Monthly Archives: July 2019

Episode 130: Strangest Small Fish

This week we’re going to revisit a suggestion from Damian and follow up on episode 96, our strangest big fish episode. This time let’s find out about some weird small fish!

The teeny, newly-discovered American pocket shark:

The brownsnout spookfish wears its mirror sunglasses on the INSIDE:

The goblinfish with a dangerous head and basically a dangerous everything else too:

Two teeny pygmy seahorses. Can you spot them? Hint: they’re the ones with eyes.

The razorfish. Just another sea urchin spine, no fish to see here:

The much-maligned candiru:

The red-lipped batfish:

Gimme kiss:

Show transcript:

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

Ages ago, Damian suggested an episode about weird fish. We covered some weird big fish in episode 96, but now it’s time for some weird little fish.

So, think about sharks for a second. Big, scary, sharp teeth, fast swimmers, black eyes of a pitiless killer of the deep.

But have you perhaps considered that maybe the world needs a very small shark? One that actually kind of looks like a tiny whale? Like, a tiny shark, only about 5 ½ inches long, or 14 cm. Almost, you know, pocket sized. Oh, and it should glow in the dark.

That’s the American pocket shark, a real animal that was only discovered in 2010! It’s called a pocket shark not because it’s pocket sized, although it is, but because it has a sort of pocket on each side near its gills that produces luminous fluid. Researchers aren’t sure whether the shark uses the fluid for attracting prey or avoiding predators. Maybe both. Its head is bulbous and rounded, which kind of makes it look like a tiny whale.

The American pocket shark was discovered in the Gulf of Mexico while scientists were observing sperm whales and tracking them with sonar. When a whale surfaced from a dive, the research team dropped nets to the depth the whale had dived to, hoping to catch the same kind of prey the whales were eating. And one of the things they found in the net was a tiny shark new to science, found at a depth of 3,000 feet, or 914 meters.

In 2013 the tiny shark, which had been frozen for later study, was finally examined. The expert who looked at it had only seen one other shark like it before, a shark discovered in the eastern Pacific in 1979. But this tiny shark had some differences from that tiny shark, and after examining both specimens carefully, they’ve been classified as different species.

So that’s a cute start, but it’s still just a rare little shark that glows. Not really that unusual, right? Let’s look at a really weird fish next. Like, seriously weird.

It’s called the brownsnout spookfish, which is a really terrible name, but it’s not a terrible fish. I mean, it couldn’t hurt you. It grows about 7 inches long, or 18 cm, and eats copepods and other tiny crustaceans. Its snout is long and kind of pointy, its body is slender, and it has elongated pelvic fins. Because it lives in the deep sea, it has eyes that point upward, which help it see predators and prey that might be silhouetted against the far-distant surface of the ocean. But it also has something only one other fish is known to have, an extra structure to the side of the eyeball. It’s called a diverticulum and it does two things. First, it allows the fish to see downward in addition to upward, and second, it allows it to see across a really wide angle. The diverticulum does this because it contains a mirror that reflects light from the main eyeball onto the retina of the diverticulum. A MIRROR IN ITS EYEBALLS. The mirror is made up of tiny crystalline plates.

Some invertebrates like clams and crustaceans contain reflectors in their eyes, but except for the brownsnout spookfish, the only other vertebrate known to have mirrored eyeballs is the glasshead barreleye. Also a terrible name. The glasshead barreleye is a little smaller than the brownsnout spookfish, and not surprisingly, they’re related. But surprisingly, they’re not that closely related and the mirrored diverticulum appears to have evolved independently in each species.

Although the fish has been known to science for over a century, no one realized it had mirrors in its eyes until 2008 when a live one was caught by a deep-sea scientific expedition off the island of Tonga in the Pacific Ocean. Researchers took pictures of the brownsnout spookfish and got a shock when they looked at the photos. The upward-pointing parts of the eye reflected light normally, the typical eyeshine you get when you use a flash to photograph most animals. But the lower parts of the eyes reflected bright light. Researchers think the fish uses its downward-pointing eyes to see the faint bioluminescent flashes of its prey, while the upward-pointing eyes watch for predators approaching from above.

Oh, and I forgot to mention. The brownsnout spookfish is mostly transparent. You can see right through it. Yeah.

After that, the goblinfish that lives around reefs off the southern coast of Australia seems practically normal. It grows up to 8 inches long, or 20 cm, and spends most of its time resting among rocks on the seabed. It hunts at night, eating small crustaceans, and instead of swimming it usually walks along the sea floor with its large pectoral fins.

The goblinfish gets its name from its appearance, which is frankly ugly unless you are another goblinfish. Its head looks sort of turtle-like, including a dip in its body behind its eyes and in front of its dorsal fin that looks like a turtle’s neck. Its eyes are large and orange in color. Its dorsal fin is spiny and runs most of the length of its back. It also has broad pectoral fins that it sometimes spreads like fans. It can change color to blend in with the rocks around it, which makes it hard for divers to see, which is too bad because it’s also venomous.

It’s a type of waspfish, related to scorpionfish and stonefish, all of which are venomous. Like many of those other fish, the goblinfish has venomous spines on its fins, but it also has a spine on each side of its head, underneath its eyes. Only these spines are hidden inside the fish’s head. The spine is called a lachrymal saber, and it acts like a switchblade that the fish can extend with its cheek muscles. The lachrymal saber isn’t venomous, but if you’ve just picked one up by the head and those switchblades come out, you probably aren’t going to be happy anyway. Also, why did you just pick that fish up by its head? What is wrong with you?

Next, let’s talk about the seahorse. It’s a fish although it doesn’t look like an ordinary fish. And in fact nothing about the seahorse is ordinary.

Unlike most fish, the seahorse has a flexible neck. Also unlike almost all other fish it swims vertically, with its head up and its tail down. It has a prehensile tail made up of 36 bony segments, and each segments is made of four pieces connected by tiny joints. The joints make the segments incredibly strong and able to withstand considerable pressure without breaking. The seahorse uses its tail to hold onto seaweed or other items to keep from being swept away in currents, since it isn’t a strong swimmer. It propels itself through the water by fluttering its dorsal fin, using its pectoral fins to steer. Males also fight each other by tail-wrestling and bopping their heads together. The seahorse’s body is protected with an external skeleton of bony plates, which take the place of ribs. The seahorse doesn’t have ribs. It also doesn’t have scales, just the bony plates with thin skin over them.

The seahorse lives in warm, shallow oceans throughout the world, especially in coral reefs and seagrass beds where there’s plenty of cover. The largest seahorse species grow to about 14 inches long, or 35 cm. The smallest species are barely more than half an inch long, or 15 mm. The smallest species are mostly new to science since they’re so hard to find and identify. Seahorses are well camouflaged to blend in with the plants and coral they live in.

The seahorse’s mouth is at the end of a long, tubelike snout, and it actually sucks its prey into its snout like a straw. It eats small crustaceans, larval fish, and other small animals. Oh, and its eyes can move independently of each other.

