Episode 100: The Centipede of Episodes!

It’s our 100th episode! Thanks to my fellow animal podcasters who sent 100th episode congratulations! Thanks also to Simon and Julia, who suggested a couple of animals I used in this episode.

An Amazonian giant centipede eating a mouse oh dear god no:

The kouprey:

The Karthala scops owl:

A sea mouse. It sounds cuter than it is. Why are you touching it? Stop touching it:

A sea mouse in the water where it belongs:

Mother and baby mountain goats. Much cuter than a sea mouse:

A hairy octopus:

Further reading:

Silas Claiborne Turnbo’s giant centipede account collection

Show transcript:

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

This is our 100th episode! I’ll be playing clips from some of my favorite animal podcasts throughout the show, and I highly recommend all of them if you don’t already listen!

For our big 100 show, I’ve decided to cover several animals, some mysterious, some not so mysterious, and all weird. But we’ll start with one that just seems to fit with the 100th episode, the centipede—because centipedes are supposed to have 100 legs.

So do they have 100 legs? They don’t, actually. Different species of centipede have different numbers of legs, from only 30 to something like 300. Centipedes have been around for some 430 million years and there are thousands of species alive today.

A centipede has a flattened head with a pair of long mandibles and antennae. The body is also flattened and made up of segments, a different number of segments depending on the centipede’s species, but at least 15. Each segment has a pair of legs except for the last two segments, which have no legs. The first segment’s legs project forward and end in sharp claws with venom glands. These legs are called forcipules, and they actually look like pincers. No other animal has forcipules, only centipedes. The centipede uses its forcipules to capture and hold prey. The last pair of legs points backwards and sometimes look like tail stingers, but they’re just modified legs that act as sensory antennae. Each pair of legs is a little longer than the pair in front of it, which helps keep the legs from bumping into each other when the centipede walks.

Like other arthropods, the centipede has to molt its exoskeleton to grow larger. When it does, some species grow more segments and legs. Others hatch with all the segments and legs they’ll ever have.

The centipede lives throughout the world, even in the Arctic and in deserts, which is odd because the centipede’s exoskeleton doesn’t have the wax-like coating that other insects and arachnids have. As a result, it needs a moist environment so it won’t lose too much moisture from its body and die. It likes rotten wood, leaf litter, soil, especially soil under stones, and basements. Some centipedes have no eyes at all, many have eyes that can only sense light and dark, and some have relatively sophisticated compound eyes. Most centipedes are nocturnal.

Many centipedes are venomous and their bites can cause allergic reactions in people who also react to bee stings. Usually, though, a centipede bite is painful but not dangerous. Small centipedes can’t bite hard enough to break the skin. I’m using bite in a metaphorical way, of course, since scorpions “bite” using their forcipules, which as you’ll remember are actually modified legs.

The largest centipedes alive today belong to the genus Scolopendra. This genus includes the Amazonian giant centipede, which can grow over a foot long, or 30 cm. It’s reddish or black with yellow bands on the legs, and lives in parts of South America and the Caribbean. It eats insects, spiders, including tarantulas, frogs and other amphibians, small snakes, birds, mice and other small mammals, and lizards. It’s even been known to catch bats in midair by hanging down from cave ceilings and grabbing the bat as it flies by. Because it’s so big, its venom can be dangerous to children. A four-year-old in Venezuela died in 2014 after being bitten by one, but this is unusual, and bites generally only lead to a few days of pain, fever, and swelling.

You’ll often hear that the Amazonian giant centipede is the longest in the world, but this isn’t actually the case. Its close relation, the Galapagos centipede, is substantially longer. The Galapagos Islands have EVERYTHING. The Galapagos centipede can grow 17 inches long, or 43 cm, and is black with red legs.

Another member of Scolopendra is the waterfall centipede, which grows a mere 8 inches long, or 20 cm, but which is amphibious. The waterfall centipede was only discovered in 2000, when entomologist George Beccaloni was on his honeymoon in Thailand. Naturally he was poking around looking for bugs, and I trust his spouse was aware that that’s what he would do on his honeymoon, when he spotted a dark greenish-black centipede with long legs. It ran into the water and hid under a rock, which he knew was extremely odd behavior for a centipede. They need moisture but they avoid entering water. Beccaloni noted that the centipede was able to swim in an eel-like manner. He captured it and later determined it was a new species. Only four specimens have been found so far in various parts of South Asia. Beccaloni hypothesizes that it eats insects and other small animals found in the water.

There are stories of huge centipedes found in the depths of jungles throughout the world, centipedes longer than a grown man is tall. These are most likely tall tales, since centipedes breathe through tiny notches in their exoskeleton like other arthropods and don’t have proper lungs. As we learned in the spiders episode a few months ago, arthropods just can’t get too big or they can’t get enough oxygen to live. But some of the stories of huge unknown centipedes have an unsettling ring of truth.

There are stories from the Ozark Mountains in North America about centipedes that grow as long as 18 inches, or almost 46 cm. Historian Silas Claiborne Turnbo collected accounts of giant centipede encounters in the 19th century, which are available online. I’ll put a link in the show notes.

All the accounts come across as truthful and not exaggerated at all. I think it’s worth it to read the last few paragraphs of the centipedes chapter of Turnbo’s manuscript verbatim, because they’re really interesting and I kept finding garbled accounts of the stories in various places online. Whenever possible, go to the primary source.

“R. M. Jones, of near Protem, Mo., tells of finding a centipede once imprisoned in a hollow tree. Mr. Jones said that after his father, John Jones, settled on the flat of land on the east side of Big Buck Creek in the southeast part of Taney County, his father told him one day in the autumn of 1861 to split some rails to build a hog pen. Going out across the Pond Hollow onto the flat of land he felled a post oak tree one and one-half feet in diameter. There was a small cavity at the butt of the tree. After chopping off one rail cut he found that the hollow extended only four or five feet into the rail cut, and was perfectly sound above it. After splitting the log open he was astonished at finding a centipede eight inches in length, coiled in a knot in the upper part of the cavity. At first there appeared to be no life about it. ‘I took two sticks,’ said he, ‘and unrolled it and found that it was alive. It was wrapped around numerous young centipedes which were massed together in the shape of a little ball. The old centipede was almost white in color. After a thorough examination of the stump and the ground around it, I found no place where the centipede could have crawled in. Neither, in the log, was there any place where it could enter. How it got there I am not able to explain and how long it had been an inhabitant there is another mystery to me.’

“William Patton, who settled on Clear Creek in Marion County, Ark., in 1854 and became totally blind and is dead now, says that one day while his eyesight was good he was in the woods on foot stock hunting. When about 1 ½ miles west of where the village of Powell now is, he noticed something a short distance from him crawl into a hollow tree at the ground. ‘On approaching the tree to identify the object,’ remarked Mr. Patton, ‘I saw a monster centipede lying just on the inside of the hollow which was the object I had just observed crawl into the tree. I placed the muzzle of my rifle near the opening and shot it nearly in twain, and taking a long stick I pulled it out of the hollow and finished killing it with stones. I had no way of measuring it accurately, but a close estimation proved that it was not less than 14 inches long and over an inch wide.’

“The biggest centipede found in the Ozarks that I have a record of was captured alive by Bent Music on Jimmies Creek in Marion County in 1860. Henry Onstott an uncle of the writer and Harvey Laughlin who was a cousin of mine kept a drugstore in Yellville and collected rare specimens of lizards, serpents, spiders, horned frogs and centipedes and kept them in a large glass jar which sat on their counter. The jar was full of alcohol, and the collection was put in the jar for preservation as they were brought in. Amongst the collection was the monster centipede mentioned above. It was of such unusual size that it made on almost shudder to look at it. Brice Milum, who was a merchant at Yellville when Mr. Music brought the centipede to town, says that he assisted in the measuring of it, before it was put in the alcohol and its length was found to be 18 inches. It attracted a great deal of attention and was the largest centipede the writer ever saw. The jar with its contents was either destroyed or carried off during the heat of the war. Henry Onstott died in Yellville and is buried in the old cemetery one half a mile west of town.”

