Monthly Archives: May 2017

Episode 017: Thunderbird



We’re talking about Thunderbird this week and the huge North American birds that may have inspired Thunderbird’s physical description. Thanks to Desmon of the Not Historians podcast for this week’s topic suggestion!

Further listening:

While I was in the middle of researching this episode, Thinking Sideways did a whole episode on Washington’s Eagle.

Further reading:

“The Great Quake and the Great Drowning”

“The Myth of 19th Century Pterodactyls”

Depiction of Thunderbird on a Pacific Northwest totem pole:

A wandering albatross hanging out with a lot of lesser birds. Biggest wingspan in the world right here, folks!

A California condor. #16, in fact.

An adult bald eagle with a juvenile.

Washington’s eagle as painted by James Audubon

Model of a teratorn. We don’t actually know what colors they were.

Show transcript:

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

This week’s episode about Thunderbirds was suggested by Desmon of the Not Historians Podcast, a fun, fascinating podcast about history. If you haven’t given it a listen yet, I recommend it.

Despite my interest in birds, before I started research for this episode, I didn’t know much about the Thunderbird. I knew it was an element in First Nations lore but I didn’t know which tribes or regions, just assumed it was out west somewhere. Since I live in East Tennessee, “out west” to me is a vague wave of the hand and a mental image of wide-open plains and buffalo and maybe John Wayne. But it turns out that the Thunderbird is an important element in Northeastern and Pacific Northwest tribal lore, as well as being well known among the Great Plains societies and beyond. Thunderbird, in fact, is one of the most widespread figures in Native American lore.

I’m always cautious when mystery animal research points me to religious lore. Many cryptozoologists like to mine myths, legends, folktales, and religious stories of all kinds to find corroboration for the existence of their personal pet cryptid, but if you aren’t extremely well versed in the culture, it’s easy to misinterpret elements of a story. Worse, some cryptozoologists do this on purpose, running roughshod over sacred beliefs and yanking out one mention of, for instance, a giant human and then shouting about how this tribe clearly knows all about Bigfoot. Not to pick on the Bigfoot hunters, but guys, you need to calm down.

Thunderbird is associated with storms but it’s not accurate to say he’s a storm god. He’s more of a representation of the uncontrollable power of nature. In many Plains societies, Thunderbird is associated with trickster figures and a deep belief in the dual aspect of nature—that things in nature often hold their own opposites, that everything found in nature is reflected and represented in the human world.

Thunderbird is not necessarily a single being, either. Many tribes have stories about four different varieties of Thunderbird represented by different colors. Sometimes the different colored Thunderbirds correspond to the cardinal directions, sometimes not. And while Thunderbird is generally supposed to be an enormous eagle-like bird, the difference between bird and human is frequently blurred in the stories. This blurring of human and animal traits in stories is true across all cultures, incidentally, and if you doubt me, think about “what big eyes you have, granny.” Animal beings in traditional stories of all types are allegories, not real animals or real people.

The Thunderbird is also an allegory, a spiritual being, and it’s a disservice to the rich and sophisticated First Nations cultures to strip those trappings away and try to find nothing but a bird underneath. That’s not to say the physical form of Thunderbird wasn’t inspired by eagles or other birds. Just don’t dismiss a culture’s spiritual world to root out so-called proof of a natural explanation.

But. That doesn’t mean there aren’t any gigantic honkin birds in North America and throughout the world.

Going by wingspan, the biggest known living bird is the wandering albatross. Its wingspan can exceed 12 feet, with unconfirmed rumors of individuals with wingspans topping 17 feet. That is an enormous wingspan, seriously. I’d love to see one. The wandering albatross looks like an enormous seagull, white with black wings and a pink bill and feet. Males have more white on the wings—sometimes only the wingtips are black—and a peach-colored spot behind the head. Like many seabirds, albatrosses have a salt gland in their nostrils that helps filter excess salt from the body.

The wandering albatross spends most of its life on the wing far out at sea. It can soar for hours without needing to flap its wings. It eats fish and other animals it can catch at the surface of the ocean or in shallow dives, and sometimes will eat so much it can’t fly and has to sit in the water while it digests. I feel that way every time I go to a buffet.

But since the wandering albatross, as well as its somewhat smaller relatives, lives around the southern sea at the south pole, I think we can safely say that it wasn’t an inspiration for Thunderbird. Besides, it’s basically a giant seagull. Not exactly Thunderbird material.

The California condor’s wingspan is ten feet, and many people point at it as a possible Thunderbird model. But the condor is a type of vulture, which means it has a bald head and mostly eats carrion. Vultures evolved bald heads to reduce bacterial growth in their feathers, since yeah, they sometimes stick their heads in dead animal carcasses to get at those yummy soft parts. No matter how magnificent a wingspan the condor has, it doesn’t fit the stories of Thunderbird battling creatures like Horned Snake, since vultures aren’t raptors and their bills and claws are relatively weak. The same holds true for the Andean condor, with a wingspan of eleven feet, not to mention that bird lives in South America.

The trumpeter swan has a wingspan of over ten feet and lives in North America, but while swans can be aggressive, they eat aquatic plants and act like gigantic ducks, not exactly fierce Thunderbird material. The American white pelican likewise has a ten-foot wingspan but, well, it’s a pelican.

So what about North American eagles? We only have two known species, the bald eagle and the golden eagle. Both have wingspans that can reach more than eight feet and, tellingly, both are common throughout the Pacific Northwest and throughout most of North America. It’s entirely possible that admiration of these large eagles gave form to descriptions of the Thunderbird.

But while an eagle with a nine foot wingspan is impressive, let’s not fool ourselves. We all want to know about GIANT HECKIN HUGE BIRDS. Like, twice that size! This is what cryptozoologists so often dig around for in Native Thunderbird legends, hints that there was once and maybe still is a bird so enormous that it inspired terror and awe in people who saw it, to the degree that they immortalized it in cultures throughout North America as the Thunderbird.

In cultures without written language, stories impart knowledge of everything—history as well as religion, warnings of real-life dangers as well as rituals to ward off the danger—and many stories serve dual purposes. Among the Pacific Northwest peoples, certain stories about Thunderbird battling Whale commemorate a cataclysmic event now known to science, a violent earthquake on Jan. 16, 1700. It was probably a magnitude 9 quake that dropped the coast as much as six and a half feet and resulted in tsunami waves drowning villages from northern California to southern Vancouver Island. In the 1980s a team of researchers studying the geology of the area looked closely at stories of the Makah people in Washington state. Soon they learned that all the indigenous peoples along the coast had stories about the earthquake.

