Episode 004: The Irish Elk

(re-recorded audio)

In which your host calls her own podcast by the wrong name! And doesn’t catch it until it’s too late to change (i.e. five minutes ago). This week’s episode of Strange Animals Podcast is about the Irish Elk specifically and the Pleistocene era in general, especially as regards to humans spreading out across the world from Africa. Did the Irish elk’s enormous antlers really have anything to do with its extinction? And is it really for-sure extinct? (Spoiler alerts: no and yes.)

The Irish elk (more accurately called the giant deer) could stand as tall as seven feet high at the shoulder.

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw. This is a re-record of the original episode to improve audio quality and bring some of the information up to date.

This week’s episode is about the Irish elk, the first of many episodes about Ice Age megafauna. But before we learn about the Irish elk, let’s start with the span of time popularly known as the ice age, along with information about how humans spread across the world.

The last two million years or so of history is known as the Pleistocene, which ended about 12,000 years ago. The end of the Pleistocene coincides roughly with the extinction of a lot of the Pleistocene megafauna and the beginning of modern historical times.

During the Pleistocene, the earth’s axis tilt and plane of orbit resulted in reduced solar radiation reaching the earth. The process is due to what is called Milankovitch cycles, which I won’t go into since I don’t actually understand it. To grossly oversimplify, the earth got colder for a while because there wasn’t as much sunshine as usual, and all of these glaciers formed, and then it would warm up again and the glaciers would melt. This happened repeatedly throughout the Pleistocene, which was actually a series of ice ages with interglacial times in between.

Our current era is called the Holocene, and it’s considered an interglacial period. But if you’re hoping that the next ice age is a neat solution to global warming associated with climate change, the next glacial period isn’t expected for another 3,000 years.

The word megafauna means “giant animals.” You might hear dinosaurs referred to as megafauna, and that’s accurate. It’s a general term applied to populations of animals that grow larger than a human. Humans are also considered a type of Ice Age megafauna. high five, all my ice age peeps yes I kept that dumb line in this re-record

During the Pleistocene, humans migrated from Africa and spread across the world, rubbing shoulders with Neandertals, making awesome stone tools, and killing megafauna whenever they could. Humans are good at killing animals. In elementary school, I remember reading about ancient tribes of people stampeding mastodons over cliffs, eventually killing them all off. I didn’t believe it, but that’s actually true. We have lots of evidence that many types of animals were killed in this way, and it may have led to the extinction of some of the megafauna. It certainly didn’t help them. Wherever humans showed up, extinctions followed. The only exception is Africa, probably because the animals in Africa evolved alongside humans and knew how to deal with us. But when the first bands of humans showed up in Eurasia and the Americas, the native animals didn’t even know we were predators. They certainly didn’t know how to avoid being stampeded over cliffs. That’s a skill you don’t get many chances to practice.

Many people, especially Europeans, think that native peoples of whatever part of the world are natural conservationists. They live in harmony with nature, taking only what they need and using, for instance, every part of the buffalo. But human nature is human nature. Sure, when you live in a comfortably established village with a set territory, and your hunters and fishers start noticing that there’s not much game left, you learn conservation or you starve. But when you’ve got an entire world ahead of you—vast continents that have never seen a tool-using great ape with wicked intelligence and an insatiable appetite, you don’t need to live in harmony with nature. Our ancestors would find a nice area, settle there for a while, and when all the easily obtainable food was gone, they’d move on.

Humans still act this way. That’s why we leave trash all over the place. But the good news is that we are also good at recognizing when we’re causing a problem and deciding to fix it. So even though our first impulse might be to throw trash everywhere, we can also stop doing that and clean up trash already on the ground.

By the beginning of the Pleistocene, the continents were in their current spots. The world looked about the way it did now. But during the glacial periods, so much water froze that sea levels dropped around 300 feet. This exposed huge areas of continental shelf, making the continents bigger and joining some of them together. For instance, during glaciation, Alaska was connected to Asia. In some books you’ll see this talked about as a land bridge, which I always imagined as narrow and muddy. But it wasn’t just a bridge, it was a huge chunk of continent, and it stayed that way for thousands of years.

Then the temperature would warm up, sometimes dramatically. Within a few decades, the glaciers had mostly melted, the sea levels rose and flooded the low-lying land, and animals scrambled to find a comfortable habitat. It’s easier for an animal to move than to adapt to a changing habitat.

Even though a lot of land was flooded, other land opened up as glacial barriers disappeared. Animals that had traveled to Alaska on a land bridge from Asia could now move deeper into North America. Animals from deeper in North America could enter Alaska.

This colder-warmer-colder pattern happened a few dozen times during the Pleistocene, shaking the climate up repeatedly and leading to extinctions, with or without human help, and animals that look strange to us now because we don’t fully understand the environments they adapted to. But one thing is for sure. The megafauna were all awesome.

Fast forward to a few hundred years ago. European humans are in the middle of a territorial war with North American humans, and as they pushed their way farther into North America, they started to find interesting things: giant bones in the southerly areas, actual frozen carcasses in the permafrost of the northerly areas. Some of those carcasses looked so fresh, and the interior of North America was so little explored by Europeans that a lot of people assumed they’d find living mammoths if they looked in the right spot. When Thomas Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark on their turn of the 19th century expedition, one of their goals was to find mastodons and other megafauna.