There are large centipedes around the Ozarks, including the red-headed centipede that can grow over eight inches long, or 20 cm. A hiker was bitten by a six-inch red-headed centipede a few years ago in Southwestern Missouri and had to be treated at a hospital. The red-headed centipede mostly stays underground during the day, although it will come out on cloudy days. It has especially potent venom and lives in the southwestern United States and northern Mexico. And, interestingly, females guard their babies carefully for a few days after they hatch. Since the red-headed centipede is a member of the genus Scolopendra, the ones that grow so long, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if individuals sometimes grow much longer than eight inches.

One story of a giant centipede called the upah turned out to have a much different solution. Naturalist Jeremy Holden was visiting a village in western Sumatra in the early 2000s when he heard stories of the upah. It was supposed to be a green centipede that grew up to about a foot long, or 30 cm, and had a painful bite. It was also supposed to make an eerie yowling sound like a cat. Holden discounted this as ridiculous, since no centipedes are known to make vocalizations of any kind, until he actually heard one. He was in the forest with a guide, who insisted that this was the upah. The sound came from high up in the treetops so Holden couldn’t see what was making it. But on a later trip to Sumatra with a birdwatcher friend, Holden heard the same sound, but this time the friend knew exactly what was making it. It wasn’t a centipede at all but a small bird called the Malaysian honeyguide. The honeyguide has a distinctive catlike call followed by a rattling sound, but is extremely hard to spot even for seasoned birdwatchers with powerful binoculars. This is what a Malaysian honeyguide sounds like, if you’re curious:

[honeyguide call]

The worst kind of centipede is the house centipedes. I hate those things. I’d rather have a pet spider that lives in my hair than touch a house centipede. House centipedes are the really fast ones that have really long legs that sort of make them look like evil feathers running around on the walls.

Next, let’s take a look at the kouprey, a bovine that is rare and possibly extinct. Thanks to Simon who suggested this ages ago, after the mystery cattle episode, or at least he mentioned it to me while we were talking on Twitter.

The kouprey is a wild ox from Southeast Asia and may be closely related to the aurochs. It’s big and can stand over six feet tall at the shoulder, or almost two meters. It has long legs, a slightly humped back, and a long tail. Males have horns that look like typical cow horns, but females have horns that spiral upward like antelope horns. Cows and calves are gray with darker bellies and legs, while grown bulls are dark brown with white stockings. It lives in small bands led by a female and eats grass and other plants. Males are usually solitary or may band together in bachelor groups. It likes open forest and low, forested hills. Sometimes it grazes with herds of buffalo and other types of wild ox.

The kouprey wasn’t known to science until 1937, when a bull was sent to a zoo in Paris from Cambodia. It was already rare then. A 2006 study that showed the kouprey was actually a hybrid of a domestic cow and another species of wild ox, the banteng, was later rescinded by the researchers as inaccurate. Genetic studies have since proven that the hybrid hypothesis was indeed wrong.

Unfortunately, if the kouprey still exists, there are almost none left. In the late 1960s only about 100 were estimated to still remain. While it’s protected, it’s poached for meat and horns, and is vulnerable to diseases of domestic cattle and habitat loss. The last verified sighting of a kouprey was in 1983, and there are no individuals in captivity. But conservationists haven’t given up yet. They continue to search for the kouprey in its historical range, including setting camera traps. Since the kouprey looks very similar to other wild oxen, it’s possible there are still some hiding in plain sight.

Next up, let’s look at a rare owl. Thanks to Julia who suggested the Karthala scops owl, which only lives in one place in the world. That one place in the world happens to be an active volcano. Specifically, it lives on the island of Grande Comore between Africa and Madagascar, in the forest on the slopes of Mount Karthala.

It’s a small owl with a wingspan of only 18 inches, or 45 cm. Some of the owls are greyish-brown and some are dark brown. It probably eats insects and small animals, but not much is known about it. It’s critically endangered due to habitat loss, as more and more of its forest is being cut down to make way for farmland. It sounds like this, and if you don’t think this is adorable I just can’t help you:

[owl call]

The Karthala scops owl wasn’t discovered by science until 1958, when an ornithologist named C.W. Benson found a feather living a sunbird nest. He thought it might be a nightjar feather, but it turned out to belong to an unknown owl. At first researchers thought it was a subspecies of the Madagascar scops owl, but it’s now considered to be a new species. Unlike many other scops owl species, the Karthala scops owl doesn’t have ear tufts.

That’s pretty much all that’s known about the Karthala scops owl right now. Researchers estimate there are around 1,000 pairs living on the volcano, and hopefully conservation efforts can be put into place to protect their habitat.

The sea mouse has been on my ideas list from the beginning, so let’s learn a little bit about it today too. It’s not a mouse, although it does live in the sea. It’s actually a genus of polychaete worm that lives along the coasts of the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, although it doesn’t really look like a worm. It looks kind of mouse-like, if you’re being generous, mostly because it has setae, or hairlike structures, on its back that look sort of like fur. Some species grow up to a foot long, or 30 cm, but most are usually smaller, maybe half that size or less. It’s shaped roughly like a mouse with no head or tail, and is about three inches wide, or 7.5 cm, at its widest.

The sea mouse is usually a scavenger, although at least one species hunts crabs and other polychaete worms. It spends a lot of its time burrowing in the sand or mud on the ocean bed, looking for decaying animal bodies to eat. It also has gills and antennae, although these aren’t readily noticeable because of the setae covering the animal’s back.

Underneath the setae, the sea mouse is segmented. It doesn’t have real legs but it does have appendages along its sides called parapodia, which it uses like little leglets to push itself along. Sometimes a sea mouse is found washed ashore after a storm. Often it scurries through the wet sand and looks even more like a mouse.

The most interesting thing about the sea mouse is its setae. The setae are about an inch long and are dark red, yellow, black, or brown under ordinary circumstances, depending on species. But when light shines on them just right, they glow with green and blue iridescence. The setae are hollow and made of chitin. The setae are much thinner than a human hair, and nanotech researchers have used them to create nanowires.

Here’s a sweet little mystery animal I got from one of my favorite books, Karl Shuker’s Search for the Last Undiscovered Animals. In 1858, French missionary Emmanuel Domenech published a book called Missionary adventures in Texas and Mexico. A personal narrative of six years’ sojourn in those regions, and in that book he mentions an interesting animal. This event apparently took place in or near Fredericksburg, Texas, sometime before about 1850. The woman in question may have been Comanche. I’ll quote the relevant passage, from pages 122 and 123 of the book.

“An American officer assured me that he had seen an Indian woman, dressed in the skin of a lion which she had killed with her own hand—a circumstance which manifested on her part no less strength than courage, for the lion of Texas, which has no mane, is a very large and formidable animal. This woman was always accompanied by a very singular animal about the size of a cat, but of the form and appearance of a goat. Its horns were rose-coloured, its fur was of the finest quality, glossy like silk and white as snow; but instead of hoofs this little animal had claws. This officer offered five hundred francs for it; and the commandant’s wife, who also spoke of this animal, offered a brilliant of great value in exchange for it; but the Indian woman refused both these offers, and kept her animal, saying that she knew a wood where they were found in abundance; and promised, that if she ever returned again, she would catch others expressly for them.”

So what could this strange little animal be? It sounds like a mountain goat. Mountain goats live in mountainous areas of western North America, but might well have been unknown elsewhere in the mid-19th century. They’re pure white with narrow black horns and hooves, but an albino individual might have horns that appear to be pinkish, at least at the base where the horn core is, due to lack of pigment in the horns allowing blood to show through the surface. While male mountain goats can grow more than three feet tall at the shoulder, or 1 meter, females are much smaller and have smaller horns. Most tellingly, mountain goats have sharp dewclaws as well as cloven hooves that can spread apart to provide better traction on rocks. To someone not familiar with mountain goats, this could look like claws rather than feet. My guess is the woman had a young mountain goat she was keeping as a pet, possibly an albino one, which would explain its size and appearance. It’s nice to think that she cared so much for her little pet that she refused huge amounts of money for it.

Let’s finish up with a rare and tiny cephalopod called the hairy octopus. It’s tiny, only two inches across, or five centimeters, and covered with strands of tissue that give it its name. The so-called hair of the hairy octopus camouflages it by making it look like a piece of seaweed or algae. It can also change colors like other octopuses, to blend in even more with its surroundings. It can appear red, brown, cream, or white, with or without spots and other patterns. It’s only ever been seen in the Lembeh Strait off the coast of Indonesia, and then only rarely.

