Episode 056: Strange Snakes

This week we’re going to learn about some strange snakes. Snakes in the air! Snakes in the water! Snakes on a pla–NO I am not going there

Thanks to sirfinnhayes and Mackin for the topic suggestions! Mackin is host of the podcast Species, which you should listen to.

A golden tree snake:

A snake flying, or rather gliding with style:

Northern water snake (left) and water moccasin (right). Note the head and neck differences:

The yellow sea snake (Hydrophis spiralis):

Belcher’s sea snake. Have I mentioned how much I love stripey animals? I do love them, I do:

Horned viper. Do not step:

The Vietnamese longnosed snake. I TOOK THESE PHOTOS MYSELF AT HELSINKI ZOO!

The spiny bush viper. I’m sorry, all other snakes, this one is now my favorite:

A rattlesnake showing off its rattle:

The spider-tailed horned viper:


Tsuchinoko real:

Okay that is just way too many pictures.

Show Transcript:

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

This week we’re going to find out about some strange snakes. This is a request from two different people, sirfinnhayes and Macken of the podcast Species. Sirfinnhayes is also the person who corrected my incomplete information on the definition of a subspecies, so thank you! Podbean still won’t let me reply to comments, but at least I can see who sent them now. If you don’t already listen to the Species podcast, I highly recommend it. It’s new, family friendly, and really interesting. The first episode of Species I listened to was about flying snakes, and I was already wondering if I could sneak in an episode of my own about flying snakes or if that would be really obvious and not cool, when the host, Macken, contacted me and said I ought to do an episode on flying snakes. Now I don’t have to feel guilty for copying!

So let’s start with flying snakes. You may be picturing Quetzalcoatl, the feathered snake god of the Aztecs. But flesh and blood flying snakes, as opposed to divine ones, don’t have wings or feathers. The god did lend his name to one of the biggest flying reptiles ever known, by the way, and even though Quetzalcoatlus isn’t a snake, I have to tell you about it. It was a type of pterosaur that lived around 68 million years ago, and its wingspan was almost 40 feet, or 12 meters. It could probably fly extremely fast and far, but spent most of its time hunting small dinosaurs and other animals on land like a monster stork.

We’re not three minutes into this episode and I’m already off topic. Back to flying snakes.

Flying snakes don’t really fly, they glide, but they’re very good at it. There are five species of flying snake, all from India and the Indonesian archipelago. The longest is the golden tree snake that can grow four feet long, or a little over 1.2 meters. All flying snakes are venomous, but their venom is weak and not dangerous to humans. Besides, you’re not likely to encounter a flying snake since they spend most of their time far up in the rainforest tree canopy chasing small animals.

So how does such a slender snake glide? When a flying snake drops off a branch to glide to another, it flattens its body, actually pushing its ribs apart to make a broader surface to catch the air. As Macken describes it, when gliding, its body somewhat resembles the shape of a long, thin Frisbee. It wriggles as it glides, pointing its head in the direction it wants to go. It can even change direction midair if necessary.

If some snakes can fly, surely some snakes can swim, right? Definitely! Water snakes are actually pretty common. When I was a kid, everyone panicked whenever they saw a snake in the lake or a creek where we were always playing. We thought all water snakes were venomous water moccasins, but as I found out much later, water moccasins don’t even live in East Tennessee. Most freshwater snakes are harmless, but people kill them anyway out of fear.

The Northern water snake is common throughout much of eastern and central North America, for instance. It can grow more than four feet long, or about 135 cm, and varies in color from brown or reddish to gray or black. Sometimes it has a darker pattern, banding or splotches, and its belly is usually lighter in color. It resembles a water moccasin in many ways but it’s completely harmless to humans unless cornered, in which case it can give a bad bite but not a venomous one. It will also poop all over you if you try to pick it up. It eats small fish, frogs, leeches, crawdads, salamanders, and other small animals.

The easiest way to tell a Northern water snake from a water moccasin is the head and neck. A water moccasin hasd a broad, roughly arrow-shaped head with a much thinner neck just behind it. A Northern water snake has a head that’s barely wider than its neck.

The water moccasin is a type of pit viper, the only species of pit viper that spends time in the water, in fact. It lives in the American South and can grow as long as six feet, or 180 cm, although most are much shorter. It’s a bulky snake with a broad, blunt head, and in color and markings it usually resembles the Northern water snake. When it feels threatened, it will raise its head and gape its jaws wide, showing the white tissue inside its mouth as a warning. Keep in mind that like all snakes, it really doesn’t want to bite you. It needs to save its venom for the frogs, birds, rats and mice, and other snakes it eats. It just wants you to go away and not scare it.

Young water moccasins have a yellowish or greenish tail tip. The snake will lie perfectly still in shallow water, twitching its tail. When a frog or lizard or some other animal comes to investigate that worm moving around in the water, the snake strikes.

Freshwater snakes spend at least part of their time on land every day. Sea snakes are another thing. Some species of sea snake can’t even move on land. If they’re washed up, they’re as helpless as a fish. And they’re almost all venomous.

All species of true sea snakes have a tail that’s flattened at the end like a paddle to help it swim better, and its nostrils are on the top of its snout so it can breathe without raising its head out of the water. When it’s underwater, the nostrils close automatically. It has to breathe air, but its left lung is enormously large, almost the full length of its body, which allows it to stay underwater for over an hour at a time. It also has a special gland under the tongue that filters extra salt from its blood, and every time the snake flicks its tongue, it releases some of the salt back into the ocean. In fact, sea snakes in general are so well adapted to living in the ocean for a formerly terrestrial animal that only whales are better adapted.

As an example, let’s learn about the yellow sea snake, because it can grow nine feet long, or 2.75 meters, the longest of all the sea snakes. It lives in shallow, warm water in the Indian Ocean and is yellow or yellow-green in color with narrow black bands all down its body. It’s really pretty. It gives birth to live babies who are fully developed and able to swim as soon as they’re born. Young snakes have a black head with a U-shaped yellow marking.

The yellow sea snake eats fish and eels that live among coral reefs and sea grasses. Its venom is fast-acting and not only kills its prey, it starts breaking down the prey’s tissues so that the snake can digest it faster. Occasionally a diver or fisher gets bitten, but most of the time the snake doesn’t inject venom when it bites a human.

The faint-banded sea snake, also called Belcher’s sea snake, also rarely injects venom into humans, and rarely bites humans at all. It even has the reputation as being kind of a friendly snake. At one time its venom was thought to be the most potent of any snake’s, but that honor actually belongs to three different snakes. The reef shallows sea snake is one. The others are the inland taipan, which is a land snake that lives in Australia, and the Eastern brown snake, which also lives in Australia as well as in southern New Guinea. Pretty much if you’re in Australia, don’t bother any snakes if you can possibly help it. Not that you need me to tell you that.

