Episode 173: The Mystery of the Forest Raven

We have a fun mystery bird this week, the forest raven! Was it a real bird??? (hint: yes, but not a raven)

The “forest raven” illustration from Swiss naturalist Conrad Gessner’s Historiae Animalium, published in 1555:

Scans of the original pages about the forest raven. It’s written in Latin:

The Northern bald ibis. Wacky hair!

Flying bald ibises:

Further viewing:

This Weird Bird May Have Been the First Protected Species

Show transcript:

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

It’s high time we had a mystery animal episode, so this week we’re going to learn about a mystery bird, one with a satisfying conclusion.

The story starts almost 470 years ago, when a scholar and physician named Conrad Gessner, who lived in Switzerland, published a book called Historia animalium. The book wasn’t like the medieval bestiaries of previous centuries, in which fantastical and real animals were listed together and half the information consisted of local superstitions. Gessner was an early naturalist, a scientist long before the term was in general use. Historia animalium consisted of five volumes with a total of more than 4,500 pages, and in it Gessner attempted to describe every single animal in the world, drawing from classical sources such as Pliny the Elder and Aristotle as well as his own observations and study.

The book contained animals that had only recently been discovered by Europeans at the time, including animals from the Americas and the East Indies. It also included a few entries which no one today believes ever existed, like the fish-like sea monk and sea bishop. Those and similar monsters were probably added by Gessner’s publishers against his will or maybe just without him knowing, since he was seriously ill by the time the volume on fish was published. For the most part, the book was as scholarly as was possible in the mid-16th century and was lavishly illustrated too.

Volume three, about birds, was published in 1555, and it included an entry for a bird Gessner called the waldrapp, or forest raven. But the illustration didn’t look anything like a raven. The bird has a relatively long neck, a crest of feathers on the back of its head, and a really long bill that ends in a little hook. Gessner wrote that the bird was found in Switzerland and was good to eat.

In fact, I spent an entire morning finding the original scanned pages of a copy of the forest raven entry, typing them as well as I could and modernizing the spelling where I knew how, and using Google translate from Latin to English. The results were…not entirely coherent. Then, after I’d done all that, I continued my research, and that included watching a short BBC film about the bird–which included part of the translation! So I transcribed it. Here’s a translation cobbled together from the BBC’s translation and other parts of the passage that me and Google translate could figure out:

“The bird is generally called by our people the Waldrapp, or forest raven, because it lives in uninhabited woods where it nests in high cliffs or old ruined towers in castles. Men sometimes rob the nests by hanging from ropes. It acquires a bald head in its age. It is the size of a hen, quite black from a distance, but if you look at it close, especially in the sun, you will consider it mixed with green. The Swiss forest raven has the body of a crane, long legs, and a thick red bill, slightly curved and six inches long. Its legs and feet are longer than those of a chicken. Its tail is short, it has long feathers at the back of its head, and the bill is red. The bill is suited for poking in the ground to extract worms and beetles which hide themselves in such places. It flies very high and lays two or three eggs. The young ones are also praised as an article of food and are considered a great delicacy, for they have lovely flesh and soft bones. Those who rob the nests of young take care to leave one chick so the parents will return the following year.”

All that sounds like a perfectly ordinary bird, although not a raven. But what was it? That’s the problem. No one knew, and eventually scholars decided that Gessner must have included a bird that didn’t exist.

But it did sound like one particular bird, just not one related in any way to the raven and not one that lived in Switzerland or other parts of Europe. That’s the northern bald ibis, which was once common across the Middle East and northern Africa.

Here’s a description of the Northern bald ibis. Let’s see how it matches up with Gessner’s forest raven.

The Northern bald ibis is a fairly large bird, about a foot long, or 31 cm, with a wingspan of four and a half feet, or 135 cm. That’s about the size of a goose. It has black feathers that shine with iridescent colors in sunlight, including bronze, violet, and green. It has long, dull red legs and a long, curved bill that’s also reddish. Its head is the same shade of dull red and has no feathers, but it does have a crest of long feathers on the back of its head and neck. It nests on cliff ledges and prefers to hunt for food in areas where the grass or other vegetation is short, such as pastures, fallow fields, semi-arid steppes, and golf courses, often ten miles or more from the cliffs where it nests, or 15 km. It eats insects and other small invertebrates, but it especially likes lizards and beetles. It probes into soft, sandy soil with its bill to find most of its food. The birds live in small flocks and often fly in a V formation.

The northern bald ibis mates for life. The male finds a good nesting site and tidies it up, then waits to see if he can attract a female. The female inspects the site and the male to decide if she likes them, and if she does, the pair build a nest of twigs lined with grass, and the female lays two to four eggs.

Oh, and the northern bald ibis is sometimes also called the waldrapp, just as Gessner reported.

All this information certainly sounds like the same bird Gessner described. But the northern bald ibis doesn’t live in Switzerland or other parts of Europe. It’s only known from the Middle East and northern Africa. Right?

That’s what people after Gessner thought, until 1941. That’s when a team of scientists excavating ancient sites in Switzerland found the bones of what turned out to be northern bald ibises—but the bones weren’t fossilized. They were only a few hundred years old. More remains, both fossil and subfossil, have since been found in France, Germany, Austria, and Spain, and the bird probably lived in even more areas.

It turns out that the northern bald ibis was once common in many parts of Europe, especially around the Alps. It was considered a sacred bird in ancient Egypt, and was supposed to be one of the birds released by Noah during the great flood to help him find land, so was venerated by people of different faiths in the Middle East. But in Europe, it was just considered good to eat. The Archibishop Leonard of Salzburg called for its protection in the Swiss Alps as long ago as 1504, but by the early 17th century, only a matter of decades after Gessner’s book was published, the bird was extinct in Europe. It didn’t take long for Europeans to forget it even existed.

Unfortunately, the northern bald ibis is still endangered due to hunting, habitat loss, and poisoning from pesticides. It’s also sometimes electrocuted when it lands on electricity pylons that aren’t insulated for birds, although efforts are underway to make pylons bird-safe in many areas. A successful captive breeding program has been in place since the late 1970s, though, and that’s a good thing, since the last migratory population went extinct in 1989 and the remaining non-migratory colonies declined to only a few hundred individuals.

The breeding program has gone so well that birds started being reintroduced in some areas of their former range in about 2003, including Spain, Germany, Austria, and Italy. Tagging of the remaining wild birds has also revealed that a small population still migrates from the Middle East to Africa to winter in central Ethiopia. In some areas, conservationists have added nesting platforms to the existing cliffs so that more birds can nest safely. Hopefully their numbers will continue to climb.

I’ll finish with a final piece of trivia about the northern bald ibis that I think you’ll like. It’s a member of the pelican family. Have a nice day.

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

Thanks for listening!

Episode 172: Temnospondyls

This week let’s go back back back in time to more than 300 million years ago, when amphibian-like animals lived in enormous swamps. Don’t be fooled by the word amphibian: many Temnospondyls were really big!

Further reading:

Palaeos Temnospondyli

Dvinosaurus, three feet long and full of teeth:

And Sclerocephalus, five feet long and full of teeth. This one has a couple of larvae nearby:

Fayella (art by Nix)

Nigerpeton’s astonishing NOSE TEETH:

Mastodonsaurus had nose teeth too and it was way bigger than Nigerpeton, but somehow it just looks goofy instead of cool:

Koolasuchus just looked weird:

The largest Temnospondyl known, Prionosuchus:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going back into the past, way before the dinosaurs, to look at an order of animals that resembled modern amphibians but weren’t precisely amphibians, or reptiles, or fish. Let’s look at the Temnospondyls.

During the early Carboniferous period, which lasted from about 360 to 300 million years ago, the ocean levels were high, the climate across much of the world was humid and tropical, and the continents were in the process of smushing together to form a huge landmass called Pangea. Much of the land was flooded with warm, shallow water that created enormous swampy areas full of plants and newly evolved trees. These swampy areas, full of decomposing leaves, eventually became coal and peat beds. As the Carboniferous period continued, the climate turned milder and the sea levels dropped, but while the huge swamps remained, many life forms evolved to take advantage of the various habitats and ecological niches they provided.

The armored fish of the Devonian went extinct, replaced by more modern-looking fish, including sharks and the first freshwater fish. The first conifer trees appeared, land snails, dragonflies and other insects, and the first animals that could survive on land for part of the time. This included the Temnospondyls, a numerous and successful order of animals whose fossils have been found worldwide and appear in the fossil record for more than 200 million years. But most people have never heard of them.

Temnospondyls are grouped in the class Amphibia alongside Lissamphibia, which is the order all living amphibians and their ancestors belong to. But researchers aren’t sure if Temnospondyls gave rise to lissamphibians or if they all died out.

The first Temnospondyl fossils were discovered in the early 19th century and early paleontologists immediately started debating what exactly these strange animals were. It was originally classified as a reptile, but as more fossils came to light, it became clear that these weren’t reptiles. Finally it was classified as a subclass of amphibian called Labyrinthodontia, where it remains today, at least for now.

Temnospondyls do share many traits with modern amphibians. We know that at least some species had a larval form that was completely aquatic, with fossil evidence of gill arches. Some retained external gills into adulthood the way some salamanders do. But they still had a lot in common with their fish ancestors.

Most Temnospondyls had large heads that were broad and flattened in shape, often with a skull that was roughly triangular. The earliest species had relatively small, weak legs and probably spent most of their time in the water, but it wasn’t long before species with stronger legs developed that probably lived mostly on land.

When you think about amphibian relatives, you probably think these animals were small, maybe the size of a bullfrog. But while some Temnospondyls were small, many grew much larger. Some had smooth skin but many had scales, including some species with scales that grew into armor-like plates. Let’s look at some individual species of Temnospondyl and get an idea of how varied they were.

Let’s start with a group of temnospondyls with one of the most confusing names ever, Dvinosauria. That may not sound too confusing, but it’s spelled just like dinosauria but with a V after the D. It lived in the late Permian around 260 million years ago, and its fossils have been found in parts of Russia. It was named not to mess with people who keep seeing dvinosaur and thinking dinosaur, but after the Northern Dvina River.

