Episode 091: The Spookiest Owls

It’s Halloween week! Join us this week for an episode about spooky, spooky owls…including the chickcharnie and the owlman.

I’ve unlocked a few Patreon episodes as a Halloween treat. Click through and you can listen on your browser:

The Hazelworm


See-through animals

And a reminder that my fantasy novel Skytown is available now in ebook and paperback. Buy many copies!

The Eurasian eagle owl will murder you without remorse and look fabulous doing it:

The Eastern screech owl is tiny but has a loud, creepy call:

The barn owl is sometimes called the ghost owl FOR OBVIOUS REASONS:

A great horned owl:

Further reading:

The Telltale Lilac Bush and Other West Virginia Ghost Tales by Ruth Ann Musick

Show transcript:

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

It’s finally Halloween week, my favorite week of the year! Let’s learn about another animal frequently associated with Halloween spookiness, the owl!

First, though, a reminder that if you want a Strange Animals sticker, always feel free to contact me and ask for one. You can email me at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com or contact me through social media. If you’ve got an extra dollar or two a month just lying around, you can support the podcast on Patreon and get access to twice-monthly bonus episodes. And if you want to read a fun book that actually has very little to do with animals, my novel Skytown is now out in both paperback and ebook. I’ll put a link in the show notes for both my book’s Goodreads page and to the Patreon page. Not everyone knows what Patreon is, so briefly, it’s just a site where you can set up recurring monthly donations and in return get patron rewards.

I have unlocked two more patreon bonus episodes for anyone to listen to. I’ll put a link to them in the show notes too. You can click on the links and listen via your browser, without needing a Patreon login.

Now, with housekeeping out of the way, on to the owl episode!

Like bats, owls are mostly nocturnal animals and that makes many people afraid of them. They also look kind of weird, can sound really creepy, and fly so silently that they’re like ghosts. But we’re going to start this week’s episode off with an owl-like mystery animal in a place you might not expect.

The Bahamas is a country made up of over 700 islands, many of them tiny, located roughly between the Florida peninsula and Cuba. These days it’s famous for sunny beaches and warm waters. Tourism is a big part of its economy and lots of people take cruises to the Bahamas. But between about 500 years ago and 200 years ago, the Bahamas was a terrible place. The native people of the area, called the Lucayan, were enslaved by the Spanish and forced to work on plantations under horrific conditions. Most of them died. The British took over the islands around the mid-17th century, bringing enslaved people from Africa to work the plantations. Also during this time, pirates treated the area as a haven, leading eventually to one really good Pirates of the Caribbean movie and a lot of terrible sequels, although this is perhaps a little off topic. In 1807 the British came to their senses and abolished the slave trade, although they didn’t actually abolish slavery until 1834. British ships sometimes attacked slave ships and rescued the captives on board. Many of the captive people were brought to the Bahamas, where they made new homes. Freed and escaped slaves made their way to the Bahamas too, where they could live in relative peace.

The largest of the islands that makes up the Bahamas is called Andros Island, although it’s technically a collection of three main islands and some smaller ones that are all quite close together, protected by a barrier reef. It’s the only island in the Bahamas with a freshwater river, and naturally there are many animals found on Andros Island that live nowhere else. There used to be even more native animals, before the forests of Andros were chopped down.

The island has many spooky stories, of course. Most places do, and the darker the history of a place, the more spooky stories it’s likely to have. For instance, it’s said that a fisherman named James was caught in a hurricane one night and never arrived home. His fiancée, a woman named Anna, spent every night walking along the beach and waving a lantern, hoping against hope that he was alive and would be able to find his way home when he saw her light. But he never came home, and eventually Anna was found on the beach one morning, dead of a broken heart. Then, a year after James’s disappearance, another storm blew up. The fishermen of the island sailed for home as fast as they could, but the night was dark, the waves were enormous, and the rain pelted down so hard they couldn’t tell which way they were sailing. Then one sailor noticed a small light waving in the distance. All the fishermen turned their boats in that direction, and they all managed to reach land safely. But they couldn’t figure out what the light was that they had seen…until the morning, when the storm had blown over. On the beach they found the wreckage of James’s boat, lost the year before and finally blown ashore…and they also found Anna’s lantern lying on the sand although she had been buried months before. Oh my gosh, that is spooky.

But the Andros Island story we’re interested in today is that of a creature called the chickcharney. It’s sort of a bird, sort of a goblin. It was supposed to be about three feet tall, or almost a meter, with big round eyes—possibly only one eye in the middle of its face. It was covered with hairy feathers and could turn its head almost all the way around. Some versions of the story say it had a long prehensile tail that it used to climb trees. It was supposed to live in the pine forests and make its nest in trees that were so close together that the branches touched near the top.

The chickcharney was mischievous and would sometimes play tricks on people, but if people treated it with respect and left it alone, they would have good luck. If they bothered it, not only would they have bad luck, sometimes the chickcharney would grab the person and twist their head around backwards. The best way to keep the chickcharney from bothering you was to carry brightly colored cloth or flowers when you went into the woods.

You may think that the story of the chickcharney is a lot less believable than the one about James and Anna. But as it happens, Andros Island used to be home to a flightless owl that sounds a lot like the chickcharney.

The Andros Island barn owl stood over three feet tall, or about a meter, with long legs, and lived in the pine forests. It was a burrowing owl that nested in holes beneath the trees, but we don’t know much about it since it’s extinct. It probably went extinct in the 16th century when the pine forests on Andros Island were felled, but people still report seeing the chickcharney. So while it’s a slim chance, maybe a small population of the owl is still hanging on.

Another owl-like cryptid is called the owlman. Supposedly, in April of 1976 two sisters saw a huge winged creature hovering over a church tower during a family holiday in Cornwall, England. In July of that same year, two other girls who were camping near the church heard and saw a huge owl. They said it was the size of a grown man, had red eyes and pointed ears, and black claws. It hissed at them and flew straight up into the air. Other people reported seeing the owlman too.

The problem with this story is that it was initially reported and investigated by a man named Doc Shiels, who has been associated with hoaxes in the past. But if the owlman sightings are real, could the witnesses be seeing an actual owl?

One of the biggest owls alive today is the great grey owl, which lives throughout northern Eurasia and in parts of Canada and the northwestern United States. Its body is nearly three feet long, or 84 cm, and its wingspan can be up to five feet across, or 1.5 meters. It’s brown and grey with yellow eyes, and it mostly eats small rodents. It has incredible hearing and can hear animals moving around under up to two feet of snow, which it then dives into to catch its prey.

But the great grey owl doesn’t live in England, and it doesn’t really fit the sightings of owlman. The Eurasian eagle-owl does, and while it also doesn’t typically live in England, up to 40 pairs are estimated to live in the British Isles and it’s common throughout much of Eurasia.

