Episode 008: The Loneliest Whale and Other Strange Recordings

This week’s episode is a collection of strange animal sounds, some unknown, others identified. We start with “the loneliest whale.”

A blue whale. Not the loneliest whale, as far as anyone knows.

A tarsier:

This fox can see into your soul and does not like you:

Show transcript:

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

One of the great things about making my own podcast is that I’m the one who gets to decide what topics to cover. I love podcasts about unexplained sounds captured on audio, so this week’s episode is just that.

With one or two exceptions, I’ve tried to keep to sounds that are definitely or probably made by animals. I’ve also tried to dig a little deeper to explore some sounds that I haven’t heard covered in other podcasts. I waded through a million pop-up ads so you don’t have to.

First, let’s talk about a whale you’ve probably heard of. It’s frequently called the loneliest whale. The story goes that this whale is lonely because its voice is too high to be heard or understood by other whales. It calls but never gets a response.

But that’s actually not the case. Its voice is higher than other blue whales, fin whales, and humpback whales, but they can certainly hear it, and for all we know, they answer. Since the individual whale hasn’t actually been spotted, we don’t know if it travels alone or with other whales.

The loneliest whale was first detected in 1989 by the US Navy listening for submarines in the North Pacific, then again in 1990 and 1991. At that time the recordings were classified due to the cold war, but in 1992, some were partially declassified, and word about the whale got out. The calls vary but are similar to blue whale calls. The main difference is the voice’s pitch. The loneliest whale calls at 52 hertz. That’s slightly higher than the lowest notes on a piano or tuba. Blue whale songs are typically around 10 to 40 hertz. The whale’s voice has deepened over the years to around 49 hertz, suggesting that it has matured.

Suggestions as to why this whale has a different call include the possibility that the whale is deaf, that it’s malformed in some way, or that it’s a hybrid of two different species of whale. Fin whales and blue whales do interbreed occasionally, but no one has successfully recorded a hybrid’s calls.

Whale researchers think the recordings seem to be of one individual whale, but in 2010, sensors off the coast of California picked up lonely whale type calls that might have been made by more than one whale at the same time. One suggestion is that blue and fin whale hybrids might be common enough that they band together. This seems a little far-fetched to me, but I’m not a whale expert.

The loneliest whale’s migratory patterns suggest it’s a blue whale. So do its call patterns, if not its actual voice, but no one has recorded the whale’s song since 2004.

A documentary called “52: The Search for the Loneliest Whale” is currently in production. There aren’t any dates listed on the official site, 52thesearch.com, but it’s supposed to be released some time this year, 2017. [Note from 2020: it doesn’t appear that this has ever been released.] The film’s expedition has concluded, although we don’t know yet whether the scientific and film teams actually identified the loneliest whale or recorded it.

Here is the call of the loneliest whale. This recording has been sped up 10x to make it easier to hear. The original recording is barely more than a rumble, depending on how good your hearing is and how good your speakers are.

[whale call]

And just for fun, here’s a recording of an ordinary blue whale, also sped up:

[another whale call]

Now let’s go from the largest mammal alive to one of the largest land mammals alive, the elephant. In 1984, biologist Katy Payne, a pioneer in the field of bioacoutics, was at a zoo in Portland, Oregon to give a talk about whale songs. While she was there, she visited the elephant exhibit and noticed that every so often she felt what she called a throbbing in the air. She got some recording equipment and came back to the zoo, recorded the elephants, and sped up her recording. Sure enough, the elephants were making sounds below 20 hertz.

She pursued the finding with wild elephants in Africa. It turns out that elephants communicate not only with the familiar trumpets and squeaks, but in infrasound—that is, sounds below the lower limits of human hearing.

Infrasound can travel a long distance, especially useful in forested areas with limited visibility, and at dusk and dawn when atmospheric conditions help propagate the sound waves so they can travel as far as six miles away [9.6 km]. Females in estrus make a special call to bull elephants, for instance, attracting potential mates from a long way away.

Here’s a recording of elephant rumbles—again, sped up so we can hear it:

[elephant sounds]

Other animals communicate in infrasound, generally large animals like rhinos, hippos, giraffes, and of course whales. Many more communicate in ultrasounds, sounds above the top hearing range of humans, about 20 kilohertz. Bat radar navigation and sonar navigation sounds made by many species of dolphins and toothed whales register in the ultrasonic range, as do many insect calls. But there are other much more surprising animals that communicate in ultrasound.

