Monthly Archives: January 2020

Episode 156: Animals of Mongolia



In honor of my new favorite band, The Hu, let’s learn about some animals from their country, Mongolia! (You can also watch the “Wolf Totem” video with English lyrics.)

The Hu. Oh my heart:

If you need the podcast’s feed URL, it’s https://strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net/feed/podcast/

A handsome prize-winning domesticated yak and rider (photo taken from this site):

The saiga, an antelope with a serious snoot:

A Bactrian camel (photo by *squints* Brent Huffman, looks like):

The taimen, a fish that would swallow you whole if it could:

Further watching:

A clip from the TV show Beast Man showing how moist the soil is in parts of the Gobi

Show transcript:

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

Recently, podcaster Moxie recommended a band she liked on her excellent podcast Your Brain on Facts. The band is called The Hu, spelled H-U, and she mentioned they were from Mongolia. I checked the band out and FELL IN LOVE WITH THEM OH MY GOSH, so not only have I been recommending them to everyone, I also want to learn more about their country. So let’s learn about some interesting animals from Mongolia.

But first, a quick note. About six months ago I had to migrate the site to an actual podcasting host, since I’d run out of memory on my own site. Well, there doesn’t seem to be any point to keep the old site open anymore since all the podcasting apps I checked appear to have the new feed and everything is on the new website. So in another week or two, the old site will close. If you suddenly stop receiving new episodes, please email me at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com and let me know what app you use for podcast listening, so I can get it updated. In the meantime, if your app gives you the option of entering a podcast feed manually, I’ve made a new page on the website, strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net, where you can copy and paste the feed URL. It’s also in the show notes. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions or if something isn’t working. Now, back to Mongolia and its animals.

Mongolia is located in Asia, north of China and south of Russia, with the Gobi Desert to the south and various mountain ranges to the north and west. You actually probably know some Mongolian history without realizing it. You’ve heard of the Great Wall of China, right? Well, it was built to keep out the Mongols, who would ride their horses into China and raid villages. Genghis Khan was the most famous Mongol in history, a fearsome warrior who conquered most of Eurasia in the early 13th century.

While you’re thinking about that, here’s a short clip of my favorite Hu song, called “Wolf Totem.” There’s a link in the show notes if you want to watch the official video.

Oh my gosh I love that song.

Anyway, Mongolia has short summers but long, bitterly cold winters. Many people are still nomadic, a traditional culture that’s horse-based. A lot of Mongolia is grassland referred to as the steppes, which isn’t very good for farming, but which is great for horses. Domesticated animals include horses, goats, and a bovid called the yak. Let’s start with that one.

The yak is closely related to both domestic cattle and to bison, and is a common domesticated animal in much of Asia. The wild yak is native to the Himalaya Mountains in Eurasia. It’s a different species from the domesticated yak and is larger, with a big bull wild yak standing up to 7.2 feet at the shoulder, or 2.2 meters. A big bull domesticated yak is closer to 4 ½ feet high at the shoulder, or almost 1.4 meters. The wild yak is usually black or brown, but domesticated yaks may be other colors and have white markings. Occasionally a wild yak is born that has golden fur.

Both male and female yaks have horns, although the males usually have larger horns with a broader spread than the females. The male also has a larger shoulder hump than the female, much like bison, and males are also larger and heavier. The reason the domesticated yak is so popular in the mountains and in areas where winters are long and cold, like Mongolia, is that it has long, dense hair with a soft undercoat that keeps it warm. It’s also naturally adapted to high altitudes where there’s less oxygen, with large lungs and heart. As a result, it doesn’t do well in lower altitudes and can even die of heat if it gets too warm, since it can’t sweat.

The yak is domesticated for its meat and milk, to pull plows, as a riding animal, and for its soft undercoat which is combed out in spring and used to make yarn. Even the yak’s droppings are useful, since they’re mostly undigested plant fibers that burn really well once they’re dry, so they can be used instead of wood to build fires.

In Mongolia, yak milk is used to make butter, cheese, and yogurt. And vodka. Yak races and yak festivals are increasingly popular as tourist attractions, but yak herding is a tradition dating back thousands of years.