Seahorses don’t mate for life, but they do form bonds that last throughout the breeding season, and it has a long courtship period while the female develops her eggs. The pair participate in courtship dances and spend most of their time together. When the eggs are ready, the female deposits them in a special brood pouch in the male’s belly, where he fertilizes them. They then embed themselves in the spongy wall of the brood pouch and are nourished not only by the yolk sacs in the eggs, but by the male, who secretes nutrients in the brood pouch. So basically the male is pregnant. The female visits him every day to check on him, usually in the mornings. When the eggs hatch after a few weeks, the male expels the babies from his pouch and they swim away, because when they hatch they are perfectly formed teeny-tiny miniature seahorses.

If you’re wondering why I said the seahorse is almost the only fish that swims vertically, there’s some evidence that the oarfish does this too. We talked about the oarfish way back in episode 6, about sea monsters. But there’s another fish that swims vertically, the razorfish—but it swims with its head pointed down and its tail pointed up. It’s a slender fish that grows about six inches long, or 15 cm, with a pointy nose and tiny fins. Its back is protected by bony plates that extend past the tail fin in a spine. It eats tiny animals, including brine shrimp, AKA sea monkeys. When it feels threatened, the razorfish swims to the nearest sea urchin and hides among its spines, blending in with them. Schools of razorfish will swim around together, all of them head-down, because that’s just what they do.

Not all weird fish live in the ocean. A lot of freshwater fish are weird too. For instance, the candiru [kan-DEE-roo]. You’ve probably heard of this one although you may not know what it’s called. It’s native to the Amazon and Orinoco Rivers in South America and it’s actually a type of catfish. Some species grow over a foot long, or around 40 cm, but the species we’re talking about today, Vandellia cirrhosa, grows less than two inches long, or 5 cm. Like the brownsnout spookfish, it’s mostly translucent so it’s hard to see in the water. It has short spines on its gill covers that point backwards.

Unlike other catfish, the candiru eats blood, which gives it its other name of the vampire fish. It parasitizes other fish by lodging itself in their gills and sucking their blood. But the candiru is supposed to do something else, something that happens by accident. The story goes that if someone pees while in the water and a candiru is around, it’ll swim up the stream of urine, attracted by the smell, and lodge itself in the urethra of the person peeing. It’s supposed to do this thinking it’s entering the gills of a fish. Its spines keep it locked in place, causing intense pain to the person, followed by infection and, if the fish isn’t surgically removed, death.

At least, that’s the story. There’s even a 1997 video of a man who had to have a candiru removed from his penis after he peed while wading in a river in Brazil. The doctor filmed the surgery and even kept the fish he removed, preserved in formaldehyde. So it must be true, right?

Maybe not. One study determined that the candiru isn’t interested in the chemicals present in urine and in fact it hunts by sight, not smell. And a study of medical reports throughout South America only found a single instance of anyone reporting a candiru attack. That instance is the same one from 1997 where the surgery to remove the fish was filmed.

But a further study of the surgery, photos, and preserved candiru specimen tell a different story. The human urethra is extremely narrow and the preserved fish was much too large to enter without squishing itself to death, not to mention that the candiru is just not strong enough to muscle its way into anything but a larger fish’s gills. The doctor also said he’d had to cut off the candiru’s spines before removing it, but the specimen is fully intact, spines and all. It sounds like the video may be a hoax of some kind.

Reports of candiru attacks are common in parts of South America today and have been common as far back as recorded history, but they seem to be more of a legend than something that happens a lot or maybe even at all. Still, probably better not to pee into the Amazon River, just in case.

Let’s finish with the red-lipped batfish, a type of anglerfish only found around the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific Ocean. It lives on the ocean floor where the water is fairly shallow, and it grows about 8 inches long, or 20 cm. It’s usually a mottled brown, green, or grey with a white stomach, but its mouth is bright red. It looks like it’s wearing lipstick. It eats fish and other small animals, which it attracts using a lure on its head, a highly modified dorsal fin called an illicium.

The weirdest thing about the red-lipped batfish is actually its fins. It prefers to walk on the bottom of the ocean instead of swim, and it has modified pectoral fins called pseudolegs. The pseudolegs make it look a little bit like a weird frog with a tail, a unicorn horn, and lipstick. It’s like something out of a fever dream, honestly.

Researchers think the red lips may be a way to attract potential mates, presumably ones who are hoping for a big smooch.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at That’s blueberry without any E’s. 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 129: The blurry line between animals and plants

This week we’re looking at some really strange animals…or are they plants? Or both? We’ll start with the sea anemone, then learn about a sea slug that photosynthesizes like a plant (sort of), then learn a little about whether algae is a plant or an animal…and then we’re off and running through the wild world of carnivorous plants–including some carnivorous plants of mystery!

Thanks to Joshua Hobbs of A Degree in Nonsense for the suggestion, and to Simon for the article link I’ve already managed to lose!

A sea anemone and some actual anemones. Usually pretty easy to tell apart:

The sea onion looks so much like an onion I can’t even stand it. This is an ANIMAL, y’all!

Venus flytrap sea anemone and actual Venus flytrap. It’s usually pretty easy to tell these two apart too.


The eastern emerald elysia, a sea slug that looks and acts like a leaf:

Giant kelp. Not a plant. Actually gigantic algae. Algae is neither a plant nor an animal:

The corpse flower (left) and the corpse lily (right). Both smell like UGH and both are extremely BIG:

The pitcher plant can grow very big:

Maybe don’t go near trees with a lot of skulls around them:

Puya chilensis (the clumps in the foreground are its leaves; the spikes in the background are its flower spikes):

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to explore the sometimes blurry line between animals and plants. Joshua Hobbs of a great new podcast A Degree in Nonsense suggested a type of carrion flower that smells like rotting flesh to attract insects, and friend of the pod Simon sent me an article about carnivorous plants. Our very first Patreon bonus episode was actually about carnivorous plants, so I’ve expanded on that episode and added lots of interesting new content. Buckle up, folks, because we’re going to cover a whole lot of ground today!

Oh, and Joshua also says, quote, “I never had a pet growing up, but recently gained an interest in animals. Now after getting into your podcast and animal YouTube channels, I’ve got my first pet, a little corn snake named Arnold!” So welcome to podcasting, Joshua and Arnold!

Let’s start by looking at an animal that resembles a plant. The sea anemone looks so much like a plant that it was named after an actual flower, the anemone, but the sea anemone is related to jellyfish. Most sea anemones attach to a rock or other hard surface most of their lives and don’t move much, although they can creep along very slowly—so slowly that snails are racecar drivers in comparison. Many species have a body shaped like a plant stem and colorful tentacles that resemble flower petals. But those tentacles aren’t just to look pretty. The sea anemone uses them to catch prey. The tentacles are lined with stinging cells that contain venom, just like many jellyfish have. The venom contains neurotoxins that paralyzes a fish or other small animal so that the sea anemone can eat it.

So how does something that looks like a plant eat a fish?