The difference between that study and cryptozoologists looking for Bigfoot or a real-life Thunderbird is one of training and intent. The 1980s team consisted of anthropologists, geologists, and indigenous scholars. And they weren’t cherrypicking information that matched what they had already decided was the truth. What they discovered among the Pacific Northwest peoples guided their research and helped them learn more about the infrequent but violent earthquakes in the area. They even uncovered stories that may be about older quakes and tsunamis.

The problem is that stories about events that happened a long time ago tend to fall out of circulation eventually, especially if the events are no longer relevant. The earthquake stories were hard to gather in the 1980s because the event that inspired them happened almost 300 years before. How much can you remember about the year 1700 without looking it up online? And in the meantime, other cataclysms, notably invading Europeans bringing diseases like smallpox, destroyed much of the native culture.

In other words, even if you’re a trained anthropologist with a deep understanding of the cultures you’re studying, teasing historical information about giant birds from Native American stories is next to impossible. We know truly gigantic birds used to exist in North America because we’ve found their remains, but we can never know for certain if any of those birds inspired Thunderbird legends in any way or if the birds were ever even seen by humans.

Some of the largest flying birds that ever lived are known as pseudotooth birds because their beaks had toothlike spines. They were big, slender birds that probably looked a lot like albatrosses although at the moment they’re classified as more closely related to storks and pelicans. While we don’t have any complete skeletons, researchers estimate the birds’ wingspans may have been as much as 20 feet. One species, Pelagornis sandersi, may have had a wingspan as wide as 24 feet. I just went outside and measured the road in front of my house, and it’s only about 18 and a half feet wide, just to put that into perspective. It’s probable the pseudotooth birds weren’t actually able to flap their wings, just soar.

Like albatrosses, the pseudotooth birds probably covered vast distances in flight. Their remains have been found in North and South America, New Zealand, parts of Africa and Europe, Japan, even the Antarctic. They ate whatever they could scoop up from the water with their long bills. The toothlike projections on their bills weren’t very strong and just helped the bird keep hold of wriggly fish, but they certainly look impressive.

But from what we know from the fossil record, the pseudotooths all died out by the early Pleistocene, some two million years ago. Homo habilis may have seen them flying off the coast of Africa, and if so I bet our distant ancestors thought something like, “Wow, that’s a huge bird!”

The group of North American birds that a lot of cryptozoologists want to call the Thunderbird is the teratorns. Some of them were as big as pseudotooth birds with 20-foot wingspans, but they looked much different. They’re related to the New World vultures, but their bills are more eagle-like, indicating that teratorns were active hunters that could probably swallow prey as large as rabbits whole. Formerly some researchers thought the biggest teratorns couldn’t fly, but new discoveries of fossils with contour feather attachment marks indicate they could. But since teratorns had long, strong legs as well, they might have sometimes stalked their prey on foot the way golden eagles occasionally do.

We have a lot of teratorn remains from the La Brea tar pits. Teratornis merriami had a wingspan of about 12 feet and lived until only about 10,000 years ago. The biggest teratorn is Argentavis magnificens, which lived in South America and probably went extinct around 6 million years ago. It had a wingspan of at least 20 feet, possibly more than 25 feet, but we don’t have very many fossils of this bird. Only one humerus has been discovered—that’s the upper arm bone, and it’s the length of an entire human arm.

It would be truly magnificent if a teratorn descendent still existed. Some people think it did, at least until a few hundred years ago. We might even have a depiction of one by the most famous bird artist in the world, James Audubon.

In February 1814, Audubon was traveling on a boat on the upper Mississippi River when he spotted a big eagle he didn’t recognize. A Canadian fur dealer who was with him said it was a rare eagle that he’d only ever seen around the Great Lakes before, called the great eagle. Audubon was no slouch as a birdwatcher and was familiar with bald eagles and golden eagles. He was convinced this great eagle was something else.

Audubon made four more sightings over the next few years, including at close range in Kentucky where he was able to watch a pair with a nest and two babies. Two years after that, he spotted an adult eagle at a farm near Henderson, Kentucky. Some pigs had just been slaughtered and the eagle was probably coming by to look for scraps. Audubon shot the bird and took it to a friend who lived nearby, an experienced hunter, and both men examined the body carefully.

According to the notes Audubon made at the time, the bird was a male with a wingspan of 10.2 feet. Since female eagles are generally larger than males, that means this 10-foot wingspan was likely on the smaller side of average for the species. It was dark brown on its upper body, a lighter cinnamon brown underneath, with a dark bill and yellow legs.

Audubon named the bird Washington’s eagle after George Washington and used the specimen as a model for a lifesized painting. Audubon was meticulous about details and size, using a double-grid method to make sure his bird paintings were precisely exact. This was long before photography, remember.

So we have a detailed painting and first-hand notes from James Audobon himself about an eagle that…doesn’t appear to exist.

Now, this isn’t the only bird Audubon painted that went extinct afterwards. He painted the ivory-billed woodpecker, subject of our episode nine, and the passenger pigeon, along with less well known birds like Bachman’s warbler and the Carolina parakeet. Yeah, North America used to have its very own budgie that was cute as heck, but it’s long gone now.

To add to the confusion, though, Audubon also made some mistakes. Selby’s flycatcher? Nope, that was just a female hooded warbler. Many people think Washington’s eagle was just an immature bald eagle, which it resembles.

I don’t actually agree. I’m just going to say that right out. Let me explain why.

There are reports of bald eagles with wingspans of nine feet, although I couldn’t find any verified measurements that long. A bald eagle will actually have a slightly wider wingspan as a juvenile than as an adult because of the way its feathers are arranged, but that difference is a matter of a few inches, not feet. In addition, the largest bald eagles are found in Alaska; individuals in the southeastern United States are usually much smaller. And female bald eagles are typically as much as 25% larger than males.

But here we have a male eagle shot in Kentucky with a measured wingspan of 10.2 feet. Juvenile bald eagles do travel widely, but even if that happened to be an outrageously large individual who’d flown down from Alaska, consider that Audubon had seen the same type of eagle nesting a few years before near the same area. He’d watched a pair feeding two chicks. Immature bald eagles don’t nest or lay eggs. There are other differences too, notably the color and size of the nostril area and the type of scaling on the legs.

Golden eagles also resemble juvenile bald eagles to some degree, but they don’t nest in Kentucky. Their winter range just barely touches Kentucky, in fact. They nest in Canada and in the western half of the United States. And the largest golden eagle ever measured was a captive-bred female with a 9.3 foot wingspan, and like bald eagles, golden eagle females tend to be considerably larger than males. A male with a wingspan of over ten feet is probably not too likely; but even if an aberrantly large male golden eagle decided to vacation a little farther south than usual, it’s clear from many details in Audubon’s painting and in his notes that the bird he shot can’t be a golden eagle.