The Philippine tarsier is a tiny primate only about five inches tall [13 cm], a big-eyed nocturnal fluffball with long fingers. Researchers studying the tarsiers wondered why the animals frequently opened their mouths as though to make calls but produced no sound. Sure enough, they’re communicating at ranges far too high for humans to detect—higher, in fact, than has been discovered for any terrestrial mammal.

The Philippine tarsier most often communicates at 70 kHz and can hear sounds up to 90 kHz. Researchers think the tarsier uses its ultrasonic hearing to track insects, and communicates in frequencies too high for predators to hear. Here’s a tarsier call, slowed down so we can hear it. I’ll keep it short because it’s super annoying.

[tarsier call]

Another animal that uses ultrasound is the cat. Domestic cats can hear sounds up to 85 kHz. Some kitten calls fall in the ultrasonic range, so the mother cat can hear her babies but many predators can’t. Cats have evolved to hear such high sounds because many rodents communicate in ultrasound. Male mice, for instance, sing like birds to attract mates. Here’s an example, slowed down so we can hear it:

[mouse singing]

But so far these are all known animals, or in the case of the loneliest whale, probably known. What about truly mysterious sounds?

Probably the most famous mystery sound is the bloop. It was recorded by NOAA in 1997 off the tip of South America. It’s an incredibly loud sound, much louder than the loudest animal ever recorded, the blue whale, and for a long time, people speculated that it might be an enormous unknown animal. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately because no one wants to awaken Cthulhu, NOAA has identified the bloop as the sound of an icequake. That is, massive iceburgs breaking apart. Here’s a clip of the bloop, sped up so we can hear it:

[the bloop]

Another solved mystery sound has been dubbed “bioduck,” since it sounds sort of like a robotic duck. It’s been recorded since the 1960s, when it was first reported by submarine operators in the southern ocean off the Antarctic. It’s common, heard almost year-round near Antarctica and Australia, and was not from any known human-made source. Then, in 2013, whale researchers attached suction-cup tags to two Antarctic minke whales. While the tags remained in place, they recorded not only where the whales went, but the sounds they made. And to the research team’s astonishment, both whales made bioduck calls. This finding is important, not just because it cleared up a longstanding mystery, but because it tells us a lot about the Antarctic minke whale that wasn’t known. Researchers thought the whales only lived in Antarctic waters part of the year. Now they know that some whales remain year-round while some migrate near Australia. They can also make better estimates of whale populations now that they can identify this distinctive call.

The Antarctic minke whale is a baleen whale that grows to around 40 feet [12 m], but usually much smaller. It’s gray with white belly and mostly eats krill. This is what they sound like:

[minke whale call]

In our sea monster episode a couple of weeks ago, I shared another baleen whale call, this one from an unidentified species. It’s been dubbed the bio-twang and has been recorded in the Mariana trench in the western Pacific year-round in 2014 and 2015. Researchers suspect the dwarf minke whale, but they don’t know yet.

[mystery whale call]

To get out of the water for a moment, in 2012 a supposed bigfoot recorded started going around the internet. It was supposedly recorded on a cell phone in the Umatilla Indian Reservation near Pendleton, Oregon. It’s more likely to be nothing more exotic than a red fox.

Here’s the unknown scream:

[creepy animal sound]

And here’s a recording of a red fox:

[equally creepy red fox sound]

To me the sounds are very similar. If you want to know how I know the red fox scream is actually a red fox screaming, google “red fox scream.” The first hit is a YouTube clip of a fox screaming. I pulled the audio from that one.

In 2014, an unknown animal was recorded in Lake Champlain in Vermont. Dennis Hall, who claimed to have spotted the lake monster known as Champ in 1985, and Katy Elizabeth, who runs an organization known as Champ Search, made the recording and thought it might be from a beluga whale.

But while Lake Champlain is connected to the ocean, a whale would have a hard time reaching the lake due to canals, and would most likely have been spotted either on its way to the lake or once it arrived. Certainly it would have been spotted once it died from trying to live in fresh water.

Other recordings of clicking and squeaking sounds like those of beluga whales have been recorded in the lake in the past, including by a Discovery Channel team researching Champ. In 2013, Dr. Lance Barret Lennard from the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Center, and an expert on whale acoustics, examined some of the echolocation patterns. He determined that not only are the recordings not of beluga whales, they’re not from any kind of whale. They’re probably not mammalian in origin.

