Episode 073: Phantom and Otherwise Kangaroos

This week we’re learning about some out-of-place marsupials, from phantom kangaroos to colonies of wallabies living in places like England and Hawaii. Thanks to Richard E. for the suggestion!

A Bennett’s wallaby and a red kangaroo:

George Stubbs’s kangaroo painting:

The controversial maybe-it’s-a-kangaroo engraving from 1593 (detail to the right). For more information, this is a great article.

You can find the 2013 video of a kangaroo in an Oklahoma cowfield here. It’s definitely a kangaroo, too.

Show transcript:

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

We started 2018 with a couple of episodes about out of place animals. I meant to make that a regular feature this year, but I keep getting distracted. Imagine that. This week I was going to revisit out of place animals in general, with lots of excellent suggestions from Richard E. But the second I started researching some populations of wallabies in places far outside of their usual home, I got sucked into the strange world of phantom kangaroos.

Reports of so-called phantom kangaroos are something between an urban legend and a genuine cryptozoological mystery. The problem with the earliest accounts is that they’re impossible to verify as real reports. Newspapers from earlier than about the 1920s would sometimes play fast and loose with reality in order to sell papers or just fill space. I suspect that at the time, most people reading the papers understood that these sorts of accounts were just fun nonsense, but we don’t have the same frame of reference to interpret them properly today. A hundred years from now scholars are going to be reading memes from 2018 and taking them at face value because they don’t understand most of the pop culture references.

But let’s dig into some of these phantom kangaroo reports and see what we can find out.

The first report of a phantom kangaroo is usually listed as one from 1899 in Wisconsin. The story goes that on June 12 of that year, a woman in New Richmond reported seeing a kangaroo run through her neighbor’s yard. Some accounts say it was her yard, and some reports say it happened during a storm. Some reports also mention that a circus was in the area, but that while people assumed the kangaroo had escaped from the circus, it turned out that the circus had never had a kangaroo.

This story doesn’t seem to appear anywhere except books and websites about unexplained phenomena. On the surface it seems to have good details, but when you think about it, it’s mostly vague. We have a specific date and a specific place…but what was the woman’s name? Which circus was in town? How did the woman know she had seen a kangaroo, and what did it look like? It was described as running, not hopping, but does that verb come from the witness or from reporters?

The next phantom kangaroo account is from 1907, and supposedly happened near Pennsburg, PA. I found it in three old newspapers, including the August 3, 1907 Harrisburg (Pennsylvania) Telegraph, and the Harrisburg Daily Independent.

This is the text of the article that appears in both those newspapers, with the headline “Kangaroo” at Large Alarms a Community, with Kangaroo in quotes, a rather sophisticated touch that makes me think the story was real:

“Pennsburg, Pa, Aug. 3 Tales of a kangaroo that is said to be roaming the wooded hills in the vicinity of Pleasant Run, a few miles west of here, have occasioned intense excitement in that region. Several persons, among them Erwin Styer and Martin Stengel, have seen the strange animal within the last week, and while it is so fleet that no one has been able to obtain a good view of it, the descriptions tend to substantiate the theory that it is a kangaroo. Dogs have attacked the animal, but have always been worsted. People living in the neighborhood of Pleasant Run are afraid to venture away from home after nightfall, and there is little disposition to linger long at the village store in the evening.”


I checked and Pleasant Run, Pennsylvania is indeed four miles away from Pennsburg, so that’s accurate. I also found an article in the Pinedale (Wyoming) Roundup of December 4, 1907, with the headline “Big Kangaroo at Large” and the subheadline “Keeps Lovers from Their Sweet Summer Saunterings,” which makes me want to throw up a little. This version of the story has been expanded, but whether that was done by the original reporter or was added to give the story more flavor, I don’t know. Here it is in full:


“Tales of a kangaroo that is said to be roaming the wooded hills in the vicinity of Pleasant Run, a few miles west of here, have occasioned intense excitement. Several persons, among them Erwin Styer and Martin Stengel, have seen the strange animal within the past week, and while it is so fleet that no one has been able to obtain a good view of it, the descriptions substantiate the theory that it is a kangaroo. It is described as being of gray color, with a head shaped like that of a sheep and a body of large proportions. Upon the approach of a human being it darts away at tremendous speed.

“Dogs have attacked it, but were always worsted. They were not bitten but apparently the animal flung them off with terrific force in the manner that a kangaroo defends itself with its hind legs and tail.

“People living in the neighborhood are afraid to venture away from home after nightfall and there is little disposition to linger at the village store or tavern in the evening. Young men say that the customary outdoor rural amusements are no longer safe. ‘It ain’t that I’m afraid of any wild beast that ever roamed the jungles of Montgomery county,’ said one young swain, ‘but I certainly do object to the disgrace of being knocked out by the hind legs or the tail of a kangaroo. So I guess we fellows won’t do much stirring up with the girls for some time to come.’”


Okay, first of all, barf. Second of all, I don’t know what people sounded like in 1907, but I lived in Pennsylvania for a while and no one talks like that there. Third of all, I’m pretty sure Montgomery County, PA, which is not far from Philadelphia, wasn’t exactly a jungle even in 1907. I guarantee you that the quote at the end of the Wyoming article was made up by some bad writer, either in Wyoming or in some other newspaper, to give it more pizzazz.

It’s possible the whole article was an invention. I suspect the original version reports a real event, but since there are so few details it’s impossible to know if the animal was actually a kangaroo.

The next phantom kangaroo is a lot more interesting. It happened near South Pittsburg, Tennessee, which is near Chattanooga and therefore not far from where I live. Over five days in January 1934, an animal people called a kangaroo was repeatedly seen outside the town. One person said it leaped across a field, others reported it had killed and partially eaten some dogs and ducks, and was even reported carrying away a sheep. Its prints were tracked to a cave, but the animal was never found. Now, I’m going to be honest here and admit that I didn’t hunt too hard for original newspaper articles on this one. I should have, but I literally ran out of time. Basically, whatever this animal was, it probably wasn’t a kangaroo. While kangaroos, like all herbivores, will occasionally eat birds or small animals, or even fish, they don’t eat dogs. They don’t live in caves. They aren’t usually aggressive at all. So basically, while it’s possible this was a mystery animal, it wasn’t a kangaroo.

People tend to see what they expect to see. If someone sees an animal they can’t identify, their subconscious will suggest the most plausible mystery animal. These days that might be Bigfoot or a dogman. In the olden days, it might have been a kangaroo. But why? Why kangaroos?