Audubon kept diaries of his birding trips so we know he was familiar with juvenile bald eagles—he even painted one. We also know he differentiated between juvenile bald eagles and Washington’s eagle, which he wrote was about a quarter larger than the juvenile bald eagle.

And Audubon wasn’t the only person to have reported the eagle. From other reports we know it hunted differently from bald eagles, including no reports of it stealing fish from ospreys the way bald eagles frequently do (the jerks). Washington’s eagle reportedly preferred to nest in rocky cliffs near water, not in trees like bald eagles.

So I don’t think Audubon was mistaken or lying. I think he really did paint a type of eagle that was already rare in the early 19th century and which went extinct soon after. Unfortunately, Audubon’s mounted specimen has been lost, but it’s always possible there are other specimens floating around in personal collections or museum storage rooms, possibly mislabeled as juvenile bald eagles.

There’s not a very good chance that Washington’s eagle survived into the present day just because its immense size would make it easy to spot. Then again, size is really hard to estimate without something of known size to compare it to. Is it a gigantic eagle that’s really high up or an ordinary eagle at a closer distance? Combine that with Washington’s eagle looking so much like a juvenile bald eagle and there could be a remote population hiding in plain sight.

There are, of course, lots of reports of giant birds in North America. Most take place along roads or in back yards, where people catch glimpses of eagles of unbelievable proportions—literally unbelievable, in fact, 15 or 20 or even 25-foot wingspans and birds that pick up deer and fly off with them. Most of these are probably misidentifications of known birds of prey with size exaggerated due to alarm, poor visibility, or just an inability to estimate size correctly. Some may be hoaxes. But there’s always the possibility that in this case we might really have a very rare, very large eagle still living in remote areas of Canada or Alaska, and occasionally one flies into more populated areas.

Let’s hope someone finds some remains, either taxidermied specimens or a collection of bones and feathers in some protected cave, so they can be tested and we can find out if there’s a real live teratorn still flying around—or at least learn if there are three species of eagle in North America instead of just two.

I don’t know if Washington’s eagle has anything to do with the Thunderbird. In my mind they feel like two completely separate entities: a flesh and blood eagle circling high above a lake in search of prey, and a terrifying being wrapped in storm clouds soaring somewhere between reality and the spirit world. Some birds are bigger than others, and some birds have to be taken on faith.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. 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 016: Jellyfish



If you look at this episode and think, “Oh, ho hum, think I’ll skip this one because snore, jellyfish,” you are so wrong! Jellies are fascinating, creepy, and often beautiful. Come learn all about our squishy friends in the sea!

A Portuguese man o’war. Creepy as heck:

A lion’s mane jelly. You do not want this guy on your ship. Incidentally, a lot of the photos you find of divers with enormous lion’s mane jellies are fakes that make the jellies look gigantic.

The cosmic jelly, a deep-sea creature:

The creepy Stygiomedusa gigantea, guardian of the underworld:

A newly discovered golden jelly.

Further reading:

Jelly Biologist (I’ve been enjoying browsing this site)

Show transcript:

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

This week’s episode is about jellyfish—also called jellies, which is more accurate since they’re not fish at all.

Originally, I was going to focus on the Portuguese man o’war, another in the ongoing feature of “animals that scared me as a kid” and technically not even a jelly. But there’s so much to learn about jellies that we’re going to cover a whole lot more than that.

Jellies are interesting animals, to say the least. Their bodies have radial symmetry, meaning they’re the same in all directions. While the body shape varies, most jellies have a bell-like shape. The bell is generally rather thin, made up of an external covering, an internal covering, and an elastic gel-like material in between. Inside, the jelly has a digestive cavity with four to eight oral arms surrounding the mouth and long tentacles hanging beneath. The jelly also has a simple nerve net that can detect light and react to other stimuli, and which takes the place of a brain.

Jellies don’t have brains. They don’t have hearts, specialized sensory organs, or much of anything else. But they’ve been around for some 650 million years, possibly much longer, so clearly it all works.

The jelly’s life cycle is pretty weird. Most start out as polyps that stick to rocks or shells and use their little tentacles to catch microscopic organisms. A polyp can bud, producing new polyps that are clones of the original. Eventually, a polyp will constrict its body and develop into a stack of larvae. Each larva develops into a tiny jelly, which separates from the stack and swims away.

Once it’s grown, a jelly reproduces by releasing sperm, if it’s male, which the water carries to the female to fertilize her eggs. Some female jellies have brood pouches on the oral arms, some just carry the fertilized eggs inside the body while they develop. The embryos develop into swimming larvae called planula, which leave the female and attack themselves to something firm, where they transform into polyps.

This seems needlessly complicated, but again, it works for the jelly.

Polyps can live for years, while adult jellies, which I’m delighted to report are called medusas, usually only live a few months. The immortal jellyfish throws another step into this process. It can transform back into a polyp from any stage of its life if it needs to. As a polyp, the immortal jellyfish is tiny, only about a millimeter long. As a full-grown medusa it’s not all that much bigger, less than four millimeters in diameter. Because it can transform back into a polyp as many times as it needs to, apparently without any kind of degradation or injury, the immortal jellyfish is effectively, well, immortal.

Before you get too excited, though, keep in mind that there’s not a whole lot of research into the immortal jellyfish yet. It’s not even known if they will transform back into polyps in the wild, since it’s only ever been observed in captivity.

Almost all jellies have stinging cells, usually concentrated on the tentacles or oral arms, which they use to stun and kill prey. The stinging cells contain venom-filled nematocysts, which are coiled structures that uncoil and sting when touched. Humans are not jelly prey, but jelly stings can still be uncomfortable—and sometimes fatal—to humans.

You’ve probably heard of the infamous box jellyfish, the most dangerous species of which is common around Australia. Unlike most jellies, box jellyfish have true eyes and a relatively well-developed nervous system. They’re active, hard for humans to detect while swimming since they’re nearly transparent, and in the case of Chironex fleckeri, their venom can kill a human in as little as two minutes. Most fatalities occur in children, but most stings don’t result in death.

Another vicious and occasionally fatal stinger is the Portuguese man o’war, although it isn’t actually a jelly. It’s not even a single animal, it’s a colony. One member is the float, another the feeding polyps, and so forth. The man o’war takes its name from a type of ship, which the float somewhat resembles. The float is bluish or purplish, generally under a foot long [30 cm], and filled with gas. Underneath the float are feeding polyps from which hang purple tentacles, typically around 30 feet long [9 m] but sometimes up to 200 feet long [61 m]. If something attacks the man o’war, it can vent some of the gas in its bladder and submerge temporarily.

