Episode 082: Animals with Face Tentacles

This week we’re going to learn about animals with TENTACLES ON THEIR FACES oh my gosh

Thanks to Llewelly for the topic suggestion!

Don’t forget to come see me on the panel How to Start Your Own Indie Podcast at DragonCon 2018, at 4pm on Sunday, September 2, 2018 in the Hilton Galleria 6.

A tentacled snake:

A star-nosed mole. Hello, nose star!

A caecilian, with its tiny tentacle circled:

A squidworm:

Show transcript:

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

I’m back from Paris this week and definitely jet-lagged, but this episode should wake everyone up. It’s about animals with TENTACLES ON THEIR FACES

A big thanks to Llewelly who sent me an article about the tentacled snake, which turned into this episode. I love it when people send me links to articles or suggestions for topics. I have a bunch of suggestions I haven’t gotten to yet, but I promise I will as soon as possible. I’m like a dog in a park full of squirrels. There are so many exciting animals to chase, it’s hard to know which one to follow.

That reminds me. If you go to the strangeanimalspodcast.com website, there’s a page with a list of animals that I’ve covered in various episodes. If you don’t see your favorite animal on that list, feel free to email me with your suggestion!

Also, if you’re listening to this episode the week it comes out, this coming weekend I’ll be at DragonCon in Atlanta. If you’re going to be there too, I’m on a panel about how to start your own podcast, part of the podcasting track. It’ll be at 4pm on Sunday in the Hilton Galleria 6.

Now, on to the tentacles.

We’ll start with the tentacled snake, which lives in parts of southeast Asia. It lives in both fresh and ocean water and doesn’t come on land very often. When it does, it has trouble getting around since it’s adapted for swimming. It grows up to three feet long, or about 90 cm, and is brown or gray, sometimes with stripes, sometimes with blotches. Its body and head are flattened and its scales are rough. Basically it looks a lot like an old stick with lichen on it. If something disturbs it, it holds its body completely rigid even if it’s lifted out of the water, which makes it look even more like a stick.

Its nose is squared-off with nostrils at the top so it can more easily grab breaths at the water’s surface. And it has a pair of short tentacles at the corners of its snout that it uses to help it sense the fish and frogs it eats. It has weak venom, but its fangs are in the back of its mouth and not dangerous to humans.

It likes slow-moving water, murky water, or water with a lot of vegetation in it because it doesn’t rely on its eyes to sense fish, although it has good eyesight. The tentacles are finely attuned to movement in the water and the snake can sense when a fish is approaching even if it can’t see the fish.

The tentacled snake is an ambush predator. It uses its tail to anchor itself in the water, and holds its body in a J shape, either head down or head up. When a fish swims nearby, the snake moves the looped section of its body extremely quickly without moving its head, which creates a pressure wave in the water that makes the fish think there’s a predator approaching. The fish doubles back and tries to flee, but in the wrong direction—basically right into the snake’s face.

Another animal with tentacles on its face is the star-nosed mole. It’s a mammal that lives in parts of northeastern North America, especially in marshy areas. Like other moles, it’s not very big, only about six inches long, or 15 cm. Its fur is dense and velvety, it has tiny eyes and ears that are mostly hidden under its fur, and its tail is short. It spends a lot of time in the water but it also digs shallow tunnels. It eats worms, insects, mollusks, and small animals of various kinds, including frogs.

The star-nosed mole has eyes, but they’re tiny and don’t function very well. Instead, it senses prey and navigates using the unique structure at the tip of its snout: 22 tiny tentacles containing over 25,000 sensory receptors. The structure is roughly star-shaped so is usually called a nose star. It actually is more starfish-shaped, if you ask me, like it has a tiny pink starfish growing out of the tip of its nose, with two little nostrils in the middle.

Mammals are not known for their tentacles. The star-nosed mole is the only mammal with tentacles, in fact—at least as far as I can find out. And the star-nosed mole has tons of weird adaptations as a result. The tentacles of its nose star are the most sensitive organ of touch in any mammal. Think about how sensitive your fingertips are and how much information you can learn from just touching something with a fingertip. The star-nosed mole’s star has five times the number of nerve fibers than your entire hand contains, and the star is smaller than your pinky fingernail. It’s so sensitive and the mole can gain so much information from it that researchers compare it more to a sense of sight than of touch. The mole’s nervous system is also extremely efficient in order to process all the information coming from the star, literally just about at the physiological limit of neurons. That means the star-nosed mole can identify prey and decide whether to eat it in only 8 milliseconds.

You know how long it takes you to blink your eyes? About 350 milliseconds. A star-nosed mole could have examined and made eating decisions about 44 things in that same time. And since it can also eat most small prey like bugs in only 200 milliseconds, it could have also eaten one and a half things in the time you blink your eyes. This is blowing my mind, everyone, especially since I am the slowest eater in the world.

You know what else the star-nosed mole can do? It can smell underwater. It blows tiny bubbles into the water and breathes them back in to examine them for scents. The tentacles of the mole’s star keep the bubbles from floating away before the mole can breathe them back in. The star-nosed mole is a good swimmer and the tunnels it digs often start and end underwater. Researchers think that hunting underwater and in swampy soil helps keep the mole’s sensitive nose star from damage. If you rub your fingertips lightly over sandpaper or a brick’s surface, after only a few seconds you’ll feel some discomfort, but soft mud doesn’t hurt fingertips or nose stars.

Another animal with face tentacles is the caecilian. Caecilians are legless amphibians that look like worms or snakes, but are more closely related to frogs and salamanders. Probably. We don’t know a lot about how caecilians developed, and some researchers think they may actually be more closely related to reptiles than amphibians.

The longest caecilian, Thompson’s caecilian, grows to some five feet long, or 1.5 meters. It lives in Colombia in South America and is gray or black. The smallest species only grow to about four inches long, or 10 cm. There are some 180 species of caecilian that we know of, which live in tropical regions in many parts of the world. Many dig burrows and spend most of their time underground, while some live in the water. Most eat small animals like worms and insects. Even though all caecilians are long, unlike worms and snakes, most don’t actually have a tail, or may only have a short tail. It’s just hard to tell because they also don’t have legs. Some species appear snakey while some have what look like body segments like an earthworm, which helps it wriggle its way through soil like a worm. It even moves in what’s called an accordion-type fashion like a worm where it bunches up parts of its body and stretches other parts out to advance.

The caecilian has a pair of tiny tentacles between its eyes and nostrils that grow out of an opening in the snout. The tentacles appear to have developed from the tear duct and eye muscles. Some caecilian species have tiny eyes, although they may be hard to see. Some species have no eyes at all. Some species have eyes, but they’re actually beneath the skull bones. In two species from Africa, the eyes are under the skull but are connected to the tentacles, and the caecilian can extend its tentacles and actually move its eyes out of the skull and into the tentacle. The tentacle tips lack pigment so light can pass through. You see what’s going on here? EYE STALKS. Eye stalks aside, researchers think that the tentacles mostly contain chemical receptors that the caecilian uses to find prey.