The Eurasian eagle-owl has a shorter body than the great grey owl, but its wingspan is broader. Females are larger than males, so a big female might have a wingspan up to 6 feet 2 inches, or 1.9 meters. Females also tend to have darker plumage than males. The Eurasian eagle-owl has ear tufts and its eyes are orange or red-orange. It eats small mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, even large insects.

Like many owls, the Eurasian eagle owl will hiss when it’s disturbed. It will also fly during the day when it’s been disturbed, although it will sometimes hunt before it’s fully dark.

But could someone mistake an owl for a human-sized creature? No matter how big their wings are, owls just aren’t that big.

Then again, most people aren’t very familiar with owls. I’m an avid birder and I don’t see owls very often, so the average person who isn’t into birdwatching may never have seen an owl in person before. Owls look even bigger than you think they would because of how enormously fluffy their feathers are, and if they’re disturbed they may ruffle their feathers out to look even bigger. Their legs are much longer than you’d think too. Add in someone being startled and potentially really scared by a sudden owl, and possible poor light conditions, and you have a recipe for owlman reports.

Even if owlman is probably just a giant owl, owls in general are just kind of creepy. Creepy-cute, but definitely on the spooky end of the animal spectrum. And all those odds and ends of weird facts you know about owls? They’re probably true.

For instance, owls really can turn their heads around backwards and even farther, as much as 270 degrees. Owls have 14 neck vertebrae, twice as many as humans and most other mammals have, and they have other adaptations that allow them to turn their heads that far without injury. The reason owls need to be able to turn their heads so far is because they can’t move their eyes. Owl eyes are fixed in their sockets so they can only look straight ahead from wherever their head is pointing. This is actually the case for most birds.

Owls are nocturnal and can see extremely well even in low light. Owls that mostly hunt in darkness have black eyes, while owls that usually hunt at dawn or dusk have yellow or orange eyes. Most owls have good hearing too. The reason many owls have that circle of feathers around their eyes, called a facial disc, is to help focus the owl’s hearing. The owl can adjust the angle of the feathers in its facial disc to focus sounds. Not only that, some owls have asymmetrical ear cavities, which makes it easier for them to pinpoint the source of sounds. The ear tufts some owls have on their heads are not actually ears or anywhere near the ear cavities. They’re just decorations.

Owl feathers are shaped so that the owl can fly silently, not only softening the edges of the feathers so sound is reduced, but lowering the frequencies of the sounds produced by the feathers so that it’s below the prey’s hearing spectrum, while the owl can hear itself and other owls flying just fine. Researchers are studying owl feathers to help design quieter airplane wings, wind turbines, and other machines.

Most bird feathers are somewhat waterproof because when a bird preens, it spreads oil over the feathers. Owls don’t do this, which means owls can’t hunt in wet weather.

An owl swallows its prey whole. Teeth, claws, some bones, hair, and feathers can’t be digested, so instead of passing through the digestive system, these indigestible pieces are compacted into pellets in the gizzard and regurgitated by the owl before it eats its next meal. Researchers study owl pellets to determine what an owl is eating. Some other birds of prey make pellets too, including hawks and eagles.

There are a lot of superstitions about owls, just as there are about bats. Some cultures believe that an owl calling around a home means someone who lives there is going to die, but some cultures consider owls lucky. Owls are also known for their wisdom, and I do not know where this comes from because they’re no smarter or dumber than any other bird. Actually, I do know where this comes from. The owl was associated with the Greek goddess of wisdom, Athena.

If you wonder why anyone would think an owl’s call is a bad omen, you may not have heard an owl call. Sure, some owls make jolly little hoot-hoot sounds. But some sound like this:

[screech owl call]

That’s an eastern screech owl, and I recorded it myself in my own driveway a few weeks ago. It sounds like a ghost. A lot of owls sound like ghosts. I mean, I’ve never actually heard a ghost. I’m just making an assumption that they sound scary. Maybe people who hear scary owl calls didn’t know what was making the sound, and assumed they were made by ghosts.

Some people even call barn owls ghost owls. Some farmers in Florida and other areas have started putting up nest boxes to attract barn owls, because owls hunt rats that damage sugar cane and other crops. Putting up owl nest boxes is a lot less expensive and better for the environment than rat poison. The common barn owl lives throughout much of the world. It’s brown or gray on its back, white underneath, and with a white face and dark eyes. It’s a medium-sized owl with a wingspan of about three feet, or 95 cm. This is what it sounds like:

[barn owl call]

Let’s finish with a creepy little story I found in a book called The Telltale Lilac Bush by Ruth Ann Musick. It’s a collection of ghost tales from West Virginia, and Musick was a folklorist who collected the tales with the help of her students. I reread the book this week hoping to find mention of an owl to close out this episode. Instead, I found this. Listen and decide what you think really landed on this poor man’s back during his ride through the night. It’s a story called “A Ride with the Devil,” collected in 1955 and related to the student by his mother, as told to her by her mother.

“One dark evening, about one hundred years ago, my great-grandfather had a strange experience. He was riding his horse back from a small country store somewhere in Randolph County in the vicinity of Mill Creek. He heard something that sounded like a log chain falling from a tree, and then he felt the presence of something on the horse behind him.

“He was frightened half out of his wits, but he turned his head around to see what the thing was. First he saw long claws that were digging into the flesh on his shoulder. He thought that a bear had jumped behind him on his horse, but, turning his head farther around, he found himself staring straight into two fire-red eyes. The creature had hardly any nose, but there were two protruding objects on his head that looked like horns. He was face to face with Satan himself! He tried many times to shake him off his back. He pushed. He tried racing his horse to get rid of him. But all this did no good. Satan clung to his back with those razorlike claws through it all.

“As he came within sight of his home, a strange thing happened. To his utter surprise, the thing disappeared.

“Upon arriving home, he slowly walked into the house. His wife noticed his torn shirt and bleeding shoulder and was terrified.

“He told her the whole story, but asked her never to say anything about it to anyone. Then he said something else. He said, ‘I have just seen the devil, and it won’t be long now before he gets me.’

“Exactly three weeks from that chance meeting with the devil, Grandfather fell while repairing his tobacco shed and was killed almost instantly. His last word before he died was ‘Water!'”

On a possibly related note, this is what a great horned owl sounds like:

[great horned owl hoot]

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 090: Spiders! NO COME BACK, IT’S SAFE TO LISTEN

As we get closer and closer to Halloween, the monsters get scarier and scarier! Okay, spiders are not technically monsters, but some people think they are. Don’t worry, I keep descriptions to a minimum so arachnophobes should be okay! This week we learn about some spider friends and some spider mysteries.