Kangaroos have been known to science and to general non-Australian people for centuries. The most famous painting of a kangaroo was by artist George Stubbs, who is best known for his gorgeous paintings of horses and dogs. Stubbs painted it in 1772 from a skin brought to England by Captain Cook, not from a live animal. As a result, the kangaroo isn’t as accurate as most of his paintings, but it’s still definitely a kangaroo. It was exhibited in London in 1773 and was a huge attraction. Prints and reproductions of Stubbs’s kangaroo were also popular, and until zoos started to exhibit live kangaroos, that’s what many non-Australians thought kangaroos looked like.

But there were earlier European depictions of kangaroos and other marsupials from Australia, definitely as early as 1711 and possibly as early as 1593. People do tend to see what they expect to see, but presumably no one outside of Australia actually expects to see a kangaroo hopping around on any given day. But something did happen around the time of the earliest phantom kangaroo reports. Kangaroos and their relations started being exhibited in zoos.

This is different from traveling menageries and circuses. The first kangaroos were known to have been in traveling menageries around 1828, when one or two kangaroos were exhibited in England, with a few others in circuses and menageries traveling mostly around Boston and Ontario in North America. But public zoos became more and more common around the late 18th and early 19th centuries, especially in the United States. Kangaroos and their smaller relations, wallabies, started to appear in American zoos in the early 20th century.

So it’s possible that the phantom kangaroo sightings resulted from more people being familiar with what kangaroos were and what they looked like, but not being familiar with what they ate or how they acted outside of captivity. Zoos in those days were grim places, with animals kept in small cages, so many people who saw one on display may not even have been aware they hop instead of run. If your sole experience with hopping animals is rabbits, and someone told you kangaroos hop, you’d probably picture a rabbit-like gait.

But…well…maybe people were actually seeing kangaroos, at least sometimes.

Here’s the thing. Kangaroos and wallabies are sometimes kept as pets. Apparently they can get pretty tame, although I’m just going to point out that you’d be a lot better off with a pet that’s actually domesticated. If you must have a hopping pet, rabbits are pretty awesome. Anyway, guess what. There are actual known populations of wallabies living in various places where they really shouldn’t be. And we don’t actually know how they got there in most cases. All we can do is guess they were escaped pets or escaped from zoos.

Wallabies look like miniature kangaroos, maybe the size of an average dog. They eat all kinds of plants, can bound quickly and jump fences and other obstacles, and are largely nocturnal although they also come out in daylight. Basically they fill a similar ecological niche as deer. They breed well in captivity and are cute, so are often kept in zoos. They’re marsupials native to Australia, New Zealand, and New Guinea…but they are also found in parts of England, Scotland, Ireland, on the Isle of Man, in one tiny area of France, and a few other places.

We do know where some of the wallabies come from. Lady Fiona of Arran was a bit of an eccentric who kept what would have been considered exotic pets back in the 1920s and 30s: llamas, alpacas, pot-bellied pigs, and wallabies. At some point in the 1940s she turned the wallabies loose on an island in Loch Lomond, where they’ve lived ever since. The problem, of course, is that they shouldn’t really be there. They’re cute, sure, and tourists do come to see them, but some people think their presence threatens certain native bird species and they ought to be killed off, or at least captured and taken to zoos. Other people point out that the native birds on the island don’t seem to be bothered by the wallabies, which after all have been there for the better part of a century now. About sixty wallabies live on the island at any given time.

There are also wallabies in the Peak District in Derbyshire, England. This was the population Richard E. told me about, which got me started on this episode that has taken me way too long to research. We know where these wallabies came from too. A man named Henry Courtney Brocklehurst, which honestly does not even sound like a real person’s name, once kept a private zoo on the Roaches, a rocky ridge that’s part of a national park in England. At some point in the 1930s five wallabies in his zoo either escaped or were quietly turned loose, reports vary. They did well in the wild and multiplied, until at their most numerous there were around 50. For a while people thought the wallabies had all died off after some especially cold winters, but in 2009 a hiker got pictures of one.

But wallabies also live in other parts of the British isles, and we don’t know where most of them came from. At least some are probably escaped pets or escaped from zoos—wallabies are apparently pretty good at escaping—while others may be individuals from the peak district population that have gone wandering. All the wallabies in Britain are a subspecies of red-necked wallaby called Bennett’s wallaby, which is from Tasmania. This means it’s better adapted to the British climate than most other wallabies would be. They’re sometimes killed by cars or dogs.

So let’s get back to more modern sightings of phantom kangaroos. There are a lot of reports from the United States, believe me, and a few from Canada. I won’t go into detail for most of them, but they include a 1949 sighting in Ohio, a 1958 sighting in Nebraska, the “Big Bunny” kangaroo sightings in Minnesota that persisted for a decade between 1957 and 1967, and many more.

On October 18, 1974 someone called the Chicago police to report a kangaroo on their porch. Two officers responded…and found a kangaroo in a nearby alleyway. They reported it was five feet tall, or 1.5 meters, which points to its being an actual kangaroo and not a wallaby. Now, Chicago cops probably are not trained to deal with kangaroos, but you’d think they would have the sense to call animal control or a zoo or someone who does know how to deal with kangaroos. Instead, they decided to treat the kangaroo like a human criminal. That’s right, they tried to handcuff a kangaroo.

The kangaroo kicked and punched the officers, who called for backup and probably still haven’t lived that down, but the kangaroo jumped a fence and disappeared into the night.

The next day a paperboy near Oak Park reported hearing a car’s brakes squeal, and when he turned to look, he saw a kangaroo only a few feet away, staring at him. It hopped away. Over the next few weeks sightings poured in from all over Chicago, from other Illinois cities, and even from Indiana. By July 1975, sightings had tapered off and finally stopped.

In April 1978, a schoolbus driver in Waukesha, Wisconsin saw two kangaroos hop across the road. She wasn’t the only one to see them, either. The road was busy and drivers had to slam on their brakes to avoid the kangaroos. One driver actually hit one, but it just jumped back up and hopped away. More people spotted the kangaroos in the weeks that followed. By the end of the month, a kangaroo hunt was organized in an attempt to capture it. They failed, and it seems mostly to have been a joke, but an anonymous photographer sent a Polaroid of a kangaroo to the local paper, supposedly taken in the area. It turned out to be a hoax, a photo of a stuffed wallaby someone had dragged out into a field. But sightings of the kangaroo persisted for months.

And sightings of kangaroos and wallabies don’t just happen in North America and the British Isles. Between 2003 and 2010, people in the Mayama mountain district of Osaki, Japan reported seeing a large brown animal with long ears, variously described as three to five feet tall, or one to 1.5 meters. Most sightings of the animal took place on roadsides when people were on their way to work or home from work.