It’s so rare, in fact, that it still hasn’t been formally described by science. So if you’re thinking about becoming a biologist and you find cephalopods like octopus and squid interesting, this might be the field for you. You might get to give the hairy octopus its official scientific name one day!

Thanks so much to all of you, whether you’re a fellow podcaster, a Patreon subscriber, a regular listener, or someone who just downloaded your first episode of Strange Animals Podcast to see if you like it. I’m having a lot of fun making these episodes, and I’m always surprised at how many people tell me they enjoy listening. I tend to forget anyone listens at all, so whenever I get an email or a review or someone tweets to me about an episode, I’m always startled and pleased. I’ve been trying hard to make the show’s sound quality better, and while I don’t always have the time to do as much research for each episode as I’d like, I do my best to make sure all the information I present is up to date and as accurate as possible.

As always, 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. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening, and happy new year!

Episode 099: Island Life

Those of us in the northern hemisphere are thinking a lot about island life right about now, where it’s warm and sunny. But there are islands everywhere, not just the tropics, and the animals on islands often evolve to look strange and different from their mainland cousins. Thanks to Richard E. and Lucy for their suggestions this week!

A fossa:

A tamaraw, miniature water buffalo:

A Socotra starling, my new favorite bird:

Adorable little Galapagos penguin:

A dragonblood tree, good grief!

A blue baboon. It’s not a baboon but it is blue:

A ground dragon:

Further listening:

The unlocked Patreon bonus episode about vampire finches on the Galapagos Islands

Show transcript:

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

In a lot of episodes, we talk about animals from islands like the Galapagos and the Canaries. There’s a reason why islands give rise to strange animals. This week we’ll focus on island life—how island habitats lead to unique animals and how introduced animals can destroy an entire island ecosystem in a matter of a few years. Massive thanks to listener Richard E., who suggested the topics of introduced animals and island life!

Islands, of course, are surrounded by water and isolated from larger landmasses as a result. Some are close to the mainland so it’s easy for animals to swim or float across to the island. In cold areas, animals can sometimes walk across ice to islands. But other islands are more remote, or used to be close to the mainland but were pushed farther away by tectonic forces.

Once a piece of land is cut off from the mainland, the animals and plants on that piece of land start to evolve independently of the larger population of animals and plants on the mainland. If the island is isolated enough that potential predators can’t get to it, the animals already living on the island start to adapt to life with no or few predators. As a result, they may appear tame when humans arrive.

And that is where the problems start. Humans don’t just arrive alone. We bring other animals with us, either on purpose, like dogs, cats, and livestock, or by accident, like rats and mice. And these animals, along with humans, can destroy an entire island habitat really easily.

I’ll use one of Richard’s examples, since it’s a good one and not one you’d think of when thinking of islands. The red squirrel is native to Europe and parts of Asia, but it also lives in the UK and Ireland. It’s usually red-brown in color, although some populations can be brown, gray, or even black. The belly is white. It has long ear tufts and a poofy tail. It lives in trees and eats seeds, nuts, berries, fungi, and occasionally eggs or baby birds.

But remember, Ireland and the UK are islands. And in the 1870s, someone thought it would be really great to import eastern gray squirrels from North America and release them in parks in the UK. In Ireland, in 1911 someone gave a bunch of gray squirrels as a wedding gift, which is not a great gift, honestly, and they got loose because of course they did. They’re squirrels.

Grey squirrels are larger than red squirrels and don’t have ear tufts. They eat the same foods red squirrels do. They also carry a disease called squirrel parapoxvirus that doesn’t bother them but which kills red squirrels. The population of red squirrels has dropped substantially as introduced gray squirrel populations climb in the UK and Ireland. The red squirrel is now protected, with conservation efforts in place that are making a difference. But that just goes to show how easy it is to lose even a well-established species on large islands when an outside species is introduced.

On islands, especially smaller islands, small animals tend to grow larger overall and big animals tend to grow smaller overall. This is called Foster’s rule. It comes about partly because there are fewer predators but limited resources. Small animals don’t need to hide as carefully from predators, large animals may not be able to get enough to eat, but medium-sized animals are able to survive short famines without starving and can take advantage of some resources smaller or larger animals couldn’t use.

One example of island gigantism is the fossa, a predator from Madagascar. If you’ve seen the Madagascar movies, you might remember the fossa as a scary predator that looks something like a big cat. Well, the fossa is a real animal, but it’s not related to cats. It’s related to the mongoose, which is a weasel-like animal, but the fossa is generally much larger than a mongoose. It grows some five feet long, or 1.5 meters, including its tail, although its legs are short compared to those of a similarly-sized cat. It spends a lot of time in trees, where it uses its long tail to help it balance. It’s reddish-brown with a paler belly and eats lemurs and other mammals, birds, insects, crabs, lizards, and even fruit.

An example of island dwarfism is the tamaraw from the island of Mindoro in the Philippines, also called a Mindoro dwarf buffalo. It looks like its close relative, the water buffalo, but is much smaller, only about three and a half feet tall at the shoulder, or 105 cm. It’s like a pocket-sized water buffalo. It has V-shaped horns and is black with some white markings on the legs. It prefers to live in mountainous forested areas with water nearby, and it eats grass, young bamboo shoots, and wild sugarcane. It’s a solitary, shy animal.

Famously, Charles Darwin worked out the theory of evolution after examining the differences in finches living on the various Galapagos Islands. He had actually already started thinking along these lines before he’d really examined the finches, but they supported his ideas and helped him work out the details. Basically, as Darwin eventually determined, a type of finch had colonized the islands at some point in the far distant past. Each island had slightly different ecology, so although the finches could fly, over the years populations living on separate islands began to adapt to better fit the resources available on those islands. For instance, the large ground finch has developed a short, heavy bill to crack nuts, while the closely related vampire ground finch has a thinner, sharper bill that it uses to eat insects, seeds, and the BLOOD OF OTHER BIRDS. I am totally not making this up. In fact, I covered the vampire finch in a patreon bonus episode earlier this year. It’s already unlocked for anyone to listen to, so if you haven’t listened to it and want to, I’ll put a link in the show notes.

Remember that squirrel disease I mentioned earlier? There’s a bird disease called avipoxvirus, or avian pox, that has affected the Galapagos finches since 1898. Researchers think it was probably spread by humans who brought infected domestic birds with them on ships. Fortunately, it hasn’t driven any finches or other birds to extinction.

Another problem brought to the Galapagos Islands by humans, this one spread more recently by tourist boats, is a parasitic nest fly that kills baby birds. Researchers have started leaving cotton balls treated with a mild insecticide where the flies are known to attack endangered finches. The parent finches use the cotton balls to line their nests, which helps protect the babies once they hatch. The nest flies lay their eggs in the nests, and the larvae bite babies and mother birds and drink their blood, which can kill the babies. So far the treatment has helped reduce the number of larvae that hatch.

There’s another bird that lives on the Galapagos that is unique to the islands, and that’s the Galapagos penguin. Thanks to Lucy, who suggested it as a topic, and a shout-out to Lucy’s sister Willa too!

Lucy also wanted to hear about King and Gentoo penguins, so let’s start with them. Both species mostly nest on islands.

The King penguin is almost as big as the Emperor penguin and looks very similar, not surprising since they’re closely related. It stands over three feet tall, or 100 cm. It eats small fish, squid, and krill. Females lay one egg at a time and after the egg hatches, the baby spends its first month or so of life sitting on one parent’s feet while the other parent forages. After that both parents leave the baby in a communal nest, called a crèche, while both go foraging. A young king penguin won’t be able to fish for itself until it’s more than a year old.

The Gentoo penguin lives off the southern tip of South America, and it’s almost as tall as the king penguin, but it’s not closely related to the king and emperor penguins. The Gentoo penguin has a reddish bill and a white stripe on its head above its eyes. The female usually lays two eggs in a nest made of round stones. Gentoo penguins value good nesting stones, and a male may court a female by offering her high-quality stones. Sometimes he has stolen those good stones from other penguin nests. Watch out, ladies. The Gentoo penguin eats krill and other small crustaceans for the bulk of the diet, and also eats fish and squid.