The sea anemone has an interesting body plan. What looks like the stem of a plant is called the column, and in some species it’s thin and delicate while in other species it’s thick like a tree trunk. It sticks to its rock or whatever with an adhesive foot called a basal disc, and on the other end of the column is what’s called the oral disc. Oral means mouth. The actual mouth is in the middle of the oral disc, surrounded by tentacles. The mouth is usually shaped like a slit, which if you think about it is sort of how people’s mouths are too. The digestive system is inside the column. But there is no other opening into the body. The mouth is it. So like jellyfish, the mouth takes in food but it also expels waste, so, you know, not precisely a mouth like ours. When the sea anemone wants to eat, it uses its tentacles to push the food into its mouth.

You know the movie Finding Nemo? Nemo and his dad are clownfish, which aren’t affected by sea anemone venom. Clownfish hide among sea anemone tentacles so predators won’t bother them. In return, the sea anemone eats the clownfish’s poops. I wish I were making that up.

If a sea anemone feels threatened, many species can not only suck its tentacles into its mouth, it can retract the whole mouth inside its body. Basically, it can swallow its own mouth. A sea anemone called the sea onion retracts its tentacles and inflates its column so that it looks like an actual onion. The sea onion lives in a burrow it digs very slowly into the sediment at the bottom of the ocean, with just its tentacles sticking out.

Most sea anemones live in relatively shallow water, but there are some deep-sea species. The Venus flytrap sea anemone has been found at 5,000 feet deep, or over 1,500 meters. At first glance looks like a Venus flytrap plant, thus the name. Its body is a long, usually slender column that widens into a big oral disc on top that’s fringed with short tentacles. It mostly eats detritus that drifts down from above, which it filters from the water with its tentacles, although if a living creature strays into its tentacles it’ll eat it too.

That brings us to the actual Venus flytrap. It’s a plant that eats insects and spiders, especially crawling insects like ants and beetles. The ends of its leaves are modified into lobes that look a little like flowers because the insides of the lobes are a cheerful red while the edges and the hair-like cilia are yellow. When a bug touches the receptors inside the lobes it closes tightly. If the insect continues to move around inside, stimulating the receptors even more, the lobes seal and form a sort of stomach. Digestive enzymes are secreted and about ten days later the lobes reopen and there’s nothing left of the insect but its empty exoskeleton.

If bugs made movies, this would be the subject of every single bug horror film.

The Venus flyptrap is only found in one small part of the world, the boggy areas surrounding Wilmington, North Carolina in the United States. They’re so in demand that the plant is almost extinct in the wild due to idiots digging them up to sell. But Venus flytraps really aren’t that difficult to grow, you just have to make sure the soil you use is deficient in nitrogen and phosphorus. So you can buy Venus flytraps that were grown ethically instead of dug up from the wild. As of 2014 digging up a Venus flytrap is a felony in North Carolina.

Before we go on to talk about some other carnivorous plants, let’s discuss an animal that acts like a plant. It’s a sea slug called the eastern emerald elysia and it lives along the east coast of North America in shallow water. Even though it’s a sea slug, it will also live in fresh water. It grows to about an inch long, or 3 cm, and is green. It’s green because it photosynthesizes like a plant…sort of.

The sea slug eats algae, but it doesn’t fully digest the algae it eats. Its digestive system retains the algae’s chloroplasts, which are the parts of a plant cell that convert sunlight into energy, which is what photosynthesis is. The sea slug keeps the chloroplasts in its digestive system and keeps them alive for months, living off the energy the chloroplasts produce. Researchers aren’t sure how the sea slugs keep the chloroplasts alive.

This is pretty amazing, but it’s not the only sea slug that photosynthesizes in this way. The blue dragon sea slug, that lives along coasts around the Indo-Pacific Ocean, doesn’t just keep chloroplasts alive to produce chlorophyll energy. It gets even more complicated about it. The blue dragon eats tiny animals called hydrozoa, which are related to jellyfish and include the freshwater hydra, although since the blue dragon only lives in the ocean it doesn’t actually eat the hydra. The blue dragon eats hydrozoa that themselves contain a type of microscopic algae that live in a lot of animals, like giant clams, some jellyfish, even some sea anemones, and exchange energy from photosynthesis for protection from predators by living in or on its host. So when the blue dragon eats the hydrozoa containing these algae, it retains the algae and keep them alive. So basically it gets to eat its prey and steals its prey’s symbiotic algae.

Speaking of algae, most algae photosynthesize, and in fact many seaweeds, like kelp, aren’t plants but are giant plant-like algae. But algae, technically, aren’t plants. They’re not animals either. Researchers and taxonomists are still working out the ways various algae are related to each other and to other organisms, but most algae are considered more closely related to plants than to animals without actually being plants. They’re usually grouped with plants above the kingdom level of taxonomy, but since at that level animals like humans and fish and worms and mosquitoes are grouped with fungi, this is a really broad category.

And that brings us, in a roundabout way, to the rotten meat smelling plant suggested by Joshua. There are several plants that attract flies and other insects to pollinate their flowers by smelling of rotten meat. Some of these have freakishly large flowers, like the corpse flower. It lives in rainforests in parts of Sumatra and Java and is actually related to the calla lily. It’s a weird-shaped plant and hard to describe. You know how a calla lily has a pretty white petal that wraps around a yellow spike thing? The corpse flower is like that, only it can be ten feet high, or 3 meters. The thing that looks like a petal is actually a specialized leaf and the yellow spike is called the spadix. The yellow part is made up of tiny flowers, so a calla lily isn’t a single flower, it’s lots of flowers that look like one. Well, the corpse flower is like that, although its flowers are actually only at the bottom of the spadix. The petal-like leaf is dark red inside. The top of the spadix is where the rotten smell comes from, and it’s incredibly stinky—something like rotting meat and rotting fish with some extra smell like dung on top of it. It releases this stink mostly in the evenings and the top of the spadix actually grows hot to better disperse the smell.

The largest single flower in the world is sometimes called the corpse lily and it can grow over three feet across, or about a meter. It’s dark reddish-brown with white speckles and five fleshy petals, which look like meat. It smells like rotting meat too. Flies are attracted to the flower, which pollinate it. The flower can take an entire year to develop but only blooms for a few days. If it’s successfully pollinated, the flower produces a round fruit full of seeds that are eaten by tree shrews, which later poop the seeds out and spread them.

But the corpse lily isn’t any ordinary plant. It doesn’t even have roots or a stem or leaves. All it has is the flower, which grows directly from the roots of the corpse lily’s host plant. That’s right, the corpse lily is a parasitic plant, but it’s no ordinary parasite. It grows not on or around its host plant, but inside it. The host plant is a type of vine called Tetrastigma, related to the grape vine. When a tree shrew poops out a seed, the seed germinates and if it happens to germinate on a Tetrastigma vine, it develops tiny threadlike filaments that penetrate the vine and grow inside it.

The corpse lily lives only in the rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra, and it’s rare and getting rarer since so much of the rainforests in those areas are being destroyed. Fortunately, the corpse lily is actually a tourist attraction since it’s so rare, so spectacular, and so stinky. People who have corpse lilies growing in their yard sometimes protect the flower buds from harm and charge tourists to come look at them, which helps the people of the area and the plants.

