kill off a lot of animal life in a relatively short amount of time. If they find the same changes in rocks of the same age in different parts of the world, the catastrophe was probably worldwide and serious enough to impact life on Earth for thousands or even millions of years. That’s what happened in the late Ordovician.

Around 460 million years ago, about the time that life was getting back to normal after the last extinction event, glaciers started to form across the land. Most of the continents at this time were smushed together into a supercontinent called Gondwana, which was mostly in the southern hemisphere. Much of the rest of the Earth was one big ocean, and it was hot and tropical just about everywhere. But that changed when temperatures dropped drastically. Glaciers formed, sea levels fell, and some 60% of all life on Earth went extinct, all possibly within about one million years.

We don’t know why, but we do have some clues and some theories. We know there was a major meteor event around 467 million years ago, which can be pinpointed because of the craters and specific minerals and bits of meteorites found that can only come from meteors hitting the earth. The impacts kicked dust into the atmosphere that then reflected sunlight back into space, causing less light to reach the earth.

Another cause might have just been a cyclical movement of the Earth in space. As you hopefully know, Earth rotates on its axis in a 24 hour period, giving us day and night, and at the same time it’s moving in an elliptical orbit around the sun in a 12-month period, which of course is a year. The sun and the other planets and everything else in our solar system are also moving in space in a larger orbit, and there are other even larger orbits that our solar system is part of within our galaxy, which is moving too. With all this movement all the time, it’s not surprising that Earth’s climate is affected in very long cycles, together with the effects of the moon’s gravitational pull making the Earth’s orbit just slightly wobbly. A combination of events, including where the Earth was in its orbit, might have caused the Earth to cool just enough that it set off an ice age. If this happened at about the same time that the meteor event also caused the Earth to cool a little, that would explain why the onset of glaciation happened so quickly in geological terms.

Whatever the cause or causes, it had serious repercussions. The cooling climate and drop in ocean levels as ice formed caused rapid extinctions of animals that lived in shallow water and were adapted to tropical climates.

But the extinction event was a one-two punch. The cold didn’t kill off every animal, of course, and those that remained evolved to take advantage of ecological niches that were suddenly empty. This is always how life manages after an extinction event. But these new species were adapted to the cold. And then, almost as suddenly as they formed, the glaciers melted.

Sea levels rose dramatically. The Earth warmed again, although not to its former levels. As the glaciers melted, cold fresh water flowed into the ocean and may have caused deep ocean water to rise to the surface, a process called upwelling. The deep ocean water brought nutrients with it that then spread across the ocean’s surface, and this would have set off a massive microbial bloom.

Microbial blooms sometimes happen today in small areas of the ocean or in lakes, especially in places where fertilizers make it into the water. Algae or bacteria that feed on certain nutrients suddenly have a whole lot of food, and they reproduce as fast as possible to take advantage of it. But the microbes use up oxygen, so much of it that the water can become depleted. This leads to massive die-offs of fish and other animals. But these modern microbial blooms are relatively small. The ones 450-odd million years ago might have been worldwide. As the glaciers melted they exposed more land, which meant more nutrients flowing into the ocean, feeding the microbial blooms that continued to deplete oxygen from the ocean.

The result was a severe lack of oxygen in the water that would have driven more species to extinction. Some researchers think it took three million years for the oceans to recover.

There are many other possible causes for the Late Ordovician mass extinction, although right now the cooling and then warming of the earth seems to be the most widely accepted among scientists. But whatever the causes, the results were dramatic. Entire families of animal went extinct, probably around 100 of them, and many others were affected. Some 70% of trilobite species went extinct, for instance.

The Late Ordovician mass extinction marks the end of the Ordovician era and the beginning of the Silurian around 443 million years ago. Remember that these names for eras are just the way that geologists and other scientists can indicate the age of an event or rock or fossil. It’s not like trilobites and brachiopods had little calendars and on one particular day that calendar said “Extinction” and everyone died. It was a gradual process, no matter how fast it occurred in geologic terms. If you had a time machine and could travel back to 450 million years ago, whatever day you arrived, the world would just look normal. You’d have to observe for at least hundreds of years to understand that the Earth was in the process of an extinction event.

You’ll be glad to know that the Silurian lasted almost 25 million years and was nice and quiet geologically. Life rebounded after the extinctions, as it always does, and more animals and plants adapted to live on land. Fish evolved rapidly during this time, developing bony skeletons and jaws. The Earth was comfortably warm but stormy, since the warm water and massive oceans would have spawned hurricanes that make the ones today look puny. But for the most part life was good in the Silurian.

The ocean was populated with lots of animals, including early fish, trilobites, crinoids, corals, leeches, and shelled animals called brachiopods as well as the more familiar mollusks. Sea levels were high and the land was mostly flat. There weren’t many mountains. So around Gondwana were lots of islands that were barely higher than the water level.

In the shallow oceans around what is now North America, an arthropod called the eurypterid was incredibly common, with some 250 species known. Many of them persisted until about 250 million years ago and they lived throughout the world. Eurypterids are often called sea scorpions, but they didn’t look much like modern scorpions. The typical Eurypterid looked a lot like the modern horseshoe crab, but with a longer segmented body and tail. But even though it looked sort of like a horseshoe crab, it may have been more closely related to modern scorpions.

The earliest sea scorpion known was Pentecopterus, which has been found in the fossil record in rocks dated to about 467 million years ago. It grew up to five feet 7 inches long, or 1.7 meters. One interesting thing to note is that it lived in a particular round basin some three miles across, or a bit over 5 km, in what is now Iowa in the United States. Researchers think it was actually a crater from a meteor impact near the ocean’s shore, and that the water in it was probably brackish. Remember how there was a major meteor event 467 million years ago? Pentecopterus was probably living in a crater made by one of those pieces of meteorite. It would have been the apex predator in that small environment, eating anything it could catch with its crablike legs. Later sea scorpions developed a pair of crab-like pincers at the front, along with a flattened tail that sometimes had a pointed barb at the end.

Eurypterids lived in the water. While some grew less than an inch long, or a few cm, some grew quite large. One species of Jaekelopterus could grow 8 ½ feet long, or 2.6 meters. That doesn’t even include the claws at the front that could extend at least another 18 inches, or 45 cm. It was probably a freshwater animal, and despite its size it was streamlined and lightweight, so it would have been an active predator. We even have fossilized fish bones that show puncture wounds that might have been made by its claws. Some eurypterids weren’t very good swimmers, though, and probably spent more time walking along the bottom of the shallow ocean.

So between Jaekelopterus in fresh water and the earliest known sea scorpion, Pentecopterus, in possibly brackish water, it’s obvious that from the very beginning the sea scorpion could adapt to various environments that other animals couldn’t. This adaptability is probably why the sea scorpion survived the extinction event that killed off so many other animals, and it continued to thrive for hundreds of millions of years afterwards.

Not only that, one fossil takes its adaptability a step farther. A geology professor named James Lamsdell heard about a strange eurypterid found in France that had been in a Scottish museum for 30 years. He arranged to have the fossil imaged with a CT scanner, which revealed its gills. And to Lamsdell’s surprise, the gills contained structures found in modern scorpions and spiders, which keep the gill plates from collapsing when it’s out of water. These structures have been retained in modern arachnids from their marine ancestors, and finding them in a eurypterid was shocking. It means that particular eurypterid could spend time on land. Lamsdell and his team think it came out of the water to lay its eggs, either in sheltered pools or in wet sand.

Eurypterids died out eventually, but their cousins, modern scorpions, are doing just fine after surviving many other extinction events. So try to be more like a scorpion, because obviously they’re doing something right.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 204: Frogs of Many Cheery Colors



Let’s finish off a very weird year and welcome in the new year with a basket of colorful frogs!

The northern leopard frog comes in many color morphs, all of them pretty:

The starry dwarf frog is also pretty and has an orange tummy:

The astonishing turtle frog:

 

Poison dart frogs are colorful and deadly (blue poison dart frog, golden poison dart frog):

The tomato frog looks like a tomato that is also a frog:

Show transcript:

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

It’s the very last week of 2020, and good riddance. Let’s kick the old year out the back door and welcome in the new year with a basket of pretty frogs. That’s right, we’ve got a frog episode this week!

Let’s start with the northern leopard frog, with thanks to an anonymous reviewer who gave the podcast a really nice five-star review and only signed the review “norhern lepord frong.” I looked that frog up online to see what it looked like, and it’s so pretty, honestly, it’s just the prettiest frog! If you had a basket of northern leopard frogs, they might just look like friendly flowers, because while most are green or brown with darker spots, some are much brighter green with yellow markings, some are dark brown, and some are even pinkish white because of a rare albino trait. Its spots are outlined with yellow or light green and it has two folds of skin that run the length of the body and are sometimes yellow. These folds of skin are called dorsolateral folds and many frogs have them, although they’re not always as easy to spot as in the northern leopard frog.

