Monthly Archives: April 2019

Episode 117: The Linsang and the Walrus

Thanks to Sam and Damian this week for their great suggestions! This week we’re going to learn about the Asiatic linsang (both banded and spotted linsangs) and the walrus!

The banded linsang looks like a realllly stretched-out cat:

The walrus is not so stretched out:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to learn about two mammals that are not related and have nothing to do with each other, but they’re both really interesting. Thanks to Sam and Damian for your suggestions!

First, Sam suggested the banded linsang, describing it “as if someone took a particularly pointy cat and just stretched it reaaaaaaaallly far while also squishing it down”

The banded linsang does look a lot like a cat with a very long ringed tail, but what is it really? Before we answer that, let’s find out a little more about it.

The banded linsang is about the size of a slender cat, but with shorter legs and a much longer body, just as Sam described. It lives in many parts of southeastern Asia and prefers forests, where it hunts for small animals like rodents, lizards and other reptiles, small birds, and insects. It’s nocturnal and secretive, which means we don’t know a whole lot about it, but we do know that it spends a lot of its time in trees. It has a face that somewhat resembles a weasel’s or cat’s, but with a longer muzzle. Its ears are small, its eyes are large, and it has small, neat paws with retractable claws like a cat. It’s tan or cream-colored with a darker face, and has a pattern of large black or dark brown spots that make rows down its back and sides, with smaller spots on its legs. Its catlike tail is as long as its body and its neck is really long too. It sort of looks like a weasel mixed with a cat.

The banded linsang is closely related to the spotted linsang, which looks very similar but instead of big blotchy spots, it usually has smaller spots all over its body. The spotted linsang lives farther north than the banded linsang but still in southeastern Asia.

Together, both the spotted and banded linsangs are called Asiatic linsangs. There are two species of linsang that live in Africa, but they’re actually not closely related to the Asiatic linsangs.

Until genetic studies were conducted a few years ago, researchers thought both African and Asiatic linsangs were related to genets. That wasn’t a bad guess since genets look a lot like linsangs, slender, spotted catlike animals with long ringed tails, and they even have claws that are partly retractable. But DNA studies show that while the genet and the African linsangs are fairly closely related, the Asiatic linsangs are more closely related to the cat family.

Because we don’t know much about the Asiatic linsangs, that’s just about all I’ve got for you. So let’s move on to Damian’s suggestion, the walrus!

We do know a lot about the walrus, and it’s an amazing animal. It lives in the Arctic Circle in shallow water just off the coast and spends most of its time in the water or sitting on ice floes like it doesn’t even notice its skin is touching ice.

The walrus is a pinniped, which means it’s related to seals and sea lions, but it’s the only member of its own family currently alive today. There are two subspecies, one that lives on the Atlantic side of the Arctic, one that lives on the Pacific side of the Arctic.

The walrus is enormous. A big male can grow up to about 16 feet long, or almost 5 meters, and some unusually large males are estimated to weigh as much as 5,000 lbs, or 2,300 kg. That’s 2 ½ tons, or almost twice as much as my car weighs. Females are smaller, typically only 12 feet long, or 3.6 meters, and only weigh up to about 1,800 pounds, or 800 kg.

The walrus’s skin is thick and wrinkly—really thick. Like, almost four inches thick in places, or ten cm. Underneath the skin, the walrus has a thick layer of blubber just like whales do, which keeps it warm in cold water. Its skin looks bare of fur, but it does have some thin hair that isn’t very noticeable, like the hairs on your arm. It does have bristly whiskers that help it find food underwater. The bristles are very sensitive, so that the walrus can find clams and other mollusks even if it can’t see them.

The walrus eats a lot of things, including crabs, sea cucumbers, and shrimp, but it especially likes clams. Its mouth is specially adapted to eat clams, which is does by clamping its mouth over the clam and sucking in so hard that it actually sucks the clam’s body right out of its shell, no matter how hard the clam tries to keep its shell closed.

The walrus is so big that the only animals that eat it are polar bears and orcas, and they don’t eat it very often. Polar bears will sometimes charge at a bunch of walruses on a beach, startling them into rushing toward the ocean. The polar bear isn’t actually trying to catch one of the walruses, it’s just trying to get them to trample a smaller or already injured walrus and leave it behind. Then the bear can kill and eat it. But for the most part, a full-grown walrus is a match for a polar bear. Both male and female walruses have tusks that can grow over three feet long, or one meter, with those of the male being slightly thicker and longer than the females’.

Those tusks were a big part of why walruses are endangered these days. The tusks are ivory, the same material that elephant tusks are made of, and for some reason humans really like ivory. In the 18th and 19th centuries, so many walruses were killed for their tusks and the fatty oil in their bodies that they almost went extinct. Fortunately, the hunting of walruses is now banned except for native populations, who only kill small numbers of walruses using traditional hunting methods.

A walrus uses its tusks for more than just defending itself against polar bears and orcas. It drags them through the sediment at the bottom of the ocean to stir up any small animals that may be hiding there. It uses them like ice picks to help haul itself out of the water onto land or just move around on land, and it even props the tusks on a piece of ice to help keep its head above water while it sleeps. It also has an air sac in its throat that it can inflate to help its head stay out of water, like a built-in life jacket. It even uses its tusks to break holes through ice.

The walrus has flippers instead of arms and legs, which means it can swim quite well but is awkward on land. It dives to find its food and can stay underwater for half an hour at a time, but it isn’t a deep diver. Its hind flippers look like a tail at first glance, but the walrus actually only has a short little nub of a tail. What looks like a tail in the water are its hind flippers, which are modified feet and still have five claws. When the walrus gets out of the water, it rotates its hind flippers around so it can walk on all fours.

Researchers once believed that an ancient walrus that went extinct 13 million years ago was a so-called killer walrus, a carnivore that preyed on small whales and seals. We don’t know much about Pelagiarctos because all we have are some jaw bones and not a full skeleton, but the teeth in those jaws resemble carnivore teeth. But according to a study published in 2016, researchers examined the teeth and compared them to those of modern seals and sea lions, and discovered that they weren’t nearly as strong as they look. They certainly weren’t strong enough to bite through bones without cracking, so researchers now think that Pelagiarctos probably ate small animals like fish and squid.

The common ancestor of the walrus and other pinnipeds lived on land but spent a lot of time in the water, and probably looked a lot like an otter. It lived around 20 million years ago but may have still been around as recently as five million years ago. It lived in the Arctic, but back then the climate in the Arctic was more temperate than it is today. It had webbed feet, grew about three and a half feet long, or 110 cm, and had a long tail and short legs.

