Monthly Archives: May 2018

Episode 069: The Cambrian Explosion

This week let’s find out a little something about the Cambrian explosion, where the relatively simple and tiny life on earth suddenly proliferated and grew much larger…and definitely stranger.

The Burgess shale area: beautiful AND full of fascinating fossils:

Anomalocaris, pre-we-figured-out-what-these-things-are:

What anomalocaris probably actually looked like, plus a couple of the “headless shrimp” fossils:

More “headless shrimp” fossils because for some reason I find them hilarious:

Marrella. Tiny, weird, looks sort of like those creepy house centipedes that freak me out so much, but with horns:

Hallucigenia, long-time mystery fossil:

What hallucingenia probably looked like, maybe:

Show transcript:

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

This week’s topic is one I’ve been fascinated by for years but I’ve never read much about it: the Cambrian explosion. That refers to the explosion of life forms in the Cambrian period, which started about 540 million years ago. That was long before the dinosaurs, long before fish, basically long before almost all life on earth that wasn’t simple squidgy things living in warm, shallow seas.

To learn about the Cambrian explosion, let’s go back even farther first and learn about the first life on earth.

Obviously, the more recently an animal lived, the more likely we are to find fossils and other remains: footprints in fossilized mud, gastroliths and coproliths, and so forth. The farther back we go, the fewer remains we have. The earth is continually changing, with mountains rising up and continents moving around, volcanoes erupting, old mountains being worn down by wind and weather. That’s good for the earth and therefore for life in general, since nutrients are cycled through the ecosystem and habitats are continually renewed. But it’s bad when paleontologists are trying to find out what lived a billion years ago, because most of those rocks are gone, either weathered into sand long ago, melted into magma, or buried under the ocean or otherwise out of our reach.

The Earth formed about 4.5 billion years ago, oceans formed 4.4 billion years ago, and the oldest rocks we can find are about 4 billion years old. The first life on earth, single-celled organisms, dates back to about 3.8 billion years ago, maybe earlier. By 3.5 billion years ago, complex single-celled microorganisms had evolved—we know because we’ve found eleven microscopic fossils in rocks from western Australia. Researchers have concluded that the fossils belonged to five different taxonomical groups, which means that by 3.5 billion years ago, life was already well established and diverse.

By 2.5 billion years ago, the earth had continents roughly the same size as the ones today, although not anything like the same shapes or in the same places. Land also didn’t have dirt on it, just sand and bare rock, since dirt is largely decomposed organic matter and nothing was living or dying on the land yet. Not long after, 2.45 billion years ago, oxygen started to make up a large part of the earth’s atmosphere. That’s right, before then we literally could not have breathed the air. I mean, we could have, but we would die of suffocation because the air contained only trace amounts of oxygen. While having oxygen in the air sounds great to us now, the single-celled organisms living then couldn’t process it and died off—probably the greatest extinction event in the earth’s history. Only organisms that were able to evolve quickly enough to use oxygen survived and thrived.

One particular type of microorganism dating back 2.3 billion years, sulfur bacteria, again known from ancient rocks from western Australia, is still around. Modern sulfur bacteria live in the deep sea off the coast of Chile, and they literally have not needed to change at all in 2.3 billion years. That’s what you call success.

The earliest multicellular organisms date to around 2.1 billion years ago, or at least those are the oldest fossils we’ve found. Algae and fungi evolved soon after. The earliest animal fossils date from about 580 million years ago and include small jellyfish and sea anemones, but all the oldest fossils we’ve found are of specialized animals so they probably arose much earlier. At about the same time, fossils of more complex shelled animals start appearing in the fossil record, animals which may have been the ancestors of arthropods, echinoderms, and mollusks. We also have fossils of burrows made in the sea floor, although we don’t know what kind of animal made them—some kind of wormy creature, but none have been found, just their burrows. Clearly a lot was going on back then, but it was all on a small scale: tiny worms, colonies of bacterial mats, and shelled animals measured in millimeters.

Then came the Cambrian explosion, starting about 540 million years ago, where diverse and often bizarre-looking animals suddenly appear in the fossil record, proliferating at a rate unheard-of in the previous eras. We’re not completely sure why, but it was probably a combination of factors, possibly including increased oxygen levels, the development of an ozone layer in earth’s atmosphere that protects cells from lethal UV radiation, an increase of calcium in ocean water, and many other factors, large and small. As animals grew larger and more diverse, more species could exploit more ecological niches; and when all the available niches were occupied, competition grew even more fierce, leading to even bigger and more specialized animals.

The first Cambrian fossils found were those of trilobites, first described in 1698 but not recognized as extinct fossil animals until the 18th century. By the 19th century so many forms of trilobite were known that geologists used them to help date rock strata. While trilobites had probably been around before the Cambrian, during the Cambrian they evolved exoskeletons and became much larger and more common.

You’ve probably heard of the Burgess shale, and you’ve probably heard of it because of the book Wonderful Life, published in 1989 by paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould. The book is out of date now, but when it was new it caused a lot of popular interest in the Cambrian explosion in general and the Burgess shale fossils in particular.

Shale, if you’re not familiar with the term, is a type of sedimentary rock formed from mud containing a lot of clay, generally mud from slow-moving water, floodplains, and quiet lagoons. It’s common, generally gray in color, and splits into flat pieces that you can draw on with other pieces of shale like a chalkboard. People sometimes confuse shale with slate, but slate is actually shale that’s been hardened by pressure and heat within the earth into a metamorphic rock. Because shale is formed from fine particles instead of sand, it can preserve fossils in incredible detail, although usually flattened.