Some turtles have been found to produce underwater signals that may be a form of echolocation, and many fish make clicking and drumming sounds. But we don’t know what’s making the sounds recorded in Lake Champlain.

Here’s the 2014 recording:

[Lake Champlain sounds]

Finally, here’s a sound that’s not mysterious, I just really like it. It’s the song of the veery, an attractive but rather plain thrush. I’ve heard it in person while hiking at high elevations in the Smoky Mountains, and it’s completely ethereal.

If you listen closely, you can hear that the veery is actually making two sounds at the same time. The avian vocal mechanism, called a syrinx, is much different from a mammal’s larynx, and allows a bird to product more than one tone at a time.

[veery call]

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!

EXTRA: The Ozenkadnook Tiger HOAX?

New information came out today about the infamous Ozenkadnook Tiger photo! Here’s all the breaking news!

The photo in question, taken in 1964.

Someone please tell me how to pronounce Ozenkadnook.

Further reading:

The Ozenkadnook Tiger Photo Revealed as a Hoax

Is the Ozenkadnook Tiger a Cardboard Cryptid?

Show transcript:

It’s a Strange Animals Podcast special! I have breaking news and want to get it out to everyone now rather than wait to include it in a full episode a few weeks down the line.

I’d never heard of the Ozenkadnook tiger until today, but I follow zoologist Darren Naish on Twitter and this morning he tweeted, “Suspicion confirmed! As I hinted in 2016, Rilla Martin’s Ozenkadnook tiger photo was a hoax.” He attached a photo to a column in an Australian newspaper.

Here’s the story as it stands, or stood until today, anyway. In 1964 in western Victoria, Australia, Rilla Martin took a black and white photo of a striped animal with her Brownie box camera. As she told reporters later, she’d been visiting her cousin, Graham Martin, in Goroke and was driving along a dirt road near Ozenkadnook, presumably on her way home. Her camera was on the seat beside her since she’d been taking pictures of her cousin earlier. When she noticed an unusual animal near the edge of the road, she stopped the car and took a photo right before it ran away.

It’s not clear how the photo got into the newspapers. Stories vary. Either Martin took it to the local paper herself or she sent a copy to her cousin and he took it to the paper. Either way, it caused a brief sensation and has been debated ever since.

The original photograph and negative was lost long ago. The picture we have these days is a scan of the newspaper article, which is why it looks pixelated. When I first saw it, I assumed it had been taken through a window screen, but that’s just an artefact of how newspapers printed photos back then.

There’s a copy of the picture in the show notes. It shows a long-bodied animal, doglike but with short legs, a long tail, and erect ears. The neck is thick, the chest deep. The lower legs and paws are hidden behind brush and a dead log. The animal’s forebody is dark with broad pale stripes, while the haunches are pale without stripes and the tail is pale with thin ringed stripes.

In some ways it looks similar to a thylacine, which you might remember from episode one. Martin herself said that the animal was about the size of a dog, specifically a Labrador, and it had a piglike snout.

My first thought on seeing the photo was that it was a fakey-fake-fake. The stripes look painted, the eye definitely looks painted. In a 2010 blog post, Darren Naish noted a structure just visible in front of the hind limbs that he thinks might be a support of some kind for an animal cut-out.

Suggestions as to what the animal might be include a marsupial lion or a thylacine, both most likely extinct, or a hoax. Thylacine sightings had been made in the area before the photo was taken, which is why the photo is usually referred to as the Ozenkadnook tiger. That’s what the locals called the mystery animal they’d seen.

Then today, March 24, 2017, a column appeared in the Weekend Australian. The paper’s editorial cartoonist, Bill Leak, died on March 10, and the column is a tribute to him. It’s mostly a reminiscence of the ongoing battle of practical jokes between Leak and another cartoonist, but it mentions an interesting event in the 1960s. Leak’s father and a friend were aware of the thylacine sightings near Goroke. One day they cut a thylacine-shaped animal out of cardboard, painted it, and propped it up in the scrub to take a picture.

It was only meant to be a joke among friends, according to the column, but the photo made its way to the papers. Bill Leak was quite young at the time and remembered his father told him he must never reveal the prank to anyone. Leak kept the secret until his father’s death.