Dvinosaurs were either semi-aquatic or fully aquatic, depending on the species. The genus Dvinosaurus was pretty typical for aquatic Temnospondyls. It had external gills and was fully aquatic, with small legs but a powerful tail for swimming. It grew over three feet long, or around a meter, and probably looked like a big salamander with a big triangular head. It probably ate fish and other small animals. Like many Temnospondyls, it had extra teeth growing from the roof of its mouth to help it hold onto fish. Some paleontologists think it lurked at the bottom of rivers and streams until it saw a fish or other animal approach, at which point it shot upward and grabbed it.

A typical land Temnospondyl was Sclerocephalus, which lived around 300 million years ago in what is now Germany. We have a lot of Sclerocephalus fossils, which means it was probably a successful animal. It was also big, around five feet long, or 1.5 meters.

Because we have so many Sclerocephalus fossils, we know a lot more about it than we do other Temnospondyls. Its larval form was aquatic and had a long tail to help it swim. As a juvenile it probably had external gills but as it matured, it spent more and more time on land, using its lungs to breathe. Its tail was shorter as an adult because it didn’t need to swim as often. But it did spend time in the water and retained the lateral line system still found in fish and some amphibians, a sensory organ that detects water movements. It also had a pineal eye that a few animals retain today, notably the reptile Tuatara that we talked about way back in episode three. This third eye was at the top of the skull and was probably only sensitive to light rather than being useful for seeing. As in modern animals that still have a pineal eye, it probably helped regulate behaviors according to the length of days.

We even know exactly what Sclerocephalus ate, because we have fossilized stomach contents in a few cases. It ate fish and amphibians and sometimes smaller Sclerocephaluses, and was probably an opportunistic predator. Like other Temnospondyls it had teeth on its palate, three pairs in its case that grew from the roof of its mouth.

A less typical temnospondyl was the genus Fayella, which lived in what is now Oklahoma in the United States and lived around 270 million years ago, in the early Permian. It grew to about four feet long, or 1.15 meters, and had unusually long legs for a Temnospondyl. It also had a smaller head in proportion to its body compared to most Temnospondyls, and was more lightly built. As a result, it looked more like a reptile or an early synapsid, which as you may remember from episode 119 were proto-mammals that looked like weird reptiles. Researchers think Fayella could run much faster than other Temnospondyls could, which didn’t so much help it catch prey as evade hunting synapsids.

Nigerpeton looked more like your average Temnospondyl, mostly. It lived in what is now the African country of Niger, around 250 million years ago. It was only discovered in the early 2000s and we still don’t have very many fossils so we don’t know exactly how big it was. But its skull was two feet long, or 60 cm, so it was definitely a big animal. It probably looked a lot like a crocodile in many ways, including a long, heavy snout with lots of teeth. Lots of teeth. LOTS of teeth. As with other Temnospondyls, it ate fish and other small, wriggly animals, and to help it catch those fish it had ordinary teeth and extra teeth that grew from the top of the mouth and the lower jaw. Basically it just had a mouthful of teeth. This is true for many Temnospondyls, but Nigerpeton took that one step too far. Two of its extra teeth are referred to as tusks, because they grew upward from the lower jaw, pierced through the roof of the mouth, and emerged from the top of the nose about where you’d expect nostrils to be in a modern animal. Instead of nostrils, NOSE TEETH. Actually, the nostrils were behind the nose teeth. We don’t know enough about Nigerpeton to know what it used these tusks for, but it sure looked cool.

Nigerpeton wasn’t the only Temnospondyl with tusks that emerged from the top of the nose when its mouth was closed. Others had it too, including one of the first Temnospondyls discovered, Mastodonsaurus. Mastodonsaurus was a successful genus of Temnospondyls that lived from about 247 million years ago to 201 million years ago in what is now Europe. Despite its name, Mastodonsaurus was neither a mastodon nor a dinosaur. It was big, though—one species grew up to 20 feet long, or 6 meters. Like other Temnospondyls it had a big head and a somewhat short tail. It also had legs that were small and weak, which suggests it was mostly if not completely aquatic, and it ate fish and other small animals.

The most recently living Temnospondyl, which went extinct around 120 million years ago, lived in what is now Australia. Koolasuchus lived in fast-moving streams and filled the same ecological niche as crocodiles, which eventually replaced it after it went extinct. But it didn’t look anything like a crocodile. It had the typical big head of a Temnospondyl, in this case broad and rounded with a blunt nose, but with what are called tabular horns that projected from the rear of the skull, which gave its head a triangular appearance. Plus, it probably grew up to 16 feet long, or 5 meters. But its body was relatively slender compared to the chonky head, which made it look kind of like a really really big tadpole.

We’ll finish with the largest species of Temnospondyl known, Prionosuchus. It lived between 299 and 272 million years ago in what is now Brazil, and while it didn’t look much like a modern crocodile, it filled the same ecological niche. It had relatively small legs and a big head like most Temnospondyls, but its snout was slender and elongated like a ghavial’s. It was an aquatic animal and was probably an ambush predator that mostly ate fish.

While we don’t know exactly how big Prionosuchus could grow since we don’t have any complete specimens, the largest skull found measured 5.2 feet long, or 1.6 meters. That’s just the skull. Researchers estimate the animal was 30 feet long, or 9 meters, when it was alive.

But although Prionosuchus was amphibious like other temnospondyls, it retained a lot of features from its fish ancestors. Basically, it looked something like the biggest salamander you could imagine, but with jaws and teeth like a ghavial’s, but inside it was more fish than amphibian. It’s no wonder paleontologists have been trying to figure Temnospondyls out for almost two centuries.

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

Thanks for listening!

Episode 171: The Animals of St. Kilda

Thanks to Emma for the suggestion! Let’s learn about some animals that live on the St. Kilda islands off the coast of Scotland!

St. Kilda:

Soay rams (kept on farms, not the feral sheep):

A small flock of Soay sheep (these are from a farm too):

A Boreray ram (on a farm):

A Boreray ewe with her babies (also on a farm, or at least I think so):

The St. Kilda wren (not a sheep):

The St. Kilda field mouse (also not a sheep) is the size of a hamster:

Show transcript:

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

This week’s episode is a suggestion from Emma, who long ago told me about the interesting history and unique animals of the island of St. Kilda in Scotland. I’ve been meaning to cover it ever since, so finally I’m getting around to it after only two years or so.

Emma says, “It’s an amazing little island and sort of a reverse of the usual ‘humans cause extinction’ story. The humans on the island went ‘extinct’, being evacuated from the island partly because increased mainland human contact was bringing illnesses they couldn’t fight without hospitals. Two lots of rad ancient sheep and some unique wrens and mice are happily living there to this day.”

St. Kilda is not one but a group of islands off the coast of Scotland, but the largest island and the only one where people once lived is called Hirta. In 1930, everyone who still lived there moved to the mainland, but by that time hardly anyone remained on St. Kilda anyway. The island probably never had more than a few hundred people in residence at any given time. In 1957 St Kilda was designated as a nature reserve and in 1986 as a World Heritage Site.

Since then, as Emma says, the animals of the islands have mostly been left alone. This includes two breeds of sheep that were left behind on two of the smaller islands when the last residents moved away.

One of these sheep breeds is the Soay, which originally lived on a tiny island called Soay, which actually means “sheep island.” The island of Soay is only about 250 acres in size, or 100 hectares, but that’s not the only place they used to be found. The breed has lived in northern Europe for probably 4,000 years, and was a popular sheep in Britain for centuries. When all the people moved away, 107 sheep living on Soay were moved to Hirta. The sheep on Hirta are feral and receive no care from humans, but they also have basically no predators on the island. They have been studied since 1955 by a small team of scientists and conservationists.

The Soay is a primitive breed of sheep that closely resembles its wild ancestor, the Asiatic mouflon. It’s brown, usually with lighter markings on the face and rump, and the rams often grow a short mane of hair in addition to wool. Rams have dark brown horns and ewes often grow smaller horns too. It also has a short tail. In late spring, Soay sheep shed their fleece naturally instead of needing to be shorn. This is the case with many primitive sheep breeds. Its wool is considered high quality and sought after by handcrafters.

Also like many primitive breeds, the Soay doesn’t have much of a flocking instinct. Soay sheep have been exported from the islands and are kept on farms in many areas for their wool, but if a sheep dog tries to herd a flock of Soay, the poor dog is going to be so frustrated. Soay scatter instead of flocking together. It can also be an aggressive sheep, especially the rams, but it’s also a small breed, with even a big ram rarely heavier than 70 lbs, or 32 kg. And these days, the feral Soay sheep are actually getting smaller overall and have been for the last twenty years. The research team that studies the sheep thinks it’s because climate change has led to shorter, warmer winters, which allows more of the sheep to survive, including smaller sheep that would ordinarily have trouble in cold weather. The smaller sheep breed and their offspring are more likely to be small too, and after twenty years of this the breed overall is smaller than it used to be.

While the Soay used to be a popular breed throughout much of Europe, it’s an at-risk rare breed these days. There are fewer than 1500 breeding ewes registered on farms, in addition to the feral flock on Hirta.

The other breed of St. Kilda sheep is called the Boreray, and it’s also a feral sheep on one of the St. Kilda islands. In this case it lives on the island of Boreray. It’s even rarer than the Soay sheep, the rarest sheep breed in the UK. In 1999 there were only 84 individuals known, but a conservation effort by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust has increased the number to nearly 900 breeding ewes as of 2018.

The Boreray is a little smaller than the Soay and shares characteristics with that breed, including a short tail and its fleece shedding naturally in late spring. It’s usually gray or white, although sometimes brown, often with a speckled black face. Its wool is much coarser than the Soay’s and was traditionally used to make tweed fabric or carpets.

But sheep are domesticated animals, feral or not. What about some of the other animals of St. Kilda?

The St. Kilda wren is a subspecies of Eurasian wren that’s found nowhere else in the world. Like other wrens it’s a tiny songbird, brown and gray with a short tail. It was only recognized as a separate subspecies in 1884, and as happened a lot in those days, museum collectors killed so many of them to stuff and mount that the bird nearly went extinct. Fortunately, early conservationists realized the danger in time, and a special Act of Parliament in 1904 protected the bird. After all the people were evacuated from Hirta, a small team of scientists studied the wren. In 1931 68 nesting pairs were counted, and in 2002 230 breeding pairs were counted. That’s still a low population, but since the wren has almost no predators on St. Kilda, that’s a decent number for such a small habitat.