There are literally hundreds of carnivorous plant species, with carnivorous habits evolving probably nine different times among plants that aren’t related. Different species use different methods to catch insects. For instance, the pitcher plant has modified leaf that forms a slippery-sided pitcher filled with nectar-like liquid. When an insect crawls down to drink the liquid, it falls in. The insect drowns and is dissolved and digested.

Some carnivorous plants have leaves lined with sticky mucilage, which traps small insects. The sundew has tentacles lined with hair-like structures beaded with mucilage. When an insect becomes trapped in the mucilage, the tentacles bend toward the insect and stick onto it, sometimes quite quickly—in seconds, or in at least one species, a fraction of a second. Generally you don’t think of plants as moving that fast.

Almost all known carnivorous plants are pretty small. The largest are pitcher plants. Two species of big pitcher plants grow in the mountains of the Philippines. Attenborough’s pitcher plant was discovered in 2007 and described in 2009, and is a shrub with pitchers that can hold nearly two liters of fluid. An even bigger pitcher plant was discovered in 2010. But the biggest pitcher plant known is from a couple of mountains in Malaysian Borneo called Nepenthes rajah. It’s been known to science since 1858 and its pitchers can hold over 2 ½ liters of digestive fluid. The biggest pitcher ever measured was over 16 inches tall, or about 41 cm, and the plant itself is a messy sort of vine that can grow nearly 20 feet long, or 6 meters. Mostly pitcher plants just attract insects, but these giant ones also trap frogs, lizards, rats and other small mammals, and even birds.

There’s always the chance that even bigger pitcher plants have yet to be discovered by science, although probably not much bigger than the ones we do know about. The larger an animal, the more likely it is to damage the pitcher while trying to escape. Insects and the occasional small animal are fine, anything bigger than that could just bust through the leaf.

But there have long been rumors about plants that eat much larger animals, even humans. In the 1870s, a German explorer named Karl Liche claimed he’d witnessed a tribe in Madagascar sacrifice a woman to a carnivorous tree. His account is not very believable. He describes the tree as about eight feet high with a thick trunk. A coat of leaves hang down from the top of the tree, leaves about twelve feet long with thorns. At their base is a flower-like receptacle with sweet liquid inside, with six ever-moving tendrils stretching up from it. When the sacrificial woman was made to drink the liquid, the tendrils wrapped around her and the tree’s long leaves folded up and over her. After ten days, the leaves relaxed, leaving nothing but a bleached skull at the base of the tree.

Later expeditions to Madagascar never found any plant that resembled Liche’s. In fact, everyone who’s researched Liche, the tribe he mentioned, and the tree in question haven’t found any evidence that any of them ever existed. It turns out that the account was a hoax from start to finish, written by a reporter named Edmund Spencer for a newspaper called the New York World in 1874.

A 1924 book called Madagascar: Land of the Man-Eating Tree describes a more realistic-sounding carnivorous plant that was supposed to be from India. Its blossoms have a pungent smell that attracts mice and sometimes large insects, which crawl into a hole in the blossom that turns out to be a bristly trap. This sounds a little like the corkscrew plant that lives in wet areas of Africa and Central and South America. It has ordinary leaves aboveground but modified leaves that grow underground. The modified leaves are traps with a stalk lined with hairs pointing in one direction. Tiny water animals, especially single-celled protozoans, stray into the leaves but can’t get out because of the hairs. They’re digested and absorbed by the leaves. But there are no known corkscrew plants or anything like them that trap larger animals or animals that live aboveground.

An 1892 article describes a friend of a friend of a friend’s encounter with a tangle of thin, willow-branch-like vines covered with an incredibly sticky gum. This was supposed to have happened in Nicaragua in Central America. A Mr. Dunstan’s dog was ensnared by the plant but was rescued by Dunstan, who managed to cut the vines with his knife. In the process, both man and dog suffered blistered injuries from the plant, as though it had been trying to suck their blood. The article also says that natives of the area say the plant will reduce a lump of meat to a dried husk in only five minutes.

From these sorts of factual-seeming accounts, it’s a short step to plants of folklore like the Japanese Jubokko tree that grows on battlefields and drinks human blood. It captures people who pass too close to it, sticks its branches into them, and sucks out their blood. If someone cuts into the tree’s bark, blood comes out instead of sap.

Another carnivorous plant was supposedly encountered by a French explorer in 1933 in the jungles of southern Mexico. He doesn’t describe the plant in his 1934 magazine article, just says it’s enormous, but he does say that when a bird alighted on one of its leaves, the leaf closed and pierced the bird with long thorns. The expedition’s guide called it a vampire plant.

A similar story supposedly of a plant found in South America and Central Africa is of a short tree with barbed leaves that grow along the ground, and if an animal or bird steps on the leaves they twine around it and stab it to death, then squeeze the blood out to absorb.

There may actually be a real plant that these stories are based on. It’s called the Puya chilensis and it lives in Chile in South America, on dry hillsides of the Andes Mountains near the ocean. It’s an evergreen plant that only flowers after it’s some 20 years old, with a flower spike that can grow over 6 ½ feet high, or up to 2 meters. The flowers are pollinated by birds. But its leaves are long, edged with hooked spines, and grow in clumps that can be up to six feet wide, or nearly two meters.

Those hooks along the leaves give the plant its other name, the sheep-killer. Sheep and other animals can become entangled in the leaves, which are so tough that locals use the leaf’s fibers to make rope. If the animal can’t escape, it dies and its body decomposes, adding nutrients to the soil around the plant. Yum.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at That’s blueberry without any E’s. 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 128: Weird Pigs

If you think pigs are just cute little pink animals that go oink, you definitely need to listen to this week’s episode!

Further listening (two unlocked Patreon episodes):

Weird teeth featuring the babirusa


Further reading:

More about the swamp pig of Hungary

An adorable pygmy hog:

A Javan warty pig, looking magnificent:

An actual warthog, not a cartoon warthog, just sayin:

A giant forest hog, looking kind of similar to the warthog but bigger:

A wild boar looking surprisingly fluffy:

A wild boar piglet, awwww:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to look at an animal all of us know as the thing that goes oink-oink. Some people eat them, some people will absolutely not eat them, some people keep them as pets, but everybody knows what a pig is. But you might not know about these weird and sometimes mysterious pigs!

I’ve unlocked two Patreon bonus episodes about pigs so that anyone can listen to them. I recently posted a bonus episode about peccaries, and there’s an older bonus episode about some animals with weird teeth that features the babirusa. Check the show notes for links to those episodes. You don’t need a Patreon login, just click on the link and use your browser to listen.

There are two groups of piglike animals, known as the New World pigs found throughout the Americas, and the Old World pigs from Africa and Eurasia. Domestic pigs are Old World pigs, although escaped domestic pigs live as feral animals in many parts of the world. New World and Old World pigs are related, but not closely. They used to be classified together in the pig family, Suidae, but the New World pigs now have their own family, Tayassuidae.

