Episode 021: The Tatzelworm and friends

Episode 21 is all about the Tatzelworm, a mysterious reptile from the Alps, and some of its mystery reptile friends from around the world!

Further reading:

The Iraqi afa – a Middle Eastern mystery lizard

Giant Lizard Discovered in the Philippines

Bipes, a two-legged amphisbaenid from Mexico:

A cute little skink. Big eyes, little legs:

A handful of bigger baby skinks. OMG WANT

A modest-sized monitor lizard in a tree:

The newly discovered Northern Sierra Madre forest monitor, Varanus bitatawa:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to examine some mysterious reptiles. If you like this episode, there’s a companion episode for Patreon subscribers about the Beast of Busco, which you can access for a mere $1 pledge a month (just saying). But honestly, I’m just happy to have you as a listener no matter what.

Let’s start with a mystery animal that has intrigued me for a long time. A lot of cryptids are described as gigantic, or they live in far remote corners of the world. But the tatzelworm is a modest animal that lives in the Alps.

Generally, the tatzelworm is described as a sort of lizard with a snakelike body between one and three feet long [30 cm to 1 m], gray or whitish, with large bright eyes, a rounded head often described as catlike, and small forelegs. Sometimes it’s described as having no legs at all, only front legs, or the normal complement of four legs.

There have been a lot of sightings over the years, going back to at least the early 16th century. The earliest sightings are of tatzelworms seven feet long [2 m], which I’m inclined to put down as exaggerations over the years. The earliest documented sighting is from around 1711, when a man named Jean Tinner and his father spotted one on Frumsemberg Mountain, Switzerland. Tinner described it as coiled up on the ground, limbless, but with a catlike head. In 1779, a man named Hans Fuchs saw two of them, ran home in a panic and told his family, and promptly dropped dead of a heart attack.

The more recent sightings are of more reasonably sized animals. In 1921, a poacher and his friend hunting in the Alps in Austria saw a tatzelworm on a rock, watching them. It was gray, two or three feet long [61-92 cm] with two legs, a thick tail, and a catlike head. Its body was described as thick as a human arm and its head was fist-sized. The poacher shot at it but it jumped at the men and they ran.

In 1922, two sisters playing in the woods in St. Pankraz, Austria saw one crawling among some rocks. It was gray, a bit over a foot long [30 cm], and looked like a giant worm, but had a pair of paws behind its head.

The clearest and most reliable description we have comes from April 1929, when an Austrian teacher searching for a cave entrance spotted a tatzelworm. In his book The Lungfish, the Dodo, and the Unicorn, Willey Ley quotes the teacher’s account, which I’ll read.

One note: Tempelmauer means temple wall. Karl Shuker indicates in his book The Beasts That Hide from Man that the teacher was climbing Mount Landsberg. I can’t find the original of the account; it’s undoubtedly in German, and since Ley was born in Berlin, he may have translated the account himself. There is a mountain called Landsberg in Austria with two peaks, called Grosser and Kleiner Landsberg respectively. Since the teacher mentions cliffs, it could be these are the structures referred to as temple walls by locals.

Anyway, here’s the account from Ley’s book, page 133:

“Well equipped, I started out on a spring morning and after a short climb I reached the top of the Tempelmauer. After a short rest between the cliffs I started to look for the entrance to the cave. Suddenly I saw a snake-like animal sprawled on the damp rotting foliage that covered the ground. Its skin was almost white, not covered with scales but smooth. Its head was flat and two very short feet on the fore-part of the body were visible. It did not move but kept staring at me with its remarkably large eyes. I know every one of our animals at first glance and knew that I faced the one that is unknown to science, the tatzelwurm. Excited, joyful, but at the same time somewhat fearful, I tried to grab the animal but I was too late. With the agility of a lizard the animal disappeared in a hole and all my efforts to find it were in vain. I am certain that it was not my imagination that let me see the animal but that I observed with a clear head.

“ ‘My’ tatzelwurm did not have large claws but short and atrophied-looking feet; his length did not exceed 40 or 45 centimeters [16-18 inches]. Most probably the tatzelwurm is a rare variety of salamander living in moist caves and coming only rarely to the light of day.”

The tatzelworm has many local names, including stollworm or stollenworm, springworm, and so forth. Tatzelworm is almost always translated as “clawed worm” online, but according to Ley it means a worm or snake with paws. Stollworm means cave worm, springworm means jumping worm, and stollenworm means hole worm. Worm in this instance means anything snakey or wormy, that kind of shape.

While the various local legends state that tatzelworms are aggressive, venomous, and attack local livestock, the actual sightings are all pretty innocuous. Tatzelworms aren’t out there eating people. In fact, they’re usually pretty hard done by when meeting humans. In the South Tyrol area of Italy, one winter a year or two prior to 1910, a farmer found a torpid tatzelworm in some hay, either asleep or hibernating. He killed it, of course, and noted that he saw green liquid seeping from its mouth after it was dead. He didn’t save the body.

That’s the problem with all these sightings. We need a body. In 1828, a peasant in Switzerland found a tatzelworm corpse in a dried-up marsh. He collected it, but before he could send it to be examined, crows ate it. He did eventually send the skeleton to Heidelberg, but it either never arrived or was lost when it got there.

In 1969, two naturalists supposedly found the skeleton of a lizard-like animal in the Alps, near Domodossola, Italy, but I can’t find any further information about it, so the skeleton was probably found to be nothing mysterious.

There have been hoaxes, of course. The photo of a snakelike skeleton with enormous clawed arms: hoax. At various times, stuffed specimens, dead animals, reptile skins, and photographs have been offered as proof of real tatzelworms, but every case has proved to either be a hoax or a misidentification of a known animal. The Alps are a huge mountain range some 750 miles long, crossing eight countries. They’re not as high as the Andes, Himalayas, or Rockies, but like those mountain ranges, they have plenty of unexplored, hard to reach areas. Plants and animals new to science are still occasionally found there, including a new species of viper only discovered in 2016.