So that gives us a sort of baseline of ordinary penguins to compare to the Galapagos penguin. All other penguins all live in the southern hemisphere, usually not all that far from Antarctica. Part of the Galapagos Islands are in the northern hemisphere, although just barely. Penguins are adapted to severe cold, so how do Galapagos penguins thrive near the equator? As it happens, the waters around the Galapagos are actually quite cold, with various oceanic currents bringing cold water north from the Antarctic and bringing cold water from the depths to the surface in the area. Unlike other penguin species, which often travel widely to find food, the Galapagos penguin stays near the islands where the water is comfortably cool and there’s enough food. On hot days, penguins go into the water to stay cool.

The Galapagos penguin is only about 19 inches tall, or 49 cm. It’s almost the smallest penguin and is definitely the rarest penguin, with only about 1,000 breeding pairs. It mates for life and females lay one or two eggs, making sure to lay eggs in the shade so they won’t get too hot in the sun. If both eggs hatch, the weaker baby usually dies as the parents concentrate on feeding the stronger one. Then again, in good years, grown babies who have moved out of the nest may continue to beg their parents for food and sometimes get fed. I know some people like that. In addition to ordinary predators like seals and hawks, the Galapagos penguin is also vulnerable to introduced predators like cats.

We’ve talked a lot about the Galapagos Islands, but every island has its own unique ecosystem. For example, the island of Socotra lies in the Arabian Sea off the coast of Yemen. It’s only 82 miles long, or 132 km, and 31 miles wide, or 50 km. There are three other, smaller islands nearby. It’s been so isolated for so long that even its trees are bizarre-looking, like the dragon’s blood tree that has dense branches with leaves sticking up at the very top so that it looks like grass growing on top of a weird tree-shaped cliff. The tree also has red sap that has been traditionally used as a dye or varnish.

Humans have lived on the Socotra for 2,000 years, so many endemic species have gone extinct due to habitat loss, hunting, and competition or predation by introduced animals like cats and cattle. But there are still a lot of unusual animals that are found nowhere else in the world. The island has only one native mammal species, a bat, and no amphibians, but it has lots of reptiles and some birds found nowhere else in the world. For instance, the Socotra starling. It’s a large, beautiful songbird with a black body and soft gray head and neck, a heavy black bill, and a black eye with a thin white eye ring. It eats insects and fruit. Socotra is also surrounded by coral reefs with lots of unique fish and crabs.

One interesting animal that lives on Socotra Island is called the blue baboon. But it’s not a baboon or any other kind of primate. It’s not even a mammal. It’s a tarantula, and it’s beautiful! It’s a lovely indigo blue in color with white hairs on the abdomen and the top joints of the legs. Its legspan is about five inches across, or 12 cm, and males are smaller than females. Unlike most other tarantula species, it tolerates others instead of being solitary, so people often keep them as pets. Fortunately, it’s become so popular in captivity that there are lots of captive-bred blue baboons readily available, so the market for illegally collected wild specimens has diminished.

I’ve talked a lot about how animals in island habitats can be driven to extinction very easily, but there are success stories too. For instance, the island of Redonda. It’s a tiny island in the Caribbean, only about a mile long, or 1.6 km, with no source of fresh water and land that’s basically just rock. For centuries no one bothered Redonda because no one wanted to live there, but in the late 19th century it was mined for bird guano, or bird poop, which was used as fertilizer. This went on until 1914, and then in 1929 a hurricane destroyed what was left of the mining equipment. The few people who lived there left, but there were still rats and feral goats that ate everything they could find.

Redonda might have become a wasteland with nothing but rats, goats, and a few birds, but an ambitious conservation effort is paying off. First, the rats and goats were trapped and removed from the island. The rats were mostly killed, but the goats were taken to nearby Antigua where they’ve found homes. Then—and this is important—people left the island alone. Without introduced species and without human interference, the population of endemic animals have begun to rebound. Native plants and trees have started growing back. Rare seabirds nest there again. Instead of a big rock, the island now appears green again.

And the population of lizards on the island is rebounding like crazy. In just a year, the number of ground dragons has almost doubled. Ground dragons are lizards only found on the island. They’re shiny black with long tails and eat pretty much anything they can catch, including young ground dragons.

Sometimes all it takes for nature to be set right is to just leave it alone to do what it does best. Sometimes humans have to help by restoring keystone species to a habitat. This has happened with giant Aldabra tortoises, which were once common on the island of Mauritius, the same island where the dodo once lived. A species of ebony tree had nearly been driven extinct by logging, but even after logging was stopped in the 1980s, the trees hadn’t rebounded. Researchers determined that giant tortoises had once eaten the ebony tree fruit and pooped out the seeds, much like the dodo and the rare dodo tree palm. When giant tortoises were reintroduced to Mauritius, new ebony trees started to sprout.

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. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 098: River Dolphins

This week let’s learn about some unusual cetaceans, river dolphins!

An Amazon river dolphin and the nose of another Amazon river dolphin:

Another Amazon river dolphin. Note the teeny eye and disk-like teeth:

A South Asian river dolphin. Note the almost nonexistent eye:

A Chinese river dolphin in better days:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to learn about an animal I’ve wanted to cover for a long time but never got around to, the river dolphin.

All whales and almost all dolphins live in the ocean. They can survive for a short while in fresh water but need saltwater to thrive. But as the name suggests, the river dolphin lives in rivers, usually in fresh water and sometimes in the brackish water where rivers empty into oceans. Brackish just means a mixture of fresh and salt water, so it’s saltier than fresh water but not as salty as ocean water. When I was a kid I thought it meant ocean water with a lot of seeweed and dead leaves in it, because I thought the word brackish had something to do with bracken, which is a type of fern.

There are only a few species of river dolphin alive today. They live in warm water and have very little blubber as a result. They primarily use echolocation to navigate since river water tends to be muddy and hard to see through. Their flippers are broad and most have long snouts and flexible necks, or at least flexible compared to other cetaceans. All river dolphins are endangered due to pollution, habitat loss, and accidental drowning in fish nets, with the Chinese river dolphin only having been declared extinct in 2006.

River dolphins evolved from dolphins that once lived in the ocean, but most aren’t closely related to the marine dolphins alive today. Researchers think that when modern dolphins and other toothed whales evolved, they outcompeted their more primitive cousins, who moved into freshwater habitats as a result.

A few years ago, fossils of an extinct river dolphin that grew more than nine feet long, or almost three meters, were found in Panama. It lived around 6 million years ago in the Amazon River, but researchers don’t think modern river dolphins are closely related to it. In other words, freshwater dolphins have evolved repeatedly in different parts of the world to fit an available ecological niche.

In the case of the newly discovered fossil river dolphin, Isthminia panamensis, it probably lived in the warm, shallow Caribbean Sea between North and South America before the Isthmus of Panama formed. It took millions of years for the isthmus to form, with undersea volcanos first emerging from the ocean around 15 million years ago to form islands, then the land itself being pushed upward as the Pacific Plate slid underneath the Caribbean Plate. Researchers think the isthmus became fully formed around 3 million years ago, separating the Atlantic Ocean from the Pacific and connecting North and South America. Because we have Isthminia panamensis’s fossil from the Amazon River, we can hypothesize that by around 6 million years ago, there wasn’t enough of the original Caribbean Sea habitat to support the dolphins and they had already moved into the Amazon River and adapted to life in freshwater.

The river dolphin isn’t the only cetacean that lives in freshwater. There’s a species of porpoise called the finless porpoise that lives around Asia in shallow coastal waters, but often spends at least part of the time in mangrove swamps and in rivers not too far from the sea. Porpoises and dolphins look very similar but belong to different families, which means they aren’t actually very closely related at all. Like, seriously not related at all. Like, the difference between horses and cows. The finless porpoise can grow almost seven and a half feet long, or over two meters, and is called finless because it doesn’t have a dorsal fin. Instead, it has a dorsal ridge lined with tubercles, or bumps, that contain nerve endings. Researchers don’t know what purpose the tubercles serve. Porpoises use echolocation but their clicks are much higher in frequency than dolphins’, so high that humans can’t hear most of them.

There are three families of river dolphins still living today, Platanistidae, Iniidae, and Pontoporiidae.

