Episode 060: Steller’s Menagerie

This week we’re going to learn about all sorts of animals first described by Georg Wilhelm Steller in the mid-18th century and named after him, from the common Steller’s jay to the mysterious Steller’s sea ape.

Steller’s jay. It looks like someone photoshopped a frowny line over its eye:

A male Steller’s eider in breeding plumage, looking spiffy:

Steller’s sea eagle will MESS YOU UP:

Steller’s sea lions. Looks like the cover of their latest album:

A drawing of a Steller’s sea cow, one of the only drawings that was probably made from an actual animal before it went extinct:

An alive dugong, just to show you what Steller’s sea cow probably looked like, only bigger and fatter because it lived in colder water:

A Northern fur seal not taking any of your crap:

Baby Northern fur seal, just because it’s so cute:

A shih-tzu. Look at those whiskers! Also, adorable topknot:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to learn about animals named after Georg Wilhelm Steller. Steller was a German botanist and zoologist who lived in the 18th century. In 1740 he was part of an expedition to the Bering Sea between Siberia’s Kamchatka Peninsula, which you may remember from our mystery bears episode, and Alaska. On the way back from an unscheduled trip to Alaska after they got lost, they were shipwrecked on what is now called Bering Island, where half the crew died of scurvy, and the other half managed to build a boat from the wreck of their ship and sailed it back to Kamchatka. During the several years of this expedition, Steller took careful notes on the animals and plants he encountered.

A number of animals are named after Steller. We’ll look at a bunch of those today. Four are still around, one is extinct, and two… are mysteries.

Let’s start with the birds. Steller’s jay is closely related to the blue jay. The bottom half of the bird looks a lot like a blue jay, blue with black banding on the wings and tail, but with blue underneath instead of white. The top half of the bird looks like a completely different bird, gray with a darker head, white or blue streaks on its face, and a tall floofy crest. It lives in western North America as far north as Alaska, and a bluer version also lives in Central America. It likes forests although like blue jays, it lives around people comfortably and eats pretty much anything, from acorns, seeds, and berries to bugs, small animals, and the eggs and babies of other birds.

Next, Steller’s eider is a type of sea duck that lives off the coasts of Alaska and eastern Siberia. The hen ducks are brown and black like the females of most duck species, but the drake is a lot more interesting to look at. His tail is black, wings are iridescent purply-black laced with white, his breast is cinnamon brown with a black spot on the sides, and his head is white with a black eye ring, a dark green tuft of feathers on the back of his head, and a black throat band. That is one flashy duck. Of course, that’s just during spring and early summer when the males are trying to attract mates. The rest of the year, males look a lot more like females. The term for the opposite of breeding plumage is eclipse plumage.

Steller’s eider dives for its food, mostly crustaceans, clams and mussels, and insects. In the winter, it gathers in huge flocks, and all the ducks in the flock will dive and surface at the same time, creating a huge splash and spray of water. It likes tidal flats, bays, and shallow lagoons, and builds its nest on the edge of ponds.

Steller’s sea eagle is closely related to the bald eagle. It’s a big, stocky bird that’s dark brown with white leg feathers and tail, and white on the shoulders of its wings. It has a heavy yellow bill and huge yellow talons. It lives off the coast of northeastern Asia most of the year, but nests around eastern Russia and on the Kamchatka Peninsula. It mostly eats fish, especially salmon, although it also eats a lot of water birds like gulls and ducks, small mammals, and carrion. Its wingspan is as much as 8 feet across, or 2.5 meters, but there are reports of some birds with wingspans over nine feet across, or 2.8 meters. That’s not much bigger than a bald eagle’s wingspan, but Steller’s sea eagle is much heavier and larger-bodied than the bald eagle. Steller’s sea eagle lives up to the bald eagle’s reputation of being kind of a jerk, though, because it steals food from other Steller’s sea eagles.

Both Steller’s eider and Steller’s sea eagle are threatened by habitat loss. Fortunately, Steller’s jay is doing just fine.

There’s another bird named after Steller that has never been definitively identified, Steller’s sea-raven. During the winter he spent shipwrecked on Bering Island, Steller wrote in his journal about a bird he called a white sea-raven. He didn’t say much about it, just that it was new to him and that it only landed on cliffs along the island’s coast, so he couldn’t get a close look at it. No one knows what bird he was talking about.

A lot of people have made suggestions, of course. One researcher thinks it might be a type of cormorant, since the word for cormorant in German means sea-raven, and in fact that’s what the word cormorant means in the original Latin too—corvus marinus. Cormorants are black birds with usually small white markings, so the cormorant Steller saw might be a white or mostly white species that is now extinct, or he might have seen an albino bird flying around. Then again, the bird might have been something else entirely. Since we don’t have more to go on than this brief description of a white sea-raven that likes ocean-facing cliffs, it’s hard to know what to look for.

Now let’s move on to mammals. Steller’s sea lion is a giant pinniped, the word for members of the seal family. It lives along the coasts of Russia and Alaska as far south as central California. Females grow to about ten feet long, or 3 meters, and males are a little longer and much heavier. Males have thick manes around the neck, which is why it’s called a sea lion. It mostly eats fish and sometimes swims up rivers to feed on salmon and trout. Commercial fishermen used to kill Steller’s sea lions, because clearly no one but humans should be allowed to catch fish, and that and overfishing led to a steep decline in sea lion numbers in the late 20th century. Fortunately, though, after it was listed as a protected species its numbers started to recover.