At one point the Nature and Forestry departments in Austria insisted that the tatzelworm was just an otter, but locals naturally scoffed at this. They knew what otters looked like, and this was no otter.

The giant salamander hypothesis is a little more reasonable in that the tatzelworm does seem to like wet areas. In fact, in some parts of the Alps its appearance is said to be an omen of flooding. But if you listened to episode 14 about giant salamanders, you’ll probably agree with me that the tatzelworm doesn’t sound at all like those big guys.

There are other large salamanders that aren’t related to actual giant salamanders, and which are much more slender. Amphiumas are snakelike salamanders that live in water and have vestigial limbs, and the siren salamanders are eel-like with four limbs. The greater siren can even grow to almost three feet long [1 meter]. But those are only found in North America, and none of the known sightings of the tatzelworm seem to be describing an amphibian.

If you’ve listened to episode 10, about electric animals, you might remember the Mongolian death worm. In that episode, I suggested a new species of amphisbaenid might be responsible for reports of the death worm. There are over 180 species of amphisbaenians, most of them legless, but four species found in Mexico have tiny forelegs but no hind legs. It’s possible the tatzelworm is an unknown amphisbaenid. They’re burrowing reptiles, usually no longer than about six inches long [15 cm], that eat insects and earthworms. They resemble earthworms, for that matter, although they have scales. They move like a worm, too, sometimes called accordion-like movement, and can move backwards that way as well as forwards. Most species have blunt heads and blunt tails, so that it’s hard to tell which end is which, and since their eyes are tiny and almost invisible, that adds to the confusion.

But the tatzelworm’s eyes are frequently referred to in sightings as being large and bright, and no one could describe any amphisbaenid as cat-headed. It’s hard to tell where the head is at all.

A skink, on the other hand, might fit the description. Skinks are long, slender lizards with large eyes and somewhat rounded heads. Many species have no legs and most species with legs have very small ones. In 2012, a skink with a pair of tiny forelegs and no hind legs was discovered in Thailand, and the common burrowing skink from South Africa only has hind limbs.

Most skinks like to burrow. Some even dig elaborate tunnel networks. A skink will frequently come out to bask in the sun, but will flee to its burrow if disturbed. Skinks are generally bigger than amphisbaenids too. The Solomon Islands skink is over a foot long [30 cm] not even counting its tail. So it’s not out of the question that the tatzelworm might be a skink that can grow up to several feet long [1 m] and either has no hind limbs or quite small ones that are easily overlooked. Skinks with reduced limbs move like snakes, not like worms.

There is a genus of skink that has green blood, incidentally. Species of Prasinohaema live in New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, and their blood is green because of the massive amounts of biliverdin, a waste product of the digestive system that is toxic in large amounts. But these skinks are immune to the toxicity. Researchers think it may be a protection from blood-borne parasites like malaria, so since the Alps aren’t exactly a hotbed of tropical parasites, they can probably be ruled out. It’s neat, though. The blood still contains hemoglobin, which is what makes blood red, but there’s so much of the biliverdin that you can’t tell that there’s any red in there at all. In 2007, a green-blooded frog was found in Cambodia too.

There don’t seem to have been very many organized searchers for the tatzelworm. In the 1930s an expedition was sponsored by a Berlin magazine, but I couldn’t find any information about it. In 1997, cryptozoologist Ivan Mackerle led an expedition in the Austrian Alps without any luck. He also interviewed locals about the tatzelworm and discovered that only older residents knew about it, and he suggested it may be extinct. Since the expedition was only a week long, I think he might be jumping the gun a little bit.

By the way, if anyone is thinking of planning an expedition of their own, I am totally available to hunt for tatzelworms in the Alps if you want to buy me a plane ticket. I am not even kidding.

There are plenty of other mystery reptiles out there, of course. Take the so-called kumi lizard. In 1773, a Maori chief told Captain Cook about a huge lizard that lived in New Zealand. It grew 5 to 6 feet long and lived in trees, and while the Maori were afraid of it, they also hunted and ate it. In 1898, a Maori bushman in Arowhana, New Zealand reportedly saw a lizard five feet long [1.5 m]. It threated him, then retreated and climbed a tree. That was the last reported sighting of the kumi lizard, but some possible subfossil remains were found. In 1874, a partial lower jaw of an unknown lizard was found in a cave in central Otago. It’s possible that occasionally a crocodile monitor, which lives in New Guinea and can grow up to 13 feet long [4 m], might be carried by currents to New Zealand. On the other hand, that’s a 3,000 mile trip [4,800 km] over open ocean. It’s more plausible that there was once a monitor lizard or another type of large lizard native to new Zealand, but that it went extinct a few hundred years ago. It might even still be around.

In 2009, a new species of monitor lizard was discovered in the Philippines, even though the island where it was found is heavily populated and the lizard is more than six feet long [1.8 m]. It’s an arboreal species, living high in the treetops, and it mostly eats fruit. Local hunters knew about it, but scientists had no idea it existed until photographs made it online. A two-month search resulted in the discovery. (I would happily spend two months in the Alps looking for the tatzelworm. I read Heidi, like, so many times as a kid.)

In a book called The Marsh Arabs published in 1964, explorer Wilfred Thesiger mentions a huge lizard called the afa. Thesiger lived for some eight years among the Madan, a group of people from the marshlands around the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. They said that the afa lived in the marshes around the mouth of the Tigris in what is now Iraq. Unfortunately, not only did Thesiger not give any other information about the afa, the rivers have now been diverted away from the area. The marshes are now desert, the madan are long gone, and if the afa ever existed, it’s probably dead.