The northern leopard frog is native to the northern part of North America, especially southern Canada and the northern and western United States. It grows up to 4.5 inches long, or 11.5 cm, measured from snout to vent. As you may recall from previous frog episodes, that’s how frogs are always measured. It basically just means nose to butt. Females are larger than males, which is also the case for most frogs.

It lives anywhere that it can find fresh water, including rivers, streams, creeks, ponds, marshes, even drainage ditches, but it prefers slow-moving or quiet water. As a result, it’s threatened by loss of habitat, pollution, and climate change, all of which affect the water it needs to live, and it’s also threatened by non-native animals and diseases. But while it doesn’t live in as many places as it used to, right now it’s doing fine overall and isn’t considered endangered.

Like most frogs, the northern leopard frog eats insects and any other small animal it can swallow. It has a long sticky tongue that it can shoot out so quickly that even an insect can’t outfly it, but it doesn’t just eat insects. It’s a big frog with a big mouth, and it’s been recorded eating other species of frog, small snakes, small birds, and even a bat. But mostly it eats insects, slugs, snails, and worms. Probably the frog that was documented as catching and eating a bat is famous in the northern leopard frog world, or at least it would be if real life was like the inside of my head and frogs had their own tiny newspapers.

The northern leopard frog was once considered a delicacy, with most frogs’ legs coming from this particular species. It’s also sometimes kept as a pet. It’s mostly nocturnal and semi-aquatic, sometimes called the meadow frog because it will leave the water to hunt for food in grassy areas. It hibernates in winter but is better adapted to cold weather than a lot of frogs are.

There’s also a southern leopard frog that looks very similar to the northern leopard frog but lives farther south, which you probably guessed from the name. It’s also slightly larger than the northern leopard frog, up to five inches long, or 13 cm.

Male leopard frogs, like many other frogs, have special vocal sacs in the throat that allow a male to make a loud call in spring to attract females. Different species of frog have different calls, naturally, and the vocal sacs are shaped differently in every species. The male leopard frog, northern and southern, has two vocal sacs that he fills with air like balloons, which amplifies the sound of his voice and makes it much louder.

This is what a northern leopard frog sounds like:

[frog sound]

Another colorful frog is from India and was only discovered in 2010. A team of scientists surveying the mountains for reptiles and amphibians noticed a teensy frog in the leaf litter one night. Its back was brown with light blue dots that looked like stars in a night sky, but its belly was orange like a sunset. It’s a very pretty frog.

The researchers caught several of the frogs and thought they were pretty but not especially unusual. There are at least 400 known frogs in India and new species are found pretty frequently. The team named it the starry dwarf frog because of the blue dots and its size, less than 20 mm long, or around half an inch. That’s about the size of an adult’s thumbnail.

After the expedition, though, when the team examined the frogs more closely, they realized they had something different from other frogs. It didn’t seem to be related to any other frog species in India or anywhere else. A genetic analysis indicated that the starry dwarf frog is literally not closely related to any frog alive today. For millions of years India was a big island after it separated from Madagascar and Africa but before it collided with mainland Asia, so many species evolved independently from species in other parts of the world. Scientists hope to learn more about the starry dwarf frog to learn more about how other frogs evolved.

Let’s move on to another colorful frog, and a very weird one, the turtle frog. Simon brought this one to my attention, so thank you, Simon! This frog gets its name because it sort of looks like a tiny turtle without a shell.

The turtle frog lives in western Australia in areas that are much dryer than most frog habitats. Its body is bulbous with strong, stubby legs that allow it to burrow into the sand. Generally, when a frog burrows into sand or mud it does so by moving backwards, digging itself deeper with its strong hind legs. But the turtle frog digs forward, using its front legs to dig. Turtles are also forward diggers. Unlike most other frogs, the turtle frog doesn’t have long hind legs that it uses for jumping. It just has short legs in front and back.

It ranges in color from brown to reddish-brown to pink and it grows up to 2 inches long, or 5 cm. Its head is small, rounded, and distinct from the body, like a baby turtle’s head sticking out from its shell–but without a shell, without a beak, and with small black-dot eyes.

Obviously the turtle frog isn’t related to the turtle at all. Turtles are reptiles while frogs are amphibians. The turtle frog has adapted to a semi-arid climate and a diet of termites by evolving the ability to dig deep burrows, some of them almost four feet deep, or 1.2 meters, and the ability to break into termite nests. As a result, its body plan is different from most other frogs.

That’s not all that’s different, though. Most frogs lay eggs in water, which hatch into tadpoles that live in the water until they metamorphose into small frogs. The turtle frog doesn’t have that kind of luxury. It doesn’t have a lot of water most of the time, so it hatches into a tiny froglet instead of a tadpole.

The most colorful frogs in the world live in the tropics, especially the poison dart frogs of Central and South America. Poison dart frogs are diurnal, meaning they’re most active during the daytime, and they’re fairly small, with the biggest species growing to no more than about two and a half inches long, or 6 cm. Different species of poison dart frogs are different colors and patterns, ranging from a lovely bright blue to red or yellow. These little frogs need to be brightly colored so that predators know to leave them alone, and the reason they should leave them alone is that poison dart frogs are incredibly toxic.

You may have heard the story that natives of South America would rub the tips of their darts or arrows on these frogs to transfer the frogs’ toxic secretions to the weapons. That’s where the name poison dart frog comes from. That’s sort of true, but not completely true. Not all poison dart frogs were used in this way, just four of the largest species that are especially toxic.

One of these four species is the golden poison dart frog, which lives in the rainforests of Colombia. It’s usually bright yellow with black eyes, although some individuals are a minty green or orange. It looks cheery, but a single frog has enough poison to kill two African elephants, not that it would because it lives in South America and not Africa and the elephants would not try to eat the frog. One frog has enough poison to kill 10 to 20 humans, though, so don’t try to eat one. In fact, don’t even touch it, because poison dart frogs store their poison in skin glands and if a frog feels threatened, it will secrete a tiny amount of the poison. If that poison gets into your body, you will die.

So why do people keep golden poison dart frogs as pets? That would be like having a pet stick of dynamite, right? Actually, it turns out that frogs born in captivity don’t develop the toxins that wild frogs have. Frogs that are captured in the wild and kept in captivity will eventually lose the toxins, although it may take several years. This is because the frog doesn’t manufacture the toxins itself but retains toxins found in some insects it eats, although researchers aren’t sure yet which insect or insects.

The golden poison dart frog lays its eggs on the ground. This sounds weird until you remember that it lives in a rainforest and the ground is covered with dead leaves that are constantly wet from rain. When the eggs hatch into tadpoles, though, they need more than just wet leaves, so the parent frogs squat down and the tadpoles wriggle onto the parents’ backs. They stick there and the parents carry them not to a pond but up into the trees. Water collects in the middle of large leaves of some rainforest tree species, and of course there are always little hollows and holes in tree trunks that can fill with rainwater. The frogs deposit the tadpoles into these little puddles, where the tadpoles eat mosquito larvae and algae. But even then, the parents don’t abandon their babies. Golden poison dart frogs are social animals, not generally a trait you associate with frogs, and they live in little groups of around half a dozen individuals. When the tadpoles finish developing and metamorphose into adult frogs, the parents lead their babies to other golden poison dart frogs so they can join a group.

Finally, our last colorful frog of the episode and the very last animal we’ll cover for 2020 is the tomato frog. As you might have guessed, the tomato frog is red-orange in color. It lives in Madagascar and a big female can grow up to 4 inches long, or 10.5 cm. Males are much smaller and are more yellow than red. But the tomato frog doesn’t use its coloring to hide among tomato plants. Its coloring advertises that it’s toxic, although its toxin is much different from those found in poison dart frogs and not deadly.

The tomato frog mostly eats worms and termites, which it finds by digging around in the leaf litter. It also catches insects with its sticky tongue. It’s not a very good swimmer, surprisingly, and spends most of its time on land or in swampy areas. It’s a mostly nocturnal frog.

If a tomato frog feels threatened, it will puff itself up to appear larger, which also incidentally makes it look even more like a tomato. It will also secrete a sticky white toxin that irritates a predator’s mucus membranes and can cause serious allergic reactions in humans. The toxin is so sticky that it will remain in the predator’s mouth for days. So if you live in Madagascar and have a tomato garden, carefully examine every tomato before you take a bite.

This is what a tomato frog sounds like:

[tomato frog croaking]

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 203: Swarms!



Thanks to Nicholas and Juergen for their suggestions! Let’s learn about some insects that migrate and swarm!

Further listening:

The Animal Migrations Patreon episode (it’s unlocked so anyone can listen)

Further reading:

Ladybugs Are Everywhere!

Monarch butterflies gathered in winter:

The painted lady butterfly:

The bogong moth:

The globe skimmer dragonfly:

Ladybugs spend the winter in bunches, sometimes in your house:

A stink bug, one of many potentially in your house:

This person is not afraid of locusts even though I would be freaking out:

A field in Australia being eaten by locusts (the brown part):

Show transcript:

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

Let’s learn about some insects this week, but not just any old insects. Let’s learn about insects that swarm. Thanks to Nicholas and Juergen for suggestions that led to this episode!