All these pigs have one thing in common: a snout that ends in a disc with nostrils at the end. You know, a pig snout. The disc is made of cartilage and is usually extremely tough, with leathery skin, but it’s also full of nerve endings so the pig can tell exactly what it’s touching with its snout. Pigs use their snouts to root in the ground, digging up plant material and small animals like grubs and worms. You know why pigs sometimes have a ring in their nose, through the nostrils? This stops a pig from rooting, because the ring gets caught on rocks and things and pulls at the sensitive nostrils.

Male pigs of all kinds also have tusks, or teeth that grow long enough that they extend out of the mouth. Plus pigs have small, thin tails, bulky bodies with relatively slender legs, cloven hooves with two dew claws on each foot, and small eyes. The babies of wild pig species are usually furry with stripes the length of their body.

Pigs are surprisingly intelligent and can learn all kinds of tricks, just like dogs. And while a domestic pig that’s been handled often since it was a piglet will make a good pet, wild pigs and pigs that aren’t used to people can be dangerous. Pigs will eat people, which seems only fair since people eat so many pigs. Pigs will eat anything, in fact. They’re omnivores, just like humans are. Pigs also carry a lot of parasites and diseases that humans can catch too.

Let’s look at some of the more unusual wild pigs out there, starting with the pygmy hog. The pygmy hog isn’t actually very closely related to most pigs. It’s much smaller than most pig species, only about a foot high, or 30 cm. It’s brown in color with short hair and rounded ears, and it lives in India although it used to be much more widespread.

The pygmy hog lives in small family groups, usually females and their young. Males are more solitary. In cold weather the pygmy hog digs a nest to sleep in, rooting out a small trough in the dirt with its snout and lining it with grass. This is adorable.

The pygmy hog was first described in 1847 but by the 1960s it was supposedly extinct. But a population was rediscovered in 1971 living in a wildlife sanctuary. By the time a conservation program was set up in 1995, only a few hundred pygmy hogs were still alive in the wild due to habitat loss and hunting. The pygmy hog likes wet grasslands, which are often overgrazed by livestock. Fortunately it’s now a protected species in India, and over a hundred captive-bred pygmy hogs have been reintroduced into the wild and are repopulating areas where they were once common.

Another endangered pig is the Javan warty pig, which lives on several islands in Indonesia. It’s black with some reddish areas on its head and belly. Males can grow up to three feet tall, or about a meter, although females are smaller. It’s mostly active at night, with females and young living in small groups, while adult males are mostly solitary. When something scares it, it gives a shrill whistle to warn other pigs.

The male Javan warty pig has three pairs of so-called warts on its head, one pair under the eyes, one pair under the ears, and one pair on the jaw. These aren’t warts at all, of course, but thickened skin that protect the eyes, the ears, and the neck from the tusks of other male pigs, since males fight with their tusks during mating season.

The most famous wart-bearing pig, of course, is the warthog. The warthog lives in Africa and is well-adapted to the savanna and hot weather. It has very little hair except for a mane down the spine, and very little fat, which helps keep it cool, and it often sleeps in abandoned aardvark burrows or digs its own burrow for shade. It usually backs into its burrow so if anything tries to come in after it, it will meet its tusks.

Warthogs have two pairs of massive tusks that rub against each other, sharpening them. The upper tusks can grow up to two feet long, or 61 cm, with the lower tusks up to 6 inches long, or 15 cm. Males fight each other with the tusks, but both males and females have them since they make good weapons against predators like lions. But the warthog can run so fast that it doesn’t usually need to defend itself. It can run up to 34 mph, or 55 km/hour.

The warthog mostly eats grass and other plants, including roots that it digs up with its snout. It can go without water for months at a time, getting the moisture it requires from the plants it eats. But when water is available, it likes to sit in the water to cool down. It will also wallow in mud just like domestic pigs do. It often kneels while it eats but no one’s sure why. I guess it just finds that comfortable.

One of the biggest species of wild pig alive today is the giant forest hog, which lives in forests in a few parts of Africa. There are three subspecies, but only the one that lives in East Africa is really big. It can grow more than 3 ½ feet tall at the shoulder, or 1.1 meters, and a big male can weigh over 600 lbs, or 275 kg. It looks sort of like a hairier, bigger warthog with a broader head.

The giant forest hog is black, gray, and dark brown. It likes forests and mostly eats plants, especially grass, although like other pigs it will eat anything it can find when its favorite foods aren’t available. This includes insects, carrion, and elephant dung. It lives in small family groups, usually one male, a few females, and their piglets. Younger males without a mate will hang out together in bachelor herds, but adult males will fight if they encounter each other, mostly by ramming their heads together or pushing snout to snout in a test of strength.

The other biggest species of wild pig is the wild boar, native to Eurasia and north Africa, and the ancestor of the domestic pig. It’s been introduced to other parts of the world as a game animal, including Australia and the United States. There are 16 subspecies of wild boar, including the Ussuri wild boar, which grows the largest. It lives in parts of China and Russia. A big male Ussuri can weigh 660 pounds, or 300 kg.

According to Hungarian folklore, there used to be a type of large wild pig called the fisher pig or swamp pig that lived in marshy areas near certain rivers. Hungary is a country in central Europe, roughly between Austria and Romania. The swamp pig is supposed to be extinct now, dying out around the end of the 19th century, but it was once well known in parts of Hungary. It mostly ate crabs and fish and lived in herds. That’s pretty much all I could find out about it. It may have been a population of feral pigs or it might have been a subspecies of wild boar that’s gone extinct now.

So what’s the biggest domestic pig ever measured? Pigs are usually assessed by weight, naturally, and a pig named Big Bill holds the world record. He weighed 2,552 pounds, or 1,157 kg, in 1933. This is really unusual, though. Most pigs that weigh anywhere near that much end up dying of heart failure or other health issues brought on by their unusual size after being overfed by their owners.

Wild boars can and do crossbreed with domestic pigs. The offspring usually resembles the wild parent more than the domestic parent, often with a mane of bristly hair that gives it the name razorback. It can be hard to tell whether a particular animal is a wild boar or a hybrid or just a feral domestic pig.

Sometimes unusually large pigs are shot and killed. You may have heard of Hogzilla, Hog Kong, and the Monster Pig, among others. Where wild boars have been introduced as game animals, they’re incredibly destructive to the environment and can be dangerous. It’s common for people to hunt them and sometimes they kill humongous pigs. Or at least they claim they did.

In 2004 a man shot a pig on a hunting reserve in Georgia, in the United States, that he claimed weighed over a thousand pounds, or 450 kg. It actually turned out to be much smaller, only about 800 pounds, or 360 kg. That’s still a big pig, so I don’t know why the hunter had to lie about its size.

Similarly, in 2007, some hunters in Alabama in the United States reported that an 11yo boy with them, the son of one of the hunters, had shot and killed a pig that weighed over a thousand pounds, or more than 475 kg. They sent photos of the boy and the dead pig to local media, but pretty soon the story fell apart. It turned out that the photos used forced perspective to make the pig look bigger than it really was, and that the pig wasn’t even wild. It was a domestic pig named Fred who was quite friendly and had been raised as a pet. Fred’s owners had sold him to a hunting preserve and recognized their former pet in the pictures. The 11yo boy had “hunted” Fred in a relatively small enclosure. Whatever your views on hunting, this wasn’t a fair hunt and it turned out that the whole thing was a publicity stunt to drum up business at the preserve.