Fossils of a more recent ancestor of the walrus have been found in Japan, dating to around 10 million years ago. It probably looked a lot like the modern walrus with two big exceptions. It was about half the size of the walrus and it didn’t have tusks, just regular sharp teeth like seals have.

We’re still learning about the ancestors of pinnipeds, with a number of walrus ancestor fossils discovered in the last decade or so. Researchers think about ten million years ago, the ancestors of walruses started to diversify into many different species. At the time, ocean levels were lower than they are today. When the sea levels rose, the various species of walrus became separated from each other by deep water. Some of the species went extinct, but one survived and evolved into the modern walrus. Thank goodness we didn’t kill them all off for their tusks!

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at We’re on Twitter at strangebeasties and have a facebook page at If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 116: Amazing Hoofed Animals

This week we’re taking a bunch of listener suggestions and learning about a bunch of amazing hoofed animals! Thanks to Richard E., Pranav, Grady, and Simon for all their suggestions!

A pronghorn antelope, which is NEITHER AN ANTELOPE NOR A DEER:


A chevrotain, or mouse deer, which is ALSO NOT A DEER AND LOOKS LIKE A RODENT FRANKLY (lesser mouse deer on left, water chevrotain on right)

A mama pudu with her baby, WHICH ARE DEER:

A goat eating poison ivy like I told you they do:

A horse eating watermelon, because it’s adorable:

An entelodont, AKA HELL PIG:

Show transcript:

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

This week I wanted to get back into some of the excellent suggestions I’ve gotten from listeners. I looked over the list, hoping that a theme would present itself…and one did. Sort of. This week let’s learn about some interesting hoofed animals, some of them living today, some extinct. Thanks to Richard E., Grady, Pranav, and Simon for the suggestions I used in this episode, in no particular order.

First, Richard asked about the differences between deer and antelope. This is an excellent question, obviously, because I’ve been sitting here staring at the screen thinking, “Well, I know they’re not members of the same family but how closely are they related?” So let’s find out. And I’ll warn you now, this gets complicated—but in an interesting way.

Antelopes are bovids, related to cows, sheep, and goats. Deer are cervids. Both groups are related, but not very closely. They’re both members of the order Artiodactyla, the even-toed ungulates, because they have hooves with two toes, called cloven hooves.

At first glance, many antelopes look a lot like deer. But antelopes have horns, not antlers, and the horns are permanent. Deer have antlers, which they shed and regrow every year. And antelope horns, like the horns of goats, sheep, and cattle, don’t branch, whereas deer antlers almost always do.

So far this is pretty straightforward. But now things get complicated. Antelopes are native to Africa and Eurasia while deer live throughout the world. But there are deer that aren’t deer and there are some antelopes that aren’t antelopes. Uh oh. We’d better figure this out.

One thing to remember is that the group of bovids referred to as antelopes have all been lumped together in what’s sometimes referred to as a wastebasket taxon. Basically that means that the animals in that taxon didn’t really fit anywhere else, so scientists grouped them together for the time being. If a bovid is clearly not a cow, a sheep, or a goat, it’s put in the antelope group.

There aren’t any antelopes living in the Americas today. If you happen to live in the western part of North America, you probably just sat up and said, “Hey, you forgot about the pronghorn!” But the pronghorn antelope…is not an antelope.

Sure, the pronghorn looks like an antelope. It’s deer-like, runs extremely fast just like antelopes, and has short black horns. But look at those horns. It’s called a pronghorn because the horns of the males have a prong, or branch, so that the horn is shaped sort of like a Y, with the front branch of the Y shorter than the other, and the longer branch of the Y having a sort of hook at the top. Remember how antelopes only ever have unbranched horns? That’s a clue that the pronghorn isn’t an antelope.

But the pronghorn also isn’t a deer. Its horns are horns, not antlers, and it keeps its horns throughout its life instead of shedding them every year. Except that it kind of does shed part of the horn every year, the sheath. The inside of a horn is bone that grows from the skull, but a sheath of keratin grows over it. If you’ve ever seen an old-fashioned drinking cup made of horn, it was made of a horn sheath, usually from a bull. Most horned animals keep the sheath, which grows as the horn grows underneath, but the pronghorn male sheds the sheath of his horns every year and then grows new ones.

So what is the pronghorn related to? Are you ready? It’s related to the giraffe! I’m not even making this up. It’s not closely related to the giraffe, though, and it’s the only living member of its own family. I think I might have to revisit the pronghorn family in its own episode one day, so for now I’ll just point out that the pronghorn is the second-fastest land animal alive, with only the cheetah able to run faster. The pronghorn can run 55 mph, or 88 km/h, for half a mile, or .8 km.

So the pronghorn isn’t an antelope or a bovid, but it looks like an antelope because it shares a similar habitat and ecological niche. You know what that means! Yes, the pronghorn looks like an antelope due to convergent evolution.

Next, let’s talk about those deer that aren’t deer. Are they related to giraffes too? Are giraffe relatives taking over? No and probably no.

There are two groups of deer that aren’t actually deer. The musk deer of Asia and the chevrotains of Asia and Africa are related to deer but they’re also related about as closely to bovids like antelopes. They’re also not that closely related to each other. Just looking at them tells you that they’re different, since they don’t look like ordinary deer.

There are seven species of musk deer alive today, and while musk deer used to live throughout Eurasia, these days they’re restricted to Asia, especially the Himalayas. They’re small, no more than two and a half feet high at the shoulder, or 70 cm, with hind legs that are longer than their front legs. The back is humped more like a rabbit’s than a deer’s. This allows them to run extremely quickly. They also don’t have antlers or horns, but males do have fangs that they use to fight other males. Fangs, people! Deer-like animals with fangs! They’re not small fangs, either, they’re basically slender tusks that grow down from the upper jaw and can be up to four inches long, or 10 cm. The tusks break easily, but they grow continuously, especially during mating season.

All species of musk deer are endangered due to overhunting, especially for the male’s scent gland, called a musk gland. This gland has been used in perfumes for centuries. These days most perfume-makers use a synthetic musk instead, but the musk deer is still being hunted for its musk gland. The male uses his musk to mark his territory, which warns other males away and attracts females.

Musk deer kind of look like if you tried to draw a kangaroo but you got mixed up halfway through and forgot you were drawing a kangaroo and decided to draw a rabbit instead. Then you added fangs.

The other deer that isn’t a deer is the chevrotain, also called the mouse-deer. There are a number of chevrotain species and they all look more like little rodents than deer. They’re all small and have bulky, rounded bodies but short spindly legs. Like musk deer they have long canine teeth instead of horns or antlers. Female chevrotains have these fangs too, but they’re longer in males and are angled outward like tiny pig tusks. Males use the teeth to fight each other. Most chevrotains are brown or reddish-brown with white streaks on the throat and sometimes face.