Nicholas suggested long-distance migrators ages ago, and I did do an episode about migration for a Patreon episode. I’ve unlocked that episode so anyone can listen to it, with a link in the show notes. I’ve also used some of the information in that episode for this one, specifically the part about monarch butterflies.

In fact, let’s start with the monarch butterfly. The monarch is a good-sized butterfly, with orange and black wings with white spots along the edges and a wingspan of up to four inches, or 10 cm. It lives in many parts of the world, but only the North American subspecies of monarch migrates.

Every autumn, monarch butterflies living in North America, where they breed, head south to winter in the mountains of central Mexico, a trip that can be as long as 3,000 miles, or 4,800 km. They spend the winter in oyamel fir trees, millions of butterflies in the branches. When spring arrives, the butterflies head north again, but they don’t get all the way back to their original range. If they’re lucky, they reach Texas, where they mate and lay eggs on milkweed plants before dying. The caterpillars hatch, eat up the milkweed, spin cocoons, and emerge transformed into new butterflies that continue the flight north, deeper into North America. But those butterflies don’t make it all the way to their parents’ home range either. They too stop to mate, lay eggs, and die. It can take four or five generations for monarch butterflies to reach Canada and other distant parts of North America, and by that time it’s autumn again. The butterflies fly back to Mexico.

Butterflies heading north live out their entire life cycle in only five or six weeks, but the butterflies that return to Mexico live up to eight months. Researchers think the northward migration follows the blooming of milkweed plants. Milkweed contains toxins that make the monarchs poisonous to a lot of animals, but some birds and a lot of insects will eat the caterpillars. Some populations of North American monarchs overwinter in California, Arizona, or Florida instead of Mexico.

The North American monarch is declining in numbers, probably mostly due to the decline of milkweed. The best way to help the butterfly is to plant milkweed in any area you don’t want to mow very often.

While the monarch migration is astounding, it’s not the only butterfly that migrates. A small, pretty butterfly called the painted lady lives throughout much of the world, even the Arctic, but not South America for some reason. Some populations stay put year-round, but some migrate long distances. One population winters in tropical Africa and travels as far as the Arctic Circle during summer, a distance of 4,500 miles, or 7,200 km, which takes six generations. The butterflies who travel back to Africa fly at high altitude, unlike monarch butterflies that fly quite low to the ground most of the time. Unlike the monarch, painted ladies like many kinds of flowers, not just one plant, and they don’t always migrate every year.

In Australia, some populations of the bogong moth migrate some 600 miles, or 965 km. It’s a dark brown moth with a wingspan of up to two inches across, or 5 cm, and naturally enough, it migrates at night. Unlike the butterflies we’ve talked about, the migration doesn’t take successive generations. In spring the moths fly from the lowlands into the mountains, where they spend the summer mostly hiding in caves and other dark places. The bogong moth actually breeds and lays eggs in winter, because it doesn’t like hot weather.

Birds and some other animals depend on the moth migration for food, when they can eat a lot of big fat moths and get lots of protein. Some Aboriginal tribes of southeastern Australia also used to follow the migration into the mountains, where they would gather lots of moths from caves and roast them. Apparently they taste like nuts.

But the insect that migrates farthest is a species of dragonfly. The globe skimmer, also called the wandering glider or winged wanderer, lives in much of the world, but not in Europe. Researchers think it can’t cross the Sahara to reach Europe, but it can cross the Himalayas. It’s the highest-flying dragonfly known as a result. Even though it’s a small dragonfly, less than two inches long, or 4.5 cm, it has big wings, with a wingspan of almost three and a half inches, or 8 and a half cm. Its abdomen is usually yellow, although males are sometimes more reddish. It’s a strong, fast flier and that’s a good thing, because an individual dragonfly may fly as far as 3,700 miles, or 6,000 km, during migration.

Different populations migrate to different areas, naturally, but scientists have compared the genetic profiles of globe skimmers from different parts of the world and discovered that they’re all extremely similar. This can only happen if the dragonflies from different continents are breeding with each other, which suggests that they’re traveling even farther than we already know. The globe skimmer crosses the Indian Ocean between Asia and Africa, and it shows up on incredibly remote islands, so obviously it’s able to cross vast distances without too much trouble.

The reason the globe skimmer migrates is that it needs fresh water to lay its eggs in. Many parts of the world have well-defined rainy seasons and dry seasons, and the globe skimmer wants to stay where it’s rainy. As it travels, it meets up with other dragonflies, mates, and lays eggs as it goes. The eggs develop quickly and the larvae mature within a few weeks, and immediately join the migration.

The reason the globe skimmer is able to migrate is because of its big wings and flying style. Its wings are broad as well as long, which allows it to ride the wind like a surfer riding a wave. It can glide long distances without needing to move its wings, which saves a lot of energy.

But most insects don’t exactly migrate, or at least they only travel relatively short distances to find a place to winter. The ladybug, for instance.

Juergen emailed me a few months ago about meeting one ladybug outside, then going inside to find a bajillion ladybugs. This happens a lot in autumn and it’s amazing how such a pretty little insect can suddenly seem horrifying when there are hundreds or even thousands of them in your home. It happens because many species of ladybug gather together to spend the winter in a sheltered area. Usually the sheltered area is a forest floor or a rock with lots of crannies for them to hide in. But sometimes it’s your house.

The outside of a light-colored house reflects heat from the sun, which is good for your house but which also attracts ladybugs. When a ladybug finds a nice place to spend the winter, it releases pheromones that attract other ladybugs, and before you know it, your house is ladybug central. Even if you bring in an exterminator to get rid of the bugs, the pheromones remain and will continue to attract ladybugs for years. All you can do is make sure ladybugs can’t get into your house by sealing up every little crack and gap. If the ladybugs do remain, a lot of them will probably die because most houses are too dry for them in winter. The ones that do survive will leave in spring, and at least they don’t eat anything while they’re hibernating. Ladybugs eat aphids and other plant pests during warmer months, so they’re helpful to gardeners and farmers. There are special traps you can get that attract ladybugs and hold them inside until you take them out and release them.

Another insect, commonly called the stinkbug for the nasty odor it releases if it feels threatened, also called the shield bug for its shape, also sometimes comes into houses to spend the winter, sometimes in huge numbers. The most common species in North America these days is the brown marmorated stinkbug, which is a mottled brown with small black and white markings to help it blend in with tree bark. It can grow up to three-quarters of an inch long, or two cm, and is big and heavy and a very clumsy flyer.

The brown marmorated stinkbug is an invasive species from Asia that arrived in North America in the 1990s and has spread throughout the continent, especially the eastern United States. It eats plants and can destroy fruit crops and other crops like beans and tomatoes. So unlike the ladybug, it’s not a beneficial insect to humans. But despite its bad smell, it’s not dangerous to humans or pets. The stinkbug will often appear in your house in fall but also in spring, when it emerges from its little hiding spot in your house and tries to find its way outside.

Finally, let’s look at an infamous swarming insect, the locust. Locusts are responsible for untold thousands of humans dying of starvation when clouds of them sweep through a location, eat up every scrap of food they can find, and move on when all the food is gone. But what are locusts, and why do they do this?

The locust is a type of grasshopper. Specifically, it’s one of several species of short-horned grasshoppers. Ordinarily the grasshoppers are no different from other grasshoppers. But occasionally there’s a drought where a population of the grasshoppers live, and after the drought is over and the plants that died back start to grow really fast, the grasshoppers change.

First, the grasshoppers start to breed much more than usual. When those eggs hatch, the nymphs, which is what baby grasshoppers are called, stay together in groups instead of dispersing and start moving together. They don’t have wings until they grow up so they just hop together and meet up with more and more nymphs. Once they metamorphose into adult grasshoppers, they’re called locusts although they’re still the same grasshoppers as before, just with different behaviors. Some species also look a little different during swarming seasons, often larger than usual and sometimes with different coloration or markings.

Many of these species of grasshopper are large, up to four and a half inches long, or 11 cm, with large wings that make them strong fliers. The swarms can fly up to 93 miles a day, or 150 km, and land when they find a lot of food, which may be crops planted by humans. After the swarm has eaten everything it can find, it moves on to find more. It also leaves behind lots of eggs that soon hatch into new grasshopper nymphs that eat anything that’s started growing again.

If you’re wondering how even a whole bunch of grasshoppers can cause people to starve to death, you don’t have an idea yet of the size of the swarms. Locust swarms can contain tens of billions of grasshoppers. That’s billion with a B. An individual swarm can easily cover more than 100 square miles, or 260 square km, and when they land, they will literally eat every growing plant down to the ground, every single leaf, every single blade of grass, everything. Not only is there nothing left of crops when a locust swarm has come through, there’s no grass or leaves for animals to eat.

The largest locust swarm that we know of was seen in 1875 in the western United States. The swarm covered an estimated 198,000 square miles, or 510,000 square km. That’s larger than the entire state of California. There may have been over 12 trillion individual grasshoppers in that swarm.