The St. Kilda wren eats insects, spiders, and other small invertebrates. The male builds the nest out of dead grass and other plants, moss, and seabird feathers.

This is what the St. Kilda wren sounds like:

[St Kilda wren singing]

Another animal found nowhere else in the world is the St. Kilda field mouse, a subspecies of wood mouse. There used to be another mouse subspecies found only on St. Kilda, the St. Kilda house mouse. Both mice were described in 1899, and both are larger than mainland mice. But because the house mouse is dependent on humans, once everyone evacuated the islands the St. Kilda house mouse went extinct within two years.

But the field mouse was fine, and is common throughout the island of Hirta and at least one other island. It actually moved into the abandoned buildings after the house mice went extinct, since houses are full of little nooks and crannies that mice can use as homes. Researchers think the mouse may have been on the islands for something like a thousand years, arriving with Viking settlers.

The St. Kilda field mouse is twice as large and heavy as mainland mice, probably because it basically has no predators. It’s an omnivore like most other mice, and eats seeds, moss, insects and other small animals, and even scavenges meat from dead sheep and birds.

Many sea birds nest on St. Kilda, including Atlantic puffins and northern gannets. The grey seal started breeding on Hirta after everyone left. But except for the sheep, the mice, and the gray seals coming ashore during breeding season, there are no other mammals living on St. Kilda. There are also no trees, no bees, and a limited number of plants and animals, all due to how remote the islands are. They’re 41 miles, or 66 km, away from the Outer Hebrides, a series of much larger islands off the Scottish coast.

Humans have probably lived on Hirta for two thousand years, maybe longer, and have visited the St. Kilda islands as long as 5,000 years ago. But now that the people are gone, the mice and sheep and birds are free to live their quiet lives. As long as they don’t mind a few curious scientists keeping an eye on them.

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

Thanks for listening!

Episode 170: Spinosaurus

This week let’s find out what has paleontologists so excited about this dinosaur!

Further reading:

The Nature article that kicked this all off (you can only read the abstract for free but it’s full of good information)

Paleontologist Who Uncovered Prehistoric River Monster’s Tail Explains Why It’s Such a Game Changer (Newsweek)

Further watching:

A good video about the new findings

Spinosaurus’s updated look:

This trackway from a swimming animal may have been made by a Spinosaurus (photo by Loic Costeur):

A male Danube crested newt, with a tail that somewhat resembles that of Spinosaurus:

Show transcript:

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

If you follow any paleontologists on social media, you’ve probably heard them talking about the new spinosaurus article just published in Nature. It sounds like the sort of discovery that makes other paleontologists take a closer look at fossils of dinosaurs related to spinosaurus, so this week let’s find out what the discovery is and what it means!

I could swear we’ve talked about Spinosaurus before, but a quick search revealed that we actually learned about its relative, Baryonyx, in episode 151. Baryonyx grew at least 33 feet long, or 10 meters, and lived around 125 million years ago. It had a skull similar to Spinosaurus’s but otherwise didn’t resemble it that much, and as far as we know it waded in shallow water to catch fish and other aquatic animals.

Spinosaurus was a therapod dinosaur that lived in the Cretaceous, roughly 112 to 93 million years ago. It lived in what is now North Africa and the species we’re talking about today is Spinosaurus aegyptiacus, which as you can probably guess was first discovered in Egypt.

Spinosaurus was as big as Tyrannosaurus rex, possibly larger depending on what measurements you’re looking at. It could probably grow some 52 feet long, or 16 meters, possibly as much as 59 feet long, or 18 meters. But it didn’t look very much like a T. rex. For one thing, its front legs were large and strong. Instead of T. rex’s massive skull and jaws, Spinosaurus had a more slender, narrow skull that was shaped something like a crocodile’s. It also had long neural spines on its back that may have formed a type of sail similar to Dimetrodon’s, although of course Spinosaurus and Dimetrodon weren’t related at all. Dimetrodon wasn’t a dinosaur or even technically a reptile, as we learned in episode 119.

Spinosaurus’s neural spines could grow almost five and a half feet long, or 1.65 meters, and if they did form a sail, it was roughly squared off instead of shaped like a half-circle. Some researchers think it wasn’t a sail at all but a fatty hump on its back something like a buffalo’s shoulder hump or a camel’s humps. The neural spines would help give the hump structure. Other researchers think it was a sail used for display, while one team of paleontologists suggested as early as 2014 that it was a sail that acted as a dorsal fin in the water, since it’s shaped like a sailfish’s dorsal fin.

Spinosaurus probably ate both meat and fish, so it makes sense that it lived in swampy areas like mangrove forests and tidal flats where it could hunt both terrestrial and water animals. Its hind legs were short, its feet were flat with long toes, and its toes may have been webbed. Its hind feet actually share features found in modern shorebirds, which suggests it spent a lot of time walking on soft ground like sand, marsh, and shallow water.

Despite its body length and short legs, Spinosaurus walked on its hind legs. Its tail was very long to balance the front of its body. And it’s the tail that is the focus of the Nature article everyone’s talking about right now.

See, despite Spinosaurus’s fish-eating, almost no one thought it was an aquatic dinosaur. No one thought any dinosaur swam around routinely to catch fish. The big predators that lived in oceans and fresh water at the same time as the dinosaurs were not dinosaurs, but were reptiles like the crocodile and Mosasaurus.

A few paleontologists, like the team that suggested Spinosaurus’s neural spines formed a sort of dorsal fin, had started suggesting Spinosaurus and its close relations were semi-aquatic. But almost no one agreed. Most scientists pointed out that Spinosaurus looked like an ordinary wading animal, not a swimming animal.

Then, in an article published in Nature on April 29, 2020, a new study revealed that Spinosaurus’s tail isn’t the ordinary long, skinny dinosaur tail. Instead, new physical models of its tail show “unambiguous evidence of [the tail acting as] an aquatic propulsive structure”. In other words, Spinosaurus could not only swim, it could probably swim quite well.

Its tail had tall neural spines like the ones on its back, some of them two feet long, or 61 cm, which gave it more surface area to push against the water. It was flexible and strong too.

So how come no one had noticed this before? Well, no one had the right fossils. Most of the tail bones studied were only found in 2018 and 2019 in Morocco by a team of Italian paleontologists. And guess what! The team of paleontologists were the same ones who suggested a few years ago that the neural spines on Spinosaurus’s back acted as a dorsal fin, led by a man named Nizar Ibrahim. While we still don’t know for sure, it’s looking more and more like they were correct. A dorsal fin provides stability in the water, and of course it could also act as a display feature to attract mates.

We don’t have very many Spinosaurus fossils. The only good specimen ever found was destroyed by a bomb in World War II, and it didn’t have a tail anyway. Until the 2018 expedition started turning up Spinosaurus vertebrae, no one knew what the tail looked like at all. The expedition found most of its tail and a lot of the rest of its bones, including part of the skull. While the fossils were found in the Sahara, back when Spinosaurus was alive the area was swampy and full of rivers, home to lots of large animals, including coelacanths and crocodiles. But Spinosaurus was probably the largest.

There is an animal that has a similar body plan to Spinosaurus’s, an amphibian called the Danube crested newt. It lives in parts of central Europe. It grows to about 7 inches long, or 18 cm, although males are smaller. It’s dark brown with black and white spots and an orange belly with larger black spots. During breeding season, the male develops a crest on its back and tail that does look a little bit like Spinosaurus’s sails. During the fall and winter it lives in the forest, but the rest of the year it lives in water. It eats small animals like insects and tadpoles.

The paleontologists studying Spinosaurus’s tail made a model of the Danube crested newt’s tail and some other animal tails and tested them to see which tail worked best to provide thrust underwater. The newt’s tail won.

That doesn’t mean Spinosaurus was necessarily a fast swimmer. The tail alone would allow it to move forward at around five miles an hour, or 1.6 km per hour. You can walk faster than that with a little effort. But if Spinosaurus also had webbed feet, it could have used them for extra propulsion in the water. It may have cruised through the water at a leisurely pace and ambushed unwary fish and other animals. In shallow water it could have used its hind feet to push off the bottom while it remained buoyant, and in fact we even have fossilized underwater tracks that may be made by Spinosaurus.

Other Spinosaurids were probably at least semi-aquatic too, although they don’t seem to be as well adapted to the water as Spinosaurus was. But now that they know what to look for, it could be that paleontologists will discover more evidence of aquatic dinosaurs soon.

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

Thanks for listening!

Episode 169: The Tarantula!

This week let’s learn about my nemesis (in Animal Crossing: New Horizons, at least), the tarantula!

Further reading:

Tarantulas inspire new structural color with the greatest viewing angle

My character in Animal Crossing (and the shirt I made her–yes, I know tarantulas are arachnids, not insects, but I think the shirt is funny):

Boy who is not afraid of a tarantula:

The Goliath birdeater and a hand. Not photoshopped:

The cobalt blue tarantula:

The Gooty sapphire ornamental:

The Singapore blue tarantula:

The painting by Maria Sibylla Merian that shows a tarantula eating a hummingbird (lower left):

The pinktoe tarantula that Merian painted:

The great horned baboon (not actually a baboon):

Show transcript:

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

Just over two weeks ago I got a Nintendo Switch Lite and I’ve been playing Animal Crossing New Horizons a lot. I’m having a lot of fun with it, so let’s have a slightly Animal Crossing-themed episode and learn about my nemesis in the game, the tarantula.

A tarantula is a spider in the family Theraphosidae, and there are something like twelve hundred species. They live throughout much of the world, including most of the United States, Central and South America, Africa and some nearby parts of southern Europe and the Middle East, most of Asia, and Australia.