When I was a kid, my family occasionally went to the beach in North Carolina. Man o’wars are tropical animals but they do occasionally drift farther north. I was fully aware of this as a kid and did not want to get in the water farther than my waist. My grandfather and one of my aunts reassured me that they’d both been stung by a man o’war once, and it wasn’t any more painful than a wasp sting.

That did not make me feel any better. In fact, it made me even more scared because then I KNEW there were man o’wars out there. I wasn’t afraid of being stung, I was afraid of touching those creepy tentacles.

As it happens, my grandfather and Aunt Barbara probably had not encountered a Portuguese man o’war but a smaller animal called a by-the-wind sailor, which is now my favorite name of anything. It has a blue bladder float like the man o’war, but its sting is much milder, A man o’war sting is incredibly painful, more of a shock, that can lead to intense muscle and joint pain, open wounds on the skin at the sting site, headache, chills and fever, nausea, and can cause victims to faint and drown. Occasionally the venom travels to the lymph nodes and causes even more serious symptoms, including swelling of the larynx, an inability to breathe, and cardiac distress. Even a dead man o’war can sting if you touch its tentacles. Why would you touch its tentacles.

I’m not the only one who feels this way about man o’wars, clearly, because one of its other names if the floating terror. That sounds like the title of a pulp science fiction novel.

The bluebottle is a smaller related species found in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. The man o’war is found in those oceans and the Atlantic. A few weeks ago, in early May 2017, hundreds of man o’wars washed ashore in Georgia and South Carolina. Man o’wars are pretty common around Florida, especially in winter, and occasionally they wash ashore in the thousands.

The man o’war eats fish and other organisms that get caught in the stinging tentacles, but there are some fish that live among the tentacles, even feeding on them, like the man o’war fish and the clownfish. Not a lot of things eat Portuguese man o’wars, but the loggerhead turtle and ocean sunfish do. I like them both. The blanket octopus is immune to the man o’war’s venom and may carry broken-off tentacles to deter predators.

If you’re stung by a man o’war, treat the sting the same way you’d treat other jelly stings. Rinse with vinegar to remove any remaining bits of tentacle or nematocysts, then apply heat for 45 minutes, either with a hot pack or by immersing in hot water. Don’t rinse with urine or vodka; it can make the stings worse—and definitely don’t rinse with fresh water. If you don’t have vinegar, rinse with sea water, but keep in mind that you may be pouring nematocysts back onto the patient with the water. This treatment is from a very recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, released only a few weeks ago as this episode goes live, so if you’ve heard differing advice for jelly stings, it may be out of date.

Jellies are related to some surprising things: coral, sea anemones, a rare parasitic worm, the freshwater hydra—a ten mm long tubular animal with stinging tentacles at one end that it can stretch four or five times the length of the body to catch its tiny prey. Like jellies, the hydra can regenerate parts of its body if they’re injured or bitten off. And the hydra doesn’t appear to age, making it biologically immortal, although in a different way than the immortal jellyfish.

So what’s the largest jelly known, not counting ridiculously long tentacles like the man o’war’s? That would be the lion’s mane jellyfish. Its bell can have a diameter of over seven feet [2 m] and it has pretty darn long tentacles, too—sometimes over 120 feet long [36.5 m]. It likes cold water and the biggest individuals live where it’s coldest. While small individuals are brown or tan in color, the big ones are usually red or purple. The sting of a lion’s mane jellyfish isn’t usually that bad, but it has a lot of tentacles, so it can inflict thousands of stings upon contact.

In 1973, the Australian ship Kuranda collided with a huge jelly in the South Pacific while traveling through a storm on her way to the Fiji Islands. The jelly was so enormous that the deck was covered in jellyfish goo and tentacles up to two feet deep [61 cm]. One crew member died after getting stung. The weight of the jelly was so great, an estimated 20 tons [18 metric tons] that it started to push the ship nose-down and the captain, Langley Smith, sent out an SOS. The salvage tug Hercules arrived and sprayed the Kuranda’s deck with a high-pressure hose, dislodging the jelly. Samples were sent to Sydney and tentatively identified as a lion’s mane jelly.

But remember, lion’s mane jellies don’t live in the warm waters near Fiji and Australia. There are other reports of lion’s mane jellies seen in the area, though, so it’s possible there’s a gargantuan warm-water variety that hasn’t been discovered yet.

Most jellies live near the surface of the ocean, but there are some deep-sea species known, with more being discovered every year. A gorgeous jelly, dubbed the cosmic jellyfish by the press, was spotted 9,800 feet [2987 m] below the surface near American Samoa this February. It has an umbrella-like bell with short tentacles that point both downward and upward. You may have seen it in the news described as looking like a flying saucer, which it does. A similar jelly was discovered in the Mariana Trench in 2016, almost two and a half miles underwater [4 km]. These are lovely jellies with translucent bells and glowing red and yellow innards, but there are less lovely ones down there.

The big red jellyfish discovered in 2002 is an ugly cuss. It lives in waters up to 4900 feet deep [1493 m] and is over a foot in diameter [30 cm]. It’s dull red in color and doesn’t have tentacles, just thick oral arms.

Stygiomedusa gigantea, also known as the guardian of the underworld by at least one website, and now by me, isn’t so much ugly as horrifying. Its bell is some three feet across [1 m], and while it doesn’t have tentacles or even stinging cells, it does have four 30-foot-long [9 m] oral arms that resemble dark brown or reddish strips of cloth that drift in the ocean currents.

Some deep-sea jellies don’t have tentacles or oral arms. Deepstaria enigmatica, a rare jelly described in 1967, basically just looks like a big mesh bag. Its close relative, Deepstaria reticulum, is very similar, but it’s reddish instead of whitish. The Deepstaria hangs motionless in the deep with its three-foot-wide [1 m] bell open, waiting for something to swim into it. When it does, the bell contracts like a bag, the fish or other organism is stung by nematocysts lining the bell, and the jelly pushes its stunned prey into its mouth with tiny cilia inside the bell.

Isopods, which are small crustaceans, frequently hitch rides inside Deepstaria bells. It’s not known if they’re parasites or confer some benefits to the jellies, but they don’t seem to be affected by the stings.

There are plenty of mysteries associated with enormous jellies, although the two most famous ones I dug into started to seem less and less likely once I got closer to the primary sources. According to Eric Frank Russell in his 1957 book Great World Mysteries, in 1953 a diver testing a new type of deep-sea diving suit in the South Pacific saw an enormous jelly-like monster kill a shark. The diver had been testing how deep he could dive in the suit and noticed a fifteen-foot [4.6 m] shark following him down. I’m going to quote the relevant section instead of paraphrasing, because it’s pretty amazing.