A lot of snakes have interesting facial decorations. The horned viper has a pointed horn over each eye that sticks almost straight up. It’s not really a horn, of course, but a modified scale. It lives in the desert in parts of the Middle East and northern Africa, is roughly the color of sand, and grows not quite three feet max, or 85 cm. Other snakes have nose horns, including the nose-horned viper, the rhinoceros viper, and many others. No one’s sure why some snakes have these decorations, but the best hypothesis is that they’re for display. In some species only the males have decorations, or the decorations are larger than in females; but in other species, females have larger or more decorations. One thing we do know, the horns are not used for fighting other snakes. They look sharp, but they’re actually relatively soft and flexible.

The spiny bush viper goes the extra step and has pointy spines all over its body that make it look bristly. It lives in central Africa and eats frogs, lizards, and small mammals. It’s not a big snake, not much more than two feet long, or around 60 cm, although males are usually a few inches longer than females. It’s typically yellowish in color with large dark eyes and black markings. It mostly stays in the trees and sometimes suns itself on top of big flowers, which is THE best thing I have heard all week.

The rattlesnake lives throughout North and South America, and just like in the cartoons, it has a rattle at the tip of its tail that it shakes to scare away potential predators. The rattle is made of keratin. Each segment of the rattle is hollow and vibrates against the rattles above and below it when the snake vibrates its tail. A rattlesnake has special muscles in the tail used just for this, and the muscles are incredibly fast. A snake can vibrate its tail as much as 50 times per second. Baby rattlesnakes only have a little button at the tip of their tail, but each time the snake sheds its skin, it grows a new segment of its rattle.

This is what a rattlesnake’s tail vibration sounds like.

[rattlesnake sound]

Both the Eastern and Western diamondback rattlesnakes can grow about eight feet long, or almost 2.5 meters. Other rattlesnake species are smaller.

The rattlesnake isn’t the only snake species with an interesting tail. The spider-tailed horned viper not only has horns above its eyes, the tip of its tail actually resembles a spider. Those of you who were already not real happy about a snake episode probably just threw your phone down in horror right about now. Sorry about that. The very tip of the snake’s tail ends in a little bulb like a spider’s round body, and the scales in front of it are elongated like a spider’s legs. It’s not just coincidence, either. The spider-tailed horned viper eats birds that eat spiders. Like a young water moccasin twitching its tail-tip like a worm, the spider-tailed horned viper twitches its tail around like a spider. When a bird comes close to grab the spider, chomp!

The spider-tailed horned viper, and I legit will never get tired of saying that, was discovered in 1968 but only recognized as a new species in 2006. It lives in western Iran but we don’t know a whole lot about it yet.

If people in the area had told stories about a snake with a tail that looked like a spider, probably no one would have believed it, but there it is. So what about actual mystery snakes?

In Croatia there are stories of a snake called the poskok, which is gray to reddish-brown in color, two or three feet long, or 60 to 90 cm, slender, aggressive, and venomous. But its real claim to fame is its ability to jump farther and higher than it is long.

Snakes can jump by making a striking motion and lunging forward, but while some snakes may actually leave the ground that way, notably the jumping viper, a small snake from Central America, no snake can jump very high.

If you search online for the poskok, you’ll get a lot of hits about the nose-horned viper. It spends at least part of the time in trees and shrubs hunting birds. If someone saw a nose-horned viper leaping after a bird, they might think it had jumped from the ground instead of a branch. But the poskok isn’t described as having a horn on its nose. Another suggestion for the poskok’s identity is one of various species of whip snake, which are slender, aggressive snakes that can move very fast, although they’re not venomous.

The tsuchinoko of Japan is supposed to be a short but wide-bodied snake with horns above its eyes, a broad head with sensory pits, and a thinner neck. Its pronounced dorsal ridge makes it seem somewhat triangular in shape instead of rounded like most snakes. It’s also said to be able to jump long distances. Some cryptozoologists suggest it might either be an unknown species of pit viper or a rare mutant individual of a known pit viper species. Stories of tsuchinoko sightings go back centuries, although more recent accounts describe it as a more ordinary-looking snake with a big bulge in its middle as though it has just swallowed something that it hasn’t digested yet. In 2017, a Tumblr post inspired a meme about the tsuchinoko. It’s a picture of three cats staring at a fat lizard with the legs photoshopped out and the caption “tsuchinoko real,” which I’m sure you can agree is meme GOLD.

Many cultures around the world believe some snakes have a magical stone in their heads that can cure poison or heal wounds. There are similar beliefs about toad-stones. In India some people believe some cobras have a glowing brown stone in their hood that heals snake bites, while in Sri Lanka it’s said that rarely, a cobra has a beautiful precious gem inside its belly that it pukes up and hides before it eats, then swallows again later. The ancient Celts believed that an adder-stone neutralized poison. But the adder-stone, it turns out, was just a fossilized sea urchin, while other snake stones were either semi-precious stones like agates with the value jacked up with a tall tale, or gastroliths.

And finally, to wrap things around to where we started, many cultures incorporate flying or winged snakes in various aspects of religion or folklore, but sometimes people report seeing snakes with wings flying overhead. These are probably all misidentifications of known animals since no snake has ever been found, alive or fossilized, with appendages that could be described as wings. Old newspaper accounts of flying snakes are probably all hoaxes. But new species of snake are discovered all the time. You wouldn’t think there’s anything big to be discovered in England, for instance, but a new species of snake was discovered there in 2017. It’s called the barred grass snake, although it actually spends a lot of its time hunting frogs and other amphibians in water. And it’s not small—it grows three feet long, or over a meter. So if a three-foot adder can hide in a country full of naturalists, maybe a snake with wings can hide in plain sight too.

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Thanks for listening!

Episode 055: Lungfish and the Buru

Let’s learn about the LUNGFISH, which deserves capital letters because they’re fascinating and this episode took so flipping long to research! Mysteries abound!

The lovely marbled lungfish from Africa:

The South American lungfish:

The Australian lungfish CHECK OUT THOSE GAMS:

Another Australian lungfish:

Further Reading:

The Hunt for the Buru by Ralph Izzard

Show Transcript:

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

This week’s episode is about the lungfish, and I’m going in depth about some mystery lungfish later in the episode. So don’t give up on me if you think freshwater fish are boring.