No one has pictures of the kangaroo seen in Japan, though. No one has photos of the kangaroos reported in Chicago or any of the other sightings from 1899 on up through the new millennium. All those kangaroos were seen but never caught or photographed. A photo of a kangaroo was, however, once passed off as a photo of the Jersey Devil. According to a century of reports, the phantom kangaroos are just that, phantoms.

But these days, many people carry high-quality cameras with them everywhere, more commonly referred to as phones. And things started to change.

On January 3, 2005, a woman in Iowa County, Wisconsin called the sheriff’s department to say she’d seen a kangaroo hopping around on her horse farm. When the sheriff arrived, he was shocked to actually find a kangaroo, specifically a male red kangaroo. He knew better than to try to handcuff it, and instead got help to lure the kangaroo into a barn. It was captured safely and taken to the Henry Vilas Zoo, where it stayed until it died five years later. No one knows where it came from or why it was hopping around loose, but it was apparently fairly tame.

In 2013, some hunters took a video of a kangaroo in Oklahoma. I’ll put a link in the show notes, but it is 100% a kangaroo and not a blurry video that might be anything. A pet kangaroo named Lucy Sparkles had escaped in November of 2012 not too far away, but it turned out that the kangaroo caught on video wasn’t Lucy. It also wasn’t an escapee from a local exotic animal farm. It was a kangaroo from a man who kept kangaroos, which means there are way, way too many kangaroos in Oklahoma than I ever imagined.

Similarly, a man driving to work in July 2013 in North Salem, Connecticut got a few seconds of video of a kangaroo or wallaby bounding down the road and up someone’s driveway. In February of 2017, police officers on patrol spotted a wallaby in Somers, New York, which is believed to be a pet wallaby that escaped three years before in North Salem.

In other words, people really are seeing wallabies and kangaroos, not phantoms. Is it possible there are populations of either living in remote areas of North America, and that occasionally one wanders closer to a town or city and is seen? It’s possible, but not especially likely. Wallabies would be easy prey for wolves and coyotes, bears and cougars, and domestic dogs. We’d also probably have a lot of roadkill wallabies. Kangaroos would be more able to hold their own against predators, but are larger and therefore easier to spot. The climate in much of the United States also isn’t ideal for kangaroos or wallabies. Red kangaroos might be able to thrive in the arid and sparsely populated parts of the southwestern United States, but sightings of phantom kangaroos aren’t generally from those areas.

I’m pretty sure that the wallabies and kangaroos seen in North America, and probably most other places, are escaped pets. Wallabies in particular seem to be escape artists. So if you’re tempted to get an exotic pet and are looking at a wallaby, trust me: you’d be a lot happier with a dog.

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 072: Weird Whales

It’s been too long since we discussed whales, so this week let’s learn about how whales evolved and some especially strange or mysterious whales!

Pakicetus was probably kind of piggy-looking, but with a crocodile snout:

Protocetids were more actually whale-like but still not all that whale-like:

Now we’re getting whaley! Here’s basilosaurus, with a dinosaur name because the guy who found it thought it was a reptile:

Here’s the skull of a male strap-toothed whale (left). Those flat strips are the teeth:

Another view. See how the teeth grow up from the lower jaw and around the upper jaw?

A dead pygmy right whale:

The walrus whale may have looked sort of like this:

The half-beak porpoise had a chin that just would not quit:

Show transcript:

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

This week’s topic is weird whales and some of their relations. If you think about it, all whales are weird, but these are the weirdest whales we know of. Some are living, some are extinct, and some…are mysteries.

Whales, dolphins, and porpoises are most closely related to—wait for it—HIPPOPOTAMUSES. About 48 million years ago an ancestor of both modern hippos and whales lived in Asia. It’s called Inodhyus and it was about the size of a cat, but looked more pig-like. It was at least partially aquatic, probably as a way to hide from predators, but it was an omnivore that probably did most of its hunting and foraging on land.

The earliest whale is generally accepted to be Pakicetus. It lived around the same time as Inodhyus and its fossils have been found in what is now Pakistan and India. It was about the size of a big dog, but with a long, thick tail. Its skull was elongated, something like a short-snouted crocodile with big sharp triangular teeth. It had upward-facing eyes like a crocodile or hippo, and it also had four long, fairly thin legs. It probably hunted on both land and in shallow water, and like the hippo it probably didn’t have much hair.

That doesn’t sound much like a whale, but it had features that only appear in whales. These features became more and more exaggerated in its descendants. At first, these ancestral whales looked more like mammalian crocodiles. It’s not until Protocetids evolved around 45 million years ago that they started to look recognizably like whales. Some protocetids lived in shallow oceans throughout the world but probably still gave birth on land, while others were more amphibious and lived along the coasts, where they probably hunted both in and out of water. But they had nostrils that had migrated farther back up their snouts, although they weren’t blowholes just yet, reduced limbs, and may have had flukes on their large tails. But they still weren’t totally whale-like. One protocetid, Rodhocetus balochistanensis, still had nail-like hooves on its forefeet.

By around 41 million years ago, the basilosaurids and their close relations had evolved, and were fully aquatic. They lived in the oceans throughout the tropics and subtropics, and their nostrils had moved almost to the location of modern whales’ blowholes. Their forelegs were basically flippers with little fingers, their hind legs had almost disappeared, and they had tail flukes. They were also much bigger than their ancestors. Basilosaurus could grow up to 60 feet long, or 18 meters, and probably looked more like a gigantic eel than a modern whale. It was long and relatively thin, and may have mostly lived at the ocean’s surface, swimming more like an eel or fish than a whale. It ate fish and sharks. SHARKS.

So when did whales develop the ability to echolocate? Researchers think it happened roughly 34 million years ago, which also happens to be about the same time that baleen whales and toothed whales started to develop separately. Echolocation probably evolved to help whales track hard-shelled mollusks called nautiloids. By 10 million years ago, though, nautiloids were on the decline and mostly lived around reefs. Whales had to shift their focus to soft-bodied prey like squid, which meant their sonar abilities had to become more and more refined. Toothed whales echolocate, while baleen whales probably do not. Researchers aren’t 100% sure, but if baleen whales do use echolocation, it’s limited in scope and the whales probably mostly use it for sensing obstacles like ice or the sea floor.

