Episode 065: Animals that eat ants

We’re not looking at just any old insectivores in this episode, we’re looking at the big three of ant-eating mammals: the giant anteater, the aardvark, and the pangolin!

A giant anteater and baby:

Teeny anteater mouth alert! Also long tongue:

An aardvark walking with style:

An aardvark. Look at that tongue! And those claws!

An Indian pangolin. Please do not eat:

A pangolin ball. Please do not kick:

Save the Pangolins organization

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to learn about the anteater, the aardvark, and the pangolin, all of them specialized eaters of ants. Are they related? How do we tell them apart?

The anteater is a South and Central American animal related to sloths and, more distantly, armadillos. The aardvark is an African animal related to several rodent-like animals including the golden mole, which is not a mole, and the elephant shrew, which is neither an elephant nor a shrew. Although, as it happens, the elephant shrew is actually related to the elephant. So is the aardvark, although these connections are pretty darn distant. The pangolin is an Asian and African animal that’s not very closely related to anything.

Let’s start with the giant anteater.

The giant anteater can grow over seven feet long if you include the tail, or more than 2 meters. It’s brown and gray with markings that look like go-faster stripes. Its head is small and elongated. You know how a cartoon character can cram its head into a bottle and its head stays bottle-shaped? It kind of looks like the giant anteater did that. Its snout is shaped like a tube, with nostrils and a tiny mouth at the end. It can’t open its jaws very far. It has a short upright mane along its spine all the way down its back, which blends with its bushy tail. Its tail is so awesomely furry that when an anteater sleeps, it covers its body with its tail like a blanket.

Anteaters eat ants, although they also love termites and will eat other small insects and insect larvae. The giant anteater uses its massive front claws to dig into anthills. Then it flicks its tongue really fast, catching insects with a combination of tiny hooklets on the tongue and sticky saliva. An anteater’s tongue is over two feet long, or 60 cm, so long that when the anteater isn’t actually eating, the tongue rolls up at the back of its skull. The base of its tongue is attached not to its throat but to its sternum, also called the breastbone.

A feeding anteater eats as many insects as it can catch in a minute or two, then moves on to find a new anthill. It does this to avoid as many stings and bites as possible. To conserve energy, the anteater’s body temperature is low to start with and drops when the animal is asleep.

The anteater doesn’t have teeth. It crushes insects against the top of its mouth before swallowing them, and its stomach acts like a bird’s crop. The anteater may deliberately eat sand or grit the way birds do to help pulverize the insects it’s eaten. Its eyesight isn’t very good so it hunts mostly by scent.

The giant anteater knuckle-walks on its forepaws because its front claws are so big. When it feels threatened, it will rear up on its hind legs and spread its forelegs so it can slash with its claws. Anteaters can kill jaguars and other predators, including humans. Occasionally anteaters will fight over territory, especially males. Sometimes during a fight, one anteater will climb on the other one and ride it around, which probably really annoys the anteater that’s being ridden.

The female anteater has one baby at a time, which rides on its mother’s back until it’s big enough to keep up with her on its own. Its markings blend with its mother’s so predators don’t notice it.

So that’s the giant anteater. Now let’s look at the aardvark.

The aardvark is about the same size as the anteater and also eats ants, termites, and other insects. It has a long head, but unlike the anteater, it does have teeth. The incisors and canines it’s born with fall out when it’s an adult, and it never regrows them, but it does retain its cheek teeth. The teeth are small and grow constantly throughout the aardvark’s life, since they wear down quickly due to the lack of enamel.

The aardvark isn’t super furry like the anteater. Its body is shaped something like a pig with a long tail, and it has sparse hair and long ears, whereas the giant anteater has small ears. It’s mostly nocturnal and sleeps during the day in its burrow, where it’s cooler. While it doesn’t have huge claws on its forefeet, it does have tough hoof-like nails that it uses to break apart termite nests and dig burrows. Its skin is thick and it can run and dig quickly to escape predators. It can also swim well.

The aardvark has a good sense of smell and hearing, but its eyesight isn’t all that great. Its snout is more piglike than the anteater’s, with large nostrils protected by hair. Its tongue isn’t as long as the anteater’s, only about a foot long, or 30 cm.

In addition to ants and termites, the aardvark eats one other thing, a fruit called the aardvark cucumber. It’s an actual cucumber, a round fruit about the size of a small child’s fist, but the fruit grows underground. It has a water-resistant skin that keeps it from rotting while it waits for months for an aardvark to dig it up and eat it. The aardvark is the only animal that spreads the aardvark cucumber’s seeds. Researchers think the reason aardvarks have teeth at all is to eat these cucumbers, and that it eats the cucumbers because of their high water content. The seeds travel through the aardvark’s digestive system, and since the aardvark buries its poop like a cat, the cucumber seeds are all ready to sprout.

Female aardvarks have one baby at a time, which stays in the burrow until it’s old enough to follow its mother around. The aardvark ranges widely while it searches for insects, and if it encounters a predator it may dig a burrow to hide in. It can dig a burrow the length of its body in only about five minutes. Sometimes it will dig a temporary burrow to rest in. Empty aardvark burrows make great homes for other animals, from warthogs to various bird species. Even a type of bat roosts in old aardvark burrows.

So that’s the aardvark. Now let’s learn about the pangolin.

At first glance, the pangolin looks nothing like its ant-eating friends from other lands. It’s a mammal, but it’s covered in scales except for its belly and face. Sometimes it’s called the scaly anteater, in fact. Its sharp-edged, overlapping scales are made of keratin. When it’s threatened, it rolls up in a ball with its tail over its face.

The pangolin’s body shape is very similar to the giant anteater’s and the aardvark’s. There are a number of species in three genera of the family Manidae, but we’ll look at just one today, the Indian pangolin. It lives in India and surrounding areas and is about four feet long, or 120 cm, including the tail. It has a humped back like an aardvark, small ears like a giant anteater, and like both those animals its legs are relatively short. Its muzzle is long with a nose pad at the end, it has a long sticky tongue, and it has no teeth. It’s nocturnal and lives in burrows, and it uses its big front claws to dig into termite mounds and ant colonies. Like the others, it has poor vision but a good sense of smell.

It’s mostly solitary and gives birth to one baby at a time, or rarely twins. The baby rides on its mother’s tail, and if she has to roll up to protect herself, she holds her baby against her belly and rolls up around it. Newborn pangolins have soft scales.

There used to be an enormous species of pangolin in Asia, whose remains have been found in Java, India, and other places. The bones date to around 45,000 years ago but we don’t have enough remains to get a good idea of when the giant Asian pangolin actually went extinct. It was probably around eight feet long including the tail, or almost 2.5 meters. People native to an island called Rintja in Indonesia tell stories about the veo, a scaly animal ten feet long, or three meters, that sounds exactly like a giant pangolin. So it’s possible that these giant pangolins didn’t die out until humans encountered them.