Some species of chevrotain like water and, like the marsh cottontail rabbit we learned about last week, will submerge in the water to hide from predators. It can hold its breath for up to four minutes. It can even walk on the bottom of the stream bed, grabbing plants with its teeth to help keep it from being swept away by the current.

The smallest chevrotain is the lesser mouse-deer, which lives across southeast Asia. It’s only about 18 inches tall at most, or 45 cm, and weighs less than 5 pounds, or 2 kg. But the smallest deer was a suggestion by Simon, and that’s the pudu. Specifically, it’s the northern pudu with the scientific name Pudu mephistophiles. I don’t know how it got this name since it’s only 14 inches tall, or 35 cm, and looks inoffensive and not devilish at all. It’s reddish-brown with big eyes, rounded ears, and little stubby antlers that only grow around four inches long, or 10 cm. It lives at high altitudes in the Andes Mountains in South America. It sheds its tiny antlers every year and regrows them, but unlike most other deer, its antlers don’t have any branches.

Because the pudu is so small, it can have trouble reaching the plants it eats. Like other deer, it’s a browser instead of a grazer, eating leaves, twigs, fruit, seeds, and bark, but not grass. It stands on its hind legs to reach leaves, but if it finds a bendy sapling, it will push it with its forelegs until the tree is bent down far enough for the pudu to reach its leaves and twigs.

The pudu is territorial and travels on little trails it makes through its territory. The southern pudu, which is only slightly larger than the northern pudu, will also build tunnels in the underbrush so it can travel without being seen by predators.

Unlike the pudu, the chevrotain hasn’t changed much in millions of years and shows primitive traits compared to modern hoofed animals. It actually shares some traits in common with pigs. While pigs are hoofed animals, they’re not closely related to chevrotains. Researchers think the chevrotain retains traits that were once common in early ruminants.

What’s a ruminant, you may be asking. Aha, this is a good question. Ruminants are hoofed animals that chew their cud, and that includes the chevrotain, the giraffe, musk deer, deer, bovids like cows, goats, sheep, and antelopes, and the pronghorn.

As I mentioned last week in the giant rabbits episode, cud-chewing is one way some animals have evolved to extract as many nutrients as possible from plants. Most plant material is tough and can be hard to digest. Ruminants have a complicated digestive system that helps with this. I bet someone at some point has told you that cows have four stomachs, and maybe you didn’t believe them. But they do. Almost all ruminants have four stomachs, or more properly, four specialized chambers that make up the stomach section of the digestive system.

This is how it works. Let’s say a goat is eating poison ivy leaves, which is something they do, and they don’t seem to have any problem with it either. The goat swallows the leaves, which go into the first two chambers of the goat’s stomach, called the rumen and the reticulum. Both these chambers contain lots of beneficial microbes and bacteria, which immediately start to ferment and break down the leaves. As this happens, the food forms into clumps of partly digested leaves called cuds. After a while, the goat regurgitates a cud and chews it thoroughly, further breaking it down, then swallows it and regurgitates another cud to do the same thing, and so on until it’s cudded everything in its rumen. Then it goes to eat some more.

After the cuds have been chewed and swallowed again, they pass through the rumen and reticulum and into the third chamber, the omasum [oh-MAY-sum]. This is where nutrients start to be absorbed. Only tiny pieces of plant are able to pass through the omasum into the fourth chamber, the abomasum [abba-MAY-sum], which is equivalent to our own stomach. This chamber adds acids to the plant material and kicks the digestive process into high gear, pushing everything on into the small intestine, where most of the nutrients are absorbed. Then what’s left of the plants goes on into the large intestine, where water is absorbed from it and the indigestible parts are packed into pellets that are pooped out.

So most ruminants have four-chambered stomachs. But not all of them. You know which ruminant only has three stomachs? That’s right, the chevrotain, the little mouse deer that kind of looks like a pig.

Pigs, by the way, aren’t ruminants. They’re omnivores and only have one stomach.

So with all this information about chewing cuds in your brain, let’s answer Grady’s question. Grady wants to know how horses digest their food.

Are horses ruminants? They eat grass and other plants. The answer is no, horses aren’t ruminants and don’t chew their cud as part of the digestive process. A horse has only one stomach but it still manages to digest grass and other tough plants just fine. This is how it works.

First, the horse chews its food really thoroughly before swallowing. Like ruminants, the horse’s teeth continue to grow throughout its life, since plants wear teeth down. The horse also produces massive amounts of saliva as it chews, and saliva contains an enzyme called amylase that helps start the digestive process. So before a horse even swallows a single bite of grass or hay, that plant material is chewed up into little bits and mixed with lots of saliva.

Oh, in case you were wondering, a male horse has forty teeth while a female only has 36. I do not know why. But ruminants don’t have front top teeth at all, just a bony pad. That helps them trim plants right down to the ground.

After a horse swallows its food, the stomach mixes it with digestive enzymes and acids that break the plant material down even more. A horse actually has a surprisingly small stomach for its body size, but typically food doesn’t stay in the stomach long. It passes into the small intestine and then into the large intestine, where most of the actual digestion takes place. Microbes in the large intestine help break down the plant material so that the horse can absorb it.

The large intestine is sometimes called the hindgut, because it’s behind the other parts of the digestive system. Horses are hindgut fermenters, which means a horse’s food is fermented, or broken down by microbes, in the hindgut, or large intestine. Ruminants are called foregut fermenters because their food is fermented, or broken down by microbes, in the foregut, or the stomach chambers that come before the rest of the digestive system. And if you’re curious, rabbits and hares are also considered hindgut fermenters.

There are lots more fascinating hoofed animals I want to talk about, but I have to stop somewhere. Don’t worry, eventually we’ll learn about some actual deer with fangs as well as antlers, and more about the pronghorn, and lots more. But we’ll finish up this week with a suggestion from Pranav, who wanted to learn about an extinct hoofed animal called the entelodont.

What’s an entelodont? It’s sometimes called the HELL PIG. Why would it be called that? Is it like the little Mephistopheles pudu who must have scared some scientist one day and ended up with a devilish name? Nope, the entelodont is called the hell pig because it was enormous and terrifying. Fortunately for us, it went extinct millions of years ago.

Despite its name, the entelodont isn’t all that closely related to the pig. It’s more closely related to the hippo and to WHALES, because whales and hippos are closely related. But the various species of entelodont were pig-like in many ways. Entelodonts lived throughout much of the world, but let’s look specifically at the biggest entelodont known, Daeodon [DIE-oh-don], which lived in North America up to about 18 million years ago.