Baleen whales are the ones that communicate with song, although the really elaborate songs are from humpback and bowhead whales. Of those species, humpback songs are structured and orderly, while bowhead whale song is more free-form. But humpback songs do change, and researchers have discovered that they spread among a population of whales the same way popular songs spread through human populations. This is what they sound like, by the way. A snippet of humpback song is first, then a snippet of bowhead song.

[examples of humpback and bowhead]

So now we’ve got a basic understanding of how whales evolved. Now let’s take a look at some of the weirder whales we know about. We’ll start with a living one, the strap-toothed whale. It’s one of 20-odd species of mesoplodont, or beaked whale, and we don’t know a whole lot about any of them. The strap-toothed whale is the longest beaked whale at 20 feet long, or 6.2 meters.

The strap-toothed whale lives in cold waters in the southern hemisphere. It’s rarely seen, probably since it lives in areas that aren’t very well traveled by humans. It mostly eats squid. Females are usually a little bigger than males, and adults are mostly black with white markings on the throat and back.

The weird thing about this whale is its teeth. Male beaked whales all have a pair of weird teeth, usually tusk-like, which they use to fight each other, but strap-toothed whales take the weird teeth deal to the extreme. As a male grows, two of its teeth grow up from the lower jaw and backwards, curving around the upper jaw until the whale can’t open its mouth very far and can only eat small prey. The teeth can grow a foot long, or 30 cm, and have small projections that cause more damage in fights with other males.

Most of what we know about the strap-toothed whale comes from whales that have been stranded on land and died. Males don’t seem to have any trouble getting enough to eat, and researchers think they may use suction to pull prey into their mouths. Other beaked whales are known to feed this way.

All beaked whales are deep divers, generally live in remote parts of the world’s oceans, and are rarely seen. In other words, we don’t know for sure how many species there really are. In 1963, a dead beaked whale washed ashore in Sri Lanka. At first it was described as a new species, but a few years later other researchers decided it was a ginkgo-toothed whale, which had also only been discovered in 1963. Male ginkgo-toothed whales have a pair of tusks shaped like ginkgo leaves, but they don’t appear to use them to fight each other. But a study published in 2014 determined that the 1963 whale, along with six others found stranded in various areas, belong to a new species. It’s never been seen alive. Neither has the ginkgo-toothed whale.

The pygmy right whale is a baleen whale, but it’s another one we know very little about. It lives in the southern hemisphere. Despite its name, it isn’t closely related to the right whale. It’s small for a baleen whale, around 21 feet long, or 6.5 meters, and it’s dark gray above and lighter gray or white underneath. Its sickle-shaped dorsal fin is small and doesn’t always show when the whale surfaces to breathe. It feeds mostly on tiny crustaceans like copepods, and probably doesn’t dive very deeply considering its relatively small heart and lungs.

The pygmy right whale was first described in 1846 from bones and baleen. Later studies revealed that it’s really different from other baleen whales, with more pairs of ribs and other physical differences. It also doesn’t seem to act like other baleen whales. It doesn’t breach, slap its tail, or show its flukes when it dives. It doesn’t even swim the same way other whales swim. Other whales swim by flexing the tail, leaving the body stable, but the pygmy right whale flexes its whole body from head to tail. It seems to be a fairly solitary whale, usually seen singly or in pairs, although sometimes one will travel with other whale species. In 1992, though, 80 pygmy right whales were seen together off the coast of southwest Australia. Fewer than 200 of the whales have been spotted alive, including those 80, so we have no idea how rare they are.

It wasn’t until 2012 that the pygmy right whale’s differences were explained. It turns out that it’s not that closely related to other baleen whales. Instead, it’s the descendant of a family of whales called cetotheres—but until then, researchers thought cetotheres had gone extinct completely around two million years ago. Not only that, it turns out that at least one other cetothere survived much later than two million years ago, with new fossils dated to only 700,000 years ago. But that particular whale, Herpetocetus, had a weird jaw joint that kept it from being able to open its mouth very far. It and the strap-toothed whale should start a club.

Sometimes whale fossils are found in unexpected places, which helps give us an idea of what the land and ocean was like at the time. For instance, fossils of an extinct beaked whale known as a Turkana ziphiid was found in Kenya in 1963, in a desert region 460 miles inland, or 740 kilometers. The fossil is 17 million years old. So how did it get so far inland?

It turns out that at the time, that part of east Africa was near sea level and grown up with forests. The fossil was found in river deposits, so the whale probably swam into the mouth of a river, got confused and kept going, and then couldn’t turn around. It kept swimming until it became stranded and died. Because of the finding, researchers know that 17 million years ago, the uplift of East Africa had not yet begun, or if it had it hadn’t yet made much progress. The uplift, of course, is what prompted our own ancestors to start walking upright, as their forest home slowly became grassland.

As an interesting aside, the fossil was stored at the Smithsonian, but at some point, like so many other fascinating items, it disappeared. Paleontologist Louis Jacobs spent 30 years trying to find it, and eventually located it at Harvard University in 2011. After he finished studying it, he donated it to the National Museum of Kenya.

More whale fossils were uncovered in 2010 in the Atacama Desert in Chile—in this case, over 75 skeletons, many in excellent condition, dated to between 2 and 7 million years ago. Researchers think they’re the result of toxic algae blooms that killed the whales, which then washed ashore. Over 40 were various types of baleen whales. Other fossils found in the same deposit include a sperm whale, marine sloths, and a tusked dolphin known as a walrus whale.

The walrus whale lived in the Pacific Ocean around 10 million years ago, and while it’s considered a dolphin, it’s actually more closely related to narwhals. But it probably looked more like a walrus than either. Unlike most whales, it had a flexible neck. It also had a face like a walrus. You know, flattish with tusks sticking down. It probably ate molluscs. But the right tusk was much longer than the left one, possibly in males only. In the case of one species of walrus whale, one specimen’s left tusk was about 10 inches long, or 25 cm, while its right tusk was over four feet long, or 1.35 meters. Some researchers suggest that the whale swam with its head bent so that the long tusk lay along the body. Possibly it only used it for display, either to show off for females or to fight other males. But we don’t know for sure.

Speaking of narwhals, if you were hoping to hear about them, you’ll need to go way back to episode five, about the unicorn. I talk about the narwhal a lot in that episode. The narwhal happens to be one of the best animals. A lot of people think the narwhal isn’t a real animal, that it’s made up like a unicorn. In fact, about a week ago, I was talking to a coworker and the subject of narwhals came up. She actually did not realize it was a real animal. Nope, it’s real, and that horn is real, but it’s actually a tusk rather than a horn. It grows through the whale’s upper lip, not its forehead. In another weird coincidence, this afternoon when I was about to sit down and record this episode, a friend sent me a link to an article that had some narwhal sounds. So we’re not really talking about narwhals in this episode, but hey, this is what they sound like.