I stole the above cartoon from here. I am sorry, Science World.

A cape made from golden silk orbweaver silk:

Further reading and listening:

Blue spiders

Varmints! Podcast scorpions episode

Show transcript:

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

It’s almost Halloween! I’m on the third bag of gummi spiders, although they’ve changed the flavor from last year so I only eat the orange and yellow ones. The purple and green ones are in the bucket to give out to unsuspecting children.

Speaking of spiders…yes, I’m going there. I realize a lot of people are scared of spiders, but they’re beautiful, fascinating animals that are associated with Halloween. Don’t worry, I will try hard not to say anything that will set off anyone’s arachnophobia. Besides, there are some mysterious spiders out there that I think you’ll find really interesting.

First off, you don’t have to worry about gigantic spiders like in the movies. Spiders have an exoskeleton like other arthropods, and if a spider got too big, some researchers think its exoskeleton would weigh so much the spider wouldn’t be able to move. Not only that, spiders have a respiratory system that isn’t nearly as efficient as that of most vertebrates, so giant spiders couldn’t exist because they wouldn’t be able to get enough oxygen to function.

Specifically, some spiders have a tracheal system of breathing, like most insects and other arthropods also have. These are breathing tubes that allow air to pass through the exoskeleton and into the body, but it’s a passive process and spiders don’t actually breathe in and out. Other spiders have what are called book lungs. The book lung is made up of a stack of soft plates sort of like the pages of a book. Oxygen passes through the plates and is absorbed into the blood, which by the way is pale blue. This is also a passive process.

In other words, that picture that’s forever popping up on facebook of the enormous spider on the side of someone’s house, it’s photoshopped. In fact, pretty much any photo you see of a gigantic spider or insect or other arthropod is either photoshopped or made to look bigger by forced perspective. Also, spiders with wings are photoshopped, because no spider has ever had wings, even fossil spiders all the way back to the dawn of spider history, over 300 million years ago. So that’s one less thing to worry about.

Spiders live all over the world, everywhere except in the ocean and in Antarctica. The smallest spider known is .37 mm, so basically microscopic. It lives in Colombia and basically lives out its whole life not knowing most things about the world, like what whales are and how to operate a smart phone. On the other hand, the largest spider in the world is a tarantula called the goliath birdeater, and it probably also doesn’t know what whales are and how to use a smartphone. The goliath birdeater is the heaviest spider at a bit over 6 ounces, or 175 g, and has a legspan of 11inches, or 28 cm. Despite its name, it mostly eats insects but it will occasionally eat frogs, small rodents, small snakes, and worms. It lives in swampy areas in the rainforests of northeastern South America.

The spider with the biggest legspan—yes, I know, some of you are freaking out but I can’t do an episode about spiders and not talk about the biggest spiders. The spider with the biggest legspan is the giant huntsman, which lives around cave entrances in Laos, a country in southeast Asia. And it’s not much bigger than the goliath birdeater, with a legspan of one foot, or 30 cm.

All spiders produce silk but not all of them make webs. I won’t go into the process of how a spider generates silk, because it’s complicated and I just read about it and have already forgotten all the details, but spiders use silk to wrap up their eggs safely, line the walls of burrows to make a comfortable home, wrap up prey so it can’t escape, and of course make webs and get around without falling off tall things.

Most spider silk appears white, but the golden silk orb-weaver produces golden silk. The spider itself is gorgeous, with striped legs and a body that can be yellow, red, greenish, or brown, often with white spots and delicate patterns. It lives all over the world in warm climates, especially Australia. It builds webs that can be several feet across, or over a meter, and it occasionally catches and eats small birds as well as insects. One was even spotted eating a small snake that had been caught in its web. Its silk has occasionally been used to make cloth, but spider silk is difficult to collect in the quantities needed for textiles.

Most spiders eat insects, although one spider eats plants. Just one. It lives in Central America. Some baby spiders eat nectar until they get big enough to catch prey. Some spiders will scavenge on dead insects, some will eat fruit as well as insects, many eat pollen that gets caught on their webs, and some eat each other. Some spiders are adapted to swim in freshwater, and while they mostly eat aquatic insects, they will catch and eat small fish. Some spiders also catch and eat small birds and bats.

Basically, there are too many spiders to cover everything about them in one episode. Besides, what we all really want to know about are the mystery spiders. Because it’s almost Halloween!

Our first mystery spider is from Africa, specifically the jungles of central Africa. In 1938, an English couple, Reginald and Margurite Lloyd, were driving through the jungle when what looked like a monkey or cat stepped onto the dirt road. They stopped the car so it could cross the road, at which point they saw it was a spider. It looked like a tarantula but was huge, with a legspan of up to three feet, or almost a meter. Before Reginald Lloyd could grab his camera, the spider disappeared into the undergrowth.

Supposedly, the same giant spider was reported in the 1890s by a British missionary named Arthur John Simes. Some of his men got tangled in a huge web and a pair of spiders came out and attacked them. The larger of the spiders, presumably the female, was four feet across, or 1.2 meters. Simes was bitten but shot one of the spiders and was able to escape. He ultimately died of the bite.

This seems less than believable, to put it gently. The largest spider that catches prey with a web is our friend the golden silk orbweaver, but its legspan is only five inches across, or 12 cm. The biggest spiders in the world are tarantulas and other spiders that hunt actively, none of which build webs.

A more believable giant-spider mystery is called the up-island spider, which is supposed to be an extra-large variety of wolf spider from parts of Maine in the United States. Its legspan is supposed to be as much as 8 inches across, or 20 cm. Wolf spiders are common throughout the world, and while they look scary, they bite people very rarely and their venom is weak, no worse than a bee sting. The wolf spider with the biggest legspan is Hogna ingens, with a legspan less than 5 inches, or 12 cm. Hogna ingens lives on one island in the Maderia archipelago, and is a beautiful soft grey with white stripes on the legs. It’s critically endangered, but Bristol Zoo in England has a successful captive breeding program underway so it won’t go extinct. The species of wolf spider most commonly found in Maine is probably Tigrosa helluo, but it’s not very big, only a couple of inches across at most, or maybe five cm. It’s likely that the up-island spider is actually the Carolina wolf spider, which can have a legspan of four inches, or 10 cm, but I can tell you from personal experience that they look a whole lot bigger if you see one in your garage or basement when you flip on the light. The Carolina wolf spider does live in Maine, but it’s not very common in the area.

Zoologist Karl Shuker has a blog post from 2010, with some later updates, about spiders that are normal sized except for being blue, in species that aren’t normally blue. It’s an interesting post and I’ll link to it in the show notes if you want to read it and look at the pictures he posts. He discusses a number of blue spiders readers have reported to him, and while one seems to have been spraypainted blue, the rest appear naturally colored blue.