So the Burgess shale is a large deposit of shale some 30 miles across, or 50 km, and 520 feet thick, or 160 meters. The area was once the bottom of a shallow sea next to a limestone cliff, around 505 million years ago, right in the middle of the Cambrian period. When the Rocky Mountains were created by tectonic forces around 75 million years ago, the Burgess shale was lifted 8000 feet above sea level, or 2500 meters. It’s in Canada, specifically Mount Stephen in Yoho National Park in British Columbia, and it’s properly called the Stephen Formation.

In the late 19th century a construction worker found some fossils in the loose shale weathered out of the formation. A geologist working for the Geological Survey of Canada heard reports of the fossils and in 1886 visited the area. He found trilobites and told his supervisor. Eventually paleontologist Joseph Whiteaves took a look and collected some Burgess shale fossils he thought were headless shrimps. They weren’t, by the way. We’ll come back to them in a minute.

In a nearby section of the Stephen Formation, paleontologist Charles Doolittle Walcott set up a fossil quarry in 1910. He and his team worked the quarry intermittently for the next few decades, collecting more than 60,000 specimens. But he didn’t publish very much about his findings, and after his death no one was very interested in the Burgess shale until the 1960s and 70s, when a couple of paleontologists started poking through Walcott’s collection. Their findings are what Gould writes about in Wonderful Life. Since then, paleontologists have continued to find amazing fossils in the Stephen Formation, and research continues on Walcott’s collection.

Part of the reason Gould’s book was such a sensation, apart from the fact that he’s a great writer and fossils are just interesting, was that he suggested the Cambrian explosion was caused by an unknown event that forced new evolutionary mechanisms into play, leading to many animals that are completely unrelated to those living today. He and some of the paleontologists working on the Burgess shale animals in the 1970s thought many of them belonged to phyla unknown today. There are only 33 designated phyla, although they do get looked at and changed around occasionally as new information comes to light. Humans and all other mammals, as well as reptiles, birds, amphibians, and fish, belong to the Chordata phylum. Gould suggested that if the Burgess shale animals had continued to evolve instead of dying out, life on earth today might look radically different.

That brings us to Whiteaves’s headless shrimp. Its name is Anomalocaris, which means abnormal shrimp. If you’re familiar with shrimp—you know, the things you eat, especially with rice or grits and I am so hungry right now—you have probably seen a headless one. The heads are typically removed before shrimp are sold, even though the rest of the shrimp may be intact, including shell, legs, and those little finny bits on the tail. That’s more or less what the fossil Whiteaves found looked like, except that its legs weren’t jointed. It was a little over 3 inches long, or around 8.5 cm. Whiteaves described it as a type of crustacean in 1892.

But to find out what it really was, we have to look at a couple of other discoveries. Walcott discovered what he identified as a type of jellyfish, around two inches across, or 5 cm, a circular segmented creature with a hole in the middle that looks a lot like a fossilized pineapple ring. Walcott also found what he thought was a feeding appendage or tail of an arthropod called Sidneyia, but didn’t realize it was the same anomalocaris Whiteaves had described. And paleontologist Simon Conway Morris discovered another of Walcott’s pineapple ring jellyfish, preserved together with what he took to be a sponge.

Harry Whittington, a paleontologist working on the Burgess shale fauna in the late 20th century, finally realized all these fossils belonged together—not as a crustacean, a sponge, and a jellyfish, but as one large animal. The shrimp tail was its feeding appendage, of which it had a pair in the front of its head, and the unjointed legs were spines. The pineapple ring jellyfish was its round mouthpiece consisting of plates that it contracted to crush prey. The sponge was its lobed body, which was softer and didn’t preserve as well as its other pieces.

Whiteaves’s feeding appendage came from a larger species, Anomalocaris canadensis, which grew some three feet long, or about a meter. It probably ate soft-bodied animals. Peytoia nathorsti was much smaller and may have used its feeding appendages to filter tiny prey from the mud.

In the 1990s anomalocaris and its relatives were identified as stem arthropods, ancestors of or at least relations to modern arthropods like insects, crustaceans, and spiders, and not belonging to a new phylum at all. Another anomalocarid was found in rocks 100 million years younger than the Burgess shale, which means at least some of the strange Cambrian animals persisted well into the Devonian.

Another confusing animal is called Marrella, a common fossil in the Burgess shale. Walcott found the first one in 1909 and called it a lace crab, then decided it was a strange trilobite. It’s small, less than an inch long, or under 2 cm, and has long antennae and legs, and head appendages that sweep back into rear-facing spikes that may have protected its gills. It was probably a scavenger that lived on the bottom of the ocean, and we know some interesting things about it. We have one Marrella fossil that shows an individual partly moulted, so we know it moulted its exoskeleton periodically. We also have some specimens so well preserved that researchers have found a pattern on them that would have diffracted light. In other words, its exoskeleton was iridescent and colorful. Charles Whittington examined Marrella in 1971 and determined that it wasn’t a trilobite, wasn’t a crab or other crustacean, and wasn’t any kind of horseshoe crab. Instead, it’s a stem arthropod like anomalocaris.

