Episode 078: The Great Auk and Penguins

Let’s learn about the great auk this week, along with some lookalike birds, penguins!

A great auk, as painted by Audubon:

A razorbill, the auk’s closest living relative:

A fairy penguin, so tiny:

An emperor penguin, so big:

Tony Signorini wearing his Hoax Shoes:

Show transcript:

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

This week’s topic is one I’ve had on my list to cover for some time, and a couple of people whose names I forgot to write down also suggested. It’s the great auk, and while we’re at it we’re going to learn about penguins too.

Picture this bird in your mind. It’s big, close to three feet tall, or 85 cm, black with a white belly and white spots over the eyes during breeding season. It has a big dark bill and eats fish and crustaceans. Its feet are webbed and it’s flightless, because instead of flying, it swims, fast and agile in the water but clumsy on land. It’s social, nesting in big colonies and laying one egg, which both parents incubate. Both parents also help feed the chick when it hatches. Pairs mate for life. And it lives in cold waters of the North Atlantic from eastern Canada to Greenland and Iceland over to the western coast of Europe.

Wait a minute, you say, knowledgeably, because you know a thing or two about penguins. Penguins live in the southern hemisphere. What is going on??

The great auk is going on, my friend. And while the similarities between the great auk and the various species of penguin are striking, they’re not closely related at all. The great auk’s scientific name is Pinguinus impennis, and it was sometimes called a penguin, but the penguin is named after the auk because of the similarities between the two. The most obvious difference between the great auk and the penguin is the bill. Penguins have relatively small, sharp bills, but great auk bills were much larger and heavier, grooved and with a hook at the end.

So is the great auk still around? I sure made it sound like it was still around, didn’t I? Unfortunately, no. The last known great auks were killed on June 3, 1844, with a few sightings in the years after. The last probable sighting of a great auk was in 1852. But it had been a really common bird for a long time. What was it like, and what happened to it?

The great auk lived almost its whole life in the water. It only came out to breed and lay eggs, one egg per couple. Its babies grew fast and took to the sea when only a few weeks old, but the parents continued to feed their baby and care for it in the water. Sometimes a young auk would ride on its parent’s back as it swam.

It was incredibly at home in the water. It could hold its breath for something like 15 minutes, could dive deeply and swim so quickly that it could shoot up out of the water to land on ledges well above the ocean’s surface. Because of its swimming ability and its size, it wasn’t scared of very many animals. Polar bears, orcas, and a few other large predators sometimes ate it, but its main predator was these aggressive apes called humans. Maybe you’ve heard of them.

People killed the great auk for food, for feathers, and to use its skin and bones as decorative items. Its remains have been found at Neandertal campsites too. And because it was a large, plentiful bird, people hunted it and hunted it and hunted it. The great auk was already nearly extinct around Europe by the mid 16th century, since it was killed for its down, which was used to stuff pillows. Auk eggs were also collected for food. And as the bird became rarer, museums decided they had better get specimens while they could. The last great auks were killed so they could be stuffed and mounted.

So if there’s a great auk, is there a lesser auk? There is, and it’s still around! The little auk is only about 8 inches long, or 21 cm, but unlike the great auk it can fly. It eats small fish, crustaceans, and invertebrates. But the razorbill is a much closer relative.

The razorbill has a lot in common with the great auk but it’s much smaller, only up to 17 inches high, or 43 cm. It also flies. It was once hunted for its meat and feathers, but after it was protected in 1917 its numbers rebounded. Its primary problem these days is pollution of its breeding sites.

There was once a group of even bigger auks than the great auk. The Mancallinae were flightless and lived on the western North American coast. The largest species was Miomancalla howardae, which went extinct almost 5 million years ago. It stood more than three feet tall, or 1 meter, but was heavier and bulkier than the great auk.

As for penguins, fortunately, they’re still around although they’re all threatened due to pollution, habitat loss, and climate change. They have no natural fear of humans, probably because they have no land predators in Antarctica. Polar bears and walruses live near the Arctic, which is in the northern hemisphere, and sled dogs aren’t allowed in Antarctica. I did not know that until just now. I mean, I knew the polar bears and walruses part, not the dog part.

The smallest penguin is called the fairy penguin, and it’s only 16 inches tall at most, or 40 cm. It lives off the coast of Australia, New Zealand, and Chile. Its head is blue, which is why it’s also called the little blue penguin. Like other penguin species, it eats fish, cephalopods like squid, and crustaceans such as krill. It especially likes jellyfish.

The largest penguin is, of course, the emperor penguin, famous from March of the Penguins. If you haven’t seen that documentary, you’ll learn lots of things about emperor penguins and will also cry. The march in the  title is the migration the penguins take to breeding colonies, where they may walk over the ice up to 75 miles, or 120 km. Penguins are not very good at walking, either. Once they’ve reached the breeding colony, each female lays one small egg, which has a thick shell. The male has a brood pouch to keep the egg warm, basically a fold in his skin above his feet. The egg sits on his feet with the rest of it in the brood pouch. After that, the female leaves to go hunting, because making her egg takes a lot out of her and she needs to replace her body reserves. The male incubates the egg by himself.

It gets really cold in the Antarctic during winter. Seriously, really cold, as cold as -40 degrees. Negative 40 is the same temperature in Celcius and Fahrenheit, which is kind of neat. Emperor penguins choose breeding colonies that are protected from the wind as much as possible, but they still have to deal with wind gusts of 90 mph, or 145 km per hour. To withstand the cold, penguins have dense feathers and a thick layer of blubber. Males huddle together for warmth, with every penguin getting a turn to be on the inside of the crowd where it’s warmer, and spending their fair share of time on the edges of the crowd where it’s colder. During the two months after eggs are laid, males don’t eat anything. When his egg hatches, the male feeds the baby with crop milk, which you may remember from episode 19, about the dodo. Crop milk isn’t milk at all, but a nutritious substance formed from a parent bird’s esophagus. Only male emperor penguins produce crop milk.

A short time after the eggs hatch, female emperor penguins return from hunting. The female takes over care of the chick, feeding it with regurgitated food, so the male can leave to go hunting. Males and females trade off in this way for a couple of months, until the chick is old enough and big enough to be left alone for stretches.

The emperor penguin lives in Antarctica and can grow over four feet tall, or 130 cm, which is just ridiculously large. It can also weigh up to 100 lbs, or 45 kg. In other words, it’s as big as a small person and much bigger even than the great auk was. It’s a strong swimmer and can dive deeply—the deepest recorded dive was well over 1800 feet, or 565 meters, which is whale diving depth.