As it happens, there are lots of reports of blue spiders out there—and other blue invertebrates like woodlice. According Shuker’s post, some of these have been studied and found to be suffering from a virus called invertebrate iridovirus, or IIV. This infects invertebrates and sometimes is so highly concentrated in the animal’s tissues that it forms crystalline aggregations that emit blue iridescence and make the animal look blue. I should stress that you can’t catch IIV if you are a mammal, bird, reptile, fish, or anything else with a backbone, which I am assuming is most of my listeners.

The ancestors of spiders evolved around 380 million years ago, although those animals probably couldn’t generate silk. They did have eight legs, though. True spiders date to around 300 million years ago. Those spiders had silk spinnerets in the middle of the abdomen instead of at the end, and modern spiders appeared around 250 million years ago. We have fossil spiders and we also have spiders preserved in amber, the resin of certain trees that later fossilizes but remains at least partly transparent. We even have a spider web preserved in amber and dated to 110 million years ago, along with several insects that had been trapped in the web.

Spiders are closely related to whip scorpions, also called whip spiders because they look superficially similar to spiders in some ways except that they are HORRIFYING and I cannot look at pictures of them right now, I just can’t. While whip scorpions have eight legs, they only walk on six of them. The front pair are more like feelers and are elongated. Other whip scorpions have long, thin tails and are sometimes called vinegaroons, because if they’re disturbed they squirt a liquid that smells like vinegar. Some whip scorpions look a lot like scorpions. I don’t want to talk about scorpions. In fact, I’m just going to stop talking entirely, because while spiders don’t bother me, scorpions do and I cannot look at these pictures anymore, okay? If you want to learn about scorpions, Varmints! Podcast just released a scorpions episode. I’ll put a link in the show notes. Eventually I’ll manage to listen to it myself.

Happy Halloween?

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 089: The Lavellan and the Earth Hound

As we get closer and closer to Halloween, the monsters get weirder and weirder! This week let’s look at two mystery animals from Scotland, one of which is supposed to break into coffins and eat the bodies! That’s disgusting!

A stoat in its winter ermine coat:

The Russian desman:

Show transcript:

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

We’re one week closer to Halloween and things are getting spookier and spookier. This week, we’ll learn about two mystery animals from Scotland. One of them poisons the water it lives in, and the other breaks into coffins to eat dead bodies. oh my gosh that’s horrible

The lavellan was supposed to be a rat-like rodent but bigger than a rat with an oversized head, and with a venomous bite. It lived in marshes and in deep pools along rivers, and its presence was enough to poison the water it lived in. If cattle drank the water, they would die.

It’s possible that the lavellan was just a story to keep children away from marshy areas and deep water. But it’s also possible that it might be based on a real animal.

The name lavellan is the same name used in Scottish Gaelic for the water shrew and water vole. The water shrew is big for a shrew, but small in comparison to a rat, only 4” long, or 10 cm, not counting its long tail. The water shrew does have a venomous bite, but it’s not powerful enough to kill a cow. It eats small fish, snails and small crustaceans, insects, amphibians, and small rodents. The water vole is about twice the length of the water shrew, but with a relatively short tail. It mostly eats plants, although it sometimes also eats frogs and tadpoles. It’s also not venomous.

But before we talk any more about the lavellan, we need to learn about the earth hound.

The earth hound, or yard pig, is supposed to be a rat-like animal that lives in burrows and is occasionally unearthed when plowing. It’s the one that is supposed to dig into graveyards, break into coffins, and eat the dead bodies.

We know more about the earth hound than the lavellan, largely due to a letter in the archives of the Natural Museums of Scotland.

The letter was written by a man named Smith of Wartle, who in 1917 wrote to James Ritchie in Edinburgh. Smith’s letter said that the father of a local gardener had dug up an earth hound while plowing in 1867 or thereabouts. The animal bit his boot when he kicked at it, biting so hard that it cut through the leather. The man beat it to death with the plow’s singletree.

Smith reported that the animal was dark brown, the size of a ferret but shaped roughly like a rat with a more doglike head, and a bushy tail that was about half the length of a rat’s tail. The head was long and the nostrils piglike, and it had white tusks—probably incisors. And it had feet like a mole’s, which makes sense if it is a burrowing animal.

Stories of the earth hound are still around in parts of rural northern Scotland. The animal is said to be seldom seen, often lives in churchyards, and likes areas around rivers. But is this a real animal, maybe one that’s either rare or now extinct? Or is it just an interesting bit of folklore?

Earth hound and earth pig are local names for the badger, but it’s clear this animal isn’t a badger. In Smith’s letter, he mentions that “At a casual glance it would be mistaken for a rat, but was quite unlike on close examination.”

The first thing I did was make a drawing, going by the description given of the 1867 animal. It turned out to look like a small, skinny-tailed otter with rat teeth—but while otters do dig burrows, do live near water, and are carnivorous and might occasionally snack on carrion if they happened upon a fresh body, they’re also much larger than the earth hound. Plus, everyone knows what an otter looks like. Plus, no one could look at an otter and mistake it for a rat.

The lavellan is a folktale reported from Caithness and Sutherland in the highlands of Scotland, while the earth hound is reported from Banffshire in the lowlands. The two areas aren’t all that far apart these days, with a rough driving distance of around 150 miles along the coast, or 270 km. But in the days before internet, TV, telephones, and quick and easy travel, local legends and stories could develop very differently in different areas although they stemmed from the same source. In other words, is it possible that the lavellan and the earth hound are based on the same animal?

Both the lavellan and the earth hound are described as about the size of a rat, which they somewhat resemble. We have a better description of the earth hound, but we do know that both animals are supposed to live in and around water. The lavellan has an oversized head, the earth hound has pronounced piglike nostrils.

So is there a real animal that fits this description? Let’s take a look at a few possibilities.

Voles have pronounced nostrils but are small, and are very common. Moles are likewise quite small, well-known, and have stubby little tails.

Stoats live throughout Scotland and much of northern Europe and the northern parts of North America. Its winter coat is white and the fur is known as ermine. It’s bigger than the weasel, which it resembles, with males being around a foot long, or 30 cm. It eats small rodents and rabbits, pursuing its prey down their burrows, and will also climb trees to eat eggs from bird nests.

But while the stoat fits the physical description of both animals pretty well, it’s not a water animal by any means. And it’s also common and therefore well known to locals. Its snout is also relatively short.