Hallucigenia may be the most famous Burgess shale animal, although it’s also been found in fossil beds in other parts of the world. It was first described by Walcott as a polychaete worm. Simon Conway Morris redescribed it in 1977, pointed out that it definitely was not a worm, and gave it its own genus. But no one was really sure what it would have looked like when alive, how it would move around and eat, or what it might be related to. Fossils show a thin, flexible worm-like body with long spines sticking out along its length on one side, and flexible tentacles sticking out along its length on the other side. One end of the body is sort of bulbous and the other blunt, but it’s not clear which is the head and which is the tail. It’s small, only an inch or so long at most, or a few centimeters. Conway Morris thought the animal walked on its stiff spikey legs and the tentacles were for feeding, and that each tentacle might even end in a mouth. Other paleontologists suggested the fossil might be part of a bigger animal, the way Anomalocaris feeding appendages were initially thought to be separate animals.

But after more and better fossils were discovered in China, paleontologists in 1991 realized Hallucigenia had been reconstructed upside down and backwards by Conway Morris. The tentacles were paired legs and the stiff spines probably protected the animal from other things that wanted to swallow it. The bulbous end seems to be a head with two simple eyes and a round mouth, possibly with teeth. Its closest living relation is probably a caterpillar-like land animal called a velvet worm or lobopodian worm, although it’s not actually a worm.

Other Burgess shale animals include a bristle worm, an actual relative of modern shrimp, a relative of the horseshoe crab, something that may be related to modern mantis shrimp, a rare mollusk ancestor that was an active swimmer, and a fishlike animal with short tentacles on its tiny head that may have been a primitive chordate.

Most of the Burgess shale animals that have been studied are now classified as arthropod ancestors. But there are hundreds, if not thousands, of fossil species that paleontologists are still puzzling over, with more yet to be discovered in the Stephen Formation and elsewhere. It’s always possible that some animals that evolved during the Cambrian will surprise us as belonging to a completely new group of animals, and that we really will need to add a couple of phyla to the list.

Another exciting thing to remember is that because life on earth is common and arose relatively soon after the earth was formed, it’s almost 100% certain that some other planets also have life—maybe not planets in our own solar system, although we don’t know for sure yet, but astronomers have discovered lots of planets outside of our solar system. They estimate the Milky Way galaxy alone may contain 100 billion planets. In the past researchers have insisted that only planets similar to ours can support life, but that’s not the right approach. Only planets similar to ours can support life like ours. That’s because we evolved to fit our planet. Life on other planets naturally will evolve to fit those planets. Even here on earth we have extremophiles that survive in environments where most other organisms would be destroyed immediately. So next time you’re outside at night, look up at the stars and give them a little wave. Some curious creature might be standing on a planet’s surface untold light years away, staring into the sky and waving a greeting too.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at We’re on Twitter at strangebeasties and have a facebook page at If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at 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 068: The Dingiso and the Hoan Kiem Turtle

It’s time to look at two more supposedly mysterious, supposedly identified animals off those “Ten Cryptozoological Animals That Have Been FOUND Please Click Please Click” articles.

First is the dingiso, or bondegezou, which is just about as adorable as an animal can get:

Next is the Hoan Kiem Turtle:


Show transcript:

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

This week we’re revisiting those “top ten cryptozoological animals found to be real!” clickbait articles that pop up online sometimes. In episode 24 we looked at two animals frequently found on those lists, so let’s examine two more today.

We’ll start in Papua New Guinea, a country that gets mentioned a lot on this podcast. I was curious, so I looked it up and now I’ve learned some geography that I desperately needed to know. Papua New Guinea is a country in the eastern half of the island of New Guinea, just north of Australia. Only Greenland is a bigger island than New Guinea, so we’re not talking a dinky little islet like the ones where cartoon shipwreck survivors end up. New Guinea has a huge mountain range, rainforests, wetlands, savannahs, coral reefs, and pretty much everything else an animal could want. More species live on New Guinea than in all of Australia. More species live on New Guinea than in all of the United States. More species live on New Guinea than in Australia and the United States combined. So it’s not surprising that new species are found there all the time.

People live on the island too, of course, and have for at least 40,000 years, probably much longer. People have lived on the island for so long, in fact, that something like 1,000 different languages are spoken there among the various tribes. The first animal we’re going to learn about today was known to the Moni tribe long before any scientists got wind of it.

The Moni people live in the remote mountainous rainforests of Papua New Guinea. I couldn’t find much information about the Moni except through Christian missionary sites, so as far as I can tell their culture was never studied before it started being influenced by outside groups. But one thing we do know is that the Moni are familiar with a black and white animal called the dingiso, or bondegezou, which holds the spirit of an ancestor. When one is encountered, it will sit up, whistle, and raise a paw in greeting.

No one outside of the Moni tribe paid any attention to this story until the 1980s, when someone sent a photograph of a dingiso to Tim Flannery, an Australian zoologist. He recognized it as a young tree kangaroo, but not one he was familiar with. In May of 1994 he led a wildlife survey expedition in the area and was able to examine a dead dingiso for himself. Sure enough, it was new to science.

The dingiso’s fur is black with white underparts and white markings on the face. Its fur is long and thick to keep it warm in the mountains, since it lives in high elevations just below the tree line. It’s about two and a half feet long, or 75 cm, not counting its tail, which doubles its length. Its face looks something like a bear’s.

Most of the information we have about the dingiso is based on what we know about other tree kangaroos, so may or may not be completely accurate. Females probably give birth to one baby at a time, which stays in its mother’s pouch while it grows. It eats leaves and fruit and lives both in trees and on the ground, although the Moni report that it spends most of its time on the ground.

The dingiso was formally described in 1995. In 2009, a BBC documentary spent eleven days searching for a dingiso with Moni tribesmen as their guides, and finally found and filmed one.