That’s all the column says about the hoax. I hit a paywall with the Australian every time I tried to read Leak’s obituary. I love my listeners, but not enough to pay $4 to read an obituary that likely wouldn’t have told me anything Wikipedia couldn’t. Bill Leak was born in January 1956, so he would have been around eight when the photo was taken. His father was apparently named Reg Leak, but Wikipedia’s citation linked to the Australian article was, you guessed it, behind a paywall. An AusLit biography of Leak is also behind a paywall. Googling “Reg Leak” gets me a lot of information about leaking radiators and what I should do about them.

Googling Rilla Martin brings up umpteen near-identical articles about the photo, but nothing about the woman who took it. According to the articles, Martin was from Melbourne. The only mention I could find of a Rilla Martin from Melbourne was in a 1946 wedding announcement in the Argus, which mentions a flower girl named Rilla Martin. It’s not that I don’t believe Martin exists, I just wanted to tie her to Bill Leak’s father, but I’ve had no luck. (I was also at work, so I didn’t have time to do as much as I should have.)

Bill Leak was a known practical joker. This can cut both ways in this situation. On the one hand, he might have invented the story about the cardboard thylacine to see if anyone would believe him. On the other hand, it might have shaken out just as he said and people around him remembered it as just another goofy thing that Bill was involved in.

Here’s another point in favor of the story being true. If the animal is a fake, and I personally think it is, it took a great deal of artistic skill to make it look so realistic. Bill Leak was an artist and it’s quite possible his father was too.

That’s all I have for the moment. With luck I can get this extra episode uploaded tonight. If you have any comments, or if you can dig up a connection between Reg Leak and Rilla Martin, drop me an email at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. This has been your host, Kate Shaw, bringing you all the hot takes in the world of cryptozoology.

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 007: Strange Birds

This week we look at three strange birds: a red-tailed Canadian raven that may or may not exist, the pied-billed grebe that definitely does, and New Zealand’s takahē.

A common raven. No red markings:

Here’s the Cryptodominion page with the red-tailed raven report.

Here’s Karl Shuker’s post about the red-tailed raven.

Precious smol baby pied-billed grebes riding on their mom or dad’s back:

The takahē, hooray!

Show transcript:

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

For this week’s episode we’ll look at three unusual birds, because birds are awesome. This is a re-record to improve audio quality and bring some information up to date.

It may be a tall tale, but a big red-tailed raven supposedly living in remote areas of British Columbia, Canada sounds oddly plausible. Loggers report that there’s a particular valley where huge ravens exist. They’re bigger than golden eagles but otherwise look like ordinary ravens except for their tails, which are reddish. They’re also nearly flightless. The loggers say the birds can be dangerous and will tear up campsites.

The only known raven found in Canada is the common raven. It’s much bigger and heavier than the crow, over two feet long, or 61 cm, including the tail, with a wingspan of over four feet, or 1.2 meters. The golden eagle, in contrast, can have a wingspan of nearly eight feet, or 2.4 meters, although the body length is not much more that of a raven’s.

The common raven is an intelligent, curious bird, black all over with a purplish sheen in the right light. It’s omnivorous and is happy to eat roadkill, food scraps found in unsecured garbage cans, and the eggs and hatchlings of other birds.

So could there be an unknown raven in British Columbia? I dug around online to see if I could find more details. In fact, I checked Allaboutbirds.com first since that’s a really good resource about North American birds. I wanted to see if there are any corvid species in North America that have red markings, but there aren’t. The only corvid in the world with red markings is the blue magpie, which has a rusty red head and wings. It’s a lovely bird, but it lives in Sri Lanka, and anyway its tail is blue.

I couldn’t find much online at all about the red-tailed raven story. It first appeared in 2012 or shortly before on a site called Cryptodominion. I’ll read the entry in its entirety, since it’s very short.

“British Columbian giant raven (Interior of B.C. NA): A piece of local folklore, the bush mechanics who worked in the interior of B.C. claim that here is a valley, rich in timber, which is populated by enormous raverns bigger than golden eagles. They say these ravens are dangerous animals, very opportunistic, and will not hesitate to tear someones camp apart. they are nearly flightless, and have much red in their tail plumage. These are obviously a specialized species of raven which developed in the isolation of this valley. However, if any introduced predators like dogs or cats make it there these ravens might become threatened.”