Lungfish are unusual since they are fish but have lungs and can breathe air. Some fish species can get by for a short time gulping air into a modified swim bladder when water is oxygen poor, but the lungfish has real actual lungs that are more mammal-like than anything found in other fish. The ancestors of lungfish, which developed during the Devonian period nearly 400 million years ago, may have been the ancestors of modern amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals. This is still a controversial finding, but a 2017 molecular phylogenetic study identified lungfish as the closest living relatives of land animals.

Africa has four species of lungfish, from the smallest, the gilled African lungfish that only grows around 17 inches long, or about 44 cm, to the largest, the marbled lungfish, which can grow more than six and a half feet long, or two meters. They all resemble eels, with long bodies and four thin, almost thread-like fins. They mostly eat crustaceans, molluscs, and insect larvae. The adults have small gills but breathe air through their lungs exclusively.

The South American lungfish is in a separate family from the African lungfishes, but it’s very similar in most respects. It can grow over four feet long, or 125 cm, and looks like an eel at first glance. Its fins are thread-like and not very long, and while it has small gills, they’re nonfunctional in adults. It mostly eats snails and shrimp, and like the African lungfishes, its teeth are fused into tooth plates that crush the shells of its prey easily.

Baby South American and African lungfish have external gills like newts but look more like tadpoles. After a couple of months they develop the ability to breathe air.

The African and South American lungfishes live in swamps and shallow river basins, and during the dry season, the water of their homes may dry up completely. At the onset of the dry season, the lungfish burrows a foot or two deep into the mud, or 30 to 60 centimeters, and lines the burrow with mucus to keep its body from drying out. Then it curls up in the bottom of the hole and lowers its metabolism, and stays there for months until the rains return and soak its dried mud home. This is called aestivation, and it’s related to hibernation except that it usually happens in warm weather instead of cold.

The Australian lungfish, also called the Queensland lungfish, lives in Australia and retains many features that are considered primitive compared to other lungfish species. It’s so different from the other lungfish species it’s even in a different order. Let’s learn about just how different it is and why that’s important.

In 1869 a farmer visiting the Sydney Museum asked why there were no specimens displayed of a big olive-green fish from some nearby rivers. The curator, Gerard Krefft, had no idea what the guy was talking about. No problem, the guy said, or probably no worries, he’d just get his cousin to send the museum a few. Not long after, a barrel full of salted greenish fish that looked like big fat eels arrived and Krefft set about examining them.

When he saw the teeth, he practically fainted. He’d seen those teeth before—in fossils several hundred million years old. No one even knew what fish those teeth came from. And here they were again in fish that had been pulled from a local river only days before.

The Australian lungfish doesn’t have ordinary teeth, it has four tooth plates or combs that resemble regular teeth that have fused together. Its skull is also very different from all other fish, possibly because of its feeding style. It crushes its prey with its tooth combs, so its skull has to be able to withstand a lot of pressure from the force of its own bite. Other lungfish species share this trait to some degree, but with modifications that appear more recent.

The Australian lungfish lives in slow-moving rivers and deep ponds and hunts using electroreception. Larger ones mostly eat snails and crustaceans, while smaller ones also eat insect larvae and occasionally small fish. It can grow up to about five feet long, or 150 cm. Its body is covered with large overlapping scales, and its four fins look more like flippers or paddles. Its tail comes to a single rounded point. In short, it looks superficially like a coelacanth, which is not a big surprise because it’s related to the coelacanth. While the Australian lungfish doesn’t actually get out of the water and walk on its fins, it does stand on them and sometimes walks around on them underwater.

Unlike the other lungfishes, the Australian lungfish has only a single lung instead of a pair. Most of the time it breathes through its gills, but at night when it’s active, or during spawning season or other times when it needs more oxygen, it surfaces periodically to breathe. When it does so, it makes a distinctive gasping sound. During droughts when its pond or river grows shallow, an Australian lungfish can survive when other fish can’t. As long as its gills remain moist, it can survive by breathing air through its lung. But unlike other lungfish, it doesn’t aestivate in mud.

The Australian lungfish hasn’t changed appreciably for the last 100 million years. The only real change it exhibits from its ancestors 300 million years ago is that it’s not as big, since they grew some 13 feet long, or 4 meters. Lungfish used to be widespread fish that lived in freshwater back when the world’s continents were smushed together in one supercontinent called Pangaea, some 335 million years ago. When Pangaea began to break up into smaller continents about 175 million years ago, various species of lungfish remained in different parts of the world. Now we’ve only got six species left…maybe.

A lot of mysterious eel-like fish or fish-like lizard stories might refer to lungfish. Some of the mystery animals are probably extinct, whatever they were, but some might still be around. All known lungfish were only discovered by science within the last 150 years or so, and it’s quite possible more are lurking quietly in remote swamps and rivers.

That brings me to a mystery that may or may not have anything to do with the lungfish. Occasionally when I’m researching a topic for an episode, I come across something interesting that doesn’t really belong in that episode but which isn’t enough on its own for a full episode. I sometimes spin those into bonus episodes for our Patreon subscribers. That happened recently with our Brantevik eel episode, where some blue river eels took me down a research rabbit hole that had nothing to do with eels. But a mystery animal I only covered in passing in that bonus episode suddenly has new meaning for this one.

The mystery animal is the indus worm, sometimes called the scolex. We don’t know what it was, if anything. It might have been a fable that got repeated and exaggerated over the centuries. It might have been something more akin to disinformation. It might have been both.

We have the story from multiple ancient sources, back to Ctesius’s original account in the fourth century BCE. The story goes that the river Indus, which flows through modern-day China, India, and Pakistan, contained a white worm of enormous size. It was supposed to be around 7 cubits long, or 10 ½ feet, or just over three meters, but it was so big around that a ten-year-old could barely encircle it with their arms, and that’s a straight-up quote from Ctesius only not in ancient Greek. In other words, it was a big fat eel-like creature over ten feet long, white in color. Moreover, it had weird teeth. Ctesias didn’t mention the teeth, but a few hundred years later Aelian said that it had two teeth, square and about eighteen inches long, or 45 cm, which it used to catch and crush animals that it caught at night.

This is an interesting detail that points to an animal with teeth something like a lungfish. But the indus worm was also supposed to drag animals into the water when they came to the edge to drink, which sounds like a crocodile—but the ancient Greeks were familiar with crocodiles and this clearly wasn’t one. The word crocodile comes directly from Greek, in fact. But there’s one more important detail about the indus worm that changes everything.