Platanistidae are the Indian dolphins, with only one species alive today. The South Asian river dolphin lives in South Asia. There are two subspecies, the Ganges River dolphin and the Indus River dolphin. Young South Asian river dolphins have sharp, thin teeth, but as the dolphin matures, its teeth become flatter and squarish, almost like disks. It eats fish, crustaceans like shrimp, and some dolphins may also eat water birds and even turtles. Its rostrum, the word for a cetacean’s beak, is considerably longer in females than in males, sometimes like 8 inches longer, or about 20 cm.

The South Asian river dolphin is sometimes called the blind dolphin because its eyes are basically only useful for sensing light. They don’t even have lenses. It has a very small dorsal fin, not much more than a bump, a powerful tail, and is brown in color, and grows up to ten feet long, or almost 3 meters. It uses echolocation to navigate in the murky river water and find prey. It also usually swims on its side, which also gives it the name side-swimming dolphin. It does this so it can trail the tip of a flipper along the river bottom to feel for shrimp and mollusks.

It’s such an unusual dolphin, even for river dolphins, that researchers are studying fossil dolphins to figure out how the South Asian river dolphin evolved. Two years ago, a fossilized dolphin skull found in 1951 in Alaska and held in the Smithsonian’s collection ever since was evaluated and determined to be a distant relative of the South Asian river dolphin. It lived about 25 million years ago, around the time that ancient whales were evolving into the two groups we have today, toothed whales, which includes dolphins, and baleen whales.

The South Asian river dolphin has been evolving separately from marine dolphins for at least the 25 million years since its relative was swimming around in the Arctic Ocean. Research on its echolocation suggests that the Ganges River subspecies of the South Asian river dolphin probably has biosonar that more closely resembles that of ancient toothed whales than modern toothed whale and dolphin echolocation does. It has a much deeper voice than marine dolphins of about the same size have.

I tried very hard to find a recording of a Ganges River dolphin, or any South Asian river dolphin, but all I found was this, the echolocation of an Amazon river dolphin:

[river dolphin sound]

The Amazon river dolphin is a member of the Iniidae family of river dolphins. It’s the biggest of the river dolphins, and adults are often pink in color. In all other river dolphins, and most cetaceans in general, females are larger than males, but male Amazon river dolphins are larger than females. Babies are dark gray, fading to lighter gray as they grow up. Adults can appear pink because the skin is often pale and in warm water, the blood shows through the skin. The Amazon river dolphin has small eyes, but it sees a lot better than the South Asian river dolphin.

Most river dolphin species aren’t nearly as sociable as marine dolphins and are usually only found singly or in groups of two or three. Male Amazon river dolphins often fight each other when females are around. If a male Amazon river dolphin meets some females, he will pick up a branch or stone and carry it around to impress them.

Amazon river dolphins eat fish, including piranhas, freshwater crabs, turtles, and other small animals. Sometimes a dolphin will participate in cooperative hunting with giant otters and the tucuxi, another species of dolphin that lives in the Amazon basin. The three species eat different types of fish so they all benefit from hunting together.

The tucuxi isn’t actually a river dolphin although at least some individuals live in rivers. It’s considered a marine dolphin, and you can tell the difference just by looking at it. It looks like a small bottlenose dolphin, about five feet long, or 1.5 meters, and unlike river dolphins its rostrum is relatively short.

The third family of river dolphin is Pontoporiidae, and there’s only one species alive today. Just to show that nature isn’t cut and dried, the La Plata dolphin doesn’t always live in fresh water. It lives around the coast of southeastern South America and while some do spend their whole lives in rivers, most La Plata dolphins live in the ocean.

Finally, let’s talk about the Chinese river dolphin, the one that’s recently extinct, also called the baiji. Technically it’s functionally extinct because although there may be one or two still alive, there aren’t enough to continue the species into another generation. River dolphins do very poorly in captivity, usually dying within months, so even if conservationists had billions of dollars and the cooperation of every single person on earth to save the Chinese river dolphin, there’s nothing they could do at this point. In fact, in 2006 a research team searched for the dolphin for six weeks to put a conservation action plan into place for it, but they didn’t find any. That’s when it was declared extinct.

The Chinese river dolphin lived in the Yangtze River and grew up to 8 feet long, or 2.4 meters. It was blue-gray with a paler belly, and like many other river dolphins, its rostrum was slightly upturned. It also had poor vision. It was once common along much of the Yangtze, some 1,100 miles of river, or 1,700 km, but massive increases in pollution of the river, collisions with boats caused by the noise of boats overwhelming the dolphins’ echolocation, poaching, entanglement in fishing nets, loss of habitat due to damming of the river, and overfishing drove it to extinction within about five decades. The last confirmed sighting of a Chinese river dolphin was in 2002, with an unconfirmed sighting in 2007.

This is a depressing way to end the episode, so let’s finish up with a long-ago relative of the South Asian river dolphin. Zarhachis flagellator lived during the Miocene, about 16 million years ago, and had a really long rostrum. Like, super super long. Its skull was about four feet long, or 1.2 meters, which makes it sound like it must have been a really big dolphin, but it wasn’t. Its actual braincase was less than a foot long, maybe 8 inches or so, or 20 cm. The rest of the length was rostrum. In other words, it had a head about the size of your head, and a long thin beak full of sharp teeth that was something like three feet long, or almost a meter. Tonight when you brush your teeth, think about that. Think about how hard it would be to reach all your teeth if you had a mouth that stuck out three feet from your head. You’d need a really long toothbrush.

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. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 097: Unusual Reptiles

Thanks to listeners Finn and Leo, who suggested this week’s topics of strange lizards, and the thorny devil and mata mata turtle, respectively! Join us this week to learn about those reptiles and a bunch more!

Thorny devil. Definitely do not eat.

The mata mata turtle. Big leafhead boi

A frilled lizard BWAAAAAMP

A Pinocchio lizard. Wonder where that name comes from.

Poke poke poke does this bother you? poke poke

om nom nom

A shingleback, or as I like to call it, an ambulatory poop:

Show transcript:

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

We have more listener suggestions this week! Ages ago, listener Finn suggested strange lizards, and more recently, listener Leo suggested a particular type of strange lizard and a strange turtle.

We’ll start with Leo’s suggestion, the thorny devil. He describes it as “a cool animal with spikes all around it,” which is definitely a good way to put it. The thorny devil is a lizard from Australia, and it does indeed have spikes all over its head, back, and tail, and smaller spikes on its legs. The spikes are modified scales and are sharp.

The thorny devil grows to around 8 inches long, or 20 cm, with females being larger than males on average. In warm weather its blotchy brown and yellow coloring is paler than in colder weather, when it turns darker. It can also turn orangey, reddish, or gray to blend in to the background soil. Its color changes slowly over the course of the day as the temperature changes. It also tends to turn darker if something threatens it.

It has a thick spiny tail that it usually holds curved upward, which makes it look kind of like a stick. It moves slowly and jerkily, rocking back and forth on its legs, then surging forward a couple of steps. Researchers think this may confuse predators. It certainly looks confusing.

As if that wasn’t enough, the thorny devil has a false head on the back of its neck. It’s basically a big bump with two spikes sticking out of the sides. When something threatens the lizard, it ducks its head between its forelegs, which makes the bump on its neck look like a little head. But all its spines make it a painful mouthful for a predator. If something does try to swallow it, the thorny devil can puff itself up to make itself even harder to swallow, like many toads do. It does this by inflating its chest with air.

The thorny devil eats ants and only ants, specifically various species of tiny black ants found only in Australia. It has a sticky tongue to lick them up. Because it has such a specific diet, it’s hard to keep in captivity. Only a few zoos in Australia have thorny devils on display. If you listened to episode 93, where we talked about invasive ant species having an effect on entire ecosystems, the thorny devil is an example of this. Fortunately the ants it eats are doing just fine, but if an invasive ant species were introduced to the areas where it lives, the thorny devil would probably be in trouble. So no moving ants around, everyone, I mean it.

The thorny devil lives in desert and scrubland regions, and in hot weather it digs a burrow to shelter in. Females lay their eggs in burrows. To get enough water in its desert environment, the thorny devil has microscopic grooves between its scales that suck up water by capillary action. At night dew condenses on the lizard’s body, and it also collects dew by brushing against dewy vegetation or just by standing or lying on damp sand. If it does happen across water in a puddle, it will put a leg in the water and the tiny grooves in its skin suck up water and funnel it to the mouth. It’s like a living straw.