I was going to end the episode there, but that is way too depressing, so we’ll finish up with one more mystery reptile. The Milton lizard is a mystery from Kentucky in the United States. In July of 1975, Clarence Cable, co-manager of the Bluegrass Body Shop in Milton, Kentucky, saw a huge lizard behind some junked cars. His brother saw the lizard a few days later. Then Cable saw it again the next day. He threw a rock at it and it vanished into some brush, and that was the last anyone ever saw of it.

Cable said the lizard may have been as much as 15 feet long [4.6 m] with black and white stripes overlaid with speckles, and looked like a monitor lizard. That’s probably what it was, too. Monitor lizards are often kept as pets. If one escaped or was turned loose in the area, it would have survived all right until the weather turned too cold. So if you have a pet monitor lizard, keep it safe and warm, and don’t let it wander around in strange junkyards.

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 020: The Shoebill and Geckos

We’ve reached the big two-oh! Episode 20 catches us up on listener suggestions.

Crossover University podcast wants to know about geckos and Bearly Ready Broadcast wants to know about the shoe-billed stork! Your wish is my command! Also those are some neato animals.

Behold the majestic shoebill!

12/10 would pet softly:


Adorable crested gecko, aka eyelash gecko:

Alain Delcourt and stuffed giant gecko. I bet they both hate this picture:

Further reading:

A page all about the shoebill

Show transcript:

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

This week we have two more listener suggestions. The hosts of Crossover University suggested geckos as a topic because they have a leopard gecko named Lockheed, after the X-Men character, as their podcast mascot. The hosts of Barely Ready podcast want to hear about the shoe billed stork. I’m not sure if they have a pet shoebill as a mascot. Both are awesome fun pop culture podcasts. I’ll put links in the show notes so you can check them out.

The shoebill is commonly called the shoe-billed stork. Originally researchers thought it was related to storks, but DNA analysis shows that it’s actually more closely related to pelicans. I was going to go into details of the confusion about where the bird fits in the avian family tree, but basically it’s just two groups of scientists shouting back and forth, “Storks!” and “Pelicans!” Probably not that interesting to most people.

The shoebill is a big bird, four or even five feet high, mostly due to its long legs. Its wingspan can be almost nine feet. It lives in swampy areas in east central Africa and its toes are really long, which distributes its weight over a large surface so it can stand on floating vegetation without sinking even though it doesn’t have webs between its toes. Its feathers are slate gray and it has a little floofy tuft on the back of its head. But the most memorable part of its appearance is its bill. It’s a great big heavy bill with a hook on the end. It looks like the shoebill could kill crocodiles with that thing, and guess what?

Well, okay, not full-grown crocs, but it will eat baby crocodiles. It also eats lizards, snakes, frogs, small birds and mammals when it can catch them, and lots of fish. It especially likes lungfish and will dig in the mud with its bill to find them.

The shoebill has a reputation as kind of an idiot bird. It spends most of its time creeping up on its prey very, very slowly, but when it attacks, a lot of times it just throws itself at its prey like a maniac. Since the shoebill prefers to live in papyrus and reed swamps, it frequently ends up flailing around in the water, covered in rotten vegetation and mud, with a catfish or whatever swinging from its massive beak. But hey, it works for the shoebill.

The shoebill occasionally does something that is really rare in birds. It sometimes uses its wings to push itself upright after it lunges after prey. This may not sound unusual, but birds almost never use their wings like forelegs or arms.

The shoebill doesn’t like to fly very far, but it certainly can fly and it looks really impressive when it does. In fact, it’s possible that flying shoebills are responsible for the occasional report of living pterodactyls in Africa.

That brings us to the kongamato, a flying cryptid reported from east central Africa and generally identified by cryptozoologists as a type of living pterodactyl. Pterosaurs died out more than 60 million years ago, but that doesn’t stop people from seeing them from time to time. Most likely the sightings are misidentifications of known birds, especially big wading birds like the shoebill. When I was a kid I used to pretend great blue herons flying overhead were pterodactyls.

In 1923, Frank H. Melland published a book called In Witch-Bound Africa, a title that tells you a lot about Mr. Melland. Maybe his publisher made up the title. Anyway, according to Melland, the kongamato was a big reddish or black lizard with batlike wings and a long beak with teeth, which was supposed to overturn boats. The natives, Melland reported gravely, were terrified of it. When shown pictures of animals, he said local people always pointed at the pterodactyl and said it was the kongamato. It was supposed to live along rivers.

Sporadic reports of the kongamato, or at least of pterosaur-like animals, trickled into the press throughout the 1940s and 50s, but no photos have ever been taken and no remains found. Writer Dale Drinnon says that the kongamato was originally reported as a water monster. He suggests that a big stingray of some kind may be the boat-tipping culprit. Since all the information I can find online about the kongamato leads back to Melland’s 1923 book, I’m definitely skeptical about assigning any kind of possible identity to the animal. But I don’t think it’s a pterodactyl.

Shoebills don’t make a lot of noise ordinarily, but they do clatter their bills like pelicans_

Here’s what that sounds like, and then we’ll go on to learn about geckos.

[shoebill clattering bill]

Geckos are gorgeous lizards, ranging in size from about half an inch to over two feet long depending on species. They’re the lizards that can walk up walls and even across ceilings. For a long time scientists weren’t sure how the gecko stuck to surfaces, but recent studies show that most geckos’ toe pads are covered with tiny bristles that actually make the toes into adhesive devices. The gecko doesn’t even have to be alive for it to stick to surfaces. Dead geckos hang on just as securely. The gecko has to be alive to release its hold on the surface, though, helped by a fatty lubricant secreted by the toes that helps the gecko move its foot instead of it being stuck to one place for the rest of its life. Not all geckos have adhesive toe pads. It depends on the species.