I don’t know, maybe don’t sell your pet pig to a canned hunt business in the first place.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at That’s blueberry without any E’s. You can email us at We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 127: New World Vultures

This week we’ll learn about some vultures from North and South America–some living, some extinct, and one mystery! Thanks to Maureen and Grady for their suggestions!

Thanks also to Kat White for the Turkey Vulture Song that opens the podcast! If you’d like to buy her album “In the Eye of the Owl,” visit her website at

Further listening:

CritterCast episode 35 Turkey Vultures

How to tell a turkey vulture apart from a black vulture:

The king vulture has a very bright head:

The Andean condor soaring:

The painted vulture:

Show transcript:

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

Way back in episode 40 we learned about the bearded vulture and some of its close relatives. This was a suggestion from Maureen, and I always meant to revisit vultures so we could learn about more vulture species. Then Grady wanted to know how long buzzards stay in the sky until they come down for food, and why do they soar for so long? That’s a great question that shows some good observation skills, so let’s go back to vultures and learn more about them.

Those of you listening in Europe may be wondering why I’m talking about buzzards in a vulture episode. That’s because we’re going to learn about new world vultures today, and in North America the general term for a vulture is a buzzard. In Europe, a buzzard is actually a type of eagle.

Before we get into the episode, though, I should mention that the intro music we heard is by Kat White, who was kind enough to let me use a snippet. It’s from the album “In the Eye of the Owl,” which is all about animals and so much fun I wanted to let everyone know about it. I’ll put a link in the show notes so you can find out more about the songs.

Kat also let me know about a turkey vulture named Lord Richard who lives in a park called Lindsay Wildlife Experience in California. Lord Richard just turned 45 years old and got a huge birthday party! So as you can see, vultures can live a long time in captivity, although usually not as long in the wild. Then again, the oldest verified vulture is an Andean condor born in captivity in 1930 who died in 2010 at the age of 79. Andean condors in the wild can live more than 50 years. This makes Lord Richard sound like a positive youngster.

New World vultures are native to the Americas and all of them are pretty big. In fact, condors are vultures and they’re extremely large birds. The New World vultures aren’t very closely related to each other but they all share some traits.

Vultures are scavengers that find dead animals to eat. The meat from dead animal carcasses is referred to as carrion. Vultures will also eat rotting fruit and garbage sometimes. Because they eat meat that is often spoiled, vultures have an extremely acidic digestive system that helps the bird digest its food quickly and kills off any bacteria that might make it sick. It also has beneficial bacteria in its digestive system that neutralize toxins.

But that’s not where the adaptations to eating carrion end. The vulture is a highly specialized bird. Most vultures don’t have many feathers on their heads, unlike other birds. If you’re snacking right now, you might want to pause this until you’re done. Quite often a vulture will actually stick its head into a rotting animal carcass to get at the, uh, softer parts. This means its head gets covered in rotting gunk and a lot of bacteria. If it had head feathers, they would be destroyed by bacteria.

One interesting thing about vultures of all kinds is that they actually help stop the spread of diseases like rabies and anthrax. Their digestive tract is so effective that it kills off viruses that caused the animal to die, so it’s actually beneficial to the environment in general and to farmers. Unfortunately, farmers don’t always know this and think vultures spread disease. Many vultures are protected species in most countries to stop farmers and other people from shooting them.

Quite often you’ll see a vulture perched somewhere up high with its wings spread. It does this to dry them when it’s been rainy or foggy, but also so that sunlight will help kill off any bacteria on the feathers. That’s another reason the vulture has no feathers on the head, so that sunlight can kill off any bacteria on its skin.

Vultures do some other gross stuff, like pee on their own legs. They do this to cool down in hot weather, since as the liquid droppings evaporate it cools the legs, and therefore cools the blood flowing through the legs, and therefore cools the vulture’s body temperature overall. But vultures also like to bathe in shallow water, which helps clean the skin and the feathers, and which of course washes any droppings off their legs.

Vultures also puke up what they’ve eaten if they feel threatened. This serves two purposes. The vulture is immediately much lighter and can fly away more easily, and the horrible stench of partially digested rotting meat may drive away a potential predator.

There are seven species of new world vulture alive today. The most common one is the turkey vulture, which lives throughout most of North and South America. The next most common is the American black vulture, which lives in South America up to the southern parts of North America. From a distance it can be hard to tell the two apart, but the black vulture has silvery tips on its wings.

The turkey vulture is the vulture most often referred to as a buzzard. It has a wingspan of about six feet, or over 1.8 meters, although it doesn’t weigh more than about five pounds at most, or 2.4 kg. It’s kind of a picky eater, surprisingly, and doesn’t like really rotten meat. It often hangs out with black vultures, but black vultures are more aggressive even though they’re a little smaller, and the turkey vulture will wait until the black vultures are done eating before it moves in to finish off what’s left.

Black vultures and turkey vultures aren’t very closely related and don’t really look very similar if you see them up close. The turkey vulture has a red head that looks a lot like a male turkey’s, which is where it gets its name. The black vulture has a gray head.

Unlike the turkey vulture, which almost exclusively eats carrion and rotting fruit and sometimes vegetables, the black vulture will also eat eggs and sometimes kills small animals, especially baby animals. It hunts in groups and can even kill newborn calves.

If you want to learn more about the turkey vulture, the Critter Cast Podcast has a really good episode all about it. I’ll put a link in the show notes in case you don’t already listen to Critter Cast.

The other new world vultures are mostly restricted to South America, except for the California condor. We’ll talk about condors in a minute. The king vulture is most common in South America although it also lives in parts of southern Mexico and in Central America. Unlike most vultures, which are mostly black, its feathers are mostly white with some gray and black markings. The skin of its bald head is brightly colored, with different individuals having different coloration—red, orange, yellow, purple, even blue, with an orange crest on its bill in adult birds. It also has a white eye with a red rim, and short bristles on the head. The ancient Maya people considered the king vulture a messenger of the gods, which is pretty neat.

The king vulture is big even for a vulture, with a wingspan of up to about 7 feet, or 2 meters, which makes sense since it’s most closely related to the Andean condor. It has a stronger bill than most vultures, which helps it tear open an animal carcass that other vulture species might not be able to access. Often, other vulture species will wait until a king vulture has opened a carcass and eaten its fill before they move in and eat too. It especially likes the skin and tougher meat of a carcass, and its tongue is raspy to help it pull meat off bones.

The king vulture’s ancestors lived farther north, into parts of North America, but went extinct around 2 ½ million years ago. We don’t really know all that much about the ancestors of the New World vultures, though, because they’re not very common in the fossil record. But the New World vultures are related to the terratorns, huge birds that are extinct now. We’ve discussed terratorns once before way back in episode 17, about the Thunderbird, but let’s discuss them again because they were incredible birds.