The indus worm was supposed to be useless except for the oil it produced. Now, all animal fat produces flammable oil, but it has to be rendered first. The indus worm was full of just plain oil. According to the ancient accounts, after an indus worm was killed—not an easy thing to do, apparently, as it required dozens of men with spears and clubs to subdue—it was hung up over a vessel, and the oil allowed to drip into the vessel from the body for a full month. One indus worm would produce about 2 ½ quarts, or almost five liters of oil. The oil was so flammable that only the king of India was allowed to own it, and he used it to level cities. Not only that, but the flame it produced couldn’t be put out unless it was smothered with mud.

This sounds like a petroleum-based flame. It might even refer to Greek fire, a deadly weapon of the ancient world. We don’t know what Greek fire was made of, but it wasn’t an animal-based oil. It could be that rulers who knew the secret of producing unquenchable flame obfuscated the knowledge by telling people the oil came from a vicious animal only found in one distant river. If so, it’s possible that the indus worm wasn’t based on a real animal at all.

I can just hear the conversation that started it all. “Hey, where do you get that oil that sticks to people and burns them up even after they jump in the water?” “Oh, um, it’s really hard to get. Yeah, totally hard. You know those little white worms that sometimes get in figs? Picture one of those that’s like, ten feet long, and it only lives in one river in India…”

Anyway, we have no way of knowing whether the indus worm was a real animal. It actually sounds kind of plausible, though, especially if you assume some of the stories are either exaggerated or confused with other animals. The Indus is a really long river with a lot of unique animal species. It’s possible there was once a lungfish that grew ten feet long and had flattened tooth plates like those of South American and African lungfishes.

Then again, there is another possibility. The rare Indus river dolphin grows to about eight and a half feet long, or 2 ½ meters. I’m probably going to do an entire episode on freshwater dolphins eventually so I won’t go into too much detail about it today, but while young dolphins have pointed teeth, when the dolphin matures its teeth develop into square, flat disks. But the dolphin isn’t white, it’s brown, and no one could look at a dolphin and call it a worm.

But there are other reports of mystery fish in Asia that may be lungfish. This is where I had to stop research for this episode until I ordered, received, and read a book called The Hunt for the Buru by Ralph Izzard. If in doubt, go back to the primary sources whenever possible. Izzard was a foreign correspondent for the London Daily Mail, and in 1948 he and a photographer accompanied explorer Charles Stonor on an expedition to find what they thought might be a living dinosaur or some other reptile. But while many cryptozoologists today think the buru might be a type of monitor lizard, zoologist Karl Shuker suggests the details given in the book sound more like a type of lungfish.

Accounts of the buru were collected in an anthropological study of the Apa Tani tribe in 1945 and ’46. The Apa Tani live in a large valley in northeastern India, in the foothills of the Himalayas, and were an insular people who at the time rarely traveled away from their valley. They’re characterized in The Hunt for the Buru as intelligent and practical, but not especially creative. They have no system of reading or writing, produce no art, and are efficient and knowledgeable rice farmers. The relevant parts of the study are reproduced in The Hunt for the Buru, and I’m happy to report that this was a genuine scholarly study, not a bunch of enthusiastic amateurs asking leading questions. The buru information was only collected incidentally as part of the tribe’s history and traditions, but I suspect mostly because the anthropologists found it interesting. A quick look online for more modern information about the Apa Tani point to them being really nice people. They have a festival celebrating friendship every spring that lasts an entire month. These days they’re much more mainstream but still continue their traditional practices of farming.

According to the Apa Tani, their ancestors migrated to the valley along two rivers, and accounts of their migration match up with actual places with a high degree of accuracy even though the migration took place many centuries ago. In other words, these are people with a detailed oral history, and that’s important when we come to their accounts of the buru.

When they reached the valley, it was largely flooded with a swamp and lake. In the lake was an animal they called the buru. It wasn’t an aggressive animal. It lived in deep water but occasionally came to the surface, stuck its head above water, and made a noise translated as a hoarse bellow. Occasionally a buru would nose through the mud in shallower water, and frequently waved its head from side to side. It didn’t eat fish and was described as living on mud. It was about 4 meters long, or a bit over 13 feet, and was dark blue blotched with white, with a white belly. I’ll go into more details of its appearance in a few minutes.

The Apa Tani drained much of the swamp and lake to create more farmland for rice paddies, and on four occasions, a buru was trapped in a pool of deeper water. The Apa Tani killed the burus trapped this way and buried their bodies, and the location of the buried burus are still known. The Apa Tani reported that there were no more burus in the valley.

In 1947, Charles Stonor was traveling near the Apa Tani’s valley and asked a member of a different tribe if he’d ever heard of the buru. Stonor apparently was both a trained zoologist and had at least some background in anthropology, according to Izzard. To Stonor’s surprise, the man said he not only knew about the buru, but said it lived in a swamp not too far away, called Rilo. Naturally Stonor decided to visit, and when he spoke to the nearby villagers, they said the buru did indeed live in the swamp.

Stonor recorded their accounts of the animal. It lives underwater and only comes to the surface briefly—“every now and again they come up above the surface. When one of them comes up there is a great disturbance and splashing, and the beast comes straight up out of the water, stays for a few moments only, and then disappears down again.” The buru were described as black and white, with a head as large as a bison’s but with a longer snout, and with a pair of small backwards-pointing horns. The buru was only seen in summer, when the swamp floods and becomes a lake. But no one in the Rilo village had ever seen a buru up close.

In early 1948 Izzard heard about the buru from a friend, and approached Stonor to ask if he wanted to undertake a small expedition to look for it. Stonor agreed, and in April 1948 the expedition headed out on the search.

They… didn’t find any burus. Spoiler alert: after months of careful daily watches of the swamp, they decided the buru had possibly once lived in the valley, but was now extinct, and since it had never been an animal the villagers paid much attention to, no one had realized it was gone. This sounds absurd until you realize that the village had only been settled about a decade before. Many trees had been felled, which increased erosion so that the swamp had silted up considerably and was no longer very deep even at full flood. It’s possible that the burus had died due to these changing conditions, especially if they hadn’t been very numerous to start with.

The expedition returned to civilization only to find that rumors of the buru hunt had leaked, and the papers were full of reports of a 90-foot “dinotherium” sighted in the jungle.

I find it interesting that Izzard rejected the idea that the buru was a lungfish, because, he writes, “no known fish would expose itself above water, for no practical purpose, for such a length of time.” Presumably Izzard didn’t realize that lungfish actually use their lungs to breathe air, and that they must surface briefly to do so.

So was the buru reported in the Rilo swamp the same buru that had once lived in the Apa Tani valley? Probably not. Izzard notes that while the two valleys are relatively close to each other, he does point out that they were completely separated by a ridge of mountains. Even if both burus were the same kind of animal, they were probably different subspecies at the very least considering how long the two populations must have been separated.