While I was researching this, I found some information on how rattlesnakes drink. When it starts to rain, a rattlesnake will coil up tightly so that rainwater collects in its coils. Then it drinks the water. This sounds like something someone just made up, but it’s real.

Let’s skip right from a snake fact to a weird turtle, because Leo also suggested the mata mata turtle as a topic. This is where I got distracted while researching, and ended up with an entire episode about giant tortoises. If you were wondering, the main difference between a turtle and a tortoise is that turtles spend most or all of their time in water, while tortoises live only on land.

The mata mata turtle lives in shallow, slow-moving water in South America, especially swamps around the Amazon and Orinoco river basins. It isn’t closely related to the snapping turtle of North America, but it does resemble a snapping turtle in some ways. Its shell is brown or black, its skin is grayish, and its plastron, or the belly section of its shell, is yellow or brown. It grows to around two feet long, or 60 cm, with a long, broad neck and wide, triangular head. Its nose comes to a point like the stem of a leaf. In fact, if you look down on a mata mata in the water, the shape of its head looks exactly like a dead leaf. It has notches and ridges on its shell, and its knobbly skin has flaps that helps camouflage the turtle among dead leaves and sticks in the water. It also has claws and webbed toes.

Unlike the snapping turtle, the mata mata is harmless to humans and most animals. It doesn’t have a sharp bill and it won’t bite. It can’t even chew its food, just swallows it whole. It eats fish, water insects, and other small animals that it captures by opening its large mouth suddenly under the water. This creates suction, sucking a lot of water and the prey right into the turtle’s mouth.

The only time the mata mata leaves the water is to lay eggs. Unlike many other turtle eggs, the mata mata eggs have hard shells, more like bird eggs. It takes the eggs about 200 days to hatch.

The mata mata spends almost all of its time motionless in the water, waiting for prey to come near, and occasionally extending its ridiculously long neck so it can take a breath from the surface. Its pointy nose is a proboscis that it breathes through. It can swim, but it usually prefers to walk along the bottom of the pond or marsh. I bet its feet squish in the mud. Squish squish squish.

Speaking of pointy-nosed reptiles, the male Pinocchio lizard has a nose that points forward and slightly upward like a rhinoceros horn. But it’s not a horn, because it’s flexible, made of cartilage. It lives in the Mindo cloud forest in Ecuador, and was only discovered by scientists in 1953, when researchers collected six specimens. And that was the last time anyone saw the Pinocchio lizard—until 2005, when some birdwatchers saw a weird lizard, took pictures and posted them online, and herpetologists started freaking out.

The Pinocchio lizard blends in so well with its environment that it’s hard to spot. It turns white when it’s asleep, which helps it look like part of a tree branch. It always perches on the end of a branch to sleep, too. During the day, it climbs verrry slowly into the treetops. It’s not a big lizard, only about three inches long, or 7.5 cm, not counting its tail, which is as long as its body. We still don’t know much about it because it’s so hard to study.

It’s not the only lizard with a horn on its nose. For instance, the rough-nosed horned lizard lives in Sri Lanka and is an ordinary-looking lizard for the most part, although it’s covered with short bristly scales that make it look like it would work well for scrubbing out dirty pots and pans. But it has a really long nose, also covered in bristly scales. Oh, and yellow or orange markings on its face that make it look like it has a big orange clown mouth. Males have longer horns than females. Male mountain horned agamas, which also live in Sri Lanka, have a single white or cream-colored horn that sticks directly forward from their nose like a tiny unicorn horn, except it’s not spiraled. In fact, it’s not a horn at all, it’s a single big pointy scale. But those lizards aren’t related to the Pinnocchio lizard.

The La Gomera giant lizard doesn’t have any horns and it’s not all that giant, less than two feet long, or around 49 cm long, including the tail. It’s black or brown on its back with a white belly. Males also have a white throat, and during mating season males inflate their throat and bob their head to attract females. It mostly eats plants, although it will eat insects too, and it lives in the Canary Islands. It’s not the most exciting lizard to look at, but it has an interesting history.

The Canary Islands are a group of islands off the coast of Morocco. It was once called the Fortunate Isles, so if you ever see that in an old book you know what islands it’s talking about. Pliny the Elder, a historian from ancient Rome, said the name Canaria came from the number of dogs on the islands. The word for dog in Latin is canis. The people of the islands were supposed to worship dogs, and some modern historians believe the old accounts of dog-headed people may be a garbled account of the Canary Islanders. Oh, and the little yellow songbirds that live on the Canary Islands took their name from the islands, not vice versa.

The islands were probably visited in ancient times by Phoenician and Greek sailors, but reportedly no one lived there when the Romans explored it in the 1st century. But when Europeans returned in the late middle ages, there were inhabitants that may have been settlers from North Africa. The islands were invaded by Europeans, who then spent centuries fighting with each other over who ruled them. It’s Spain, currently. Scientific expeditions started in the late 18th century. One of the animals the expeditions reported seeing was the La Gomera giant lizard, but it disappeared sometime after about 1900. Researchers assumed it had gone extinct.

Then a 1999 expedition from the University of La Laguna on Tenerife, one of the Canary Islands, heard stories from local residents on the island of La Gomera. They said there was a big lizard living in a few places on the island. The biologists in the expedition checked it out…and sure enough, there were giant lizards. Specifically, six of them. Just six lizards. Later they found another small group of the lizards in another area, but the total population was still no more than fifty.

Fortunately, a captive breeding program has been successful and today there are around 250 of the lizards in the wild, living only on two hard to reach cliffs. They’re vulnerable to introduced predators, especially cats, which eat the eggs and young lizards. Another 300 or so live in a recovery center where they’re protected from predators before being released into the wild. So basically, the La Gomera giant lizard isn’t so much strange as just very, very lucky.

Another lizard that is definitely strange is the frilled lizard from northern Australia and southern New Guinea. It’s bigger than the La Gomera giant lizard, almost three feet long, or 85 cm, and eats insects, spiders, and small animals. It lives in trees and is well camouflaged with blotches and spots on a gray or brown background to help camouflage it among branches and against bark.

The frilled lizard gets its name from the frill on eitherside of its head. Most of the time it keeps the frill folded back against itsneck. When it’s threatened, though, it spreads the frill out and opens itsmouth wide. The inside of its mouth is bright yellow or pink, and the frill hasbright red or yellow scales that don’t show when it’s folded. It’s the lizardequivalent of a jump scare in scary movies. Regular lizard, regular lizard…BWAMP BIG SCARY BRIGHT LIZARD

The frill is made up of spines of cartilage that grow from the lizard’s jaw bones, with skin connecting the spines. It’s not small, either. When expanded, it can be almost a foot across, or 25 cm.

The frilled lizard isn’t dangerous, though, and if its threat display doesn’t scare off a predator, it runs away until it finds a tree to climb. It runs so fast, in fact, that it lifts its body up and just runs on its hind legs, which helps it navigate uneven ground and gives it a better view of what’s around it. It also holds its long tail out as a counterweight to keep its body upright.

That’s supposed to be all the strange details about the frilled lizard…but there are sightings of it doing something unexpected on rare occasions. People occasionally report seeing a frilled lizard fall or jump from a tree, and glide down using its frill as a parachute. There’s no proof that this actually happens, but it sounds plausible.

Another Australian lizard called the shingleback, or bobtail, looks kind of like a pinecone with legs. Or a poop with legs, just going to set that down and walk away. It’s brown with darker and lighter speckles or yellow splotches, large overlapping scales, a stubby thick tail, and a broad head. In fact, its head and tail look a lot alike, which confuses predators. It also stores fat in its tail for winter. It grows about a foot long, or 30 cm, and eats snails, insects, flowers, and other small animals and plants. It lives in arid and desert areas, and their tough skin and overlapping scales help reduce water loss. Its eyes are tiny, like little black beads.

The shingleback looks nothing like the frilled lizard, but it has one thing in common with it. When threatened, the shingleback will open its mouth wide and stick out its large, dark blue tongue. It is an impressively blue, impressively big tongue, and the inside of the shingleback’s mouth is otherwise pale, so it’s startling, to say the least.