Caecilians are really interesting animals. Different species are sometimes radically different from each other in very basic ways. For instance, how babies develop. Some caecilian species lay eggs that hatch into larvae, like tadpoles. Some lay eggs that hatch into miniature caecilians, like certain species of frog whose eggs hatch into tiny frogs instead of tadpoles. Three caecilian species give birth to up to four live babies that are already developed, and those babies grow within the mother by eating a special oviduct lining of her body, which they scrape off with teeth modified for this purpose. Two egg-laying species have a similar process for feeding babies, but in this case the mother caecilian develops a thickened skin that’s full of nutrients, which her babies scrape off with modified teeth. It doesn’t hurt the mother, who grows more of the skin as the babies eat it.

One species of caecilian doesn’t even have lungs, Atretochoana eiselti. Some salamanders don’t have lungs either, and instead absorb oxygen through the skin. But salamanders that breathe this way are either very small or live in cold, fast-flowing water with high oxygen content. Atretochoana grows nearly three feet long, or 80 cm, but seems to prefer warmer, slower water. So researchers aren’t sure how it breathes. Not a lot is known about it in general, but it does have muscles that attach to the skull that aren’t found in any other organism studied. Its head is broad and flat. We don’t even know what it eats.

The caecilian has two sets of jaw muscles, if you were wondering. Researchers aren’t sure why, but they suspect it has something to do with keeping the head and neck rigid while the caecilian pushes its way through the soil. Some caecilians are toxic, and since many species are brightly colored, it’s a good bet that those species probably contain at least some toxins. But again, we don’t know for sure because there haven’t been very many studies on caecilians.

There are other animals with tentacles on their faces, but those are the big three that are alive today. Catfish whiskers, properly called barbels, aren’t technically tentacles, and I have a whole episode on catfish planned eventually so I’ll skip them this time. Snails and slugs have four head appendages that are tentacle-like, two of them eyestalks and the other pair for smell and touch. Back in the Cambrian, the eel-like Pikaia gracilens had a pair of long tentacles on its head and rows of shorter bristles along the sides of its head that may have acted as gills. Some species of modern lancelet look very similar to Pikaia and even have similar sensory appendages, but these are more similar to cilia than actual tentacles.

But another living animal, a deep-sea polychaete worm called the squidworm, has actual tentacles on its head—ten of them. It grows around 4 inches long, or 10 cm, not counting its tentacles, which are as long or longer than the body. It lives in the depths up to 2800 meters down, or almost 1.75 miles below the ocean’s surface. Two of its tentacles are yellowish and usually held in a curled-up position, and those are the ones the worm uses to collect food—probably plankton and detritus that sinks from the upper ocean. The other tentacles are used for breathing, and it also has feathery sensory organs growing from its head.

But the awesome thing is, the squidworm was only discovered in 2007 off the coast of the Philippines. And it’s not rare. In fact, it seems to be really common, which means there are probably other species of squidworm that haven’t been discovered yet. And there might be other tentacled things down there too, who knows?

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 081: Little Yard Animals

This week we’re staying at home and looking around our own yards and gardens to learn about some of the little critters we see every day but maybe never pay attention to. Thanks to Richard E. for the topic suggestion, and thanks also to John V. and Richard J. for other animal suggestions I used in the episode!

The common or garden snail:

A couple of robins:

A brown-eared bulbul nomming petals:

An Eastern hognose snake. srsly, no one believes ur dead snek:

The hognose in happier times:

An Australian water dragon. Stripey!!

The edible dormouse. I think you mean the ADORABLE dormouse:

The eastern chipmunk:

A guppy with normal eyes:

Show transcript:

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

I’m out of the country this week, visiting Paris, France and undoubtedly eating my weight in pastries and cheese as you listen to this. Since I’m away from home, though, I’m probably feeling a little homesick. So this week’s episode is all about the ordinary-seeming little animals found in gardens and yards, a suggestion from Richard E. This is also a perfect opportunity to feature some listener-suggested animals that aren’t really complex enough for a full episode but are still really interesting.

But I’m not going to just look at the animals in my yard. Depending on where you live, hopefully I’ll touch on one or two animals you might be able to see for yourself just by going outside and looking around.

It sounds corny, but no matter how boring you think the nearest patch of greenery is, if you look closely enough you’ll see a world of activity. The other day I was sitting on a bench outside the library, enjoying a breeze and the shade of an oak tree, and because I am sort of disgusting and was wearing flip-flops, I was picking at one of my toenails that was partly broken. I pulled the broken part off and flipped it into the grass nearby. A few minutes later I noticed that a couple of ants had found that piece of toenail and were working hard to wrestle it over the grass and twigs and presumably back to their home. Why? Why did they want my toenail? It’s just a piece of keratin, and while keratin is a type of protein, it’s not digestible by most animals.

I looked it up, and guess what. I am not the first person to notice this. No one’s sure why ants take toenail and fingernail clippings, either. They’re not interested in hair, just nails. Hair and nails have different properties so it’s possible the ants are able to digest the keratin in nails but not the keratin in hair.

That was probably not the best story to start with. Try to forget that picture of me and remember that I’m sipping wine at a sidewalk café in Paris right now, or touring the Louvre.

Let’s move on to a small invertebrate that is sometimes eaten as a delicacy in France and other parts of Europe, the common or garden snail. That’s Cornu aspersum, which is native to the Mediterranean and western Europe, but which has been introduced in other parts of the world. It’s pretty big for a snail, with a shell almost 2 inches across, or 5 cm. The shell varies in color and pattern, but it’s usually brown with yellow markings.

The shells almost always coil to the right, or clockwise, but the occasional rare snail will have a left-coiling shell. Researchers have found that left-coiling shells are due to a genetic mutation and only occur about once in a million snails. A famous lefty snail was called Jeremy, who died in October 2017 at the ripe old age of two years. Since snails are hermaphrodites who both fertilize other snails’ eggs and lay their own, a boy name seems like a random choice. Jeremy was discovered by a retired scientist in his London garden, who gave the snail to the University of Nottingham for study. After a public appeal, two other left-handed snails were found by the public, but while the three snails all laid eggs, all the babies had clockwise shells.

The garden snail mostly eats plants, but will sometimes scavenge on small dead animals like drowned worms and squished slugs. When it’s threatened, it can pull itself all the way into its shell, and if it’s too dry out, it will pull itself into its shell and secrete a thin layer of mucus, which dries out to form a seal.