Steller’s sea cow was not so lucky. It was a sirenian, related to dugongs and manatees. Sirenians evolved around 50 million years ago and share a common ancestor with elephants. Their front flippers have toenails that look like elephant toenails, which is neat. They’re fully aquatic like whales, have a tail instead of hind legs like seals, and like both they’re mammals that breathe air. They live in shallow water and graze on aquatic plants. Occasionally they do eat a jellyfish, but who hasn’t accidentally eaten a jellyfish, right? The sirenians living today grow to around 13 feet long at most, or 4 meters, but Steller’s sea cow was more than twice that length, up to 30 feet long, or 9 meters.

Steller’s sea cow was a type of dugong, and had a whale-like notched tail instead of a rounded tail like a manatee’s. Instead of teeth, it had chewing plates made of keratin that it used to chomp lots and lots of kelp and other plants. Its hide was thick with a thick layer of blubber underneath to keep it warm in the cold water. It had a long upper lip covered in bristles that helped it grab plants. Its forelegs were flipper-like and small.

Like the mysterious sea-raven, Steller discovered the sea cow while he was shipwrecked on Bering Island in 1741. It lived there and around some of the other islands in the Bering Sea, although fossil and sub-fossil remains have been found that indicate it used to be much more widespread. Unfortunately, once it was discovered by Europeans, it was hunted to extinction within 30 years of its discovery, killed for its oil-rich blubber and for food. But Steller’s sea cows have occasionally been spotted after that, although no one has provided actual proof. Many of the sightings may have been of hornless female narwhals, which live in the area and are about the same color and shape as the Steller’s sea-cow when seen from the surface. But in 1962, some whalers spotted six animals in shallow water off the coast of Kamchatka, and whalers can probably be relied upon to recognize a whale when they see it. These animals looked like dugongs. In 1976, a sea-cow carcass reportedly washed up on shore not that far from where the whalers’ sighting had taken place. Some workers at a nearby salmon factory went out to look at it and described it as more like a dugong than a whale, but no one thought to keep the body. After that there were a couple of expeditions to look for surviving Steller’s sea-cows, but while none were found, the coast of Kamchatka and its numerous islands are rugged and hard to explore.

The last animal we’ll talk about is the real mystery, called Steller’s sea ape. He only saw it once off the Shumagin Islands in Alaska on August 10, 1741, but he did watch it for more than two hours and took careful notes. I’ll quote part of his description.

“It was about two ells in length; the head was like a dog’s head, the ears pointed and erect, and on the upper and lower lips, on both sides, whiskers hung down which made it look almost like a Chinaman The eyes were large; the body was longish, round and fat, tapering gradually towards the tail. The skin was covered thickly with hair, gray on the back, reddish white on the belly, but in the water it appeared entirely reddish and cow-colored. The tail was divided into two fins, of which the upper, as in the case of sharks, was twice as large as the lower. Nothing struck me more surprising than the fact that neither forefeet as in the marine amphibians nor, in their stead, fins were to be seen… For over two hours it swam around our ship, looking, as with admiration, first at the one and then at the other of us. At times it came so near to the ship that it could have been touched with a pole, but as soon as anybody stirred it moved away a little further. It could raise itself one-third of its length out of the water exactly like a man, and sometimes it remained in this position for several minutes. After it had observed us for about half an hour, it shot like an arrow under our vessel and came up again on the other side; shortly after, it dived again and reappeared in the old place; and in this way it dived perhaps thirty times.”

Two ells would be somewhere around five feet long, maybe a bit more, or just over 1.5 meters.

This description sounds a lot like a seal of some kind, but all seals have forelimbs. One suggestion is that it was a young Northern fur seal, and that either Steller missed seeing its forelimbs or it was an individual born without them. I’m not sure why the suggestion is that it was a young seal, though. Baby Northern fur seals are black at birth and lighten to brown as they grow, with older males having some gray patches. All appear black in the water, not reddish. Adult females only grow to about 4 ½ feet long, or 1.4 meters, and males about seven feet long, or 2.1 meters, so at five feet long Steller’s animal was already a fully grown female or a nearly full-grown male. Young and female Northern fur seals don’t have the long whiskers Steller describes, although males do—but only when full grown.

So while it’s possible Steller’s sea ape was a small male Northern fur seal with no front flippers or flippers that Steller inexplicably didn’t see, there is one other issue. Steller would have known perfectly well what a Northern fur seal looked like. They’re threatened now due to overhunting and habitat loss, but in the mid-18th century they were plentiful throughout the Bering Sea.

So either Steller saw a Northern fur seal that was so malformed that Steller didn’t recognize it, or he described a different animal. Or, as deep-sea ecologist Andrew Thaler suggests, it was a hoax.

Here’s the situation: Steller and the Danish captain of the ship St. Peter, Vitus Bering, did not get along. The expedition was primarily for charting and exploring the region, not describing new animals, and Bering considered Steller primarily the ship’s physician. When the ship got lost from the rest of the expedition and ended up off the coast of Alaska, Steller had to beg Bering to let him explore this new land. He only got ten hours to do so. And when the crew was stricken with scurvy, Bering refused to allow Steller to treat the crew. I don’t know why he didn’t think the ship’s physician shouldn’t be allowed to do his job. This was before people understood what vitamins were, and while many cures for scurvy were available, no one knew why they worked. When people don’t know how things work, sometimes they’re suspicious of them.