Daeodon stood nearly six feet tall at the shoulder, or about 1.8 meters. It had long, slender legs with cloven hooves, and its body was bulky and something like 10 feet long, or 3 meters. It didn’t have a pig-like snout, and in fact its nostrils were on the sides of its nose, which probably helped it track food by scent. It had flared cheekbones with bony protrusions that probably meant it looked a lot like a modern warthog. Its tail was short and small.

Daeodon was an omnivore, which means it would eat just about anything it wanted, and it had the sharp, serrated teeth of a predator. It probably did a lot of scavenging of dead animals, but it could have hunted and killed prey too. Its jaw was so strong it could bite right through bones. And it could run quickly.

So basically, daeodon and entelodonts in general earn the nickname hell pig. It’s probably a good thing they’re not still around. I personally prefer the tiny and harmless Pudu mephistophiles.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at We’re on Twitter at strangebeasties and have a facebook page at If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 115: Giant Rabbits and King Hares

This week let’s learn about some giant-sized rabbits and hares! Also some regular-sized ones.

Further listening:

Life, Death & Taxonomy podcast episode about the Collared Pika

Further reading:

Dr Karl Shuker’s post about giant rabbits and hares

The National Cryptid Society’s post about giant rabbits and hares

An eastern cottontail rabbit:

The Flemish giant looks Photoshopped. It’s a big bunny:

A European hare (also called the brown hare):

The Belgian hare is a domestic rabbit bred to look like a hare:

Show transcript:

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

A few weeks ago we had an episode about some animal hoaxes that were based on true animal facts, including the horned hare. While I was researching that topic, I kept running across interesting facts about rabbits and hares, specifically mysterious reports about giant rabbits. So this week, let’s have a whole episode about gigantic rabbits and hares.

We’ll start with some general information. Collectively rabbits and hares are called leporids after their family, Leporidae, or lagomorphs after their order, Lagomorpha. Lagomorphs include pikas, which are really cute and look sort of like oversized hamsters. The podcasts Species and Life, Death and Taxonomy both did really good episodes about the pika recently, so we’re just going to talk about rabbits and hares today.

Leporids are famous for hopping instead of walking, and they’re able to do so because their hind legs are longer than their front legs and have specialized ankle joints. Ancestors of leporids developed this ankle as much as 53 million years ago, but their legs were much shorter so they probably ran instead of hopped. Hares have longer legs than rabbits and can run faster as a result, but both rabbits and hares are known for their ability to bound at high speeds. When a rabbit or hare runs, it pushes off from the ground with the tips of its long hind toes, and its toes are connected with webbed skin so they can’t spread apart. If the toes did spread apart, they would be more likely to get injured. Rabbits and hares also don’t have paw pads like dogs and cats do. The bottom of a leporid’s foot is covered with dense, coarse fur that protects the toes from injury. Its long claws help it get a good purchase on the ground so its feet won’t slip.

Baby rabbits are called bunnies, kits, or kittens, and like baby dogs and cats, they’re born helpless, without fur and with their eyes still sealed closed. Baby hares are called leverets and are born fully developed, with fur and with their eyes open.

Leporids eat plants, including grass, weeds, twigs, and bark. Animals that eat grass and other tough plants have specialized digestive systems so they can extract as many nutrients from the plants as possible. Many animals swallow the plants, digest them for a while, then bring up cuds of plants and water to chew more thoroughly. Rabbits and hares don’t chew their cud in that way, but they do have a system that allows them to digest the plants they eat twice.

After a leporid eats some plants, the plants go into the stomach, naturally, and then travel into the first part of the large intestine, called the cecum. The cecum separates the softer parts of the plants from the harder, less digestible parts. The hard parts are compressed into hard pellets that the rabbit poops out. But the soft parts of the plants, which are most nutritious, develop into softer pellets. These are called cecotropes, and as soon as the rabbit poops out the cecotropes, it immediately eats them again. This allows the digestive system to get a second round to extract more nutrients from the plants.

Most rabbit species are native to North America, but there are also rabbits native to parts of South America, parts of Europe and Asia, parts of Africa, and a few Japanese islands. They’ve also been introduced to other areas of the world, especially Australia, where they’re a real pest since rabbits eat a lot and reproduce rapidly.

Most hare species are native to Eurasia, with some species also living in parts of Africa, North America, and some Japanese islands. Despite its name, the jackrabbit of North America is a hare.

Hares live above ground and are generally solitary. Almost all rabbits are sociable and sleep underground in warrens and burrows. The exceptions are the rare hispid hare of South Asia, which is actually a rabbit, and the cottontail rabbit of North America. These rabbits make nests in long grass like hares do to raise their babies. Eastern cottontails are the rabbits I’m familiar with, and the cottontail gets its name because its short tail is white all over instead of only white underneath. It looks like a powder puff.

Hares aren’t domesticated, but rabbits have been and there are a lot of breeds of domestic rabbit. I had a pet red satin when I was a kid. Her name was June and she was beautiful. Domestic rabbits can be trained to use a litter box just like a cat, but unlike most cats, rabbits will chew on everything. I say most cats because I had a cat once who liked to chew through phone cords, back when I had a landline phone. But a rabbit will chew on all cords, on furniture, on wallpaper, and things like that if the rabbit isn’t trained and isn’t given appropriate things to chew on. A pet rabbit can be spayed or neutered just like a pet dog or cat to make it healthier, less likely to spray urine to mark its territory, and less aggressive.

So now we have a good idea of what rabbits and hares are like. Now let’s find out about some gigantic and mysterious leporids.

I’ll start with an account by a witness named Evelyn who saw something unusual while waiting for the school bus one morning. This happened in New Jersey, which is in the northeastern United States. I’ll quote the account I found in the National Cryptid Society archives.

“In 1954, I had just turned 14. I was waiting for the school bus at 6:45 AM by our house in the country, which was across the road from a holly farm. At that time before they planted hollies it was mostly weeds along the road but sweet potatoes in the rest of the field.

“I glanced over at the 10+ acre field in front of me and there sat what appeared to be a huge ‘rabbit.’ It was brown and I was roughly ten to fifteen feet from it. I had seen hares before but this was not a hare; besides, hares hadn’t been seen in that part of New Jersey in forty years.

“This creature was sitting on its haunches and stood nearly four and a half feet tall. It just watched me for several minutes, and then it just disappeared! It did not hop away.

“I wasn’t frightened. I had a strange feeling of peace. I had such a calm, peaceful feeling. It was almost as if it was reassuring me it was not unreal; that is the only way I can explain it.

“No one else ever saw it and my family lived there for over 25 years. To this day I wonder what it really was and where it came from.”

Wow, wait, what?? How does an animal that big just disappear? Like, actually vanish into thin air?

Let’s take a closer look at the details here and see what we can figure out.