Snails raised to be eaten are kept in special cages, traditionally made from wine-grape vines. I am probably not going to eat any snails while I’m in France, but you never know. I will let you know if I do.

One animal Richard E. suggested as a topic is the robin, specifically the difference between the American robin and European robin. That’s a good one for this episode, because in both North America and Britain, the robin is a really common bird—so common that most people barely pay any attention to it.

The American robin is a type of thrush. It lives year-round in most of the United States and part of Mexico, spends summers in much of Canada, and winters in parts of Mexico. It’s big for a songbird, around 10 inches long, or 25 cm. It’s dark gray on its back, with a rusty red breast, white undertail coverts, and a long yellow bill. It also has white markings around its eyes. Young birds are speckled. It mostly eats insects, worms, and berries. If you see a bird on the ground, running quickly and then stopping, it’s probably a robin. Mostly the robin hunts bugs by sight, but it has good hearing and can actually hear worms moving around underground. You can sometimes see a robin with its head cocked, listening for a worm, before pouncing and pulling it out of the ground, just like in a cartoon.

American robin eggs are a light teal blue, so common and well-known that robin’s-egg-blue is a typical description of that particular color. In the spring after eggs hatch, the mother robin will carry the eggshells away from the nest to drop them, so predators won’t see the shells and know there’s a nest nearby. That’s why you’ll sometimes see half a robin eggshell on the sidewalk. It doesn’t mean something bad happened to the baby, just that the mother bird is doing her job. Both parents feed the chicks, and the parents also carry off the babies’ droppings to scatter them away from the nest.

This is what an American robin’s song sounds like. If you live in North America, you’ve probably heard this song a million times without noticing it.

[robin song]

The American robin was named after the European robin, also called the robin redbreast, but while the European robin does have a rusty red breast, it doesn’t look much like the American robin. The European robin is much smaller, only around 5 inches long, or 13 cm, with a brown back, streaked gray or buff belly, and orange face and breast. It has a short black bill and round black eyes. It eats insects, worms, berries, and seeds. The eggs are pale brown with reddish speckles.

It lives throughout much of Eurasia, but robins in Britain tend to be fairly tame, probably because they were traditionally considered beneficial in Britain and Ireland, so farmers and gardeners wouldn’t hurt them. In other parts of Europe they were hunted and are much more shy. European robins are also common on Christmas cards in Britain and Ireland, possibly because in the olden days, postmen used to wear red jackets. They started to be called robins as a result, and since postmen bring Christmas cards, the bird robin became linked with card delivery and finally just ended up on Christmas cards. Plus, their orange markings are cheerful in winter. And, of course, in the traditional story Babes in the Wood, which is often associated with Christmas pantomimes, robins cover the children’s dead bodies with leaves. Because nothing says Christmas spirit like a story about dead children.

This is what the European robin sounds like. If you live in Britain or parts of Europe, you’ve probably heard this song a million times without noticing it.

[other robin song]

Another common bird in gardens, this one from Japan and other parts of Asia, is the brown-eared bulbul. It’s about the size of the American robin, around 11 inches long, or 28 cm, including its long tail. It’s gray or gray-brown all over, with a speckled breast and belly, a sharp black bill, and a dark brown spot on the sides of its head that gives it its name. It mostly eats plants, including fruit, seeds, flowers, and even leaves. I have a picture in the show notes of one chowing down on a flower, just swallowing petals like it’s in a video game and petals give it a power-up. It likes nectar too, and in spring and summer especially will look like it has a yellow head or yellow markings because of all the pollen on its feathers. It helps pollinate plants as a result. It also sometimes eats insects. It gathers in large flocks at times and many farmers consider it a pest, especially fruit farmers.

It has a loud song and call that many people dislike. I’ll let you decide, if you’re not already familiar with it. I kind of like it, to be honest. This is what a brown-eared bulbul sounds like:

[brown-eared bulbul call]

Listener John V. recently suggested the Eastern Hognose snake for an episode, and tickled me because he referred to it as the “dramatic hognose snake.” The hognose is a common snake in many parts of North America, and can grow almost four feet long, or 116 cm, although about half that length is much more average. Its snout turns up like a little snub nose. It varies in color and pattern, and some snakes are black or gray, some orange, brown, even greenish. Some snakes have no pattern, some snakes have various colored blotches or even a checkered pattern. The belly is usually yellowish but is sometimes gray or almost white. It has a big head that makes some people believe it’s venomous, but it’s actually harmless to humans and most animals.

The only animals that really need to worry about the Eastern hognose are amphibians, like toads and frogs. As it happens, the hognose does have mild venom, but it’s only effective on amphibians. It especially likes to eat toads, and while some toads are toxic, the hognose snake is resistant to toad toxins. A toad will frequently puff itself up to make it appear larger and make it hard for a snake to eat, but the Eastern hognose has a solution for that too. It has big teeth at the rear of its upper jaws, like fangs in the back of its mouth. It uses those teeth to puncture puffed-up toads so they deflate.

But the most memorable thing about the Eastern hognose, and the thing that earns it the drama snake award, is what it does when it feels threatened. Phase one of the dramatics is aggression. The snake will flatten its neck to look more threatening, raise its head like a cobra, and hiss and strike—but without biting. It’s just trying to scare you away. If that doesn’t work, the snake puts phase two into effect. It will flop down and roll onto its back, its tongue hanging out, and emit a foul musky smell from its cloaca, and play dead. If you call its bluff and roll drama queen snake onto its belly, it will turn onto its back again. It is really insistent that it is dead.

A common reptile visitor to yards in Australia is the water dragon. Of course Australia would have a little dragon running around in suburban neighborhoods. Males can grow up to three feet long, or a little over a meter, with females smaller, but those lengths include a tail that’s almost twice the length of the body. Males are more brightly patterned than females. It’s a long-leggedy lizard with a spiky crest along its head and spine. It’s generally a pale greeny-grey with dark stripes, especially on the tail and legs, or gray with white stripes. Depending on the species and individual, it may also have a colorful blotch on the throat, usually white or yellow, but sometimes orange or red.

It’s a fast runner and can even run on its hind legs if it really needs to hurry. It climbs trees well, but it especially likes water and is semi-aquatic. Its long tail helps it swim. It likes to bask on branches overhanging the water, and if something threatens it, it drops into the water, where it hides. It can stay underwater without needing to take another breath for over half an hour. It eats small animals like frogs and worms, crustaceans and mollusks, insects, fruit, and plants.

In areas where it gets cold in winter, such as Sydney, the water dragon will dig a burrow if it doesn’t already have one, close the entrance off with dirt, and hibernate until spring, when it emerges and starts searching for a mate. Males sometimes fight each other, biting and scratching. Once the weather is warm, the female lays 6 to 18 eggs in a hole she digs in sandy soil.