This was the Rocky Mountain locust, which was adapted to the prairies of North America. As white settlers pushed west and planted crops where there had formerly only been prairie grass and other prairie plants, the farmers were repeatedly visited by locusts that ate not just their crops, but everything else they could find. The locusts ate leather, wool, wood, and there are even reports of locusts eating the clothes people were actually wearing. There were so many locusts that they couldn’t be avoided. They would get into houses and eat up food in the pantries, along with blankets and clothing. People tried everything they could think of to destroy the locusts, from setting entire fields on fire to building horse-drawn bulldozers that smashed the locusts flat. But nothing helped. There were too many of them.

But as the years passed and more and more prairie was converted to fields or pastures for cattle, and more cities and towns grew up in the west, the Rocky Mountain locust started to decline in numbers. In 2014 it was declared extinct, but by then no one had seen a Rocky Mountain locust since 1902. It’s possible they’re still around in small numbers, but a combination of habitat loss and active eradication of the insect probably drove it to extinction. Another species of North American grasshopper, the high plains locust, is rare these days and almost never swarms, with the last big swarm reported in the 1930s.

But there are plenty of other locusts throughout the world, reported throughout recorded history, including the ancient Egyptians, ancient Greeks, and ancient Chinese. Plagues of locusts feature in the Quran and the Bible. The most well known species are the desert locust, which lives in Africa and parts of the Middle East and Asia, and the migratory locust, which lives in Africa, Asia, Australia, New Zealand, and Europe, although it’s quite rare in Europe these days.

Not all locust swarms are enormous, of course, but even a small swarm can destroy local farms and pastures. In the days before easy communication and travel, this could mean people starved in one village even if the next village over was fine. Researchers estimate that a locust swarm that’s only one square kilometer in size, which is less than half a square mile, or about 250 acres, can eat as much as 35,000 people in a single day. WHOA, I did not realize when I wrote that that it would make it sound like the locusts were eating people. Locusts don’t eat people, they don’t hurt you, but the locusts eat as much food as 35,000 people do. That’s what I meant.

The thought of locust swarms is scary, but fortunately it doesn’t happen every year or even every decade. But it does still happen. In 1988, locusts swarming in Africa crossed the Atlantic Ocean and arrived in South America. This year, 2020, started out with desert locusts swarming in parts of north and east Africa in January, spreading into parts of Asia by May. In November, some localized swarms of locusts were spotted in parts of Australia after heavy rains, especially in west and northwest Victoria.

These days, though, people have the advantage of early warning. Locust swarms can be tracked by satellite and drones, people whose crops are eaten up can have food shipped in to help keep anyone from starving, and there are pesticides that can kill a lot of locusts in a short amount of time. But a new experimental biological control has been working really well. The dried spores of a fungus that kills grasshoppers are sprayed on the ground where locusts are laying eggs, since grasshoppers lay their eggs in soil or sand. The fungus kills the grasshoppers and stays on the ground to kill the ones that hatch or arrive later. Best of all, unlike chemical pesticides, the fungus doesn’t kill other insects.

And don’t forget, of course, that the locust is edible. Cultures throughout much of the world traditionally ate locusts and they’re still considered delicacies in many places. They’re also more nutritious than meat from mammals like cattle. Besides, if locusts arrive and eat all your food, it’s just smart to eat the locusts that ate your food. You gotta get that food back somehow.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 202: Terror Birds and Pseudotooth Birds



Let’s find out about some gigantic birds this week! Thanks to Pranav and Richard for the suggestions!

Further reading:

Exceptionally preserved fossil gives voice to ancient terror bird

Antarctica yields oldest fossils of giant birds with 21-foot wingspans

Look at that beak! Llallawavis scagliai:

Big birdie!

A red-legged seriema and an unfortunate snake:

Another big birdie!

Toothy birdie!

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to learn about some gigantic extinct birds! Pranav wants to hear about Phorusrhacidae, also known as the terror bird. Something called a terror bird is definitely going to be interesting. My brother Richard also tweeted me about some huge extinct birds called pelagornithids, so we’ll talk about them too. Both birds were huge and successful, but extremely different from each other.

Phorusrhacidae is the name for a family of flightless birds that lived from about 62 million years ago to a little under 2 million years ago. Flightless birds may make you think of ostriches and penguins and dodos, but remember that Phorusrhacids were called terror birds. They were carnivores and many of them were enormous.

Most terror birds lived in South America, with one species known from southern North America. A few newly discovered bird fossils from Africa and Europe may have been close relations of terror birds, but palaeontologists are still studying them.

Various species of terror bird ranged in size from about 3 feet tall to 10 feet tall, or 1 to 3 meters, and had long, strong legs that made them fast runners. The terror bird also had a long, strong neck, a sharp hooked beak, and sharp talons on its toes. The beak was strong but the jaw muscles were relatively weak. Researchers think that it ambushed prey and chased it down, then either kicked it to death with its sharp talons or held it down with its feet and stabbed it to death with its beak. Smaller species may have grabbed its prey and thrown it back down with enough force to injure, stun, or outright kill the animal. It may have swallowed small prey whole and regurgitated pellets made up of compressed fur and bones, the way many modern carnivorous birds do today.

Although the beak was strong, it was also hollow. This would have made it weigh less, which meant that the bird could move its head more quickly. Some researchers think that it might also have acted as a resonant chamber, and that the bird could clap its beak closed to make a loud noise to communicate with other terror birds. It had excellent hearing and vision, but a poor sense of smell.

Many details of what we know about terror birds come from a single specimen discovered in 2010 in Argentina. The bird lived around 3 million years ago and stood four feet tall, or 1.2 meters. It was described in 2015 and is named Scaglia’s magnificent bird. I am not going to attempt to pronounce its scientific name [Llallawavis scagliai], but I’ll put it in the show notes along with a picture. Almost the entire skeleton is preserved in stunning detail, including details that hardly ever preserve, like the tiny bones that help the eye focus. Studies of the tiny ear bones and other details of the ear indicate that its hearing was most acute at low frequencies, which meant it would have been good at hearing footsteps. It also probably had a deep voice.

The terror bird had wings, but they were small and probably only used for display. The wings did have claws, though, and may have been used to fight other terror birds over mates or territory. Young terror birds of some species might have been able to fly, although adults certainly couldn’t.

The earliest known terror bird, Paleopsilopterus, lived about 60 million years ago in what is now Brazil. It was relatively small, only about three feet high, or 1 meter. It evolved only a few million years after the non-avian dinosaurs went extinct, and its descendants became larger and more fearsome until they were apex predators throughout South America.

Kelenken, for instance, grew up to ten feet tall, or three meters, and had an enormous beak, 18 inches long or almost 46 cm. It lived in what is now Argentina around 15 mya. It’s the tallest terror bird known but it was more slenderly built than others so was probably a faster runner. It was only discovered in 1999.

Brontornis, however, was the one that puts the terror into terror bird. It grew over 9 feet tall, or 2.8 meters, but it was massively built. It probably wasn’t a very fast runner and would have definitely been an ambush predator. Most likely it hid among trees or other tall vegetation, and when an animal came too close, BOOM! THERE’S A TERROR BIRD! RUN! TOO LATE, ARGH!

Titanis lived in parts of North America, with fossils found in Texas and Florida. It probably stood a little over eight feet tall, or 2.5 meters, although we don’t have any complete skeletons so can only estimate its actual size compared to other species of terror bird. You may find information online that says Titanis lived as recently as 10,000 years ago in Florida, and that it used the claws on its wings like hands to help catch prey. Both these things are wrong, unfortunately. The fossil bones found in the Santa Fe River in Florida had washed out of their original location and were mixed in with much more recent bones, and there’s no evidence that any terror bird used its wings like hands. Terror birds were descended from birds that could fly, not descended directly from dinosaurs, so its wings were still highly modified for flight.

Titanis lived in North America about five million years ago. But how did it get to North America from South America before the Isthmus of Panama formed around three million years ago? Before then, a big stretch of ocean separated the two continents. Researchers think it island-hopped, as the tops of mountains and hills in what is now Central America first emerged from the ocean as sea levels dropped, forming islands. Volcanoes also formed islands in the area. Titanis may have traveled to these islands by swimming or rafting during storms.

Terror birds went extinct after the Isthmus of Panama opened up when sea levels lowered. This connected North and South America, which allowed animals from North America to cross into South America and vice versa. The Andes Mountains also formed about this time and changed the climate of much of South America. Forests became open savanna where terror birds wouldn’t have been able to hide to ambush prey. Climate change combined with increased competition from saber-toothed cats and other North American predators probably led to the terror birds’ extinction.

There are no descendants of terror birds living today, but its closest living relations are probably the seriema birds, the red-legged and the black-legged seriema. Both live in South America and both are carnivorous birds that eat small animals like rodents, lizards, snakes, and even other birds. When it catches an animal, it beats it against the ground until it dies. It will also sometimes eat fruit and eggs.