But the emperor penguin isn’t the biggest penguin that ever lived. Anthropornis went extinct around 33 million years ago, and it was a penguin that was actually the height of a tall human, some six feet tall, or 1.8 meters. It lived off the coast of what is now New Zealand and Antarctica. The New Zealand giant penguin probably lived around the same time as Anthropornis, and was around five feet tall, or 1.6 meters, but probably weighed more. Neither were direct ancestors of modern penguins, but they probably looked and acted very similar. Just, you know, enormous.

A newly discovered giant penguin, also from New Zealand, lived much earlier than the others. It was already almost five feet tall, or 1.5 meters, and well adapted to the water 61 million years ago. Remember that the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event occurred around 66 million years ago. Some researchers hypothesize that penguins had already begun evolving when dinosaurs were still alive, and that they survived the extinction event.

Another extinct penguin, one that was more directly related to modern penguins, lived around South America some 36 million years ago. Icadyptes was almost as tall as the other giant penguins and had a bill that was much longer and pointier than modern penguin bills, more like a heron’s bill. It also lived in much warmer waters than most modern penguins.

Back in the 1920s and 30s, when fossils of giant penguins were first described, they caught the public’s imagination. Giant penguins appeared in science fiction of the day, including Jules Verne and HP Lovecraft. Starting in February of 1948, people in Florida began finding enormous three-toed tracks in sand on a few beaches and along the Suwannee River. The footprints were over a foot long, or 35 cm, and the animal’s stride was measured at between 4 and 6 feet long, or 1.2 to 1.8 meters. Cryptozoologist Ivan T. Sanderson examined the tracks in November of 1948. After weeks of study he reported gravely that they’d been made by a penguin 15 feet tall, or 4.5 meters.

It turns out, though, that it was all a hoax. Two men named Tony Signorini and Al Williams had made gigantic iron feet they could wear as great big shoes, and walked in the sand overnight leaving trails of monstrous tracks ready to be discovered by beachcombers. They actually intended the tracks to be taken for dinosaur or sea monster footprints, but a giant penguin was even better. Each foot weighed about 30 lbs, or 13.5 kg, and Signorini used the weight to swing along in a sort of controlled bound that made his stride remarkably long without too much effort. Williams died in 1969 but Signorini didn’t come clean about the hoax until 1988.

He still has the feet.

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 077: The Tratratratra, Lemur of Mystery!

I swear I didn’t make up the word tratratratra! It’s a real word for an animal that was probably real, although it may be extinct now. Let’s learn about this Lemur of Mystery and some of its friends!

A mouse lemur:

An indri:

King Julian:

Further reading:

Lemur News

The Search for the Last Undiscovered Animals by Karl P.N. Shuker

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re looking at an animal with a name I swear I’m not making up, the tratratratra. Seriously, it’s a real name. The animal itself…well, we’re not exactly sure.

Tratratratra is the name of an animal that was supposedly common in Madagascar when the Malagasy people settled there around 2000 years ago. It was described as a lemur about the size of a calf with a human face but hands more like a monkey’s. Supposedly it still lives on Madagascar in remote, hard-to-reach areas.

Madagascar is a big island off the coast of East Africa, with smaller islands around it. It has been isolated from both Africa and Asia for 88 million years, so many of its plants and animals are found nowhere else on earth. Lemurs are one example. There are over 100 known species and subspecies of lemur on Madagascar, but lemurs are found nowhere else in the world. Even more species of lemur have gone extinct since humans settled on the island, including one that might be the tratratratra.

First of all, what’s a lemur? If you’ve seen the movie Madagascar, you have a pretty good idea of what a lemur looks like, although you may overestimate the amount of dancing they do.

Technically the lemur is a primate, although it doesn’t look much like other primates at first glance. Different species can look radically different, of course, but in general they’re long-bodied animals with long tails and monkey-like hands and feet with nails instead of claws. They’re mostly social animals who eat plants and fruit, although some eat insects, arthropods, and other small animals. Most lemur societies are female-led. All are endangered due to habitat loss, poaching, and the illegal pet trade.

While we tend to think of apes and monkeys when we hear the word primate, the primate order contains many other types of animal. Lemurs belong to the Strepsirrhini suborder, which includes bushbabies, pottos, and lorises. Apes and monkeys belong to the Haplorhini suborder, along with tarsiers. Researchers think that the ancestors of lemurs migrated to Madagascar from Africa about 50 million years ago on rafts of vegetation. This sounds ridiculous since Madagascar is more than 300 miles, or 500 km, away from Africa at its closest point, and the prevailing winds and ocean currents push floating logs and other vegetation away from the island. But 60 million years ago the currents flowed the other way. By 20 million years ago, continental drift had pushed Africa and Madagascar farther north so that the currents changed to what they are now, which helped isolate the island even further.

The smallest lemur species is the mouse lemur, which is only 11 inches long including its tail, or 27 cm. The largest is the indri, which is a black and white animal with long legs but no tail, which grows to almost 2 ½ feet long, or 72 cm. In other words, even the biggest lemur alive today isn’t all that big. But that didn’t used to be the case.

When humans first settled on the island, there were three kinds of giant lemurs. Let’s take a quick look at them.

Monkey lemurs went extinct around 1500 years ago and probably spent most of their time on the ground. They weren’t huge, probably not any bigger than the indri. We don’t have very many monkey lemur remains so we don’t know much about it, but researchers think it primarily ate seeds, although it might have also eaten grass and leaves. Its limbs were short and powerful with short hands and feet. It had a heavy skull with big molars for grinding plant material. It probably went extinct mostly due to competition with introduced livestock like pigs.

Koala lemurs were bigger than the indri, up to five feet long, or 1.5 meters, and went extinct around 1000 years ago. Incidentally, one thousand years ago there was a terrible drought in Madagascar that caused crops to fail, lakes to dry up, and wildfires to start, and which contributed to many species going extinct. Anyway, the koala lemur was shaped more like a koala than a lemur. It lived its whole life in treetops, eating leaves, and it had some weird features for a primate. Its eyes were on the sides of its head like a rabbit’s or a horse’s, instead of in the front of its head like all other primates. Its snout was long and tapered, but it had a big nasal area that probably indicates an enlarged upper lip, maybe even partially prehensile, that helped it gather leaves. It was also heavier than all other lemurs, and some of the remains we have show evidence that they were butchered by humans to eat.

Finally, sloth lemurs probably ate plants, fruit, and nuts, and some species may have hung from branches the way sloths do. Instead of big claws for climbing, sloth lemurs had long fingers. There were a number of species, so let’s look at a few of them. Don’t worry, we’re getting closer and closer to the tratratratra.

Archaeoindris was the biggest lemur that we know of. It was the size of a gorilla, maybe even a little bigger, which would make it one of the largest primates that ever lived. Its skull was large and heavy, and it probably ate leaves. It may have occasionally climbed trees but probably spent most of its time on the ground. We don’t have any hand or feet bones so we don’t know if it had adaptations for climbing trees or for walking on the ground. It was already rare when humans first came to Madagascar and went extinct shortly afterwards.