We have a decent number of terratorn remains from the La Brea Tar Pits and a few other places. The terratorns were bigger even than condors. A number of species lived throughout the Americas, with even the smaller species having an estimated wingspan of around 12 feet, or 3.8 meters. The largest species known, Argentavis magnificens, lived in South America around six million years ago. It’s estimated to have a wingspan of at least 16 feet, or 6.5 meters, and possibly as much as 26 feet, or 8 meters. That’s the size of a small aircraft.

Researchers think Argentavis was an efficient glider, hardly needing to flap its wings. But it wasn’t very maneuverable, so researchers also think it was probably a scavenger like modern vultures. Smaller terratorns may have been active hunters, more like eagles than vultures. Argentavis had strong legs and probably took off by running into the wind with its massive wings spread, sort of like an airplane taking off, so it didn’t have to flap its wings at all.

That brings us to Grady’s question about why and how buzzards soar for so long. Argentavis would have spent most of its time soaring, hardly ever needing to flap its wings. Its wings weren’t even very strong, and it might not even have been able to flap them when they were extended. The turkey vulture, or buzzard, is especially good at soaring for long periods of time, sometimes for hours, without needing to flap its wings.

If you’ve noticed, soaring birds like vultures, eagles, and hawks tend to fly in circles. There’s a reason for this. When the wind blows over a hill or mountain, it creates an updraft, a breeze that blows directly upward. Similarly, air rises from land that’s been warmed by the sun, causing columns of warm air called thermals. A soaring bird stays in these updrafts and thermals by flying in circles. Vultures also have wingtips where the feathers are spread out, so that each flight feather is separated from the next by a small space. Each of these feathers acts like a tiny wing of its own, which helps keep the vulture gliding forward and not downward. All this wind over the wingtip feathers causes a lot of pressure, though, and vultures have a special bone at the wingtip that helps strengthen and support the flight feathers. Soaring instead of flapping conserves a lot of energy, which is why vultures will soar for as long as they can, looking for food.

Most New World vultures have a good sense of smell, which is unusual for birds. The turkey vulture finds a lot of its food by smell. The black vulture doesn’t have nearly as good a sense of smell, though, and as a result it often follows turkey vultures to find carcasses, then bullies the turkey vultures out of the way to eat first. That’s not very nice, birds. In addition, the turkey vulture has keen eyesight, which helps it find dead animals that might not have started to smell yet.

So let’s talk about those condors now. There are two species of condor alive today, the California and the Andean. We covered the California condor in episode 44, extinct and back from the brink. The California condor actually went extinct in the wild in 1987, with only 22 birds alive in captivity, but an ongoing captive breeding program saved it from extinction and captive-bred birds started to be released into the wild in 1991. But there are still fewer than 500 individuals alive today, so it’s still in danger of extinction. The California condor only lives in a few small areas of western North America today, but around 40,000 years ago it lived throughout North America. Part of the reason it’s still so rare is that it reproduces very slowly. A pair doesn’t nest every year, and even when they do, the female only lays one egg. A young condor depends on its parents for a full year, both for food and to learn how to fly. It can take a young condor months to learn how to fly properly, and researchers sometimes observe awkward crash landings that are probably pretty funny, although maybe not so funny to the condor.

The California condor’s wingspan can be up to almost ten feet, or 3 meters. This is huge, but the Andean condor is even bigger. Its wingspan is nearly eleven feet, or 3.3 meters. The Andean condor lives in and near the Andes Mountains along the western coast of South America. It’s mostly black with silvery patches on the wings and a white ruff around the neck, and its head is gray in color but can flush reddish to communicate with other condors. The male also has a comb on the top of its head.

The Andean condor’s feet are adapted for walking, not fighting. Its feet aren’t very strong and its talons aren’t very sharp. It does sometimes kill small animals like rabbits, but its feet are so weak that it can’t use them to attack. Instead, it stabs the animal to death with its beak.

Like Argentavis, the Andean condor’s wings are built for soaring, not flapping. It can soar for hours without needing to flap its wings once, sometimes traveling hundreds of miles in a day to find food.

It’s a social bird that mates for life, and one of its courtship rituals is a hopping, flapping dance. Keep in mind that this is a bird with wings over five feet long. That would be a pretty impressive dance. The Andean condor nests high in the Andes Mountains on cliffs that predators can’t reach and lays one or two eggs.

Let’s go back to the king vulture now to finish up, because there’s a mystery associated with the king vulture. In the 1770s, a man named William Bartram traveled through Florida and took notes about the animals and plants he saw. He published a book of his travels in 1791 and in it, he included information about a bird he called a painted vulture. He said it was fairly common in Florida and that he’d even shot one himself. The description he gave sounds like a king vulture except that Bartram described its tail as white with a black tip, not entirely black.

But remember, the king vulture primarily lives in South America. It is known in the very southern parts of North America in Mexico, but not Florida. What’s going on?

Some people think Bartram included the painted vulture as a hoax. Some people think he got it mixed up with a different bird, the Northern caracara, a bird of prey which only looks slightly like a king vulture. Some people think there may have been a small population of king vultures in Florida at the time that later went extinct, possibly a subspecies of king vulture with a mostly white tail instead of all black.

Bartram wasn’t the only person who reported seeing the painted vulture. In 1734 an English naturalist and artist, Eleazar Albin, painted a vulture that looked almost identical to the one Bartram described 30-odd years later, tail and all. It’s not completely clear where Albin saw his bird, but as far as researchers can determine Bartram wasn’t aware of the painting. So it’s possible that a subspecies of king vulture once lived in Florida but went extinct soon after Bartram saw it. If he and Albin hadn’t documented it, no one alive today would have any idea the painted vulture ever existed.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at That’s blueberry without any E’s. 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 126: The Hedgehog and the Moonrat

This week thanks to Romy, who suggested the topic of hedgehogs! And researching hedgehogs led me to their only close relation, the moonrat.

Hedgehogs are adorable:

Pictures of listener QuillviaPlath’s adorable friend Delilah, an African pygmy hedgehog. Delilah has crossed the Rainbow Bridge since these pictures were taken, but QuillviaPlath has a rescue hedgehog named Lily now and will soon be adopting another rescue named Toodles too!

Moonrats are a little less adorable but still cute:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to learn about a humble little animal that’s well-known in much of Europe, Asia, and Africa, but totally unknown in the Americas except as a pet. It’s the hedgehog, a suggestion from Romy. Thank you, Romy! We’ll also learn about the hedgehog’s closest relation, the moonrat.

There did actually used to be a hedgehog native to North America, but it went extinct some 50 million years ago. The hedgehogs alive today pretty much haven’t changed in about 15 million years. The North American hedgehog is called Silvacola and only grew a few inches long, or maybe 7 cm. It lived in what is now British Columbia, Canada. We don’t know if it had quills, but the hedgehogs living in Europe at the same time as Silvacola lived had already evolved quills, so maybe it did.

I have seen exactly one hedgehog in my life, a pet named Button. I got to pet her and everything. She was very sleepy, though, because it was daytime and hedgehogs are nocturnal. But I can verify that hedgehogs do have spines on the back and sides, although if you pet the hedgehog properly you won’t get your fingers poked by the spines. I can also verify that hedgehogs are adorable.