Geckos are also the lizards that lick their eyeballs.

Some species can glide using flaps of skin that help keep them aloft when they jump from somewhere high up. Many gecko species have the ability to drop their tails when threatened. The tail detaches from the body and thrashes around while the now-tailless gecko beats feet to safety. The tail will usually grow back, but it’s just a little stumpy tail that can’t be lost a second time.

There is a type of gecko that can lose more than its tail if something tries to grab it. There are a number of fish-scaled geckos that can lose their scales, which are big. If an animal tries to bite a fish-scaled gecko, it’s likely to get a mouthful of scales while the gecko runs off. The scales grow back eventually and can be lost again. A newly-discovered variety of fish-scaled gecko is so good at dropping its scales and growing them back quickly that researchers have trouble catching them without ending up with a bunch of nude and irritated geckos.

There are more than 1,600 species of gecko throughout the warmer areas of the world and more are discovered all the time. There are so many that it’s easy to lose track of some of them. The crested gecko is a handsome little lizard, usually orangey or yellowish in color, with a broad head, tiny claws, and tiny spines that run along its shoulders and above its eyes. The spines above its eyes give it its other name, the eyelash gecko. It was discovered in 1866 in New Caledonia, a group of islands east of Australia, but after a few decades it appeared that the species had gone extinct. Then, in 1994, a German herpetologist out looking for specimens after a tropical storm found a single crested gecko. It turns out that the geckos had been just fine all along. Captive-bred crested geckos are now sold as pets.

Similarly, in 1877 a British naturalist in India discovered the Jeypore ground gecko under a rock. It’s a beautiful lizard, orangey or brown with chocolate brown blotches. But after that first sighting, no one saw the gecko again until a team went looking for it in 2010. They found it, too. Unfortunately, it’s not doing as well as the crested gecko. It’s only found in two small areas that together amount to barely eight square miles, and those areas are in danger of being destroyed due to development and mining. Conservationists are working to increase awareness of the gecko so hopefully its remaining habitat can be protected.

Most geckos are pretty small—no bigger than the length of your hand or thereabouts. But Delcourt’s giant gecko is a whole lot bigger, some two feet long. Unlike the other geckos I’ve talked about, Delcourt’s giant gecko really is extinct—at least, as far as we know. And until 1986, researchers didn’t know it had ever existed. In 1979 a herpetologist named Alain Delcourt, working in the Marseilles Natural History Museum in France, noticed a big taxidermied lizard in storage and wondered what it was. It wasn’t labeled and he didn’t recognize it, surprising since it was brown with red longitudinal stripes and the biggest gecko he’d ever seen. He sent photos to several reptile experts and they didn’t know what it was either. Finally the specimen was examined and in 1986 it was described as a new species.

No one knew anything about the stuffed specimen, including where it was caught. At first researchers thought it might be from New Caledonia since a lot of the museum’s other specimens were collected from the Pacific Islands. None of the specimens donated between 1833 and 1869 had any documentation, so it seemed probable the giant gecko was donated during that time and probably collected not long before.

Finally, researchers decided it was probably native to New Zealand. Not only does it resemble some smaller gecko species found there, the Maori people in New Zealand have local lore about a big lizard called the kawekaweau. The legends were known to Europeans as early as 1777 when Captain Cook interviewed the Maori and collected stories about the kawekaweau. In 1873 a Maori chief told a visiting biologist that he had killed a kawekaweau in 1870, and described it as “about two feet long and as thick as a man’s wrist; colour brown, striped longitudinally with dull red.” That was the last known sighting of the gecko and the last anyone in the scientific community thought about it until the stuffed specimen caught Delcourt’s attention.

I really like this story. It warms my skeptical cryptozoologist’s cold cold heart. Unlike accounts of the kongamato, it has everything a good cryptozoological mystery should have: the remains of an unknown animal, good scientific and historical work, and the support of a scientific hypothesis by local reports. The only way it could be a better story is if Delcourt’s giant gecko aka the kawekaweau was found alive and well in remote areas of New Zealand. It’s not likely, but there are a few reported sightings, so maybe one day a lucky herpetologist will make the discovery of a lifetime.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.com. We’re on Twitter at strangebeasties and have a facebook page at facebook.com/strangeanimalspodcast. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, give us a rating and review on iTunes or whatever platform you listen on. We also have a PAYtreon if you’d like to support us that way. Rewards include exclusive twice-monthly episodes and stickers.

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Episode 019: The Dodo and the Clam

Thanks to Varmints! podcast for suggesting the dodo for this week’s topic.

And thanks to Two Clams Gaming podcast for suggesting clams as this week’s topic.

It’s two suggestions in one fun episode! Learn all about that most famous of extinct birds and all about a thing that tastes great deep-fried. (Well, okay, everything tastes great deep-fried. But you know what I mean.)

The dodo:

A giant clam and its algae pals:

Stop, thief! Put that clam down!

The disco clam looks as awesome as its name implies. It looks like a Muppet clam:

Calyptogena magnifica hanging out around a hydrothermal vent:

Show transcript:

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

We’re getting backed up on suggestions, so I’m going to combine two in one episode today even though they don’t really have anything to do with each other. The first suggestion is from the podcast Varmints, a super fun podcast about animals. They want to know about the dodo. After that, we’ll go on to learn about clams. Yes, clams! Totally not anything to do with dodos, but the hosts at Two Clams Gaming suggested it. That’s another fun podcast, this one about video games—which you may have guessed. I’ll have links to both podcasts in the show notes for you to check out.