Now we’re up to Palaeopropithecus ingens, and this may be our tratratratra. It wasn’t as big as Archaeoindris but it was still much bigger and heavier than the modern indri. It ate leaves, nuts, and seeds and probably spent a lot of time in the trees. Its arms and legs were powerful and it had long fingers and toes, which it used to hang from branches like a sloth. It had other adaptations, like curved arm and leg bones, that shows it was adept at climbing on, hanging from, and brachiating through tree branches. Even the hands were curved, so that the fingers were more like hooks. But it probably wasn’t a very fast mover, so was easily hunted by humans and would have provided a lot of meat.

According to Admiral Etienne de Flacourt in his 1658 history of Madagascar, the tratratratra is “a large animal like a calf of two years old, with a round head and the face of a man: the fore feet are like a monkey (or ape), and the hind feet also. It has curly or frizzy hair, a short tail and ears like those of a man. It resembles the ‘tanacht’ described by Ambroise Paré. It can be seen near the pond of the Lipomami tribe and in that region is where it can be found. It is a highly solitary animal, the people of that country have a great fear of it and flee from it as it also does from them.”

I got that quote from an article in Volume 15 of Lemur News, from 2010. I’ll put a link in the show notes for anyone who’s interested in lemurs, because it has lots of interesting information.

Palaeopropithecus ingens probably had a short tail like the still-living indri, which is a close relative. It probably also had rounded ears like the indri. And like the indri also, it may have had wavy or curly hair.

The tratratratra’s name probably came from its call, which might have been an alarm bark or a chattering sound. Many local lemur names do come from the animals’ calls. Some researchers consider the tratratratra’s name to be a fossil sound, and one of the very few we have.

We don’t know exactly when Palaeopropithecus went extinct. It might have been as recently as four hundred years ago, maybe even more recently. There have only been a few modern-day sightings of an animal that might be the tratratratra. A French forester in the 1930s saw what he claimed was a gorilla-like lemur with a human-like face, four feet tall, but that’s about it. So whatever the tratratratra might be, it’s probably extinct by now. But maybe it’s hanging on in the forested hills north of Tulear, where the last fragments of Madagascar’s original forests remain.

There is an interesting Malagasy tradition reported in 2003 about an ogre with the face of a human, which was helpless on smooth rocks. Since Palaeopropithecus was so well adapted to living in trees, like modern sloths it probably couldn’t walk on the ground very well. So even if the tratratratra is extinct, its memory lives on in modern culture.

The tratratratra isn’t the only mystery lemur in Madagascar. The kidoky is supposed to be a big lemur with dark fur but a couple of white spots on its face. It has a rounded face, a loud whooping call, and spends at least part of the time on the ground. When it runs, its gait is more like a baboon’s than a lemur’s.

Some people think the kidoky might be one of the giant lemur species that are supposedly extinct. Zoologist Karl Shuker suggests Archaeolemur or Hadropithecus as possible identities, both of which spent a lot of time on the ground. In fact, they resemble baboons in so many ways that they’re both known as baboon lemurs. But Hadropithecus went extinct around 1200 years ago and Archaeolemur around 800 years ago, as far as we know. But an ethnographic survey published in 1998 reports one native villager who saw a kidoky in 1952 at close range.

The tokandia is another mystery lemur, this one even bigger than the kidoky—as big as a bear. Not that they have bears in Madagascar. It’s supposed to live mostly on the ground but sometimes it would jump up into trees. It didn’t look like a human but its calls sounded like they were made with a human voice. Again, Shuker suggests it might be a koala lemur, specifically Megaladapis edwardsi—you know, the one that could grow five feet long, or 1.5 meters.

The kalanoro is a more human-like creature from folklore, usually described as a small person who steals food. Some stories say it lives in the water. If it’s based on a real animal and isn’t just the Malagasy version of little folk common throughout the world’s cultures, it might be based on a type of lemur.

One last note. In the quote earlier about the tratratratra, de Flacourt mentions an animal called the tanacht. Is it another type of lemur? Is there no end to lemur mysteries?

It’s not a lemur, no. A French priest called Father André Thévet wrote about the tanacht in 1575, but he said it lived in India. It was supposedly the size and roughly the shape of a tiger, but it didn’t have a tail, and it did have the face and hands of a human with a snub nose. It might have been a species of Asian colobine monkey such as the pig-tailed langur, which can have orangey or golden fur and only has a short tail, or it might have been a stump-tailed macaque, which has pale brown fur and no tail. But neither of those monkeys are anywhere near as big as a tiger, so who knows what the tanacht might actually be?

But for now, I’m primated out, so check back next week for an episode that’s not about primates!

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 076: The Orang Pendek

This week we’re back to Sumatra, that island of mystery, to learn about a mysterious ape called the orang pendek.

A beautiful Sumatran orangutan:

This orangutan and her baby have won all the bananas:

This picture made me DIE:

An especially dapper siamang, a type of gibbon:

Here’s a walking siamang:

The sun bear, looking snoozy:

The sun bear, standing:

Further reading:

These are the articles where I got my quotes.

This one has some general information.

This one is by Debbie Martyr herself.

Show transcript:

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

The island of Sumatra is a place that keeps popping up in our episodes. We’ve barely scratched the surface of weirdness in Sumatra and nearby islands, but this week’s episode is about a Sumatran mystery ape called the orang pendek. That means “short person” in Indonesian.

The story goes that a human-like ape lives in the forests of western Sumatra. It walks on two legs, has short black, gray, or golden fur on its body with longer hair on its head, human facial features, and is shorter than a human but not by much. The people of the remote Sumatran villages where the orang pendek is reported say that it’s enormously strong, and has small feet and short legs but long arms. It mostly eats plants and will raid crops occasionally, but it also eats insects, fish, and river crabs.

Many people think the first report of the orang pendek outside of the Sumatran people is from a 14th century traveler called John of Florence, who visited China around 1342 and many other countries afterwards, including either Java or Sumatra. He reported seeing hairy men who lived on the edges of the forest, but since he also said that the hairy men planted crops and traded with the locals, it’s possible he was talking about a tribe of people who lived on the outskirts of mainstream society.

The various native groups in Sumatra have stories of creatures that sound like the orang pendek, including a demon-like entity called the hantu pendek, which means short ghost. But as I’ve said before in other episodes, it’s a mistake to treat folktales as if they were scientific observations. People tell stories for lots of reasons, only one of which is imparting knowledge about a particular animal. Plus, those aren’t the only stories of strange people told in the area. There are stories of giants, of people with tails, and many others. For instance, the orang bati is a bat-winged man that’s supposed to live in extinct volcanic craters in Seram, Indonesia, and who flies out at night and steals babies.