Water dragons will visit yards if there’s cover and a water source nearby, whether it’s a creek or just a dog’s water bowl. Don’t try to pet one, though. Dragons bite.

Now let’s look at a couple of common rodents. The edible dormouse lives throughout much of western Europe and is big, about the size of a squirrel, which it also roughly resembles. It’s grey or grey-brown with paler underparts. In autumn when it’s preparing for hibernation it gets very fat, which is why it’s also called the fat dormouse. The name edible dormouse comes from the Romans, who used to farm them in captivity and eat them as a delicacy. In some parts of Europe, especially Slovenia, wild edible dormice are still trapped and eaten.

The edible dormouse lives in dense forests, caves, and people’s attics, where it can be a real pest. It eats plants, especially fruit and nuts, but will eat bark and leaves, and sometimes bird eggs and insects. It especially likes beech tree seeds. It’s mostly nocturnal. Unlike most rodents, it doesn’t always breed every year.

If a predator grabs the edible dormouse’s tail, the skin and fur will slide off, allowing the dormouse to escape. The exposed tail vertebrae later break off and the wound heals up, making the tail shorter. That is kind of horrifying.

Chipmunks are rodents common throughout North America, although the Siberian chipmunk lives in Asia. The Eastern chipmunk is the one I’m going to talk about today, primarily because I got audio of one calling this morning on my way to work. I spilled coffee all over myself to get the audio, so I definitely want to share it.

The chipmunk is larger than a mouse but smaller than a squirrel. It has reddish-brown fur with stripes down its sides, a white band in between two thinner black bands. It prefers woodlands with lots of brush and rocks to hide in, but it lives in parks, yards, and definitely all over the college campus where I work. It climbs trees well but mostly it stays on the ground. It digs complex burrows with tunnels that can be more than 11 feet long, or 3.5 meters. It even digs a special latrine burrow to keep droppings out of the rest of the burrow system, and will throw nut shells and other trash into the latrine too. When it’s digging a new tunnel or burrow, it carries the dirt it’s dug away from the tunnel entrance in its cheek pouches, so predators won’t notice newly dug soil and come to take a look.

The chipmunk is omnivorous, and eats everything from bird eggs, worms, snails, and insects to seeds, nuts, and mushrooms. It even eats small animals like baby mice and nestling birds. It carries food in its cheek pouches to store for the winter, and helps disperse some plants as a result. It doesn’t hibernate, but in winter it spends most of its time sleeping, which is pretty much what I like to do in winter too.

THIS is what an Eastern chipmunk sounds like! A cup of coffee died to bring you this audio:

[chipmunk sound]

Our final animal isn’t something you’d typically find in your yard or garden—but you might find it in your house, if you have a freshwater aquarium: the guppy. A different Richard suggested this animal, specifically my brother Richard. He texted me a while back about Poecilia reticulata, a “common aquarium fish that can turn its little eyes black.” Then we texted back and forth about how that would be a really neat superpower, and how we would apply it in our lives if we could turn our eyes black.

The guppy is a tropical fish native to parts of South America, although it’s been introduced into the wild in other parts of the world and is an invasive species in many places. In the wild it eats algae, insect larvae, and various tiny animals. It’s usually between one and two inches long, or 3 to 6 cm, with females being larger. Females are gray or silvery in color, while males are gray with spots of bright color. Aquarium enthusiasts breed different strains of guppy that may have bright colors and striking patterns.

So does the guppy turn its eyes black? Yes, it really does. Most of the time guppies have silver eyes, but some species can change their eye color in only seconds. In the wild, guppies that live in dangerous areas with many predators tend to group together and cooperate. But guppies that live in safer areas tend to be loners and more aggressive toward each other. When a guppy is angry at another guppy, it turns its eyes black to indicate that it’s willing to fight. Other guppies may back off at that point, or if the other guppy is bigger, it may attack. Researchers don’t know yet how guppies change their eye color.

Until next week, when I’m home from Paris and hopefully caught up on my sleep, remember to look around at the strange little animals in your own backyard. But watch out if their eyes turn black.

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 080: Mystery Dogs

This week we’re looking at some strange and mysterious canids from around the world!

The African wild dog:

A dhole:

An old photo of the ringdocus and a newer photo of the ringdocus:

A coyote:

Sri Lankan golden jackal:

The maned wolf MONEY SHOT:

A bush dog:

A stuffed Honshu wolf, dramatically lit:

Show transcript:

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

This week let’s look at a bunch of mystery doggos from around the world! I really like dogs, but for some reason dogs and their relations don’t come up much on the podcast. When I started looking into mystery canids, though, I found so much information that there’s no way I can stuff even half of it into one episode. So we’ll definitely be revisiting mystery dogs in the future.

The family Canidae includes dogs, wolves, coyotes, jackals, and foxes. Yes, foxes are canids, but not closely related to more dog-like canids. We’re going to skip the foxes this week, since foxes deserve an episode all their own eventually.

Dogs were domesticated at least 9,500 years ago, possibly as long as 14,700 years ago, maybe even as long as 36,000 years ago. Dogs and humans go way back. The closest living relative of the dog is the gray wolf, which is still alive today, but the wild ancestor of the domestic dog was a different species of wolf that has gone extinct.

There are canids called wild dogs, but they’re not the same species as domestic dogs. The African wild dog, for instance, is not very closely related to dogs and wolves—in fact, it’s the only species in its own genus. It’s a tall, lean canid with large ears and no dewclaws. It has a yellowish coat with black blotches and some white spots, including a white tail tip, although some subspecies have darker coats. As the dog ages, it loses its fur until old dogs are nearly bald. It hunts in packs and mostly preys on antelopes, warthogs, ostriches, hares, and rodents.

The nomadic Tuareg people who live in northern parts of Africa around the Sahara have stories of a supernatural creature called the Adjule, among other names. The Adjule’s description makes it sound a lot like the African wild dog, including its lack of a dew claw. Since the African wild dog is rare in that part of Africa, it’s possible that rare sightings of what is a distinctively odd-looking animal may have given rise to the stories.

Another so-called wild dog is the dhole, also called the Indian wild dog, which is closely related to the African wild dog. It used to be common throughout Eurasia and North America, but these days it’s restricted to parts of Asia and is endangered. It looks something like a fox and something like a wolf, but is neither. Like many other canids in this episode, the dhole has its own genus. Because it tends to be easily tamed and is sometimes kept as a pet, researchers once believed domestic dogs might have descended from the dhole or an ancestral species of dhole, but genetic evidence shows that the dhole isn’t closely related to domestic dogs or to wolves.

There are three subspecies of dhole, two of them reddish-brown in color and one with fur that’s pale brown in winter. But there is a mystery animal called the gray dhole that may turn out to be a fourth subspecies or something else.