We’ll start with the detail about the sweet potatoes in hopes of figuring out what time of year it was. In New Jersey, sweet potatoes are planted around the end of spring and harvested in late summer into early autumn. In other words, if there were sweet potatoes in the field, the days would be long and it would have been fully light at 6:45 am. So Evelyn probably did get a good look at the animal for at least a minute.

She also states she was only ten to fifteen feet away from it, which would be about 3 to 4 and a half meters away. That’s really close. But from the way she describes the scene, it sounds like she was across the road from the field where she saw the animal. She says she was waiting by her house, which was across from the farm. I actually measured the road in front of my house when I was researching episode 17 about the Thunderbird. My road is a typical two-lane road in a small town and I believe it measured 18 ½ feet, or just over 5.6 meters. Of course, I don’t know how wide roads were back in 1953, but it’s likely Evelyn was a little farther away from the animal than she remembers.

It sounds like the animal was close to the road, probably in the weeds along the edge of the road rather than in the cultivated field full of sweet potatoes. Deer are considered sweet potato pests but rabbits aren’t, so if it was a giant rabbit of some kind, it was probably eating weeds instead of sweet potato leaves.

Next, what kind of rabbits and hares live in New Jersey? The eastern cottontail and the New England cottontail are both small rabbits that Evelyn would have recognized easily. The European hare, black-tailed jackrabbit, and white-tailed jackrabbit, which are all hares, have been introduced into parts of New Jersey for hunting at different times. But Evelyn states specifically that this was not a hare.

The snowshoe hare is sometimes seen in northern New Jersey and might occasionally stray farther south. I don’t know what part of New Jersey Evelyn was from, but sweet potato farming is more common in the southern parts of the state. The snowshoe hare is more rabbit-like in appearance than other hares, since its ears are smaller and its body more rounded. Its fur usually turns white in winter to camouflage it against the snow, but in summer it would be brown. And it’s also fairly large, certainly bigger than a cottontail rabbit. Not counting the tail, a snowshoe hare can grow up to a foot and a half long, or 48 cm. If it was sitting up on its hind legs, especially if it was sitting up high on its hind legs to watch Evelyn in case it needed to run, it might appear to be even bigger, say two feet or more, or over 61 cm. But even accounting for the animal’s size being exaggerated in Evelyn’s memory, that’s still a lot smaller than the almost four and a half foot tall animal she describes. Four and a half feet is 137 cm. That’s really tall.

If you’ve listened to episode 73, about phantom kangaroos, you know that wallabies and kangaroos are sometimes kept as pets in the United States and often escape. Wallabies and kangaroos have long ears, long hind legs, and sit up like rabbits and hares. If Evelyn saw a wallaby but didn’t see its long tail, she might have thought she was looking at an enormous rabbit.

But…it disappeared. Hares are considered masters of hiding and are said to be able to seem to disappear from view even in short grass, but how in the heck can an animal more than four feet tall just vanish?

I don’t have an answer, so all I can offer is that either Evelyn misjudged the animal’s size and thought it was much larger than it was, and it was able to drop down quickly and appear to vanish in tall weeds, or Evelyn actually saw a ghostly giant rabbit of some kind that actually vanished. Now this sounds like a Halloween episode. At least her ghost rabbit wasn’t scary. She even points out that she felt peaceful after seeing it.

Evelyn isn’t the only person who’s reported seeing a giant rabbit or hare. In 1976 in Dorset, England, a woman named Louise Hodgson and two men out walking their dogs in the evening saw a group of about a dozen hares in a field. This was in September so it was unusual to find that many hares together just to start with, since hares are usually solitary except during mating season in spring. But there was a bigger animal with the hares. The dog-walkers at first thought it was a roe deer due to its size, but then they realized it was another hare, but huge. A roe deer stands no more than two and a half feet at the shoulder, or 75 cm, which is the same measurement of the length of a large European hare’s body. So a European hare could appear as tall as a roe deer when sitting up, but then why did it appear so much larger than the other hares?

In April of 2006, not long after the awesome movie Wallace & Gromit and the Curse of the Were-Rabbit was released, reports of a giant rabbit eating up gardens in Northumberland, England hit the news. People thought it was an April Fool’s joke, but the gardeners were furious and had proof: giant-sized rabbit footprints, and of course their destroyed produce. They reported that the rabbit was the size of a dog and was black and brown in color. The first witness saw it in February of that year. But before anyone could get a good photo of the rabbit or capture it, a local woman reported that she’d been driving one night in early April when a massive rabbit bounded in front of her car. She wasn’t able to stop and collided with the rabbit, which was so big that the front bumper of her car was damaged. The rabbit died, unfortunately, and the woman said she got out and looked at it. She estimated it was at least two feet long, or 61 cm, with long legs. Rabbit fur was found stuck in the damaged bumper of her car, but the dead rabbit was long gone, probably eaten by a fox. After that the giant rabbit wasn’t seen again and the gardeners were left in peace.

And in 2017 a man reported that when he was a kid in the late 1960s, in Placer County, California, he and his mother both saw some jackrabbits that were almost four feet tall when they sat up, or 1.2 meters. The best part of this story is that they saw more than one giant jackrabbit.

So what could these giant hares and rabbits be? Do leporids ever really get that big?

Actually, yes. There are two breeds of domestic rabbit that are enormous. One is called the Flemish giant and the other is a British breed called the Continental giant. Both were originally bred for fur and meat, but are good-natured rabbits that are often kept as pets these days. A typical domestic rabbit is roughly the size and weight of a small to medium-sized cat, but a Flemish or continental giant rabbit can be as large as a medium-sized dog. The biggest is a rabbit named Darius, who is officially four feet four inches long, or 134 cm. Pictures of him and other domestic breed giants look photoshopped, because how can a rabbit be so big? But they are.

It’s probable that the Northumberland giant rabbit was a Flemish or continental giant that had escaped its home. But what about the giant hares reported in other places? Hares look much more slender and angular than rabbits and usually have longer ears.

Some cryptozoologists suggest that an extinct leporid might be the culprit, if it isn’t really extinct. Nuralagus rex, also called the Minorcan giant lagomorph, and sometimes referred to as a giant jackrabbit, was only described in 2011 and went extinct 3 to 5 million years ago. But Nuralagus wasn’t a jackrabbit and it only lived on one island, Menorca in the Mediterranean Sea. While it was related to modern rabbits and hares, it was definitely very different and not really all that big. It probably stood about a foot and a half high at the highest part of the back, or around half a meter, and was big and heavy. But it had small eyes and ears, and it probably couldn’t hop or even run very fast. If it was alive today, no one would think it was even related to a rabbit or hare.