The dodo isn’t just extinct, it’s famously extinct. Dead as a dodo. That makes it difficult to research the dodo, too—type “dodo” into the search bar at Science Daily, for instance, and you get a ton of hits that have nothing to do with the actual dodo bird, like the article that says “Researchers believe they now know why the supersonic trans-Atlantic Concorde aircraft went the way of the dodo.” I don’t care. I’m here for the birds. Lots of animals and birds have gone extinct over the years, unfortunately. Why is the dodo special?

The first known sighting of a dodo was in 1598 by Dutch sailors who stopped by the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. The last known sighting of a dodo was in 1662, just 64 years after those Dutch sailors noticed a weird-looking bird walking around. The dodo went extinct so quickly, and was so little known, that for a couple of centuries afterwards many people assumed it was just a sailor’s story. A big stupid bird that couldn’t fly that would walk right up to a sailor and let itself be killed? No way was that real.

But there were remains of dodos, and in the 19th century scientists gathered up what they could find and studied them. More remains were found on Mauritius. Pretty soon researchers had a pretty good idea of what had happened. The dodo had no predators on Mauritius so was able to live in a birdie garden of Eden, eating fruit and nuts, wandering around admiring the scenery, making new dodos. It grew big and happy, lost the ability to fly, and nested on the ground since almost nothing was around that might eat its eggs. Then humans showed up, happy to eat not just the eggs but the meat of any dodos they could find, although reports were that while the meat tasted pretty good, it was really tough. What the sailors didn’t eat, the animals they brought with them did, like pigs and dogs. It was a stark and clear picture of human-caused extinction, shocking to the Victorian naturalists who studied it. The dodo became a cautionary tale and early rallying cry for conservation.

We all have a mental image of what the dodo looks like just because it’s appeared in so many cartoons and children’s stories, from Alice in Wonderland to that Madagascar movie. But what did the dodo actually look like?

Well, it looked just like the cartoon versions of itself. This really was a silly-looking bird. It was big, over three feet tall, with brown or gray feathers, a floofy tuft of gray feathers as a tail, big yellow feet like a chicken’s, and a weird head. The feathers stopped around the forehead if birds had actual foreheads, making it look sort of like it was wearing a hood. Its face was bare and the bill was large, bulbous at the end with a hook, and was black, yellow, and green. The dodo looks, in fact, a lot like what you might expect pigeons to evolve into if pigeons lived on an island with no predators, and that’s exactly what happened. The dodo is closely related to pigeons and doves. Its closest living relative is the Nicobar pigeon, a large, gorgeous bird with iridescent feathers. Like other pigeons, the dodo’s feathers probably had at least some iridescence too.

The dodo wasn’t clumsy and it wasn’t necessarily fat. A lot of the drawings and paintings we have of dodos were made from badly taxidermied birds or from overfed captive birds. At least eleven live dodos were brought to Europe and Asia, some bound for menageries, some intended as pets. The last known captive dodo was sent to Japan in 1647. In the wild, the dodo was a sleek bird that could run quite fast. It may have eaten crabs and other small animals as well as roots, nuts, seeds, and fruit. The dodo was also probably pretty smart. People only thought it was dumb because it didn’t run away from sailors—but it had never had to worry about anything more dangerous than an occasional egg-stealing crab before.

The dodo wasn’t the only creature on Mauritius to die out after ships started visiting the island, either. Other birds went extinct too, like the red rail, the broad-billed parrot, the Mauritius owl, and many others. So did animals like the Mauritian giant skink, two species of giant tortoise, and the small Mauritian flying fox. Even some plants, like the palm orchid, are long gone. Worse, there were undoubtedly dozens of species that went extinct without any human ever seeing them. We’ll never know the extent of the loss.

The stuffed dodos some museums display aren’t real. All we have of real dodos are bones and one dried head. Back in the 17th century, taxidermy was pretty primitive. Skins often weren’t treated with preservatives at all, and the preservatives that were in use didn’t last very long. There aren’t any taxidermied animals from before around 1750. Bugs ate them up.

The dodo is frequently mentioned when people bring up de-extinction. That’s the term used for cloning an extinct animal or genetically modifying a living animal to closely resemble an extinct ancestor. The dodo would be a good candidate for de-extinction since its habitat still exists. The problem is that we don’t have much genetic material to draw from. But DNA sequencing gets more sophisticated every year, so fingers crossed that a hundred years from now, there might be dodos on Mauritius again.

We know a decent amount about the dodo, but one of its close relatives, the spotted green pigeon, is an utter mystery. It’s extinct too, but we only have one specimen—there used to be two, but no one knows where the second one went. For a long time researchers weren’t even sure the spotted green pigeon was a distinct species or just a Nicobar pigeon with weird-colored feathers, but in 2014, DNA testing on two of the remaining specimen’s feathers showed it was indeed a separate species. Researchers think the spotted green pigeon, the dodo, and another extinct bird, the Rodrigues solitaire, all descended from an unknown pigeon ancestor that liked to island hop. Sometimes some of those pigeons would decide they liked a particular island and would stay, ultimately evolving into birds more suited to the habitat.

Because there were no scientific studies of Mauritius and its two closest islands until the 19th century, there’s been a lot of confusion about what birds lived where before they went extinct. For a long time researchers thought there was a variety of dodo on the island of Reunion with light-colored or white plumage. The white dodo was sometimes called the solitary dodo, causing confusion with the related flightless bird, Rodriguez solitaire. The island of Rodriguez is about 300 miles east of Mauritius. In 1987 fossils of a type of ibis were found on Reunion, and in 1995 they were connected with accounts of the Reunion solitaire, a flightless white bird with black markings that went extinct around the same time as the dodo. Researchers now believe reports of the white dodo from Reunion were actually describing the Reunion solitaire, now called the Reunion ibis. No dodo remains have ever been found anywhere except on Mauritius.