The gray dhole supposedly lives in the forests and mountains of Myanmar. It’s dark gray with a black muzzle and small, round ears, and is supposed to be smaller than the other dhole species. In 1913 a Major E.G. Phythian-Adams wrote about the grey dhole after he saw one that year, and in 1933 E.H. Peacock mentioned it in his book A Game Book for Bhurma and Adjoining Territories. In 1936 an explorer named Tsaing reported seeing one in Burma. But after these reports, the Bombay Natural History Society tried to find physical evidence of the animal in the 1950s, but couldn’t track down anything. They only found one person who even reported seeing the grey dhole. So even if it is a separate species or subspecies and not just a rare color morph of a known species of dhole, it’s probably extinct now.

Kipling wrote about the dhole in one of his Jungle Book stories, calling it the red whistling dog of the Deccan, and reporting that packs of the animals were so ferocious that even tigers would avoid them. This is true, even the whistling part. Instead of barking or howling, dhole calls are whistles. This is what a dhole sounds like:

[dhole sound]

In 1886 a Montana settler named Israel Hutchins shot a wolflike animal that had reportedly been killing livestock. No one knew what it was, so Hutchins traded it to a taxidermist for a cow. He needed the cow because when he first tried to shoot the canid, he accidentally shot one of his own cows instead. The taxidermist, Joseph Sherwood, also owned a general store in Idaho. He displayed the stuffed canid in the store, where it stayed for almost a hundred years until it disappeared. In 2007 Hutchins’s grandson, Jack Kirby, traced it to the Idaho Museum of Natural History.

The stuffed mystery canid is usually called the ringdocus, a name Sherwood made up. It has a sloping back and some other un-wolf-like features that might be due to bad taxidermy or might be due to physical anomalies in an ordinary wolf—or might be due to the ringdocus being an animal new to science. Suggestions as to what it might be include a thylacine, a hyena, a wolf-coyote hybrid, a wolf-dog hybrid, or a dire wolf. It’s not a thylacine, just going to say that straight out. Since we have the taxidermied specimen, it seems logical that a DNA test would clear up the mystery or bring us a brand new scientific mystery, if it turns out to be an unknown animal. But Kirby doesn’t want a DNA test done. That tells me it’s probably just a wolf, and he knows it’s a wolf. Prove me wrong, Kirby. I bet you ten whole dollars it’s just a wolf.

Around the same time that Hutchens was shooting at the ringdocus and killing his cow, and probably saying some very bad words when it happened, a man called Payze bought what he thought was a fox cub from some men traveling to London. It was 1883 and the men had caught the cub, along with two others, in Epping Forest. Payze named the cub Charlie, but as Charlie grew up, he started looking less and less like a fox. Payze took him to London Zoo and showed him to the superintendent, who identified him as a coyote.

But how had a coyote gotten to England? Coyotes are native to North America. The coyote is smaller than a wolf, usually a bit bigger than a fox but with longer legs, and can look fox-like. It’s gray and brown, or sometimes reddish, with large ears and a brushy tail.

It turns out that four coyotes had been brought to England and released near Epping Forest not long before, presumably for hunting. Clearly they’d had at least one litter of pups, but is it possible they survived and had more offspring? Locals do occasionally report seeing wolves or gray foxes in the area. Since coyotes readily breed with dogs and produce fertile offspring, it’s possible that some local dogs have coyote in their ancestry.

The Sri Lankan golden jackal lives in Sri Lanka and parts of India. It’s a small canid, with grizzled black and white fur above and tan or golden on the belly and legs. It’s a subspecies of the golden jackal, and it’s sometimes called the horned jackal. Local people in Sri Lanka believe that the leader of the pack has a small horn on the back of its skull, although other people report the horn is on its forehead. The horn is supposed to have supernatural powers and is considered a valuable talisman or charm.

That sounds nutty, but we actually have golden jackal skulls with small pointy horns less than an inch long, or a few centimeters. So the horns are real, but they’re not actual horns. They’re most likely bony growths resulting from an injury to the skull. No one’s sure why golden jackals grow them but not other canids.

The Falkland Islands is an archipelago about 300 miles, or 480 km, off the coast of Patagonia at the southern end of South America. When European explorers first discovered the islands in the late 17th century, no people lived there, just lots of birds and a fox-like wolf. Charles Darwin saw it in 1834 and described it as a wolf-like fox, but modern DNA research shows that it’s not only not a fox, its closest living relative is the maned wolf, which still lives in parts of South America.

The Falkland Islands wolf was tawny in color with a white tip to its tail. It had relatively short legs but was a fairly large animal, standing about two feet tall at the shoulder, or 60 cm. Its fur was thick and it barked like a dog. It may have lived in burrows. Because no mammals except the wolf lived on the Falkland Islands until settlers arrived, the wolf probably mostly ate seabirds, insects, and anything it could scavenge from the seashore.

For a long time it was a mystery how the Falkland Islands wolf got to the islands. There were no other wild canids in Patagonia, and the islands were never connected to the mainland. The islands aren’t even visible from the mainland. But the Falkland Islands wolf used to have a close relative that lived in Patagonia and other parts of South America. Dusicyon avus was about the size of German shepherd, and may have been at least partially domesticated. The grave of a young D. avus was found among human graves dating to over 2,000 years ago in Argentina. Estimates of when D. avus went extinct vary from 1,000 BCE to only around 300 years ago. Either way, researchers think that about 16,000 years ago, during the last ice age, the sea level was lower and only a shallow strait separated the mainland from the Falkland Islands. At times the strait may have frozen over, allowing animals to travel to the islands. When the glaciers melted and the sea level rose, some of the wolves were trapped on the islands. They evolved over the centuries to better fit their island habitat.

The Falkland Islands wolf wasn’t afraid of humans since it had no predators. That meant that sailors and other people who visited the islands could kill the wolves easily. It was hunted for its fur, or sometimes just poisoned by settlers who believed it killed sheep. It went extinct in 1876.

So what about the maned wolf, the Falkland Islands wolf’s living relation? It is a very weird animal, and in fact you’ll often see it listed in articles about the weirdest animals ever.

The maned wolf resembles a fox in many ways. It has reddish fur with black legs and muzzle and a black mane along its spine, a white tip to its tail, and a white patch on its throat. Its ears are big and its muzzle relatively short. Oh, and its legs are long. Really, really long. Super long. At first glance, it almost looks like a deer.

The maned wolf’s body is about the size of a good-sized dog’s, but its legs are far longer than any dog’s legs. Researchers think the maned wolf evolved longer legs to better see over the tall grasses where it lives. It’s a solitary animal and hunts small animals and birds, but about half its diet is plants. It especially likes a tomato-like fruit called the wolf apple. It marks its territory with a stinky musk that smells enough like cannabis that at least one zoo security team has mistaken it for people smoking marijuana.