So what about a ground squirrel of some kind? There are lots of ground squirrels around the world, from chipmunks and gophers to marmots and prairie dogs, all the way up to groundhogs. Ground squirrels usually have relatively short tails that are usually somewhat bushy. They dig burrows and many are omnivorous, although I don’t know whether they’d eat carrion. But there are no known ground squirrels in Scotland, and ground squirrels do tend to be plump, short-snouted, and don’t resemble rats very closely.

It’s looking more and more like the lavellan and the earth hound have to be animals from folklore only. But there is one other possibility, a little-known animal called a desman. And this is where it gets interesting.

There are two known species of desman, the Russian and the Pyrenean. The desman is related to moles and eats insects, amphibians, and small crustaceans. It likes ponds and streams, and it lives in burrows connecting to the water. Its paws are webbed and it swims well, although it’s not as good at digging as moles are. Its nose is long and pointed, and it has a long tail that is slightly flattened to help it swim. Its eyes are tiny and it doesn’t see well, instead relying on the touch-sensitive Eimer’s organs at the end of its snout. It doesn’t have a nose star like its distant cousin the star-nosed mole, but its nostrils are almost as sensitive. Its ears aren’t visible under its fur and it’s nocturnal.

But the desman is not very large. The Russian desman is about 8 inches long, or 20 cm, with a tail nearly as long as the body. This is actually a bit shorter than the average rat. The Pyrenean desman is even smaller, only about 6 inches long, or 14 cm, with a tail the same length as its body. Both species are grayish-brown with lighter underparts.

And, most importantly, the desman is not found in Scotland. The Russian desman lives in one small part of Russia, while the Pyrenean desman lives in mountainous areas of Spain, Portugal, and a few other spots. Both are endangered.

Is it possible, though, that there was once a species of desman that lived in northern Scotland? We know from the fossil record that the Russian desman used to be much more widespread than it is now, and it did live in parts of the British Isles during the Pleistocene, or ice age, although not as far north as Scotland.

Moles and shrews are related, so while the desman species alive today aren’t venomous, as far as we know, perhaps the Scottish desman might have been. It also might have been larger than the living species. If it was already rare in the 19th century and before, it might have taken on mythical characteristics that persist today even though the animal must have gone extinct by now.

This is just speculation, of course. But it would be pretty awesome if evidence of a species of large desman was found in Scotland one day, and it might very well have given rise to both the earth pig and the lavellan stories. Let’s hope it didn’t actually break into coffins, though. Ick.

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 088: Megabats and the Ahool

Our next Halloween monster is the ahool, a mystery bat from Indonesia and Java, but along the way we’ll learn about megabats in general–especially the hammerhead bat! Thanks to Grace, Grace’s sons, and Tania for the hammerhead bat suggestion!

I’ve unlocked a Patreon bonus episode about burrowing bats, which you can listen to here.

A hammerhead bat (male) from side and front. DAT SNOOT. (Photos by Sarah Olson and swiped off the web, because I have no shame.)

The Egyptian fruit bat (Photo by Amram Zabari and swiped etc etc):

Great flying foxes, sleepin (photo by Lars Petersson and swiped etc etc):

Golden-crowned flying fox, flyin (photo by Dave Irving and swiped etc etc):

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to learn about bats—some real, some mysterious, and all of them awesome, because bats are awesome! Listeners Grace and Grace’s sons requested an episode about hammerhead bats recently, which made me realize two things. One, I had never actually done a bats episode even though bats are one of my favorite animals, and two, back when listener Tania suggested hammerhead worms and other hammerhead animals, I totally forgot hammerhead bats were a thing!

As a special Halloween treat, I’ve unlocked a Patreon episode about burrowing bats that anyone can now listen to. I’ll put a link in the show notes, which you can click to listen on your browser. You don’t need a Patreon login or anything.

Bats are grouped into two basic types, microbats and megabats. Microbats are typical bats, usually small, flat-faced with big ears, that use echolocation to catch insects at night. Megabats are typically larger, with limited echolocation abilities and longer muzzles, and they often eat fruit. They’re sometimes called fruit bats collectively. We’re going to focus on megabats in this episode.

Let’s start with the hammerhead bat. It lives in parts of Africa near the equator, in forests and swamps, and mostly eats fruit. It especially likes figs. So do I, big flappy bat friend. It’s a big bat, with a wingspan over three feet wide, or 97 cm. Males are larger than females, and males tend to fly farther to find fruit while females generally stick to areas they know.

During the day the hammerhead bat roosts high up in trees. Researchers think it’s nocturnal mostly because it tends to overheat while flying. Naturally it prefers to nap when it’s hottest out and is only active at night when it’s cooler.

The hammerhead bat’s body is furry, with leathery wings and a mostly bare nose, although it also has long whiskers. Its fur is mostly brown or gray-brown, but its shoulders are white and it has a tuft of white fur at the base of its ears. Its tail is short and its eyes are large.

Most of what a hammerhead bat does is typical for other fruit bats. But it differs from other fruit bats in a big way. The hammerhead bat gets its name from the male’s face, which looks sort of mooselike with a big snoot, big lips, cheek pouches, a split lower lip, and a larynx that’s really big for the size of the throat. All these features allow the male hammerhead bat to make really loud honking noises to attract females. Females have smaller faces that resemble a fox or dog rather than a moose.

Often, males gather at night to honk and flap their massive wings, showing off for the females. Females fly around, checking the males out and probably giggling with each other about which ones they like best and who’s got the best voice.

This is what the hammerhead bat sounds like, although it’s not a great audio clip. At least it gives you an idea of what these bats sound like:

[hammerhead bats honking]

There are reports of the hammerhead bat attacking chickens and other birds to eat them. Fruit isn’t all that high in protein, so it could be that a bat occasionally needs nutrients it can’t get from its usual diet. This is not that uncommon in herbivorous animals, as it happens. Cows will occasionally eat chickens, deer and sheep will eat baby birds when they find them, and so forth.

Fruit bats of all kinds also visit mineral licks, especially pregnant females. But researchers have found that fruit bats don’t actually need those trace minerals. Fruit is rich in minerals. Researchers think the mineral-rich clay actually acts as a detoxifier for the bats, helping reduce the toxic effects of secondary plant compounds—leaves and unripe sections of the fruit, and so forth—that the bats eat every night that could otherwise make them sick.

Not a whole lot is known about the hammerhead bat or other megabats, for that matter. A recent discovery about how fruit bats navigate in the darkness suggests they actually use a rudimentary form of echolocation, but it’s very different from the echolocation used by microbats. For one thing, the clicking sounds they make aren’t vocalizations, they’re produced by the wings as the bat flies. For another, while the echolocation does help bats navigate, it’s not very accurate. Bats still sometimes crash into things. Researchers think echolocation has evolved separately in bats and that the megabat echolocation is not related to microbat echolocation.