The Dutch colonized Indonesia in the early 19th century, around 1820, after centuries of varying levels of control in what was known as the Dutch East Indies. Colonists reported seeing apes or strange small people in the forest too. One fairly typical report is this one from 1917, from a Mr. Oostingh, who saw what he took to be a man sitting on the ground in the forest about 30 feet away from him, or nine meters. He said,

“His body was as large as a medium-sized native’s and he had thick square shoulders, not sloping at all. The colour was not brown, but looked like black earth, a sort of dusty black, more grey than black.

“He clearly noticed my presence. He did not so much as turn his head, but stood up on his feet: he seemed quite as tall as I. Then I saw that it was not a man, and I started back, for I was not armed. The creature took several paces, without the least haste, and then, with his ludicrously long arm, grasped a sapling, which threatened to break under his weight, and quietly sprang into a tree, swinging in great leaps alternately to right and to left.”

Expeditions in the 1920s and 1930s found nothing out of the ordinary. Interest trailed off until around 1990, when a journalist named Debbie Martyr decided she was going to get to the bottom of the mystery. She had traveled to Sumatra in 1989 for a story she was writing, and while she was there she learned about the orang pendek. She spent the next fifteen-odd years interviewing witnesses and setting up camera traps, but without uncovering any proof. She did spot what she thought might be an orang pendek at least once, but got no clear photos, no remains, no conclusive footprints. Martyr states that the ape she saw had much different proportions than an orangutan, much more human-like.

Other people have searched for the orang pendek too, also without success. National Geographic set up camera traps between 2005 and 2009 without getting any photos of unknown apes. One expedition found some hairs that they later sent for DNA testing, but the results were inconclusive due to the hairs’ poor quality and possible human contamination.

Interest in the orang pendek spiked after remains of the Flores little people were found in 2003, and after anthropologists made connections between those remains and local stories about small, mischievous people called the ebo gogo. As you may remember if you’ve listened to episode 26, researchers initially thought the Homo floresiensis remains were only some 12,000 years old. More recent studies have pushed this back to around 50,000 years old. But the island of Flores is not all that far from the island of Sumatra, so it’s not out of the question that the Flores little people also lived on other islands.

Sumatra is a big island with a lot of animal and plant species found nowhere else in the world. It’s certainly a big enough island to hide a population of shy apes or small human relations. But the only proof we have that the orang pendek exists, after a couple of decades of intensive searching, are a bunch of witness reports, some blurry photos and video, inconclusive plaster casts of footprints, and some ape hairs too degraded for DNA testing. If the orang pendek was a real animal, no matter how elusive, you’d think we’d at least have one good clear photo by now.

There have been hoaxes in the past. A “young orang pendek” turned out to be a dead langur monkey with its tail cut off. A video released in 2017 that purports to show a group of motorbikers who startle an orang pendek is probably a hoax. I’ve sent an alert to Captain Disillusion. If he covers the video I’ll let y’all know.

Despite the hoaxes and the lack of evidence, people are obviously seeing something. Witnesses include forest rangers, zoologists, hunters, and other people who know the local animals well. So what could they be seeing? Let’s take a look at some of the animals of Sumatra that might be mistaken for an orang pendek, at least some of the time.

The orang pendek is supposed to have small feet, about the size and shape of a human child’s foot. This sounds like the tracks of the Malayan sun bear. In fact, a footprint found in 1924 that was supposed to belong to an orang pendek was identified as that of a sun bear once it was seen by an expert.

The sun bear has sleek black fur, although some are gray or reddish, and a roughly U-shaped patch of fur on its chest that varies in color from gold to almost white to reddish-orange. Its muzzle is short and its ears are small. It’s the world’s smallest bear, only around three feet long from head to tail, or 150 cm, and four feet tall when standing on its hind legs, or 1.2 meters. It has long front claws that it uses to climb trees and tear open logs to get at insect larvae, which it licks up with its long tongue. It also eats a lot of plant material, especially fruit. It’s mostly nocturnal.

Orangutans also live on the island, but currently only in the northern part of the island, although they lived all over Sumatra and in Java until the end of the 19th century. The Sumatran orangutan is one of only three orangutan species in the world, and is critically endangered due to habitat loss. It’s slenderer than the other species, with pale orange fur. Like the sun bear, it eats a lot of insects and fruit; unlike the sun bear, it uses tools it makes from sticks to gather insects, honey, and other foods more easily. It also uses large leaves as umbrellas. It communicates not by sound, like other orangutans, but by gestures. In short, it sounds like a pretty awesome ape. Orangutan means “forest person,” if you were wondering.

Other apes and monkeys live on the island too, including several species of gibbon. Gibbons are apes, but they’re not considered great apes, only lesser apes. They look more like monkeys, although they don’t have tails. They’re also fairly small, generally about two feet long, or 60 cm, and quite slender. They live in the treetops and swing from branch to branch, which is called brachiation. Orangutans brachiate sometimes too, but they’re much heavier than gibbons and move much more slowly and cautiously. Gibbons can move. They also have loud voices and melodic calls.

The Siamang, a type of gibbon, has a throat pouch called a gular sac which, when inflated with air, enhances the voice and helps it resonate. Family groups of siamangs sing together. The siamang has shaggy black fur and is a little larger than other gibbons, around 3 feet tall, or one meter. Its arms are long, its legs short, and it mostly eats plants, especially fruit, although it also eats insects. Like orangutans and many other animals on Sumatra, it’s threatened by habitat loss.

There’s one thing that the sun bear, the orangutan, and the siamang all sometimes do that is suggestive of the orang pendek. All three sometimes walk on their hind legs. Bears usually only stand on their hind legs to get a better view of something, but they can certainly walk on their hind legs if they want to. While the orangutans of Sumatra spend most of their time in trees, since the Sumatran tiger likes to eat orangutans, it can and does come down to the ground sometimes. Males in particular sometimes walk upright for short distances. Siamangs walk upright along branches, and occasionally on the ground, usually with their long arms held above their heads for balance but not always.

So we have three animals that when seen clearly, really don’t look much like the orang pendek is supposed to look. None have especially human faces, although I’ve just spent half an hour looking at pictures of orangutans and siamangs, and those are some handsome apes. But they all have a number of features that sound like orang pendek features. They’re all the right size, they can all walk upright, their fur is black, gray, or golden, and they eat the things the orang pendek is supposed to eat.