Let’s return to the Apa Tani buru, since the reports gathered from the mid-1940s anthropological study are clear and detailed compared to the Rilo buru reports.

The Apa Tani buru had limbs, but while some reports called them short legs that somewhat resembled mole forelegs with claws used for digging, one old man stubbornly refused to describe them as legs. The anthropologists found this confusing because they assumed he was talking about a reptile. I’ll quote from the relevant sections of the report. The old man was named Tamar.

“ ‘The buru was long: it had a long tail with flanges on the sides: they lay along it when resting, but were pushed out sideways when the beast was moving: it could twist its tail round and catch anything with it.’ The flanges were demonstrated by holding a piece of paper against a stick. We use the word ‘flange’ for want of a better expression. Tamar described them as pieces fastened on the sides of the tail. …

Q What sort of legs did it have?

A ‘It had no legs: the body was like a snake.’ Tamar then described and demonstrated that the tail flanges were grouped in two pairs, were about 50 cm long, and were as thick as a man’s arm: he added they were used in burrowing. We got the impression that he was trying to convey the meaning that they were appendages, but not limbs in the true sense of the word.”

I wonder if he was trying to explain, through an interpreter, something he himself probably didn’t fully understand, lobed fins. The Australian lungfish’s lobed fins do look like stubby legs with a frill around them that could be taken to be claws.

Tamar also described the buru as a snake-like creature. He said its head was like a snake’s with a long snout and that it had three hard plates on its head that helped it burrow into the mud. And like the other reports, he said it ate mud, not fish or animals.

This sounds a lot like a lungfish, which eats crustaceans and snails it digs out of the mud. Admittedly Tamar also said it had a forked tongue, which is not a lungfish trait. Many cryptozoologists think this forked tongue points to a type of monitor lizard, but while some monitor lizard species do spend a lot of time in the water, notably the widespread Asian monitor lizard, the buru is described as being exclusively aquatic. Monitor lizards also are very lizardy, with large, strong legs. And monitor lizards don’t stay in the mud when a swamp dries up.

To me, all this paints a picture of a large lungfish, blue and white in color, with lobed fins like an Australian lungfish and probably working gills as well as a lung or pair of lungs. It may have aestivated in the mud like African and South American lungfish during the dry season, and during the rainy season when it was spawning, it might have needed to breathe at the surface like the Australian lungfish to give it more oxygen than its gills could manage on their own.

Hopefully someone’s out there looking for burus in other remote swamps of Asia. I can’t do it myself. I’m busy.

There are brief anecdotal reports of possible new species of lungfish in Asia, Africa, and South America, although with very little to go on. But I wouldn’t be one bit surprised if someone discovered another lungfish species in a hard-to-reach swamp one of these days. Those 400-million-year-old fish are survivors.

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, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or whatever platform you listen on. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 054: Regenerating Animals

This week we’re going to learn about animals that can regenerate parts of their body. What animals can do it, how does it work, and can humans figure out how to make it work for us too?

Thanks to Maxwell of the awesome Relic: The Lost Treasure podcast for suggesting this week’s topic!

The planarian, not exciting to look at but you can get a lot of them easily:

A starfish leg growing a new starfish, or possibly a slightly gross magic wand. Ping! You’ve been turned into a magical starfish:

The adorable axolotl:

The almost as adorable African spiny mouse:

A hydra. Not really very adorable except possibly to other hydras but kind of pretty:

Show transcript:

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

This week’s episode was going to be about lungfish, but I had to postpone it because I ran across some conflicting information about a mystery lungfish, which required me to order a book that probably won’t arrive for a week or two. So when I tweeted about needing a new topic quick, Maxwell of the Relic: The Lost Treasure podcast suggested animals that can regenerate parts of their bodies.

We’ve touched on regenerative abilities before in one or two episodes. Some lizards can drop their tail if threatened, which then regrows later—but a lizard can only do that once. The fish-scaled gecko from episode 20 can lose its scales and regenerate them repeatedly. But other animals can regenerate not just bits and pieces, but entire organs and even their brains. The sea lamprey can even regenerate spinal cord cells. You better believe researchers are trying to figure out how regeneration works and if it can be adapted for human application.

A lot of worms can regenerate lost pieces, including earthworms. Whenever I’m gardening and accidentally cut an earthworm in half with the shovel, I reassure myself that the worm will regenerate the end I cut off. Some species can even grow back from both cut pieces, effectively turning one earthworm into two, depending on where it is severed, although that’s rare. Some species of worm can only regrow the tail, but some can regrow the head. And some, of course, can’t regrow anything. Leeches are a type of worm but they can’t regenerate at all.

Planarians are flatworms. Some species live in water, some in damp areas on land, but they can all regenerate. If you cut a planarian in two, each half will regenerate into a new planarian. If you cut a planarian in three, you’ll get three planarians. Cut one into four, you get four planarians, and so on and on. Researchers with a lot of time and patience have determined that you can cut a planarian into as many as 277 pieces and you will get 277 planarians after a few weeks. But I guess if you cut a planarian into 278 or more pieces, some of the extra pieces won’t do anything.

Starfish are well-known to regenerate lost or injured legs, and may even drop a leg to escape from predators the way some lizards drop their tails. Some species of starfish can regrow an entire starfish from a single limb. That’s oddly creepy. I don’t know why I find it so creepy. I don’t find the planarians creepy. It’s like if I was run over by a motorboat that chopped my arms and legs off, and instead of dying I not only regrew my arms and legs, my severed arms and legs each grew a new me. I don’t think I’d like that. Although I’m not going to get in the water so I doubt I’ll be run over by a motorboat, and also if I was, sharks would probably eat me before we could see if any parts regrew.

Many starfish relations, such as sea urchins and sea cucumbers, can also regenerate body parts. When the sea cucumber is threatened, it can and will eject its internal organs. They’re sticky and full of toxins, which deters predators, and the sea cucumber just regenerates them.

Most crustaceans, such as crabs and krill, can regenerate legs. So can spiders, which may drop legs to escape from predators. That’s called autotomy, by the way, when an animal detaches a body part to escape from a predator. Spiders molt their exoskeletons every so often as they grow, and lost limbs grow back after molting. Sometimes it takes a few molts for the leg to be the same size as the other legs. Spiders can also regenerate other lost or damaged parts, including mouthparts and spinnerets.