If all that sounds confusing, consider that when dodos were still alive, people referred to them as everything from ostriches to penguins. And no one has any idea where the name dodo actually came from.

As far as we know, the dodo only laid one egg at a time. It probably fed its baby with crop-milk like other pigeons and doves. That’s a substance that’s formed from the protein-rich lining of both parent bird’s crops, which detaches from the crop, is regurgitated by the parent and fed to the babies. It’s not anything like mammal milk but it’s pretty neat. The only other birds known to produce something similar are flamingos and some species of penguin, although in those birds the secretion comes from the lining of the esophagus. In pigeons and doves, the parents feed the babies exclusively on crop milk for the first week of life, then start mixing in regular food that’s been softened in the parent’s crop. I suppose I should explain that the crop is a sort of extra stomach where food is stored before being digested. It allows a bird to gorge itself if it comes across a lot of food. Not all birds have a crop.

One last interesting thing about the dodo. In 1973, botanists studying Mauritius couldn’t figure out why the tambalacoque, also called the dodo tree, was dying out. Supposedly only 13 trees remained, all around 300 years old, although that number seems to be mistakenly low. While the dodo trees produced seeds, very few of them germinated. Biologist Stanley Temple suggested that the tough-shelled seeds needed to pass through the digestive tract of the dodo to germinate properly. The dodo had a powerful gizzard that it filled with small stones it swallowed, which helped grind up tough plant materials. Temple hypothesized that by passing through the gizzard, the dodo tree seeds were abraded enough to germinate. He fed some of the seeds to turkeys, which have similar gizzards, and the recovered seeds promptly germinated. Botanists now use gem polishers—and sometimes turkeys—to abrade the seeds.

[bird sound]

Until I started my research for this episode, the only thing I knew about clams was that they’re really good fried. Oh, and that they have two shells that are super common and boring when you’re beachcombing. Specifically, they’re bivalve mollusks, but they’re not the only bivalve mollusks. Scallops, oysters, and mussels are too, and some close relations include slugs, snails, and squids.

Clams live in oceans and fresh water throughout the world. They start life as microscopic larvae that drift through the ocean eating plankton for a few weeks before attaching themselves to a piece of sand, gravel, shell, or whatever. At that point they burrow into the mud or sand until they develop their own shells. The adults live most of their lives partially buried in the sand in shallow water. Clams are filter feeders, sucking in water through a tube called a siphon and straining it with tiny hair-like structures called cilia.

The smallest clams are just .1 millimeter long. The biggest clam is the giant clam that lives in the Pacific and Indian oceans. These are the ones that used to be featured in short stories about divers in peril, their arm trapped by a giant clam and their air supply running out. What to do?? Or maybe I just read some weird stuff as a kid.

The giant clam can grow over four feet across and can live for more than a hundred years. It’s the only clam that can’t close its shell completely, especially as it gets bigger. Its mantle, the inside fleshy part of its body, protrudes past the edges of the shell like big stripey clam lips. But the giant clam spends most of the day with its shell open so that sunlight reaches the algae that live inside its mantle. The algae help feed the clam.

Giant clams are edible and have the reputation as being an aphrodisiac. As a result, they’re becoming more and more endangered, especially since the biggest shells are also worth money on the black market. Who knew there was a black market for clam shells? Seriously, people will spend money on anything. The next person contemplating dropping cash for an illegally harvested giant clam, do me and the clams a favor and buy me a nice set of cymbals for my drum kit instead, okay? Fortunately, giant clams can be raised in captivity and released into the wild.

And no, divers don’t get caught and drowned by giant clams. That’s a myth.

While most pearls are made by oysters, lots of mollusks can make them, including clams. The giant clam naturally produced the largest pearl ever found. It weighs 75 pounds. The Filipino fisherman who found it kept it under his bed for ten years as a good luck charm. It’s a foot in width and over two feet in length. It’s supposed to be worth over a million dollars, but don’t think about turning to a life of crime. A few months ago, in March of 2017, ten men were arrested for illegal possession of giant clam pearls and the giant clams themselves. Book em, Danno.

Different species of mollusk produce pearls of different color. The Ko-hog clam, which is frequently made into chowders, occasionally produces a purple or lavender pearl. They’re not always very pretty—they may not have much of a lustre compared to oyster pearls, or are lumpy in shape. But when a pretty one does turn up, they can be worth a lot. In 2009, a man eating seafood stew at his birthday meal discovered a pearl in his bowl the size of a big pea, which he later sold for $16,500. I could buy, like, so many cymbals for that kind of money.

There are some weird species of clams out there. The disco clam lives in underwater caves in the Indo-Pacific Ocean. They flash brightly to scare off predators. Until a few years ago researchers assumed the lights were a type of bioluminescence, but it turns out that the flashes are caused by double-layered tissues. One of the layers is light absorbent and the other is highly reflective. The clam rolls and unrolls the tissues to flash the reflected light. The disco clam also appears to secrete noxious mucus to repel predators.

While most clams live in the shallows, there are some species that are found much deeper. In parts of the deep sea with a lot of volcanic activity, hydrothermal vents attract all kinds of marine life, including specialized clams. Calyptogena magnifica and its close relatives, which are big white clams that live around thermal vents, has no digestive organs. Instead, hydrogen-oxidizing bacteria live in its gills. The clam absorbs nutrients produced by the bacteria. Hydrothermal vents don’t last forever—they go cold as magma under the sea floor moves, and new vents will open up elsewhere. Researchers have recently discovered that some animals that live near hydrothermal vents, including clams, can also survive on sunken whale carcasses by chemically leaching energy from the oily whale bones with the help of bacteria.