Naturally, the Moni don’t harm the dingiso, since you don’t hurt your ancestors. That has probably saved it from extinction, since the dingiso reproduces slowly and is a docile, harmless animal. Other tribes don’t have the same restriction, though, and hunt the dingiso for food. That and habitat loss due to mining and farming mean the dingiso is endangered. So little is known about it, and so few have ever been seen by scientists, that it could go extinct before we know much more about it than that it exists. But conservation organizations are working to protect it and other animals in New Guinea.

Oh, the whistling and waving activity the Moni describe is probably a threat display. But I like the Moni’s explanation better.

Our next cryptid supposedly identified is the Hoan Kiem Turtle from Vietnam. Specifically, it’s from the Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi. According to the story, in the early 15th century emperor Lê Lợi, a great hero who led Vietnam to independence from China, had a magical sword called Heaven’s Will. Depending on which version of the story you hear, the sword was either given to him by a god called the Dragon King, given to him by the Golden Turtle God, or was found in the lake by a fisherman and given to the emperor. One day not long after Vietnam had successfully won independence, the emperor was boating on the lake when a turtle surfaced, grabbed the sword, and disappeared with it into the lake. In other stories, the turtle surfaced and asked for the sword, and the emperor realized it was the Golden Turtle God. Hoan Kiem Lake means “Lake of the Returned Sword.”

The lake isn’t deep, only six and a half feet, or 2 m, at its deepest, and it only covers around 30 acres in the middle of a very large city. There doesn’t seem to be a metric equivalent of acre, but if hectares mean anything to you, 30 acres is a little over 12 hectares.

Softshelled turtles of enormous size have been known in the lake for a long time, specifically the Yangtze giant softshell turtle. It’s the biggest freshwater turtle known, and can measure over six feet long, or almost 2 meters. It lives in rivers and lakes in Vietnam and China and eats pretty much anything, from plants to frogs, fish, crustaceans, and snails. Its nostrils look like a tiny pig’s snout. It’s a shy turtle that doesn’t surface very often, and it’s also extremely rare, almost extinct. There may only be three or four specimens left in the world. Captive breeding has not been successful so far.

So why is the Hoan Kiem Turtle considered a cryptid? Why is it on those identified cryptid lists? Two reasons.

First of all, until its death in January of 2016, there was one in the Hoan Kiem Lake, and rumor had it that this was the same individual that had taken the emperor’s sword back in 1428. Turtles can live for a long time, but probably not for 600 years. But no one knew there was a turtle remaining in the lake after the last one was killed in 1967, not until 1998 when someone caught it on video. The turtle was captured in 2011 for treatment of some injuries, possibly caused by the lake’s pollution, then released, and lived for another five years before it was found dead in the lake.

Second, there’s some controversy regarding whether the Hoan Kiem Turtle is actually a Yangtze giant softshell turtle or a different species. Most researchers think it’s the same species. A few Vietnamese biologists think it’s not, but the DNA studies they cite to back up their claims haven’t been published formally and may not have been conducted correctly.

So while there are mysteries associated with the turtle, it’s not really accurate to call it a cryptid that’s been identified. But that doesn’t mean it’s not really interesting. I hope researchers find more of them in the wild that can be relocated to a safe area where they can breed successfully.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at We’re on Twitter at strangebeasties and have a facebook page at If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at 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 067: More Sea Monsters

Finally, it’s the follow-up to our first sea monsters episode that sounds so terrible now that I know how to put a podcast together!

Here’s the published drawings of a strange animal seen from the HMS Daedalus:

Here’s Drummond’s sketch of what he saw:

Here’s a sketch of the HMS Plumper animal sighted:

And here’s a sei whale rostrum sticking up out of the water while it’s skim feeding:

Sei whales are neat and have gigantic mouths:

The rotten “sea serpent” that’s actually a decomposing baleen whale:

The Naden Harbour Carcass. It’s the black thing on the table with a white backdrop. It doesn’t look like much, but you probably wouldn’t look like much either after being eaten by a sperm whale:

Unexpected seal says “Hello, I am not a sea serpent, I am a stock photo”:

Hagelund’s sketch of the little animal he caught:

A pipefish with a lollipop tail and some drawings of pipefish:

The strange animal seen from the Valhalla:

Show transcript:

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

Recently I listened to episode six, about sea monsters. It’s climbed to our third most popular episode and when I heard it again, oh man, I winced. I was still really new to podcasting then and that episode sounds like someone reading a book report out loud to the class. So it’s time to do a new sea monsters episode and explore more mysteries of the world’s oceans, hopefully with a lot more vocal expression.

On August 6, 1848, about 5 o’clock in the afternoon, the captain and some of the crew of HMS Daedalus saw something really big in the water. The ship was sailing between the Cape of Good Hope and St. Helena on the way back to England from the East Indies. It was an overcast day with a fresh wind, but nothing unusual. The midshipman noticed something in the water he couldn’t identify and told the officer of the watch, who happened to be walking the deck at the time with the captain. Most of the crew was at supper.

This is what the captain, Peter M’Quhae, described in his report when the ship arrived at Plymouth a few months later.

“On our attention being called to the object, it was discovered to be an enormous serpent, with head and shoulders kept about four feet constantly above the surface of the sea, and, as nearly as we could approximate, by comparing it with the length of what our main-topsail yard would show in the water, there was at the very least sixty feet of the animal à fleur d’eau [that means at the water’s surface], no portion of which was, to our perception, used in propelling it through the water, either by vertical or horizontal undulation. It passed rapidly, but so close under our lee quarter, that had it been a man of my acquaintance, I should easily have recognized his features with the naked eye; and it did not, either in approaching the ship or after it had passed in our wake, deviate in the slightest degree from its course to the S.W., which it held on at the pace of from twelve to fifteen miles per hour, apparently on some determined purpose.