We have Steller’s journals so we know how he described Bering. It wasn’t flattering. Steller’s sighting of the sea ape was only about six weeks after his ten-hour shore leave, and the description of the animal was similar in many ways to his description of Bering. Three months later the ship wrecked and the crew was marooned for eight months. Steller spent the time turning his notes into a book. Bering spent the time dying of scurvy. Steller didn’t include the sea ape in his book.

Thaler points out that Steller didn’t just name his mystery animal a sea-ape, he named it the Danish sea ape, Simnia marina danica. Bering was Danish, the only Dane on the ship in fact.

I have no doubt that Steller was poking fun at Bering in the name, but I’m hesitant to say he made the whole sighting up. For one thing, the details not only point to a real animal, they aren’t malicious or even humorous. He described the sea ape playing with some kelp, swimming back and forth under the ship, things like that.

I think Steller sighted a real animal and took notes, probably because he was so bored he would have taken detailed notes on anything. Maybe he knew he was watching a Northern fur seal and amused himself by comparing it to Bering. Maybe he didn’t know what the animal was but some aspects of it reminded him of Bering. Maybe he left it out of his book because he knew it was a caricature. Maybe he left it out of his book because he didn’t have enough information to include it. Maybe he meant to add it later, when he hopefully would sight more of the animals. I don’t know.

What I do know, though, is that someone else saw a Steller’s sea ape in 1965.

In June of 1965, a British man named Miles Smeeton, which was apparently his real name, was sailing his yacht near the Aleutian Islands when he, his wife, his daughter, and a friend all saw a strange animal they couldn’t identify. It was around five feet long with reddish-yellow fur, a dog-like head, and long whiskers like a shih-tzu. It dived underwater when the ship got near. No one saw any limbs and they were all convinced it wasn’t a seal or a sea otter.

So who knows? Maybe there’s a limbless mammal swimming around in the frigid waters of the Bering Sea, just waiting to be discovered.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.com. We’re on Twitter at strangebeasties and have a facebook page at facebook.com/strangeanimalspodcast. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. 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 059: The Onza and the Yemish

This week we’re going to learn about some more big cats, especially the mysterious onza of Mexico and the yemish of Patagonia.

And you should totally check out the charming podcast Cool Facts about Animals.

A jaguar:

A jaguarundi:

A puma, not dead:

The Rodriguez onza, dead:

A giant otter:

Further reading:

The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals by Karl P.N. Shuker

Monsters of Patagonia by Austin Whittall

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to learn about a couple of mystery cats that you might not have heard of, and learn about a few non-mystery animals along the way.

There are several cats native to Mexico. We’ve talked about the puma recently, in episode 52. It’s the same cat that’s also called the cougar or mountain lion, and it lives throughout most of the Americas. It’s tawny or brownish in color with few markings beyond dark and white areas on the face, and sometimes faint tail rings and mottled spots on the legs.

The jaguar is a spotted cat related to lions, tigers, leopards, and other big cats. It lives throughout much of Central and South America, and in North America as far north as Mexico, and was once common in the southwestern United States too but was hunted to extinction there. It prefers tropical forests and swamps, likes to swim, and is relatively stocky with a shorter tail than its relatives. Its background color is tawny or brownish with a white belly, and its spots, called rosettes, are darker. But melanistic jaguars aren’t especially uncommon. They look all black at first glance, but their spots are visible up close. Oh, and a big shout-out to the charming podcast Cool Facts About Animals who did a show about jaguars recently. I definitely recommend it, especially if you’ve got younger kids who love animals.

In 2011, a hunter and his daughter in Arizona took pictures of a spotted cat treed by their dogs, and alerted wildlife officials. The officials studied the photos and said yes, that’s a jaguar. Since then, he’s been monitored by trail cam and conservationists working in the Santa Rita Mountains. Since jaguars have unique spot patterns, we know it’s the same cat, a male that local elementary school kids have named El Jefe. Officials think El Jefe moved to Arizona from a nearby jaguar sanctuary in Mexico, and for years he was the only known jaguar in the United States. In late 2017, a second male jaguar was caught on camera in southern Arizona. Researchers hope that more jaguars will move into the area, which was part of their original range.

Pumas and jaguars are the two biggest cats found in Mexico. But there is a third big cat, a mystery big cat. The onza has been reported in Mexico for centuries. It’s supposed to look like a puma but more lightly built with longer legs and possibly darker fur or dark markings, especially striping on the legs.

The first problem is the name onza. The term is applied to a lot of different big cats in Mexico and other Spanish and Portuguese-speaking countries. For instance, in Brazil the word onça means jaguar, and in fact the jaguar’s scientific name is Pathera onca. The related English word ounce was once the name of the lynx and is now sometimes used for the snow leopard, Panthera uncia. So it’s possible that old reports of onzas just refer to pumas or jaguars, or one of the many other cats that live in the area, such as the jaguarundi.

The jaguarundi sometimes lives in Mexico as far north as southern Texas, although it’s much more common in South and Central America. It’s black or brownish-grey, which is called the grey phase, or red-brown or tawny, called the red phase. In the past the two phases were thought to be separate species. Adult jaguarundis don’t usually have any markings, but cubs have spots on their bellies. That is adorable. It’s closely related to the puma but is smaller, not much bigger than a domestic cat, and unlike most cats it’s diurnal instead of nocturnal, which means it’s mostly active during the day.