They didn’t, of course. Instead they almost died repeatedly and had to be rescued by Sacajawea, who I like to imagine kept sighing with exasperation but who at least got to hang out with the expedition’s Newfoundland dog. Newfies are the best. (I miss you, Jasper.)

So, now we have a little bit of background about Ice Age megafauna. If you’re interested in learning more about how humans evolved and spread across the world, and our extinct close cousins, you can listen to episodes 25 and 26.

The Irish elk was the reason I started this podcast. I happened across the so-called fact I learned in elementary school, that the Irish elk died out because its antlers became so big that it couldn’t escape from predators.

I hadn’t thought of the Irish elk in literally decades. But that antler thing didn’t sound right. I caught myself thinking about it on and off, even getting angry. It didn’t make sense. It’s not like evolution is a power-up in a video game, and as soon as one elk got extra super gigantic antlers, suddenly all elk had them. If overlarge antlers were an issue, only stags with the biggest antlers would die. Does would mate with the remaining stags with smaller antlers and their offspring would be more likely to have small antlers. Besides, deer of all kinds shed their antlers every year and regrow them, which means the stags with biggest antlers wouldn’t have to deal with them for more than a few months of the year.

I did some research, which I found so much fun I decided to turn it into a podcast. Then I realized I couldn’t really make an ongoing podcast exclusively about Irish elk, which is pretty obvious now that I think about it.

So, it turns out that the Irish elk is neither exclusively Irish nor an elk. It did live in the area now called Ireland, but it also lived all across Eurasia and even in northern Africa. Like many deer it liked open woodland and was a browsing animal, meaning it didn’t eat grass but did eat lots of other plants, including green twigs and bark, and if it lived nowadays it would undoubtedly come to my yard and eat my garden.

Recent genetic analysis suggests it’s more closely related to the fallow deer than to elk. For these reasons, many publications these days refer to it as the Giant Deer. Officially it’s Megaloceros giganteus.

Megaloceros did have huge antlers, that’s for sure, sometimes as much as a twelve-foot span, or 3.7 meters. If you’re sitting in an ordinary house, the ceiling is probably eight feet high, maybe nine, or 2.4 to 2.7 meters. The biggest male giant deer could stand about seven feet at the shoulder, or 2.1 meters, and weigh as much as 1500 pounds, or 680 kg. That’s the size of a bull Alaskan moose, although moose antlers are maybe six feet across, or 1.8 m.

So, giant deer had giant antlers, the biggest of any known deer species. But were they really that big relative to the animal’s size? Stephen Jay Gould published a study in 1974 that concluded that compared to the deer’s body size, Megaloceros’s antlers weren’t actually out of proportion at all. They’re just big animals. Sexual selection did encourage antler size—the ladies liked stags with big racks, and stags with bigger antlers could intimidate rival males more easily. But since Megaloceros shed and regrew their antlers every year, in years where the foraging wasn’t as good, everybody’s antlers tended to be smaller.

So why did Megaloceros die out? When did it happen? And are there pockets of giant deer still living in Siberia?

Those questions are all interrelated and surprisingly hard to answer—although I’m not going to lie, if you’re packing your bags for Siberia to look for giant deer, you’re probably going to be disappointed. But there is evidence that Megaloceros survived much later than formerly thought.

Until recently, the last known remains of Megaloceros were dated to the end of the Pleistocene, about 11,000 years ago. Then a partial giant deer skeleton was found on the Isle of Man, and an antler was found in southwest Scotland. Both were dated to about 9,000 years ago, as published in a year 2000 paper in Nature. In 2004, another paper in Nature revealed that giant deer remains found in western Siberia had been dated to about 7,700 years ago.

So, giant deer were around several thousand years later than previously thought, at least in Siberia. Back in the mid-19th century, some naturalists thought Megaloceros might even have survived well into modern days and been hunted to extinction by modern humans. Well preserved skulls were sometimes found in Irish peat bogs, and it wasn’t uncommon for the antlers to be mounted and displayed. I would.

In 1846, a huge cache of bones was found on a small island in a lake near Limerick in Ireland. Among the bones were Megaloceros skeletons. What interested researchers at the time were the Megaloceros skulls. The stags’ skulls were normal. The smaller skulls, thought to be from females, had holes in the front. They looked for all the world like the skulls of cows that had been slaughtered by being poleaxed in the head—a common butchering practice in the area up until recent times. Researchers thought they might have found evidence of limited domestication of giant deer, where the less dangerous females were raised in captivity while stags were hunted in the wild.

Unfortunately, excavation methods in those days left a lot to be desired. There’s no way now to determine whether the Megaloceros bones were actually mixed in with more recent domestic animal bones or whether they were in older deposits. There’s also doubt that the doe skulls were actually Megaloceros. It’s more likely they were elk or moose skulls. Both animals lived in the area well into the Holocene before going extinct, and the skulls are very similar to those of Megaloceros. As far as I can find out, the bones are gone so they can’t even be DNA tested or radiocarbon dated to see how old they are.

As to why the giant deer went extinct, I’m not saying it was humans…but it was humans. Actually we don’t really know. In some places extinction may have been caused by environmental pressures, including a shortened growing season that would have made food scarce. In other places humans may have been at least a partial cause. But isolated pockets of Megaloceros remained for thousands of years afterwards. Why aren’t they still around?