[narwhal calls]

Another weird whale is the halfbeak porpoise, or skimmer porpoise, which lived off the coast of what is now California between 5 and 1.5 million years ago. While it probably looked mostly like an ordinary porpoise, its chin grew incredibly long. The chin, properly called a symphysis, was highly sensitive, and researchers think it used it to probe in the mud for food.

There’s still so much to learn about whales, both living ones and extinct ones. We definitely haven’t identified all the living whales yet. There are reports of strange whales from all over the world, including a baleen whale with two dorsal fins. It was first spotted in 1867 off the coast of Chile by a naturalist, and other sightings have been made since. It’s supposedly 60 feet long, or 18 meters, so you’d think it wouldn’t be all that hard to spot…but there’s a whole lot of ocean out there, and relatively few people on the ocean to look for rare whales.

Whales can live a really long time. In 2007, researchers studying a dead bowhead whale found a piece of harpoon embedded in its skin. It turned out to be a type of harpoon that was made around 1879. Bowheads can probably live more than 200 years, and may even live longer than that.

And, of course, whales are extremely intelligent animals with complex social and emotional lives, the ability to reason and remember, tool use, creative thinking and play, self-awareness, a certain amount of language use, and altruistic behaviors toward members of other species. Whales and dolphins sometimes help human swimmers in distress, dolphins and porpoises sometimes help beached whales, and humpback whales in particular sometimes rescue seals and other animals from orcas. Humans aren’t very good at thinking about intelligence except as it pertains to us, but it seems pretty clear that other apes, whales and their relations, elephants, and probably a great many other animals are a lot more intelligent than we’ve traditionally thought.

One last interesting fact about whales and their relations. Most of them sleep with half their brain at a time. The half that isn’t sleeping takes care of rising to the surface to breathe periodically, so the whale doesn’t drown. That does not sound very restful to me. But sperm whales sleep with their bodies vertical and their heads sticking up out of the water. But they don’t sleep very long, only around ten minutes at a time—and only in the hours before midnight. I’ve had nights like 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 071: The Not-Elephants

Not-Elephants! They’re like elephants but WEIRD! Let’s take a look at a lot of extinct proboscidea this week.

Oh, and the Casual Birder Podcast episode where I talk about indigo buntings should be released this week, not last week. Oops.

Gomphotheres, looking deceptively normal at first glance:

THEIR FACES AAAHHHH art by Pedro Toledo:

Cuvieronius and Notiomastodon, art also by Pedro Toledo. Note the spiral on Cuvieronius’s tusks:


Deinotherium, just going totally weird with the tusks and chin:

It might have looked a little something like this when alive. What the actual heck:

Anancidae tusks were just out of control:

Guess what! These two proboscidae are still alive! Hooray for Asian elephants (left) and African elephants (right)!

Okay, what the heck is going on in these genealogy sites, pretty sure elephants don’t use them:

And finally, I swiped this picture of the Mystery Tusk from Karl Shuker’s blog, specifically this post.

Show transcript:

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

We haven’t had an episode about Pleistocene megafauna in a while, so this week we’re covering some interesting mammals that are related to elephants and mammoths, but aren’t elephants or mammoths. Oh, and I jumped the gun last week with our mystery birds episode. The Casual Birder podcast is running the finch episode this week, where I have a little spot talking about the indigo bunting. I’ll make sure to put a link in the show notes so you won’t miss it if you don’t already listen to the Casual Birder podcast.

We’ll start off this week with an elephant that…isn’t an elephant. Just wait till you hear about the gomphothere, oh man. I’ve been saving this one for a while.

Gomphothere is the name for a family of animals that lived throughout much of the world, except for Antarctica and Australia. Researchers aren’t sure yet whether it eventually gave rise to elephants and mammoths or whether gomphotheres and mammoths were just cousins with a shared ancestor. The first gomphotheres evolved in Africa and spread into Asia and Europe around 22 million years ago. From there they moved into North America and eventually even into South America during the Pleistocene, shortly before they all went extinct.

So what did gomphotheres look like, and how did they differ from elephants? I’m SO glad you asked. A big part of why gomphotheres would have looked weird to us today is because their bodies were very elephantine. But their faces…were just wrong.

For instance, several species of Gomphotherium had a relatively short trunk and four tusks. The upper two tusks were on the upper jaw and jutted forward and downward. Not too unusual. The other pair of tusks were in the lower jaw. They jutted forward side by side and were flattened to form a sort of shovel. For a long time researchers thought it lived in swamps and used its shovel jaw to scoop up water plants, but more recent research suggests it used its lower tusks to cut through tough vegetation. Some species may have used the shovel to gouge bark off trees, for instance. Its head was elongated as a result of the long lower jaw, so while its body looked like a pretty average elephant, size and all, its face would have been long and flattened compared to the elephants we’re used to. I’m picturing the big reveal in an elephant horror movie where the mysterious character in the shadows turns its head and the music goes BWAHHHH and all the elephants in the audience scream.

Cuvieronius and Notiomastodon are the only gomphotheres that lived in South America. Despite its name, Notiomastodon was not closely related to actual mastodons. Both Cuvieronius and Notiomastodon evolved in North America just over 5 million years ago, then migrated into South America around 3 million years ago. Cuvieronius preferred cooler environments and lived along the Andes Mountains, and may have had thick hair to keep it warm, while Notiomastodon lived in open forests in the lowlands and along the coast, and probably had very little hair, much like modern elephants. Both stood over 8 feet tall at the shoulder, or 2.5 meters. Both also probably looked pretty normal compared to elephants, and probably acted a lot like modern elephants too. Both had a single pair of tusks. But while Notiomastodon’s tusks were relatively ordinary and usually curved upward like a modern elephant’s, Cuvieronius’s grew in a spiral—although not a tight spiral like narwhal tusks. A band of enamel spiraled along the tusk’s length, and the tusk could be over eleven feet long, or 3.5 meters. Some other gomphothere tusks have enamel coverings, unlike elephant and mammoth tusks, which do not contain enamel.

Notimastodon died out in South America about the time humans migrated into the area, or maybe a little before, but it lived longer in parts of North America, as recently as 28,000 years ago in Mexico. Cuvieronius lived even longer before going extinct, with fossils dated to only about 11,500 years ago found in Chile.

Researchers are still working out the relationships between various gomphotheres and their relations. Gomphotheres, elephants, and some other relations are all in the same order, proboscidea, but different families.