The red-legged seriema stands a little over three feet tall, or a meter, with long legs, long neck, and long tail. It’s mostly brown and gray and it has a fan-shaped crest low down on its forehead, just above the bill. The gray-legged seriema looks very similar but is mostly gray. The seriema also has a sickle claw on each foot that it uses to cut pieces off its dead prey so it can swallow them more easily.

The seriema can fly, but it prefers to walk or run. It can run up to 15 mph, or 25 km/h. It builds its nest in low bushes so it can just hop up onto the nest instead of having to fly. It’s also aggressive and will attack animals much larger than it is, driving them away from its nest or chicks. Farmers sometimes catch young seriemas and tame them, then allow them to patrol the farmyard to catch rats and snakes and drive away larger predators.

Next, let’s learn about a different giant extinct bird, Richard’s suggestion. Unlike the terror bird, pelagornithids could fly. They’re sometimes called pseudotooth birds because they had teeth, but they weren’t real teeth. They were pointy projections of the jaw bones that grew along the edges of its beak and were covered with keratin. Pelagornithids evolved around the same time as the terror bird, around 62 million years ago, and didn’t die out until about the same time as the terror bird, around 2.5 million years ago.

And like the terror bird, pelagornithids were huge, but in a different way than terror birds. They were sea birds that may have superficially resembled modern albatrosses, but they were much larger. The largest living albatross has a wingspan of about 11 1/2 feet, or 3.5 meters, but the largest known pelagornithid had a wingspan estimated at up to 21 feet, or almost 6.5 meters. Its wings were narrow and pointed like albatross wings are.

Researchers think that the pelagornithid probably mostly ate soft-bodied animals like squid and other cephalopods, because its teeth were not very strong. It probably scooped its prey up from the water while flying, like many modern seabirds do, although it could probably also sit on the water and dip its long, strong beak down to catch anything that swam too close. Its bones were too delicate for diving. It may have had a throat sac like a pelican too. It was probably white or gray in color and its wings and tail were probably black, which is the most common coloration for sea birds of any kind.

It had short legs but enormously long wings, so long that it probably couldn’t flap them. Its strongest muscles were the ones that held the wings out straight. It was definitely a bird, of course, but it was proportioned more like a flying reptile, Pteranodon, even though they weren’t related. You know what that means, of course. Convergent evolution! Researchers think the pelagornithid spent almost all its time soaring on ocean breezes, scooping up cephalopods and fish to swallow whole, and that Pteranodon probably did the same. These days, modern albatrosses fill that particular ecological niche, and the albatross has many similarities to the pelagornithid too.

Pelagornithids of various species were found throughout the world, from the Arctic and Antarctic to the tropics. It was extremely successful and unlike the terror bird, which was restricted to land, it could travel as far as it liked as long as it had a breeze to keep it aloft. It evolved soon after the non-avian dinosaurs went extinct and didn’t die out until the beginning of the Pleistocene. What happened then? Why aren’t these enormous birds still flying around?

The Pleistocene, of course, was the ice age, or more properly the ice ages. Its onset resulted from a lot of factors, including the movement of continents that changed ocean currents radically. Once the changes started, they accelerated quickly. As more water froze and became massive glaciers that weighted down entire continents, sea levels dropped and more land was exposed, including the Isthmus of Panama that connected North and South America. This would have radically changed the air currents that pelagornithids used to travel around the world, from nesting sites to feeding sites and back. It also drove many sea animals to extinction as their environments became too cold or too warm for them to adapt to, or the water where they lived just dried up completely.

The one place where pelagornithids couldn’t go was across continents. They needed constant sea breezes and lots of water where they could catch prey, and steep cliffs near water to nest on. As the ecological changes of the Pleistocene became more pronounced, pelagornithids had more and more trouble surviving, and finally they went extinct. Modern albatrosses, gulls, and cormorants expanded at the same time to fill the ecological niche left open by the pelagornithid.

While there are no living descendants of pelagornithids, researchers tentatively think they’re most closely related to living ducks, geese, and swans. Since most pelagornithid fossils are badly damaged and fragmented, so that we only have one or two bones preserved from any given animal, it’s hard for scientists to make conclusions as to what they were most closely related to. Hopefully more and better fossils will be found soon so we can learn more about these gigantic birds!

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 201: The African Grey Parrot and More Mantises



This week we’ll learn about a fascinating parrot and some more weird praying mantises! Thanks to Page and Viola for the suggestions!

Further watching:

Nova Science Now: Irene Pepperberg and Alex

Alex: Number Comprehension by a Grey Parrot

The Smartest Parrots in the World

Further reading:

Why Do Parrots Talk?

Ancient mantis-man petroglyph discovered in Iran

Alex and Irene Pepperberg (photo taken from the “Why do parrots talk?” article above):

Two African grey parrots:

The “mantis man” petroglyph:

The conehead mantis is even weirder than “ordinary” mantis species:

Where does Empusa fasciata begin and the flower end (photo by Mehmet Karaca)?

The beautiful spiny flower mantis:

The ghost mantis looks not like a ghost but a dead leaf:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to look at two completely unrelated animals, but both are really interesting. Thanks to Page and Viola for the suggestions!

We’ll start with Page’s suggestion, the African gray parrot. We haven’t talked about very many parrots in previous episodes, even though parrots are awesome. The African gray parrot is from Africa, and it’s mostly gray, and it is a parrot. Specifically it’s from what’s called equatorial Africa, which means it lives in the middle of the continent nearest the equator, in rainforests. It has a wingspan of up to 20 inches, or 52 cm, and it has red tail feathers.

The African gray parrot is a popular pet because it’s really good at learning how to talk. It doesn’t just imitate speech, it imitates various noises it hears too. It’s also one of the most intelligent parrots known. Some studies indicate it may have the same cognitive abilities as a five year old child, including the ability to do simple addition. It will also give its treats to other parrots it likes even if it has to go without a treat as a result, and it will share food with other parrots it doesn’t even know.

Despite all the studies about the African grey in captivity, we don’t know much about it in the wild. Like other parrots, it’s a highly social bird. It mostly eats fruit, seeds, and nuts, but will also eat some insects, snails, flowers, and other plant parts. It mates for life and builds its nest in a tree cavity. Both parents help feed the babies. That’s basically all we know.

It’s endangered in the wild due to habitat loss, hunting, and capture for sale as pets, so if you want to adopt an African grey parrot, make sure you buy from a reputable parrot breeder who doesn’t buy wild birds. For every wild parrot that’s sold as a pet, probably a dozen died after being taken from the wild. A good breeder will also only sell healthy birds, and will make sure you understand how to properly take care of a parrot. Since the African grey can live to be up to sixty years old, ideally it will be your buddy for basically the rest of your life, but it will require a lot of interaction and care to stay happy and healthy.

One African grey parrot named Alex was famous for his ability to speak. Animal psychologist Dr. Irene Pepperberg bought Alex at a pet shop in 1977 when he was about one year old, not just because she thought parrots were neat and wanted a pet parrot, but because she wanted to study language ability in parrots.

Pepperberg taught Alex to speak and to perform simple tasks to assess his cognitive abilities. Back then, scientists didn’t realize parrots and other birds were intelligent. They thought an animal needed a specific set of traits to display intelligence, such as a big brain and hands. You know, things that humans and apes have, but most animals don’t. Pepperberg’s studies of Alex and other parrots proved that intelligence isn’t limited to animals that are similar to us.

Alex had a vocabulary of about 100 words, which is average for a parrot, but instead of just mimicking sounds, he seemed to understand what the words meant. He even combined words in new ways. He combined the words banana and cherry into the word banerry to describe an apple. He didn’t know the word for cake, so when someone brought a birthday cake into the lab and he got to taste it, he called it yummy bread. When he saw himself in a mirror for the first time, he said, “What color?” because he didn’t know the word gray. He also asked questions about new items he saw. So not only did he understand what words meant, he actually used them to communicate with humans. As Pepperberg explains, Alex wasn’t super-intelligent or unusual for a parrot. He was just an ordinary parrot, but was trained properly so he could express in words the intelligence that an average parrot uses every day to find food and live in a social environment.

Alex died unexpectedly in 2007 at only 31 years old. I’ve put a link in the show notes to a really lovely Nova Science Now segment about Alex and Dr. Pepperberg, and some other videos of Alex and other parrots. Pepperberg has continued to work with other parrots to continue her studies of language and intelligence in birds.

This is audio of Alex speaking with Pepperberg. You’ll notice that he sounds like a parrot version of her, which is natural since he learned to speak by mimicking her voice, meaning they have the same intonations and pronunciations.

[Alex the parrot speaking with his trainer, Dr. Pepperberg]

Next, Viola wants to learn about praying mantises. We had an episode about them not too long ago, episode 187, but there are more than 2,400 known species, so many that we could have hundreds of praying mantis episodes without running out of new ones to talk about.

Today we’ll start somewhere I bet you didn’t expect, an ancient rock carving from central Iran.