Hopefully, as more remains are found we’ll learn more. It’s likely that the Siberian deer, which survived longest, migrated onto the plains as the foothills of the Urals became more heavily forested about 8,000 years ago. But that coincided with a dry period and with settlers moving into the area. A combination of reduced fodder, loss of habitat, and hunting may have finally driven the giant deer to extinction.

But don’t be sad! Even if we don’t have Megaloceros in zoos these days, we do have a lot of fascinating deer and relatives of deer—moose, reindeer, elk, and so forth. You can still appreciate them.

I do sometimes think that being extinct makes an animal seem more interesting, just because we know we can never see a living specimen. If moose were extinct, this episode would probably be about the moose, and how awesome it was, and how little we know about it, and how it’s a shame they’re all dead. But hey, moose are still around. Take a little time out of your day today to appreciate the moose. (Also, you can check out episode 30 for lots more information about moose and reindeer.)

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.com. We’re on Twitter at strangebeasties and have a facebook page at facebook.com/strangeanimalspodcast. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 003: The Tuatara and the Sea Lamprey

In this week’s episode, we look at a couple of so-called living fossils: the tuatara and the lamprey. One of them hasn’t changed appreciably in almost 400 million years. Tune in to find out which one and learn about how gross it is and how cute the other one is! (I may be biased.) (re-recorded audio)

The adorable tuatara! It eats anything, including baby tuataras. Not cool, lizardy guy:

A face not even a mother could love. The sea lamprey:

A recently discovered fossil lamprey, complete with impression of its body:

Show transcript:

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

This week’s episode is about my favorite reptile and a revolting sea creature, and just to be clear, those are two different animals.

If you look at a tuatara, it appears pretty ordinary. It’s a brownish-grayish-green lizard with lighter-colored spines along its back, and it can grow to about two feet long, or 61 cm. It’s a hefty lizard, sure, but you’d probably think it was nothing special. But dang, is it special.

First of all, it’s not strictly a lizard. It’s the only surviving member of its own order, Rhynchocephalia. It also has many physical traits not shared by lizards—or any other living reptile. Or mammal. Or bird. Or anything else.

Its teeth, for instance. The tuatara has two rows of teeth in the upper jaw, one in the lower, with the lower jaw’s teeth fitting neatly between the two upper rows. Some snakes have two upper rows of teeth and one lower row, but not arranged like the tuatara’s. Not to mention that the tuatara’s teeth aren’t even teeth at all. They’re just pointy projections of the jaw bone.

The tuatara also chews in a literally unique way. When the lower teeth mesh between the upper rows of teeth, the animal moves its jaw forward and back. This slices its food against the sharp tooth edges.

The tuatara also has a third eye. I’m not making this up. It legit has a photoreceptor on top of its head called the parietal (pahRAYetal) eye with a lens, cornea, retina, and so forth. Hatchling tuataras have a translucent patch of skin above the eye, but as the hatchling grows and molts its skin, the patch darkens until the third eye is no longer visible. Researchers think it may help with thermoregulation and hormone production. The tuatara isn’t the only creature with a third eye, but it has the most well developed one.

Like the turtle, the tuatara has a primitive auditory system. It has no external ears and no eardrum, although it can hear. Its skeleton has some features apparently retained from its fish ancestry, such as its spine and some aspects of its ribs. Males don’t have a penis—but a lot of birds don’t either and we still have lots of birds, so obviously they make it work.

Because it has such a slow metabolism—the lowest body temperature of any other reptile—the tuatara grows slowly. It won’t reach breeding age until it’s ten to twenty years old, and females only lay eggs about once every four years. The average lifespan of a tuatara is 60 years. Researchers believe it could live to 200 years in captivity.

Baby tuataras are active in the daytime, probably so their parents won’t eat them. Tuataras eat pretty much anything they can catch. Adult tuataras are active at night, and sleep during the day in dens. Sometimes a tuatara digs its own den, sometimes it shares a den with burrowing seabirds. The birds leave in the morning and the tuatara comes home to sleep until night, when the birds return.

The Tuatara is native to New Zealand, and in an all-too-common situation, when people showed up, the tuatara promptly went extinct on the mainland. It was restricted to 35 islands where it was mostly safe from introduced rats, until its reintroduction in the fenced Karori Sanctuary in 2005. Tuataras have begun to breed in the sanctuary.

One thing I didn’t know about New Zealand—one of many many things, since pretty much all of my New Zealand knowledge comes from watching the Lord of the Rings movies, is that it was underwater for millions of years. Some 82 million years ago, New Zealand separated from Gondwana, the chunk of land that eventually separated into the southern continents we know today. The entire continent containing New Zealand was partially drowned some 25 million years ago, and for a long time scientists thought New Zealand was completely underwater. In the late 2000s, though, a fossil tuatara was found in New Zealand that was dated to about 18 million years ago. If New Zealand was underwater for a few million years, how did the tuatara recolonize it after the sea receded? Tuataras are not good swimmers, and it’s a long distance to float on driftwood without water.

Researchers now think that the highest elevations of New Zealand remained above sea level, allowing tuataras and some other species of plants and animals to survive the inundation.

You’ll see the tuatara referred to as a living fossil in a lot of articles. The media loves to call things living fossils. The tuatara has been around for 225 million years, but so have crocodiles and alligators. In fact, crocs and gators are found in the fossil record even earlier, 250 million years ago. The tuatara in particular has a lot of modern adaptations, including a number of cold-weather adaptations. A 2008 study discovered that the tuatara has the highest molecular evolution rate of any animal ever measured.