Not only is the maned wolf not a wolf, it’s not a fox either. It’s not really closely related to any other living canids. It is, in fact, its own thing, the only living canid in its genus. While it’s related to the Falkland Islands wolf, its closest living relative is the bush dog, also the only species in its genus, also an odd canid from South America. But while the maned wolf is very tall, the bush dog is very short, only about a foot tall at the shoulder, or 30 cm.

The bush dog has plush brown fur that’s lighter on the back and darker on the belly, legs, and rump. Its ears are small, its snout short, and its tail is relatively short. It actually looks more like an otter or big weasel than a dog. It sometimes hunts in packs, sometimes alone. When it hunts alone it mostly eats small rodents, lizards and snakes, and birds, but packs can kill larger animals like peccaries, a type of wild pig. It lives in extended family groups and hunts during the day.

The bush dog is rare and not much is known about it. Its toes are webbed and it spends a lot of time in the water within its forest habitat. It’s so rare that for a long time it was only known from fossils found in some caves in Brazil, and was thought extinct.

Conversely, the Japanese wolf, or Honshu wolf, is a canid that is supposed to have gone extinct in January of 1905 when the last known wolf was killed. But people keep seeing and hearing it in the mountains of Japan.

The Honshu wolf was also small, not much more than a foot tall at the shoulder, or 30-odd cm, but it was a subspecies of gray wolf. Its legs were short and its short coat was greyish-brown. It was once considered a friend to farmers, since it ate rats and other pests. Wolves were also regarded as protective of travelers in Japanese folklore. But in 1732 rabies was introduced to Japan. That disease combined with loss of habitat made the Honshu wolf more of a threat to humans and their livestock, and led to its persecution.

But sightings of the wolf have continued ever since that last one was killed in 1905. Photographs of a canid killed in 1910 were studied by a team of researchers in 2000, who determined that the animal in the photos was probably a Honshu wolf. People have found tracks, heard howling, seen wolf-like animals, even taken photos of what look like wolves. The problem is that the Japanese wolf looked similar in many ways to some Japanese dog breeds like the Shiba inu and the Akita, which are probably partly wolf anyway since wolves and dogs interbreed easily and produce fertile offspring. People might be seeing dogs roaming the countryside. We can’t even DNA test hairs and old pelts to see if they’re from wolves, because we don’t have a genetic profile of the Honshu wolf. There are only a few taxidermied specimens of the wolf, and none of them have yielded intact DNA.

Another mystery not definitely solved by DNA testing, although at least they’ve tried, is the Andean wolf, sometimes called Hagenbeck’s wolf. It’s another South American mystery canid. In 1927, a German animal collector called Lorenz Hagenbeck bought a wolf pelt in Buenos Aires. The seller said the pelt, and three others, came from a wolf-like wild dog in the Andes Mountains.

The pelt is about six feet long, or 1.8 meters, including the tail, with thick, long fur, especially a thick ruff on the neck. It’s black on the back and dark brown elsewhere.

Hagenbeck didn’t recognize the pelt, so when he got home he sent it for examination. In the 1930s and 1940s, various studies suggested it belonged to a new species of canid, possibly one related to the maned wolf. One mammologist, Ingo Krumbiegel, also thought he might have seen a skull of the same canid in 1935, which he said had resembled a maned wolf skull but was much larger, and was supposed to have come from the Andes. Krumbiegel was convinced enough that in 1949 he described the Andean wolf formally as a new species. But no more specimens have come to light.

In 1954 another study determined Hagenbeck’s pelt was just a dog pelt, possibly of a German Shepherd crossbreed. A 1957 study came to the same conclusion. In 2000, a DNA analysis came back inconclusive due to the pelt having been chemically treated during preparation, and contamination with dog, wolf, human, and pig DNA. Currently the pelt is on display at the Zoological State Museum in Munich.

Finally, the dire wolf is a famous canid from books, games, and movies, but it was also a real animal. It lived throughout North and South America and was bigger than modern gray wolves, standing over three feet tall at the shoulder, or about 97 cm. It had massive teeth and powerful jaws that would have helped it kill giant ground sloths, mastodons, bison, horses, and other ice age megafauna. It wasn’t as fast a runner as modern wolves, though, and some researchers think the gray wolf may have outcompeted the dire wolf.

The dire wolf probably died out about 9,500 years ago, but there’s a group called the Dire Wolf Project that’s attempting to breed a dog that looks like a dire wolf. The group isn’t introducing any modern wolf genes into the breed, though, since they want a dog that looks like a dire wolf but doesn’t act like one. Which is pretty smart considering that dire wolves probably snacked on our own ancestors from time to time.

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 079: Starfish and Friends

This week’s episode is all about echinoderms, or at least the star-shaped echinoderms! Thanks to Llewelly for the suggestion about feather stars and crinoids!

A very pretty starfish:

Crown of thorns starfish. Do not touch:

Pumpkin starfish or orange throw pillow? YOU DECIDE:

Sea daisies. Not much to look at tbh:

A banded arm brittle star:

Ruby brittle stars:

Brittle stars riding around in a jelly:

A basket star:

Basket stars got TEETH THINGS:

A stemmed crinoid:

A lovely feather star:

Further reading:

Echinoblog, a really amazing resource and so much fun to browse

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to look at some marine animals that most people barely think about, but which are really interesting. It was going to just be about starfish and maybe one other animal, but while I was still researching starfish, listener Llewelly suggested I cover feather stars and crinoids. They’re related to starfish, so I thought I’d tack them on. And if you talk about starfish, you really have to talk about brittle stars too, and if you talk about brittle stars you have to talk about basket stars. Basically, I had to stop myself from breaking this episode into two big episodes about echinoderms. It’s just the stars this time.

Before we get into echinoderms, though, a quick note about my schedule. Next week I’m going on a trip to Paris, France! I know it sounds like I’m rich and just travel as my whim takes me, but actually I just have really generous relatives. A week and a half after I return from Paris, I’ll be in Atlanta, Georgia for DragonCon, where I’ll be on a panel about podcasting. In other words, I won’t be around much on social media for the rest of August, but don’t worry, I’ll have episodes recorded and scheduled to run normally while I’m gone.

Okay, now let’s get into echinoderms. Echinoderms include sand dollars, sea urchins, starfish, and many others, and every single echinoderm lives in the ocean. Many of them can regenerate limbs and other body parts, and instead of blood they have a water vascular system. In most echinoderms, seawater enters the body through slits or pores, then travels through canals within the body to transport oxygen to cells and waste products out of cells. Echinoderms have internal skeletons made of calcium carbonate, but they’re invertebrates because they don’t have a backbone. Heck, technically they don’t even have a back.