Let’s jerk everything to a halt for a second while I explain the scientific classification system for those of you who aren’t familiar with it. Every living creature that has been described scientifically is assigned a place in the classification system so other researchers can get an idea of what the organism is most closely related to. Classifications can and do change as more information is learned.

The top tier is kingdom, extremely broad groups. All mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish, birds, insects, sponges, worms, jellyfish, and basically anything else that could possibly be called an animal is part of the kingdom Animalia. Kingdoms are divided into phyla, which is the plural of phylum. You may remember me talking at length about phyla in the Cambrian explosion episode a few weeks ago, and I probably should have put this explanation in that episode. Any animal with a backbone or notochord or some similar structure is in the Chordate phylum. The next section under phylum is class, and that’s where we separate mammals from birds from reptiles from fish, and so forth. Elephants, Gomphotheres, and humans are all part of the class Mammalia. But when we reach the next big section down, Order, we separate humans from elephants and gomphotheres, because those are part of the order Proboscidea while humans are in the order Primate. Under Order is family, then genus, then species. The genus and species give an organism its scientific name, such as Homo sapiens or Stegodon zdansky. There are finer gradations, like subfamily and subspecies and clade and so forth, but we won’t go over those here. Let’s get back to the not-elephants.

So, what’s Stegodon zdansky? It’s in the proboscidea order along with elephants and gomphotheres, but it’s not either. And the reason I bring it up is because it was really, really big. It could stand some 13 feet high at the shoulder, or 4 meters, and its tusks were similarly enormous—not just long, although they were over ten feet long, or more than three meters, but so big and close together that it had to drape its trunk to one side or the other of the tusks, not in between like most other proboscideans. Stegodon zdansky lived in China. Other species of Stegodon also lived in Asia, mostly in forested areas, and like zdansky they all had long tusks set close together.

Remember the island of Flores, where the Flores little people lived, Homo floresiensis? We learned about them in episode 26. Popular articles about the Floes little people often say they hunted a dwarf elephant, but it wasn’t an elephant at all. It was a Stegodon that had adapted to life on an island by becoming smaller, not much bigger than a cow. But it’s not clear if it was actually hunted by the Flores little people or if it went extinct before they arrived.

There are more proboscideans, believe me. Deinotherium, for instance, which was simply enormous. It could stand more than 13 feet tall, or 4 meters, but some big males may have stood nearly 16 feet tall, or 5 meters. Only paraceratherium, which you may remember from our tallest animals episode, was taller and heavier.

It had such weird tusks that researchers aren’t sure what it used them for. It had one pair on the lower jaw. Not only did the tusks grow almost straight downward, its lower jaw also curved downward. Some researchers think it dug up plants with the tusks, while others think it used its tusks to pull branches down so it could strip leaves off with its trunk. But no one knows for sure. Researchers also think it had a strong trunk, although we don’t know whether it was a long trunk or a short one. It lived in parts of Asia, Africa, and Europe, and went extinct around a million years ago.

Amebelodontidae was a family that paleontologists thought for a long time were gomphotheres, but new research has separated them into their own family. Like many Gomphotheres, the lower jaw is elongated with a pair of flat, short tusks at the end. The upper tusks are straight and reach only to the end of the jaw, or not as far as the end of the jaw in some species. Reseachers think it used its tusks to cut through tough plants. Similarly, Anancidae were once thought to be Gomphotheres but are now considered their own family. It looked a lot like modern elephants, although its legs were relatively short. Even so, it stood around ten feet tall, or three meters, and lived in forests. It had one pair of tusks…but that’s where the resemblance to modern elephants ends, because its tusks were ridiculously long: 13 feet long, or four meters, and they just pointed straight ahead. Researchers think the Anancidae used their tusks for defense and to dig up plants.

All the proboscidea are extinct now except for Asian and African elephants. It’s a shame so many amazing animals are gone, but just think about how sad it would be if we didn’t have elephants at all. We’re lucky they’re still around.

In 1904 a couple of French zoologists noticed part of a strange tusk in a market stall in Ethiopia. The tusk was darker than regular elephant ivory, oddly shaped with a single groove along its length, and only a couple of feet long, or around 60 cm. The seller didn’t know where it was from. The zoologists bought it to study, and in 1907 published a paper on the tusk. It wasn’t a complete tusk and had apparently been broken off, not sawed off. Their conclusion was that it was from a proboscidean that was not yet known to science. Unfortunately the tusk has been lost, possibly gathering dust in the depths of the National Museum of Natural History in Paris where it was donated.

While the zoologists stated that the tusk wasn’t fossilized and that they thought it might have been almost semicircular when complete, it’s possible they were wrong on both counts. It might have been a walrus tusk, possibly a fossilized one, which could explain its dark brown patina. It might have been a fossilized deinotherium tusk. But the zoologists learned something interesting soon after they bought the tusk. Some Somali hunters told them that there were hippo-like animals that lived in large lakes of East Africa, and that the animals had tusks like the one they’d bought. If you’ve listened to episode 18, where we talk about mystery elephants, you might remember the water elephant reportedly seen in East Africa prior to 1912. Could the water elephant be a real animal, and the source of the mystery tusk? Until the tusk actually turns up so it can be tested, we can’t know for sure what animal it’s from. But it’s sure fun to think about.

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 070: Mystery Birds

This week we’ll learn about birds that are mysterious in one way or another. If you need more bird knowledge, check out the awesome Casual Birder Podcast, especially this week’s episode with a guest spot by me about indigo buntings!

Lots of pictures for this one, hoo boy.

The Nechisar nightjar wing. It’s all we’ve got:

Junkin’s warbler, a mystery bird whose identity was solved by SCIENCE:

The lovely blue-eyed ground dove:

The two tapestries depicting a mystery bird:

Close-ups of the mystery bird from the tapestries:

A black grouse, that may have inspired the tapestry birds:

A wandering albatross, which has the largest wingspan of any living bird known and will CURSE YOU:

The bee hummingbird, smallest living bird known, will only give tiny curses if it’s really mad:

An olive-backed sunbird:

A hermit hawkmoth, not even kidding that this thing looks and acts like a hummingbird:

The cahow, or Bermuda petrel:

Show transcript:

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

On the same day this episode is released, the Casual Birder Podcast is releasing an episode about finches with a contribution from me. If you haven’t tried the Casual Birder Podcast, it’s a great show about birds and birding that I highly recommend. It’s 100% family friendly, the host’s voice is pleasant and calming, and it’s often funny and always interesting. I’ve got a link in the show notes, so head on over and try the finch episode, where you can hear me dropping some knowledge about the indigo bunting. And for any new listeners who came here from the Casual Birder Podcast, welcome! We’ve got a great episode this week about birds that are associated with a mystery in one way or another.