I learned about this story from zoologist Karl Shuker’s blog, Shukernature. He says that in 2012 a French reader emailed him asking him if he’d seen the entry and if he knew anything about the bird. He had never heard of the story before. Also in 2012, “The Corvid Enthusiast” posted about the Cryptodominion entry on an unexplained mysteries forum, asking if anyone in British Columbia had heard the story. One person did indicate they’d heard of it but gave no details, so I’m a bit skeptical of that reply. Responses from a few people from British Columbia indicate that the area is too populated and well explored to have any isolated valleys.

British Columbia is an enormous region, from the Pacific coast to the Rocky Mountains, from Vancouver’s mild climate to a northern border with the Yukon. The original entry says the valley is found in the interior of the British Columbia, which I take to mean as not coastal or on an island. I have absolutely no doubt there are pockets of wilderness in B.C. where any number of mystery birds might live.

So do I believe the red-tailed raven is a real bird? No. I think someone planted that story to see how far it would go. But if anyone wants to fund a birding expedition to British Columbia to look for the raven, I am standing by with my binoculars in one hand and my passport in the other.

Our second bird also lives in North America, although it’s just as common in South America and shows up occasionally in Europe and other places. The pied-billed grebe, also called a dabchick, isn’t an especially strange bird, but I’m including it just because I love it. I see them frequently while birding, especially in winter, and they’re so small and brownish-yellow that I frequently mistake them for ducklings at first glance.

They’re about a foot long from bill to tail, or 30 cm, but they sit so low in the water they look smaller. Actually they don’t even really have a tail. They just have some tufty feathers on their hind end.

Grebes aren’t ducks, although they do spend most of their time on the water. They don’t have webbed toes like ducks do. Instead, they have lobed toes but you probably won’t ever see them because grebes don’t like to get out of the water. Their legs are set so far back on their bodies that they don’t balance well while walking. If they have to, they’ll fly, but again, they’d rather just stay on the water. Some populations migrate, especially if they live where ponds freeze in winter, but populations in more temperate climates stay year-round.

They prefer freshwater ponds and small lakes with plenty of cover, like cattails, reeds, and other vegetation. They’re diving waterfowl, which means they spend a lot of time underwater, catching fish, frogs, insects, and crustaceans like crawdads, which they crush with their blunt bills. They also eat their own feathers. That sounds weird, but it’s actually something all grebes do. They even feed feathers to their babies. The feathers help keep pieces of bone or shell from traveling from the stomach to the intestines. Instead, the feathers and hard pieces of non-food form pellets which the bird horks up safely.

Baby grebes are the smallest of the small. They can’t swim right away like ducklings can, which you’d think would be a problem since grebes build floating nests on vegetation. But (you’ll love this) they ride around on their parents’ backs for a few weeks until they learn to swim on their own.

Oh, and the most interesting thing about the pied-billed grebe? It can sink. The first time I saw this happen, I really didn’t believe my eyes. I was birding along the edge of a slow-moving river, looked down at the water through the trees, and saw two tiny duck-like birds which promptly vanished into the water as though they’d been abducted by a submerged alien. One second they were there, the next they were literally just gone. The pied-billed grebe does this by trapping water in its feathers, which gives it incredible control over how far down it sinks and may also reduce drag while it swims underwater.

Now let’s talk about another bird, this one halfway around the world, definitely real, and completely flightless. The takahe was a chicken-sized bird with a greenish back, iridescent purple head and neck, and heavy red bill and legs. It lived in New Zealand’s swamps and grasslands. The white settlers introduced red deer, cats, ferrets, stoats, hunting for sport, and all the usual things. In 1898 four birds were caught…and that’s the last anyone saw of the takahe.

Of course there were rumors that the birds survived. There always are. But as with so many other animals driven to extinction by habitat loss, hunting, and introduced animals, hope for a surviving population of takahe gets smaller every year.

Wait a minute.

I’ve just been handed a piece of paper by my research assistant, who I just now invented. It says here that the takahe was discovered alive and well in the Murchison Mountains on November 20, 1948!

The takahe now lives in the Murchison Mountains and on five small islands, chosen as habitats because they’re free from predators. The birds mate for life and breed slowly, but they can live up to 25 years in captivity. They mostly eats seeds, insects, and the tender parts of grass stems, but one bird was caught eating a duckling. I like to imagine it wore a really guilty expression while chowing down.