“The shark was still hanging around some 30 feet [9 m] from me and about 20 feet [6 m] higher, when I reached a ledge below which was a great black chasm of enormous depth. It being dangerous to venture farther, I stood looking into the chasm while the shark waited for my next move. Suddenly the water became distinctly colder. While the temperature continued to drop with surprising rapidity, I saw a black mass rising from the darkness of the chasm. It floated upwards very slowly. As at last light reached it I could see that it was of a dull brown color and tremendous size, a flat ragged-edged thing about one acre in extent. It pulsated sluggishly and I knew that it was alive despite its lack of visible limbs or eyes. Still pulsating, this frightful vision floated past my level, by which time the coldness had become most intense. The shark now hung completely motionless, paralyzed either by cold or fear. While I watched fascinated, the enormous brown thing reached the shark, contacted it with its upper surface. The shark gave a convulsive shiver and was drawn unresisting into the substance of the monster. I stood perfectly still, not daring to move while the brown thing sank back into the chasm as slowly as it had emerged. Darkness swallowed it and the water started to regain some warmth.”

I am skeptical, I admit. Eric Frank Russell was primarily a science fiction writer and this sounds like something from a novel, probably one called The Floating Terror. If he described the monster as 20 feet across or even 30 or 40 [6, 9, 12 m], I’d be going, “Hmm, but hey, the deep sea is full of amazing things.” But an acre? That’s 208 feet 9 inches across. 43,450 square feet. A lot of meters [4,046 square meters]. It’s three times the size of my yard, which takes me like an hour to mow. It’s just too big to believe, not without corroborating details—like a first-hand account of the actual diver. We don’t even know his name. And what about the diver’s buddy? Divers don’t go down alone, although maybe they did back in 1953. The whole story is just too thin, too fantastical to be believed.

The other promising mystery I looked into is a supposed legend from Chile, a sea monster that resembles a cow hide stretched flat but with eyes all around the edges and four big eyes in the middle. It rises to the ocean’s surface and swallows animals it encounters.

At first glance this sounds ridiculous, until you realize that many jellies have semi- or fully transparent bells and their internal organs, such as they are, may resemble eye-like blobs in the center of their bodies. Some jellies do have light-sensitive eye spots near their edges too. But the research I did to follow up this story, which I took from Karl Shuker’s blog, but which is originally from Jorge Luis Borges’ 1969 book called The Book of Imaginary Beings, indicated that the actual legend is much different and much less jelly-like.

El Cuero is a cowhide monster called Threquelhuecuvu among the Mapuche of Patagonia. It lives in rivers, lakes, and the ocean. It’s nearly circular, has claws around its edges, and one pair of red eyes. It also has tentacles on its head and a mouth in its middle, which it uses to suck bodily fluids from its prey. It’s supposed to come out of the water and come on land, and when an animal steps on it, it wraps its body around the animal and suffocates it. Then it drags its prey into the water to eat it. The only way to kill it is to throw cacti into the water. When the monster grabs the cacti, it’s pierced through with spines and dies.

It’s generally supposed that the monster is based on freshwater stingrays, although they’re not known to live in Patagonia. But in 1976, after a bus full of tourists ended up on the bottom of Lake Moreno, divers who retrieved the drowned victims reported enormous rays in the depths.

There is a freshwater stingray species in South America which has thorn-like denticles on its body and a closely related species, also with denticles, sometimes travels upriver from the ocean off the Chilean Patagonian coast. That might be the source of the cowhide monster.

So those two mysteries are almost certainly bust. But don’t feel discouraged. Not only was that 20-ton ship-sinking 1973 lion’s mane jelly a real, documented thing that happened, there are lots of jelly species being discovered all the time.

Not all are deep-sea species. In 2013, a fisherman in northeast Italy hauled up a net full of golden jellies he’d never seen before. He contacted the local university, and a researcher came out and determined that the lovely golden jellies were completely unknown to science. In 2015, a 9-year-old boy caught a new species of box jelly that’s only around an inch long [3 cm].

There are freshwater jellies too, but not a lot is known about them. To add to the confusing and complex life cycle of marine jellies, many freshwater jellies also have a dormant stage where they basically turn into tiny jelly seeds, tough and capable of surviving even if dried out.

And back in the Cambrian era, some 500 million years ago, some jellies actually had skeletons. Fossil impressions show plates, spines, and spokes from comb jellies, which today are completely soft-bodied. Comb jellies are different from the kind of jellies I’ve mostly talked about in this episode, and not even closely related to them. I’d dig into them next, but we’re already pushing 20 minutes and there’s a limit to how much jellyfish information I can expect my listeners to tolerate in one sitting. We’ll save the comb jellies for another episode.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 015: Hammerhead shark and Megalodon!



This week’s episode is all about some awesome sharks: the hammerhead shark, which used to scare the poop out of me when I was a kid, and the unbelievably huge but fortunately for all the whales extinct megalodon! Thanks to Zenger from Zeng This! for recommending such a great topic!

The great hammerhead, a huge and freaky-looking shark.

A ray leaping out of the water to escape a hammerhead. The article I pulled this from is here.

A guy with a teeny adorable bonnethead, a newly discovered species of hammerhead.

Hello there. I am a great white shark.

Show transcript:

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

This week’s episode was suggested by Zenger from the fun pop culture podcast Zeng This!, which I recommend if you don’t already subscribe. He suggested megalodon as a topic, so since I was already researching hammerhead sharks, I decided to put together a shark episode.

We’ll start with the hammerhead shark, because hammerheads scared the crap out of me as a kid. They just look so weird! You know what else scared me as a kid? Skeletons. It’s a good thing no one ever showed me the skeleton of a hammerhead shark.

There are a lot of species of hammerhead shark, some of them small like the new species of bonnethead discovered earlier this year that’s only about as long as your forearm, and some of them huge, like the great hammerhead, which can grow up to 20 feet long [6 meters]. One of the biggest sharks ever caught was a great hammerhead. At fourteen feet long [4.2 meters], it wasn’t the longest shark ever, but it weighed 1,280 pounds [580 kg]. It was caught in 2006 off the coast of Florida.

If it weren’t for its weird head shape, the hammerhead wouldn’t seem all that interesting. It’s mostly plain gray in color, hardly ever attack humans, and is common all over the world. But they’ve got that head! The shape is called cephalofoil, and not only are the shark’s eyes on the end of the stalks, the head is flattened.

Researchers think the shape serves two purposes. A hammerhead shark can see really well since its eyes are so far apart, and the shape actually provides a certain amount of lift when water flows over it, like an airplane’s wing, which helps the shark maneuver. Plus, of course, a wide head allows for even more electroreceptor cells so the shark can sense prey better.