The jaguarundi has a flattish head, more like an otter than a cat. A gray phase jaguarundi may be the animal referred to in the writings of Bernal Diaz del Castillo, who in the early 16th century wrote about a lion that resembled a wolf in Montezuma’s menagerie, in 1519. It also happens to be called an onza in some parts of Mexico.

Some animals labeled onzas have been killed and examined. On January 1, 1986 a big cat killed in Sinaloa State in Mexico, called the Rodriguez onza, was examined by a team of experts, including Stephen O’Brien, an expert in feline molecular genetics. They reported that the animal’s DNA was indistinguishable from that of a puma. But it definitely didn’t look like an ordinary puma. I have a picture of it in the show notes. It was long-bodied and slender with dark markings. So it’s possible that stories of onzas arose from sightings of pumas with this sort of coat color variation, or it’s possible there is a remote population of pumas with a leggier build than ordinary pumas, and every so often one wanders out where it’s seen or killed. Pumas can show considerable variance in appearance, so it wouldn’t be that unusual for an occasional individual to be born that’s longer legged than most and that also has more or darker markings than usual.

Then again, who knows? There might be a subspecies of puma or a completely different species of cat out there. If so, hopefully we’ll find out more about it soon so it can be protected and studied.

Jaguarundis make a lot of different vocalizations. Here’s one. It sounds more like a bird than a cat, but I promise you, that’s a jaguarundi.

[cat sound]

Way back in episode 22 I touched on the yemish, or Patagonian water tiger. I think it’s time to revisit it in more detail. Look, I have a fantastic book called Monsters of Patagonia so you’re going to be hearing about Patagonia on this podcast for a long, long time.

The iemisch, or hyminche, or lemisch, or some other variation, is often called a water tiger but linked not with a feline at all, but with a ground sloth. This is entirely the fault of a single man, Florentino Ameghino.

Ameghino lived in the late 19th century and died in 1911. He was from Argentina, born to Italian immigrants, and is still highly regarded as a paleontologist, anthropologist, zoologist, and naturalist, from back in the days when you could specialize in lots of disciplines and still do tons of field work. He has an actual crater on the moon named after him. You don’t get a moon crater unless you’re pretty awesome. But Ameghino had at least one bee in his bonnet, and it involved giant ground sloths like megatherium. He was convinced they were still alive in the remote areas of South America, especially Patagonia.

In an 1898 paper he wrote about the yemish in Patagonia, which he said was a “Mysterious four legged massive beast, of a terrible and invulnerable appearance, whose body cannot be penetrated by missiles or burning branches. They call it Iemisch or ‘water tiger’ and mentioning its name terrorizes them; when interrogated and asked for details, they become grim, drop their heads, turn mute or evade answering.”

I got this quote from the Monsters of Patagonia book, of course. You can find a link in the show notes if you want to order your own copy of the book. It’s a fun read, but I should point out that I do a lot of fact-checking before I include information from the book because there are some inaccuracies and fringey theories. Also, it has no index.

Ameghino said his brother Carlos, who was also a paleontologist, had sent him a piece of hide reputedly from a yemish, which he had gotten from a Tehuelche hunter. The hide had tiny bones embedded in it, called osteoderms, which are a feature of giant ground sloths. Ameghino claimed that the yemish was a giant ground sloth, which he named Neomylodon.

Mylodon, as opposed to Ameghino’s Neomylodon, was a 10 foot long, or 3 meter, ground sloth that did indeed have osteoderms embedded in its thick hide. It had long, sharp claws and ate plants, probably dug burrows, and lived throughout Patagonia and probably most of South America. The important thing here is that mylodon remains, including dung as well as dead animals, have been found in caves in Patagonia, and the remains look so fresh that the discoverers thought they were only a few years old. It turns out that they’re all about 10,000 years old, but were preserved by cold, dry conditions in the caves.

So the piece of hide was probably really from a giant ground sloth, but not one that had been alive recently. Most researchers think that the sloths of Patagonia were already extinct when the area was first settled by humans, but discoveries of what looked like recently dead animals with fearsome claws and a hide that couldn’t be pierced with arrows might very well have contributed to stories of local monsters.

But that’s beside the point, because once you get past Ameghino’s obsession with the yemish being a real live giant ground sloth, it’s clear it’s something completely un-slothlike. The exact term yemish isn’t known from any language in Patagonia, but it might be a corruption of hymché, a water monster, or yem’chen, which means water tiger in the Aonikenk language. An even closer match from the same language means sea wolf and is pronounced ee-m’cheen [iü’mchün]. Other languages in the area call the elephant seal yabich, which also sounds similar to yemish. In other words, it’s pretty clear that the yemish is a water animal of some sort.

The sea wolf is what we call a sea lion, a type of huge seal. Sea lions and elephant seals sometimes come up rivers and into freshwater lakes, which may account for some of the numerous lake monster legends in Patagonia. As for the hymché, it may have a natural explanation too that is nevertheless just as mysterious as just calling it a monster.

French naturalist André Tournouer explored Patagonia in 1900, and at one point while following a stream, he and his expedition saw what their guide called a hymché. It was the size of a large puma but with dark fur, rounded head, no visible ears, and pale hair around the eyes. It sank under the water when Tournouer shot at it, and later they found some catlike tracks in the sand along the bank.

From the description, it’s possible that the hymché was a spectacled bear. We learned about it in episode 42. It lives in the Andes Mountains of South America but was formerly much more widespread, and is usually black with lighter markings around the eyes that give it its name. Its ears are small and its head is more rounded than other bears. While it spends most of its time in the treetops, it actually does swim quite well. But as far as we know, spectacled bears don’t live in Patagonia.