Salamanders and newts can regenerate limbs, tail, some organs, jaws, even parts of their eyes. Frogs and other amphibians can’t. Likewise, some fish can regenerate injured tissue, such as the zebrafish which can regrow fins and eye retinas, and some species of sharks that can regenerate skin tissue, while others can’t. The axolotl, which is an adorable rare salamander found in Mexico, can regrow just about any part of its body, including its spinal cord and up to half of its brain.

So what about mammals? Do any mammals have regenerative capabilities? As a matter of fact, yes. The African spiny mouse is the big regenerator among mammals. It’s actually more closely related to gerbils, and it has stiff guard hairs all over its body that stick out and make it look fuzzy but which act as spines to help ward off predators. But if a predator attacks anyway, three species of the spiny mouse can autotomically drop off part of its skin, which later grows back. Some species of spiny mouse are kept as pets, even though they don’t do very well in captivity. The pet species don’t have regeneration abilities, incidentally. However, they do have delicate tails that are easily injured, which they then lose, and the tail does not grow back.

Those three species of African spiny mouse can also regenerate ear tissue. If a spiny mouse’s ear is damaged, even if it has a hole as big as four mm across, it can regenerate the ear as good as new rather than heal it with scar tissue. A number of mammals can regenerate small injuries to ear cartilage under the right circumstances, including cats. Rabbits can also regrow damaged ear tissue, and have some other regenerative abilities too.

It’s all well and good to point out that a whole lot of animals can regenerate lost or damaged body parts. But how does it work? And more to the point, why can’t humans do it?

Technically, humans and other animals are regenerating certain cells all the time, especially skin cells and blood cells. Small cuts and scrapes heal up without scarring and we don’t think about it at all. Fingertips will grow back after injury and the liver can regenerate. The endometrium, which is the lining of the uterus, is partially reabsorbed into the body and partially expelled from the body every month during menstruation, then regrows. Toenails and fingernails regrow after injury. We just don’t think about all these things because they seem normal to us, whereas we can’t regrow a whole finger if it’s been chopped off, for instance.

I won’t go too deeply into how regeneration works, mostly because it’s complicated and I don’t want to screw it up too badly. There are also different types of regenerative abilities with different processes. Basically, though, as an example, when a salamander loses a leg, the cells surrounding the wound dedifferentiate, basically turning from regular skin cells or what have you into stem cells that can grow into anything the body needs. These cells form what’s called a blastema, which is just the fancy name for a bundle of dedifferentiated cells. Then the blastemal cells start differentiating again, this time into the cells needed to regrow the leg, just as stem cells grew legs when the salamander was developing in its egg.

It sounds pretty simple, put like that. I mean, that’s how we all develop in the first place, from a fertilized egg into a person who can make podcasts and eat cupcakes. The main problem is figuring out how to get human cells to dedifferentiate into a blastema. Because it’s not just injuries that could be helped if scientists figure this out, it’s all sorts of problems. People who have lost their sight due to retinal diseases could regrow new retinas. People born with birth defects could have the nonstandard parts regrown so that they work the way they’re supposed to.

Researchers are working hard to figure all this out. Stem cell research is a big part of regenerative research. Unfortunately, at some point the rumor started that all stem cells come from babies, specifically embryonic stem cells. When a human egg is fertilized, after a couple of days a blastocyst is formed from the cells, which is similar to a blastema but made of cells that have never differentiated into anything else. They’re brand new cells with the capacity to make a brand new human. Naturally, people are squiffy about taking cells that might make a baby and using them for something else. But amniotic fluid, the fluid that surrounds the baby as it’s growing in its mother, also contains stem cells, and they can be harvested without hurting the baby or the mother. You can also get stem cells from the umbilical cord right after a baby is born, and the umbilical cord is just cut off and thrown away anyway so you might as well give it a little extra use. But most stem cells used in research and treatment these days come from bone marrow, lipid cells in fat tissue, and blood, all of which can be extracted without harming the person. They’re not as powerful as embryonic and amniotic stem cells, but they have the benefit of being from the patient’s own body, so no immunosuppression is required to make sure the body accepts them in stem cell treatment.

That was a lot of confusing medical information, so let’s talk about one more animal that can regenerate, the hydra. We’ve talked about the hydra before in the jellyfish episode, which for a long time was our most popular episode. It’s now our second-most downloaded episode, with our first episode inexplicably in the top spot. The hydra is a freshwater animal related to jellies that can regenerate so completely it’s essentially immortal.

The hydra is related to the so-called immortal jellyfish we talked about in episode 19. It can regenerate just about any injury, and like the planarian it can regenerate into more than one copy of itself if it’s cut up into tiny pieces. It’s only a few millimeters long but its tiny body is full of stem cells, and as long as stem cells are present in the body part that was cut off, an entirely new hydra can grow from it. Because of its amazing regenerative abilities, some admittedly controversial studies suggest the hydra doesn’t age. That’s a neat trick, if you can manage it.

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

Thanks for listening!

Episode 053: Dragons

It’s our one-year anniversary! To celebrate, I’ve opened up a Patreon bonus episode for anyone to listen to. Just click the link below and you can listen in your browser:

bonus episode – Salty Animals

This week’s episode is about dragons, specifically dragons of western/English-speaking tradition. Even narrowing it down like that leaves us with a lot of ground to cover! Thanks to Emily whose suggestion of the Komodo dragon as a topic started this whole ball rolling.

A dragon from the game Flight Rising, specifically one of MY dragons. Her name is Lily. She’s so pretty.

The Lambton worm:

A spitting cobra:

A Nile crocodile:

Deinosuchus skeleton and two humans for scale. I stole this off the internet as usual so I don’t know who the people are. They look pretty happy to be in the picture:

St. George and the Dragon (REENACTMENT):

Klagenfurt dragon statue:

A wooly rhino skull:

The star of the show today, the Komodo dragon!

Show transcript:

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

This week let’s celebrate the podcast’s one-year anniversary with a big episode about dragons. Emily suggested komodo dragons as a topic, and then it all just spiraled out of control from there.

But first, a bit of housekeeping. Since it’s our one-year anniversary I’ve unlocked a Patreon episode so that anyone can listen. This one’s about salty animals. There’s a link in the show notes. Just click it and it’ll take you to the page where you can listen on your browser. You don’t need a Patreon login or anything.

Second, I got a polite correction recently from a listener about subspecies. Podbean is being a butt so I can’t actually see the comment, just read it in the email they sent, so I’m not sure who to thank. But they pointed out that “when the subspecies name is the same as the species name, it means it’s the first subspecies formally described, or the nominate subspecies.” In other words, Panthera tigris tigris didn’t get that second tigris because it’s extra tigery, it got it because it was the first tiger subspecies described. Although it is extra tigery.

So now, let’s learn about dragons.