The shingleback mates for life. Most of the year the shingleback is solitary, but in spring mated pairs find each other again and go around together while they hunt for food. The female gives birth to two live babies instead of laying eggs.

I could go on and on and on about all the weird reptiles in the world. There are just so many! We’ll definitely come back to this topic in the future, but for now, let’s finish up with a snake called Iwasaki’s snail-eater.

The snail-eater lives on a few small islands southwest of Japan’s main islands. It’s small, only about 7 inches long, or 22 cm, and is orangey in color with darker markings and bright orange eyes. And it only eats one thing: snails.

It’s so perfectly adapted to its diet of snails that its jaw is asymmetrical so it can more easily wedge it into the typical snail’s shell, which coils clockwise. If you remember from the little yard animals episode, some snails very rarely coil the opposite way, and the snail-eater snake is so specialized to eat ordinary snails that it has trouble with counter-clockwise coiled snail shells. It has more teeth on its right mandible. There are other snail-eater snakes closely related to Iwasaki’s snail-eater that have this same adaptation, and in some areas where the snakes are numerous, counter-clockwise snails are much more common than in areas without a lot of snail-eater snakes.

So that’s a reminder that whether you’re a little snail-eating snake or a regular human being, the things you do have an effect on the world around you, even if it’s in ways too small for you to notice without looking very closely.

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. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!

Bonus! Reticulated siren discovered!

BREAKING NEWS, EVERYONE! A new giant salamander has been discovered, right here in the southern United States! It was only formally described YESTERDAY if you’re listening to this the night it goes live, assuming I manage to get it finished and uploaded before Friday morning. I should have put this together yesterday but didn’t think about it until today. Today being Thursday.

We’re talking about the reticulated siren, also called the leopard eel although it’s not an eel. It’s also not a leopard. There are three species of siren alive today, including the reticulated. Reticulated means spotted or mottled, if you were wondering. Sirens look a lot like eels except that instead of fins they have tiny vestigial forelegs and external gills. They have no hind limbs at all.

The greater siren lives in wetlands near the Atlantic coast of North America, specifically in the southern coastal states like Alabama and Florida. It grows over three feet long, or 97 cm, and is usually dark greenish or gray with tiny green or yellow dots along its sides. It eats water insects, mollusks, and occasionally plants. The lesser siren is very similar to the greater siren but doesn’t grow as big, and lives throughout much of the eastern United States and northeastern Mexico.

The reticulated siren is almost the size of the greater siren, and is gray-green and covered with a maze of spots. Its head is relatively small and its gill branches are large. It’s only been found in southern Alabama and the Florida panhandle.

The first reticulated sirens known to science were actually caught in the 1970s in Alabama, but although those three specimens were preserved and held in a museum for study, it wasn’t formally described. Another reticulated siren wasn’t found until 2009, when a herpetologist, David Steen, caught one while trapping water snakes and turtles in Florida.

Steen and biologist Sean Graham worked together to find more. It took them five years to trap three more specimens in a pond in Florida. After lots of study, including DNA analysis, they determined they had found a new species.

Now that we know the reticulated siren is a species of its own, researchers like Steen and Graham are working to find out more about it. They suspect it’s rare since it’s been so hard to find, and that means it needs to be protected. The wetlands where it lives are constantly in danger of being drained and filled in to make way for houses, Walmarts, parking lots, and other things we should put somewhere else and leave the wetlands alone.

Sirens are fully aquatic, specifically living in swamps, ponds, and boggy areas with a lot of vegetation they can hide in. If a siren’s pond dries up, it can burrow into the mud and aestivate in a cocoon of slime and sloughed-off skin, sometimes for a year or two until water returns to the area. But we don’t yet know if the reticulated siren can do this too.

That’s it for our breaking news update. We’ll be back on Monday morning as usual with an episode about strange reptiles.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 096: Strangest Big Fish

Because there are so many weird fish out there, I’ve narrowed this week’s episode down to weird BIG fish! We’ll cover the smaller ones another time. Thanks to Damian and Sam for suggestions this week!

A manta ray being interviewed by a diver:

A manta ray with white markings:

A mola mola, pancake of the sea, with a diver:

The flathead catfish head. So many teeth:

A Wels catfish with Jeremy Wade:

A couple of red cornetfish:

Howick Falls in South Africa. Put that on my endless list of places I want to visit:

Further reading:

Karl Shuker’s blog post about the black and white manta rays

Show transcript:

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

It’s another listener suggestion week! Recently, Damian sent a list of excellent topic suggestions, one of which was weirdest fish, and I am ALL OVER that! But because there are so many weird fish, I’m going to only look at weird humongous fish this time, including a mystery fish.

We’ll start with a fish that doesn’t actually look very fishlike. Rays are closely related to sharks but if you didn’t know what they were and saw one, you’d probably start to freak out and think you were seeing some kind of water alien or a sea monster. The ray has a broad, flattened body that extends on both sides into wings that it uses to fly through the water, so to speak. The wings are actually fins, although they don’t look like most fish fins. Like sharks, rays have no bones, only cartilage. Rays are so weird that I’m probably going to give them their own episode one day, but for now let’s just look at one, the manta ray.

There are two species of manta ray alive today. The reef manta can grow 18 feet from wingtip to wingtip, or 5.5 meters. Manta birostris is even bigger, up to 29 feet across, or 8.8 meters, which is why it’s called the giant manta ray. This is just colossally huge. I didn’t realize how big manta rays were until just now. Both species live in warm oceans throughout the world and both eat plankton, krill, and tiny fish. Sometimes the manta ray is called the devil fish because of its horns, which aren’t horns at all, of course. The two protuberances that stick forward at the manta ray’s front are actually fins that grow on either side of the rectangular mouth. These fins help direct plankton into the mouth. When the manta ray isn’t feeding, it can roll up these fins into points and close its mouth. Its eyes are on the sides of its head.

Manta rays are white underneath and black or dark brown on top. But there is a mystery associated with the giant manta ray, with reports of black and white striped rays dating back to at least 1923. In April of that year, naturalist William Beebe spotted a manta ray near the Galapagos Islands that had white wingtips and a pair of broad white stripes extending from the sides of the head halfway down the back. Beebe thought it might be a new species of manta ray. There are other reports of manta rays with white or grayish V-shaped markings on the back.

Better than that, in the last few decades divers and boaters started to get photographs and even video of these manta rays with white markings. These days, manta rays with white markings are known to be common, although for decades scientists thought all manta rays were unmarked dorsally, or on the back. Since the markings are unique to individuals, it makes it easy for researchers to track individuals they recognize. The manta ray also sometimes has black speckles or blotches on its belly.

But wait, there’s more! According to zoologist Karl Shuker, in 2014, researchers in Florida published a paper discussing the ability of manta rays to actually CHANGE COLOR in minutes when they want to. The color in question that it changes? Its white markings. The markings can be barely visible against its background color, and then will brighten considerably when other manta rays are around or when it’s feeding. I’ll put a link to Shuker’s blog post in the show notes, which contains an excerpt from the article, if you want to read it.

The reef manta mostly lives along coasts, especially around coral reefs, while the giant manta ray sometimes crosses open ocean. Researchers used to think it migrated, but new studies suggest most don’t travel all that far. It does dive deeply, though, sometimes as deep as 3,300 feet, or 1,000 meters.

Another fish with a mostly cartilaginous skeleton instead of bone are the various species of ocean sunfish. The largest is the mola mola, although the southern sunfish is about the same size. Both grow to about 15 feet long, or 4.6 meters, and they are really, really weird.

The ocean sunfish doesn’t look like a regular fish. It looks like the head of a fish that had something humongous bite off its tail end. It has one tall dorsal fin and one long anal fin, and a little short rounded tail fin that’s not much more than a fringe along its back end. The sunfish uses the tail fin as a rudder and progresses through the water by waving its dorsal and anal fins the same way manta rays swim with their pectoral fins. Pectoral fins are the ones on the sides, while the dorsal fin is the fin on a fish’s back and an anal fin is a fin right in front of a fish’s tail. Usually dorsal and anal fins are only used for stability in the water, not propulsion.