“The diameter of the serpent was about fifteen or sixteen inches behind the head, which was, without any doubt, that of a snake; and it was never, during the twenty minutes that it continued in sight of our glasses, once below the surface of the water; its colour a dark brown, with yellowish white about the throat. It had no fins, but something like a mane of a horse, or rather a bunch of seaweed, washed about its back.”

The original Times article also mentioned large jagged teeth in a jaw so large that a man could have stood up inside the mouth, but this seems to be an addition by the article’s writer, not the captain or crew.

The officer of the watch, Lieutenant Edgar Drummond, also published an excerpt from his own journal about the sighting, which appeared in a journal called the Zoologist in December 1848. It reads, “In the 4 to 6 watch, at about five o’clock, we observed a most remarkable fish on our lee quarter, crossing the stern in a S.W. direction; the appearance of its head, which, with the back fin, was the only portion of the animal visible, was long, pointed, and flattened at the top, perhaps ten feet in length, the upper jaw projecting considerably; the fin was perhaps twenty feet in the rear of the head, and visible occasionally; the captain also asserted that he saw the tail, or another fin about the same distance behind it; the upper part of the head and shoulders appeared of a dark brown colour, and beneath the under jaw a brownish white. It pursued a steady undeviating course, keeping its head horizontal with the surface of the water, and in rather a raised position, disappearing occasionally beneath a wave for a very brief interval, and not apparently for purposes of respiration. It was going at the rate of perhaps from twelve to fourteen miles an hour, and when nearest, was perhaps one hundred yards distant. In fact it gave one quite the idea of a large snake or eel. No one in the ship has ever seen anything similar, so it is at least extraordinary. It was visible to the naked eye for five minutes, and with a glass for perhaps fifteen more. The weather was dark and squally at the time, with some sea running.”

To translate some of this into metric, 60 feet is a little more than 18 meters, the 15 inch diameter the captain reported of the neck just behind the head is about 38 cm, and the speed of 13 mph is almost 21 km per hour.

A lot of people wrote in to the Times to discuss the sighting and suggest solutions. One writer claimed the animal couldn’t be a snake or eel, since a side to side undulating motion would have been obvious as the animal propelled itself with its tail. Another said it had to have been a snake but the undulations were only in the tail, which was below the water. Yet another article suggested it was a monstrous seal or other pinniped. Captain M’Quhai took exception to that one and wrote back stressing that he was familiar with seals and this definitely had not been one. Other suggestions included a basking shark or some other unknown species of shark, a plesiosaur, or a giant piece of seaweed.

Other similar sightings are on record, including a very similar one from the very end of 1849 off the coast of Portugal. In that one, an officer on HMS Plumper reported seeing “a long black creature with a sharp head, moving slowly, I should think about two knots, through the water, in a north westerly direction, there being a fresh breeze at the time, and some sea on. I could not ascertain its exact length, but its back was about twenty feet if not more above water; and its head, as near as I could judge, from six to eight. I had not time to make a closer observation, as the ship was going six knots through the water, her head E. half S., and wind S.S.E. The creature moved across our wake towards a merchant barque on our lee-quarter, and on the port tack. I was in hopes she would have seen it also. The officers and men who saw it, and who have served in parts of the world adjacent to whale and seal fisheries, and have seen them in the water, declare they have neither seen nor heard of any creature bearing the slightest resemblance to the one we saw. There was something on its back that appeared like a mane, and, as it moved through the water, kept washing about, but before I could examine it more closely, it was too far astern.”

Illustrations of the Daedalus sea serpent, which M’Quhai approved, were published in the Times. But the original sketch made by Drummond in his journal the day he saw the animal gives us a much better idea of what it looked like and what it probably was. The sketch accompanying the Plumper sighting reinforces the solution. It’s probable that both sightings, and probably many others, were of a sei whale skim feeding.

The sei is a baleen whale that’s generally considered the fourth largest whale, with some individuals growing almost 65 feet long, or nearly 20 meters. Females are larger than males. It lives all over the world although it likes deep water that isn’t too cold or too hot. It’s a mottled dark grey. Its fins are relatively short and pointed, its dorsal fin is tall and fairly far back on the animal’s body. Its tail flukes aren’t usually visible. Its rostrum, or beak, is pointed and short baleen plates hang down from it. The sei whale’s baleen is unusually fine, with a fringe that is curly and white and looks something like wool.

Unlike some whales, it doesn’t dive very deeply or for very long, and it’s usually relatively solitary. It spends a lot of its time at or near the surface, frequently skim feeding to capture krill and other tiny food. It does this by cruising along with its mouth open, often swimming on its side. It has throat pleats that allow its huge mouth to expand and hold incredible amounts of water. The whale closes its mouth and raises its huge tongue, forcing the water out through its baleen plates. Whatever krill and fish are caught by the baleen, the whale swallows.

A lot of baleen whales skim feed occasionally, but the sei is something of a skim feeding specialist. And it has a narrow, pointed rostrum that often sticks up out of the water as it skim-feeds, with pale baleen hanging down. This might easily look like a long snakey animal with a small head held up out of the water, especially in poor viewing conditions when the people involved are convinced they’re looking at a sea serpent. The sei whale is a fast swimmer too, easily able to cruise at the speeds described by the Daedalus and Plumper crews.