At least some orang pendek sightings are mistaken identity of these three animals, I guarantee it. Even the most knowledgeable zoologist or forest ranger can make a mistake, especially if they only catch a glimpse of the animal or see it in poor light. And, as I often point out, people tend to see what they expect to see. In a 1993 article, Debbie Martyr herself says that when she first started studying the orang pendek sightings, people in Sumatra laughed at the thought that the orang pendek was a real animal. But, she writes, “Times have changed in Sumatra. The officials of the Kerinci Seblat have become, if not converts to the orang pendek cause, then at least openly curious about the animal. Pak Mega Harianto, director of the park, admitted, ‘We now have too many sightings, from all over the national park. It is always the same animal. Always the same description.’”

In other words, as the legend becomes more and more popular, more and more people report seeing a mystery animal that fits the orang pendek’s description. And yet, there is no more proof now than there was in 1925 of the animal’s existence.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t an unknown ape living in Sumatra, of course. I just don’t think that’s what people are seeing. It would be fantastic if the orang pendek did turn out to be a real animal. It would focus more attention on the loss of rainforest and other habitats in Sumatra, and would probably bring more tourists to the island, which would help the local economy. But until someone actually finds a body or captures a live orang pendek, I have to remain skeptical.

I’m sure we’ll revisit Sumatra and other parts of the Malay Archipelago soon to learn about other little-known and mystery animals. Until then, remember that you now know at least one word of the Indonesian language. ‘Orang’ means person, whether it’s an ape-type person or a ghost-type person.

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 075: Archelon and Other Giant Sea Turtles

This week we’re going to find out about the biggest turtles that ever lived! Spoiler: one of them is alive right now, swimming around eating jellyfish.

A green sea turtle. These guys are adorable:

A hawkbill glowing like a neon sign!

The majestic and enormous leatherback:

Bebe leatherback. LET ME GOW

Seriously, how are baby sea turtles so darn cute?

Archelon was a big tortle:

Further reading:

This is a link to a pdf of that “Historicity of Sea Turtles Misidentified as Sea Monsters” article

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re back in the sea, but not the deep sea this time, because we’re looking at marine turtles!

The oldest known turtle ancestor lived around 220 million years ago, but it wouldn’t have looked a whole lot like a modern turtle. For one thing, it had teeth instead of a bill. It resembled a lizard with wide ribs that protected its belly. It lived in the ocean, probably in shallow inlets and bays, but it may have also spent part of its time on land. Some researchers think it may have had at least a partial shell formed from extensions of its backbone, but that this didn’t fossilize in the three specimens we have.

The oldest sea turtle fossil found so far has been dated to 120 million years old. It was seven feet long, or 2 meters, and already showed a lot of the adaptations that modern sea turtles have. Researchers think it was closely related to the green sea turtle and the hawksbill sea turtle.

Seven species of sea turtle are alive today. They all have streamlined shells and flippers instead of feet. They all breathe air, but they have big lungs and can stay underwater for a long time, up to about an hour while hunting, several hours when asleep or resting. Like whales, they surface and empty their lungs, then take one huge breath. They can see well underwater but can probably only hear low-frequency sounds.

Sea turtles have a special tear gland that produces tears with high salt concentration, to release excess salt from the body that comes from swallowing sea water. They migrate long distances to lay eggs, thousands of miles for some species and populations, and usually return to the same beach where they were hatched. Female sea turtles come ashore to lay their eggs in sand, but the males of most species never come ashore. The exception is the green sea turtle, which sometimes comes ashore just to bask in the sun. Once the babies hatch, they head to the sea and take off, swimming far past the continental shelf where there are fewer predators. They live around rafts of floating seaweed call sargassum, which protects them and attracts the tiny prey they eat.

Six of the extant sea turtles are relatively small. Not small compared to regular turtles, small compared to the seventh living sea turtle, the leatherback. More about that one in a minute. The other six are the green, loggerhead, hawksbill, Kemp’s ridley and Olive ridley, and the flatback.

Let’s start with the green sea turtle, since I just mentioned it. Its shell is not always green. It can be brown or even black depending on where it spends most of its life. Green turtles that live in colder areas of the Pacific have darker shells, which probably helps them stay warm by absorbing more heat from sunlight. Young turtles have darker shells than old turtles for the same reason.

The green sea turtle can grow up to five feet long, or 1.5 meters, can live some 80 years, and mostly eats plants, especially seagrass, although babies eat small animals like worms, jellyfish, and fish eggs. A recent satellite tracking study of green sea turtles in the Indian Ocean tracked the turtles to a huge underwater seagrass meadow that no human realized existed until then. The meadows were farther underwater than the ones researchers knew about, up to 95 feet deep, or 29 meters. Researchers think the seagrass can grow at these depths because the water is so clear in the area, which means more light for the plants.

Unlike the green sea turtle, which lives throughout much of the world’s oceans, the flatback sea turtle is only found around Australia. It’s greenish or grayish and only grows around 3 feet long, or 95 cm, and eats invertebrates of various kinds, including jellyfish, shrimp, and sea cucumbers. It stays near shore in shallow water and doesn’t migrate, so it’s mostly safe from getting tangled in commercial fishing nets that kill a lot of other sea turtle species.

The smallest sea turtle is the olive ridley, which only grows around two feet long, or 60 cm. Its shell is roughly heart-shaped and is usually olive green. It mostly lives in tropical waters and is the most common sea turtle of all the living species, but getting rarer. It likes warm, shallow water and eats small animals like snails, jellyfish, and sea urchins.

Kemp’s ridley sea turtle is closely related to the olive ridley, and is not much larger. It grows to around 28 inches long, or 70 cm, and eats the same things as the olive ridley. It also likes the same warm, shallow waters, but it nests exclusively along the Gulf Coast of North America. Oil spills in the Gulf have killed so many turtles that the species is now listed as critically endangered. Conservationists sometimes remove eggs to safer, cleaner beaches where babies are more likely to hatch and survive. Besides oil spills and other types of pollution, Kemp’s ridley sea turtles are often killed when they get tangled in shrimp nets and drown. Fortunately, shrimp trawlers in the Gulf now use turtle excluders, which help keep turtles from getting tangled.

The hawksbill sea turtle grows to around three feet long, or 1 meter, and lives around tropical reefs. It has a more pointed, hooked beak than other sea turtles, which gives it its name. You might think it eats fish or something with a beak like that, but mostly it eats jellyfish and sea sponges. It especially likes the sea sponges, some of which are lethally toxic to most other animals. It also doesn’t have a problem eating even extremely stingy jellies and jelly-like animals like the Portuguese man-o-war. The hawkbill’s head is armored so the stings don’t bother it, although it does close its eyes while it chomps down on jellies. People used to kill hawksbill sea turtles for their multicolored shells, but don’t eat them. Its meat can be toxic due to the toxins it ingests.