Basically, you can’t keep the tuatara down. Drown its entire continent? No problem. Run a couple of ice ages through there? It’ll adapt. And now we realize that this isn’t even its final form.

I take you now from a chunky little lizardy thing eating crickets in New Zealand to a two-foot-long monstrosity that drills into living creatures to drink the blood and bodily fluids it rasps from their tissues, the sea lamprey.

What does the tuatara have to do with the sea lamprey? I mean beyond the fact that the tuatara would happily slurp up any lampreys it could get into its mouth? Well, if the tuatara is the most rapidly evolving creature ever studied, the lamprey has remained basically unchanged for at least 360 million years.

Lampreys are eel-like parasites that lack jaws. Instead, they have a circular mouth rimmed with rows and rows of rasping teeth, for lack of a better word. I saw this described in one paper as a feeding apparatus, and it’s as good a description as any although it doesn’t convey the utter, utter horror that is the lamprey’s mouth. I may be showing my prejudices here.

Those aren’t teeth, by the way, they’re made of cartilage. The lamprey doesn’t have any bones at all, but it does have a cartilage tooth-studded tongue used to drill into its prey once it’s clamped on with its sucker-like mouth. Dear God.

Not all lampreys are parasitic. Some are filter feeders as larva and don’t eat at all once they grow up, just live on their bodily reserves until they breed and die, but I’m just talking about parasitic lampreys today because they’re gross. The most common parasitic lamprey is the sea lamprey, which lives in the Atlantic Ocean, parts of the Mediterranean and Black Seas, and in the Great Lakes as an introduced pest. The sea lamprey can grow up to four feet long, or 120 cm.

Because of their lack of bone, lampreys don’t fossilize well, but one fossil found in South Africa has revealed a lot about the lamprey. In a 2006 paper in Nature, researchers describe a beautifully preserved lamprey dated to 360 million years ago. Not only are the gills and mouth perfectly visible, so is an impression of its body. It was the oldest lamprey fossil found at the time, and it shows that the lamprey basically hasn’t changed ever since. If anything deserves to be called a living fossil, it’s the lamprey.

Back when the lamprey first evolved, it wasn’t preying on true fish. There weren’t any yet. The lamprey has held fast through at least four major extinction events. It’s a vertebrate, but has never evolved those things other vertebrates—except the hagfish, which is just weird—have developed: jaws, scales, paired fins. On the other hand, some lampreys do have a third eye.

Because lampreys are so primitive from an evolutionary standpoint, scientists can study them to learn how other vertebrates evolved. For instance, the lamprey has seven pairs of gill arches. In other vertebrates, the interior pair of gill arches evolved into upper and lower jaws and middle ear bones. That includes us.

Lampreys today prefer fresh water that’s not too warm, although the sea lamprey spends most of its adult life in the ocean, although it will also be fine in fresh water. The sea lamprey migrates upriver to spawn. After the female lays her eggs, she and the male both die. When the eggs hatch, the larvae migrate downstream to quiet water where they feed on plankton until they metamorphose into adult lampreys. Then they continue their migration downstream to the ocean or lake. They live about a year before returning upstream to spawn and die.

Lamprey larvae live as filter feeders, and until about 2014 scientists didn’t know if this was a recent development or not. Then some fossilized lamprey larvae were discovered in inner Mongolia rocks dating back 125 million years, and they look identical to modern larvae.

Old and “primitive” as it is, the lamprey is able to tolerate all sorts of environments. Most water animals can either live in saltwater or freshwater, not both, but the sea lamprey does just fine in either. In the Great Lakes, sea lampreys are so damaging to the native fish that researchers have been trying for decades to get rid of them. The sea lamprey can also feed on fish that are toxic to pretty much any other predator.

In many cultures, lamprey is considered a delicacy, and it’s supposed to taste quite good, but make sure you clean those things well. Their mucus is a toxin. You will not catch me eating lamprey if I can possibly avoid it.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.com. We’re on Twitter at strangebeasties and have a facebook page at facebook.com/strangeanimalspodcast. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 002: The Mokele Mbembe and the Coelacanth

People have been searching for the so-called African brontosaurus, mokele mbembe, for a century without any luck. No one was looking for the extinct coelacanth until a museum curator saw one in a pile of recently caught fish. In this episode of Strange Animals Podcast we discuss the hunt for both creatures. (re-recorded episode)

Recommended reading: Abominable Science!: Origins of the Yeti, Nessie, and Other Famous Cryptids by Daniel Loxton and Donald R. Prothero.

The beautiful coelacanth:

Show transcript:

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

It looks like when I upload a new version of an old episode, it doesn’t spam everyone’s feed! So I’m going to try and get the first dozen or so episodes re-recorded and uploaded as quickly as possible. Here’s the new version of episode two, where I sound like a human being and not a robot reading out loud.

This week’s episode is about a couple of so-called living fossils, one that possibly never existed and one that exists like WHOA.

Legends of “lost worlds” full of dinosaurs have been around ever since people recognized that fossilized bones belonged to once-living animals. Early science fiction like Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth and Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World featured explorers encountering living prehistoric creatures.

Europeans looked at a map of the world, saw that Africa was still largely unexplored—by other Europeans, anyway—and suggested maybe dinosaurs were living somewhere on that vast continent. After all, Africa was home to some of the world’s most amazing known animals.