Takahe chicks are fuzzy and gray with yellowish legs. The adults are about 20 inches tall, or 50 cm.

For a long time it wasn’t clear if the birds would even survive. In 1981 there were only 118 known individuals. The population now stands at over 400 with a careful breeding program in place to keep the species as genetically diverse as possible. When I first put together this episode in spring of 2017, there were only just over 300 takahes, so that’s a big improvement in only three years.

There’s not a lot more to say about the takahe. I’m just really happy that sometimes there are persistent rumors about an extinct species’ survival because it really has survived. Stay strong, takahe. Eat ducklings if you have to.

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 006: Sea Monsters

This week’s episode is all about sea monsters: mysterious sightings, possible solutions, and definitely discovered monsters of the world’s oceans!

The giant oarfish! Try to convince me that’s not a sea serpent, I dare you.

The megamouth shark. Watch out, krill and jellyfish!

The frilled shark. Watch out, everything else including other sharks!

A giant isopod. Why are you touching it? Stop touching it!

Sorry, it’s just a rotting basking shark:

Recommended reading:

In the Wake of Bernard Heuvelmans by Michael A. Woodley

In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents by Bernard Heuvelmans

The Search for the Last Undiscovered Animals by Karl P.N. Shuker

Episode 005: The Unicorn

Everyone knows the legend of the unicorn and most of us know unicorns don’t really exist. But how did the legend get started? And more importantly, can we talk about narwhals a whole lot? Narwhals are rad.

Narwhal. So rad.

I haven’t seen this show but apparently it’s pretty good. I love that elasmotherium.

Unicorns are (sort of) real. Unicorning certainly is.

Thanks to Jen and Dave for suggesting this week’s topic!

Show transcript:

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

This week’s episode is about the unicorn, or at least about almost-unicorns. This is a re-record of the original episode to improve sound quality and update some information.

When I was a kid, I was convinced unicorns were real. I’m not alone in this, apparently. A lot of people assume the unicorn is a real animal. Take away the magical trappings and it’s just a horse-like animal with one spiral horn. It seems a lot more plausible than squids, for instance.

I’m sorry to tell you that that kind of unicorn doesn’t exist, and never has, or at least we have no fossil or subfossil evidence that an animal resembling the classical unicorn actually existed. But the animals that probably inspired the unicorn legend are fascinating.

Everyone knows that the unicorn has one spiral horn growing from its forehead. The horn was supposed to have curative properties. If you ground up a little bit of the horn, known as alicorn, it acted as a medicine to cure you of poisoning or other ailments. If you actually made a little cup out of alicorn, you could drink from it safely knowing any poison was already neutralized. People in the olden days were really worried about being poisoned, probably because they didn’t understand how food safety and bacteria worked and they didn’t have refrigerators or meat thermometers and so forth. I suspect a lot of so-called poisoning cases were actually food poisoning. But this re-record is already off the rails, so back we get to the main topic.

All this about alicorn wasn’t legend, either. You could buy alicorn from apothecaries up until the late 18th century. Doctors prescribed it. It was expensive, though—literally worth its weight in gold. Pharmacies kept their alicorns on display but chained down so no one could steal them.

The alicorn, of course, was actually the tusk of the narwhal, and the narwhal is as mysterious as the unicorn in its own way. In fact, the narwhal seems a lot less plausibly real than a unicorn and a lot of people actually don’t realize it’s a real animal. I had that discussion with a coworker last year and had a lot of fun astonishing her with science facts, or maybe boring her. It’s a fairly small whale, some 13 to 18 feet in length not counting the tusk. That’s about four to five and a half meters long. It’s pale gray in color with darker gray or brown dapples, but like gray horses, many narwhals get paler as they age. Old individuals can appear pure white.

The narwhal and the beluga whale are similar in size and physical characteristics, such as their lack of a dorsal fin. They live in the same areas and are the only two living members of the family Monodontidae. They even interbreed very rarely.

But the narwhal is the one with the horn, or more accurately a tusk. It’s not a horn at all but a tooth. Most males and about 15% of females grow a tusk. Occasionally an individual grows two tusks, but almost always it’s the left canine tooth that pierces through the lip and continues to grow, sometimes up to ten feet long, or 3 meters.