It’s not a perfect match, of course. The sei whale’s dorsal fin is pretty distinctive and if seen properly would have immediately told the crew they were looking at a whale. No one reported seeing anything that could be considered a whale’s breath either, sometimes called a spout. Since whales exhale forcefully and almost empty their lungs when they do, the cloud of warm air expelled looks like steam and is a tell-tale sign of a whale. Whales also don’t have hair on their rostrum that could wash around like a mane on a sea serpent’s neck. So while it seems likely that the Daedalus and Plumper sightings were of sei or other baleen whales skim feeding, we can’t know for sure.

Incidentally, the sei whale wasn’t fully protected from whaling until 1986. Japan still hunts sei whales, supposedly for scientific purposes but no one’s really fooled. The whales they catch are sold for meat. In 2010, a restaurant in Los Angeles closed after being caught serving sei whale meat. The sei whale is still endangered but if people would stop killing it maybe it would be doing better. Whalers reported that when harpooned, sei whales would cry audibly, which apparently disturbed the whalers. Maybe if your job involves making animals cry you should go back to school and get a degree in nursing or teaching or something else that will make the world a better place, not worse.

Another whale is responsible for a mystery carcass washed up in the Philippines in 2017. The carcass looks like a dragon-like sea monster, but that’s due to decomposition. It’s actually a baleen whale, probably a gray whale, that had apparently been floating around for a while, getting nastier and more nibbled on every day.

Speaking of nasty, nibbled-on dead things, and whaling, in 1937 a sperm whale brought to Naden Harbor Whaling Station on a small Canadian island for processing turned out to have something so extraordinary in its stomach that the whalers took pictures of it. It was about ten feet long, or three meters, with a head said to be horselike or camel-like in shape with a drooping nose. Its body was long and thin, and it had short pectoral flippers and a single fluke or spade-shaped end on its tail. Its skin was either smooth or furry depending on which witness you believe, and there were signs it may have had baleen or gill rakers.

The carcass wasn’t kept, but pieces of it were reportedly sent to the British Columbia Provincial Museum, whose museum director suggested it might be a fetal baleen whale. Locals thought it might be a young cadborosaurus, a sea serpent occasionally sighted off the coast of British Columbia. It gets its name from Cadboro Bay, and is usually called Caddy. Caddy is generally described as 5 to 15 meters long, or 16 to almost 50 feet long, with a horse-like or camel-like head, big eyes, and a tail with horizontal flukes like a whale’s. Some witnesses say it has brown fur and horns or ears of some kind.

In 1992, a retired museum researcher named Ed Bousfield found three photos of the Naden Harbor carcass, long believed lost. This sparked up lots of debate, naturally, and lots of suggestions as to what the animal might be—a basking shark, a sea lion or other pinniped, an eel, an oarfish, and many others.

The problem, of course, is that the pictures aren’t very clear, we don’t have the actual body to examine, and the carcass had spent some time in the belly of a sperm whale so was in the process of being digested. But the whalers who found it had never seen anything like it before.

In 1968, a man called William Hagelund was yachting with his family when he heard splashing and saw a strange creature in the water. It was small, only about 16 inches long, or 40 cm, so he lowered a dinghy and caught it in a net. It had what appeared to be armored plates on its back, its flippers were odd-shaped, its snout was elongated but widened at the end, and it had a downy yellow fuzz or fur underneath. Hagelund put it in a bucket but it was so frantic to get out that he worried it would die. He made a drawing of it and released it.

Hagelund thought he’d caught a baby Caddy. But he didn’t share his story until twenty years later, when he wrote a book called Whalers No More.

But while Hagelund’s creature probably wasn’t a baby Caddy, it might have been something almost as strange. The pipefish is a fish related to the seahorse, and it resembles a seahorse that has straightened out. Some species have prehensile tails, some have little paddles at the end of their tails. Some are stripey. Like seahorses, the pipefish male has a brood pouch where he broods the female’s fertilized eggs. Not only does he protect the eggs, he supplies them with nutrients from his body while they grow. Because the female can lay more eggs than the male can hold in his brood pouch, females of some species of pipefish will have more than one mate. Pipefish rarely grow longer than around 16 inches, or 40 cm and have armored plating. The yellow fuzz Hagelund reported might have been algae.

It’s probable that at least some Caddy sightings are of moose swimming to or from one of the many small islands in the area. Moose will also dive to reach aquatic plants. Other Caddy sightings are probably of the Northern sea lion or Northern elephant seal, both of which are common in the area for at least part of the year.

Pinnipeds, in fact, may be the biggest factor to consider in any sea serpent or sea monster sightings. I learned this interesting fact after doing the research for the previous sea monster episode, but pinnipeds will stand vertically in the water to look around above the surface, and a big elephant seal can raise its head over three feet, or one meter, out of the water. If you’re in a boat and a big head and neck pops up out of the water nearby, your first thought is not going to be, “Oh, that’s an unexpected seal.” It’s going to be, “THIS GIANT ANIMAL IS GOING TO EAT ME.”

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t definite sea monsters out there. Far from it. On December 7, 1905, two naturalists spotted an animal they couldn’t recognize off the coast of Brazil.

The pair were Michael Nicholl and Edmund Meade-Waldo, part of a research team on the Valhalla. The ship was about 15 miles, or 24 km, from the mouth of the Parahiba River. At 10:15 a.m. Nicoll spotted a dorsal fin above the water that he didn’t recognize, about 100 yards away, or 91 meters. He asked Meade-Waldo to take a look, and he couldn’t identify the fish either. The fin was roughly rectangular, close to two feet high and six feet long, or 61 cm and 1.8 meters, and dark brown with an edge Meade-Waldo described as crinkled.