The tarantula is a predator, and while it can spin silk it doesn’t build a web to trap insects. It goes out and actively hunts its prey. It uses its silk to make a little nest that it hides in when it’s not hunting. Some species dig a burrow to live in but will line the burrow with silk to keep it from caving in and, let’s be honest, probably to make it more comfortable. The burrow of some species is relatively elaborate, for example those of the genus Brachypelma, which is from the Pacific coast of Mexico. Brachypelma’s burrow has two chambers, one reserved for molting its exoskeleton, one used for everyday activities like eating prey. Brachypelma usually sits at the entrance of its burrow and waits for a small animal to come near, at which point it jumps out and grabs it.

Many species of tarantula live in trees, but because they tend to be large and heavy spiders, falling out of a tree can easily kill a tarantula. But also because they’re large and heavy spiders, they can’t hold onto vertical surfaces the way most spiders do, using what’s called dynamic attachment. Most spiders have thousands of microscopic hairs at the end of their legs that allow it to hold onto surfaces more easily. But no matter what you learned from Spider-Man movies and comics, this doesn’t work very effectively for heavier animals, and many tarantulas are just too heavy. The tarantula does have two or three retractable claws at the end of its legs, but it’s also able to release tiny filaments of silk from its feet if it starts to slip, which anchors it in place.

Like other spiders, the tarantula has eight legs. It also has eight eyes, but the eyes are small and it doesn’t have very good vision. Most tarantulas are also covered with little hairs that make them appear fuzzy. These aren’t true hairs but setae [pronounced see-tee] made of chitin, although they do help keep a tarantula warm. They also help a tarantula sense the world around it with a specialized sense of touch. The setae are sensitive to the tiniest air currents and air vibrations, as well as chemical signatures.

Many species of tarantula have special setae called urticating spines that can be dislodged from the body easily. If a tarantula feels threatened, it will rub a leg against its abdomen, dislodging the urticating spines. The spines are fine and light so they float upward away from the spider on the tiny air currents made by the tarantula’s legs, and right into the face of whatever animal is threatening it. The spines are covered with microscopic barbs that latch onto whatever they touch. If that’s your face or hands, they are going to make your skin itch painfully, and if it happens to be your eyeball you might end up having to go to the eye doctor for an injured cornea. Scientists who study tarantulas usually wear eye protection.

One species of tarantula famous for its urticating spines also happens to be the heaviest spider known, and almost the biggest. It’s the Goliath birdeater, which I’m pretty sure we talked about in the spiders episode in October of 2018. Its leg span can be as much as a foot across, or 30 cm, and it can weigh as much as 6.2 ounces, or 175 grams. It’s brown or golden in color and lives in South America, especially in swampy parts of the Amazon rainforest. It’s nocturnal and mostly eats worms, large insects, other spiders, amphibians like frogs and toads, and occasionally other small animals like lizards and even snakes. And yes, every so often it will catch and eat a bird, but that’s rare. Birds are a lot harder to catch than worms, especially since the Goliath birdeater lives on the ground, not in trees. It’s considered a delicacy in northeastern South America, by the way. People eat it roasted. Apparently it tastes kind of like shrimp.

Most tarantulas from the Americas, known collectively as New World tarantulas, are mostly brown in color. Some have legs striped with rusty red, black, or white, but for the most part they’re all brown. But the Old World tarantulas found in the rest of the world are often more colorful, including many species that are blue. Not that slate gray color sometimes called blue but BRIGHT BLUE. The color isn’t caused by a pigment but by crystalline nanostructures in the exoskeleton, and researchers have recently found that different species of tarantula have evolved similar blue nanostructures independently—at least eight different times. Researchers have been studying the nanostructures and recently managed to replicate it with a nano-3D printer. Eventually they hope that the nanostructure color can replace toxic synthetic dyes for many materials. In addition to not being toxic, nanostructure colors don’t fade.

No one’s sure why so many tarantulas are blue, though. Remember that tarantulas don’t have very good eyesight so they probably don’t depend on color to attract a mate, at least as far as we know.

One blue tarantula is called the cobalt blue tarantula, which lives in the rainforests of southeast Asia. It spends most of its time in deep burrows except when it’s hunting. It has a legspan of about five inches, or 13 cm, and has blue legs and a gray body. Another is the Gooty sapphire ornamental, which is bright blue with a pattern of white on its body and legs. It’s from India, has a legspan of 8 inches, or 20 cm, and is critically threatened due to habitat loss. A third is the Singapore blue, which has a legspan of 9 inches, or 23 cm, and has bright blue legs and a brown or gold body. All these species, and many others, are bred in captivity as pets even though all tarantulas have venom that can cause painful reactions in humans.

Tarantula venom varies from species to species, and as with other venomous animals, researchers have been studying its venom to find potential medical uses, especially painkillers. The venom of some tarantulas targets nerve cells the same way that capsaicin does in hot chili peppers, resulting in a burning sensation. Australian tarantulas produce venom that contains a protein that is effective at killing insects if they eat it, not just if it’s injected, which has led to studies about using the protein to produce more eco-friendly insecticides for crops.

Results of a brand new study, published just a few weeks ago as this episode goes live, finds that the venom of the Chinese bird spider can be adapted to act as a strong pain reliever. It has similar results to morphine and related painkillers without side effects or risk of addiction. It still has to go through a number of clinical trials before it can be made into a drug for doctors to prescribe, but so far the results are promising.

Female tarantulas are usually a little larger than males, although the male may have longer legs. The female usually lays eggs once a year and guards her egg sac for six to eight weeks. She may also guard the babies after they hatch until they leave the nest. Male tarantulas typically don’t live very long compared to females, which can live for several decades in captivity—sometimes up to forty years.

The tarantula molts its exoskeleton periodically as it grows, several times a year for young spiders. Fully grown tarantulas may molt once a year or so. Molting is how a spider replaces lost or injured limbs and how it replaces its urticating spines.

So, in episode 90, about spiders, we talked about a lot of mystery spiders, including giant ones. It’s possible there are larger tarantula species out there than the Goliath birdeater, since new species of tarantula get discovered almost every year. But it’s not likely to be much larger, since as we also discussed in episode 90, the size of a spider or other terrestrial invertebrate is limited by its ability to absorb oxygen.

But there is another mystery associated with tarantulas that doesn’t have to do with their size, although it’s not a mystery that will keep you up at night. There’s a painting of tarantulas by Maria Sibylla Merian, a German artist who lived in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, that shows one tarantula eating a hummingbird. That’s actually how the Goliath birdeater and its close relations got the name birdeater. Merian painted tropical insects and other animals and plants, and unlike many of the artists of her day she was painstaking in her details and was a close observer of nature. She was also a leading entomologist back when that field was in its infancy and women weren’t supposed to do much of anything except have babies. She painted the birdeater tarantula during a trip to Dutch Surinam in South America, sometime between September 1699 and June 1701 when she returned home. It appeared in a book she published in 1705 with the help of her two grown daughters, and her paintings and notes were the first that many people in Europe had ever heard about animals and plants of the Americas. But while Merian’s paintings were meticulous in their details, no one was actually sure which tarantula she had painted.

The problem wasn’t her painting, but confusion about what species of tarantula actually live in northern South America. Carl Linnaeus described the first species of the genus Avicularia in 1758, but the tarantulas he studied, and the ones later assigned to Avicularia, were not actually all related. A few years ago, a team of spider experts in Brazil decided to figure it all out once and for all.

The team studied every specimen collected from the area, both newly collected and old ones in museums around the world. Previously, Avicularia had contained 49 species, but the team changed that to just 12—and three of those 12 were ones new to science. They separated the other species out into three new genera. One of the new species was named after Merian, Avicularia merianae.

The species Merian illustrated is the pinktoe tarantula, Avicularia avicularia, which is brown or black except for the tips of its legs, which are pinkish. Its venom is weak and its legspan is about six inches, or 15 cm. It lives in trees where it ambushes small animals, usually insects, although it will also scavenge already dead animals it finds. Researchers think this is probably the case with Merian’s painting of the tarantula eating a hummingbird, since the pinktoe is too small and weak to kill a hummingbird itself.

Some species of tarantula makes a sort of soft hissing or rattling sound if it feels threatened, called stridulating. Some other spiders and other animals make a similar noise. The tarantula rubs the hairs of its legs together to produce the noise, which sounds like this:

[tarantula stridulating sound]

The tarantula making that sound is called the great horned baboon, which is from Zimbabwe and Mozambique in southern Africa and is not a baboon but a spider. Its legspan is about six inches, or 15 cm, and it’s a very pretty black or gray with a white pattern over most of its body and legs, and a brown or tan pattern on its abdomen. But the most remarkable thing about it is the so-called horn. This is a black horn-like structure that grows from the spider’s carapace. No one is sure what the horn is for. No one except the tarantula, that is.

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

Thanks for listening!

Episode 168: The Longest Lived

This week let’s take a look at some animals (and other living organisms) that live the longest!

This isn’t Methuselah itself (scientists aren’t saying which tree it is, to keep it safe), but it’s a bristlecone pine:

The Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi, a sacred fig tree in Sri Lanka, planted in 288 BCE by a king:

Some trees of the quaking aspen colony called Pando:

Glass sponges (this one’s called the Venus Flower Basket):

Further reading:

Glass sponge as a living climate archive

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to look at the world’s longest lived animals and other organisms. We’re straying into plant territory a little bit here, but I think you’ll agree that this is some fascinating information.

The oldest human whose age we can verify was a French woman who lived to be 122 years old, plus 164 days. Her name was Jeanne Calment and she came from a long-lived family. Her brother lived to the age of 97. Jeanne was born in 1875 and didn’t die until 1997. But the sad thing is, she outlived her entire family. She had a daughter who died of a lung disease called pleurisy at only 36 years old—in fact, on her 36th birthday—and her only grandson died in a car wreck in his late 30s. Jeanne remained healthy physically and mentally until nearly the end of her life, although she had always had poor eyesight.

It’s not all that rare for humans to live past the age of 100, but it is rare for anyone to live to age 110 or beyond. But other animals have average lifespans that are much, much longer than that of humans.

In episode 163 we talked about the Greenland shark, which can live for hundreds of years. The oldest Greenland shark examined was possibly as old as 512 years old, and the sharks may live much longer than that. It’s actually the longest-lived vertebrate known.