Hammerheads have relatively small mouths compared to many other sharks. They do a lot of feeding on the ocean floor, snapping up rays, fish, crustaceans, octopus, even other sharks. Oh yeah, and a hammerhead will actually use its head as a weapon. Hammerheads like eating stingrays and will pin one to the ocean floor with its head to keep it from escaping until the shark can bite it. In February of 2017, tourists surfing near Panama saw a spotted eagle ray escape a hammerhead shark by leaping out of the water like a bird. The stingray actually beached itself on an island, too far up the beach for the shark to reach. After it gave up, the ray managed to catch a wave that carried it back out to sea. That’s pretty epic.

Hammerhead sharks are considered a delicacy in many countries, but since their fins are the most valuable part of the fish, fishermen sometimes catch a shark, cut its fins off, and toss the still-living shark back in the ocean. It always dies, because it can’t swim without fins. The practice is horrific and banned in many countries. Overfishing has also threatened many hammerhead species. Researchers estimate that the great hammerhead in particular has decreased in numbers some 80% in the last 25 years.

Ironically, recent studies have found repeatedly that shark fins and meat contain high levels of mercury and a neurotoxin called BMAA, which is linked to neurodegenerative diseases in humans. The frequent eating of shark fin soup and other dishes made of shark meat, and cartilage pills which some people take as a diet supplement, may increase the risk of developing diseases like Alzheimer’s and Lou Gehrig’s disease. (I ate shark once, a shark steak. It was terrible.)

You may think a 20-foot hammerhead is a really big shark, and it is. Great white sharks aren’t much bigger. But before the great white and the hammerhead, a 60 foot [18 meter] shark ruled the oceans. Megalodon is first found in the fossil record around 23 million years ago, and died out about 2 ½ million years ago. Because shark skeletons are made of cartilage instead of bone, they don’t fossilize well. We have a whole lot of megalodon teeth, but except for some vertebrae we don’t know much about the rest of the shark.

Researchers generally compare megalodon with the great white, since while they’re not necessarily closely related, they occupy the same ecological niche. We do know how the teeth were arranged, since associated teeth in formation as they had been in the jaw, although the jaw itself wasn’t preserved, have been discovered in North Carolina and Japan.

At a rough estimate, megalodon probably grew 60 or even 70 feet long [18 to 21 m]. Its jaws were over six feet across [1.8 meters] with some 276 teeth in five rows. Due to the size of its teeth and jaws, it probably mostly preyed on large whales, and was probably a lot blockier looking than the great white. If the great white is a racecar, megalodon was that bus from Speed.

Some researchers want to classify megalodon as a close relative of the great white shark, which has serrated teeth like megalodon’s. But others argue the great white is more closely related to the mako shark, which does not have serrated teeth. For a long time the megalodon hypothesis was more accepted, but a study published in the March 12, 2009 issue of Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology concluded that mako sharks and great whites probably share a recently discovered fossilized ancestor some 4 to 5 million years old. Its teeth have coarse serrations, which researchers think are a transitional point between no serrations and the serrations in modern great white shark teeth. The similarities between the great white and megalodon are due to convergent evolution.

This points to something many people don’t understand about science. It’s messy. It’s incomplete. Our collective body of knowledge is being added to, adjusted, reinterpreted, and hopefully corrected all the time. From the outside it can look like people arguing over ridiculous minutiae, or a bunch of eggheads who can’t make up their minds. In reality, as new information is added to what we know, what we used to think was true has to be changed to fit new facts. It’s exciting!

For a long time researchers though megalodon died out around the beginning of the Pleistocene because the world grew colder as the world entered into the ice ages. New findings suggest that climate change didn’t push the megalodon into extinction, other sharks did. Newcomers like the great white and the orca, which of course isn’t a shark but a whale, starting expanding into new territory, out-competing megalodon around the same time that a lot of marine mammals were also going extinct. Megalodon needed a lot of food to survive—more than the much smaller upstarts.

Back when megalodon was king, though, there was plenty of food to go around. It wasn’t even the only mega-predator hunting the oceans. In 2008, fossils of an ancestor of today’s sperm whale were discovered in Miocene beds dated to around 12 or 13 million years ago. The whale has been dubbed Livyatan melvillei and estimates of its length, from the partial skull, lower jaw, and teeth that were found is around 57 feet [17 meters]. Since modern sperm whales are frequently some 60 feet long [18 m] and 80-foot [24 m] monster males were reported in the past, it’s possible the newly discovered Leviathan could attain similar lengths. Its biggest teeth were two feet long [61 cm] compared to modern sperm whales’ 8-inch teeth [20.5 cm]. It also apparently had teeth in its upper jaw as well as its lower. The sperm whale only has teeth in its lower jaw, and since it mostly eats squid, it doesn’t really need teeth at all. Individuals who have lost their teeth survive just fine.

The Leviathan, though, used its teeth. Like megalodon, it may have preyed on baleen whales. Megalodon teeth were found in the same fossil deposits where the Leviathan was discovered. I bet they battled sometimes.

So how do we know Megalodon isn’t still around, cruising the oceans in search of whales? After all the megamouth shark was only discovered in 1976 and it’s almost 20 feet long [6 m]. Well, we have two big clues that there isn’t a population of Megalodon sharks still living. Both involve its teeth.

Sharks have a lot of teeth, and they lose them all the time as new teeth grow in. Shark teeth are among the most common fossils around, and any dedicated beachcomber can find shark teeth washed up on shore. If megalodon still lived, we’d be finding its teeth. We’d also probably be finding whales and other large marine animals with scars from shark attacks, the way we find scars on sperm whales from giant squid suckers.

Wait, you may be saying, no one was talking about megamouth shark teeth found on beaches before it was discovered. Well, megamouth sharks have tiny, tiny teeth that they don’t even use. They gather food with gill rakes that filter krill from the water. Megalodon teeth can be seven inches long [18 cm]. Great white teeth are only two inches long [5 cm]. Occasionally a fossilized megalodon tooth washes up on shore, and when it does, it makes the news.

So okay, you might be saying, you fractious person you, what if megalodon survived into modern times but has died out now. Well, we’d probably still know. Not only would the non-fossilized teeth still be found, since nothing is going to eat them and they don’t decay readily, but a lot of cultures have incorporated shark teeth into weapons over the centuries. A seven-inch serrated tooth is a weapon worth having.

Consider the Gilbert Islands in the Pacific. Sharks were important in the Kiribati culture there, and the people crafted amazing weapons with shark teeth. Anthropologists studying the weapons discovered that some of the teeth used in older weapons come from sharks that are now extinct in the area.