Meade-Waldo was looking at the fin through his binoculars when a head and long neck emerged from the water in front of the fin. He estimated it as 7 or 8 feet high, or over 2 meters, with a brown, turtle-like head. The animal moved its neck from side to side. They watched it until it was out of sight as the ship sailed away, but early the next morning, around 2 am, three crew members spotted what they thought was the same animal swimming underwater.

Nicholl and Meade-Waldo published their report in 1906. We still have no idea what they saw.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at We’re on Twitter at strangebeasties and have a facebook page at If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at 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!


Thanks to Damian, who suggested T. rex as a topic! Let’s learn all about the T. rex and especially the most famous and controversial specimen ever found, Sue.

A T. rex:

Sue, also a T. rex:

Show transcript:

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

Our topic this week is a suggestion from Damian, who wants to hear about the one, the only, the tyrant lizard king with massive everything except arms, Tyrannosaurus rex. Aw yeah

You probably know a lot about T. rex without realizing it. It’s THE dinosaur, the one people think of first when you say dinosaur. But a lot of popular knowledge about the T. rex is actually out of date, so let’s find out what’s really going on with that big toothy theropod.

First of all, T. rex did not live in the Jurassic period. It lived much later, in the late Cretaceous, around 66 million years ago. But I guess Late Cretaceous Park doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. It was one of the last non-avian dinosaurs, dying off in the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction. It lived in what is now western North America, with close relatives in many other parts of the world.

T. rex was a big animal, no doubt about it. The biggest individual we know of, called Sue, stood around 12 feet tall, or a little over 3 ½ meters at the hips. The weight of its massive head was balanced by its long tail. Nose to tail it was around 40 feet long, or about 12 meters. Plenty of other dinosaurs were bigger than T. rex, but T. rex was the biggest land predator we know of.

While T. rex had long legs, its arms are famously teeny, only about three feet long, or one meter. That’s barely longer than an adult human’s arm. But recent research shows that the arms weren’t weak. The bones were strong and so were the muscles, although the arm had a limited range of motion and only two toes. Many researchers think T rex used its arms to hold onto struggling prey.

Since all we have are fossils, we don’t really know what T. rex looked like beyond its bones and muscles, which we know about from study of muscle attachment sites on the bones. Some researchers think it probably had at least some feathers, since we have feather impressions from some of T rex’s close relations. Baby T rex might have had feathers and shed them as it grew up, or it might have had feathers its whole life. We have fossilized skin impressions from a specimen found in 2002 that show scales on the tail, neck, and hip, so many researchers suggest that T rex only had feathers on its head and back, possibly for decoration or protection from the elements. Closely related species show feather impressions over all of the body, so we know T rex’s cousins were feathered.

We also know that T rex had large flat scales on its snout with patches of keratin in the middle, which probably contained sensory bundles. These same patches are present in crocodilians, which help crocs move their eggs and babies without harming them, and help them sense the temperature of their nests.

In 2016, researchers discovered that T rex’s teeth contained enamel. This makes the teeth harder, but enamel has to stay damp. That means T rex probably had lips and its teeth wouldn’t have been visible except when the mouth was open. If that sounds weird, most reptiles have lips. Crocodilians don’t, so some of their teeth show when their mouths are closed, but they also live in the water so don’t have to worry about dry mouth.

Just to be clear, reptile lips aren’t big kissy lips. They’re just skin that allows the teeth to be completely enclosed within the mouth when the jaws are closed, keeping the mouth from drying out.

In 2005, paleontologist Mary Schweitzer found soft tissue in the femur, or thigh bone, of a 68 million year old T rex. The tissue contained blood vessels and a substance called medullary bone, which is only present in female birds right before they lay eggs. Medullary bone helps the bird’s body make shells for her eggs. Since then, researchers have found soft tissue within bones of two more T rexes and a hadrosaur. They’re not yet sure how the soft tissue was preserved. The blood vessels resemble those of ostriches more than they resemble crocodilian blood vessels.

For a long time scientists thought that dinosaurs like T rex stood upright with the tail acting as a prop. You know, sort of like Barney. This was recognized as wrong by around the 1970s, but paleontologists are still figuring out the details about how T rex moved around. For instance, we still don’t know if T rex could run. Many researchers now think it probably could, although it might not have been able to run faster than around 25 mph, or 40 km/h. That’s about the speed of a human sprinter. Some of T rex’s bones are hollow to reduce weight, and its feet show adaptations to withstand stresses. But we don’t know for sure, and studies continue using ever more sophisticated mathematical models.

We also don’t know if T rex was warmblooded like birds, or cold-blooded like reptiles. Considering its close relationship to birds, many researchers think it was warm-blooded, properly called endothermic. An endothermic animal can regulate its body temperature internally regardless of the air temperature.

T rex had excellent vision and sense of smell. It could hear very well too, especially low-frequency sounds. It had a massively strong bite, probably the strongest bite force of any land animal. Its bite could crush bone. It would have been a deadly hunter but probably also scavenged, either by stealing kills from other predators or eating anything dead it came across.

We have fossils that show damage from T rex bites, including to other T rexes. It’s possible T rexes fought, either over food or mates, or that bigger T rexes sometimes ate smaller ones. All T rex remains show damage, though, since the life of a predator is a tough one, and the bigger the animals you hunt, the more damage you’re going to take.

So that’s a lot of up-to-date information about Tyrannosaurus rex, or as up-to-date as I could find. Lots of paleontologists are studying T rex, so more information gets published all the time. While I was researching, though, I kept running across interesting details about the specimen nicknamed Sue.