Unfortunately for the pangolin, its scales make it sought after by humans for decoration. People also eat them. In some countries, like Vietnam and China, pangolin meat is an extremely expensive delicacy, which means poachers can get a lot of money for them. Habitat loss is also making it tough for the pangolin. All species of pangolin in Asia are endangered or critically endangered, while all species of pangolins in Africa are vulnerable. Pangolins also don’t do well in captivity so it’s hard for zoos to help them.

Pangolins just walk to trundle around eating ants. Why are people so mean?

I’ll put a link in the show notes to the Save Pangolins organization if you want to contribute. All sales of cute pangolin merch from their store also goes toward helping stop pangolin poaching and smuggling.

Scientists used to think that anteaters, aardvarks, and pangolins were closely related since they share so many similarities. Instead, they show convergent evolution, where they inhabit a similar ecological niche and therefore evolve to look similar. You know what the pangolin is most closely related to? Carnivores, including cats and dogs and bears.

So it’s probably safe to assume at this point that if you want to eat mostly ants and termites, you need a long thin snout, a super-long sticky tongue, and big claws for digging. Personally, I would rather have pizza.

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 064: Updates and the Nandi Bear

It’s update week! I call myself out for some mistakes, then catch us all up on new information about topics we’ve covered in the past. Then we’ll learn about the Nandi bear, a mystery animal that is probably not actually a bear.

Check out Finn and Lila’s Natural History and Horse Podcast on Podbean!

Check out the Zeng This! pop culture podcast while you’re at it!

A new species of Bird of Paradise:

Buša cattle:

Further reading/watching:


Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to dig into some updates to previous episodes! Don’t worry, it’ll be interesting. We’re also going to look at a mystery animal we haven’t examined before.

First, though, a big shout-out to Sir Finn Hayes, a long-time listener who has started his own podcast! It’s called Finn’s Natural History, although now I see it’s been renamed Finn and Lila’s Natural History and Horse Podcast, and you can find it on Podbean. I’ll put a link in the show notes. The great thing is, Finn is just ten years old but he and his younger sister Lila are already dropping knowledge on us about animals and plants and other things they find interesting. So give their podcast a listen because I bet you’ll like it as much as I do.

Before we get into the updates, let me call myself out on a few glaring mistakes in past episodes. In episode four, I called my own podcast by the wrong name. Instead of Strange Animals, I said Strange Beasties, which is my Twitter handle. In episode 29, I said Loch Ness was 50 miles above sea level instead of 50 feet, a pretty big difference. In episode 15 I called Zenger of the Zeng This! podcast Zengus, which is just unforgiveable because I really like that podcast and you’d think I could remember the cohost’s name. There’s a link to the Zeng This! podcast in the show notes. It’s a family-friendly, cheerful show about comics, movies, video games, and lots of other fun pop culture stuff.

If you ever hear me state something in the podcast that you know isn’t true, definitely let me know. I’ll look into it and issue a correction when appropriate. As they say on the Varmints Podcast, I am not an animal expert. I do my best, but sometimes I get things wrong. For instance, in episode 60, I said sirenians like dugongs and manatees have tails in place of hind legs like seals do, but sirenian tails actually developed from tails, not hind legs. Pinniped tails developed from hind legs and have flipper-like feet.

Anyway, here are some updates to topics we’ve covered in past episodes. It isn’t all-inclusive, mostly just stuff I’ve stumbled across while researching other animals.

In episode 47 about strange horses, I talked a lot about Przewalski’s horse. I was really hoping never to have to attempt that pronunciation again, but here we are. A new phylogenetic study published in February of 2018 determined that Przewalski’s horse isn’t a truly wild horse. Its ancestors were wild, but Przewalski’s horse is essentially a feral domestic horse. Its ancestors were probably domesticated around 5,500 years ago by the Botai people who lived in what is now northern Kazakhstan. The Przewalski’s horse we have now is a descendant of those domestic horses that escaped back into the wild long after its ancestors had died out. That doesn’t mean it’s not an important animal anymore, though. It’s been wild much longer than mustangs and other feral horses and tells us a lot about how truly wild horse ancestors looked and acted. Not only that, its wild ancestor is probably a different species or subspecies of the European wild horse, which was the ancestor of most other domestic horses. The next step for the team of researchers that conducted this study is figuring out more about the ancestors of domestic horses.

The mystery cattle episode also has an update. I didn’t mention Buša cattle in that episode, but I just learned something interesting about it. The Buša is a rare breed of domestic cow that developed in southeastern Europe. It’s a small, hardy animal well adapted to mountainous terrain, and it turns out that it’s the most genetically diverse breed of cattle out of sixty studied. The research team is working to help conserve the breed so that that genetic diversity isn’t lost.

Right after episode 61, where we talked about birds of paradise, researchers announced a new species of bird of paradise! The bird was already known to scientists, but they thought it was just a subspecies of the Superb Bird-of-Paradise. But new video footage of a unique mating dance helped researchers determine that this wasn’t just a subspecies, it was different enough to be its own species. It’s called the Vogelkop Superb Bird of Paradise, and the Superb Bird of Paradise is now called the Greater Superb Bird of Paradise to help differentiate the two species. I’ll put a link in the show notes to an article that has the video embedded if you want to watch it. It’s pretty neat.

In episode 25 we learned about Neandertals, and I said we didn’t have much evidence of them being especially creative by human standards. That was the case when I did my research last summer, but things have definitely changed. In February 2018 archaeologists studying cave paintings in Spain announced that paintings in at least three caves were made by Neandertals and not humans. The paintings have been dated to over 64,000 years old, which is 20,000 years before humans showed up in the area. The precise dating is due to a new and much more accurate dating technique called the uranium-thorium method, which measures the tiny deposits that build up on the paintings. So Neandertals might have been a lot more creative than we’ve assumed. Researchers are now looking at other cave art and artefacts like jewelry and sculptures to consider whether some might also have been made by Neandertals.

New studies about human migration out of Africa have also been published since our humans episode. Human fossils and stone tools found in what is now a desert in Saudi Arabia have been dated to 90,000 years ago, when the area was lush grassland surrounding a lake. Until this finding, researchers thought humans had not settled the area until many thousands of years later.

I think it was episode 27, Creatures of the Deeps, where I mentioned the South Java Deep Sea Biodiversity Expedition. Well, in only two weeks that expedition discovered more than a dozen new species of crustacean, including a crab with red eyes and fuzzy spines, collected over 12,000 animals to study, and learned a whole lot about what’s down there.