The king hares seen in parts of England might be unusually large hares whose size has been exaggerated, since it’s hard to estimate size of an animal seen in the distance or seen only briefly. The king hare seen by Louise Hodgson in Dorset amid a bunch of smaller hares might actually have been a large hare in a field of rabbits, which Hodgson and her companions might have interpreted as being one giant hare and a lot of normal-sized hares. Hares and rabbits don’t typically interact where their ranges overlap, but they also don’t apparently dislike each other. A solitary hare might feed in a field where rabbits are also feeding.

Of course it’s also possible that there are anomalously large hares born sometimes. But there is another possibility.

In the mid-1980s, a man named Andrew Munro was walking through his mother’s garden in County Cork, Ireland when he saw a huge hare. He stopped and stared at it, and it stopped and stared at him, standing on its hind legs with its ears perked up. Munro estimated it was over four feet tall, or 1.2 meters. Munro’s dog saw it and gave chase, but the hare bounded away and was gone in moments.

This is an interesting sighting, because Munro pointed out that the hare was only four feet tall because it was standing up tall on its hind legs with its long ears up. A large hare can have ears more than half a foot long, or 15 cm. If you add the ear length to the body and head length, a big hare sitting up can measure three feet, or over 91 cm, and if it’s also standing on its hind legs instead of sitting on its bottom, that adds more height. So maybe we’re talking about big hares, but not ENORMOUS hares.

Not only that, there’s a breed of domestic rabbit called the Belgian hare that was bred to look like a hare. It’s slender, strong, and energetic, with long ears and legs. It was first bred in the early 18th century and was considered a meat rabbit, and while it’s not as heavy or bulky as a Flemish giant or continental giant rabbit, it’s big, much bigger than a wild hare. In fact, the Flemish giant was developed from the Belgian hare breed.

The Belgian hare became incredibly popular at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th as a meat rabbit and as a show rabbit. Some prize Belgian hares sold for as much as a thousand dollars, which is expensive now and was ridiculously expensive back in the olden days. By 1917 its popularity had fallen, mostly because there were just so many Belgian hares that the price dropped to almost nothing, which made fewer people want to bother keeping them to sell.

According to zoologist Karl Shuker’s blog, during the 1940s, Belgian hares may have been released into the wild in Ireland with the expectation that people could shoot them for meat. But before long Ireland was overrun with rabbits to such an extent that they were eradicated. I can’t find anything else about this online so this might not be the case, or the rabbits might only have been released in one small area, but it is interesting to consider that the big hare Andrew Munro saw in the 1980s might actually have been a descendant of one of these hare-like rabbits.

We’ll finish with another interesting rabbit, but not a big one. It’s the marsh rabbit, and it’s a type of cottontail that lives in swamps and along the coast of the southeastern United States. It’s smaller than other cottontail species with small ears and shorter legs, and it always lives around water. There are three subspecies, including the endangered Lower Keys marsh rabbit that lives in the Florida Keys.

The marsh rabbit can hop just fine like other rabbits, but because its legs are so much shorter than other rabbit species, it can also walk. Its walking gait resembles a cat’s. This helps it navigate dense vegetation more easily. Not only that, its toes are much more widely spread than in other rabbit species.

But the really extraordinary thing about the marsh rabbit is that it likes to swim. It spends a lot of time in the water—and I mean, actually in the water. It mostly eats aquatic plants. It will submerge itself in muddy water to hide with just its nose and eyes above water and its ears laid flat to hide them. If a predator approaches, the rabbit will swim away. This is not behavior I think of when I think of rabbits but you have to admit, it’s adorable.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at We’re on Twitter at strangebeasties and have a facebook page at If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 114: The Depths of the Sea of Cortez

The Gulf of California, AKA the Sea of Cortez, is home to thousands upon thousands of animals, many of them not found anywhere else in the world. New research expeditions in its deep-sea fissures and trenches have turned up some amazing new animals too. Let’s take a look at a few of them!

Thanks to Hally for this week’s topic suggestion!

The lollipop catshark sounds cuter than it is:

The black brotula:

A super creepy grenadier fish. Look at those EYES:

A type of batfish. It uses its stiff fins to walk around on the bottom of the ocean:

Some beautiful hydrothermal chimneys:

Giant tube worms:

Show transcript:

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

It’s been a while since we did a deep-sea episode. This week let’s find out about some strange fish discovered in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Mexico. Thanks to Hally for the suggestion!

The Gulf of California, also called the Sea of Cortez, is the stretch of water between mainland Mexico and the Baja peninsula. Researchers estimate it started forming over 5 million years ago when tectonic forces separated the strip of land now called Baja peninsula or Baja California from the mainland. It’s still attached to the mainland at its northern edge, where the Colorado River empties into the gulf. The sea is about 700 miles wide, or over 1100 km.

Because the gulf was formed by tectonic forces and undersea volcanos, parts of it are extremely deep—more than 12,500 feet deep in places, or 3,800 meters. It’s full of islands, nearly 1,000 of them, a few of them quite large and some just tiny, some of them volcanic and some not. And it’s rich in ocean life, with many animals found in the Gulf of California that live nowhere else in the world.

For instance, the lollipop catshark! What a cute name. It probably plays ukulele and its best friend plays the xylophone. They should start a band!

The lollipop catshark is actually not super cute, although it is pretty awesome. It’s a small shark, only about 11 inches long, or 28 cm, and it has pinkish gray skin that’s almost gelatinous in texture, although it also has tiny spiky denticles, especially on its back. It gets the name lollipop from its shape. It has a broad head with large gills, but its body tapers to a slender tail so that it’s sort of shaped like a tadpole. Not really lollipop shaped, frankly. Babies are born live instead of hatching from eggs, with a female giving birth to two babies at a time. It eats crustaceans and fish.

The reason the lollipop catshark has such big gills is that it lives at the bottom of the ocean where there’s not much oxygen. The Gulf of California is especially oxygen-poor in its deepest areas, so when a team of scientists sent a submersible to the deepest parts of the gulf in 2015, they didn’t expect to find that many fish or other animals. But not only were there a lot of lollipop catsharks, there were lots of other animals too.

The submersible found the most fish in a part of the gulf called the Carralvo Trough, which is nearly 3,300 feet deep, or 1,000 meters. A few years before, a submersible had discovered the bodies of dozens of dead squid in the trough, and researchers determined that the squid were all females that had laid eggs and then died and sunk to the bottom. The dead squid are usually eaten by scavengers within 24 hours of dying, including crabs and sea stars, brittle stars, and acorn worms, as well as small bottom-dwelling sharks like the lollipop catshark. So it was good timing that the submersible saw so many of them at once.

Another deep-sea animal found in the Gulf of California is the cusk eel. There are lots of species of cusk eel that live throughout the world’s oceans and even some fresh water, and despite the name, cusk eels are fish, not eels. They’re related to cod, although not closely. They live on the bottom of the ocean, usually in shallow water, where they burrow in the sediment and sand at the bottom.