No one’s sure which terrestrial vertebrate lives the longest, but it’s probably a tortoise. Giant tortoises are famous for their longevity, routinely living beyond age 100 and sometimes more than 200 years old. The difficulty of verifying a tortoise’s age is that to humans, tortoises all look pretty much alike and we don’t always know exactly when a particular tortoise was hatched. Plus, of course, we know even less about tortoises in the wild than we do ones kept in captivity. But probably the oldest known is an Aldabra giant tortoise that may have been 255 years old when it died in 2006. We talked about giant tortoises in episode 95.

But for the really long-lived creatures, we have to look at the plant world. The oldest individual tree whose age we know for certain is a Great Basin bristlecone pine called Methuselah. Methuselah lives in the Inyo National Forest in the White Mountains in California, which of course is on the west coast of North America. In 1957 a core sample was taken from it and other bristlecone pines that grow in what’s called the ancient bristlecone pine forest. Many trees show growth rings in the trunk that make a pattern that’s easy to count, so the tree’s age is easy to determine as long as you have someone who is patient enough to count all the rings. Well, Methuselah was 4,789 years old in 1957. It probably germinated in 2833 BCE. Other trees in the forest were nearly as old, with at least one possibly older, but the sample from that older tree is lost and no one’s sure where the tree the sample came from is.

Another bristlecone pine, called the Prometheus Tree, germinated even earlier than Methuselah, probably in 2880 BCE, but it’s now dead. A grad student cut it down in 1964, possibly by accident—stories vary and no one actually knows why he cut the tree down. The bristlecone pine is now a protected species.

There are other trees estimated to be as old as Methuselah. This includes a yew in North Wales that may be 5,000 years old and is probably at least 4,000 years old, and a cypress in Iran that’s at least 2,000 years old and possibly 5,000 years old. Sequoyahs from western North America, baobabs from Africa, and kauri trees from New Zealand are all documented to live over a thousand years and possibly many thousands of years.

In at least one case, a sacred fig tree in Sri Lanka, we know exactly when the tree was planted. A Buddhist nun brought a branch of the original sacred fig tree, the one that the Buddha was sitting under when he achieved enlightenment, to Sri Lanka and presented it to King Devanampiya Tissa. He planted the branch in the royal park in 288 BCE, where it grew into a tree which remains in the park to this day, more than 2,000 years later. It’s cared for by Buddhists monks and people come from all over Sri Lanka to visit the tree. If this sounds a little too good to be true, the easiest way to grow a sacred fig is to use a cutting from another tree. The cutting will root and grow into a new tree.

Not all trees are individuals. You may not know this and I didn’t either until recently. Some trees grow as colonies. The most well known tree colony is called Pando, made up of quaking aspens that live in Utah in North America. While the individual trees are only around 130 years old on average, Pando itself has been alive for an estimated 80,000 years. Each tree is a male clone and all the trees are connected by a root system that covers 106 acres, or 43 hectares. Because its root system is so huge and deep, Pando is able to survive forest fires that kill all other trees. Pando’s trees die, but afterwards the roots just send up shoots that grow into new trees. Researchers estimate that it’s been 10,000 years since Pando’s trees actually flowered. Unfortunately, Pando is currently threatened by humans stopping the forest fires that otherwise would kill off rival trees, and threatened by grazing livestock that kill off young trees before they can become established.

Pando isn’t the only quaking aspen colony known, though. There are a number of smaller colonies in western North America. Researchers think it’s an adaptation to frequent forest fires and a semi-arid climate that makes it harder for seedlings to grow. Quaking aspens that live in northeastern North America, where the climate is much wetter, grow from seeds instead of forming colonies.

Other species of tree form colonies too, including a spruce tree in Sweden whose root system dates to nearly 10,000 years ago and a pine colony in Tasmania that is about the same age but with individual trees that are themselves 3,000 years old. Not all long-lived plant colonies are trees, though. A colony of sea grass in the Mediterranean may be as much as 200,000 years old although it may be only 12,000 years old, researchers aren’t sure.

I could go on and on about long-lived plants, but let’s get back to the animals. If the Greenland shark is the longest lived vertebrate known, what’s the longest lived invertebrate? Here’s your reminder that a vertebrate is an animal with some form of spine, while an invertebrate has no spine.

Many invertebrates that live in the ocean have long lifespans. Corals of various kinds can live for thousands of years, for instance. The ocean quahog, a type of clam that lives in the North Atlantic Ocean, grows very slowly compared to other clams. It isn’t fully mature until it’s nearly six years old, and populations that live in cold water can live a long time. Sort of like tree rings, the age of a clam can be determined by counting the growth rings on its shell, and a particular clam dredged up from the coast of Iceland in 2006 was discovered to be 507 years old. Its age was double-checked by carbon-14 dating of the shell, which verified that it was indeed just over 500 years old when it was caught and died. Researchers aren’t sure how long the quahog can live, but it’s a safe bet that there are some alive today that are older than 507 years, possibly a lot older.

But the invertebrate that probably lives the longest is the glass sponge. It’s found throughout the world’s oceans, but is especially common in cold waters of the Northern Pacific and Antarctic. It usually grows up to about a foot tall, or 30 cm, although some species grow larger, and is roughly shaped like a vase. Most species are white or pale in color. In some places the sponges fuse together to form reefs, with the largest found so far 65 feet tall, or 20 meters, and nearly four and a half miles long, or 7 km.

The glass sponge is a simple creature with a lattice-like skeleton made of silica covered with porous tissue. It anchors itself to a rock or the ocean floor, frequently in deep water, and as water flows through the openings in its body, it filters microscopic food out. So it basically lives a very slow, very plant-like existence.

One glass sponge, Monorhaphis chuni, anchors itself to the sea floor with a long basal spicule that looks like a stem. This stem can be over nine feet long, or 3 m. It needs to be long because it lives in deep water where there’s a lot of soft sediment at the bottom. In 1986 the skeleton of a dead Monorhaphis was collected from the East China Sea so it could be studied. Since a glass sponge adds layers of skeleton to its basal spicule every year as it grows, you guessed it, the layers can be counted just like tree rings—although it requires an electron microscope to count since the layers are very small. The sponge was determined to be about 11,000 years old when it died. Researchers are able to determine local ocean temperature changes from year to year by studying the rings, just as tree rings give us information about local climate.

Let’s finish with something called an endolith. An endolith isn’t a particular animal or even a group of related animals. An endolith is an organism that lives inside a rock or other rock-like substance, such as coral. Some are fungi, some lichens, some amoebas, some bacteria, and various other organisms, many of them single-celled and all of them very small if not microscopic. Some live in tiny cracks in a rock, some live in porous rocks that have space between grains of mineral, some bore into the rock. Many are considered extremophiles, living in rocks inside Antarctic permafrost, at the tops of the highest mountains, in the abyssal depths of the oceans, and at least two miles, or 3 km, below the earth’s surface.

Various endoliths live on different minerals, including potassium, sulfur, and iron. Some endoliths even eat other endoliths. We don’t know a whole lot about them, but studies of endoliths found in soil deep beneath the ocean’s floor suggest that they grow extremely slowly. Like, from one generation to the next could be as long as 10,000 years, with the oldest endoliths potentially being millions of years old—even as old as the sediment itself, which dates to 100 million years old.

That is way older than Jeanne Calment and all those trees.

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

Thanks for listening!

Episode 167: Animals That Just Look Wrong

Thanks to Sam for this week’s topic suggestion and animal suggestions! This week we’re looking at some animals that just look…weird? And wrong? And not what you expect?

Like the gerenuk:

And the Tibetan fox:

And the maned wolf:


And the proboscis monkey:

And the bald uakari:

Further watching:

Shani the baby gerenuk (so cute!)

Show transcript:

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

This week the theme and many of the animals we’ll cover are a suggestion by Sam. We were chatting on Twitter earlier this week and they linked me to an animal called the gerenuk, and it was just all weird from there. So thank you to Sam who jumpstarted what has turned out to be a really fun episode, Animals That Look Wrong.

The gerenuk is an antelope, but not one that I’d ever heard of before. My life is better now that I know it exists. It lives in East Africa and is a member of its own genus, but is probably most closely related to the springbok.

The gerenuk is a slender antelope that grows around three and a half feet tall at the shoulder, or 105 cm. It has a very long neck and long thin legs, and the male has a pair of black horns that can grow around 18 inches long, or 45 cm. It’s reddish-brown on the back and lighter on the belly, with a pale stripe across its sides. It also has a white patch around each eye that makes its large eyes look even bigger. Its tail is short.

This doesn’t sound too weird, right? It’s just a small, slender antelope. But the gerenuk’s legs are really remarkably thin, even for an antelope. They’re practically like sticks with hooves, especially the front legs. The gerenuk stands on its hind legs and stretches its neck upward to reach leaves that other animals can’t, and it uses its front legs to help it pull branches down closer to its mouth. This means that it sometimes folds its long, incredibly thin legs in ways that look like it shouldn’t be possible.

The gerenuk usually lives in small groups of maybe half a dozen animals at most. Usually a group is either all males or all females, and each group has a small territory. The territory of a female group will overlap with the territories of male groups. The female gerenuk can have a baby at any time of the year instead of having a particular birthing season. Male calves stay with their mothers longer than females, so if a gerenuk has a male calf she won’t have another baby for two years, but if she has a female calf she will usually have another baby the following year. The gerenuk lives in fairly dry areas and eats all kinds of plants, although it prefers acacia.

Just think of them out there right now, gerenuks folding their impossibly thin legs back so far you would swear they were part grasshopper. They’re eating acacia leaves right now while you listen to me talk about them. It’s blowing my mind. Perhaps I have been in quarantine too long.

Okay, moving on. Next up is the Tibetan fox. This is not the same animal as the Corsac fox we talked about in our bonus Mongolian episode a few weeks ago, even though the Corsac fox is sometimes called the Tibetan fox, and sometimes both animals are called sand foxes. The Tibetan fox is a species of fox that lives in semi-arid grasslands in high altitudes in Tibet, parts of China, and surrounding areas. It’s brown and gray with a brushy tail like other foxes, although it has relatively short legs.