One thing I forgot to mention in episode 11 is that the vampire bat’s fangs stay sharp because they lack enamel. Enamel is a thin but very hard mineral coating found on the teeth of most mammals. It protects the teeth and makes them stronger. But vampire bats don’t chew hard foods like bones or seeds, and not having enamel means that their teeth are softer. I tried to find out more about this, like whether the bat does something specific to keep its teeth sharp, like filing them with tiny tooth files, but didn’t have any luck. On the other hand, I did learn that baby bats are born bottom-first instead of head-first, because this keeps their wings from getting tangled in the birthing canal.

Many thanks to Simon, who has sent me links to several excellent articles I would have missed otherwise. One is about the controversy about sea sponges and comb jellies, and which one was the ancestor of all other animals. We covered the topic in episode 41. Mere weeks after that episode went live, a new study suggests that sponges win the fight. Hurrah for sponges!

Simon also sent me an article about the platypus, which we learned about in episode 45. There’s a lot of weirdness about the platypus, so it shouldn’t be too surprising that platypus milk contains a unique protein so potently antibacterial that it could lead to the development of powerful new antibiotics. Researchers think the antibacterial properties are present in platypus milk because as you may remember, monotremes don’t have teats, just milk patches, and the babies lick the milk up. That means the milk is exposed to bacteria from the environment, so the protein helps keep platypus babies from getting sick.

Simon also suggests that in our mystery bears episode, I forgot a very important one, the Nandi bear! So this sounds like the perfect time to learn about the Nandi bear.

I had heard of the Nandi bear, but I had it confused with the drop bear, an Australian urban myth that’s used primarily to tease tourists and small children. But the Nandi bear is a story from Africa, and it might be based on a real animal.

It has a number of names in Africa and sightings have come from various parts of the continent, but especially Kenya, where it’s frequently called the chemosit. There are lots of stories about what it looks like and how it acts. Generally, it’s supposed to be a ferocious nocturnal animal that sometimes attacks humans on moonless nights, especially children. Some stories say it eats the person’s brain and leaves the rest of the body. That’s creepy. Also, just going to point this out, it’s extremely unlikely. Its shaggy coat is supposed to be dark brown, reddish, or black, and sometimes it will stand on its hind legs. When it’s standing on all four legs, it’s between three and six feet tall, or one to almost two meters. Its head is said to be bear-like in shape. Sometimes it’s described as looking like a hyena, sometimes as a baboon, sometimes as a bear-like animal. Its front legs are often described as powerful.

The first known sighting by someone who actually wrote down their account is from the Journal of the East Africa and Uganda Natural History Society, published in 1912. I have a copy and I’m just going to read you the pertinent information. The account is by Geoffrey Williams. The Nandi expedition Williams mentions took place in 1905 and 1906, and while it sounds like it was just a bunch of people exploring, it was actually a military action by the British colonial rulers who killed over 1,100 members of the Nandi tribe in East Africa after they basically said, hey, stop taking our land and resources and people. During the campaign, livestock belonging to the Nandi were killed or stolen, villages and food stores burned, and the people who weren’t killed were forced to live on reservations. Anyway, here’s what Geoffrey Williams had to say about the Nandi bear, which suddenly doesn’t seem quite so important than it did before I learned all that:

“Several years ago I was travelling with a cousin on the Uasingishu just after the Nandi expedition, and, of course, long before there was any settlement up there. We had been camped on the edge of the Escarpment near the Mataye and were marching towards the Sirgoit Rock when we saw the beast. There was a thick mist, and my cousin and I were walking on ahead of the safari with one boy when, just as we drew near to the slopes of the hill, the mist cleared away suddenly and my cousin called out ‘What is that?’ Looking in the direction to which he pointed I saw a large animal sitting up on its haunches not more than 30 yards away. Its attidue was just that of a bear at the ‘Zoo’ asking for buns, and I should say it must have been nearly 5 feet high. It is extremely hard to estimate height in a case of this kind; but it seemed to both of us that it was very nearly, if not quite, as tall as we were. Before we had time to do anything it dropped forward and shambled away towards the Sirgoit with what my cousin always describes as a sort of sideways canter. The grass had all been burnt off some weeks earlier and so the animal was clearly visible.

“I snatched my rifle and took a snapshot at it as it was disappearing among the rocks, and, though I missed it, it stopped and turned its head round to look at us. It is in this position that I see it most clearly in my mind’s eye. In size it was, I should say, larger than the bear that lives in the pit at the ‘Zoo’ and it was quite as heavily built. The fore quarters were very thickly furred, as were all four legs, but the hind quarters were comparatively speaking smooth or bare. This distinction was very definite indeed and was the first thing that struck us both. The head was long and pointed and exactly like that of a bear, as indeed was the whole animal. I have not a very clear recollection of the ears beyond the fact that they were small, and the tail, if any, was very small and practically unnoticeable. The colour was dark and left us both with the impression that it was more or less of a brindle, like a wildebeeste, but this may have been the effect of light.”

A couple of years later, in the same journal, a man saddled with the name Blayney Percival wrote about the Nandi bear. He said, “The stories vary to a very large extent, but the following points seem to agree. The animal is of fairly large size, it stands on its hind legs at times, is nocturnal, very fierce, kills man or animals.” Percival thought the differing stories referred to different animals, known or unknown. He wrote, “An example of a weird animal was the beast described to me in the Sotik country; the name I forget, but the description was very similar to that of the chimiset. Fair size—my pointer dog being given as about its size; stood on hind legs; was very savage. Careful inquiries and a picture of the ratel settled the matter, then out came the information that it was light on the back and dark below, points that would have settled it at once.” The ratel, of course, is the honey badger.

In 1958, cryptozoologist Bernard Heuvelmans wrote in his seminal work On the Track of Unknown Animals that the Nandi bear was probably based on more than one animal. Like Percival, he thought the different accounts were just too different. He thought at least some sightings were of honey badgers, while some were probably hyenas.

So if at least some accounts of the Nandi bear are of an unknown animal, what kind of animal might it be? Is it a bear? Do bears even live in Africa?

Africa has no bears now, but bear fossils at least three million years old have been found in South Africa and Ethiopia. Agriotherium africanum probably went extinct due to increased competition when big cats evolved to be fast, efficient hunters.

So it’s not likely that the Nandi bear is an actual bear. It’s also not likely it’s an ape of some kind, since apes are universally diurnal and the Nandi bear is described as nocturnal. Cryptozoologists have suggested all sorts of animals as a possible solution, but this episode is already getting kind of long so I’m not going to go into all of them. I’m just going to offer my own suggestion, which I have yet to see anywhere else, probably because it’s a bit farfetched. But hey, you never know.