So, back to the yemish. According to Ameghino’s 1898 paper, he said the Tehuelche referred to it as the water tiger. Since there is no local word for tiger in South America, since tigers live in Asia, this is probably a translation of the local word for puma. The jaguar did formerly live in Patagonia but was hunted to extinction there over a century ago. The yemish supposedly spent much of its time in the river and dragged horses and other animals into the water when they came down to drink. Its feet were flat, its ears tiny, it had big claws and fangs, and its toes were webbed for swimming. It had shorter legs than a puma but was bigger than one.

This sounds like one specific animal that does live in Patagonia, and it’s not a tiger or any kind of feline at all. It may be an otter. Flat feet with claws and webbed toes? Check. Tiny ears and scary teeth? Check. Longer than a puma but with much shorter legs? Check. Otters don’t kill animals as big as horses, of course, but this could be an exaggeration. Otters will scavenge on freshly dead animals, so the story of a mule that fell off a precipice onto a river bank, and was discovered dead and half-eaten the next morning with strange paw prints all around it, fits with an otter family having an unexpected feast delivered to their doorstep.

Not only that, but some tribes do call otters “river tigers.” Stories of monstrous otter-like animals are common throughout much of South America, not just Patagonia, and are frequently translated as “river tiger.” In Monsters of Patagonia, Whittall wonders why some tribes have two names for the otter in that case, an ordinary name and a name denoting a monster. It’s possible the monster version of the otter either refers to a folkloric beast, an animal like a sea lion that was once seen far from its ordinary home, or two kinds of otter in the area, one bigger and more ferocious than the other.

The southern river otter lives in Patagonia, both in rivers and along the seashore. It’s not especially big, maybe four feet long including the tail, or 1.2 meters. But the rare marine otter also lives along the western and southern coasts of Patagonia. Its scientific name, Lontra felina, means “otter cat, and in Spanish it’s often called gato marino, or sea cat. But the marine otter is small, typically smaller than the river otter and at the very most, around five feet long or 1.5 meters.

But if you remember episode 37, about the dobhar-chu, you may remember the giant otter. It lives in South America north of Patagonia and is now endangered, with only around 5,000 animals left in the wild after being hunted extensively for its fur for decades. It’s protected now, although loss of habitat and poaching are still big problems. It grows to around 6 feet long now, or 1.8 meters, but when it was more common some big males could grow over eight feet long, or 2.5 meters. If in the past an occasional giant otter—twice the length of an ordinary otter—strayed into the rivers of Patagonia, it would definitely be seen as a monster.

Whittall rejects the idea that the yemish is an otter, although he doesn’t mention the giant otter. He also rejects the jaguarondi as the yemish since it’s much too small, although it does like to swim and fish and, as mentioned earlier, it does look remarkably like an otter in many ways. He suggests the yemish might be an unknown giant aquatic rodent, citing as proof the existence of a cow-sized rodent that once lived in Patagonia during the ice age. I’m not convinced. Nothing about the yemish sounds like a rodent. It does sound like an otter, possibly a known otter, possibly a now extinct otter—or, maybe, a giant version of the jaguarondi, also now extinct. But maybe not.

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 058: Mystery Cattle

Join us this week to learn about the aurochs, the gaur, some mystery cattle of Patagonia, a farting monster cow, and a ghost cow that turned out to be not so ghostly!

The aurochs:

An aurochs skull:

A gaur. Holy cow (heh) those things are enormous!

A heck cow:

The bonnacon, famous for stink. I love how this one looks awfully embarrassed:

Show transcript:

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

We’re going to learn about some unusual cattle this week. You may not think cows are very interesting, but I think I can change your mind.

We’ll start with the aurochs, also sometimes called the urus. It was the wild ancestor of domestic cattle and also ancestor of the European bison. The European bison is still around and is sometimes called the wisent, but the aurochs is extinct.

The aurochs was a type of Ice Age megafauna. A big bull aurochs could stand almost six feet tall at the shoulder, or 180 cm, and some researchers estimate it could weigh as much as 3,300 lbs, or 1500 kg. Both cows and bulls grew horns. In shape the aurochs looked roughly like modern cattle, but the legs were longer, it was overall more muscular, and cows had small udders that weren’t especially visible. From cave paintings of aurochs, we know that calves were born reddish-brown with a lighter muzzle, but as they grew older, the bull calves became either dark brown or black, with a white stripe along the spine called an eel stripe.

The aurochs was strong, fast, and could be very dangerous. Bulls sometimes killed each other when fighting, and they were famously ferocious when hunted.

Sometime between the 3rd and 1st centuries BCE—and BCE just means “before common era” and takes the place of the old term “before Christ” to make history a little more inclusive—a group of scholars translated the Hebrew Bible into Greek. This is the book that makes up the Christian Old Testament. The scholars were known as the Seventy, and they had to make a lot of decisions during their translation. In the case of the re’em, they mistranslated it as monokeros, which in English is unicorn. They didn’t know what the re’em was because it was already extinct in many parts of its former range. If you’ve guessed that it was the aurochs, pat yourself on the back.

The aurochs had started to go extinct in various places due to overhunting and habitat loss as early as the fifth century BCE. As it became rarer, only nobility were allowed to hunt it. But it was a tough animal that had once been common throughout much of Eurasia and the middle east, and even north Africa. It hung on for millennia, but by 1564, only 38 aurochs remained, all of them in one herd in Poland. The last one died in 1627 of natural causes.