But the cusk eel found in the Carralvo Trough is called the black brotula, and it’s so different from other cusk eels that it has its own genus. The black brotula grows up to 10 inches long, or about 25 cm, and only lives in the depths of the Gulf of California and in some deep areas along the western coast of Mexico and Chile. Not only can it tolerate low-oxygen water, it prefers it. It’s black or dark gray in color–even its intestines are black. And that’s pretty much all we know about it at this point. Cusk eels are generally not very well studied, and the black brotula is hard to study because it lives so deep in the gulf. Researchers don’t even know how it tolerates water with so little oxygen and what it eats down there. We do know that young black brotulas prefer shallower water.

Another deep-sea fish found in the Gulf of California is the grenadier [grin-a-deer]. Grenadiers are some of the most common deep-sea fish in the world, with lots of different species. Some researchers estimate that they may make up as much as 15% of all fish that live in the deep sea. All grendadiers have large heads with big eyes and mouths, slender bodies that taper to such a thin tail that some people call the fish rattail.

The grenadier has barbels under the chin with chemoreceptors on them, and more chemoreceptors on the mouth and head, so it can sense other fish nearby even if it can’t see them. It’s been found as deep as nearly 23,000 feet under the surface, or 7,000 meters, which is just ridiculous. That’s four and a third miles underwater, or seven km. The Gulf of California isn’t that deep, of course, but there are grenadiers swimming around in the deepest areas, eating anything they can catch.

Some grenadiers are eaten, but mostly they have a soft, unpleasant texture and are low in protein. The biggest grenadier, which is common throughout the deep areas of the Pacific Ocean, is the giant grenadier, which can grow to 6 ½ feet long, or 2 meters. It eats vampire squid and other cephalopods. The grenadier most commonly found in the Gulf of California is the smooth grenadier, which only grows to about a foot long, or 30 cm.

A type of batfish that’s common off the western coasts of North, Central, and South America is also found in the deep sea of the Gulf of California. It’s a small type of anglerfish, only about six inches long, or 15 cm, dark in color, with a broad flattened head tapering to a much thinner long tail. Like other anglerfish, it has strong, stiff fins that it uses to crawl around on the ocean floor, where it hunts small animals like polychaete worms and crustaceans as well as fish.

If you look at the pictures I have in the show notes, or if you’ve been paying attention to the descriptions of all these fish, you’ll notice that even though they’re not related, they all share similar features. Their heads are large and usually broad, while their bodies are relatively small with a slender tail. The large head allows the fish to have unusually large gills and eyes, with a broad mouth so it can gulp down any food it finds. You know what this points to? That’s right, convergent evolution, where the fish all share a similar habitat that has influenced certain aspects of the body shape!

Currently, researchers are exploring volcanic vents in the Gulf of California that are the deepest found in the area. The area contains hydrothermal vents, which can heat the water to over 660 degrees F, or 350 degrees Celcius, and cold seeps, which are only called cold because they’re not super heated.

The vents are surrounded by mineral towers called hydrothermal chimneys that are up to 120 feet high, or 37 meters. These deepest vents and chimneys were only discovered in 2015, with others nearby only discovered in 2012. There are two types of chimneys in the area, dark-colored ones that grow the biggest, which are made up of sulfide minerals, and smaller, more delicate ones made up of light-colored carbonate minerals. The only other carbonate chimneys ever found are in the Atlantic. They’re really pretty.

Between the super heated water, the high levels of sulfides and heavy metals from the vents, and the great depth, the area would kill most animal life. But hydrothermal ecosystems are home to extremophiles that thrive in places that are deadly to other animals. The dark-colored chimneys, often called black smokers since they give off plumes of superheated minerals that look like smoke, are home to giant tube worms that can grow nearly eight feet long, or 2.4 meters, although they’re only a little more than an inch and a half wide, or 4 cm.

Giant tube worms don’t have a digestive tract, just a sort of internal pouch to hold the chemosynthetic bacteria that provide nutrients to the worm. The worm gives the bacteria a safe place to live, and the bacteria convert the carbon dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, and other minerals into nutrients that the worm absorbs.

But how do giant tube worms find new hydrothermal vents? Old vents go cold and new ones open up all the time, and giant tube worms can’t move once they’ve attached themselves to a rock or other solid structure. It turns out that newly hatched giant tube worms are free-swimming larvae, and at first they don’t contain any of the symbiotic bacteria that they need later in life. They acquire the bacteria later, when bacteria in the water find the larva and burrow into its skin. The larva swims deeper into the ocean and finds a hydrothermal vent, if it’s lucky, and attaches itself to a rock or something nearby. It then develops rapidly from a larva into the juvenile stage, where its digestive system reforms into a place for the bacteria to live. Then it grows into an adult tube worm.

The carbonate chimneys have a different kind of tube worm that prefers a different range of minerals.

Giant tube worms were only discovered in 1977. No one back then dreamed that anything could live around hydrothermal vents so the team exploring some vents hadn’t even brought along a biologist, just geologists. I like to think that they freaked out when they saw tube worms and other animals living around the vents.

It just goes to show, like they say in Jurassic Park, life finds a way.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at We’re on Twitter at strangebeasties and have a facebook page at If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 113: Horned Hares and Winged Cats

It’s April Fool’s Day, but while these two mystery animals may mostly be associated with hoaxes and tall tales, there’s a really interesting nugget of truth in both.

Unlocked Patreon episode about mammals with nose horns

Further reading: Dr Karl P N Shuker’s blog post about winged cats and his blog post about horned hares

Traditional drawings of horned hares:

You can take classes in taxidermy that specialize in making jackalopes!

A genuine horned hare (with an extreme case of SPV):

A winged cat:

Mitzi/Thomas the winged cat:

Show transcript:

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

This episode releases on April Fool’s Day, April 1. I’m not a fan of April fool jokes, so we’re going to discuss two interesting strange animals that turned out to be hoaxes—but hoaxes with a nugget of truth that’s actually more interesting than the hoax.

The first hoax is akin to the jackalope and it’s pretty obvious to us nowadays. The horned hare was a tradition in European folklore and drawings of it look like a jackalope. There are even stuffed horned hares, just as there are stuffed jackalopes.

Some of you may be wondering what the heck a jackalope is, so I’ll explain that first.