The family of carnivores called Amphicyonidae are extinct now, as far as we know, but they lived throughout much of the world until about two million years ago. They’re known as bear-dogs and were originally thought to be related to bears, but are now considered more closely related to canids, possibly even the ancestors of canids. They are similar but not related to the dog-bears, Hemicyoninae, which are related to bears but which went extinct about 5 million years ago. Someone needs to sort out this bear-dog/dog-bear naming confusion.

Anyway, Amphicyonids lived in Africa, although we don’t have a whole lot of their fossils. The most recent Amphicyonid fossils we have date to about five million years ago and are of dog-sized animals that ate meat and lived in what are now Ethiopia and Kenya. Generally, Amphicyonids were doglike in overall shape but with a heavier bear-like build. They probably had plantigrade feet like bears rather than running on relatively small dog-like paws—basically, canids walk on their toes while bears walk on flat feet like humans. They were probably solitary animals and some researchers think they went extinct mainly because they couldn’t adapt to a changing environment and therefore different prey species, and couldn’t compete with smarter, faster pack hunting carnivores.

Maybe a species of Amphicyonid persisted in parts of Africa until recently, rarely seen but definitely feared for its ferocity. Probably not, because five million years is a long time to squeak by in an area with plenty of well-established carnivores. But maybe.

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 063: The Hammerhead Worm and the Ichthyosaur

This week we’re learning about the hammerhead worm and the ichthyosaur, two animals that really could hardly be more different from each other. Thanks to Tania for the hammerhead worm suggestion! They are so beautifully disgusting!

Make sure to check out the podcast Animals to the Max this week (and always), for an interview with yours truly. Listen to me babble semi-coherently about cryptozoology and animals real and maybe not real!

Here are hammerhead worms of various species. Feast your eyes on their majesty!

An ichthyosaur:

More ichthyosaurs. Just call me DJ Mixosaurus:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re looking at a couple of animals that have nothing in common. But first, a big thank you to the podcast Animals to the Max. The host, Corbin Maxey, interviewed me recently and the interview should be released the same day this episode goes live. If you don’t already subscribe to Animals to the Max, naturally I recommend it, and you can download the new episode and listen to me babble about cryptozoology, my favorite cryptids, and what animal I’d choose if I could bring back one extinct species. There’s a link to the podcast in the show notes, although it should be available through whatever app you use for podcast listening.

This week’s first topic is a suggestion from Tania, who suggested hammerheaded animals. We’ve covered hammerhead sharks before way back in episode 15, but Tania also suggested hammerhead worms. I’d never heard of that one before, so I looked it up. I’ve now been staring at pictures of hammerhead worms in utter fascination and horror for the last ten minutes, so let’s learn about them.

There are dozens of hammerhead worm species. They’re a type of planarian, our old friend from the regenerating animals episode, and like those freshwater planarians, many hammerhead worms show regenerative abilities. They’re sometimes called land planarians. Most are about the size of an average earthworm or big slug, with some being skinny like a worm while others are thicker, like a slug, but some species can grow a foot long or more. Unlike earthworms, and sort of like slugs, a hammerhead worm has a flattened belly called a creeping sole. Some hammerhead worms are brown, some are black, some have yellow spots, and some have stripes running the length of their bodies. Hmm, it seems like I’m forgetting a detail in their appearance. …oh yeah. Their hammerheads! Another name for the hammerhead worm is the broadhead planarian, because the head is flattened into a head plate that sticks out like a fan or a hammerhead depending on the species.

The hammerhead worm’s head contains a lot of sensory organs, especially chemical receptors and some eye-like spots that probably can only sense light and dark. Researchers think the worms’ heads are shaped like they are to help the worm triangulate on prey the same way many animals can figure out where another animal is just by listening. That’s why most animals’ ears are relatively far apart, too.

One species of hammerhead worm, Bipalium nobile, can grow over three feet long, or one meter, although it’s as thin as an earthworm. It has a fan-shaped head and is yellowish-brown with darker stripes. It’s found in Japan, although since it wasn’t known there until the late 1970s, researchers think it was introduced from somewhere else. That’s the case for many hammerhead worms, in fact. They’re easily spread in potted plants, and since they can reproduce asexually, all you need is one for a species to spread and become invasive.

While hammerhead worms do sometimes reproduce by mating, with all worms able to both fertilize other worms and also lay eggs, when they reproduce without a mate it works like this. Every couple of weeks a hammerhead worm will stick its tail end to the ground firmly. Then it moves the rest of its body forward. Its body splits at the tail, breaking off a small piece. The piece can move and acts just like a new worm, which it is. It takes about a week to ten days for the new worm to grow a head. Meanwhile, the original worm is just fine and is busy growing another tail piece that will soon split off again into another worm.

One common hammerhead worm accidentally introduced to North America from Asia is frequently called the landchovy. It’s slug-like, tan or yellowish, with a thin brown stripe and a small fan-shaped head. It looks like a leech and if I saw one I would assume that I was about to die. But I would be safe, because hammerhead worms only eat invertebrates, mostly earthworms but also snails, slugs, and some insects.

When a hammerhead worm attacks its prey, say an earthworm, it hangs on to it with secretions that act like a sort of glue. The earthworm can’t get away no matter what it does. The hammerhead worm’s mouth isn’t on its head. It’s about halfway down its body. Once it’s stuck securely to the earthworm, the hammerhead worm secretes powerful enzymes from its mouth that start to digest the earthworm. Which, I should add, is still alive, at least for a little while. The enzymes turn the worm into goo pretty quickly, which the hammerhead worm slurps up. The hammerhead worm’s mouth is also the same orifice that it expels waste from. I’m just going to leave that little factoid right there and walk away.

Hammerhead worms haven’t been studied a whole lot, but some recent studies have found a potent neurotoxin in a couple of species. That could explain why hammerhead worms don’t have very many predators. Or many friends.

[gator sound]

Our next animal is a little bit bigger than the hammerhead worm, but probably didn’t have a hammerhead. We don’t know for sure because we don’t have a complete skeleton, just a partial jawbone. It’s the giant ichthyosaur, and its discovery is new. In May of 2016 a fossil enthusiast named Paul de la Salle came across five pieces of what he suspected was an ichthyosaur bone along the coast of Somerset, England. He sent pictures to a couple of marine reptile experts, who verified that it was indeed part of an ichthyosaur’s lower jawbone, called a surangular. They got together with de la Salle to study the fossil pieces, and after doing size comparisons with the largest known ichthyosaur, determined that this new ichthyosaur probably grew to around 85 feet long, or 26 meters.

So what is an ichthyosaur? Ichthyosaur means fish-lizard, which is a pretty good name because they are reptiles that adapted so well to life in the ocean that they came to resemble modern fish and dolphins. This doesn’t mean they’re related to either—they’re not. But if you’ve heard the phrase convergent evolution, this is a prime example. Convergent evolution describes how totally unrelated animals living in similar habitats often eventually evolve to look similar due to similar environmental pressures.