One of the most popular edible types of clam is the Pacific gooeyduck. It has a relatively small shell, generally no bigger than about 8 inches long, but its siphon can be more than three feet long, with occasional record-setting individuals caught with siphons over six feet long. It’s another long-lived clam—it can live for hundreds of years. The siphon is considered a delicacy the world over, but frankly, if it’s not cut into strips and deep-fried, I don’t want to bother with eating clams. Not even if I might find a pearl.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.com. We’re on Twitter at strangebeasties and have a facebook page at facebook.com/strangeanimalspodcast. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, give us a rating and review on iTunes or whatever platform you listen on. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way. Rewards include exclusive twice-monthly episodes and stickers.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 018: Some mystery elephants and the tapir

This week’s episode is about a couple of mystery elephants and a non-mysterious animal, the tapir…but there might be some mystery associated with that little-trunked cutie too.

The tapir and its weird snoot:

The Moeritherium probably looked something like this:

Some super cute Borneo elephants with super long tails:

A baby tapir omgimgoingtodieofcuteomg

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re looking at some animals with snoots. Specifically, a couple of mysterious elephants, and the tapir, which looks like what you might get if a pig and an elephant had a baby.

Usually I start episodes with the facts about a known animal and finish up with a mystery, but this week we’re starting with a strange and mysterious animal called a water elephant.

There’s only been one reported sighting of a water elephant and it’s not a recent one. In 1912, an article appeared in the Journal of the East Africa and Uganda Natural History Society. It was written by R.J. Cuninghame but concerned a Mr. Le Petit.

Now, before I go on to discuss the water elephant, let me just say that I have a great big problem with someone named M. Le Petit. No pun intended. Going by the name, and the secondhand nature of the account, and the fact that a lot of stories about strange African animals from this era are hoaxes of one variety or another, I’m taking this whole thing with a grain of salt. But it’s an interesting story, and if there really was a guy saddled with the name of little mister man, I can see why he spent a lot of time exploring the Congo instead of becoming a Shakespearian actor or something.

Anyway, I was able to find the original article, which has been digitized. It’s quite short, so instead of paraphrasing it I’ll just read the whole thing. It’s from the July 1912 issue of the journal, volume two number four, pages 97 through 98.

[read article]

There is no known animal that precisely fits Le Petit’s description. The closest is possibly the tapir. You can pronounce it taper if you want. It’s spelled T-A-P-I-R and no one seems to know how it’s supposed to be pronounced. Anyway, there are five species of tapir still around, four in Central and South America and one in Asia.

While the different species vary in size and coloring, generally a tapir is about 3 feet high at the shoulder and up to 8 feet long with short fur. The ears are oval-shaped with white tips. Its body is rounded with a pronounced rump, a stubby little tail, and a long head with a short but prehensile trunk. Superficially the tapir looks kind of like a piggy but it’s actually much more closely related to horses and rhinos. It has four toes on its front legs, three on its hind legs, and each toe has a little hoof. Depending on the species, the tapir may be gray, reddish-brown, black and white, or if it’s a baby, stripey. Females have a single pair of teats and males have a remarkably long, somewhat prehensile penis with flaps on the end that helps make a seal so it can mate underwater. You won’t get this information on National Geographic Kids, no sirree.

The tapir is a shy, largely solitary, mostly nocturnal animal that prefers forests near rivers or streams. It can bite like heck if it needs to, but it much prefers to run away from danger. Its favorite method of hiding is to submerge in water. It spends a lot of time in water, in fact, eating water plants and cooling off when it’s hot. It swims well and can use its snoot as a snorkel.

Technically its snoot is called a proboscis. It’s like a short elephant trunk although tapirs and elephants aren’t closely related. When it’s not snorkeling, the tapir uses its snoot to help gather plants. I just like saying snoot.

Tapir fossils have been discovered in Europe, China, and North America, but not Africa. So whatever M. Le Peti saw, assuming the account wasn’t a hoax or a mistaken identity, it probably wasn’t a tapir. So what else might fit the water elephant’s description?

There is an extinct animal that fits the description pretty well as far as we know. The Moeritherium lived about 35 million years ago and its fossils have been found in many parts of Africa. It was related to modern elephants although it wasn’t a direct ancestor, just an offshoot that as far as we know died out without descendants.

It wasn’t a very big animal—like the tapir, it looked more like a pig than an elephant. It stood between 2 and 3 feet high at the shoulder but was long-bodied, almost 10 feet long. Its legs were short, it may have had a tapir-like trunk, and it had small tusks more like those of a hippo, nothing like elephant tusks. Studies of its teeth indicate it ate a lot of aquatic plants, so it probably lived a lot like a hippo.

So could the water elephant be a descendant of Moeritherium? It sure sounds like a possibility, but there are two important facts to keep in mind.

First of all, the hippo evolved about 16 million years ago. If the Moeritherium had lived and continued to evolve, it’s possible it would have ended up looking a lot like the modern hippo. But the hippo is most closely related to whales—I’m not even kidding, and somehow I always manage to bring up whales no matter what animal I’m researching, huh?—and the hippo wouldn’t have become so wide-spread if the Moeritherium had a lock on the big aquatic freshwater herbivore niche.