Until the early 13th century or so, the word dragon wasn’t part of the English language. We swiped it from French, which in turn got it from Latin, which took it from Greek. Before the word dragon became a common word, dragon-like creatures were frequently called worms. A worm used to mean any animal that was snakey in shape. Old stories of dragons in English folklore are frequently snakier than modern dragons. For instance, the Lambton worm.

The story goes that a man called John Lambton went fishing one Easter Sunday instead of going to church, and as punishment he caught not fish but a black leech-like creature with nine holes on each side of its head. He flung it into a well in disgust, and joined the crusades to atone for fishing on the Sabbath. But while he was gone, the worm grew enormous. It killed people and livestock, uprooted trees, and even blighted crops with its poisonous breath. It couldn’t be killed, either, because if it was chopped in two, its pieces rejoined.

When John Lambton returned from the crusades seven years later and found out what had happened, he sought the advice of a local wise woman about what to do. Then he covered a suit of armor with sharp spines, and wearing it, lured the worm into the river Wear, where it tried to squeeze him to death. But the spines cut it up into pieces that were swept away by the river so they couldn’t rejoin. The end.

I don’t want to derail the dragon talk too much here, but I’m just going to point out that the sea lamprey has seven little holes behind each eye called branchial openings. It’s also eel-like and can be partially black, and it’s gross. If you want to learn more about it, and about my irrational dislike of this interesting animal, you can go back and listen to episode three.

Anyway, even after English adopted the word dragon, it didn’t mean dragon exactly. It was just a word for a big snake, especially one with mythical attributes or enormous size. But artists the world over are fond of adding wings and legs to reptiles, especially to snakes. Snakes just look so…undecorated. Gradually dragon took on its current meaning, that of a reptile with four legs, possibly a pair of wings, decorative horns and spikes and spines, and the ability to breathe fire. Actual. Fire.

That kind of dragon simply can’t exist except in folklore and fiction. But human creativity aside, many aspects of the dragon, at least the dragons of western tradition, are based on those of real-life animals.

If you’ve listened to episode 12, about the wyvern, the basilisk, and the cockatrice, you may remember the confusion among those terms and what they stand for. Technically all three are types of dragons, since the definition of dragon is actually pretty loose. In that episode, we discussed the king cobra as the possible source of many stories of the basilisk.

The king cobra doesn’t spit venom, but many species of cobra do. While cobra venom won’t hurt you very much if it just touches undamaged skin, it will hurt your eyes if it gets into them. And spitting cobras aim for the eyes. The venom is actually sprayed directly from the cobra’s fangs, which have tiny holes in the front that work sort of like a spray bottle. Some species of cobra can spit venom over six feet, or two meters, and they can also inject venom by biting. Cobra venom can cause blindness if enough gets in the eyes, and it certainly causes eye pain and swelling. Not only that, but a few other species of venomous snake, such as the Mangshan pit viper, sometimes also spit venom.

As far as I’m concerned, a big snake that sprays venom at your eyes is a good basis for the story of a dragon that breathes fire. I’d almost rather deal with a firebreather, to be honest, because I know to stop, drop, and roll if I catch on fire. Be safe, kids. This has been a public service announcement.

Crocodiles have undoubtedly influenced dragon mythology. In fact, so many common dragon traits are present in crocodiles that if you discount the wings and firebreathing, crocodiles basically are dragons. The biggest crocodile living today is the saltwater crocodile, which can grow over 20 feet long, or 6 meters, and which lives in southeast Asia, eastern India, and northern Australia. The second biggest crocodile is the Nile crocodile, which can grow nearly as long, and which lives throughout much of Africa around rivers, lakes, and swamps. Male saltwater crocodiles are typically larger than females, while female Nile crocodiles are typically larger than males.

While crocodiles look like big lizards, they’re actually more closely related to birds and dinosaurs. They can also live a long time, occasionally over a hundred years. All crocodiles are good swimmers with webbed feet that help them change directions quickly. They can also run pretty fast out of water. A crocodile’s back is heavily armored with thick scales and osteoderms, or scutes, which are bony deposits in the skin. Crocodiles have long jaws studded with 80 teeth, and if a croc loses a tooth, another grows in its place. It can just keep replacing its teeth up to 50 times. It has good night vision, a good sense of smell, good hearing, and special sensory pits on its jaws that allow a croc to hunt and escape danger even in complete darkness. A croc’s stomach contains acid that would make even the bearded vulture envious, so it has no problem digesting bones, hooves, and horns efficiently, a good thing since Crocodiles usually swallow their prey whole. And crocodiles have the strongest bite of any living animal, stronger even than a great white shark.

Of course, there used to be bigger crocodiles. Do you want to learn about gigantic extinct crocodiles? OF COURSE YOU DO, that is basically why we’re all here.

Okay, so, there used to be a 35-foot, or almost 11-meter-long crocodile called Deinosuchus that lived around 75 million years ago in what is now North America. It basically looked like a modern crocodile, but its rear teeth were shorter and blunter than its front teeth. They were adapted to crush its prey rather than bite through it, probably because with a bite force that was probably stronger than a T. rex’s, it didn’t want to accidentally bite a big chunk out of the dinosaurs it ate. Yeah. It ate dinosaurs.

So crocodiles probably did a lot to inspire dragon folklore. There’s still a lot of mythology wrapped around the crocodile today, for that matter. You know those little birds that are supposed to clean crocodile teeth? Not actually a thing. I’ve lived my whole life thinking that was pretty neat, only to find it’s a myth.

Sometimes in spring a croc will lie in the water with sticks on its snout. When a bird flies down to pick up a stick for nesting, the crocodile will grab the bird and eat it. This is a real thing that happens, not a myth. Crocodiles are actually pretty smart. And sometimes they hunt in packs.

One of the most famous traditional dragon stories in the English language is that of St. George and the Dragon, which probably originated from stories brought back to Britain during the Crusades. The story became especially popular in the 13th century and there are many versions.

According to the story, a venomous dragon lived in a pond near a city, and had poisoned not only its pond, but the entire countryside. To keep the dragon from approaching the city, the people had to feed it their own children. Each day the people held a terrible lottery to see who had to send one of their children to the pond for the dragon to eat. One day the princess was chosen, and despite all the king’s gold and silver he had to send his daughter to be eaten by the dragon.

Fortunately for her, St. George just happened to be riding by. The dragon emerged from its pond and St. George thought, oh no, we’re not having any of that, and charged it. He wounded it with his lance, then had the princess give him her girdle to use as a collar. A girdle in this case was something between a decorative belt and a ribbon tied around the waist. As soon as St. George tied the girdle around the dragon’s neck, it became meek as a puppy and followed him back to the city.