It’s a weird, weird tooth too. It can bend as much as a foot without breaking, or 30 cm, not something teeth are generally known for. It also grows in a spiral. And we still don’t know what the narwhal uses its tusk for.

For a long time, researchers assumed that male narwhals used their tusks the same way male deer use their antlers, to show off for females and to battle other males. Males do exhibit behavior called tusking, where two individuals will rub their tusks together in what researchers once assumed was a ritual fight display. But that seems not to be the case.

A 2005 study discovered that the tusk is filled with nerves and is extremely sensitive. Through its tusk, the whale can identify changes in water temperature and pressure, water salinity, and the presence of fish and other whales. It even acts as an antenna, amplifying sound. The study was led by Martin Nweeia of the Harvard School of Dental Medicine. Nweeia is a dentist, basically, which delights me. Okay, he’s a clinical instructor in restorative dentistry and biomaterials scientist, but dentist is funnier.

I liked Nweeia even more when I found this quote: “Why would a tusk break the rules of normal development by expressing millions of sensory pathways that connect its nervous system to the frigid arctic environment?” As someone who has trouble biting ice cream without wincing, I agree.

In other words, the narwhal’s tusk has scientists baffled. You hear that a lot in a certain type of article, but in this case it’s true. Especially baffling in this case is why the tusk is found mostly in males. If having a tusk confers some advantage in the narwhal’s environment, why don’t all or most females grow one too? If having a tusk does not confer an advantage beyond display for females, why does the tusk act as a sensory organ?

The narwhal lives in the Arctic, especially the Canadian Arctic and around Greenland, and it’s increasingly endangered due to habitat loss, pollution, and noise pollution. Overall increased temperature of the earth due to climate change has caused a lot of the sea ice to melt in their traditional breeding grounds, and then humans decided those areas would make great oil drilling sites. The noise and pollution of oil drilling and exploration threatens the narwhal in particular, since when a company searches for new oil deposits it sets off undersea detonations that can deafen or even outright kill whales. But it’s hard to count how many narwhals are actually alive, and some recent studies have suggested that there may be more around than we thought. That’s a good thing. Now we just have to make sure to keep them safe, because narwhals are awesome.

The narwhal eats fish and squid and shrimp and sometimes accidentally rocks, because instead of biting its prey the narwhal just hoovers it up, frequently from the sea floor, and swallows it whole. It does that because it doesn’t actually have any teeth. Besides the one.

As a final narwhal mystery, on December 17, 1892, sailors aboard a ship in the Dundee Antarctic Expedition spotted a single-horned narwhal-like whale in the Bransfield Strait. But narwhals don’t live in the Antarctic…as far as we know.

One of the reasons why so many people believe the unicorn is a real animal is because it’s mentioned in some English-language versions of the Bible. When the Old Testament was first translated from Hebrew into Greek in the third century BCE, the translators weren’t sure what animal the re’em was. It appeared in the texts a number of times but wasn’t described. The translators settled on monokeros for their translation, which in English is unicorn. The King James Version of the Bible mentions the unicorn seven times, giving it a respectability that other animals (like squids) can’t claim.

These days, Biblical scholars translate re’em as a wild ox, or aurochs. You can learn more about the aurochs in episode 58, Weird Cattle. The aurochs was the ancestor to domestic cattle and was already extinct in most parts of the world by the third century BCE, but lived on in the remote forests north of the Alps until its final extinction in 1627.

So while the Greek translators didn’t know what the re’em was, why did they decide it was a unicorn? It’s possible they were drawing on the writings of Greek physician Ctesias, from the fourth century BCE. Ctesias described an animal from India he called a type of wild ass, which had “a horn on the forehead which is about a foot and a half in length.” But it seems clear from his writing that he was describing a rhinoceros.

In fact, any description of a rhino given by someone who hasn’t actually seen one, just heard about it, comes across as a unicorn-like animal. So it’s quite likely that the translators made a wild guess that the fierce re’em was a rhinoceros, which they would have known as a horse-like animal with one horn.

But while the unicorn is mentioned in the Bible, it isn’t a specifically Christian legend. The karkadann is a huge monster in Muslim folk tradition, with a horn so big it could spear two or three elephants on it at the same time. In Siberia, some tribes told stories of a huge black ox with one horn, so big that when the animal was killed, the horn alone required its own sledge for transport. In some Chinese tales, the kilin was supposed to be a huge animal with one horn. For more information about the kilin, or kirin, you can listen to episode 61.