Echinoderms show radial symmetry, which means their bodies are roughly the same in all directions instead of having a clear front and rear. The echinoderms we’re talking about this week are ones that also exhibit pentaradial symmetry, which means they have five sides. And the best-known echinoderms out there are starfish. There are about 1,500 species of starfish known, and some of them are really weird and some are only kind of weird. Most have five arms but some have a whole lot more.

Starfish are members of the class Asteroidea, which just delights me. A better name for them is sea star, since they’re not fish at all. Starfish have been around for at least 450 million years, but in 2012 paleontologists found a fossil of the oldest known ancestor of starfish in the mountains of Morocco. It’s about 515 million years old, from the Cambrian period. It was only about an inch and a half long, or 4 cm, and looked similar to the modern-day sea lily, or crinoid. If you recall, the Cambrian period was when life was expanding rapidly in the oceans and evolving sometimes quite strange body plans. You know, like things with FIVE LEGS.

Most starfish have ossicles in their skin, little hard beads of calcium carbonate that help protect the animal. In some starfish, the ossicles are more like spines or even spikes. Although cartoons of starfish usually make them look like their legs are always exactly star-shaped, the legs are actually quite flexible. If a starfish is flipped upside down, it bends a couple of its legs down to flip itself back over.

The starfish’s mouth is in the very center of its body, the part in the middle of the legs, known as the disc. Different starfish use their mouths differently. That sounds confusing, but just hang on, because things are about to get weird and gross.

Starfish are primarily predators. Some starfish just swallow their prey whole and digest it in the stomach. Pretty normal. But other starfish—look, I don’t know how to tell you this, so I’ll just say it. They turn their stomach inside out, called eversion, squish it around the prey, and start the digestive process. Part of the stomach stays inside the body, and when the prey has been digested enough that’s it sort of a lumpy soup, the starfish retracts its everted stomach and the food back into the body. This means that the starfish can eat prey that’s bigger than it is.

A lot of starfish eat bivalves of various kinds, like clams. Say a starfish finds a clam and wants to eat it. The clam is closed up tight and starfish don’t have teeth or claws to break the clam open. But starfish do have tiny tubes on the bottoms of their legs, called tube feet. These tubes act like suction cups, although they actually stick to things with a chemical reaction. So the starfish latches onto both shells of the bivalve with its tube feet and pulls. It probably isn’t strong enough to pull the clam open completely, but it doesn’t need to. It just needs a little space so it can evert its stomach and squish it into the clam’s shell. Then it releases digestive enzymes and the clam is doomed.

Starfish can’t move very fast, and lots of animals eat them. But they can regenerate lost legs if some of them are bitten off. The starfish doesn’t have a brain, although it does have a nerve net. Plus, it has sensory bundles at the ends of its arms that can detect smells, along with eye spots at the end of each leg. The eye spots basically just detect light and darkness and they don’t actually look like eyes, which is a good thing because that would be terrifying.

Starfish arms, or legs, are properly called rays. I will continue to confuse everyone by calling them arms or legs depending on which word sounds better to me at the time.

So let’s get down to the nitty-gritty. What is the biggest starfish? What is the weirdest starfish? Could a starfish actually kill you, and I don’t mean by making you faint with terror and drown, which is what would happen to me if I accidentally touched one.

Let’s start with the biggest starfish. Starfish don’t actually get all that enormous. Even the biggest ones are typically only about two feet across, or 60 cm. The sunflower star can grow more than three feet across, or over a meter, and can weigh up to 11 pounds, or 5 kilograms. AND it has a ridiculous number of arms, up to 24 of them.

Sunflower stars can be purple, red, pink, brown, orange, yellow, or even white. They live on the sea bed along the Pacific coast, usually where it’s shallow but sometimes nearly 1500 feet deep, or over 450 meters. Young sunflower stars only have five arms, but as they get older they grow more arms. One genus of starfish, commonly called Heliaster, looks similar to the sunflower star even though it’s not that closely related to it, but some individuals can have up to 50 legs.

Recently, a bed of 350 fossil starfish were found in Florida, so well preserved that paleontologists were able to identify them as Heliaster michrobachius, which is still around today. But it lives off the western coast of Central and South America, from Mexico all the way down to Chile—but it’s not found anywhere else. So what were they doing in Florida three million years ago?

Remember the Great American Interchange, where the isthmus of Panama formed, connecting North and South America and allowing animals from both places to spread into the other continents? Before then, North America was separate from South America, so Heliaster undoubtedly lived along North America’s southern coast. After the isthmus formed, currents, salinity, and many other factors changed, which probably led to Heliaster dying out in the Atlantic side of the continent. Fortunately, it survived in the Pacific side.

So, what is the weirdest starfish? It’s really hard to decide. All starfish are weird, frankly. Labidiaster annulatus can grow up to two feet across, or 60 cm, and has 40 to 45 long, thin legs with sharp spines that can actually grab prey. The starfish holds its legs out and wriggles them like fishing lines, and when a little fish or an amphipod comes close, the spines snag it. The starfish wraps its arms around the prey and pulls it to its mouth, where it everts its stomach and starts digesting.

The crown-of-thorns starfish mostly eats coral polyps and is covered with thorny spines that are venomous. It can have up to 21 arms and is the same size as Labidiaster, but with a thicker body and much shorter legs. It looks scary, but it’s actually delicate and rarely survives being lifted out of the water for even a short time. It lives in a lot of areas, including part of the Pacific Ocean, Red Sea, and along the east African coast, but it’s most common around Australia. At one point people worried that it was killing a lot of the coral in Australia’s great barrier reef, but under ordinary circumstances it actually helps maintain biodiversity in coral reefs by preying mainly on fast-growing coral. This allows slow-growing coral to flourish. Every so often, though, there’s a population boom among the crown-of-thorns starfish. Researchers aren’t sure why, and when it happens Australia has tried various population control measures to keep their numbers down and protect the reefs.

The pumpkin sea star is fat, thick, and orange. It’s big too, literally the size of a pumpkin. It’s also rare, and was only discovered in 1997. Even though it’s big, its skeleton is very small and it’s basically very meaty, which makes it look like a star-shaped orange throw pillow. Now I want a pumpkin starfish throw pillow. It lives in the Indo-Pacific up to about 650 feet deep, or 200 meters, but not much is known about it yet.

Luidia maculata has long, flattened arms that are brown and black striped above and white underneath, sometimes with a brown daisy pattern on its body disc. Seriously, who knew these things were so pretty? It lives in shallow water in the Indo-Pacific and often buries itself in the sand with the help of the long spines on the undersides of its legs. It doesn’t have an eversible stomach so it just swallows its prey whole, including sand dollars, sea urchins, clams, other starfish, sea cucumbers, and snails. Whatever’s left over after it has digested its prey, it spits out.