In 1909, animal dealer Carl Hagenbeck published a book called Beasts and Men, where he shared a friend-of-a-friend story about a monster in Central Africa. It wasn’t a very satisfying story, frankly. Hagenbeck heard from one of his employees and also from a big-game hunter that “the natives” reported a “half-elephant, half-dragon” monster living in the swamps. No doubt with visions of million-dollar brontosaurus sales in his future, Hagenbeck sent an expedition to look for the monster. They didn’t find anything.

Nevertheless, the press took the story and ran with it. People were dinosaur-crazy then like nothing else, and headlines like “Brontosaurus Still Lives” whipped the public into a frenzy of excitement. The only papers that didn’t go over the top about live dinosaurs in Africa were those published in Africa, which were more skeptical.

Hagenbeck’s story placed the monster in Rhodesia, which is now Zambia and Zimbabwe. Europeans set off on expeditions to the area, found nothing, and assumed they just weren’t looking in the right place. Monsters from native folklore were cited as proof of dinosaurs just down the river or in the next lake. Bullheaded or over-enthusiastic Europeans cherry-picked information from the Africans they interviewed. They believed details about native monsters as though they were real sightings and ignored it whenever an interviewee said, “That’s an imaginary animal. It’s not real. We just tell that story to children.”

In 1919, London newspapers reported a couple of monster stories, one from a Mr. Lepage in the Belgian Congo, one from a Mr. Gapelle in “the interior of the Congo.” Both stories are about an improbable animal with a humped back, a horn on its nose, scales, and a kangaroo-like tail. But the stories fell apart very soon when people who knew David Le Page pointed out he was a known practical joker. Le Page was the source of both stories, the first under his own name, the second under an anagram of his last name. Gapelle is roughly Le Page backwards. He’d made them both up.

The stories were nonsense, but they kept being repeated. They also shifted focus from Rhodesia to the Congo. Expeditions started focusing on that area, still searching for the African brontosaurus. This went on for decades. It’s still going on, and no one has ever found anything.

At some point, the name mokele mbembe got attached to the rumors of brontosaurus-like dinosaurs living in Africa. The name is supposedly from the Lingala language and means “one who stops the flow of rivers.” Lingala is a Creole language based on Bantu, which is used as a lingua franca in the western part of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Gradually the notion that the mokele-mbembe is an actual brontosaurus faded away. We know more about sauropods these days. We know they’re not going to be hiding in heavy swamps, lakes, or jungles. They were animals of open forests and scrubland where there was solid footing. So some people now think the mokele-mbembe is a smaller, sauropod-like creature that lives in or near water, maybe in underwater burrows, and is generally described as a plant-eater that is peaceful unless attacked, at which point it turns deadly.

Despite the lack of dead animals or skins, pictures, footprints, or any other proof whatsoever, it’s oddly plausible that a large unknown water reptile is living deep in the Congo. It’s such a big place! The animals we do know about are amazing! And in 2006 and 2007, researchers found a population of 100,000 previously unknown gorillas not that far from Lake Tele. What else might be hidden in the swamps and forests surrounding the lake?

But. People have been searching for the mokele-mbembe for so long that it’s actually become a revenue stream for villages around Lake Tele, where expeditions now focus although it’s 1200 miles from the site of Hagenbeck’s 1909 report. Cryptozoological expeditions hire the same paid guides and translators year after year, and the guides are like travel guides anywhere. They make sure the travelers go away with the remarkable stories they came to hear, and they make sure that the expedition leaves the villages richer. One Japanese expedition in 1981 got stranded by their guides after refusing to pay what the guides thought they should.

It’s nonsense for explorers to say breathlessly, “The natives couldn’t possibly have known what a diplodocus was but pointed to its picture!” when dozens of previous explorers have likely talked to the same individuals. And when explorers stray from Lake Tele and into areas where expeditions haven’t yet traveled, the villagers don’t report any sightings of dinosaur-like monsters.

So far, we don’t have any good reports of the mokele-mbembe. No physical proof of any kind, no genuine local stories. It’s not looking good for our living dinosaur.

And here’s where the whole legend of the mokele-mbembe veers off the rails of maybe and crashes into the chasm of what the heck. The most fervent believers in this animal, the ones who mount repeated expeditions, have a massive and bizarre axe to grind.

Young Earth creationists believe the Earth was only created about 6,000 years ago. Not only do they think that it’s perfectly plausible to have dinosaurs still around after so little time, they firmly believe that if they can find proof of a living dinosaur and present it to science, probably going “AHA! What do you think of THAT?”, somehow the entire theory of evolution will crumble. Scientists will weep and realize how wrong they all were, and probably the creationists can teach the dinosaur tricks and walk it on a leash. I don’t know.

It just proves they don’t have the slightest idea of what evolution actually is, but instead of spending fifteen minutes with a high school biology textbook and an open mind, they keep spending thousands upon thousands of dollars to look for the mokele-mbembe. To SHOW THEM ALL.

That’s not to say that everyone who hunts for the mokele-mbembe is a creationist. Heck, if anyone wants to bring me along on their non-missionary expedition, I’ll jump at the chance. I’d love to visit a beautiful part of the world and meet people whose culture is very different from my own. But I wouldn’t expect to see a dinosaur.

The coelacanth is another animal that creationists believe disproves evolution. It’s also another one that’s been called a living fossil in the media. In December 1938, a museum curator in South Africa named Marjorie Courtenay Lattimer got a message from a friend of hers, a fisherman named Hendrick Goosen, who had just arrived with a new catch. Lattimer was on the lookout for specimens for her tiny museum, and Goosen was happy to let her have anything interesting. Lattimer went down to the dock, partly to look at the catch, but mostly to wish Goosen and his crew a merry Christmas. Then she noticed THE FISH.