When you get a mental picture of a fox, you probably think of the common red fox with a long, slender muzzle. But the Tibetan fox does not look like this. Sam referred to it as the fox that looks like it got stung on the face by a bee, and that’s a really good description. It has a large, blocky head with a short, thick muzzle and yellow eyes that see you and immediately dismiss you as unworthy.

The Tibetan fox mostly eats pikas, a rodent-like mammal common throughout its range, but it also eats other small animals like marmots and hares. It’s usually a solitary animal but mated pairs may hunt together. It also sometimes follows brown bears that are also hunting pikas. The bear digs up pika burrows, but sometimes the pika escapes. When it does, the fox will grab it instead. Because the Tibetan fox is so dependent on the pika for most of its diet, conservationists are worried that farmers are increasingly poisoning pikas, which they consider pests. The fox is not considered endangered right now, though, and hopefully farmers will start using other methods of pest control instead of poisoning.

Next up is another canid, the maned wolf. We’ve talked about it before in episode 80, and it is definitely weird-looking. Imagine a wolf. Now, imagine a wolf with legs twice as long as usual. Now, make it reddish with black legs and a ruff of black fur down its neck, a short white-tipped tail, and a long muzzle. If you’re thinking that this wolf looks more like a fox with really long legs and a short tail, you’re right. But it’s not a wolf and it’s not a fox. Like the gerenuk, the maned wolf is the only member of its own genus.

So why does the maned wolf have such long legs? It lives in the grasslands of central and eastern South America, especially Brazil, and its long legs are an adaptation to see over the tall grass. It stands around three feet tall at the shoulder, or 90 cm, but has small feet in comparison to its size. It’s usually a crepuscular animal, active around dawn and dusk, and is generally solitary. It’s an omnivore and eats quite a bit of plant material, especially a tomato-like fruit called the wolf apple. It will also eat carrion and any small animals it can catch, sometimes burying dead animals that it can’t eat right away. When it buries a dead animal, it will mark the spot with urine so it can find it more easily later.

That brings us to the maned wolf’s smell. It marks its territory with urine, and its urine has a really strong odor, which is why the maned wolf is sometimes called the skunk wolf. And it smells like cannabis. The chemical in maned wolf urine that makes it smell so strongly is called pyrazine, which is used by many animals and plants to indicate that they’re toxic. It’s likely that having so much of the chemical in its urine helps keep other animals away from its territory, since they interpret it as a warning signal. In 2006 someone at the Rotterdam Zoo in Holland complained that people were smoking marijuana in the zoo, but when police investigated they discovered that the smell was actually coming from the maned wolf exhibit.

This is what the maned wolf sounds like. The sound is called a roar-bark but honestly it just sounds like a big dog barking if you ask me:

[maned wolf barking]

Next let’s look at two monkeys, one from Asia and one from South America. We don’t talk about monkeys often enough on this podcast.

The proboscis monkey is an endangered animal from Borneo in southeast Asia. It’s a big monkey and a big male can weigh more than 65 pounds, or around 30 kg. Females are generally much smaller. It has long fur that can range from orange or yellowish to brown or gray. A baby proboscis monkey has a blue face that darkens to gray after a few months, but as it grows up, the baby’s face turns cream-colored like adult faces. But this isn’t the weird part about the proboscis monkey. Not even the fact that some of its toes are webbed is the weird part. Nope, it’s the monkey’s nose that’s just so weird-looking. Most monkeys have little noses, but the proboscis monkey has a really big nose. The male’s nose is bigger than the female’s and is so long and bulbous that it hangs down below the mouth. The female’s nose is more pointy. Researchers aren’t sure why the monkey has such a big nose but suggest it might help the male make louder honking noises to attract females.

The proboscis monkey also has a pot belly like many monkeys do, since it mostly eats leaves and leaves require a lot of digestion. It even chews its cud. It has a long tail and mostly stays in trees.

Proboscis monkeys live in family groups, often one male with several females and their babies, but the family groups spend time with other family groups to socialize. The different groups gather together at night to sleep in one big group. Sometimes the male of a family group will leave and be replaced by another male, which usually happens without too much drama. A female occasionally leaves to join another group, and young males who don’t have mates will sometimes form bachelor groups. For the most part proboscis monkeys are pretty chill and not very aggressive.

With its pot belly and big nose, after the first European settlers arrived in Borneo, the locals started calling the monkey the orang belanda. That means “Dutchman.” Sorry if you are Dutch, but there it is. Also, it’s weird that I’ve mentioned Holland twice in the same episode about totally different animals.

This is what a proboscis monkey sounds like:

[proboscis monkey honking]

Our last animal this week is another monkey, the bald uakari [pronounced wakari], a rare monkey that lives in the Amazon rainforest in South America. It’s threatened by habitat loss, especially deforestation. Females only have one baby every two years.

The bald uakari has long fur over its body, usually brown but sometimes black or blond, but its head is bald, which is where it gets its name. It has a short furry tail that looks like a big round poof and it’s a much smaller animal than the proboscis monkey, only a little larger than a cat. It lives in small groups that travel around their territory to find food, mostly seeds, nuts, and unripe fruit, which it bites open with its strong jaws and teeth. It has a normal monkey nose.

So, picture the bald uakari in your mind. Small brown monkey with long fur and a bald head. Did you picture it with a BRIGHT RED FACE? No? Well, it has a bright pinky-red face, like it saw a can of red paint and thought, I’d like that on my entire face.

So why does the bald uakari have a red face? It’s not because of a particular pigment in the skin, it’s actually due to a lack of pigment. The skin of its face is thin and unpigmented, but contains lots of small blood vessels. The red color actually comes from the blood that’s visible through the skin. Monkeys with bright red faces are healthy, which means they’re attractive as mates. Monkeys that aren’t healthy have much paler faces, especially if the monkey has malaria. Most bald uakari monkeys are naturally immune to malaria, but not all of them.

So if anyone ever razzes you about a haircut or a shirt you’re wearing or anything else, just remember these awesome animals that don’t look like what people expect. They might not fit into the mental category we have for a particular type of animal, but they’re all really awesome, and so are you.

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

Thanks for listening!

Episode 166: The Domestic Cat

I just adopted two black cats, named Dracula and Poe, so let’s learn about domestic cats! Thanks to RosyWindFox, Nicholas, Richard E., Kim, and an anonymous listener who all made suggestions and contributed to this episode in one way or another!

Further listening:

Weird Dog Breeds – an unlocked Patreon episode

Two beautiful examples of domestic cats (Dracula on left, Poe on right, and it is really hard to photograph a black cat):

The African wildcat, ancestor of the domestic cat:

The blotched tabby (left) and regular tabby (right):

A cat’s toe pads (Poe’s toes, in fact):

The big friendly Maine Coon cat:

The Norwegian forest cat SO FLUFFY:

The surprised-looking Singapura cat:

The hairless sphynx breed (with sweater):

The Madagascar forest cat:

The European wildcat:

This came across my feed today and it seemed appropriate, or inappropriately funny depending on your point of view:

Show transcript:

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

I had a different episode planned for this week, but then I adopted two cats, so this week’s episode is going to be about the domestic cat! It also happens to be a suggestion from RosyWindFox after we got to talking about podcasts and animals. Rosy also kindly sent me some research she had done about cats for a project of her own, which was a great help!

But Rosy isn’t the only listener who contributed to this episode. Nicholas suggested weird cats a while back, Richard E. suggested unusual cat breeds, and Kim suggested an episode about domestic cats as invasive species. And we have another suggestion by a listener who wants to remain anonymous about keeping exotic animals as pets, which I thought would fit in well after we talk about invasive species. We’ll also learn about some mystery cats while we’re at it. So buckle up for this big episode about little cats, and thanks to everyone who sent suggestions!

We don’t want to leave the dog lovers out so before we start talking about cats, back in June of 2019 patrons got an episode about strange dog breeds, also suggested by Nicholas. I’ve unlocked that episode so that anyone can listen. There’s a link in the show notes and you can just click the link and listen in your browser, no Patreon login required.

So, most people are familiar with the domestic cat, usually just called a cat. It’s different from the similar-sized felid called a wildcat because it’s actually domesticated. Even domestic cats that have never lived with a human are still part of a species shaped by domestication, so instead of wild cats, wild domestic cats are called feral cats.

Researchers estimate that the domestic cat developed from a species of African wildcat about 10,000 years ago, or possibly as long as 12,000 years ago. This was around the time that many cultures in the Middle East were developing farming, and farming means you need to store grain. If you store grain, you attract mice and other rodents. And what animals famously like to catch and eat rodents? Cats! Wildcats started hanging around farms and houses to catch rodents, and since the humans didn’t want the rodents, they were fine with the cats. Farms that didn’t have any cats had more rodents eating their stored grain, so it was just a matter of time before humans made the next logical step and started taming wildcats so they could trade cats to people who needed them. Besides, wildcats are pretty animals with sleek fur, and if you’ve ever stood by the tiger exhibit in a zoo and wished you could pet a tiger, you will understand how your distant ancestors felt about wildcats.

The species of wildcat is Felis silvestris lybica, the African wildcat, which lives in northern Africa and Southwest Asia. It’s still alive today and looks so much like a domestic cat that it can be hard to tell the species apart, although the African wildcat has long legs and specific markings. For a long time people thought some populations of domestic cats developed from the European wildcat, which we talked about in episode 52, but modern genetic and behavioral studies suggest that all domestic cats are descended from the African wildcat. All wildcat species are pretty closely related, though, and domestic cats and wildcats can and do sometimes interbreed and produce fertile kittens.

The main difference between the African wildcat and the domestic cat is the wildcat’s color. It’s usually a yellowish-gray with lighter belly, with darker stripes and spots. It also has small ear tufts at the tips of the ears.

If you remember episode 106, where we talked about domestication, you’ll remember that some of the wolves that hung around human camps probably initiated domestication. They saw that humans had a pretty sweet deal going and if they alerted those humans to danger and acted nice otherwise, they’d get food. Well, wildcats probably did the same thing. Yes, humans were loud and clumsy and scary, but humans also sometimes gave you food and petted you.

Over many, many generations, the wildcats evolved into cats that didn’t just tolerate humans, they liked humans. It was harder for cats than it was for dogs, though, since canids already lived in packs that were structured similarly to human groups. This is why many people think that dogs are friendlier than cats, because dogs and humans have so many similarities. But cats have adapted really well to human culture.