If you listened to episode 47, about strange horses, you may remember the heck horse that was bred in the 1920s to look like the extinct wild horse. There’s also a heck cow bred by the same brothers, Heinz and Lutz Heck. Heck cattle resemble aurochs in many respects, although it’s still a domestic breed and not a perfect match. More recent projects to breed cattle that are as similar as possible to aurochs include ongoing genetic de-extinction attempts as well as more refined back-breeding projects than the heck cattle breeding.

There are a number of wild relatives of cattle, known as bovids overall and bovines for their closest relatives. Water buffalo, yak, gaur, bison, and many others are all bovids, and many of those species have been domesticated too. Some antelopes are also considered bovids.

The largest living bovid is the gaur, also called the Indian bison. It’s a wild cow native to southeast Asia, although it’s threatened due to habitat loss and overhunting. It’s protected these days, but poaching is still a problem. A big bull can grow over seven feet high at the shoulder, or 220 cm, and if you count the muscular hump just behind the shoulder, it’s even taller. It’s an incredibly heavy, massive animal in addition to being tall. Only elephants, rhinos, hippos, and giraffes are heavier. It lives in forests and eats leaves, flowers, fruit, some types of grass and clover, and the bark of some trees.

Now let’s talk about some mystery cattle in one of my favorite places, Patagonia, which is the southern section of South America.

In the early 16th century, our old friend Antonio Pigafetta sailed around the world with Magellan and wrote a detailed account of the voyage once he returned to Spain in 1522. Pigafetta reported that the natives of Patagonia told him about devils with two horns and long hair, that breathed fire and also farted fire. These interesting fire details aren’t reported by anyone else, so it’s possible that Pigafetta added them to make the story better. He also would have been familiar with the bonnacon, an animal found in bestiaries at the time and written about by Pliny the Elder. I have learned that PLY-nee is an acceptable alternate pronunciation of his name, although it’s too late for me. They both sound wrong now.

The bonnacon was described as a bull with a long mane like a horse and horns that curled backwards. Because its horns couldn’t be used for defense, it was supposed to run away from danger and fart so prodigiously that the fumes would set fire to everything nearby, and poop would be scattered across three acres. Medieval bestiaries played this for laughs, with pretty epic illustrations, but people also believed it. It’s possible that Pigafetta thought the Patagons were describing the bonnacon. It’s also likely, incidentally, that the bonnacon was a type of buffalo or bison, many of which have small curved horns. Many hoofed animals will void their bowels when stampeding away from predators, so this could be the start of the story.

But while the farts of flame seem to be Pigafetta’s invention, it is definitely the case that many Patagonian tribes have stories of horned animals and spirits that seem remarkably bovine. In the late 19th and early 20th century, a man named Lucas Bridges collected many traditional stories of the people in Tierra del Fuego, which is at the very tip of Patagonia and which is remote even now, and was certainly remote a century ago. He reported that the Selk’nam people told stories about Hachai, a horned man with white fur and red stripes who acted as a fierce and powerful protective spirit along with his two sisters. Bridges witnessed a pantomime of Hachai that was a remarkable imitation of cow-like behavior. But the man performing it had never even seen a cow. Because here’s the thing: there is no known bovid native to South America. Tierra del Fuego doesn’t even have deer.

The Selk’nam were a nomadic people who hunted throughout southern Patagonia until the late 19th century, when British settlers moved in to raise sheep. The Selk’nam didn’t understand that the sheep belonged to anyone. They considered the sheep fair game, literally. In retaliation, the sheep ranchers paid armed militia to kill the Selk’nam—all of them. Lucas Bridges was one of the few who tried to help them by allowing them to live on his land without interference. But by the turn of the 20th century only a handful of Selk’nam survived. They are all gone now and all we have left are stories and traditions collected by anthropologists and missionaries.

Oh man.

So if the Selk’nam had never seen the cattle introduced by the Spanish, and there are no native bovids in Patagonia, how did they imitate cattle so perfectly? Bridges wasn’t the only one to remark on this. In 1833, in southern Chile, a man of the Chono tribe visited a ship and while there, he saw two powder-horns. He put them to his head and bellowed like a bull. Moreover, while in much of South America the local native languages borrow the word for cattle from Spanish, native Patagonian languages have their own words for cattle.

There are two theories. The first has to do with a shipwreck. In 1540 a ship belonging to the Bishop of Plasencia’s fleet sank in the Strait of Magellan. It carried livestock, and we know that some sheep survived. A 1557 expedition reported sheep in the area, and in 1741 some natives brought three freshly killed sheep to the leader of another expedition. It’s entirely possible that some cattle survived long enough to make an impression on the local population, and many stories of horned water monsters have been collected in Patagonia. But if we take Pigafetta’s report of the fire-farting horned spirit as inspired by cattle sightings, the shipwreck happened a few decades too late.

The other theory posits that there was once a bovid that lived in Patagonia. There are a few small hints that this may have been the case. A 1586 Spanish document refers to a buffalo-like animal with “horns with their tips curved backwards which this witness guesses must be buffalo and that they say that the males are black and the females white and that they have soft wool.” In 1598 explorer Oliver van Noort reported animals like stags and buffalo at Puerto Deseado. The stags were guanaco, which are related to llamas, but we don’t know what his buffalo might have been.