The first ichthyosaurs appear in the fossil record around 250 million years ago, with the last ones dated to about 90 million years ago. In 1811, a twelve-year-old English girl named Mary Anning took her little brother Joseph to the nearby seashore to look for fossils they could sell to make a little money, and they discovered the first ichthyosaur skeleton. That sounds pretty neat, but Mary’s story is so much more interesting than that. First of all, when Mary Anning was barely more than a year old, a neighbor was holding her and standing under a tree with two other women, when the tree was struck by lightning. The three women all died, but Mary survived. She had been considered a sickly child before that, but after the lightning strike she was healthy and grew up strong.

Mary’s family was poor, so anything she and her brother could do to make money helped. At the time, no one quite understood what fossils were, but people liked them and a nice-looking ammonite or other fossilized shell could bring quite a bit of money when sold as a curio. Mary’s father was a carpenter, but the whole family was involved in collecting fossils from the nearby cliffs at Lyme Regis in Dorset, where they lived, and selling them to tourists. After her father died, selling fossils was the only way the family could make money.

As Mary and her brother became more proficient at finding and preparing fossils, geologists became more and more interested. She made detailed drawings and notes of the fossils she found, and read as many scientific papers as she could get her hands on. At the time, women weren’t considered scholars and certainly not scientists, but Mary taught herself so much about fossils and anatomy that she literally knew more about ichthyosaurs than anyone else in the world.

When Mary was 27 years old, she opened her own shop, called Anning’s Fossil Depot. Fossil collectors and geologists from all over the world visited the shop, including King Frederick Augustus II of Saxony, who bought an ichthyosaur skeleton from her. Collecting fossils could be dangerous, though. In 1833 she almost died in a landslide. Her little dog Trey was just in front of her, and he was killed by the falling rocks. Probably Trey had not heard about the lightning incident or he wouldn’t have stuck so close to Mary.

Although Mary Anning was an expert, and every collection and museum in Europe contained fossil specimens she had found and prepared, she got almost no credit for her work. She was not happy about this, either. Her discoveries were claimed by others, just because they were men. Mary was the one who figured out that the common conical fossils known as bezoar stones were fossilized ichthyosaur poops, called coproliths. Her expertise wasn’t just with ichthyosaurs, either. She was also an expert on fossil sharks and fishes, pterosaurs, and plesiosaurs, and she discovered ink sacs in belemnite fossils. Her friends Anna Pinney and Elizabeth Philpot frequently accompanied Mary on collecting expeditions. I picture them frowning and kicking scientific butt.

Okay, back to ichthyosaurs. Ichthyosaurs were warm-blooded, meaning they could regulate their body temperature internally, without relying on outside sources of heat. They breathed air and gave birth to live babies the way dolphins and their relations do. They had front flippers and rear flippers along with a tail that resembled a shark’s except that the lower lobe was larger than the upper lobe. Some species had a dorsal fin too. They had huge eyes, which researchers think indicated they dived for prey. Many ichthyosaur bones show damage caused by decompression sickness, when an animal surfaces too quickly from a deep dive—called the bends by human scuba divers. Not only were their eyes huge, they were protected by a bony eye ring that would help the eyes retain their shape even under deep-sea pressures.

Ichthyosaurs had long jaws full of teeth, but different species ate different things. Many ate fish and cephalopods like squids, while other specialized in shellfish, and others ate larger animals. We have a good idea of what they ate because we have a lot of high quality fossils, so high quality that we can see the contents of the animals’ stomachs. We also have all those coproliths that paleontologists cut open to see what ichthyosaur poop contained.

Ichthyosaurs lived before plesiosaurs and weren’t related to them. Plesiosaurs are usually depicted with long skinny necks, but more recent reconstructions suggest their necks were actually thick, protected by muscles and fat. Ichthyosaurs appear to have been outcompeted by plesiosaurs once they began to evolve, but ichthyosaurs were already on the decline at that point, although we don’t know why.

Until very recently, the biggest known species of ichthyosaur was Shonisaurus sikanniensis, which grew to almost 70 feet long, or 21 meters. It was discovered by Elizabeth Nicholls, continuing Mary Anning’s legacy of kicking butt and finding ichthyosaurs, and described in 2004. But the new ichthyosaur just discovered was even bigger.

In the mid-19th century, some fragments of fossilized bones were found near the village of Aust in England. They were assumed to be dinosaur bones, but now researchers think they may have been from giant ichthyosaurs, maybe even ones bigger than the one whose jawbone was recently found.

As a comparison, the biggest animal ever known to have lived is the blue whale. It’s alive today. Every time I think about that, it blows my mind. A blue whale can grow almost 100 feet long, or 30 meters. Until very recently, researchers didn’t think any animal had ever approached its size. Even megalodon, the biggest shark known, topped out at about 60 feet, or 18 meters. If the estimated size of the giant ichthyosaur, 85 feet or 26 meters, is correct, it’s possible there were individuals that were bigger than the biggest blue whale, or it’s possible that the jawbone we have of the giant ichthyosaur was actually from an individual that was on the small side of average. Let’s hope we find more fossils soon so we can learn more about it.

Mary Anning would have been out there looking for more of its fossils, I know that.

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 062: The Honey Badger and Its Horrible Friends

It’s badger week at Strange Animals Podcast, thanks to a suggestion by Richard E.! I knew the honey badger was something special, but I had no idea how special. And by “special” I mean “terrifying.”

Shout-out to Turn of Phrases podcast just because I love it so much. It’s a short, family friendly podcast that explains the weird idioms we say without thinking about them.

A honey badger. Look at that adorable snarl!

A wolverine and its TEETH:

An American badger:

A European badger:

Show transcript:

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

I’ve been getting a bunch of great topic suggestions and I’m falling behind on addressing them, so this week I was going to cover two or three suggestions in one big episode. I started with the honey badger, though, and soon I realized this animal and some of its close relations deserved an episode to themselves.

The honey badger was suggested by Richard, who has also sent lots of other great topic suggestions I’m working on. That’s not my brother Richard, it’s a different Richard. Hello to both of you.

The honey badger sounds like it should be a cuddly Pooh-bear kind of animal that gets its hand stuck in the honey jar and its friends have to help free it. In fact, the honey badger is a terrifyingly dangerous animal that’s related to other badgers, as well as to weasels, wolverines, and otters, although not closely. One interesting thing I just found out: the European badger is not all that closely related to the American badger. In fact, the American and European badgers are about as closely related to each other as they are to the honey badger. The European badger is more closely related to the wolverine than it is the American badger and the honey badger. We’ll look at all these animals this week.