But other than adorable and prickly, what are hedgehogs? Are they related to porcupines? Are they related to hogs? Do they really live in hedges?

The answers are no, no, and yes. Thanks for listening. You can find Strange Animals—ha ha, just kidding!

There are a number of hedgehog species in five separate genera. A few species have been domesticated, although it’s illegal in many places to keep a wild hedgehog as a pet. In some places it’s illegal to keep a hedgehog as a pet at all, since hedgehogs can become invasive pests if released into the wild in areas where they shouldn’t be. This has happened in New Zealand and a few other places, where introduced hedgehogs have no natural predators and have become so numerous they’ve caused damage to the local ecosystems. The hedgehog is an omnivore, and will eat bird eggs, insects, frogs and toads, snails, plants, and pretty much anything else. It’s especially damaging to shore birds that nest on the ground. But in its natural habitat, the hedgehog plays an important role as both a predator of small animals, including garden pests, and as prey to larger animals like foxes, badgers, and owls.

The hedgehog will also eat small snakes, and actually has some natural immunity to certain snake venoms. Of course, if a snake injects enough venom it will overwhelm the hedgehog’s protections and make it sick or kill it anyway. It also has resistance to toxins and will eat toxic toads that would kill other animals. But the hedgehog’s best protection is its spines, more properly called quills. If a hedgehog feels threatened, it will roll itself into a tight ball with its quills sticking out.

The quills are hairs that are hollow and stiffened with keratin. Good old keratin. You know, keratin is the same tough material that fur and fingernails and rhinoceros horns and hooves and baleen are made of. European hedgehogs are famous for the number of fleas they carry, a specific species of flea called the hedgehog flea. Who named that? They were a genius. Hedgehog fleas won’t infest dogs or cats. They only like hedgehogs.

The hedgehog is a good digger and sometimes digs burrows to sleep in during the day. It’s adaptable to many habitats but likes woodlands, meadows, and, yes, hedgerows where it can find lots of food. It has a pig-like snout, short legs, a little stub of a tail, and small ears. Baby hedgehogs are born with a protective membrane over their quills. It grows to around a foot long, or 30 cm, although many of the species are typically smaller than that. Most hedgehogs are brown but some are naturally cream-colored, a rare variety called blonde. This color is bred for in domesticated hedgehogs. Button the hedgehog is blonde with a dark spot on her back, which is why she’s named Button.

The population of West European hedgehogs has decreased substantially in the last few decades, which has conservationists worried. A 2016 study reported that the population has declined over 7% in the UK over the last 50 years, with similar declines in parts of Europe like Sweden and Belgium. Researchers speculate this may be due to habitat loss.

The hedgehog can hibernate although it doesn’t always. It may hibernate in piles of leaves or sticks, or in a burrow it digs underground, or somewhere else that’s protected from predators and cold. If you’ve gathered wood for a bonfire, make sure to check the pile for sleeping hedgehogs before you get the matches out.

One of the most persistent legends about the hedgehog is that it rolls on fruit, especially apples, in order to stick its quills into the fruit. Then it goes home to its burrow, carrying the fruit on its quills to eat later.

So, do hedgehogs actually do this? Probably not. Some observers say hedgehogs will roll in leaves and allow the leaves to stick to its quills, possibly as a form of camouflage. It would be easy for one to accidentally pick up a small rotten apple this way, giving rise to the legend, although the quills aren’t strong enough to hold a large apple without breaking. The sites I read online all say that hedgehogs don’t bring food back to the burrow to eat later, but T.H. White shares an anecdote to the contrary in his Book of Beasts. This is a translation of a 12th century bestiary, and his anecdote appears in a note on page 95. The text repeats the story of hedgehogs carrying apples home, and White adds:

“The Hedgehog constructs a humble nest in ditches, and there it hibernates. In 1939, the present translator dug out such a nest, near an orchard, with an Irish laboring companion who proceeded to tell him that hedgehogs carried apples to their nests on their spines—an anecdote which the translator had just been reading in this manuscript, eight hundred years older than the Irishman. The latter asserted the truth of his statement with passion, pointing to the apples, which were indeed there, and had punctured bruises on them. But the creature had probably trundled them there with its nose, subsequently making the punctures when it curled up to sleep on top of them.”

I haven’t found anyone else who reports seeing a hedgehog push an apple home with its nose, or anything else for that matter. But the apples were in the hedgehog’s nest. T.H. White saw them. It could be the apples had fallen from a nearby tree and rolled into the ditch on their own, and the hedgehog just happened to nest on them. Then again, one source I found mentions that hedgehogs may anoint themselves with apple juice to help repel fleas and other parasites. This seems a little on the farfetched side, but the hedgehog does do a weird thing called anointing that might have something to do with controlling parasites. No one’s sure what it’s for.

Anointing seems to be triggered when a hedgehog encounters a new or unusual odor. The hedgehog starts foaming at the mouth, often contorting its body oddly, and then it licks the foam onto its quills. This happens with domesticated hedgehogs as well as wild ones, and one site I read mentions that it may happen if you handle a pet hedgehog after putting hand lotion on.

So what is the hedgehog related to? It’s not a rodent, so it’s not related to porcupines. It’s a placental mammal so it’s not related to echidnas, which are monotremes. Both porcupines and echidnas evolved quills for protection independently. The hedgehog is probably most closely related to the shrew, but the other member of its family is an animal called the moonrat.

The moonrat lives in Southeast Asia, specifically Thailand, Borneo, and Myanmar, and shares a lot of characteristics with the hedgehog, like being omnivorous and digging burrows, but it doesn’t have quills. It looks a lot like the Virginia opossum, or as it’s properly called around where I live, the possum. But the possum is a marsupial, and again, the moonrat, like the hedgehog, is a placental mammal. It also looks a little like a rat, but the rat is a rodent and the moonrat isn’t a rodent.

The moonrat has a relatively long, skinny tail that’s mostly bare of fur and is actually scaly, which makes its tail look kind of like a snake. It also hisses like a snake (it’s not a snake). (Also going to point out that the possum hisses too.) The moonrat also has a long, thin muzzle, small rounded ears, and short legs. It grows to about a foot and a half long, not counting the tail, which can be nearly as long as the body. A foot and a half is about 40 cm. One subspecies of moonrat has light gray or white fur on its head and forequarters except for a black mask, while the rest of its body is black. Another subspecies is mostly white.

The moonrat prefers jungles and forests and is mostly nocturnal. It eats pretty much anything, but it especially likes insects, crabs, worms, and frogs, and will even eat fish when it can catch one.

One interesting thing about the moonrat is its smell. The moonrat marks its territory with a scent that smells like ammonia. You know what else smells like ammonia? Cat pee. That is not a good smell, if you’ve ever had to clean out a cat’s litter box that should have been cleaned out a lot earlier. It also smells kind of like rotten onions. As a result of its scent glands for marking territory, the moonrat smells pretty bad to human noses. But people do occasionally eat it, just as they sometimes eat hedgehogs.

People are omnivores too, after all. But, you know, maybe don’t eat animals that smell like ammonia.

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