But we have no fossil remains. Bovids originated in Eurasia and entered North America relatively late, and as far as researchers can tell none ever made it as far as South America. None ever made it farther south than Mexico, in fact, until domestic cattle were brought to South America by the Spanish. By the mid-1500s cattle had been introduced into the Pampas, a vast prairie north of Patagonia, and feral herds may have made their way to Patagonia by the end of the century.

The Spanish cattle were tough and adaptable, and a small population still lives wild in the Andes. They have adapted to life in forests and to bitterly cold weather, including growing long fur in winter. And their horns are often described as resembling the horns of the aurochs. And with that, we have come full circle.

But we’re not done yet, because I’ve got a cow mystery that you’re going to just love. You know how one of the most frustrating things about cryptozoology is that no one gets good photographs of mystery animals? Well, listen to this story.

There’s a town in central New Jersey called Griggstown, and the Griggstown Cow was a legend told in the area. On foggy nights or rainy days, it was said, a solitary hunter or hiker might see a ghost cow in the mist near a canal outside of town. Occasionally someone would take a picture of the ghost cow, but the photos were all blurry, and no tracks or manure were ever found. The legend persisted for thirty years until November 23, 2002, when someone called the canal park office to report that the Griggstown Cow was stuck in a muddy ravine near the canal.

And sure enough, it was. It was a real live Holstein bull that had been living wild for decades after the area dairy farms closed, but he was old now and wasn’t strong enough to get out of the ditch. Rescuers managed to hoist him out and he was left lying on the grass to recover. But after two days he still hadn’t managed to stand, so the park brought in a veterinarian to examine him. Unfortunately it turned out he was in such poor condition that the vet euthanized him so he wouldn’t suffer, and he was buried in the park.

It’s a sad ending, but a thirty-year-old cow has lived a good long life. And if the Griggstown ghost cow can turn out to be a real animal, maybe other cryptids are real animals 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!

Episode 057: Horseshoe Crabs and Cone Snails

Let’s learn about horseshoe crabs and cone snails! The former is harmless, the latter is deadly. Both are interesting!

This episode’s animals are inspired by the podcast Animals to the Max and by the book Strange Survivors by Dr. Oné R. Pagán. Check both out because they are awesome!

A horseshoe crab will never hurt you and just wants to be left alone to be a horseshoe crab:

A trilobite fossil:

A cone snail just wants to be left alone to be a cone snail but it will kill you if it has to:

Above: the stripey tube thing is the snail’s siphon, the pink tube thing is the snail’s proboscis, or VENOM DUCT.

The Glory of the Sea has a pretty shell:

More cone snail shells:

The rarest seashell in the world:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to look at animals inspired by a book I recently read and a podcast I recently discovered.

The podcast is called Animals to the Max, and it’s one of several new animal podcasts that I’ve been enjoying lately. In most episodes, the host Corbin Maxey interviews someone who works with animals. Recently I was listening to episode 15, and the subject of horseshoe crabs came up briefly. Those things are awesome and well deserving of the term living fossil, so let’s start there.

First of all, horseshoe crabs are not actually crabs. They’re not even crustaceans. In fact, they’re more closely related to spiders and scorpions than to crustaceans. There are four species of horseshoe crabs alive today, three from Asia and one from the Gulf of Mexico and American Atlantic coast. Females are larger than males and depending on the species, may be about a foot long including the tail, or 30 cm, or twice that length.

The horseshoe crab gets its name from its rounded, slightly domed carapace that’s kinda sorta the shape of a horse’s hoof, with a long spike of a tail sticking out from its rear. It has a ridiculous number of eyes—seriously, it has nine eyes plus some photoreceptors on its tail. But it doesn’t see very well. Mostly it just senses light, although it can also see into the ultraviolet range.

It also has five pairs of legs tipped with little claws, and its mouth is in the middle of the base of its legs. Its legs act as shredders to cut up its food into tiny pieces. It eats worms and other invertebrates, and will eat fish if it can get it. Most of the time it swims upside-down. It can breathe air on land for short periods of time as long as its gills stay damp. Oh, and it can regenerate legs if one is injured.

Horseshoe crab blood is blue because instead of hemoglobin, its blood contains hemocyanin to transport oxygen throughout the body. Hemoglobin contains iron, which is red, while hemocyanin contains copper, which is blue. Its blood also contains amebocytes instead of white blood cells, and amebocytes have medical applications for humans, specifically as a way to detect bacteria in medical equipment. That means horseshoe crab blood is valuable. Half a million horseshoe crabs are caught every year, up to 30% of their blood is harvested, and the crabs released back into the wild none the worse for wear. At least, that’s how it’s supposed to go. In fact, almost 30% of the horseshoe crabs released just up and die due to stress, and some companies don’t even release them. They just quietly sell them as bait. Horseshoe crabs have been used as commercial fishing bait and ground up as fertilizer for years. Because of all these pressures, along with pollution and the development of beaches where they lay their eggs, the horseshoe crab has gone from being one of the most numerous animals in the ocean to threatened in a matter of decades. Fortunately, many places have put protections and harvesting limits in place to help the population rebound.

Horseshoe crabs first appear in the fossil record 450 million years ago, near the end of the Ordovician Period, back when most life lived in the oceans and fish with jaws were only just evolving. This was well before dinosaurs. This was well before any animals were living on land at all, although probably some marine animals had discovered that if they laid their eggs on the beach, nothing much would eat them, and some other marine animals had discovered that if they could haul themselves out onto the beach for short periods of time, they might find some eggs to eat. The horseshoe crabs alive today are basically identical to the horseshoe crabs found throughout the fossil record. They hit on a successful body plan hundreds of millions of years ago and have stuck with it ever since.