The honey badger has short legs, a broad body, a flattish head with a stubby nose, small ears and eyes, a medium-length tail, and strong claws. That’s the same rough description of the wolverine and the European and American badgers too. Its fur is black with a broad pale gray or white stripe from the head down the back, although one subspecies of honey badger is all black. The honey badger lives in Africa, India, and Southwest Asia, and while it only stands around a foot high at the shoulder, or 28 cm, its ferocity means it basically has no predators. Its skin is so thick and tough that arrows, spears, and even machetes don’t do much damage. Even small-caliber bullets can’t fully penetrate its skin. Setting a pack of dogs on a honey badger just ends up with a lot of unhappy, or possibly dead, dogs, because in addition to being ridiculously thick, the honey badger’s skin is extremely loose. If an animal bites it, the honey badger can still twist around and attack with its massive front claws and teeth. Not only that, but the honey badger has more stamina than its attacker, guaranteed, and it will continue to fight tirelessly forever.

The honey badger eats meat, some plant material like berries and roots, and pretty much anything else it can get. Most of the animals a honey badger hunts are small, rodents and frogs and things like that. It can even bite through tortoise shells with its powerful jaws, and will kill and eat even the most venomous snakes since if it does get bitten, like the mongoose, it is naturally resistant to venom. It eats all of whatever it kills, even fur, bones, and feathers. Occasionally a honey badger will chase another animal away from its kill, including lions. Yeah, even lions don’t want to mess with the honey badger—although lions do sometimes kill honey badgers, usually when a honey badger attacks it.

The honey badger gets its name not from its sweet personality, because it’s actually an ornery animal that will attack anything that comes near its burrow, but because it raids beehives—not for its honey, but for bee larvae. Like bears, which can raid beehives without worrying too much about getting stung through its thick fur, the honey badger doesn’t usually have much problem with bee stings. But sometimes there are too many bees even for the honey badger, in which case it has a secret anti-bee weapon.

The honey badger has an anal pouch that holds secretions that are really, really stinky. Skunk stinky. It can turn the pouch inside out to release the stink, which may stun or calm the bees the way a beekeeper calms bees with smoke.

As if all this isn’t fearsome enough, the honey badger is also intelligent and shows occasional tool use, like moving a log to stand on to reach prey. It also digs extremely well. And it’s not a slow animal at all. In fact, it can be kind of frenetic like its weasel cousins. And when it attacks animals larger than itself, like lions, it goes for the scrotum.

Baby cheetahs are born with broad white stripes down their backs, and some researchers think that coloring mimics the honey badger’s coloring and helps keep potential predators away.

The honey badger is called the ratel in South Africa, because of the sound it makes. I tried really hard to find audio of a honey badger that wasn’t overlaid with music or people talking, without luck. The closest I have is a honey badger attacking a cobra, but mostly what you hear is the cobra hissing. The cobra is not having a good day. You can hear the honey badger chatter a little, but it just sounds like a couple of squeaks. Here it is, for what it’s worth.

[honey badger and cobra sounds]

The wolverine is another animal in the Mustelidae family, and like its cousin the honey badger, it has a reputation for being ferocious. It also has a way better name than the honey badger, with an X-Men character, a bunch of sports teams, and a Swedish metal band named after it. On the other hand, it’s also sometimes called a skunk bear or nasty cat because of its anal scent glands, which it uses to mark its territory. It mostly lives in Alaska and northern Canada, Siberia, and parts of Norway, Sweden, and Finland.

The wolverine is short and broad like the honey badger and is about the same size, or a bit larger, but it looks much more like a tiny bear. It’s light brown with darker brown or black legs, muzzle, tail, and back. It eats a lot of carrion, but it will also kill animals, from squirrels and mice all the way up to moose and caribou. It will also eat some plant material, like seeds and berries. The wolverine has a thick hide like the honey badger, but it’s not quite in the honey badger’s league. Bears and wolves will sometimes kill wolverines.

The wolverine lives in cold climates. Females dig dens in the snow to have their babies in late winter and early spring. Its fur is thick and water-repellent, and in old-timey times its fur was prized and used to line parkas and other clothing. Shout-out to the Turn of Phrases podcast for putting old-timey times into my everyday vocabulary. The wolverine also has a single tooth in the back of the jaw that sticks sideways into the mouth and helps it tear off meat from frozen carcasses. A wolverine will cache carcasses at the beginning of winter, which gives it food when the snow is deep and there’s not much else to eat.

The wolverine was once much more widespread, but as the last ice age ended about 12,000 years ago its range became more northerly. It’s also been trapped and killed for its fur and to stop it from killing livestock. But male wolverines in particular can range widely, and occasionally one strays farther south. In 2016 a tagged wolverine was tracked as it traveled more than 800 miles, or almost 1300 km, through Wyoming, Colorado, and North Dakota, where it was killed by a ranch-hand.

In 1992 and 1994 a pair of wolverines were seen repeatedly in parts of Wales and England, and a dead one was reported on the side of the road, apparently killed by a car. Only about a hundred wolverines are kept in zoos, and a zoo would notice if a couple of its wolverines disappeared. Wolverines don’t make good pets, to say the least, so they probably weren’t escaped pets. The general consensus is that they must have been escapees from a fur farm—but wolverines don’t do well in captivity and rarely breed successfully even in zoos. So where they came from is a mystery, and unfortunately no one thought to retrieve the body or even take a photograph so it could be positively IDed.

Lastly, we’ll look at the relatively mild-mannered European badger and American badger. They look very similar, but as I noted at the beginning of the episode, they’re not all that closely related. The badger has a wide body that’s mostly gray with short legs that are darker gray or black. The tail is not stubby but not especially long. The face is black with white markings. The European badger has a broad white stripe that runs from the tip of its nose to between its ears, and a white stripe on both cheeks. The American badger has a thin white stripe that starts farther back on the nose and runs over the top of the head and down the neck, and black and white striped cheeks. Both are strong diggers that live in burrows.

The American badger is found throughout western and central North America, from parts of Canada to northern Mexico. It eats a lot of mice, groundhogs, ground squirrels, prairie dogs, pocket gophers, and basically any little animal it can dig up from its burrows. It also eats lots of snakes, including rattlesnakes. Like its cousin the honey badger it likes to eat bee larvae and honey, and it will eat some plant material too. It also will eat skunks. Not many things want to eat skunks.

Occasionally a badger will team up with a coyote to hunt. That’s not scary at all. Badgers are aggressive, but certainly nowhere near as ferocious as a honey badger or even a wolverine. It’s a bit smaller than the honey badger and wolverine.