Naturally, everyone was terrified, but St. George said he would kill the dragon if the king and his people would convert to Christianity. They did, he did, and that was the end of the dragon.

While crocodiles and big snakes undoubtedly strongly influenced dragon lore, something else did too. There’s a reason dragons are so often supposed to live in caves, for instance. Caves are good places to find fossils of huge extinct animals.

In Klagenfurt in Austria there’s a monument of a dragon, called the lindorm or lindwurm, that was erected in 1593. It still stands today, together with a statue of Hercules that was added almost 40 years later. The dragon statue is based on a story of the region. The story goes that a dragon lived near the lake and on foggy days would leap out of the fog and attack people. Sometimes people could hear its roaring over the noise of the river. Finally the duke had a tower built and filled it with brave knights. They fastened a barbed chain to a collar on a bull, and when the dragon came and swallowed the bull, the chain caught in its throat and tethered it to the tower. The knights came out and killed the dragon.

The original story probably dates to around the 12th century, but it was given new life in 1335 when a skull was found in a local gravel pit. It was clearly a dragon skull and in fact it’s still on display in a local museum. The monument’s artist based the shape of the dragon’s head on the skull. In 1935 the skull was identified as that of a wooly rhinoceros.

Other dragon stories probably started when someone saw huge fossils they couldn’t identify. Dragons, after all, can look like just about anything. Stories of benevolent dragons living on Mount Pilatus in Switzerland may have started by pterodactyl fossils that are frequently found in the area. In 1421 a farmer saw a dragon flying to the mountain, and it was so close to him that the farmer fainted. When he woke, he found a stone left for him by the dragon, which had healing properties. The dragonstone is in a local museum these days and has been identified as a meteorite.

It occurs to me that if one were rich, and by one I mean me, one could take a dragon tour through Europe and visit all these awesome monuments and museums. That would be part of my expedition to search for the tatzelwurm in the Alps.

We’ll finish up at the animal I mentioned at the beginning of the episode, the Komodo dragon. While in many respects the Komodo dragon is a real-life dragon, it probably didn’t influence traditional dragon stories in the western world because no one in Europe knew anything about it until 1910. It only lives on five small islands, notably Komodo, but it’s also found on the island of Flores where the Homo floresiensis remains were found.

There were rumors for years of a type of land crocodile found on Komodo. Dutch sailors said it actually breathed fire and could even fly. In 1910, a Dutch Colonial Administration official from Flores took some soldiers to Komodo and searched for the dragon. They shot one, and Peter Ouwens, director of the Zoological Museum in Bogor, Java, hired hunters who killed two more. Ouwens studied the lizards and published a formal description in 1912. In direct contrast to many governments of the time, who were apparently trying to drive as many species to extinction as possible, in 1915 the Dutch government listed the Komodo dragon as protected.

Keep in mind that at this time, people were completely bonkers about dinosaurs and other megafauna. The Komodo dragon got incredibly famous in a very short amount of time. A 1926 scientific expedition that brought back two live dragons and twelve preserved ones actually inspired the 1933 movie King Kong. Since Komodo dragons displayed in zoos proved to be huge draws, but didn’t survive long in captivity back then, if the dragon hadn’t already been protected it probably would have been driven to extinction by collectors capturing them for zoos and killing them to sell to museums as taxidermied specimens.

Researchers used to think that the Komodo dragon, which is a type of monitor lizard, demonstrated island gigantism, where some species that are typically not so big grow larger when a population is restricted to an island. Island dwarfism is its opposite, where big animals like elephants evolve to become smaller in an island habitat. But many species of monitor lizard are large even though they don’t live on islands, and it turns out that a close relative of the Komodo dragon lived in Australia until around 50,000 years ago. In fact, the first aboriginal settlers of Australia might have encountered it.

It was called Megalania and it was the largest straight-up lizard, as opposed to dinosaur, that’s ever been found. While we don’t have any complete skeletons, some researchers estimate it grew to around 18 feet long, or 5.5 meters, although older estimates had it up to 23 feet long, or 7 meters. Either way, it was much bigger than the Komodo dragon, which can grow just over ten feet long, or more than 3 meters.

Like the crocodile, the Komodo dragon’s skin contains osteoderms. It almost looks like it’s covered with tiny spines up close. Also like the crocodile, it grows new teeth when it loses old ones, which frankly is something I wish mammals could do because how useful would that be? It can run faster than a crocodile, can swim and dive well when it needs to although it prefers to stay on land, and when it’s young it can climb trees. Older dragons are too heavy to climb trees, but an adult can stand on its hind legs using its tail as a prop. It likes to dig burrows to sleep in, and females may dig nesting burrows 30 feet long, or 9 meters.

The Komodo dragon eats anything, from carrion to baby Komodo dragons to humans, but it especially likes deer and wild pigs. Its sense of smell is so acute, it can smell a dying animal almost six miles away, or 9 ½ km. It will swallow smaller prey whole but will tear chunks off of bigger carcasses.

We’re still learning about the Komodo dragon. For a long time researchers thought it had a nasty dirty mouth full of rotten meat, which infected its prey with bacteria when bitten. But it turns out that the Komodo dragon is actually venomous. This is still somewhat controversial, since the Komodo dragon’s saliva does contain 57 strains of bacteria and some researchers think that’s more toxic than its venom. Whatever the case, you do not want to be bitten by a Komodo dragon.

It’s primarily an ambush predator, and when it attacks an animal, it gives it a bite with its huge serrated teeth. If the animal gets away, no problem. The dragon’s venom contains anticoagulants so it will probably die of blood loss. As for the dragon itself, its blood actually contains antimicrobial proteins. Researchers hope to develop new antibiotics from the proteins.

Komodo dragon eggs are big, about the size of grapefruits. The mother dragon guards her nest until the babies hatch, and some researchers have observed mothers defending their babies for short periods after they hatch. Baby dragons mostly live in trees and eat insects, lizards, birds’ eggs, and other small prey. If they want to approach a grown-up dragon’s kill to eat some of it, a baby will roll around in poop first or in the stinky parts of the dead animal’s guts so the adult dragons won’t eat the baby. Captive female dragons occasionally lay fertile eggs even though they’ve never mated, a process known as parthenogesis.

Komodo dragons look dumb. They’re probably not exactly geniuses even compared to crocodiles. But dragons kept in captivity sometimes play with items in their enclosures, which is pretty neat. If even a Komodo dragon can take time out of its busy schedule to play, you can too.

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, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or whatever platform you listen on. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!