The hawksbill is also biofluorescent! Researchers only found this out by accident in 2015, when a team studying biofluorescent animals in the Solomon Islands saw and filmed a hawksbill glowing like a UFO with neon green and red light. Researchers still don’t know why and how the hawksbill glows. They think the red color may be emitted by certain algae that grow on hawksbill shells, but the green appears to be emitted by the turtle itself. Since the hawksbill lives mostly around coral reefs, where many animals biofluoresce, researchers hypothesize it might be a way for the turtle to blend in. If everyone’s glowing, the big turtle-shaped spot that isn’t glowing would give it away. Then again, since male turtles glow more brightly than females, researchers also think it may be a way to attract mates.

Finally, the loggerhead sea turtle grows to a little longer than three feet, or 95 cm, and its shell is usually reddish-brown. It lives throughout the world’s oceans and while it nests in a lot of places, many loggerheads lay their eggs on Florida beaches. It eats invertebrates like bivalves and sponges, barnacles and jellyfish, starfish, plants, and lots of other things, including baby turtles. Its jaws are powerful and it has scales on its front flippers that stick out a little, called pseudoclaws, which allow it to manipulate its food or tear it into smaller pieces.

All sea turtles are endangered and are protected worldwide, although some countries enforce the protection more than others. Some people still eat sea turtles and their eggs, even though both can contain bacteria and toxic metals that make people sick. But mostly it’s habitat loss, pollution, and fishing nets and longlines that kill turtles.

People want to build houses on the beach, or drive their cars on the beach, and that destroys the habitat female turtles need to lay their eggs. Turtles also get stuck in fishing equipment and drown. And there’s so much plastic floating around in the sea that all sorts of animals are affected, not just turtles. A floating plastic bag or popped balloon looks like a jellyfish to a sea turtle that doesn’t know what plastic is. A turtle can eat so much plastic that its digestive system becomes clogged and it dies. One easy way you can help is to remember your reusable bag when you go shopping. The fewer plastic bags that are made and used, the fewer will find their way into the ocean. Some countries have banned plastic shopping bags completely.

Now let’s talk about the leatherback turtle. It’s much bigger than the others and not very closely related to them. It can grow some nine feet long, or 3 meters, and instead of having a hard shell like other sea turtles, its carapace is covered with tough, leathery skin studded with tiny osteoderms. Seven raised ridges on the carapace run from head to tail and make the turtle more stable in the water, a good thing because leatherbacks migrate thousands of miles every year. Not only is the leatherback the biggest and heaviest turtle alive today by far, it’s the heaviest living reptile that isn’t a crocodile. It has huge front flippers, is much more streamlined even than other sea turtles, and has a number of interesting adaptations to life in the open ocean.

The leatherback lives throughout the world, from warm tropical oceans up into the Arctic Circle. It mostly eats jellyfish, so it goes where the jellyfish go, which is everywhere. It also eats other soft-bodied animals like squid. To help it swallow slippery, soft food when it doesn’t have the crushing plates that other sea turtles have, the leatherback’s throat is full of backwards-pointing spines. What goes down, will not come back up, which is great when the turtle swallows a jellyfish, not so great when it swallows a plastic bag.

The leatherback can dive as deep as 4,200 feet, or almost 1,300 meters. Even most whales don’t dive that deep. But it’s a reptile, so how does it manage to survive in such cold water, whether in the Arctic Ocean or nearly a mile below the water’s surface?

The leatherback’s metabolic rate is high to start with, and it swims almost constantly. Its muscles generate heat as they work, which keeps the turtle’s body warmer than the surrounding water, as much as 30 degrees Fahrenheit warmer, or 18 degrees Celsius. Its flippers and throat also use a system called countercurrent heat exchange, where blood that has been chilled by outside temperatures returns to the heart in veins that surround arteries containing warm blood flowing from the heart. By the time the cool blood reaches the heart, it’s been warmed by the arterial blood. This keeps heat inside the body’s core.

Unlike other sea turtle species, leatherbacks don’t necessarily return to the same beach where they were hatched to lay their eggs. Females usually nest every two or three years and lay about 100 eggs per nest. No one is sure how long leatherbacks live, but it may be a very long time. Most turtles have long lifespans, and many sea turtle species don’t even reach maturity until they’re a couple of decades old.

One interesting thing about sea turtles, which is also true of many other reptiles, is that the temperature of the egg determines whether the baby turtle will develop into a male or female. Cooler temperatures produce mostly male babies, warmer temperatures produce mostly female babies. This is pretty neat, until you remember that the global temperature is creeping up. A new study of sea turtles around Australia’s northern Great Barrier Reef found that almost all baby turtles hatching there are now female—up to 99.1% of all babies hatched. Another study found the same results in sea turtle nests in Florida, where 97 to 100% of all babies are female. The studies also found that the amount of water in the nest’s sand also contributes to whether babies are male or female, with drier nests producing more females. Researchers are considering incubating some nests in climate-controlled rookeries to ensure that enough males hatch and survive to produce the next generation.

So those are the seven types of sea turtle alive today. Now let’s talk about an extinct sea turtle, a relative of the leatherback. This is archelon, and it was huge.

Archelon was the biggest turtle that has ever lived, as far as we know. The first fossil archelon was discovered in 1895 in South Dakota, in rocks that were around 75 million years old. The biggest archelon fossil ever found came from the same area, and measures 13 feet long, or 4 meters. It’s even broader from flipper to flipper, some 16 feet wide, or 5 meters. It lived in the shallow sea that covered central North America during the Cretaceous, called the Western Interior Seaway. I like that name. Its shell was leathery and probably flexible like the leatherback’s, but unlike the leatherback, it wasn’t teardrop shaped. In fact, it was very round. Since it lived at the same time as mosasaurs, its wide shell may have kept it from being swallowed by predators. It probably ate squid and jellyfish like the leatherback, and researchers think it was probably a slow swimmer. It went extinct at the same time as the dinosaurs, but fortunately its smaller relations survived.

We don’t know if that 13-foot-long archelon was an unusually large specimen, an average specimen, or a small specimen. It was probably on the large size, but it’s a good bet that there were larger individuals swimming around 75 million years ago. We don’t know if leatherbacks occasionally get bigger than nine feet long, for that matter. But we do have reports of sea turtles that are much, much bigger than any sea turtles known.

In August of 2008, a 14-year-old boy snorkeling in Hawaii reported swimming above a sea turtle that was resting on the bottom of a lagoon. He estimated the turtle was eight to ten feet across with a round shell. At the time he didn’t realize that was unusual. He also reported seeing a geometric pattern on the shell, which is not a feature of the leatherback or archelon but is present in other sea turtles. So if his estimation of size is correct, he saw a sea turtle far bigger than any living today.