In 2017, a research team studying scavenging behaviors of various animals inadvertently learned a lot about the badger. The team had staked out calf carcasses and set up camera traps to document which animals came to eat the carcasses. One of the cameras recorded a badger burying a calf carcass deep enough that it would be safe from other scavengers and would remain cool underground for the badger to eat it later. It took the badger five days and a lot of work, but since the calf was considerably larger and heavier than the badger, it would have a lot of meat to snack on later in the winter. Another of the cameras caught a different badger attempting to bury another calf carcass, but that badger wasn’t successful. Researchers suspect this caching activity may be common among badgers, but no one knew about it because badgers are mostly nocturnal. While ranchers typically dislike badgers, burying large carcasses is beneficial to ranchers since it minimizes the spread of disease to cattle and other livestock.

The European badger is much more social than its American cousin, which is mostly solitary. It lives in groups in complex burrows called setts. A badger doesn’t just poop wherever it happens to be, it uses a latrine, and it may have more than one latrine in its territory just as it may have more than one sett. It also likes to change out the bedding material in its burrows, taking old bedding out and bringing in clean, fresh bedding. In winter, when good bedding material isn’t available, it may take its old bedding out on sunny days to air, then retrieve it later. It’s like this animal was invented to star in children’s storybooks. If you told me badgers routinely wear little flowered aprons and use tiny brooms to sweep their burrows, I wouldn’t bat an eye. Sometimes a red fox will live in part of a badger’s burrow, and I picture the fox wearing a neat tweed suit. He probably pays rent to the badger family.

The badger hibernates during the worst part of the winter, although when winters are mild, it may only sleep for part of the winter or not at all.

The European badger does eat meat, but it also eats a lot of plant material, especially fruit and grains, but also clover and even grass if it has to. It mostly eats earthworms, but will also catch insects, small mammals like mice, hedgehogs, and young rabbits, snails and slugs, and tortoises. It also likes bee and wasp larvae and will eat wasp nests, ignoring the stings it receives. Sometimes a badger will kill a lamb or break into a chicken coop and kill lots of chickens, but that’s rare and usually only happens when other food is scarce.

Unfortunately, the badger has a bad reputation in Great Britain as a carrier of bovine tuberculosis. It does carry the disease, but recent studies show that it doesn’t appear to infect cattle. Cattle catch TB from other cattle, not from badgers. Culling badgers to stop the spread of TB among cattle doesn’t help either the cattle or the badgers, since after a badger cull, other badgers move into the dead badgers’ former territory, bringing TB with them. It’s very difficult to eradicate a disease from a wild animal population, but it is completely possible to eradicate a disease from domestic animals. In Wales and Scotland, cattle tuberculosis is on the decline due to frequent testing for the disease, while in England, where the primary treatment for TB is to go out and kill a bunch of badgers, it’s on the rise. So leave the badgers alone. Mrs. Badger is busy busy washing linens and hanging them to dry on tiny clotheslines while Mr. Badger is repairing the white picket fence where he grows his prize-winning dahlias, and the Badger children are helping Auntie Badger make scones for Mr. Fox’s tea.

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 061: The Qilin and the Phoenix

This week we’re going to find out some surprising possible inspirations for the qilin, sometimes called the kirin or the Chinese unicorn, and the phoenix! Strap in, kids. We’re going to do history!

A qilin:

A giraffe:

My beautiful art of tsaidamotherium, both subspecies, with their weird horns:

A saiga antelope

A takin:

A bird of paradise:

Another bird of paradise:

Further reading:

Dale Drinnon’s Frontiers of Zoology about the qilin

An online Bestiary. This is where I got the quotes from Herodotus.

The Book of Beasts, trans. T.H. White

The Lungfish, The Dodo and the Unicorn by Willy Ley

Extraordinary Animals Revisited by Karl P.N. Shuker

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to learn about two animals that most people consider mythological—but they might be based on real animals that are as extraordinary as the folktales surrounding them.

The first is the qilin, also called the kirin or some other close variation. These days it’s usually depicted with a pair of antlers like a deer, but in older legends and artwork it often only had one horn, so is sometimes called the Chinese unicorn. It can resemble a dragon with cloven hooves, or a bull-like or deer-like animal with scales or a scaly pattern on its body. In Japan it’s usually depicted with one horn that curves backwards from its forehead.

The qilin legend is thousands of years old, with the first references dating back to the 5th century BCE. It has traditionally been considered a gentle animal whose appearance foretold the birth or death of a great ruler, or if it appeared to a ruler, it foretold a long, peaceful reign. Supposedly it first appeared to the Emperor Fu Hsi 5000 years ago as he walked along the banks of the Yellow River. A single-horned animal emerged from the water and walked so daintily that its cloven hooves didn’t leave prints in the mud. A scroll on its back was miraculously not wet, and when Fu Hsi unrolled the scroll he saw a map of his kingdom and written characters that taught him written language.

In 1414, explorer Zheng He brought a giraffe to China for the first time and presented it to the emperor as a qilin. The emperor wasn’t fooled, but it was a good PR move to treat the animal as a qilin. But the qilin was never depicted with a long neck before then, and even after, long-necked qilins were rare in art and sculpture. On the other hand, the Japanese word for giraffe is kirin, so there was some overlap.

The qilin was supposed to be solitary and lived high in the mountains and in deep forests. It ate plants and was described in various ways, as having a deer’s body and a lion’s head, or a horse’s body with a dragon’s head, or some other combination. It always had cloven hooves.

In 398 BCE, so more than 2,400 years ago, Greek historian Ctesias wrote a book about India, including the animals found in that land. Ctesias had never actually visited India, although he had traveled to a lot of other countries. This is what he wrote about the animal we now know as the unicorn: “There are in India certain wild asses which are as large as horses, and larger. Their bodies are white, their heads dark red, and their eyes dark blue. They have a horn on the forehead which is about a foot and a half in length.” Then he talks about the horn for a few more sentences, especially its supposed ability to cure diseases and neutralize poisons. If you’re interested in this aspect of the unicorn legend, I go over it at length in episode five, about the unicorn.

Most researchers think Ctesias was talking about the rhinoceros. But maybe he was referring to another animal, one that possibly contributed to both the unicorn legend and also to the legend of the qilin.

Tsaidamotherium was a bovid that lived during the late Miocene, around half a million years ago. Its fossils have been found in Northwestern China. It was probably most closely related to the musk ox and was adapted for life in cold mountainous regions. It had a high nasal cavity, which would have helped warm air before it reached the lungs. Other bovids found in cold areas tend to have similar structures. The Saiga antelope has a bulbous-looking face due to its large nasal passages, as does the takin, both of which also live in and around the Himalayas. But both the saiga and the takin have a pair of clearly separated horns. The saiga’s horns are long and look like typical antelope horns, while the takin’s horns resemble those of a musk ox, curving to the sides in a sort of U shape.