The Egyptian fruit bat uses a more sophisticated version of echolocation, clicking its tongue to produce the signals it uses. It’s a relatively small megabat, with a wingspan of about two feet, or 60 cm, and it eats fruit, especially wild dates. Its echolocation is more like dolphin and whale sonar than microbat echolocation. It also has good eyesight and can easily switch between visual navigation and echolocating depending on how much light it has available.

Fruit bats are amazing flyers. Their wings are modified arms, with the fingers enormously elongated. The fingers are connected with tough but flexible skin called a membrane. Researchers have found that the membrane contains tiny muscles barely thicker than a hair that help the bat fine-tune the stiffness and shape of the membranes. This allows it to fly efficiently and quickly.

Many farmers think megabats destroy fruit crops, so they try to kill or drive off the bats. But while fruit bats do sometimes visit fruit farms, they are most likely to eat overripe fruit that was missed by pickers. This helps keep fungus and insect pests to a minimum, so it’s actually beneficial to fruit farmers. Unfortunately, many people just don’t like bats and blame them for damage to crops that’s actually done by other animals and by birds.

For instance, in Australia the flying fox is blamed for fruit crop destruction and the spreading of the Hendra virus and other diseases. But the flying fox mostly eats blossoms, especially of gum trees, along with insects, leaves, nectar, and some fruit. Birds are much more damaging to orchards. And while all bats can carry diseases, just as all mammals can, it’s not proven that the Hendra virus is spread by flying foxes at all. Domestic cats, on the other hand, do spread the virus. Keep your cats indoors. But the flying fox has been systematically persecuted in Australia for the last century, with several species having gone extinct as a result. This is a shame for many reasons, but especially because fruit bats of all kinds are important to the environment as seed dispersers and pollinators.

The biggest bat alive today is probably the great flying fox, which lives in New Guinea, Indonesia, and other nearby areas. Its wingspan can be nearly six feet across, or 1.8 meters. The golden-crowned flying fox, which lives in the Philippines, is very nearly as large, with a wingspan of over five and a half feet across, or 1.7 meters.

But there are reports of bats much larger than these. And that brings us to the ahool, a monstrous batlike creature reported from Java, Indonesia, and other areas.

The first official report of an animal called the ahool comes from western Java in 1927. Naturalist Dr. Ernst Bartels was in bed but still awake when he heard a loud call that sounded something like “a-hool!” Bartels rushed outside with a flashlight in hopes of seeing what animal had made the call, but he heard it again farther away, then again almost out of earshot.

As it happens, Bartels had grown up in western Java and knew about the legend of the ahool. It was supposed to be a monstrous bat, its wingspan some 12 feet across, or 3.6 meters. Its face was monkey-like with large eyes, and it was supposed to have feet that pointed backwards. During the day it was supposed to live in caves hidden behind waterfalls, but at night it flew out and scooped fish from the river.

Bartels did more research into the ahool legend, and eventually Ivan Sanderson, a cryptozoologist who had his hand in everything back in the day, contacted him with his own account. In 1932 Sanderson said he had seen a gigantic black bat in western Africa one night. He and his companion, naturalist Gerald Russell, had been searching for tortoises in a river when the bat flew over them. They both estimated its wingspan as 12 feet, and Sanderson said he could even see the sharp teeth in its open mouth.

Now, I can’t help but be skeptical of Sanderson’s sighting just because Sanderson was always having remarkable cryptozoological sightings with no proof but his own say-so. No one’s that lucky and unlucky at the same time. Dude should have carried a camera with him at all times, you know? Also, Bartels’ story was documented by Sanderson and is therefore a little bit suspect too.

But the ahool is an interesting cryptid because its description sounds so plausible. Even the backwards feet make sense, as bat feet have evolved to allow bats to hang upside down easily, which means when they’re right side up, their feet do appear to be backwards.

There are some discrepancies, though. Megabats all have long muzzles compared to microbats. The ahool is specifically described as having a flat face like a human or a monkey. While megabats aren’t all 100% frugivorous—that is, they don’t all eat nothing but fruit—none of them are known to eat fish. Some microbats do specialize in catching fish, though, and those bats all have longer snouts than typical insectivorous bats, although not as long as megabat snouts. And the ahool is said to stand or sit upright on the ground occasionally. While microbats sometimes do stand upright, megabats never do.

Sanderson proposed that the ahool may actually be an enormous microbat. Some microbats are actually pretty big, including the carnivorous ghost bat, also called the false vampire bat, which lives in parts of northern Australia. Its wingspan is almost 20 inches, or 50 cm. This is much larger than the smallest megabat, the spotted-winged fruit bat, which has a wingspan of only 11 inches, or 28 cm.

But microbats don’t make a lot of noise. It’s megabats who honk and call to each other rather than just squeaking. The ahool is supposedly named for its loud cry, the one Bartels heard. And remember that Bartels never saw the animal he heard.

So we have a few possibilities here.

Possibility one: the ahool is a real animal, exactly or mostly as described, with aspects of both megabats and microbats. It’s either incredibly rare or extinct these days, which would explain why there aren’t more sightings. If this is the case, it’s undoubtedly an animal completely new to science.

Possibility two: the ahool is a real animal, but it’s not well known because it’s so seldom seen. It seems to be a mixture of microbat and megabat because people who saw it made assumptions of its appearance based on what they know about bats. But some of those details are from microbats and some from megabats, and the actual animal may not look anything like its description in folklore. In this case, it’s probably a megabat.

Possibility three: the ahool is an animal entirely of folklore and myth, described as similar to various bats familiar to locals but enormously large. In this case, the myth may have grown up around the call, if the ahool’s call is that of a rare or migratory bird, seldom heard and therefore mysterious.

I can’t even make a guess as to which possibility might be the most likely, and that’s pretty awesome.

Let’s go back to the hammerhead bat for another mystery. A few years ago people started pointing out that the hammerhead bat looked a lot like drawings of the Jersey Devil, a cryptid supposedly seen in the southern New Jersey pine barrens. Newspaper accounts of the Jersey devil started circulating in the early years of the 20th century, although it may have been an established folktale before then. It’s usually described as having the head of a goat, bat wings, cloven hooves, and a forked tail, although its description varies from story to story. It’s more of an urban legend than a real cryptozoological mystery, to be honest. In 1909 a couple of guys bought a circus kangaroo, glued fake bat wings on it, and claimed they’d captured the Jersey devil.