Because it’s almost round in shape and its body is flattened, it actually kind of looks like a pancake with fins. I would not want to eat it but a lot of people do, with the fish considered a delicacy in some cuisines. These days it’s a protected species in many areas, but it often gets caught in nets set for other fish. It also ends up eating plastic bags and other trash that float like jellyfish.

The mola mola lives mostly in warm oceans around the world, and it eats jellies, small fish, squid, crustaceans, plankton, and even some plants. It has a small round mouth that it can’t close and four teeth that are fused to form a sort of beak. It also has teeth in its throat, called pharyngeal teeth. Its skin is thick and rough like sandpaper. It likes to sun itself at the water’s surface, and it will float on its side like a massive fish pancake and let sea birds stand on it and pick parasites from its skin. Occasionally it will jump completely out of the water, called breaching, as far as ten feet high, or 3 meters. Since the mola mola is one of the world’s heaviest fish that isn’t actually a shark or ray, sometimes weighing over two tons, or 2,000 kg, you really don’t want to be in a boat near a breaching mola mola. If it lands in your boat, it could sink you, or just squash you as flat as a finch under a giant tortoise.

Some researchers think the mola mola’s internal organs contain a neurotoxin—not a surprise since it’s related to the pufferfish—but we don’t know a whole lot about it yet and other researchers say it’s not toxic at all. Until recently researchers thought it only ate jellyfish, but more recent studies show that jellies only make up a small part of its diet. It feeds near the surface at night, but during the day it dives deeply, warming up between dives by sunning itself at the surface. Instead of a swim bladder, it has a layer of a jelly-like substance under its skin that helps make it neutrally buoyant.

The mola mola looks like it has no tail because it actually has no tail. Its little tail fin is called a pseudotail, or false tail. At some point during its evolution it lost its real tail. As a result, it has fewer vertebrae than any other fish, only 16. It’s a slow and clumsy swimmer but its size means it doesn’t have many natural predators beyond orcas and large sharks. It can grind its teeth together to make a croaking sound when it’s in distress. It can also blink, unlike most fish, and can retract its eyes deeper into their sockets to protect them.

In 2017, a new species of sunfish was named, the hoodwinker sunfish, Mola tecta. It grows up to ten feet long, or 3 meters, and is smooth and silvery with speckles. It’s really pretty. It lives in the southern hemisphere and that is pretty much all we know about it so far.

From the gentle giants of the sea, the manta ray and the mola mola, let’s move on to a weird freshwater fish that’s a lot scarier-looking. A few years ago, the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga, which is an awesome place that is well worth a visit if you’re in the area, was contacted by a man whose dog had found and was chewing on a hideous fish head. It had a wide grinning mouth full of rows and rows of short sharp teeth. He wanted to know what it was, naturally, because while it looked like a catfish, he’d never seen one with teeth.

It turns out that the flathead catfish does have teeth, and that’s what his dog had found. It’s native to parts of the southeastern United States into northern Mexico, but has been introduced in other places as game fish and can become an invasive species. It can grow really big, with the longest specimen ever caught measuring almost six feet long, or 1.75 meters, and weighing just shy of 140 lbs, or 63.45 kg. It eats fish, insects, crustaceans, and pretty much anything else it can catch. It’s yellowish or even purplish in color. The weird thing is that all the descriptions I read of the flathead catfish mentioned how big it is and how people like to fish for it, and how it is supposed to be the best-tasting catfish, but they don’t mention its horrifying teeth! I was going by the picture posted by the Tennessee Aquarium, sent in by the guy whose dog found the ultimate chew toy. That picture made the teeth look vicious. But I found a description of the teeth finally that said they’re more like sandpaper to human hands if you hold the fish correctly, possibly because the teeth are packed so tightly. I don’t want to put my fingers in a fish’s mouth for any reason, teeth or no teeth.

Big as it is, the flathead isn’t the biggest catfish in the world. That would be the Wels catfish, a topic suggestion by Sam. Thank you, Sam! The first time I heard about the Wels catfish was from the show River Monsters, where the fisherman Jeremy Wade caught several. I hope everyone listening finds a special someone one day who looks at them the way Jeremy Wade looks at gigantic fish. I love that show. The Wels catfish is native to parts of Europe but like the flathead catfish, it’s been introduced as a game fish in other areas and has become an invasive species.

Like other catfish, the Wels has a skin with no scales, but instead is protected by a layer of slime that has antibacterial properties. This is true for the manta ray and the sunfish too, in fact. It also has barbels that give catfish the name catfish, since the barbels look a little like whiskers. The barbels act as feelers and contain chemical receptors that help the fish taste potential prey in the water.

The Wels catfish likes warm, slow-moving water and can grow up to 16 feet long, or 5 meters, although most are much smaller. It has lots and lots of small teeth but it generally swallows its prey whole, sucking it into its big mouth. It eats fish, crustaceans, insects, worms, and anything else it can catch, but bigger ones will eat frogs, rats, even ducks and other birds. On occasion a Wels will come out of the water to catch a bird on land, but this behavior seems to be from fish that have been introduced to rivers and lakes that aren’t in its native range. The wels is also rumored to drown people and even eat them. There are reports of Wels catfish grabbing anglers by the leg or arm and dragging them into the water.

The red cornetfish lives throughout the world in tropical oceans, although young fish may live in the mouths of rivers that connect with the sea. It’s a long, skinny fish that can grow up to six and a half feet long, or 2 meters, but barely weighs more than ten pounds, or 4.7 kilograms. It can be red, orange, brownish, or even yellowish, sometimes with white or dark stripes or blotches. There’s some evidence that it can actually change its color to match its background. It also has a row of bony plates along its back.

The red cornetfish eats small squid, shrimp, and fish, which it’s able to sneak up on because it’s so incredibly thin. Basically, if it’s swimming straight toward you, all you see is a dot with two bulges for eyes. It also sneaks up on prey by hiding behind harmless fish that are fatter than it is, which is every fish.

The red cornetfish is related to pipefish and seahorses, and like those fish it has a long, pipe-like snout with a tiny mouth at the end that gives it its other common name, flutemouth. Its teeth are also tiny. At the end of its tail, a whip-like filament grows past the tail fin that extends the lateral line, which is a row of sensory cells that helps a fish detect the movements of other fish in the water.

Finally, let’s finish up with a mystery fish from South Africa. It’s called the inkanyamba and is supposed to be some twenty feet long, or six meters. It lives in lakes and near waterfalls and is generally supposed to look like a snake or eel with a horselike head.

The inkanyamba seems to be associated with storms and other severe weather, an association that goes back untold centuries to cave paintings of what are known as rain animals. So it could be that the inkanyamba is like the thunderbird, a creature of spiritual belief rather than a physical one. Groups such as the Xhosa and the Zulu believe that Inkanyamba is a giant winged snake that appears as a tornado as he flies around looking for his mate, who lives in a lake. Houses with metal roofs that aren’t painted are in danger from Inkanyamba since he might mistake the roof for water.

Then again, there are sightings. In 1962 a park ranger saw an eel-like or snake-like creature on a sand bank along the Umgeni River, which slithered into the water as he approached. Another witness sighted the monster twice near Howick Falls in 1971 and 1981. He said it was thirty feet long with a crest along its neck. The waterfall known in English as Howick Falls in South Africa is sacred to the Zulu, who believe it’s the home of Inkanyamba. It’s 310 feet high, or 95 meters, and is situated on the Umgeni River. The only people who are traditionally allowed to approach the pool at the base of the falls, or who can safely approach it, are sangomas, or traditional healers.

One suggestion is that the inkanyamba is a giant mottled eel, which has fins that run all around the tail like a crest. But it only grows to about six and a half feet long at most, or 2 meters. This is pretty big, but not anywhere near twenty or thirty feet. It eats fish, frogs, crustaceans, and other small animals, and isn’t dangerous to humans. It’s nocturnal, spends most of its time at the bottom of the lakebed or riverbed, and migrates from fresh water into the ocean to spawn and lay eggs. You may remember this from episode 49, which goes into the complicated details about eel migration.

I’m not convinced that Inkanyamba is an eel, even a big one. I think it’s more a creature of legend. If you’re lucky enough to visit Howick Falls, don’t get too close to the water, out of respect for a sacred place and just in case there’s something there that could eat you up.

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Thanks for listening!