The sea daisy is a deep-sea animal described in 1986 after being discovered by accident. A team collecting samples of wood from the South Pacific seabed found nine of the strange creatures and didn’t know what they were. It’s small, only about 9 mm long, and is shaped roughly like an umbrella without a handle. Its upper surface is covered with plates with spines along the edges, and underneath it has a single row of tube feet and a membrane. Researchers at first decided the sea daisy was so different from other echinoderms that it needed its own class, but further study determined that it’s actually a type of starfish even though it has no arms and no stomach. In fact, it most closely resembles a juvenile starfish, but where starfish grow arms as they develop, the sea daisy never grows arms and instead grows outward along its circumference, like a wheel. It lives among wood that has sunk to the bottom of the ocean to a depth of at least 3300 feet, or 1,000 meters, and researchers think it may eat bacteria that grow on the wood. The membrane on its underside resembles an everted stomach.

Okay, one more. A starfish sometimes referred to as a slime star is covered with a soft, squishy, gelatinous surface. Its body is frequently almost transparent too. It usually lives in the deep sea, with new species found just about every time a deep-sea expedition scouts around on the sea floor. The largest are almost a foot across, or nearly 30 cm. Since they’re so delicate, it’s hard to study them, so not a lot is known about them. But there is a shallow-living species that has been studied a little more, and we know one important thing about them. If you pick up a slime star, it will secrete just ridiculous amounts of slime. This helps it keep from being eaten. The slime may also contain a soap-like toxin.

That brings us to our last question about starfish: can starfish kill you? No. No, they can’t. Even the crown-of-thorns starfish venom won’t kill you, just hurt like crazy for a few hours or as much as a week. The venom actually chemically resembles soap or detergent so isn’t very toxic to humans or other animals, but it does make the starfish taste bad.

Next, let’s look at brittle stars. Brittle stars look superficially like starfish and are closely related to them. Their legs are usually very long and slender, with the legs of some species growing up to two feet long, or 60 cm. The legs are supported by a skeleton made of plates called vertebral ossicles, which resembles a bike chain.

Brittle stars have five arms and a round central disc, with the legs much more differentiated from the disc than starfish legs are. They mostly scavenge for bits of food or eat worms and other small animals. They usually move slowly, but when they need to, they can really zoom around quickly. Their legs are extremely flexible and they can use them for swimming or crawling. Sometimes a brittle star will raise its body disc up and walk on its legs sort of like a spider, which is oddly creepy but also remarkably adorable. Look, I don’t mind telling you, I really like brittle stars. I barely knew what they were before I started researching them, but now I think they’re one of the best things ever.

Some brittle stars are bioluminescent, but only along their arms. Most species can regenerate their arms like starfish can, but not as well as starfish, and some species can’t regenerate at all.

Brittle stars are more freewheeling than their starfish cousins. For instance, one brittle star, Ophiocnemis marmorata, hitches rides on jellyfish. One 2017 study found that 79% of moon jellies examined hosted brittle stars, some riding inside the jellys’ bells, some riding in the tentacles near the oral arms. Larger jellies carry more brittle stars, while small ones usually only have a few. It turns out that the brittle stars steal food from the jellies, known as kleptoparasitism. They also gain some protection from living inside a jelly, and they get a free ride to new parts of the ocean. Researchers hypothesize that the brittle stars find their jelly hosts as larvae, ride around with it for a while, and drop off to live on the sea floor. Since the brittle star prefers tropical waters, it abandons its host jelly when it migrates into colder water.

Brittle stars are divided into two groups, brittle stars and basket stars. Brittle stars live all over and are especially common around coral reefs, but basket stars mostly live in deep water. While brittle stars have relatively simple, snakey arms, basket star arms are long and branched. Sometimes the branches of their arms are so elaborate, they look more like a kind of coral or like a tumbleweed sitting on the bottom of the ocean.

The biggest basket star we know of is probably Gorgonocephalus. There are at least ten species, and they can be hard to tell apart even by experts. Gorgonocephalus’s body disc can grow some 5 ½ inches across, or 14 cm, but its five net-like arms can grow over two feet long, or 70 cm. It’s white or yellowish in color, and its disc is often dark brown. During the day it hides among sponges and corals, but at night it comes out to hunt.

Basket stars mostly eat small animals like krill, jellyfish, and copepods that get tangled in their elaborately branched arms. The arms have hooks and spines all over them too. Basket stars will sit on a rock or a sponge or something similar, and extend their arms as though casting a net. When an animal strays into the net, the basket star carries it to the mouth on the underside of its body disc. And the mouth is full of spikes. Like many deep-sea animals, we don’t know a whole lot about basket stars and new species are discovered pretty frequently.

The last star we’ll look at this time is the feather star, but to learn about the feather star we also have to learn about the crinoid. If you’ve taken a geology class, you probably remember crinoid stem fossils. They’re incredibly common fossils, because crinoids used to be incredibly common animals. Pieces of crinoid stem fossils are sometimes called St. Cuthbert’s beads, and they’ve been used by humans to make jewelry for millennia.

In the past crinoids had five arms, but at some point each arm developed into two, so many modern crinoids have ten arms. In addition, some species have arms that branch. The arms have feathery appendages and tube feet coated with mucus, which helps trap tiny bits of food. Crinoids’ water vascular system is internal, unlike in starfish and brittle stars, which pump water in from outside.

Crinoids with stalks look like plants and are often called sea lilies. Some even have tiny rootlike filaments that help it attach to the sea floor or to rocks or other structures. The stem is slender with the cup-like body disc, called a calyx, and feathery arms at the top. Many species of crinoid have stems as juveniles, but become free-swimming when they reach maturity. Today some deep-sea crinoids can have stems a little over three feet long, or roughly a meter, but one fossil crinoid found had a stem 130 feet long, or 40 meters. But unlike true plants, crinoids can uproot themselves and move to a better location.

Most crinoids today are free-swimming, and these are the feather stars. They may have a vestigial stalk or may have no stalk at all. Most feather stars are sedentary, only crawling around for short distances, but some can swim with their arms. Many are brightly colored and absolutely beautiful.

I could keep talking about echinoderms for hours, but this episode is already getting long. Eventually I’ll do a follow-up episode about other echinoderms, like sea urchins. Until then, if you want to learn more about echinoderms I highly recommend a site called Echinoblog. It’s run by Dr. Chris Mah, a starfish expert, whose enthusiastic and informative posts about echinoderms really helped me learn to appreciate them. I’ll put a link in the show notes. Usually, the more I look at pictures of invertebrates, the more gross they seem, but the opposite is true for feather stars and brittle stars. They’re just gorgeous. Starfish, on the other hand, I would rather admire from afar.

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!