It was five feet long, or 1.5 meters, blueish with shimmery silvery markings, with strange lobed fins and scales like armored plates. She described it as the most beautiful fish she had ever seen. She didn’t know what it was, but she wanted it. I’m like that too, but usually with craft supplies, not dead fish.

She took the fish back to the museum in a taxi—after an argument with the taxi driver. The fish did not smell very good and it was the size of a human being, after all. Once at the museum, Lattimer went through her reference books to identify the fish.

Imagine it. She’s flipped through a couple of books but nothing looks even remotely like her fish, the beautiful weird smelly one. Then she turns a page and there’s a picture of the fish like the one the taxi driver objected to…but that fish is extinct. It’s been extinct for some 66 million years. But it’s also a very recently alive fish resting on ice in the back of her museum.

Lattimer sketched the fish and sent the drawing and a description to a professor at Rhodes University, J.L.B. Smith. But Smith was on Christmas break and didn’t get her message until January 3. In the meantime, Lattimer’s museum director told her the fish was a grouper and not worth the ice it was lying on.

But Marjorie, she loved that fish. She wasn’t going to cut it up for bait. But December is the middle of summer in South Africa, so to keep it from rotting away, she had it mounted.

Then Smith sent her a near-hysterical cable that read, “MOST IMPORTANT PRESERVE SKELETON AND GILLS.” Oops.

This is perhaps a lesson for all of us. Once I missed the opportunity to see a rare snow goose that had stopped on our campus pond over winter break. If only I’d checked my work email while I was off, I could have seen that life bird. The agony I felt at missing it was probably only a shadow of what Professor Smith felt at losing the important innards of a living fossil, though. Also, I saw a whole bunch of snow geese in December of 2018.

On February 16, 1939, Smith showed up at the museum and immediately identified the fish as a coelacanth. The story made international news. When the museum put the fish on display for one day only, 20,000 people showed up to see it.

Smith got a little obsessed about finding another coelacanth. He offered huge rewards for a specimen. But it wasn’t until December of 1952 that a pair of local fishermen on the island of Anjuan, about halfway being Tanzania and Madagascar, turned up with a fish they called the gombessa. It was a second coelacanth.

Everyone was happy. The fishermen got a huge reward—a hundred British pounds—and Smith had an intact coelacanth. He actually cried when he saw it. I didn’t cry when I saw those snow geese but I did make a horrible excited squeaking noise.

Most people have heard of the coelacanth because its discovery is such a great story. But why is the fish such a big deal?

The coelacanth isn’t just a fish that was supposed to be extinct and was discovered alive and well, although that’s pretty awesome. It’s a strange fish, more closely related to mammals reptiles than it is to ordinary ray-finned fish. The only living fish even slightly like it is the lungfish, and the lungfish is such a weird animal in its own right that it’s going to get its own episode one of these days. That episode is #55.

While the coelacanth is unique in a lot of ways, it’s those lobed fins that are really exciting. It’s not a stretch to say their paired fins look like nubby legs with frills instead of digits. Until DNA sequencing in 2013, many researchers thought the coelacanth was a sort of missing link between water-dwelling animals and those that first developed the ability to walk on land. As it happens, the lungfish turns out to be closer to that stage than the coelacanth, and both the lungfish and the coelacanth had already split off from the shared ancestor of marine and terrestrial organisms when they evolved around 400 million years ago. But for scientists in the mid-20th century, studying a fish that looked like it had little legs must have been electrifying.

But this fish story isn’t over yet. In 1997, a marine biologist on honeymoon in Indonesia found a coelacanth in a local market. And it was a different species of coelacanth. Can you imagine a better wedding gift?

Coelacanths are placid fish who do a lot of drifting, although their eight marvelous fins make them very maneuverable. They stay close to the coast and prefer rocky areas. They especially love underwater caves. They hunt for smaller fish and cephalopods like squid at night and rest in caves or hidden among rocks during the day. Sometimes sharks eat them, but for the most part coelacanths lead comfortable lives, floating around eating stuff. Sometimes they float around tail up or even upside down because they just don’t care.

Since the discovery of living coelacanths, more fossil coelacanths have been found. A 2015 paper in the Zoological Paper of the Linnaean Society describes over 30 complete specimens of 360 million years old coelacanths. The fossils were discovered about 60 miles from the mouth of the Chalumna River in South Africa, where Marjorie Lattimer found the first living coelacanth known to science. All the fossils are of juveniles, which were apparently living in a shallow, weedy bay that acted as a nursery. Living coelacanths give birth to live young, which is rare in fish, but researchers don’t know yet if young coelacanths grow up in similarly protected nurseries.

Another fossil species of coelacanth was described in a 2012 paper in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, and this one was a surprise to researchers. All the coelacanths discovered up till then, living or extinct, looked pretty much alike. Scientists have made a not unreasonable assumption that the extinct coelacanths lived much like modern coelacanths do—you know, drifting around, eating stuff, and not worrying about anything much except sharks. Then several coelacanth fossils were discovered in British Colombia, Canada, and this new species shows every sign of being a swift, vicious predator. It’s so different from other coelacanths that it’s been given its own family. It’s called Rebellatrix, which is just so awesome I can’t stand it. Rebellatrix was about three feet long, or 91 cm, and had a fork-like tail similar to a tuna’s, which allowed it to swim fast. It lived 240 million years ago, only ten million years after an extinction event at the end of the Permian. Researchers think Rebellatrix may have evolved to fill a niche left by extinct predatory fishes.