The carving was discovered while archaeologists were surveying the region in 2017 and 2018. I’ll put a picture of it in the show notes, but when you first look at it, you might think it was a drawing of a plant or just a decoration. I’ll try to describe it. There’s a central line that goes up and down like a stick, with three lines crossing the central line and a rounded triangle near the top. The three lines have decorations on each end too. The bottom line curls downward at the ends, the middle line ends in a little circle at each end, and the top line curves up and then down again at the ends. It’s 5 1/2 inches tall, or 14 cm, and a little over four inches across at the widest, or 11 cm. Archaeologists have estimated its age as somewhere between 4,000 years old and 40,000 years old. Hopefully they’ll be able to narrow this age range down further in the future.

The team that found the carving, which is properly called a petroglyph, was actually looking specifically for petroglyphs that represented invertebrates. So instead of thinking, “Oh, that’s just a tree” or “I don’t know what that is, therefore it must just be a random doodle,” the archaeologists thought, “Bingo, we have a six-legged figure with a triangular head and front legs that form hooks. It looks a lot like some kind of praying mantis.”

But while archaeologists might know a lot about petroglyphs, they’re not experts about insects, so the archaeologists asked some entomologists for help. They wanted to know what kind of praying mantis the carving might depict.

The entomologists thought it looked most like a mantis in the genus Empusa, and several species of Empusa live in or near the area, although they’re more common in Africa. So let’s talk about a few Empusa species first.

The conehead mantis is in the genus Empusa and is native to parts of northern Africa and southern Europe. Like most mantises, females are larger than males, and a big female conehead mantis can grow up to four inches long, or 10 cm. The body is thin and sticklike, with long, thin legs, and individuals may be green, brown, or pink to blend in among the shrubs and other low-growing plants where it lives. It eats insects, especially flies. So far this is all pretty normal for a praying mantis. But the conehead mantis has a projection at the back of the head that sticks almost straight up. It’s called a crown extension and it helps camouflage it among sticks and twigs. It also often carries its abdomen so that it curves upward.

Other members of the genus Empusa share these weird characteristics with the conehead mantis. Empusa fasciata lives in parts of western Asia to northeastern Italy and is usually green and pink with lobe-shaped projections on its legs that help it blend in with leaves and flowers. It mostly eats bees and flies, and females spend a lot of time waiting on flowers for a bee to visit. And then you know what it does…CHOMP. The more I learn about insects that live on flowers, the more I sympathize with bees. Everything wants to eat bees. E. fasciata also has a crown extension that makes its head look like a knob on a twig, and it also sometimes carries its abdomen curved sharply upward so that it looks a lot like a little spray of flowers.

Most mantids are well camouflaged. We talked about the orchid mantis in episode 187, which mimics flowers the same way E. fasciata does. But a few mantis species look like they should really stand out instead of blending in, at least to human sensibilities. The spiny flower mantis is white with green or orange stripes on its legs and a circular green, yellow, and black pattern on its wings. When I first saw a photo of it, I honestly thought someone had photoshopped the wing pattern on. But if something threatens a spiny flower mantis, it opens its wings in a threat display, and the swirling circular pattern suddenly looks like two big eyes. It also honestly looks like really nifty modern art. I really like this mantis, and you know I am not fond of insects so that’s saying something. It lives in sub-Saharan Africa and females grow about two inches long, or 5 cm.

Finally, the ghost mantis is really not very well named because it doesn’t look anything like a ghost, unless a ghost looks like a dead leaf. It looks so much like a leaf that it should be called a leaf mantis, but there are actually lots of different species called leaf mantis or dead leaf mantis. This particular one is Phyllocrania paradoxa, and it also grows to about two inches long, or 5 cm. It lives in Africa and most individuals are brown, although some are green or tan depending on the humidity level where it lives. It looks exactly like a dead leaf that’s sort of curled up, except that this leaf has legs and eats moths and flies. It even has a crown extension that looks like the stem of a leaf. Unlike most mantis species, it’s actually pretty timid and less aggressive toward members of its own species. In other words, ghost mantises are less likely to eat each other than most mantis species are.

People keep all these mantises as pets, which I personally think is weird but that’s fine. They’re easier to take care of than parrots are, although you’ll never manage to teach a praying mantis to talk.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 200: Elephants



This week we’re going to learn about elephants! Thanks to Damian, Pranav, and Richard from NC for the suggestions!

Further Reading:

Dwarf Elephant Facts and Figures

An Asian elephant (left) and an African elephant (right). Note the ear size difference, the easiest way to tell which kind of elephant you’re looking at:

Business end of an Asian elephant’s trunk:

An elephant living the good life:

Can’t quite reach:

Elephant teef:

A dwarf elephant skeleton:

An elephant skull does kind of look like a giant one-eyed human skull:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to learn about some elephants! We’ve talked about elephants many times before, but not recently, and we’ve not really gone into detail about living elephants. Thanks to Damian, Pranav, and Richard from NC for the suggestions. Damian in particular sent this suggestion to me so long ago that he’s probably stopped listening, probably because he’s grown up and graduated from college and started a family and probably his kids are now in college too, it’s been so long. Okay, it hasn’t been that long. It just feels like it. Sorry I took so long to get to your suggestion.

Anyway, Damian wanted to hear about African and Asian elephants, so we’ll start there. Those are the elephants still living today, and honestly, we are so lucky to have them in the world! If you’ve ever wished you could see a live mammoth, as I often have, thank your lucky stars that you can still see an elephant.

Elephants are in the family Elephantidae, which includes both living elephants and their extinct close relations. Living elephants include the Asian elephant and the African elephant, with two subspecies, the African savanna elephant and the African forest elephant. The savanna elephant is the largest.

The tallest elephant ever measured was a male African elephant who stood 13 feet high at the shoulder, or just under 4 meters, which is just ridiculously tall. That’s two Michael Jordans standing on top of each other, and I don’t know how you would clone Michael Jordan or get one of them to balance on the other’s head, but if you did, they would be the same size as this one huge elephant. The largest Asian elephant ever measured was a male who stood 11.3 feet tall, or 3.43 meters. Generally, though, it’s hard to measure how tall or heavy a wild elephant is because first of all they don’t usually want anything to do with humans, and second, where are you going to get a scale big and strong enough to weigh an elephant? Most male African elephants are closer to 11 feet tall, or 3.3 meters, while females are smaller, and the average male Asian elephant is around 9 feet tall, or 2.75 meters, and females are also smaller. Even a small elephant is massive, though.

Because of its size, the elephant can’t jump or run, but it can move pretty darn fast even so, up to 16 mph, or 25 km/h. The fastest human ever measured was Usain Bolt, who can run 28 mph, or 45 km/h, but only for very short distances. A more average running speed for a person in good condition is about 6 mph, or 9.6 km/h, and again, that’s just for short sprints. So the elephant can really hustle. Its big feet are cushioned on the bottoms so that it can actually move almost noiselessly. And I know you’re wondering it, so yes, an elephant could probably be a good ninja if it wanted to. It would have to carry its sword in its trunk, though. The elephant is also a really good swimmer, surprisingly, and it can use its trunk as a snorkel when it’s underwater. It likes to spend time in the water, which keeps it cool, and it will wallow in mud when it can. The mud helps protect it from the sun and from insect bites. Its skin is thick but it’s also sensitive, and it doesn’t have a lot of hair to protect it.

The elephant is a herbivore that only eats plants, but it eats a lot of them. An adult elephant eats several hundred pounds of food a day, or more than 100 kg, and will drink enough water every day to fill a bathtub. It eats grass, leaves, twigs, fruit, and bark, and elephants in captivity also eat hay. And since we’re getting close to the winter holidays, some zoos have an agreement with Christmas tree sellers, who donate any unsold Christmas trees to the zoos for the elephants to eat. They can’t feed used trees because there might be leftover ornaments or ornament hangers on them. The elephant just puts one foot on the tree and rips off the branches with its trunk, which it then eats.

The elephant has a pair of big teeth on each side of its mouth that look more like the bottoms of running shoes than ordinary teeth, which it uses to grind up the tough plants it eats. Elephants technically have 26 teeth, two incisors and 24 molars. The incisors are modified into tusks, which we’ll talk about in a minute. The molars aren’t all in the mouth at once, though. Every so many years, the four molars in an elephant’s mouth start to get pushed out by four new molars. It doesn’t happen the same way you lose your baby teeth, though. Instead of a new tooth pushing up through the gum until the baby tooth gets loose and falls out, the new molars grow in at the back of the mouth and start moving forward, pushing the old molars farther forward until they fall out. This happens six times throughout the elephant’s life, with the last set usually growing in around the early 40s. Since elephants can live much longer than that, well into their sixties, that last set may have to last a long time, since there are no elephant dentists that can make gigantic elephant dentures.