It’s probable that all these stories stem from the rhinoceros, which is a distinctive and unusual animal that we only take for granted today because we can go visit it in zoos. But some researchers have suggested a more exotic animal.

Elasmotherium was an ice age animal sometimes called the steppe rhino, giant rhino, or Siberian unicorn. The largest of the three species of elasmotherium was the size of a mammoth, some seven feet tall at the shoulder, or 2.1 meters. It was a grazer like horses and cattle today, and like them it had long legs, much longer than living rhinos. It could probably gallop at a pretty good clip. It lived at the same time as the smaller woolly rhino, but while the woolly rhino resembled modern rhinos in a lot of respects, notably its large horn on the nose with a smaller horn farther up, elasmotherium only had one horn…one enormous horn. On its forehead.

We don’t actually have any elasmotherium horns to look at. Rhino horns aren’t true horns at all but a keratin structure. Keratin is an interesting fiber. It can be immensely tough, as it is when it forms rhinoceros horns, but it’s also what our nails and hair are made of. It doesn’t fossilize any more than hair fossilizes. The main reason we know elasmotherium had a horn is because of its skull. While rhino horns are made of keratin fibers instead of bone, the skull shows a protuberance with furrows where blood vessels were that fed the tissues that generated the horn. In elasmotherium, the protuberance is five inches deep, or 13 cm, and three feet in circumference, or just over a meter. Researchers think the horn may have been five or six feet long, or 1.5 to 1.8 meters.

Researchers have also found an elasmotherium fossil with a partially healed puncture wound. It’s possible the males sparred with their enormous horns and sometimes inflicted injuries. At least it happened once.

For a long time researchers thought elasmotherium died out 350,000 years ago, much too long ago for humans to have encountered it. But a skull found a few years ago in Kazakhstan was radiocarbon dated to about 29,000 years old. If elasmotherium and humans did cross paths, it wouldn’t be at all surprising that the animal figured in stories that have persisted for millennia. More likely, though, our early ancestors found carcasses partially thawed from the permafrost the way mammoth carcasses are sometimes found today. This might easily have happened at the end of the Pleistocene, a relatively recent 11,000 years ago or thereabouts. A frozen carcass would still have a horn, and while the carcasses are long gone now, it’s not unthinkable that stories of a massive animal with a monstrous single horn were passed down to the present.

Of course, this is all conjecture. It’s much more likely that the stories are not that old and are about the modern rhinoceros. But it’s definitely fun to think about our ancestors crossing a vast hilly grassland for the first time in search of new hunting grounds, and coming across a herd of towering monsters with five-foot horns on their foreheads. That would definitely make an impression on anyone.

One final note about the unicorn. When I was a kid, I read a book called A Grass Rope by William Maine, published in 1957 so already an oldie when I found it in my local library. It concerns a group of Yorkshire kids who hunt for a treasure of local legend, which involves a unicorn. I was an American kid from a generation after the book was written, so although it’s set in the real world it felt like a fantasy novel that I could barely understand. When one of the characters discovers a unicorn skull, it didn’t seem any more extraordinary to me than anything else. But on rereading the book in my late teens, I was struck by a character at the end who tells the children “it’s not very hard to grow unicorns.”

By that time, I pretty much had Willy Ley’s animal books memorized, including the chapter about unicorns. In it, he talks about unicorning animals that have two horns.

The practice of unicorning has been known for centuries in many cultures, but the first modern experiment was conducted in 1933 by Dr. Franklin Dove in Maine. He removed the horn buds from a day-old bull calf and transplanted them to the middle of the calf’s forehead. The calf grew up, the horn buds took root and grew into a single horn that was almost completely straight and which sprouted from the bull’s forehead.

Dr. Dove reported that the bull was unusually docile, although I suspect his docility may have come from being handled more than the usual bull calf, so he became tamer than most bulls. Either way, the experiment proved that unicorning wasn’t difficult. Any animal that grows true horns, such as sheep, goats, and cattle, can be unicorned.

More recently, in the 1980s, neopagan writer Oberon Zell Ravenheart and his wife Morning Glory unicorned mohair goats that looked astonishingly like the unicorns of legend. So technically, kid me was right. Unicorns are sort of real.

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!