Sue was discovered in August 1990 in South Dakota, on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation, by paleontologist Sue Hendrickson. It was the last day of the dig and in fact the group was about to head home with a bunch of Edmontosaurus fossils when they noticed their truck had a flat tire. While the tire was getting changed, Sue Hendrickson took the opportunity to poke around for any last-minute fossils. She spotted some loose bones that had weathered out of a cliff, and saw bigger bones sticking out of the cliff above her, so she took the loose bones back to the dig supervisor and president of the Black Hills Institute, Peter Larson. Larson recognized them as T rex bones and immediately decided they weren’t going to leave that day after all.

It was a good decision, because once the bones were excavated, it turned out to be not only the biggest T rex skeleton ever discovered, but the most complete, and in excellent condition.

The group took the fossils back to the Black Hills Institute to clean and prepare them, and that should have been that. But unfortunately, T rex remains are worth a lot of money and that caused issues almost immediately.

The Black Hills Institute had gotten permission to excavate Sue the dinosaur, and had paid the landowner $5,000. The land was owned by Maurice Williams, a member of the Sioux tribe, and since his land was also part of the Sioux reservation, the tribe said the fossils belonged to the tribe, not just Williams.

It’s easy to think of Williams as greedy, but the situation was far more complicated than it sounds. Peter Larson’s group weren’t just in it for the science. They were commercial bone hunters, which means they would have sold the T rex fossil after it was prepared and kept all the money. They had already started taking offers for the sale when Williams sued. Not only that, Williams’s land was held in trust by the government, which meant Larson was supposed to get permission from not just Maurice Williams but the Department of the Interior to excavate fossils on the land, and he hadn’t even asked.

It was a lengthy, complicated trial. Even the FBI had to get involved. They and the South Dakota National Guard seized the fossils and kept them in storage until the trial ended. Peter Larson was charged with fossil theft—not of Sue the T rex, but of other fossils that didn’t have anything to do with Williams. He was found guilty of theft of fossils from public land and lying on customs documents about fossil deals in Peru and Japan, and spent 18 months in jail.

The court decided that Maurice Williams did own the fossils. Williams contacted the auction house Sotheby’s to sell them.

The paleontological community panicked at this, because when I say T rex fossils are worth a lot of money, I don’t mean it’s just scientists who fight each other to buy them. I mean rich people want them for private collections. Fossils in private collections are usually never studied, so they’re nothing more than decorations and don’t add anything to our collective knowledge of creatures that lived in the past. There’s nothing wrong with owning fossils of common animals, of course, but when it’s an important find like this one, it needs to be prepared properly, studied by experts all over the world, and put on public display.

So the Chicago Field Museum of Natural History scrambled to find funding to bid on the T rex. They asked lots of companies and individuals to donate, and those companies and individuals stepped up—companies like McDonald’s and Walt Disney Parks, so good for them.

The auction was held in October 1997. The starting bid was $500,000. At the time, the top amount paid for a fossil had been around $600,000, but Sotheby’s expected this sale to top one million. We don’t know who bid because Sotheby’s keeps this information a secret, but we do know that the Smithsonian had been prepared to spend 2 ½ million.

The auction only lasted eight minutes and the Field Museum won. It paid $8.3 million dollars for Sue the T rex, of which 7.6 million went to Williams. Disney was given a replica of Sue’s skeleton for display and McDonald’s was given two replicas.

It’s great that Sue was bought by an institution that has made the fossil available for study and put it on permanent display to the public. But because the auction went for so much, and was so well publicized, it had some negative repercussions. For a few years after the auction, all fossil auctions were much higher than before, stretching museum budgets to the limits. It is now much harder for paleontologists to get permission to dig on private property, and people started stealing fossils from dig sites, thinking they might get rich.

Williams was fined for selling dinosaur bones without a business license. He died in 2011 at the age of 85and I couldn’t find out what he did with the money he received from the auction, but apparently he kept it in his family and did not donate any to his tribe. While the Cheyenne River tribe’s policy is to leave fossils undisturbed, the nearby Standing Rock Reservation has its own paleontology department and museum. The group visits local schools to give presentations on dinosaurs found in the area.

In 2002 Larson and his then-wife, Kristin Donnan, published a book called Rex Appeal, and in 2014 made a documentary from the book called Dinosaur 13. Critics have pointed out that both book and film tell a one-sided story, painting Larson as an innocent who was wronged by the system and ignoring Williams’s point of view entirely.

It sounds like Williams was actually kind of a jerk. But it also sounds like Larson was kind of a jerk. People get weird when a lot of money is on the line, and at least Larson truly loves paleontology and has contributed a lot to the field—you know, when he’s not selling fossils to private collectors.

As for Sue the T rex, we don’t actually know if the dinosaur was male or female, but it usually gets referred to as a she because it’s named after Sue Hendrickson, the discoverer. Sue the T rex has been studied extensively so we know a lot about her. She was 28 years old when she died and had arthritis in her tail, had recovered from some serious injuries including broken ribs and a torn tendon in her right arm, and her skull shows pathology that might have killed her. Some researchers think Sue died from a parasitic infection from eating diseased meat. Modern birds sometimes contract what may be the same parasite, which causes swelling of the throat that ultimately starves the bird to death.

A few months ago as of this recording, in February of 2018, Sue was dismantled and removed temporarily from display so that some missing small bones can be added to the skeleton and adjustments made to her posture. She will then be moved to her own room in the Field Museum in 2019. Sue also has her own Twitter account, @SUEtheTrex. It’s actually pretty funny. I just followed it.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at We’re on Twitter at strangebeasties and have a facebook page at If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at 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!