But coelacanths these days are happy enough doing the drifting thing. Sometimes they get caught by accident by night fishermen, who either throw the fish back or sell them to museums. Because here’s the best thing of all about the coelacanth: they taste horrible. Not only that, their flesh is slimy. It’s full of oil and urea. If you eat a coelacanth, you won’t die, but you’ll end up with terrible diarrhea.

So far, living coelacanths have mostly been found off the coast of Africa, but they’re much more widely spread in the fossil record. Rumors of coelacanths in other places, like the Gulf of Mexico or around Easter Island, keep popping up. Maybe one day another population of these awesome fish will be discovered.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.com. We’re on Twitter at strangebeasties and have a facebook page at facebook.com/strangeanimalspodcast. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 001: The Thylacine and the Quagga

Re-recorded after two years, yesss! Episode one now has decent audio quality and has been slightly updated to reflect new findings about the thylacine.

The Thylacine (commonly called the Tasmanian tiger) and the quagga, a type of zebra, have two important things in common. They’re both partially striped and they’re both extinct. Sort of. The first episode of Strange Animals Podcast discusses what sort of animals both were, and why we can’t say with 100% certainty that they’re extinct. Even though we know the date the last individuals died.

The Thylacine. Look at those jaws! How does it open its mouth that wide?

Watch the 2008 thylacine (maybe) video for yourself.

The Quagga, old and new:

Show transcript:

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

If you’re wondering why episode one is suddenly appearing in your feed after more than two years, it’s because I’ve rerecorded it. Quite often people who are interested in a podcast download the first episode to check it out, and our first episode sounded TERRIBLE. So here’s a fresh new version with a little bit of extra information included.

If you’re already a Strange Animals Podcast listener, I hope you don’t mind this redone episode showing up in your feed. Don’t worry, there will be a new episode next Monday as usual! If you’re a new listener, I hope you like the podcast and stick around!

The first episode of Strange Animals Podcast is about the thylacine and the quagga. Both animals are kinda-sorta extinct and both are partially striped. So they go together!

You may know the thylacine as the Tasmanian tiger or wolf, or you may be confused and think I’m talking about the Tasmanian devil. The Tasmanian devil is a different animal although it does live in the same part of the world.

The thylacine was a nocturnal marsupial native to Australia, New Guinea, and Tasmania, but it went extinct early in the 20th century. The last known individual died in captivity in 1936. But in 2008, footage of a long-tailed doglike animal was caught on film near Perth in Western Australia.

Thylacine sightings have been going on for years—basically ever since it was declared extinct. It was a shy, nervous animal that didn’t do well in captivity and sometimes died of shock when captured, so if the animal survives in remote areas of Australia or Tasmania, it’s obviously keeping a low profile.

The thylacine was as big as a good-sized dog, some two feet high at the shoulder, or 61 cm, and over six feet long if you included the tail, or 1.8 meters. It wasn’t very fast, seldom traveling faster than a stiff trot or an awkward canter. I’ve read accounts that it would sometimes hop instead of run when it needed to move faster, but this seems to be a myth. If thylacines are wandering around outside of Perth or anywhere else, it’s surprising no one has accidentally hit one with a car. The Tasmanian devil is in such steep decline that it’s projected to be extinct in the wild by 2024 at the latest, and in 2014 over 400 of them were killed by cars.

No other animal in Australia and Tasmania looks like the thylacine. It was yellowish-brown with black stripes on the back half of its body and ringing the length of its tail. Its head was heavy and doglike, with long jaws and erect, rounded ears. Its legs were relatively short while the body and especially the tail were long. It could open its jaws startlingly wide although it didn’t have a very strong bite. It was also a quiet animal, rarely making noise except while hunting, when it would give frequent double yips.

Not a lot is known of the thylacine in the wild. Tasmanian Aborigines would build little structures over thylacine bones, since letting the bones get rained on was supposed to bring on bad weather. I still love this so much.

The thylacine was killed by British colonists who thought it preyed on livestock, but it was actually a weak hunter that probably couldn’t kill prey much larger than a chicken. In fact, some researchers think the thylacine’s primary source of food was the native hen, and once that bird went extinct in the mid-19th century, thylacine numbers started to decline. It certainly didn’t help that bounties for dead adults were as much as a pound—big money in the 19th century. Captive animals were prone to a distemper-like disease and only one pair successfully bred in captivity.

So what about all those sightings? Is it possible that small populations of the thylacine survived loss of both habitat and prey animals, bounty hunting, and competition with introduced dingos? There have been numerous organized searches for signs of the thylacine, with nothing to show except blurry photos and grainy film footage. But we don’t have anything concrete: no bodies, no clear photos, not even any good footprints.

As for the 2008 video, the Thylacine Awareness Group of Australia released it in September of 2016, eight years after it was recorded. The person who took the footage states that she had seen the animal repeatedly over a matter of weeks, and had also seen a female with two pups. She says they were all striped and did not look anything like foxes.

The footage isn’t very clear, but it shows a foxlike animal with a long tail. The recording is too grainy to make out any markings. Certainly the animal doesn’t appear to have the vivid stripes seen in old photos taken before the thylacine went extinct.