The tusks are much different than the molars, naturally. The tusks start to grow from the upper jaw when the elephant is a little over six months old, and continue growing throughout its life. It uses its tusks for all kinds of activities, including moving obstacles from its path, digging for water, and defending itself. But not all elephants have tusks. Many Asian elephants don’t have tusks at all, or only have very small ones. Because poachers who want the tusks to sell as ivory shoot elephants that have the biggest tusks, many populations now have smaller tusks overall or none, since elephants without them are less likely to be killed.

The elephant’s trunk is strong but sensitive, sort of like a human’s arm and hand but with many more uses (and also no bones). The elephant breathes and smells through its trunk, since it’s an extension of the nose and upper lip, but it also makes noise with its trunk to communicate with other elephants, uses it to gather food and move it into the mouth, sucks up water with the trunk and splooshes it into the mouth to drink or onto its body to wash. It can reach plants that are way up high or it can dig into soft ground for roots or to reach water. It can open nuts with its trunk, scratch an itch, play wrestle with a friend, lift incredibly heavy things out of the way, and all sorts of other things. Elephants probably wonder how humans can function without a trunk. I am starting to wonder how I function without a trunk.

The easiest way to tell an Asian elephant apart from an African elephant is by looking at the ears. African elephants have much larger ears, especially savanna elephants. The ears are full of small blood vessels to help release heat from the body into the atmosphere. An elephant will flap its ears to stay cool on a hot day. Asian elephants are also smaller overall and have a different body shape. Asian elephants have somewhat shorter legs, a bulkier forehead, different numbers of toes on the feet, and even different trunks. The African elephant has two little projections at the tip of the trunk that act as fingers, while the Asian elephant only has one.

Elephants evolved in what is now Africa and are the largest land animals alive today. The earliest elephant ancestors lived around 56 million years ago, not long after the extinction of the non-avian dinosaurs. It was still a small animal then, only about a foot tall at the shoulder, or 30 cm. It probably spent a lot of time in the water, eating plants, and it probably had small ears and a large nose, but not an actual trunk. If you could go back in time and look at it, you’d never guess that it was an ancestral elephant.

By 27 million years ago, though, elephant ancestors were starting to look like elephants. Eritreum was a lot bigger, over four feet tall at the shoulder, or 1.3 meters, and it probably had short tusks and a trunk. If you looked at a living Eritreum, you’d definitely know it was a kind of elephant, even though it would have looked weird compared to modern elephants since its head was long and flattened in shape. Eritreum already had the same tooth system that modern elephants have, where new molars continually grow and replace worn-out older ones.

Eritreum’s descendants spread to Eurasia and then to North America. By about 2.5 million years ago, at the beginning of the Pleistocene, elephants were all over the place–not just the ancestors of modern elephants, but relations from other parts of the elephant family tree. This includes Palaeoloxodon, a suggestion by Richard from NC.

Palaeoloxodon namadicus lived throughout much of Asia, with fossils found in India, Japan, and Sri Lanka, and it was enormous. We don’t have a complete skeleton, but estimates of Palaeoloxodon’s size suggest it was the largest elephant that we’ve ever discovered. An estimate of the largest specimen found so far is 17.1 feet tall at the shoulder, or 5.2 meters. This is about the same height at the shoulder as Paraceratherium, which we talked about in episode 50 about tallest animals, but it might have actually been taller than Paraceratherium. The tallest giraffe ever measured was 19.3 feet tall, or 5.88 meters, but that’s at the top of its head, not its shoulder, and giraffes are much less heavy than elephants. Whichever one was actually tallest doesn’t really matter, though, because they all belong to the Ridiculously Tall Animals Club, also known as the Animals That Could Squish You Flat by Accident Club.

We don’t know much about Palaeoloxodon since so few fossils have been found so far. We mostly just know it was a massive animal that probably went extinct 24,000 years ago. That’s really not that long ago in geologic terms. It was probably a member of the straight-tusked elephants, a group of animals that were mostly quite large even for elephants.

Straight-tusked elephants weren’t actually straight-tusked, just straighter than most elephant tusks. They all also had an unusual feature on the head called a parieto-occipital crest, which was a ridge of bone high up on the forehead above the eyes that jutted out. The crest was barely noticeable in young elephants but grew larger as the elephant matured, and researchers think it was the attachment site for massive neck muscles to hold up the animal’s massive head.

One interesting thing about Palaeoloxodon is that some other members of the genus were dwarf species that lived on some Mediterranean islands. Pranav wanted to learn about these and other pygmy elephants of the Mediterranean Islands. Fossil elephants have been found on many islands, including islands in the Mediterranean, in south Asia, and the Channel Islands off the coast of California, although they weren’t all closely related. I think we’ve talked about insular dwarfism before, but let’s go over it again briefly. When a large animal like an elephant becomes restricted to a small environment, like an island, there aren’t enough resources for a full population of full-grown animals. As a result, only smaller individuals get enough food to thrive well enough to reproduce, which means their babies are more likely to be smaller too. Over time this results in a population of animals that are much smaller than their relations who don’t live in a restricted environment.

The opposite of insular dwarfism is island gigantism, by the way. When species that are small ordinarily, like pigeons, colonize an island where there are plenty of resources and very few or no predators, they evolve into much larger animals, like dodos.

Insular dwarfism isn’t just about mammals. Palaeontologists have identified dwarf species of dinosaur too, including a pocket-sized sauropod. Okay, maybe not pocket-sized since they still grew nearly 20 feet long, or 6 meters, but since their mainland relations could grow 100 feet long, or 30 meters, that’s a big difference.

Anyway, back to dwarf elephants. It’s so easy to get distracted by all this neat information. The elephants that lived in the Mediterranean islands were mostly straight-tusked elephants, although at least one was a type of mammoth. During the Pleistocene, when a lot of the world’s water was frozen in enormous glaciers, the sea levels were much lower. This exposed a lot more land, and of course animals lived on that land. Then, during the interglacial periods when much of the ice melted and sea levels rose, animals moved to higher ground and eventually some were cut off from the mainland and lived on islands. All of these species that survived exhibited insular dwarfism. It’s helpful to remember that the islands we’re talking about are mostly pretty big. I mean, they’re not the size of Gilligan’s Island. People live on many of these islands today and there are cities and towns and farms and national parks and so forth. The island of Crete, for instance, which is a part of Greece, is 3,260 square miles in size, or 8,450 square km.

One dwarf elephant that once lived on Crete may have only grown 3.7 feet tall at the shoulder, or 1.13 meters. That was the mammoth relation, but a species of Palaeoloxodon also lived on Crete, although not necessarily at the same time as the dwarf mammoth. As the sea levels rose and fell over the centuries, different species of elephant and other animals ended up living on the islands at different times.

We don’t know a whole lot about these dwarf elephants, unfortunately, since we don’t have a lot of remains. Mostly we have teeth, which do tell a lot about the elephant but not everything. But we do know roughly when the various species finally went extinct, and you will not be surprised to learn that these dates often coincide with human arrival on the islands. The Tilos Island elephant probably didn’t go extinct until 6,000 years ago. That’s well into the modern era, and humans lived or at least hunted on the island starting around 10,000 years ago. If you are Greek, your ancestors may have hunted Tilos Island dwarf elephants. It grew up to around 5 feet 3 inches tall, or 1.6 meters, which coincidentally is my height.

Many historians think that the bones and fossils of dwarf elephants may have led to the legend of the cyclops in ancient Greece. The skull of an elephant has a big opening in the front for the nasal passages, with relatively small eye sockets on the sides of the skull. If you’re not familiar with living elephants and you see an elephant skull, it really does look like an enormous human skull with one eye socket in the middle of the forehead.

All elephants live in small family groups that consist of a leader, called the matriarch, who is usually the oldest female in the group, and her close relations and their babies, usually her daughters and grandchildren. When a young male elephant grows up, he leaves his family group, but daughters usually stay.

Although elephants live in these small groups, they’re social animals. The family groups interact with each other when they meet, and they may meet up purposefully just to say hi. A family with a lot of babies may meet up with another family for help taking care of the young ones. When a member of the group is in estrus, meaning she can get pregnant, local males will join the group and try to get her attention. But although the males don’t spend all their time with family groups, they make friends with other males and sometimes form small bachelor groups of their own led by an older male. The older male not only teaches the younger ones how to find food and react to danger, he keeps them from running wild and acting up. During the 1990s, a nature reserve in South Africa introduced a lot of young males that were orphaned and had no family–but without an older male to keep them in line, they went on a rampage and killed 36 rhinoceroses. Finally the park introduced an older male and he put a stop to all that. The young elephants straightened up and left the rhinos alone.

Females usually come into estrus during the rainy season, which is in the second half of the year in Asia and parts of Africa. During this time, mature males may enter a condition called musth for at least some of the time. During musth a male is more aggressive and struts around showing off. It’s easy to tell when a bull elephant is in musth because a gland on each side of his face releases fluid that makes his cheeks wet. Females prefer to mate with males in musth, and usually in a group of males only the most dominant male will be in musth.