The jackalope legend may have started as a tall tale, but was probably just a taxidermy joke. When someone prepares a dead animal for taxidermy, it’s not a simple process. The taxidermist has to remove the skin from the body, clean it and add preservatives, make a careful armature or mannequin of the body out of wood or other materials, and put the skin on the armature and sew it up. The taxidermist then adds details like glass eyes and artificial tongues. It can take months of painstaking work to finish a specimen, and it requires a lot of artistry and training. Taxidermists who are learning the trade will often mount small, common animals like rabbits and rats as practice. And sometimes they’ll get creative with the process, just to make it more interesting. For instance, a taxidermist may add pronghorn antelope horns to a jackrabbit. Voila, there’s a jackalope!

You can see stuffed jackalopes today in a lot of places, since they’re fun conversation pieces. Some restaurants will have one stuck up on a wall somewhere, for instance. Horned hares are similar, but instead of a jackrabbit with pronghorn horns or white-tailed deer antlers, which are animals from North America, the European horned hare is usually a European hare with horns [I should have said antlers] from a roe deer.

The horned hare was such a common taxidermied animal that people actually believed it was real. Eventually, around the 19th century, as knowledge of the natural world grew more sophisticated, scientists realized rabbits and hares don’t have horns and those stuffed specimens were just hoaxes. The tip-off was probably when taxidermists started getting really fancy and adding bird wings and saber teeth to their mounted hares.


The horned hare goes way back in history. It appeared in medieval bestiaries, sometimes called the unicorn hare. The unicorn hare was supposed to have a single black horn on its head. The hare would act normal, but when someone approached, it would spring at them and stab them with its horn. Then it would eat them. The legend of the horned hare is so widespread and long-lived, in fact, and was believed for so long, that it’s easy to think maybe it was based on something real. I mean, we just talked about rodents with nose horns a few weeks ago, so nothing’s impossible.

Wait, I think that’s a Patreon episode. If it is, I’ll unlock it. I’ll put a link in the show notes.

There is a strange truth behind all the jackalopes and horned hares. A disease called the Shope papilloma virus, or SPV, affects hares and rabbits. There are a lot of papilloma viruses in various animals, even humans, but in most animals, including humans, it only results in tumors in the body. In rabbits and hares, it causes keratinized tumors to grow from the skin, often on the head. Usually these are small and don’t show through the fur, but sometimes an animal has an extreme case of SPV and it genuinely looks like it has horns. The horns are hard and usually dark in color. As if that wasn’t bad enough, rabbits and hares in Europe can also get a disease called Leporipoxvirus that again causes facial horns to grow from the skin.

If you’re feeling totally creeped out right now, don’t worry, humans can’t catch these diseases from rabbits and hares.

Remember how I mentioned taxidermied hares with wings? What about cats with wings—but not taxidermied, real live domestic cats with fur-covered wings. That totally can’t be real, right? It’s not real?

It’s real…but only if you are really generous with what you mean by wings.

Winged cats are a real phenomenon, but the wings in question are furry, not feathered, and winged cats can’t fly. That doesn’t stop people from claiming they’ve seen these winged cats flying around causing mischief. For instance, in Ontario, Canada in 1966 a so-called vampire cat was supposedly flying around attacking other animals. It was a black tomcat with furry wings 7 inches long, or 18 cm. Eventually someone shot the cat, which was examined by veterinarians and found to be rabid. Its wings were nothing but thickly matted fur, so the stories of it flying around weren’t true, although sadly, it was definitely attacking other animals due to having rabies.

In 1959, a case went to court in West Virginia over a winged cat. A 15 year old boy named Douglas Shelton said he’d rescued the cat from a tree and adopted her. But a woman named Mrs. Hicks said that the cat was hers, named Mitzi, but that Mitzi had run away and she wanted her back. This makes sense. I mean, I would want my cat back too. At first the judge awarded the cat to Mrs. Hicks, but when Douglas brought her into the courtroom, she had no wings. Douglas said she’d shed them during the summer but he’d kept the wings, which he showed to the judge. At that point, Mrs. Hicks suddenly decided she didn’t want the cat after all. Frankly, I’m sure Mitzi was better off with Douglas, who didn’t care if she had wings or not, although he did change Mitzi’s name to Thomas.

Stories like these didn’t just happen back in the olden days. There are lots of winged cat reports today, including photos and videos. What’s going on? Why do some cats develop these furry appendages that people call wings?

Sometimes the cats in question just have long fur that has become unusually matted and appears to form winglike flaps along the sides. But in many cases, the wings are due to a rare skin condition called feline cutaneous asthenia, or FCA.

Cats with FCA have unusually elastic skin. All skin stretches at least a little bit but almost immediately snaps back into place. You can try this yourself by gently tugging up the skin on the back of your hand and releasing it. But in cats with FCA, the skin doesn’t snap back properly, especially the skin along the shoulders and back. Since in the ordinary course of living its life, a cat’s skin stretches quite a bit along the back, eventually an FCA cat ends up with long flaps of furry skin that stretched and didn’t snap back repeatedly. The wings aren’t really wings, of course, and can’t allow the cat to fly.

Cats with FCA do usually need special care, especially if the case is severe. The skin is elastic, but it’s also prone to damage because it’s actually very delicate. The so-called wings sometimes tear off naturally, leaving wounds that bleed very little but still need to be treated by a veterinarian. They then reform. The wings tend to be on the sides near the hind legs but are sometimes closer to the shoulders.

Mitzi, AKA Thomas, was definitely a cat with FCA. Her wings were six inches long, or 15 cm, and her tail was described as squirrel-like. She was a white cat described as a Persian, although she may have just had long hair like a Persian cat. A reporter who examined Thomas described her wings as fluffy at the ends but with a gristly feel at the base, as though they contained tendons or other structure. This was probably the extended skin due to FCA.

It sounds like Douglas was a really nice kid who rescued the cat from the tree and took her home, and when his friends made fun of the unusual-looking cat, he was really upset. Once word of the winged cat got around, people started showing up at the family’s house to look at it. At first Douglas charged 10cents to see the cat, and he was even invited to New York where he and Thomas appeared on the Today Show.

But after that, things started to go kind of nuts. Thousands of people kept trying to see the cat, so many that Douglas’s mom spread the story that the cat had died, just so people would leave the family alone. She also took the cat to a friend’s house for a while until the fuss died down, swearing the friend to secrecy that the cat was still alive. Then Mrs. Hicks sued.

I tried to find out what happened to Douglas Shelton and Thomas after all the excitement died down. Douglas and his family were awarded custody of Thomas by the judge, with Mrs. Hicks rewarded a single dollar in damages, but whatever happened after that has vanished into the pre-internet vacuum. I’m sure Thomas lived a good life with the Sheltons, and Douglas is probably still alive today. He would be about the right age to be a granddad by now, so I bet he tells his grandkids stories about the time he had a cat with wings. I bet they don’t even believe him.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at We’re on Twitter at strangebeasties and have a facebook page at If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!