Wildcats are mostly solitary animals, only coming together during mating season. But domestic cats will live together along with their human family. I adopted my two cats because they get along so well even though they’re not related.

In the olden days people brought cats with them when they moved the same way they took their dogs. The cats were useful to hunt and kill mice that tried to get into the family’s food. People on ships brought cats along for the same reason, because if rats and mice ate the ship’s food stores, the sailors might go hungry. This helped spread cats around the world. In medieval times, cats were so important to sailors that some areas passed laws that a cat had to be onboard a ship for it to set sail.

Egyptian cats were especially in demand, probably because they were more friendly than other cats. So many people wanted Egyptian cats that Egypt passed laws to stop the sale or trade of cats to foreigners, with the oldest law dating to 1700 BCE. But for the most part, cats weren’t selectively bred the way dogs were. Cats were allowed to have babies with whatever mate they chose, which were sometimes wildcats.

It probably wasn’t until about a thousand years ago that humans started taking a real interest in what cats looked like. Until then most domestic cats probably looked a lot like their wild ancestors. But medieval cat owners started selectively breeding cats for particular colors and patterns, such as the blotched tabby pattern. This is a recessive form of the ordinary tabby pattern, which is usually just thin stripes. The blotched tabby is big swirls of color against a paler background. People in the olden days apparently liked the blotched tabby pattern and bred for it.

The domestication of canids, as you may remember from episode 106, usually comes along with behavioral and physical changes. Many dog breeds have puppy-like faces, with a rounder head and shorter jaws. The ears may stay floppy, the tail may have a curl, and coat patterns may change from their wild ancestors’. But this hasn’t really happened in cats, and some researchers think it’s because the cat wasn’t fully domesticated until around 1,000 years ago when this selective breeding started taking place. But cats do show one really interesting adaptation to domestication that wildcats never show. They meow.

Wildcats are usually pretty silent. A wildcat is mostly solitary so it doesn’t need to communicate with pack mates, and it needs to stay quiet so it won’t alert its prey or potential predators. But young cats need to communicate with their mother, which they do by crying and chirping and meowing. Domesticated cats retain this impulse and will talk to humans in the same way that kittens talk to mama cats. Yes, our cats are talking baby talk to us.

If you’re not familiar with the sounds cats make, this is a recording of my cat Poe.

[cat meowing]

Cats don’t just meow and chirp, though. They also purr, as do wildcats and some big cats. We still aren’t sure exactly how cats generate the sound calling purring, but researchers think the cat uses its laryngeal muscles to produce the sound as it breathes in and out. Usually purring denotes relaxation, but a cat may also purr if it’s hurt, stressed, or afraid. Some researchers suggest that the specific frequency of purring vibrations actually promotes the growth of bone and tissue, which helps a cat heal faster if it’s hurt. A cat’s purring is good for people too, acting as a stress reliever.

This is what a purring cat sounds like. This is my cat Dracula purring while I petted him:

[cat purring]

The cat has a rough tongue covered with tiny spines that contain keratin. It uses its tongue to clean and arrange its fur. It has keen hearing, good vision, especially at night, and a good sense of smell. While it can see color, it can’t distinguish between red and green, so if you happen to have red-green color blindness, just reassure yourself that you can see like a cat. The cat can hear into the ultrasonic range, which helps it find rodents which communicate in ultrasound. Some of the noises small kittens make are in the ultrasonic range too, which means most predators can’t hear them but the mama cat can.

If you have a pet cat or have looked closely at a friend’s cat, you’ll know that a cat has whiskers on either side of its nose above its mouth, above its eyes, and some short whiskers on the backs of its legs. All these whiskers are extremely sensitive and help the cat navigate its surroundings in darkness, both by touching things and by reacting to small air currents. You’ll also probably know that a cat’s eyes have slit pupils that react to light. In bright light the pupils contract until they’re practically just a narrow black line. In full darkness they enlarge until the pupils are round, which lets in as much light as possible. Like many nocturnal or largely nocturnal animals, the cat also has a reflective lining in the back of the eye called the tapetum lucidum, which reflects light back through the eye and improves night vision even more. This is why a cat’s eyes seem to shine in the dark.

Cats are climbers, with many adaptations that help it climb. Its claws are retractable, especially its front claws. Most of the time the claws remain inside little sheaths in the toe pads, which keeps them from wearing down and means the cat can walk silently without the claws making tapping noises on hard ground. But when the cat needs to climb, or use its claws as weapons, or if it needs extra traction, it basically flexes its toes to extend the claws. The claws grow directly from the toe bones, not out of skin like our own fingernails do. Another adaptation to climbing is the cat’s keen sense of balance. If a cat falls from a height of at least 3 feet, or about a meter, it’s able to twist its body to land right side up, minimizing its chances of getting injured. Researchers used to think that a cat used its tail to twist around as it fell, but it’s something that even cats without tails can do. A tail helps, but it’s not necessary. The cat’s flexible spine and lack of a collarbone are the real reason it works. Not only that, but a cat’s paw pads act as shock absorbers that also help it land safely.

The cat has four toes on the hind feet and five on the front, with the fifth toe acting as a sort of thumb. A cat has a toe pad for each toe, plus a larger pad in the middle that acts as a sort of palm pad. But if you look closely, the cat also has an extra toe pad on its front feet, farther back from the others. Researchers think this extra pad helps give the paws extra traction if the cat needs it, which helps it control how far it skids or doesn’t skid when it jumps. Basically it’s a brake pad.

Let’s look at a few interesting breeds of cat next. The domestic cat doesn’t have big differences between breeds the way dogs do. I mean, think of how different a Chihuahua is compared to a St. Bernard. But there are differences between cat breeds, of course. The Manx cat and a few other breeds have a genetic mutation that results in a short or missing tail, for instance.

The biggest breed of cat is the Maine Coon, which can grow as big as a bobcat or Eurasian lynx, although without being as heavy as those wild felids. The biggest cat ever measured is a Maine Coon named Barivel, who is 3 feet and 11.2 inches long, or 120 cm, from nose to tail. The Maine Coon has a thick, water-repellent coat that helps it survive in cold weather, and it’s well known for being as friendly as a dog. Genetic studies suggest it developed from the Norwegian forest cat, a breed from northern Europe, which itself may have descended from cats carried on Viking ships around a thousand years ago.

The smallest breed that isn’t due to a form of dwarfism is the Singapura, which is a lightly built cat. I can’t find anything definitive about its height, but it only weighs about eight pounds at most, or 3.6 kg, and usually considerably less. It’s beige with brown ticking that makes it look tan and its eyes are large, which makes it look sort of surprised all the time.

There are a few breeds of cat that are hairless, including the Sphynx. Hairlessness is a mutation that crops up in cats very rarely, and the Sphynx breed was only established in the late 1980s after a few decades of breeding for hairlessness, with the initial attempts resulting in cats with a lot of health issues. The current breed is healthier, but because it doesn’t have any hair it gets cold easily. A lot of owners make sure their cats have warm sweaters to wear in cold weather, which is adorable. Sphynx cats can also get sunburned and need to be bathed to remove dirt and oils from their skin. Some people with cat allergies have found that owning a Sphynx cat actually helped them adapt to cats and reduced their allergic reactions, but others have found that they actually react more strongly to Sphynxes than regular cats. This is because people are allergic not to cat hair but to a protein found in cat saliva and skin glands.

Next, let’s look at a mystery cat from Madagascar. Madagascar is a large island off the coast of Africa, home to lemurs and other animals found nowhere else in the world. It doesn’t have any native felids, although people who live on Madagascar do have pet cats. But a scientist named Michelle Sauther, who researches lemurs, kept seeing cats in the forest. They were all tabbies and the locals called them wildcats, but Dr. Sauther wanted to know more about them.

She and her team set up traps for the forest cats. When they trapped a cat, they took photographs, hair and blood samples, and even dental impressions. Then they released the cats back into the wild. Genetic profiles developed from the samples helped solve the mystery of what these cats are. They’re feral cats descended from ship cats that traveled from areas around the Arabian Sea, hundreds and possibly even a thousand years ago. Enough cats jumped ship on Madagascar to develop into a breeding colony that is still around today.

Dr. Sauther is studying the effects of the feral cats on local animals, because cats can cause a lot of damage as introduced predators. Cats are efficient hunters of small animals, especially rodents like mice, but also birds, reptiles, amphibians, insects, and basically any animal they can catch.

That brings us to the issues caused by feral and pet cats around the world. When people bring cats to parts of the world where cats have never before been, the cats can cause rapid extinctions of small animals. On islands the situation is even worse because an animal’s population may be low to start with and the animal can’t just move to a different area to get away from the cats.

The problem is that people often don’t take care of their cats the way they should. Many people don’t get their cats neutered, which means they have kittens that the owner doesn’t want. Instead of finding good homes for the kittens, the owner will just let the kittens grow up wild outside. Soon there’s a colony of feral cats in the area that have to hunt to survive, and local animals are under much more than ordinary pressure of predation. If the local population of small animals declines because of cats, local predators that also depend on those small animals will decline too, causing a cascade effect that can ruin a local ecosystem.

But it always irritates me when people start acting like cats are horrible animals and people who let their cats outside are horrible people who don’t care about their pets or about wild animals. First of all, cats are cats, and cats are predators. No one can change that. And some cats just cannot be happy inside. My last cat, named Jekyll, had been a stray before I adopted him and he was never happy inside. I tried to make him an inside cat but every time I opened the door to leave he would streak outside, no matter how careful I was. Sometimes I couldn’t get him to come back in. And yes, sometimes he brought me dead or dying birds or animals, including an injured baby bunny once, which always made me feel awful. And after a few years, he was hit by a car and killed.

The safest place for a cat is inside your home, with food and water and a litter box you keep clean. A cat should never be allowed to roam freely, especially at night. Cats are tough animals but they’re also small. Many larger animals see them as prey, not to mention the dangers of cars and contracting diseases from other cats. If your cat isn’t happy being inside all the time, try to limit its outside time to when you can be outside with it, to protect both it and any animals around. Make sure it wears a collar with a bell, too—that’s not a perfect solution, because some cats will learn to walk so carefully that the bell won’t ring, but it will help.