The really striking thing about Tsaidamotherium is its horns, and no animal living today has horns even slightly like it. It had a pair, but only the right horn grew large. The left one was much smaller, so that from a distance it looked like it only had one large horn on its head. These are not slender unicorn horns, though. They’re not even bull-like cow horns. There are actually two species of Tsaidamotherium that we know of, and they had differently shaped horns. T. hedini had thick horns that grew upward from the head like cones. The other, T. brevirostrum, with fossilized remains only described in 2013, had the same mismatched horns but both were short and squat and probably bent forward. I’ll put a couple of drawings in the show notes to give you an idea.

There are hints that Tsaidamotherium may have survived well into the modern era, probably in isolated pockets in the Himalayan Mountains. Until the mid-19th century there were reports of animals matching T. hedini’s description in Tibet, although even there it was considered rare to the point of near-legend. The first fossilized remains of Tsaidamotherium weren’t discovered until the early 20th century, in 1932. One interesting note is that the larger horn of T. hedini would probably have resembled the conical Yeti skullcaps sometimes found in monasteries in the Himalayas, although that’s probably a coincidence.

The Tsaidamotherium as Qilin is a theory put forth by Dale Drinnon, and I’ll link to the relevant post in the show notes if you want to read more.

Like the unicorn legend, which in one form or another has spread throughout much of the world, the phoenix has a long and complicated history. The modern story is still very close to what people believed in the middle ages and even before. It’s a mythical bird that every so often, usually every 500 years, would burst into flame, burn to ashes, and be reborn from those ashes into a new phoenix. There is only ever one phoenix. It’s usually depicted as eagle-like but not an eagle, and is usually red or gold.

Medieval writers loved the phoenix, because its cycle of rebirth from its own dead body practically wrote itself as a strong allegory to the Christian idea of redemption and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In T.H. White’s translation of a 12th century bestiary, The Book of Beasts, the phoenix was supposed to live in Arabia and its big event is described like this:

“When it notices that it is growing old, it builds itself a funeral pyre, after collecting some spice branches, and on this, turning its body toward the rays of the sun and flapping its wings, it sets fire to itself of its own accord until it burns itself up. Then verily, on the ninth day afterward, it rises from its own ashes!”

After drawing the parallel with Christian symbolism, the book repeats itself with more detail, it makes a coffin for itself of frankincense and myrrh and other spices, into which, its life being over, it enters and dies. From the liquid of its body a worm now emerges, and this gradually grows to maturity, until, in the appointed cycle of time, the Phoenix itself assumes the oarage of its wings, and there it is again in its previous species and form!”

Note that the second version of the story doesn’t mention fire. Instead of a fire, the phoenix builds itself a coffin from spices and dies inside it. Frankincense and myrrh are both plant resins used to make perfume and incense, by the way.

All this is interesting, but is the phoenix based on a real bird? People have been trying to figure that out for centuries. The problem is that the story is so old, so widespread, and so entrenched in popular culture that it’s hard to know what details point to real birds and what details are pure human imagination.

Some researchers even suggest that the phoenix might be based not on a bird at all, but a palm tree. In Greek the word phoenix also means palm tree. There are a lot of phoenix palms, including the kind that produce dates, and dates are delicious, so the tree may have been given a special status by associating it with the phoenix story. In ancient Egypt the symbol for the word benu was a stork-like bird that represented the sun but could also indicate a palm tree.

The word Phoeniceus was once a term for the color purple, so T.H. White thought the phoenix might be based on the purple heron, which he also thought might be the bird the Egyptians called benu. He suggested its rebirth story came about from its connection with the sun, which can be said to die every night and be reborn every morning.

Back in the 5th century BCE, the Greek historian Herodotus wrote about the phoenix in Egypt. He said, “The plumage is partly red, partly golden, while the general make and size are almost exactly that of the eagle. They tell a story of what this bird does, which does not seem to me to be credible: that he comes all the way from Arabia, and brings the parent bird, all plastered over with myrrh, to the temple of the Sun, and there buries the body. In order to bring him, they say, he first forms a ball of myrrh as big as he finds that he can carry; then he hollows out the ball, and puts his parent inside, after which he covers over the opening with fresh myrrh, and the ball is then exactly the same weight as the first; so he brings it to Egypt, plastered over as I have said, and deposits it in the temple of the Sun.”

This just sounds like a weird version of the phoenix story, about the phoenix making its own coffin out of myrrh and other spices. But there may be some strange truths hidden in the middle of this story and the others. It’s about the bird of paradise.

The bird of paradise is a real bird—or, rather, 42 species of real bird. You can go look them today in zoos and in their native homes in eastern Australia, Indonesia, and Papua New Guinea. They’re actually related to crows, although not closely, but they don’t look a thing like crows. Where crows are somber goth birds, the various birds of paradise are glorious in their coloring and plumage. Males of many species grow cascades of brightly-colored feathers during breeding season, which they display for the females in mating dances.

It was once thought that birds of paradise were unknown outside their home range until the early 16th century, when Magellan’s fleet limped back to Spain with a lot of exotic items, including the skins of some birds of paradise. The skins were apparently complete, except that they had no legs and appeared never to have had legs. Since almost nothing was known of the birds, people assumed they were so beautifully adapted to the air that they didn’t need legs, that the birds never landed.

It wasn’t until the 19th century that scientists actually saw living birds of paradise, complete with feet. It turns out that the natives of New Guinea were masters of preparing bird skins, removing the feathered skins from the body so skillfully that the bird appeared intact even though the legs had been removed.

Not only that, Australian researchers discovered during in-depth 1957 study of the bird of paradise skin trade, the natives of the region had been preparing birds for a long, long, long time—as far back as 1000 BCE. And they’d been trading them with seafarers who visited their islands long before Magellan was even born. The skins were prized for their beauty and transported all over, including to Phoenicia, a country famous for its purple dye. This is all starting to come together, isn’t it?

But it gets better. The bird of paradise skins were delicate, naturally, as were the long plumes still attached to the skins. To preserve them during voyages, they were packaged by the New Guinea natives like this: each skin was carefully wrapped in myrrh to make an egg-shaped parcel, and this was put in a larger parcel padded with burnt banana leaves.

Aromatic ashes containing an egg-shaped coffin made of myrrh, in which is the body of a glorious unknown bird? That sounds like a phoenix to me.

Like so many other legends, the phoenix is far more than just its original inspiration. Many birds probably inspired details of the story, just as many animals probably inspired stories of the qilin. Human imagination did the rest.

The legend of the phoenix and that of the qilin tell us as much about the people who have shared their stories for millennia than they tell us about any bird or animal. Humans are storytellers, no matter what culture and no matter how far back you look. After thousands of years, we’re still talking about the phoenix and the qilin, and we’ll continue to talk about them for thousands of years more. That’s an immortality worthy of the phoenix itself.

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