We’ll start in Ethiopia, specifically the Nechisar National Park in the Great Rift Valley. In 1990, a team of researchers was surveying a remote section of grassland in the park to see what animals lived there. One of the things they found was a dead bird, not in the field but on a dirt road, where it had been killed by a car. It was a type of nightjar, but the bird experts associated with the survey didn’t recognize it. The problem was, though, that the bird was pretty mangled and rotten. Only one wing was intact, so they took that wing back with them to the Natural History Museum in London and described a new species of nightjar from it. It’s called the Nechisar Nightjar, described in 1995 and named Caprimulgus solala. ‘Solala’ means “only a wing.”

But no one who knows about birds has ever conclusively seen a living Nechisar Nightjar: not an ornithologist or zoologist, not a bird watcher, not a local with more than casual knowledge of birds, no one. In 2009 a group of birders visited the park specifically to search for the nightjar, and caught a brief video of one flying away. But nightjars are night birds, so the video was shot at night with one of the birders holding a light, and as a result it’s not exactly great video quality. So while conservationists hold out hope that the bird isn’t actually super-rare, just lives in a hard to reach area, we still don’t know for sure.

At least we have the wing so we know the Nechisar nightjar actually exists. The wing has dark brown feathers with a pale wing panel. The birders who might have seen the nightjar in 2009 said its body was reddish-brown and it had white tail corners. Another bird, called the double-banded pheasant, is known only from a single feather found in 1871. We don’t even know where the feather came from, since it was found in a shipment of feathers sent to London to be used as hat decorations. Researchers today think it is probably just an aberrant feather taken from the well-known great argus pheasant, which lives in Borneo, Sumatra, and other islands in southeast Asia.

Next we’ll visit New York state and a mystery warbler whose identity was solved by science. In 2006, bird bander David Junkin caught a warbler in his mist net that he and his wife Sandy couldn’t identify. It had an olive green back, was bright yellow underneath, and had a gray head with a white throat and bright white eye ring, almost spectacles. The Junkins had to let the bird go, and it became known as Junkin’s warbler informally as birders and ornithologists tried to figure out what the bird was from the pictures the Junkins posted online. Then, fortunately, the following year the same individual bird blundered into the Junkin’s mist net. This time they plucked two of its tail feathers and sent them for DNA testing at Cornell. It turns out that the mystery warbler was a hybrid of a male mourning warbler and a female Kentucky warbler.

Various types of warblers do interbreed fairly frequently, and some hybrids have been mistakenly named as species of their own in the past. As if warblers weren’t already ridiculously hard to identify. Researchers think that in the case of Junkin’s warbler, its mother may have ended up outside of her usual summer range after migrating, found no Kentucky warbler males to pair with, and so took a closely-related male mourning warbler as a mate. Sometimes you have to settle, you know? At least their kid was pretty darn adorable.

When a rare bird vanishes, after years with no sightings, conservationists have to declare it extinct. But sometimes a bird thought extinct turns out to not be extinct at all. These are sometimes known as Lazarus species.

It happened with the blue-eyed ground dove, a pretty but modest dove that once lived throughout South America. It was declared critically endangered and probably extinct and hadn’t been seen in almost 75 years when, in June of 2015, ornithologist Rafael Bessa heard a call that he knew wasn’t the ruddy ground-dove common in Brazil. He recorded the call and managed to get some photographs of the dove he heard. Sure enough, it was a blue-eyed ground dove, not extinct after all.

Of course, exciting as this is, the doves aren’t out of danger. Their habitat is threatened and they only survive in a few small, widely-separated pockets of wilderness. But conservation efforts are in place now that we know the dove is still around. It’s a lovely bird, chestnut with dark blue spots on its wings and matching dark blue eyes. This is what a blue-eyed ground dove sounds like:

[dove call]

Now let’s fly to Paris, where I am visiting this August and I’m very excited. In this case, our bird is depicted in two 500-year-old tapestries at the Cluny Museum of the Middle Ages, part of a series collectively called “The Lady and the Unicorn.” The tapestries show a lot of animals and birds, including our mystery bird. It’s black with a white breast and white markings on the underwings, a long tail with a lyre-shaped fork at the end, and large feet. But no one’s sure what kind of bird it is.

The best guess is that it may be a depiction of a black grouse, rendered by artists who had never actually seen one of the birds. The black grouse is a large game bird common throughout parts of western Europe and Asia. The male is black with white wing bars and undertail coverts, and red wattles. The tail is long and lyre-shaped, and when the wings are open, they show white underneath. But even if the bird in the tapestries is a black grouse, it’s still a mystery why the artist included the bird in the tapestries instead of a more well-known bird or a completely fanciful one.

Next up is a bird that’s not a mystery so much as mysterious. It has an entire epic poem written about it, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, written in the early 19th century.

The wandering albatross and the closely related southern royal albatross have the largest wingspan of any bird living today, 11 ½ feet across, or 3.5 meters. Both are mostly white as adults, with black markings on the wings and pinkish bills and legs. They look like gigantic seagulls.

The albatross has such an amazing wingspan, and is such an efficient flyer, that it can fly for weeks without stopping, covering more than 6,000 miles during that time, or 10,000 km, and use barely more energy than if it had stayed at home and napped. It eats fish, squid, and other small sea creatures, and will dive for food or just grab it out of the water as the bird skims near the surface. The albatross will pretty much eat anything it can find, including carrion, and it can gorge itself with as much as 25% of its own body weight in food. But when it’s that full, it’s too heavy to fly, so it may float on the water’s surface for a few hours while it digests. Its digestive system is as acidic as a vulture’s so it can digest its food quickly.

Pairs mate for life, can live over sixty years, and produce one chick every two years, gathering in colonies on a few remote islands to nest. It mostly lives in the southern hemisphere below the Antarctic, around South America and Australia. Distance means nothing to the albatross.

The albatross frequently follows ships around, especially fishing boats that might throw fish guts and heads overboard. Some sailors believed the albatross was a bird of good omen or contained the soul of a dead sailor, so if you killed one you’d be cursed. That’s what the Rime of the Ancient Mariner is all about. Other sailors believed that if you killed an albatross, you could use its hollow wing bones to make pipe stems, so they did, and presumably they were cursed for the rest of their lives but they also had nifty pipe stems so I guess it’s a trade off.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner frankly is a terrible poem. I was an English major; you can trust my judgment. It has some good lines, though, and you probably know some of them even if you’ve never read the poem. It’s where “As idle as a painted ship / upon a painted ocean” comes from, and “Water, water, everywhere / Nor any drop to drink.” In the poem, a sailor kills an albatross. He doesn’t say why. When the ship is immediately becalmed, the other sailors, who blame the first sailor for killing the lucky bird, hang the dead albatross around the bird-killer’s neck. If you’ve ever heard of someone having an albatross around their neck, that’s where it comes from, and it means something bad from their past is still affecting them.