In 1833, a schooner off the coast of Newfoundland came across what they thought was an overturned boat. When the crew investigated, they discovered it wasn’t a boat at all but an enormous leatherback turtle, which they reported was 40 feet long, or 12 meters.

Many sea serpent sightings may actually be misidentifications of sea turtles. Sea turtles do have relatively long necks which they can and do raise out of the water. A long neck with a small head sticking out of the water, with a hump behind it, describes a lot of sea serpent reports. It’s also possible that some sea serpent reports are actually sightings of sea turtles entangled with fishing nets and other debris that the turtle drags with it as it swims, which may look like a long snake-like tail behind a humped body.

For instance, in 1934 some fishermen off the coast of Queensland, Australia spotted what they thought was a sea serpent. I’ll quote the description, which is from an article with the lengthy title of “Historicity of Sea Turtles Misidentified as Sea Monsters: A Case for the Early Entanglement of Marine Chelonians in Pre-plastic Fishing Nets and Maritime Debris” by Robert France. I’ll put a link in the show notes in case you want to read the article, if I can find it again. I printed it out so I could keep it.

Anyway, the fishermen reported that the sea serpent looked like this:

“The head rose about eight feet out of the water, and resembled a huge turtle’s head…the colour was greyish-green. The eye…was small in comparison to the rest of the monster. The other part in view was three curved humps about 20 feet apart, and each one rose from six feet in the front to a little less in the rear. They were covered with huge scales about the size of saucers, and also covered in barnacles. We could not get a glimpse of the tail, as it was under the water.”

Robert France suggests that this was a sea turtle entangled with a string of fishing gear, specifically fishing floats. He also gives a number of other examples dating back hundreds of years. Fortunately for sea turtles and other animals in the olden days, most fishing nets were made from rope, usually hemp and sometimes cotton, which eventually rotted and freed the animal, if it survived being entangled for months on end.

So if you live around the ocean, or any kind of water for that matter, make sure to pick up any litter you find, especially plastic bags. You could save a lot of lives. Who knows, maybe the sea turtle you save from eating that one fatal plastic bag will grow up to become the biggest sea turtle alive.

As a companion piece to this episode, Patreon subscribers got an episode about the Soay Island Sea Monster sighted in 1959, which was probably a sea turtle of some kind. Just saying.

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 074: Colossal Squid and the Things That Eat Them

We’re going to learn about the colossal squid in this episode, with bonus info about the giant squid…and then we’re going to learn about the massive things that eat this massive squid!

A giant squid, looking slightly guilty for eating another squid:

A colossal squid, looking less than impressive tbh:


A sperm whale looking baddass:

A southern sleeper shark, looking kind of boring:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to learn first about the colossal squid, and then we’re going to learn about what eats the colossal squid.

You’ve probably heard of the giant squid, but maybe you haven’t. Let’s start with it, because the giant squid and the colossal squid are both massive, amazing deep-sea animals.

Stories of huge squid go back to ancient times. Aristotle and Pliny wrote about it, the legend of the kraken may be at least partially inspired by it, and sailors have told stories about it for time out of mind. Naturalists of the mid-19th century knew it must exist because whalers had found enormously long tentacles and huge beaks in sperm whale stomachs. But except for the occasional badly damaged specimen washed up on shore, no one had seen a giant squid. Certainly no one had seen a living giant squid.

It wasn’t until 2001 that a live giant squid was caught on film, and then it was only a larval squid. In 2002 a live adult giant squid was caught off the coast of Japan. It wasn’t especially big, just 13 feet long, or 4 meters, but up until then an adult giant squid had never been captured or even photographed. Its body is now on display at the National Science Museum of Japan. It wasn’t until 2004 that a research team got photographs of a live giant squid in its natural habitat, also off the coast of Japan. Since then researchers have taken more photographs and footage of giant squid, and we’re starting to learn more about it.

Squids in general have a body called a mantle, with small fins at the rear and eyes near the base above the arms, eight arms, and two long tentacles. The arms and tentacles are lined with suction cups that contain rings of serrated chitin, which allows the squid to hang on to its prey. Chitin is the same stuff lobster shells and fish scales are made of. It’s the invertebrate version of keratin. In the middle of the arms, at the base of the mantle, is the squid’s mouth, which looks for all the world like a gigantic parrot beak, also made of chitin. Instead of actual teeth, the squid has a radula, which is basically a tongue studded with chitinous teeth that it uses to shred its prey into pieces small enough to swallow.

Most of the length of a giant squid comes from its tentacles. Researchers estimate that the longest giant squid’s mantle is about 7 ½ feet long, or 2.25 meters. The longest giant squid’s mantle and arms together reach around 16 feet long, or 5 meters. That’s still pretty huge, but it’s not until you add in the tentacles that the length just gets ridiculous. The longest giant squid known—and this is an estimate based on the size of the biggest beak ever found—was 43 feet, or 13 meters. Females are typically much bigger than males and can weigh twice as much.

The giant squid is a deep-sea animal, probably solitary, and eats fish and smaller squid, including other giant squid. It’s an active hunter and catches prey by grabbing it with its super-long tentacles, reeling it in to hold it more securely with its arms, then biting it with its beak and shredding it into pieces with its radula.

The giant squid has the largest eye of any living animal, as big as 11 inches in diameter, or 27 cm. Since it mostly lives in the deep sea, it probably needs such big eyes to see bioluminescent light given off by the animals it eats and to detect predators. Only ichthyosaurs had larger eyes. Well…except for the colossal squid, which may have eyes even bigger than the giant squid’s.

So if the giant squid can grow to some 43 feet long, is the colossal squid even longer? Only a little. Researchers estimate the colossal squid can grow to around 46 feet long, or 14 meters, but it has shorter tentacles and a much longer mantle than the giant squid so is an overall much bigger and heavier animal.

But that size estimate is only that, an estimate. We know very little about the colossal squid. It was first described from parts of two arms found in the stomach of a sperm whale in 1925, and for more than 50 years that was pretty much all we had. Then a Russian trawler caught an immature specimen in 1981 off the coast of Antarctica. Since then researchers have been able to study a few other specimens caught or found dead, mostly from the Antarctic seas.

As far as we know, the colossal squid is an ambush predator rather than an active hunter like the giant squid. It lives in the deep seas in the Southern Ocean, especially around Antarctica, as far down as 7,200 feet or 2.2 km beneath the surface of the ocean, and it mostly eats fish. While its tentacles are much shorter than the giant squid’s, they have something the giant squid does not. Its suckers have hooks, some of them triple-pointed and some of which swivel. When it grabs onto something, it is not going to let go until somebody gets eaten.