So could someone have brought a male hammerhead bat to New Jersey and released it, where it subsequently inspired reports of the Jersey devil? I’m going to say no. The hammerhead bat can’t survive in cold weather, and if temperatures drop below 55 degrees F, or about 13 degrees C, it can’t even fly. Even if someone had captured one and somehow managed to keep it alive during the journey from equatorial Africa, how and why did it end up in the pine barrens of New Jersey? A bat that big would have excited comment even if only glimpsed in a cage on the docks, and would probably have been a big draw in traveling menageries. But there are no records of any giant bats in the area, and the theory that the Jersey devil was inspired by a hammerhead bat is a modern one. It’s still pretty cool, though.

Because bats are nocturnal and look scary, a lot of superstitions have grown up around them. Some cultures consider bats lucky, some unlucky. Some say you have to kill a bat to cancel out its bad luck, some say harming a bat will bring bad luck. But bats would avoid people completely if they could, and you don’t have anything to fear from them, not even bad luck.

I mean, except for the kind that can turn into actual vampires. Those are scary. Fortunately they only exist in horror movies.

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 087: Globsters

It’s October! Let the spooky monster episodes begin! This week we’re starting off with a bang–or maybe a squoosh–with an episode about globsters. What are they? Why do they look like that? Do they smell?

Yes, they smell. They smell so bad.

Trunko, a globster found in South Africa:

A whale shark:

The business end of a whale shark:

A globster found in Chile:

A globster found in North Carolina after a hurricane:

A globster that still contains bones:

Not precisely a globster but I was only a few weeks late in my 2012 visit to Folly Beach to see this thing:

Further reading:

Hunting Monsters by Darren Naish

Show transcript:

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

It’s October, and you know what that means! Monsters! …and have I got a creepy monster for you this week. Grab your Halloween candy and a flashlight while I tell you about something called a globster.

If you live near the seashore, or really if you’ve spent any time at all on the beach, you’ll know that stuff washes ashore all the time. You know, normal stuff like jellyfish that can sting you even though they’re dead, pieces of debris that look an awful lot like they’re from shipwrecks, and the occasional solitary shoe with a skeleton foot inside. But sometimes things wash ashore that are definitely weird. Things like globsters.

A globster is the term for a decayed animal carcass that can’t be identified without special study. Globsters often look like big hairy blobs, and are usually white or pale gray or pink in color. Some don’t have bones, but some do. Some still have flippers or other features, although they’re usually so decayed that it’s hard to tell what they really are. And they’re often really big.

Let’s start with three accounts of some of the most famous globsters, and then we’ll discuss what globsters might be and why they look the way they do.

The St. Augustine monster was found by two boys bicycling on Anastasia Island off the coast of Florida in November 1896. It was partially buried in sand, but after the boys reported their finding, people who came to examine it eventually dug the sand away from the carcass. It was 21 feet long, or almost 6.5 meters, 7 feet wide, or just over 2 meters, and at its tallest point, was 6 feet tall, or 1.8 meters. Basically, though, it was just a huge pale pink lump with stumpy protrusions along the sides.

A local doctor, DeWitt Webb, was one of the first people to examine the carcass. He thought it might be the rotten remains of a gigantic octopus and described the flesh as being rubbery and very difficult to cut. Another witness said that pieces of what he took to be parts of the tentacles were also strewn along the beach, separated from the carcass itself.

Dr. Webb sent photographs and notes to a cephalopod expert at Yale, Addison Verrill. He at first thought it might be a squid, but later changed his mind and decided it must be an octopus of enormous proportions—with arms up to 100 feet in length, or over 30 meters.

In January a storm washed the carcass out to sea, but the next tide pushed it back to shore two miles away. Webb sent samples to Verrill, who examined them and decided it was more likely the remains of a sperm whale than a cephalopod.

In 1924, off the coast of South Africa, witnesses saw a couple of orcas apparently fighting a huge white monster covered with long hair—far bigger than a polar bear. It had an appendage on the front that looked like a short elephant trunk. Witnesses said the animal slapped at the orcas with its tail and sometimes reared up out of the water. This went on for three hours.

The battle was evidently too much for the monster, and its corpse washed ashore the next day. It measured 47 feet long in all, or 14.3 meters, and the body was five feet high at its thickest, or 1.5 meters. Its tail was ten feet long, or over three meters, and its trunk was five feet long and over a foot thick, or about 35 cm. It had no legs or flippers. But the oddest thing was that it didn’t seem to have a head either, and there was no blood on the fur or signs of fresh wounds on the carcass.

The carcass was so heavy that a team of 32 oxen couldn’t move it. The reason someone tried to move it was because it stank, and the longer it lay on the beach the more it smelled.

Despite its extraordinary appearance, no scientists came to investigate. After ten days, the tide carried it back out to sea and no one saw it again. Zoologist Karl Shuker has dubbed it Trunko and has written about it in several of his books.

Another globster was discovered well above ordinary high tide on a Tasmanian beach in 1960 after a massive storm. It was 20 feet long, or 6 meters, 18 feet wide, or 5.5 meters, and about 4 ½ feet high at its thickest, or 1.4 meters. It stayed on the beach for at least two years without anyone being especially interested in it. It was in a fairly remote area, admittedly. It wasn’t until 1962 that a team of zoologists examined it. They reported that it was ivory-colored, incredibly tough, boneless, and without any visible eyes. The lump had four large lobes, but it also appeared to have gill slits. One of the zoologists suggested it might be an enormous stingray.

So what were these three globsters?

Let’s look at Trunko first. Shuker points out that when a shark decomposes, it can take on a hairy appearance due to exposed connective tissue fibers. But Trunko was fighting two orcas only hours before it washed ashore.


Here’s the thing. No one saw the fight from up close and orcas are well known to play with their food. There’s a very good chance that Trunko was already long dead and that the orcas came across it and batted it around in a monstrous game of water volleyball. That would also explain why there was no blood associated with the corpse.

In that case, was Trunko a dead shark? At nearly 50 feet long, it would have had to be the biggest shark alive…and as it happens, there is a shark that can reach that length. It’s called the whale shark, which tops out at around 46 feet, or 14 meters, although we do have unverified reports of individuals nearly 60 feet long, or 18 meters—or even longer.

Like the megamouth shark, the whale shark is a filter feeder and its mouth is enormous, some five feet wide, or 1.5 meters. But the interior of its throat is barely big enough to swallow a fish. Its teeth are tiny and useless. Instead, it has sieve-like filter pads that it uses to filter tiny plants and animals from the water, including krill, fish eggs and larvae, small fish, and copepods. The filter pads are black and are probably modified gill rakers. The whale shark either gulps in water or swims forward with its mouth open, and water flows over the filter pads before flowing out through the gills. Tiny animals are directed toward the throat so the shark can swallow them.