Elephants these days are all threatened by poaching, especially for their tusks. Elephant tusks are known as ivory, and ivory sales are banned throughout most of the world. Unfortunately, people still kill elephants to sell the ivory on the black market. Elephants are also threatened by habitat loss, since they need a whole lot of land to find enough to eat and people want that land for their domestic animals or crops.

I could go on and on about elephants for hours. There’s so much to learn about them that it’s just not possible to fit into one podcast episode. I haven’t even touched on their intelligence, their use as working animals in Asia and other parts of the world, and many other interesting things. But we’ll finish with this interesting fact: elephants are afraid of bees, so farmers can keep elephants from eating their crops by making a fence out of bee hives.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 199: Carnivorous Sponges!



Thanks to Lorenzo for this week’s topic, carnivorous sponges! How can a sponge catch and eat animals? What is its connection to the mystery of the Eltanin Antenna? Let’s find out!

Further reading/watching:

New carnivorous harp sponge discovered in deep sea (this has a great video attached)

How Nature’s Deep Sea ‘Antenna’ Puzzled the World

Asbestopluma hypogea, beautiful but deadly if you’re a tiny animal:

The lyre sponge, also beautiful but deadly if you’re a tiny animal:

The ping-pong tree sponge, also beautiful but deadly if you’re a tiny animal:

The so-called Eltanin antenna:

A better photo of Chondrocladia concrescens, looking less like an antenna and more like a grape stem:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to learn about carnivorous sponges, which is a suggestion from Lorenzo.

When I got Lorenzo’s email, I thought “oh, neat” and added carnivorous sponges to the giant, complicated list I keep of topic suggestions from listeners and my Aunt Janice, and also animals I want to learn more about. When I noticed carnivorous sponges on the list the other day, I thought, “Wait, sponges are filter feeders. Are there even any carnivorous ones?”

The answer is yes! Most sponges are filter feeders, sure, but there’s a family of sponges that are actually carnivorous. Caldorhizidae is the family, and it’s made up of deep-sea sponges that have only been discovered recently. We know there are lots more species out there because scientists have seen them during deep-sea rover expeditions without being able to study them closely.

We talked about sponges way back in episode 41, with some mentions of them in episodes 64 and 168 too, but only the filter feeder kind. Let’s first learn how a filter feeder sponge eats, specifically members of the class Demosponge, since that’s the class that the family Caldorhizidae belongs to.

Sponges have been around for more than half a billion years, since the Cambrian period and possibly before, and they’re still going strong. Early on, sponges evolved a simple but effective body plan and just stuck to it. Of course there are lots and lots and lots of different species with different shapes and sizes, but they almost all work the same way.

Most have a skeleton, but not the kind of skeleton that you think of as an actual skeleton. They don’t have bones. The skeleton is usually made of calcium carbonate and forms a sort of dense net that’s covered with soft body tissues. The tissues are often further strengthened with small pointy structures called spicules. If you’ve ever played a game called jacks, where you bounce a ball and pick up little metal pieces between each bounce, spicules sort of resemble jacks.

The sponge has lots of open pores in the outside of its body, which generally just resembles a sack or sometimes a tube. One end of the sack is attached to the bottom of the ocean, or a rock or something. The pores are lined with cells that each have a teensy structure called a flagellum, which is sort of like a tiny tail. The sponge pumps water through the pores by beating those flagella. Water flows into the sponge’s tissues, which are made up of lots of tiny connected chambers. Cells in the walls of these chambers filter out particles of food from the water, much of it microscopic, and release any waste material. The sponge doesn’t have a stomach or any kind of digestive tract, though. The cells process the food individually and pass on any extra nutrients to adjoining cells.

Obviously, this body plan is really effective for filter feeding, not so effective for chasing and killing small animals to eat. The sponge you may have in your kitchen is probably synthetic or manufactured from a sponge gourd, not an actual bath sponge animal, but it’s arranged the same way. Go look at that sponge, or just imagine it, and then compare it mentally to, say, a tiger. Very different.

But in 2007, an underwater rover captured something on film that astounded researchers. The rover was investigating some undersea caves in the Mediterranean, where a tiny sponge known as Asbestopluma hypogea lives. The sponge only grows about half an inch long, or 1.5 cm, and everyone assumed it was just a regular old sponge. You know, a filter feeder. It did have an unusual structure of filaments covered with hook-like spicules, but until 2007 no one realized those spicules were actually hooks and used to snag tiny animals like copepods, nematodes, and even brittle stars. Then they saw it on film and freaked out! Well, they probably freaked out. I like to think they did.

But wait, you are probably saying, or at least thinking, sponges don’t even have a digestive system! How do they eat the animals they catch?

It works like this. When a tiny animal floats or swims past and gets snagged by the hooked spicules, which by the way is a passive process, the sponge starts growing a membrane that envelops the animal within a few hours. The membrane is made up of specialized cells that contain beneficial bacteria, and the bacteria help digest the animal so that the cells can absorb the nutrients. The process can take up to ten days. It’s similar in some ways to how carnivorous plants digest animals, as we talked about in episode 129.

One interesting thing is that while A. hypogea is a deep-sea sponge, it’s also found in shallow underwater caves. Further research has suggested that underwater caves may shelter other animals that are usually deep-sea dwellers. One cave where the sponge is found is only 16 feet below the surface, or five meters, whereas it lives around 2,300 feet deep, or 700 meters, in open ocean. Since its discovery in both the caves and in deeper parts of the Mediterranean, it’s been classified as a protected species and parts of the Mediterranean where it lives have also been protected.

It wasn’t until 2012 that the harp sponge was discovered off the coast of northern California. The harp sponge lives up to 11,500 feet below the surface, or 3,500 m, and it gets its name because of its shape. Like a harp, which has strings stretched down from an arched frame, the harp sponge has a structure called a vane that consists of a horizontal branch with straight, thin branches growing up from it in a row. The harp sponge can have up to six vanes, and where they connect in the middle the sponge has root-like filaments that anchor it to the sea floor. It’s no wonder that people used to think sponges were plants.

The vanes of the harp sponge are covered with hooked spicules like the grabby half of Velcro, but pointier. At the top of the vertical branches, little balls of sperm form and are released into the water to fertilize the eggs of other harp sponges. The sponge also has egg development areas about halfway up the vertical branches, which have tiny filaments to help it catch sperm released by other sponges. When it catches sperm, the cells of the filament fuse with it and use it to fertilize the nearest eggs. You can see both the sperm packets and the egg development areas in a picture in the show notes, and both look like little bulbs.

I should mention that all these carnivorous sponges are incredibly pretty.

The harp sponge can grow up to almost 15 inches across, or 37 cm, which is pretty big for a sponge.

The ping-pong tree sponge is another newly discovered carnivorous sponge, and arguably it has the best name. It can grow up to 20 inches tall, or 50 cm, but most of its height comes from its central stalk that anchors it to the sea floor. At the top of the stalk, smaller stems branch out and at the end of the stalks, little bulbs around 3 to 5 mm in diameter grow like grapes on a grape stem. The bulbs resemble little ping-pong balls (also known as table tennis, but ping-pong is funnier and refers to the sound the little hollow ball makes as it bounces from a paddle and off the table).

We don’t know much at all about the ping-pong tree sponge. It’s been found off the coast of South America near Easter Island, around 8,800 feet deep, or 2,700 meters. So far it seems to live in areas where the sea floor is made up largely of hardened lava.

We’ll finish with a mystery related to carnivorous sponges! In 1964 a research ship called the USNS Eltanin was photographing the sea floor in the Antarctic, and on August 29th it took a photograph of something weird off the coast of Cape Horn. Cape Horn is the very southern tip of South America except for a few islands, and is considered the point where the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans meet. That’s an arbitrary distinction made by humans since obviously the world’s oceans are connected everywhere, but it’s useful for telling people where you found a weird thing in the water. The picture was taken at a depth of almost two and a half miles, or 3,904 meters.

The picture shows what looks like a stick growing straight up from the ocean floor, with cross-shaped pieces of equal lengths sticking straight out to the sides, and a little bulb at the very top. It looks for all the world like a weird radio antenna, and it’s actually been called the Eltanin antenna.

The picture appeared in a newspaper article later that year, 1964, and drew the attention of UFO enthusiasts. By 1968 many people thought the picture showed a piece of machinery left by alien visitors for unknown but probably sinister purposes, although why they left the machinery at the bottom of the ocean, no one could say. Other people thought the antenna had been planted by the Soviets for likewise unknown but probably sinister purposes, ditto no idea why it was at the bottom of the ocean. Other people pooh-poohed all that and said it was probably just something that had fallen off a ship and lodged upright in the mud.

Instead, it turns out that the so-called antenna is probably actually a carnivorous sponge, Chondrocladia concrescens, known to science since 1880 although no one knew it was carnivorous back then. Disappointingly, better pictures of the sponge show that it looks more like a grape stem than an antenna. These days even diehard UFO researchers acknowledge that the Eltanin antenna was just a sponge, although a pretty neat one. Mystery solved!

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

Thanks for listening!