Second, the date of the article is suspicious if you look at the discoveries of Moeritherium fossils. The Moeritherium was first described in 1901 from fossils found in Egypt. More fossils were discovered in 1902 and 1904. In 1911 the fossils were examined more closely and divided into two species. During this time, discoveries in palaeontology were popular subjects in magazines and newspapers. Dinosaurs and other extinct animals were even more a part of popular culture as they are now. Arthur Conan Doyle’s book The Lost World was published in 1912, continuing a tradition already well established by Jules Verne of science fiction stories where people discover supposedly extinct animals in remote areas. Scientists and explorers were still hopeful that living dinosaurs or ice age megafauna would be found alive and well. So it’s not a bit outlandish to suggest that the author of the water elephant story made it up with the best possible intentions—perhaps he expected to find the Moeritherium living in the Congo and wanted to excite interest in more expeditions. Or perhaps he was hoaxed by someone who’d read about the Moeritherium and thought it would make a plausible subject of a tall tale.

Clearly, I’m skeptical about the water elephant being a real animal, although I’d love to be proven wrong. But there is another definitely real elephant that might be a mystery that’s been hiding in plain sight for hundreds of years.

In 1750 or thereabouts, according to locals, a pair of elephants was given to the Sultan of Sulu who brought them to Borneo. At some point the elephants were released into the wild and their descendants now live throughout the western and northern parts of the island. This story sounds straightforward and interesting, but there are a lot of confusing details that make it less certain. Supposedly, the Raja of Java gave a pair of elephants to Raja Baginda of Sulu, but that was around 1395. We do know that in 1521, tame elephants were part of the palace’s wonders, but by the 1770s there were no tame elephants, only feral ones. Supposedly, the elephants were released into the wild at some point to keep them from being captured for use in war in the event of an invasion.

Whenever and however it happened, it sounds plausible that the elephants still living in Borneo are descendants of elephants gifted to a local ruler. Elephants have long been considered appropriate royal gifts. The story is given more weight by the fact that no elephant fossils have ever been found in Borneo, which suggests the elephants were introduced recently. The Bornean elephants have a very low genetic diversity, which would be the case if they were descendants of a single pair.

But here’s why these smallish, rather tame elephants in Borneo are such a big deal. Locals, and some researchers, think they’re the only surviving members of an otherwise extinct subspecies of Asian elephant, called the Java elephant. And they are different in appearance and behavior from other Asian elephant subspecies. They’re slightly smaller, although they’re not actually pygmy elephants as they’re sometimes called. A big male Borneo elephant may stand about eight feet tall at the shoulder while a big male Asian elephant may reach close to 10 feet. The Borneo elephant’s tusks are straighter than other Asian elephants—some males don’t have tusks at all—and their tails are so long that in some individuals, they actually touch the ground. Roughly 2,000 Borneo elephants remain on the island, although their habitat is increasingly being lost to palm oil plantations. Poaching is also a problem.

Borneo and Java are both part of the Malay Archipelago in southeast Asia, which is full of islands and nations I’ve mostly only ever heard about in songs and stories, like Singapore and Sumatra, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. I bet it’s beautiful out there, wow. Java is over 800 miles south of Borneo, so it’s not like the elephants could get there without human help. And the Java elephant was extinct by the 1800s.

In 2003, DNA testing on the Borneo elephants indicated they were not related to other Asian subspecies of elephant and were either from Java or native to Borneo. Since Borneo was cut off from the Asian mainland and the rest of the Malay Archipelago around 18,000 years ago, when sea levels rose due to melting glaciers, that means the elephants must have been on the island for at least 18,000 years if they truly are a native subspecies. But if that’s the case, where are the fossil and subfossil remains? Why do the locals insist that the elephants were introduced only hundreds of years ago?

I tried very hard to find information about DNA testing supposedly underway in 2015, but without luck. It could be that the results haven’t yet been analyzed or that the analysis hasn’t yet been published. But my bet is that the locals are right and these are Java elephants, once owned by kings.

To bring things back around to where we started, more or less, in November of 1975 a young tapir was supposedly captured in Borneo. Unfortunately, no one knew what they’d caught—the papers were described as a mixture of various types of animals, such as a tiger’s body, an elephant’s trunk, a goat’s legs but claws like a chicken’s, and so forth. Put that way it sounds absurd and made up. The papers dubbed it a tigelboat. But as zoologist Karl Shuker points out in his blog, everything about the tigelboat fits the characteristics of a young Malayan tapir. Tapir babies are stripey, and while tapirs have hooves, they do have a claw-like appearance since the toes are widely spread and the hooves pointed.

Unfortunately, no one in the scientific community followed up on the animal’s capture and it’s not known what happened to it. It was kept at a prison but wasn’t cared for and eventually disappeared. Someone probably ate it, that’s my guess. But it’s possible that tapirs still live in the swamps and rainforests of Borneo. We know they lived on the island during the Pleistocene.

Finally, one last mystery tapir was supposedly seen in New Guinea in 1906, when two New Guinea natives were employed as scouts for an expedition. The two were sent ahead to check on a trail but had to be rescued after a terrifying encounter with what they called devil-pigs. There were two of the animals, and the description sounds exactly like dark gray or black tapirs. But tapirs don’t live in New Guinea—as far as we know.

Papua and Papua New Guinea make up an island about 1,900 miles away from Borneo, so it’s not a close neighbor by any means, but it is part of the same archipelago. During the ice ages of the Pleistocene, when so much of the world’s water was locked up in glacial sheets and the sea levels were therefore much lower, the 25,000 or so islands that make up the Malay Archipelago were connected to each other and to the Asian mainland. When the oceans rose again some 18,000 years ago animals were stranded on the islands and have since either died out or adapted to their smaller territories. Who knows what secrets these little pockets of the ancient world may still hide?

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.com. We’re on Twitter at strangebeasties and have a facebook page at facebook.com/strangeanimalspodcast. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, give us a rating and review on iTunes or whatever platform you listen on. We also have a PAYtreon if you’d like to support us that way. Rewards include exclusive twice-monthly episodes and stickers.

Thanks for listening!