To me, the animal in the footage looks a lot like a fox with an injured leg or paw, which makes its gait seem odd. Its legs are much too long for a thylacine, the body is too short, and the hocks are too far up the leg. As for the long tail, I’ve seen foxes with mange and the tails look just like this one’s.

There’s another issue against the survival of the thylacine too. According to a 2012 study conducted by Andrew Pask of the University of Connecticut, the thylacine had a very low genetic diversity to start with. Isolated breeding populations would further limit the gene pool and eventually lead to a population that couldn’t survive due to physical issues associated with inbreeding.

That study only sampled from 14 different skins and skeletons, so it’s possible the situation wasn’t as bad as its results suggest. On the other hand, the Tasmanian devil is another species with low genetic diversity, and its numbers are declining steeply despite conservation efforts.

Since this original episode one went live in February 2017, there’s been a more comprehensive DNA study of thylacines that changes what we know about their past. A September 2017 study conducted by the University of Adelaide generated 51 DNA sequences from thylacine fossils and museum specimens.

The study discovered that the thylacine population split into two around 25,000 years ago, with the two groups living in eastern and western Australia. Around 4,000 years ago, climate change caused more and longer droughts in eastern Australia and the thylacine population there went extinct. By 3,000 years ago, all the mainland thylacines had gone extinct, leaving just the Tasmanian population. The Tasmanian thylacines underwent a population crash around the same time that the mainland Australia populations went extinct—but the Tasmanian population had recovered and was actually increasing when Europeans showed up and started shooting them.

It would be fantastic if a population of thylacines was discovered still alive somewhere. But it doesn’t look good right now. On the other hand, you can still see the Tasmanian devil. Just please try not to run over one. There aren’t many left.

[goat call, because why not]

When I was maybe twelve years old I read about the quagga for the first time, probably in a library book about animals. I remember being so moved at the thought of this fascinating zebra driven to extinction that I wrote a poem about it. Unfortunately for all of us, I remember the first two lines of the poem. Yes, I’m going to recite it again. I’m sorry.

“Dear quagga, once running

O’er field and o’er plain…”

It went on and on for two entire pages of notebook paper. Thank goodness I don’t remember any more of it.

Ever since that awful, awful poem, I’ve had a soft spot for the quagga. It really was an interesting-looking creature. The head and forequarters were striped and clearly those of a zebra, but if you were to see only its hindquarters you’d swear you were looking at a regular old donkey.

The quagga was a subspecies of plains zebra, and was common in south Africa until white settlers decided they didn’t want any wild animals eating up their cattle’s grass. By 1878 the quagga was extinct in the wild; the last captive individual died in 1883. Thanks a bunch, white settlers. You made twelve-year-old me cry, and I didn’t even know about Apartheid yet.

Locals in some areas still refer to all zebras as quaggas, supposedly as an imitation of the zebra’s call. I don’t know what variety of zebra this call is from, but I’m going to guess that all zebras kind of sound the same.

[zebra call]

That really is awesome.

It’s interesting to note that still-living plains zebras show less and less striping the farther south they live. The quagga lived in the southernmost tip of Africa, south of the Orange River in South Africa’s Western Cape region, an even more southerly range than the plains zebra’s. And as a reminder, the quagga was a subspecies of the plains zebra—so closely related that it’s sometimes impossible to tell stuffed specimens of the two varieties apart. Where their ranges overlapped, researchers think plains zebras and quaggas frequently interbred.

You can see where this is going, I hope.

In 1987, the Quagga Project in South Africa started with 19 plains zebras that showed reduced striping and had genetic markers most like quaggas. After five generations of selective breeding, the project has produced six foals as of 2016 that look like the extinct quaggas. The project calls them Rau Quaggas after Reinhold Rau, the project’s founder. Rau was inspired by the work of Lutz Heck, who was the guy responsible for breeding the heck horse to imitate the extinct tarpan. If you want to know more about the tarpan and the heck horse, check out episode 47 about mystery horses.

Eventually the group hopes to have 50 Rau quaggas that will live as a herd on reserve land in South Africa. Eric Harley, a genetics professor at Cape Town University and one of the founding members of the project, points out that while the Rau quagga isn’t an exact genetic match for the extinct quagga, it’s pretty darn close.

Of course there are people who criticize the group’s efforts for various reasons. Some say that since it’s impossible to reproduce the extinct quagga exactly, there’s no point in even trying. Others say that the resources spent trying to reproduce the quagga should be spent on conserving endangered animals instead.

But the Quagga Project is actually doing something useful for South Africa: working to reintroduce a type of zebra adapted to the colder environment, which can live in groups with ostriches and other animals that typically herd with zebras. When the Dutch exterminated the quagga, they messed up the balance of species in the area. Whether or not you think the Rau quaggas are analogous to actual quaggas, they’re going to be a good addition to the wildlife preserve.

And look, here’s the thing. Everyone gets to participate in the project they love, whether or not someone else thinks that project is worth it. We all have limited time in this world. One person wants to spend their energy recreating the quagga in South Africa, another wants to set trail cams up in Tasmania to look for thylacines, and a third person might happen to want to record a podcast about those people instead of washing the dishes. And that is OKAY.

Do what you love.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.com. We’re on Twitter at strangebeasties and have a Facebook page at facebook.com/strangeanimalspodcast. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!