Trilobites were also everywhere during the Ordovician as well as before and after, until they died out 252 million years ago. Trilobite fossils are really common so you’ve probably seen them, but they looked sort of like big roly-polies, or pill bugs, or sow bugs, depending on what you call them. Horseshoe crabs are actually related to trilobites, and one of the big questions is why trilobites died out after being so incredibly successful for so long—270 million years—while horseshoe crabs didn’t. It was probably just luck. The Great Permian Extinction event wiped out almost 90% of all life on earth, and even before then trilobites were already in decline, while the horseshoe crab was chugging along just fine.

If you’re on the beach and see a horseshoe crab on its back, trying to get right side up, help it by flipping it onto its feet. It won’t hurt you, and you might very well save its life.

The other animal I want to look at today is the cone snail, inspired by a brand new book called Strange Survivors by Oné Pagán. Dr. Pagán kindly sent me an advance copy and it is definitely a book a lot of you would find interesting. It’s about evolutionary forces and how things like venom developed in various animals. I’ll put a link in the show notes if you want to order a copy for yourself. One of the animals Dr. Pagán talks about in the book is the cone snail. I’d never heard of it before but it’s fascinating.

There are something like 800 species of cone snail, in fact. They live in tropical oceans and their shells often have beautiful geometric patterns, the kind collectors spend big bucks for. But all cone snails are venomous and some can be fatal. Cone snails are snails and therefore not exactly known for their speed, but the larger ones hunt and kill fish. How do snails hunt fish? Usually it’s the other way round.

Well, let me just tell you. You are not even going to believe this, but you should, because it is a real thing that actually happens. I’ll use the geographic cone snail as an example, because it’s been well studied. It’s about 6 inches long, or 15 cm, and is common throughout shallow reefs in the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea. It’s also the most toxic of cone snails, and there is no antidote to its venom.

So, imagine a cone snail on the bottom of a shallow, warm ocean. Small fish are swimming around. The cone snail has a mottled brown and white shell, quite pretty, and the snail itself is somewhat similar in color with a siphon sticking out of the bottom of its shell. It’s not bothering anything and some little fish ignore it because hey, they’re fast fish and it’s just a slow snail.

But when the little fish get close to the snail, something odd happens. They just sort of slow down. They stop moving and sink to the bottom, but they don’t act panicked. That’s because the snail has released venom into the water, venom containing insulin that mimics the insulin found in fish. When a fish absorbs the venom through its gills, it goes into hypoglycemic shock, which stuns it. The snail then fires a modified hollow tooth called a harpoon into the fish, injecting more venom and killing the fish. The harpoon is attached to the snail’s body by a proboscis, or venom duct, which the snail uses to winch the fish into its mouth to digest.

So far researchers have found two snails that stun fish with venom released into the water, the geographic and the tulip cone snails, but all cone snails have the harpoon contraption to shoot fish with. And the harpoon is fast. It travels at about 400 miles per hour, or 644 km per hour, and special muscles at the base of the venom duct can pump venom into the fish just as fast. Sometimes a snail will hide in the mud or sand and wiggle its proboscis like a worm, and when a fish comes to investigate, the snail harpoons it. It takes the snail a week or two to digest a fish, and during that time it also grows a new harpoon.

Cone snails also use their harpoons defensively, and they can penetrate right through clothes and even divers’ wetsuits. And the venom can kill a human in a matter of hours. The problem is that many cone snail shells are really pretty, so people pick them up to look at. The snail thinks it’s about to be eaten, defends itself, and the person thinks, “Ow, that felt funny. And my hand is going numb. Hmm. Now my whole body is going numb, how strange.” And then they die. Well, it takes longer than that, but you get the idea. Of course, only 36 people have actually died from cone shell stings in the last 90 years, but just a reminder that if you don’t get in the water you are probably safe from venomous marine snails.

On the other hand, researchers are very interested in the cone snail’s toxins. They could lead to painkillers that don’t cause dependency, better treatments for diabetes, and even treatments for nervous system disorders like Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s. At least one painkiller developed from peptides in a cone snail toxin is already on the market.

One cone snail, the Glory of the Sea, was at one time thought to be the rarest shell in the world. In 1970 its habitat was discovered by divers, in various places throughout the Indo-Pacific but mostly near the Solomon Islands. Before then, though, collectors would spend thousands of U.S. dollars on a specimen. These days they can still go for around one or two hundred bucks just because they’re really pretty and still not terribly common. I’ll put a picture of one in the show notes.

This episode is a little short so let’s just plunge down this rare shell rabbit hole. The rarest shell in the world is arguably that of Sphaerocypraea incomparabilis, and its story is pretty awesome. In 1963 a trawler dredged up a dark brown cowrie type shell that made its way to a Russian shell collector. Rumors of the shell leaked out and in the 1990s, a collector named Donald Dan flew to Moscow and managed to buy the shell. It turned out to be the shell of a snail that had been thought extinct for 20 million years. It’s still extremely rare, though. Only six of the shells are known to be in collections and the living snail still hasn’t been examined by scientists or formally described.

I don’t want to get in the water more than about ankle deep, but I do enjoy beachcombing. Apparently there’s some money to be made in shell collecting, too, but don’t pick up any cone snail shells unless you’re 100% certain the shell is empty.

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!