So no, I’m going to insist that whatever you saw on Shark Week, megalodon is not out there and hasn’t been for a couple of million years. But what about other mystery sharks?

There aren’t very many reports, surprisingly. Even Karl Shuker comes up empty, with just one mention of a reportedly hundred-foot [30 m] shark called the Lord of the Deep by Polynesian fishermen, but I can’t find any additional information about it.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t mystery sharks out there, of course, just that they’re probably not gigantic or radically different from known shark species. In fact, new sharks are discovered all the time. In just the last few months, a three-foot [1 m] ghost shark with rabbit-like teeth, and a tiny hammerhead called a bonnethead have been described. And yeah, I’d love to be wrong about the megalodon’s existence.

Researchers are studying the genetics of sharks’ rapid healing, which could have important medical applications for humans. A recent study published in the January 2017 BMC Genomics Journal provides evidence that the genes linked to the immune system in sharks and rays have evolved in ways that their counterparts in humans have not. One gene is involved in killing cells after a certain amount of time, which is something cancer cells manage to avoid. It’s possible that as researchers learn more, new therapies for treating cancer in humans could be developed.

So maybe we should stop eating so many sharks. Shark meat isn’t good for you anyway.

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 014: Giant Salamanders



In episode 14, we discuss the big three of giant salamanders–and some possible mystery relatives.

The Chinese giant salamander. An orange one. Enormous. Mostly harmless. Just wants to eat a snail.

The Japanese giant salamander:

The HELLBENDER reverb reverb reverb

The Pacific giant salamander. Not as giant but has an angry:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re looking at giant salamanders. Yup.

Salamanders are amphibians. Think “wet lizards” or “skinny frogs with tails.” A lot of people think snakes are slimy, but they’re not. Snakes are reptiles and their scales are satiny smooth and dry. Amphibians don’t have scales and they do have slimy skin, which they need to keep moist.

Some salamanders are completely aquatic but most live at least part of their lives on land, usually in wet areas. When I was a kid, I used to like turning over rocks in the creek behind our house, because frequently I’d find a salamander underneath. I wouldn’t catch it, just look at it, which is what you should do if you find a salamander—partly because it’s not good to disturb a wild animal that’s just trying to live its life, and partly because salamanders secrete toxins through their skins. The toxins won’t kill you, but if you get any in your eyes or mouth you could be in for some unpleasant symptoms.

There are two species of salamander known to be venomous, in a way, but they don’t inject venom with special fangs. When the sharp-ribbed salamander is attacked, it pushes its pointed ribs through tubercules along its sides. The tubercules secrete toxins that coat the rib points, which then pierce right through the salamander’s skin and into its attacker.

There are hundreds of salamander species throughout the world, some of them tiny, most of them a few inches long [about 5 or 6 cm], but there are three that are much bigger than that. The biggest is the Chinese giant salamander. The biggest ever found was just shy of six feet long [two meters]. Six feet long! The closely related Japanese giant salamander is almost as big, some five feet long [1.5 meters].

There’s a third giant salamander right here in the southeastern United States where I live, and while at two and a half feet long [76 cm] it’s not nearly as long as its cousins, it has a much better name. The Chinese giant salamander’s local name is infant fish, because some of the sounds it makes remind people of babies crying, which is creepy as heck. The Japanese giant salamander is called the giant pepper fish, because when it’s disturbed it secretes a whitish mucus that smells like pepper. But the North American giant salamander? We call that thing the H E L L B E N D E R.

I did try to find audio of the Chinese giant salamander crying. I had no luck, which is probably a good thing actually, because it’s a distress call. I did find this awesome audio of a Pacific giant salamander. Despite the name giant in its name, it’s not very big compared to the other giants, only about a foot long at most [30 cm], but it does have a cute vocalization.

[Pacific giant salamander call]

(He’s so mad.)

The Chinese and Japanese giant salamanders are so closely related that they readily interbreed. We know that because some fool decided to introduce some Chinese salamanders into streams in Japan. Hellbenders are not as closely related to the Asian salamanders.

All three of the giant salamanders are endangered, mostly due to habitat loss and pollution. They like clean, swift-moving mountain streams with rocks of just the right size—not too big, not too small. But the Chinese salamanders are also considered a delicacy, so they’ve been overhunted as well. Poaching is a major issue, ironically to stock salamander farms. The adults breed readily in captivity, but farmers haven’t had much success getting captive-born individuals to breed, so they continue to capture adults from the wild.

Giant salamanders are fully aquatic, although they can and do get out of the water occasionally for short periods. All three have thick folds of skin along their sides, which increases their surface area, and that’s important because they breathe through their skins. Larval giant salamanders have gills, but when they mature they lose those gills. The hellbender may retain a gill slit but it no longer functions.

While giant salamanders do have a single lung, they don’t use it to breathe. They use it for buoyancy. They like fast-moving water because it’s well oxygenated. A salamander will also rock gently to increase the amount of water moving over its skin, and male salamanders will wave fresh water over their eggs. Males dig and defend the nests. In Japan, they’re called den-masters.

Giant salamanders are flattish in shape with broad bodies and wide heads. Their feet have stubby little toes. They eat fish, snails, crawdads, worms, insects, small mammals, snakes, frogs—basically anything they can catch. They snap up prey fast, sucking it in my creating a vacuum when they open their huge mouths. They range in color from slate gray to black to brownish with dapples. Occasionally an orangish or pink individual is discovered.

All the giant salamanders have poor eyesight, but they have a good sense of smell. In addition, the Chinese and Japanese giant salamanders have sensory cells along the sides of their bodies that detect vibrations in the water. The hellbender doesn’t have that kind of sensory cells as far as I’ve been able to find out, but it does have light sensitive cells on its body, especially the tail. This lets it know when its tail is safely hidden, rather than sticking out from under a rock.

Larval hellbenders look a lot like another large salamander in the area, called the mudpuppy or water dog. The mudpuppy can grow a bit over a foot in length [31 cm], but it retains its gills throughout its life. Don’t be fooled by fake hellbenders.

So those are the three giant salamanders in the world, but there are rumors of other giants in the streams and rivers of California. In the 1920s, an attorney named Frank L. Griffith, who was hunting in the area, spotted five salamanders in a lake in the Trinity Alps in northern California. The salamanders ranged in size between five and nine feet long [1.5 and 2.7 m]. He hooked one with a line, but he wasn’t strong enough to land it and it escaped. In the 1940s, animal handler Vern Harden claimed he’d seen eight-foot [2.4 m] salamanders in Hubbard Lake.