The whale shark is gray with light yellow or white spots and stripes, and three ridges along each side. Its sandpaper-like skin is up to four inches thick, or 10 cm. It has thick, rounded fins, especially its dorsal fin, and small eyes that point slightly downward. It usually stays near the surface but it can dive deeply too, and it’s a fast swimmer despite its size. Females give birth to live babies which are a couple of feet long at birth, or 60 cm. While no one has watched a whale shark give birth, researchers think a shark may be pregnant with hundreds of babies at a time, but they mature at different rates and only a few are born at once.

The whale shark isn’t dangerous to humans at all, but humans are dangerous to whale sharks. It’s a protected species, but poachers kill it for its fins, skin, and oil.

The whale shark usually lives in warm water, especially in the tropics, but occasionally one is spotted in cooler areas. They’re well known off the coast of South Africa. If the Trunko globster was a dead whale shark, the “trunk” was probably the tapered end of the tail, with the flukes torn or rotted off. Most likely the jaws had rotted off as well, leaving no sign that the animal had a head or even which end the head should be on.

But sharks aren’t the only big animals in the ocean, and the skin and blubber of a dead whale can also appear furry once it’s broken down sufficiently due to the collagen fibers within it. Collagen is a connective tissue and it’s incredibly tough. It can take years to decay. Tendons, ligaments, and cartilage are mostly collagen, as are bones and blubber.

While we don’t know what Trunko really was, many other globsters that have washed ashore in modern times have been DNA tested and found to be whales. In 1990 the Hebrides blob washed ashore in Scotland. It was 12 feet long, or 3.7 meters, and appeared furry, with a small head at one end and finlike shapes along its back. Despite its weird appearance, DNA analysis revealed it was a sperm whale, or at least part of one. Another sperm whale revealed by DNA testing was the Chilean blob, which washed ashore in Los Muermos, Chile in 2003. It was 39 feet long, or 12 meters.

As for the tissue samples of the St Augustine monster, they still exist, and they’ve been studied by a number of different people with conflicting results. In 1971, a cell biologist from the University of Florida reported that it might be from an octopus. Cryptozoologist Roy Mackal, who was also a biochemist, examined the samples in 1986 and also thought the animal was probably an octopus. A more sophisticated 1995 analysis published in the Biological Bulletin reported that the samples were collagen from a warm-blooded vertebrate—in other words, probably a whale. The same biologist who led the 1995 analysis, Sidney Pierce, followed up in 2004 with DNA and electron microscope analyses of all the globster samples he could find. Almost all of them turned out to be remains of whale carcasses, of various different species. This included the Tasmanian globster.

Sometimes a globster is pretty obviously a whale, but one with a bizarre and unsettling appearance. The Glacier Island globster of 1930, for instance, was found floating in Eagle Bay in Alaska, surrounded by icebergs from the nearby Columbia Glacier. The head and tail were skeletal, but the rest of the body still had flesh on it, although it appeared to be covered with white fur. Its head was flattish and triangular and the tail was long. The men who found the carcass thought it had been frozen in the glacier’s ice.

They hacked the remaining flesh off to use as fishing bait, but they saved the skeleton. A small expedition of foresters came to examine the skeleton, which they measured at 24 feet and one inch, or over 7.3 meters. They identified it as a minke whale. The skeleton was eventually mounted and put on display in a traveling show, advertised as a prehistoric monster found frozen in a glacier. In 1931 the skeleton was donated to the National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC, where it remains in storage. Modern examinations confirm that it’s a minke whale.

On March 22, 2012, a rotting corpse 15 feet long, or 4.6 meters, with armor-like scutes along the length of its body, washed ashore on Folly Beach in South Carolina. This isn’t exactly a globster, since it was still fish-shaped, but I’m including it because I was literally at Folly Beach a matter of weeks after this thing washed ashore. I wish I’d seen it. It turned out that it wasn’t a sea monster as people assumed, but a rare Atlantic sturgeon.

Many globsters have stumps that look like the remains of flippers, legs, or tentacles. The Four Mile Globster that washed ashore on Four Mile Beach, Tasmania in 1998 had protrusions along its sides that looked like stumpy legs. It was 15 feet long, or 4.6 meters, and 6 feet wide, or 1.8 meters, with white hair and flippers that were separate from the protrusions. We don’t actually know for sure what this globster was.

In 1988 a treasure hunter found a globster now called the Bermuda blob. It was about eight feet long, or almost 2.5 meters, pale and hairy with what seemed to be five legs. The discoverer took samples of the massively tough hide, which were examined by Sidney Pierce in his team’s 1995 study of globster remains. This was one of the few that turned out to be from a shark instead of a whale, although we don’t know what species.

But sharks don’t have five legs. And the Four Mile Globster had six stumps that were separate from the flippers still visible on the carcass. So what causes these leg-like protrusions? They’re probably flesh and blubber stiffened inside with a bone or part of a bone, such as a rib. As the carcass is washed around by the ocean, the flesh tears in between the bones, making them look like stumps of appendages.

There’s a good reason why so many globsters turn out to be sperm whale carcasses. A sperm whale’s massive forehead is filled with waxy spermaceti oil. The upper portion of the head contains up to 500 gallons of oil in a cavity surrounded by tough collagen walls. Researchers hypothesize that this oil is used both for buoyancy and to increase the whale’s echolocation abilities. The lower portion of the forehead contains cartilage compartments filled with more oil, which may act as a shock absorber since males in particular ram each other when they fight. So much of the head of a sperm whale, which can be as big as 1/3 of the length of the whale, is basically a big mass of cartilage and connective tissue. After a whale dies, this buoyant section of the body can separate from the much heavier skeleton and float away on its own.

Globsters aren’t a modern phenomenon, either. We have written accounts of what were probably globsters dating back to the 16th century, and older oral traditions from folklore around the world. The main problem with globsters is that they’re not usually studied. They smell bad, they look gross, and they may not stay on the beach for long before the tide washes them back out to sea. For instance, after Hurricane Fran passed through North Carolina in 1996, a group of young men found a globster washed up on a beach on Cape Hatteras. They took pictures and estimated its length as twenty feet long, or six meters, six feet wide, or 1.8 meters, and four feet high at its thickest, or 1.2 meters. From the pictures it’s pretty disgusting, like a lump of meat with intestines or tentacles hanging from it. But the men weren’t supposed to be on the beach, which was part of the Cape Hatteras National Park and closed due to hurricane damage. They didn’t mention their find to anyone until the following year, when one of the men learned about the St Augustine Monster in his college biology class. By then, of course, the Cape Hatteras globster was long gone. While it might have been a rotting blob of whale blubber or a piece of dead shark, we don’t know for sure. So if you happen to find a globster on a beach, make sure to tell a biologist or park ranger so they can examine it…before it’s lost to science forever.

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!