The largest colossal squid ever found was caught in 2007 in the Antarctic. It was caught by a trawler when they hauled in a fishing line. The squid was eating an Antarctic toothfish caught on the line and wouldn’t let go, so the fishermen hauled it aboard in a net and froze it. It was 33 feet long, or ten meters, and by the time it was thawed out for study, its tentacles had shrunk so that it was even shorter. Its eye was 11 inches across, or 27 cm, but when the squid was alive its eye was probably bigger, maybe as much as 16 inches across, or 40 cm—in which case, it wins the biggest eye category and deserves a trophy. With an eyeball on it.

So if the biggest colossal squid we’ve ever seen is only 33 feet long, how do we know it can grow to 46 feet long? Because whalers have found colossal squid beaks in the stomachs of sperm whales that are much larger than the 33-foot squid’s beak.

And that brings us to the first predator of the colossal squid, the sperm whale. Lots of things eat young colossal squids, from fish and albatrosses to seals and bigger squids, but today we’re talking about predators of full-grown colossal squid. There aren’t many. In fact, there are only two that we know of.

The sperm whale eats pretty much anything it wants, frankly, but mostly what it wants is squid. It eats both giant and colossal squid, and we know because squid beaks aren’t digestible. They stay in the whale’s stomach for a long time. Specifically they stay in the whale’s second stomach chamber, because sperm whales have a four-chambered stomach like cows and other ruminants do. Sometimes a whale will puke up squid beaks, but often they just stay in the stomach. Some whales have been found with as many as 18,000 squid beaks in their stomachs. 18,000! Can you imagine having 18,000 of anything riding around in your stomach? I wouldn’t even want 18,000 Cap’n Crunches in my stomach and I really like Cap’n Crunch cereal.

Sometimes squid beaks do make it deeper into the whale’s digestive system, and when that happens, researchers think it stimulates the body to secrete a greasy substance called ambergris to coat the beak so it won’t poke into the sides of the intestines. Small lumps of ambergris are sometimes found washed up on shore after the whale poops them out, and it can be valuable. Once it’s been out of the whale for a while it starts to smell really good so has been traditionally used to make perfume, but these days most perfume companies use a synthetic version of ambergris.

The sperm whale can grow to at least 67 feet long, or 20.5 meters, and may possibly grow much longer. It’s an active hunter and a deep diver, with the biggest whales routinely diving to almost 7,400 feet or 2,250 meters to catch that tasty, tasty squid. It can stay underwater for over an hour. It has teeth only in the lower jaw, which is long and thin. The upper jaw has holes in the gum called sockets where its lower teeth fit into, which is kind of neat. But because male sperm whales sometimes fight by ramming each other, occasionally a whale’s jaw will become broken, dislocated, or otherwise injured so that it can’t use it to bite squid. But that actually doesn’t seem to stop the whale from eating squid successfully. They just slurp them up.

Sperm whales use echolocation to find squid, but researchers also think the whale can use its vision to see the squid silhouetted against the far-off water’s surface. Sperm whales have big eyes, although not nearly as big as squid eyes, and a whale can retract its eyeballs into its eye sockets to reduce drag as it swims. It can also protrude its eyes when it wants to see better. Researchers have tagged sperm whales with radio transmitters that tell exactly where the whale is and what it’s doing, at least until the tag falls off. The tags occasionally show that a sperm whale will hunt while swimming upside down, which researchers think means the whale is looking up to see squid silhouettes.

You’ll often hear people talk about sperm whales and giant squids battling. Sperm whales do often have sucker marks and scars from giant and colossal squid arms, but that doesn’t mean the squid was trying to drown the whale. Squid have no real defense against getting eaten by sperm whales. All a squid can do is hang on to the whale in hopes that it won’t actually end up in the whale’s belly, which is not going to happen, squid. Some researchers even theorize that the sperm whale can stun prey with a massive burst of powerful sonar impulses, but so far there’s no evidence for this frankly pretty awesome hypothesis.

The other main predator of full-grown colossal squid are a few species of sharks called sleeper sharks. They’re slow-moving deep-sea sharks that mostly live in cold waters around the Arctic and Antarctic. We don’t know much about a lot of sleeper sharks species. Many of them were only discovered recently, and some are only known from one or a few specimens. Sleeper sharks are generally not much to look at. They don’t have great big mouths full of huge teeth like great whites, they don’t have weird-shaped heads like hammerheads, and they’re just plain grayish all over, maybe with some speckles.

The Greenland shark is one type of sleeper shark. It’s the one with the longest known lifespan of any vertebrate, as much as 500 years old. The Greenland shark is also one of the largest sharks alive, up to 24 feet long, or 7.3 meters, and possibly longer. But the Greenland shark isn’t one of the sleeper sharks that eat colossal squid, since it lives around the Arctic and the colossal squid lives around the Antarctic. But the Southern sleeper shark lives around the Antarctic and is so closely related to the Greenland shark that for a long time many researchers thought it was the same species. The Southern sleeper shark is overall shorter, only around 14 feet long, or 4.4 meters, although since we don’t know a lot about it, we don’t really know how big it can get. It’s probably an ambush predator and it definitely eats colossal squid because colossal squid beaks are sometimes found in its stomach.

In 2004 a team of researchers examined the stomach contents of 36 sleeper sharks that had been accidentally killed by fishing trawlers around and near Antarctica. They found remains of at least 49 colossal squid, bigger on average than the squid sperm whales typically eat.

Just going by what we know about the Greenland shark, it’s safe to say that the southern sleeper shark is an extremely slow swimmer, barely exceeding more than two miles an hour, or 3.5 km per hour. That’s about the speed you walk if you’re not in any particular hurry. It may also be prey to the same parasitic copepod, which is a type of crustacean, that infests a lot of Greenland sharks. The parasite attaches itself to the shark’s EYEBALL. But some researchers think the parasite actually gives something back to the shark, by glowing with a bioluminescence that attracts prey, which the shark then eats. Greenland sharks don’t appear to need to see in order to find prey anyway. That doesn’t make it any less gross.

I’m very sorry to end this episode with an eyeball parasite, so here’s one last thing to take your mind off it. As long as there have been reports of gigantic squid, there have been reports of gigantic octopuses. The largest octopus currently known is the giant Pacific octopus with a 20 foot legspan, or 6 meters. But there may be a gigantic octopus much larger than that. In 1928, six octopuses were sighted off the coast of Oahu in Hawaii by a sailor in the US Navy, who estimated their legs spanned 40 feet across, or 12.5 meters. In 1950, a diver in the same area reported seeing an octopus with a body the size of a car, and with tentacles estimated as 30 feet long each, or 9.3 meters.

Remember the study I mentioned earlier, about researchers finding lots of colossal squid remains in sleeper shark stomachs? They found something else in one of the sharks, remains of a huge octopus. Species unknown.

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