Thomas L. Rodgers, a biologist at Chico State College, conducted four expeditions to the Trinity Alps in 1948 in search of the giant. The expeditions didn’t find anything bigger than foot-long [30 cm] Pacific giant salamanders, but Rodgers suggested that the Trinity Alps giant might be a subspecies of the Pacific giant that grows to an enormous size, or might be a cryptobranchid like the eastern hellbender or the Asian giant salamanders.

In 1951, herpetologist George S. Myers published a paper about his own sighting. He said that in 1939 he was contacted by a commercial fisherman who had dredged up a two and a half foot [76 m] salamander in a catfish net from the Sacramento River. Myers described the salamander as dark brown with dull yellow spots, and said that it resembled the Chinese and Japanese giant salamanders but appeared to be a different species.

In 1960, Bigfoot hunter Tom Slick convinced an expedition looking for Bigfoot to hunt for the salamander too, with no luck. Also in 1960, Tom Rogers mounted another expedition, this time with some zoology professors and ten interested laymen. Again, they only found the foot-long Pacific giant salamander.

Rodgers decided he was wrong about the existence of a new giant salamander, and in 1962 denounced the previous sightings as misidentifications and hoaxes. More recently, a 1997 expedition led by Japanese-American writer Kyle Mizokami likewise came up with no sightings.

It’s not out of the realm of possibility that a giant salamander lives in the Trinity Alps and just hasn’t been found. It’s the right climate with the right conditions. And new salamanders are occasionally discovered in the United States. In 2009, a new species of lungless salamander was discovered in the Appalachian foothills. Yeah, that’s near where I live!

But that one is barely an inch long [2.5 cm]. It should be a little easier to spot a salamander longer than a grown man is tall, not to mention that two of the Trinity Alps giant salamander sightings report salamanders in lakes. If they’re cryptobranchids, they need running water to survive—streams or shallow rivers.

And as for the third sightings, the one where George Myers actually got a first-hand look at a giant salamander caught in the Sacramento River, there’s more to the story. Tom Rogers, the biologist who led five different expeditions to search for the salamander, also saw the Sacramento specimen. The fisherman had managed to keep it alive in his bathtub. Rogers identified it as a Chinese giant salamander, and in fact it turned out to be a lost pet named Benny that had escaped while being taken to Stockton Harbor by steamer.

If these were the only sightings of giant salamanders in North America that aren’t hellbenders, it wouldn’t be looking good for them. But we’re definitely not done. In his blog, zoologist Karl Shuker reports hearing from a woman who sighted a huge salamander in Redwood Park in Arcata, California in 2005. She described it as several feet long [1 meter] with a rounded head instead of flat like known giant salamanders, no skin folds along its sides, and reddish markings. She spotted it walking on land after a rain. Shuker suggests she might have seen an unusually large coastal giant salamander, which can reach almost a foot and a half in length [45 cm] and which she said her salamander resembled in many respects. Remember that Pacific giant salamander sound I played earlier? The coastal giant salamander is a type of Pacific giant salamander.

California isn’t the only state with a mystery giant salamander, though. Three other states have interesting reports, and all of them are pink.

Pink salamanders actually aren’t all that uncommon. Alibinism in salamanders is well known and not rare, and they frequently look pink due to blood vessels visible through their unpigmented skin.

In the early 1960s, biology student Mary Lou Richardson was bowhunting along Florida’s St. Johns River with her father and a friend. All three saw an animal the size of a donkey with a big flat head and a small neck. Other tourists saw the animal that same day, and local fishermen were familiar with it going back to 1955. It’s not clear from the description if the animal was a salamander or something else.

Then, on May 10, 1975, five people on a fishing trip on the St. Johns River saw a weird pink animal’s head and neck on the water. It was only 20 feet [6 m] from their boat and watched them for about eight seconds before diving again. One witness, Dorothy Abram, described it as having a head the size of a human’s with small horns like a snail’s. Another witness, Brenda Langley, also noted it had “this little jagged thing going down its back.” Presumably she meant serrations of some kind. The party also said the animal had large dark eyes and gills or gill-like flaps on either side of its head.

In Ohio, the first white settlers near Scippo Creek, called Catlick Creek Valley at the time, discovered what they called giant pink lizards living in the area. They were three to seven feet long [1 to 2.1 m] and lived in and around water. They also had moose-like horns, pretty big ones apparently. But after a drought followed by a devastating wildfire, by 1820 the pink lizards seemed to have died out.

And in South Carolina around 1928, nature writer Herbert Sass and his wife were boating on Goose Creek near Charleston when Sass saw something big under the water. He lifted it with an oar and although it almost immediately slipped back into the water, they were able to get a good look. Their description sounds a lot like a hellbender or other giant salamander, in this case as thick around as a man’s thigh and five or six feet long [1.5 to 2 m]. It was salmon pink and orange.

The St. Johns River monster might have been a manatee. The area where it was spotted is a manatee refuge and manatees have been responsible for other mystery animal sightings in the past. Then again, manatees don’t have snail horns, serrated backs, or gills, and known giant salamanders don’t either. It’s important to note too that in the 1975 sighting of the monster, dubbed Pinky because of course it was, witnesses described it as being dinosaur-like and said the skin appeared to be stretched so tightly over its head that the shape of the bones were visible. That doesn’t sound like either a manatee or a salamander, more like a reptile of some kind.

The Ohio and South Carolina sightings are much more interesting in regards to giant salamander sightings. Ohio is historically part of the hellbender’s range, and a population of hellbenders have recently been reintroduced there. Shuker suggests the horns described on the so-called pink lizards might actually have been branching external gills seen underwater. Most species of salamander lose their gills after they grow out of their larval stage, but not all, including mudpuppies. Mudpuppies aren’t as big as hellbenders, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t once a variety that grew much larger.

South Carolina is also part of the hellbender’s range, and Sass’s pink and orange animal might very well have been an exceptional large specimen. Sass himself called it a hellbender.

Even if none of these mystery salamanders are ever discovered, or if they turn out to be known animals, we still have hellbenders around, and the Chinese and Japanese giant salamanders too. The best thing we can do is keep their habitats as pristine as possible, since salamanders need clean streams to thrive. Next time you go hiking, pick up any trash you find and pack it out with you. The salamanders will thank you.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, 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 013: The Chupacabra



This week we’re taking a close look at the legend of the chupacabra! It’s not what you may expect, but it’s definitely an interesting story.

Ben Radford’s sketch of the chupacabra Madelyne Tolentino described in 1996:

The Texas chupacabra taxidermied by Ayer:

A happy, healthy Xolo dog:

A coywolf without mange:

Mange can be cured! Above is a poor sad mangy pup before treatment and a happy happy pup after treatment.

Further reading/listening:

Tracking the Chupacabra by Benjamin Radford

Museum of Modern Mystery podcast, episode 8