Because of people who don’t neuter their cats and just let them roam around, cats and cat owners have a bad reputation among conservationists. Try to understand that the people who talk about how many birds are killed by cats every year aren’t blaming you specifically, although sometimes it feels that way, I know. They’re blaming the irresponsible cat owners and taking their frustration out on all cat owners.

It’s a complicated issue and as you can tell, I’m ambivalent. On the one hand, I absolutely agree that cats are horrible for local wild animal populations. On the other hand, the people who are loudest and angriest about cats killing birds and other animals don’t think twice about driving a car. One figure I found estimates that a million animals are killed by cars every single day in the United States alone, but then again, cats kill even more animals every day. But most of those animals are killed by feral cats, not pet cats. All we can do is be responsible cat owners and do our best to protect both our pets and the wild animals that live near us.

My newly adopted cats are both definitely inside cats. If a mouse comes into the house they can do their job, but otherwise they’re just going to be pouncing on toy mice.

So that leads us to our final topic suggestion, about the ethics of keeping exotic animals as pets. If this seems a little out there for an episode about domestic cats, remember that it wasn’t all that long ago that domestic cats were wildcats, and that they’re still so closely related to wildcats that wildcats and domestic cats can interbreed. Wildcats and domestic cats still look a whole lot alike too. But that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to scoop up a wildcat and take it home as a pet. But that’s what some people do.

There’s a TV show out now called Tiger King that people are talking about. I haven’t seen it because I just don’t watch TV, but it sounds pretty horrible. From what I gather, the tigers and other animals aren’t properly taken care of and the people who own the animals aren’t very nice. Generally, the kind of people who want an exotic pet are not the kind of people who bother to learn how to properly take care of it. They figure a tiger is just a big cat and they know how to take care of a cat, but that’s not the case at all.

Even if you get a wild animal as a baby and raise it the same way you would a kitten or puppy, it’s still wild. That means that no matter how sweet it was as a baby, once it’s grown, it considers its own needs first and yours second, if at all. It doesn’t consider itself part of the family group and can be unpredictable and dangerous, no matter how well you think you know its personality. In 2011 a mountain lion kept as a pet in Texas grabbed a four-year-old boy through the bars of its cage and mauled him. Fortunately the boy was okay, but the mountain lion was killed by animal control officers, who had already cited the owner for not providing a bigger cage with smaller gaps between bars. It also turned out that the mountain lion’s owner didn’t have a permit to keep it.

Even smaller felids can be dangerous. Many people keep servals as exotic pets, because they look and act a lot like domestic cats but are exotically spotted. The serval lives in parts of Africa and is a little larger than the domestic cat, with long legs and a small head. We’ve talked about the serval before in episode 52. In late 2019 a man in Ohio apparently let his pet serval out to wander the neighborhood, and it attacked one of his neighbor’s dogs. Again, the serval was killed and the owner fined. In both those examples, the animal wasn’t properly taken care of and ended up being killed, which is sad. It’s always the exotic pet that is miserable, often unhealthy, and usually killed when it does something wrong.

So no, I don’t think anyone should keep a wild animal as a pet. If you just really really love wild animals and want to work with them directly, there are lots of appropriate ways you can do it. You can become a zookeeper or exotic animal veterinarian, a scientist or conservationist who studies wild animals, or a photographer who specializes in photographing animals in the wild. All those suggestions are better for you and for the animals than trying to keep a wild animal as a pet.

This is already a really long episode, but let’s finish up with another mystery so I don’t finish the episode by lecturing everyone. You may remember from episode 52 that we talked about the European wildcat that still lives in Europe and Scotland. The Scottish wildcat is critically endangered, with probably no more than around four hundred animals living in Scotland. But there have been reports going back centuries of a wildcat living in Ireland.

The European wildcat did once live in Ireland, but it died out around 3,000 years ago. It’s also been extinct in England since the 1860s. But reports dating to at least the early 19th century in various parts of Ireland indicate that many people saw and even killed large wildcats—but they didn’t look like the European wildcat. They looked more like the African wildcat.

The most obvious difference between the European and the African wildcat is the tail. The African wildcat’s tail looks like a domestic cat’s tail, relatively thin at the end with a slightly pointed tip. The European wildcat’s tail fluffs out at the end instead of tapering. At least one expert from the 19th century proclaimed that the wildcat sightings in Ireland were actually of hybrids of domestic cats and European wildcats. But remember, the European wildcat had gone extinct in Ireland some 3,000 years before. Besides, these animals were reportedly larger and heavier than domestic cats, and feral cats are usually relatively small.

These large cats are still occasionally spotted in Ireland, with a flurry of sightings as recently as 2002. It’s possible people are just mistaking unusually large feral cats for wildcats, but there’s always the possibility that European wildcats still survive in Ireland, but have hybridized with domestic cats so much that its descendants resemble the African wildcat more than the European wildcat. So if you are a mouse who lives in Ireland, watch out.

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

Thanks for listening!

Episode 165: Furry Fish

I hope you’re all well and not too bored if you’re one of the millions who are having to stay inside right now! This week let’s learn about a fishy mystery, fish with fur!

Further reading:

Mirapinna esau – a Furry Fish from the Azores

The so-called fur-bearing trout:

A hairy frogfish:

The hairyfish (I couldn’t find any actual photos of one):

This man is serious about moldy fish. He wants the mold to think about what it’s done while it’s in time out:

Show transcript:

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

This week let’s learn about a fishy mystery, if not an actual mystery fish. Are there any fish with hair?

Sometimes you’ll see a mounted fish that has fur, usually decorating a restaurant. It may be the same type of restaurant that also has a stuffed jackalope, which we talked about in episode 113. Fur-bearing trout are jokes by taxidermists, who usually attach rabbit fur to a stuffed fish.

But some cultures have stories about fish with hair. This includes the Japanese story of big river fish with hair on their heads like people, although since these fish are supposed to come out of the water at night to fight and play, they’re probably not actual fish. There’s also an Icelandic legend about an inedible trout with fur that shows up in rivers where people are not being nice enough.

Could these stories be based on a real animal? Are there any fish that grow fur or hair?

Mammals are the only living animals that grow actual hair from specialized cells, but lots of animals have hair-like coverings. Baby birds have downy fuzzy feathers that look like hair and many insects have hairlike structures called setae [see-tee], made of chitin, that make them look furry.

Some fish grow hairlike filaments that help camouflage them among water plants and coral. We’ve talked about the frogfish and its relatives, the anglerfish, many times before, because they’re such weird-looking fish, many of them deep-sea species that are seldom seen. The hairy frogfish isn’t a deep-sea species, though. It lives in warm, shallow waters, especially around coral reefs, and grows to about 8 inches long, or 20 cm. The hairlike filaments that cover its body help it blend in among seaweed and anemones. It’s usually brownish-orange or yellowish, but it can actually change its color and pattern to help it blend in with its surroundings. This color change doesn’t happen fast, though. It takes a few weeks.

Like other frogfish, it has a modified dorsal spine called an illicium with what’s called an esca at the end. In deep-sea species of anglerfish, the esca contains bioluminescent bacteria, but in the hairy frogfish it just looks like a worm. The fish sits immobile except for the illicium, which it twitches around. When a fish or other animal comes to catch what looks like a worm swimming around in the water, the frogfish goes YOMP and gulps the animal down. Like other frogfish species, the hairy frogfish has large, strong pectoral and pelvic fins that it uses to walk across the sea floor instead of swimming.

Another fish that looks like it has hair is called the hairyfish. The hairyfish barely grows more than two inches long, or 5.5 cm. It eats copepods and other tiny crustaceans that live near the ocean’s surface and it’s covered with small hairlike filaments. Its close relations are equally small fish called tapetails because its tail fin has a narrow extension at least as long as the rest of its body called a streamer. The tapetail was described in 1956 but scientists were confused because no one had ever found an adult tapetail, just young ones. It wasn’t until 2003 that a team of Japanese scientists discovered that the DNA of tapetails matched the DNA of a deep-sea fish called the flabby whalefish. There are lots of whalefish species, but the largest only grows to about 16 inches long, or 40 cm. It looks very different from its larval form, with loose skin without scales or hair-like filaments or the tail streamer. But even after researchers figured out that the tapetail and hairyfish are larvae of whalefish, there was still another mystery. All the whalefish ever found were females. Where were the males? Finally they identified yet another deep-sea fish called a bignose fish as the male of the species. The bignose fish has a huge liver but its mouth doesn’t go anywhere—it doesn’t have a throat or stomach. It gets its name from a bulge on its snout that gives it a keen sense of smell.

It turns out that after a larval whalefish develops into an adult, the male doesn’t need to eat. It lives off the fat and nutrients stored in its huge liver and uses its sense of smell to find a female in the depths of the ocean. The female remains a carnivore, eating any small animals it can catch, and it often migrates at night from the deep sea to nearer the surface, then returns to the depths during the day. So far we don’t know which species the hairyfish develops into as an adult.

But the hairy frogfish and the hairyfish are both rarely seen marine fish. Are there hairy-looking freshwater fish that might have inspired the legends of furry fish?

There is a disease called cotton mold that infects fish and makes them look like they have white or grayish spots of fur. Saprolegnia is the name of the mold, which lives in water and can infect fish in the wild and in aquariums. It mostly prefers cold fresh water and usually infects fish that are already injured. It spreads across the fish’s skin and makes it look fuzzy, and eventually it kills the fish. Salmon and trout are common targets of this mold, which may be the source of the Icelandic story.

As for the Japanese story about the hairy fish creatures that come out of the river at night, zoologist Karl Shuker suggests the legend may be based on sightings of the northern fur seal. While seals are mammals, not fish, they do look superficially like fish, and while seals also usually live in the ocean, they occasionally stray into rivers.

So that seems to cover the hairy fish mystery. But next time you go on a fishing trip or just hang out in a boat, keep an eye out for fish with fur just in case.

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

Thanks for listening!

Episode 164: The Pronghorn

This week let’s learn about the pronghorn!

Show transcript:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for listening!