From the bird with the biggest known wingspan, let’s examine a tiny, tiny bird next. This is a genuine mystery bird from Sumatra. In the late 1950s, Otto and Nina Irrgang were living in Sumatra and one day spotted a hummingbird only 1.5 inches long, or 3.8 cm. That’s even smaller than the smallest bird known, the bee hummingbird, which lives in Cuba and nearby islands and is no more than 2.4 inches long, or 6.1 cm. The Irrgangs saw the bird at close range when it hovered no more than a foot away. They said it was brown underneath with a striped yellow back.

But Sumatra is an Indonesian island in southeast Asia, and true hummingbirds live only in the Americas, from Alaska and Canada all the way to Tierra del Fuego, and in the Caribbean, which are islands in the Atlantic between North and South America. There are birds in Sumatra that resemble hummingbirds and fill the same ecological niche, called sunbirds. Sunbirds also live in Africa, Australia, and parts of Asia. They’re tiny, although on average a little larger than hummingbirds, eat nectar and occasionally small insects, and males often have jewel-like iridescent feathers. But they can’t hover for very long and usually perch while they gather nectar from flowers. While their bills are long and slender, they are more curved than hummingbirds’ needle-like bills.

Eighteen species of sunbird and its close relative, the spiderhunters, live in Sumatra. But none have a striped yellow back with brown belly as described by the Irrgangs, and all are much larger than the reported length of 1.5 inches. The couples’ son, Mike Irrgang, has reported that his parents may have not included the bird’s tail in their estimated measurement, and that he thinks it was the same size as a “bee bird.” It’s not clear what he means by bee bird. There are birds called bee-eaters throughout Europe, Asia, and Africa that eat bees, but they’re much larger than sunbirds. He probably meant the bee hummingbird.

But there is another possibility. While the Irrgangs were adamant that they saw a bird, not an insect, there is a moth that might fit the description. It’s called the hermit hummingbird hawkmoth and it lives on Sumatra, as well as many other parts of Asia. It eats nectar and is most active at dawn and dusk, and it hovers like a hummingbird. Its body is mostly gray and brown, with yellow bands on the hind wings and the abdomen. It can grow almost two inches long, or 5 cm, with a wingspan a bit wider than its body is long.

In other words, it’s a moth that acts and in some respects looks like a hummingbird, and is just a shade smaller than the world’s smallest hummingbird, and its color and markings roughly match what the Irrgangs report. Other hummingbird hawk moths live throughout Europe and Asia, and are sometimes mistaken for birds. In North America we have hummingbird moths that look and act similar, and I have seen them in my garden in the evenings and mistaken them for hummingbirds. Sometimes I see an actual hummingbird and mistake it for a bee at first, incidentally, because it just doesn’t seem possible that a bird could be so small.

Then again, Sumatra is home to many, many birds and animals that are rare, threatened, and possibly have gone extinct since the 1950s without ever being officially studied and described. It’s possible there was once a tiny sunbird that resembled a hummingbird even more than the sunbirds and hawkmoths of Sumatra we know about. If so, let’s hope that one day, some lucky birder or ornithologist discovers it alive and well.

Finally, let’s finish with another seabird. The Bermuda petrel, also called the cahow, was a grey-brown bird that nested on various small islands in Bermuda. The Spanish visited the islands in the early 16th century, and while they didn’t settle there, they killed and ate as many cahows as they could catch along with their eggs. They also turned pigs loose on the islands so they’d have food waiting for them whenever they came back wanting bacon. Before then, approximately half a million cahows lived on the islands, but what the sailors and their rats didn’t eat, the pigs did.

The British colonized some of these islands in 1612, which were uninhabited by humans—for good reason, it turned out. The colonists kept dying of starvation. In 1614, rats ate up what little food the colonists had, so the colony evacuated to Cooper’s Island to get away from the rats and hopefully find something edible. There they found the cahow, which had moved to Cooper’s Island and a few nearby small islands to get away from the pigs. By 1620 the colonists had eaten them all. Every single bird. That was the end of the cahow…except that it wasn’t.

In 1951 Louis S. Mowbray, son of the Bermuda Aquarium director of the same name, got a few of his friends together to survey the rocky islets of the area. They were looking specifically for cahows, since reports of dead birds and even occasional live ones still trickled in. Mowbray’s father had even been given a live one which he kept as a pet, so Mowbray knew it was living somewhere.

Sure enough, they found it on four tiny islets. So how did it survive for over 300 years without anyone finding and eating them?

The cahow, it turns out, nests in burrows and a young bird stays in its burrow until it’s old enough to fly. Then, like the albatross, it soars for thousands of miles without landing anywhere but on the water’s surface for the first few years of its life, until it returns to Bermuda in November to nest. It lays one egg a year and mates for life. It arrives at night, courts its mate at night, and digs burrows in sheltered, hidden areas.

One of the people who helped Mowbray find the cahow was David Wingate, who at the time was just a kid. He later attended Cornell University, and after he graduated with a degree in zoology, he returned to Bermuda in 1958 and started his life’s work: saving the cahow and its environment.

He moved to Nonsuch Island, which had been more or less destroyed by colonists and their animals over the centuries. It’s only 14 acres in size, or 5.7 hectares, and is close to Cooper’s Island. Wingate dug up invasive plants, killed invasive animals, and planted native trees and shrubs. He even dug burrows for cahows that had special entrances to keep out the white-tailed tropicbird, which kills cahow chicks. He fought to keep developers from moving onto the island to build homes, fought the military that wanted to use the island for chemical testing. And finally, Nonsuch Island was declared a wildlife sanctuary.

The cahow’s population has grown from only 18 nesting pairs in 1951 to 105 in 2013. It is now the national bird of Bermuda. Wingate retired in 2000, but the conservation work he started continues on Nonsuch Island and other islands too. So if anyone tells you that one person can’t make a difference in the world, just tell them about how David Wingate saved Nonsuch Island, the cahow, and hundreds of other bird, animal, and plant species native to Bermuda. You can do anything if you’re willing to work hard enough.

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!