The wild yak is a protected species where it still lives, mostly in China, India, and Tibet, but it’s still threatened by poaching and habitat loss due to domesticated yak herds pushing out their wild cousins. In the wild, the yak prefers to live in elevations too high for trees to grow. It eats grass and other plant material and can survive on a diet too poor to sustain cattle. This is because it has a larger rumen and the plants it eats can stay in its digestive tract for longer to extract as many nutrients as possible.

It’s rare for a domesticated animal to also be endangered, but yak herding in Mongolia is in steep decline, with 70% fewer yaks raised now than there were twenty years ago. There are a number of reasons for the decline. More people are moving to cities in Mongolia since they can make more money there instead of farming. Some farmers have started raising cattle or yak-cattle hybrids instead of yaks, since cattle and cattle hybrids produce more milk and meat even though they eat considerably more than yaks do. Worse, cloth made of sheep’s wool and other fibers is being exported by Chinese farmers labeled as Mongolian yak wool, which has caused the market for actual yak wool to crash. Yak wool is as soft and warm as cashmere, which comes from goats, but yaks are much better for the fragile mountain environment in Mongolia than goats are. Hopefully, increased tourism, including yak festivals, will help farmers make money from their traditional ways of life.

Instead of mooing like a cow, the yak grunts, although wild yak are usually silent. This is what a domesticated yak sounds like:

[yak grunting]

Another bovid, this one found only in Mongolia, is the Mongolian saiga. Some researchers consider it a subspecies of the saiga that was once found throughout Eurasia while others consider it a separate species. It’s critically endangered, possibly with as few as 5,000 animals left in the wild, threatened by poaching and competition with livestock. But the saiga frequently has twins instead of just one baby at a time, which helps its numbers increase quickly as long as people stop shooting the males for their horns. Some people think have medicinal qualities. They don’t, of course. The saiga almost went extinct back in the 1920s, but it recovered, so it can recover again as long as people leave it alone.

The saiga stands nearly three feet tall at the shoulder, or 81 cm, and its coat is usually a sandy pale brown in color. In winter it grows a long coat to keep warm. It’s also rather stocky in shape compared to other antelopes, which helps keep it warm too. But the main adaptation it has for cold weather is its nose. The saiga has a remarkable snoot. It almost looks like it has a little trunk. Its muzzle is considerably enlarged to make plenty of room for large nasal passages, which warms air before it reaches the lungs and also filters dust from the air. The nostrils point downward. The males have pale-colored horns that can grow nearly nine inches long, or 22 cm, although the closely related Russian saiga has horns that are almost twice that long. The horns grow upward and slightly back. The saiga migrates across the steppes and lives in herds that are sometimes quite large.

Another animal that’s domesticated but still lives wild in some parts of southern Mongolia and northern China is the Bactrian camel. That’s the camel that has two humps instead of just one. Like the yak, the domesticated and wild Bactrian camels are different species although they’re closely related. The wild Bactrian camel is smaller with a flatter head. A domesticated Bactrian camel can stand up to 7 ½ feet high at the shoulder, or 2.3 meters.

The wild Bactrian camel is critically endangered due to poaching and habitat loss, although it’s protected in both Mongolia and China. There may be only 1,000 of them left in the wild, and some of those are hybrids of wild and feral domesticated Bactrian camels. Since they’re different species, offspring of wild and domesticated Bactrian camels are often infertile. A wild Bactrian captive breeding program in Mongolia is underway and has been successful so far.

When you think of a camel, you probably think of a hot desert. Camels of all kinds are well adapted to desert life. The one-hump camel is a dromedary, which is a domesticated animal native to the Sahara Desert in northern Africa and other arid regions. But the two-humped Bactrian camel is adapted to a different kind of desert, the cold desert. Although it can get hot in the Gobi Desert in summer, winters are long and very cold, but mainly a desert just doesn’t get much rain. In the case of the Gobi, what little moisture it receives in winter is mainly from snow and frost, although it also gets an average of almost 8 inches of rain in the summer, or 19 cm.

The wild Bactrian camel, therefore, has to be able to survive without a lot of water. Some people think camels store water in their humps, but the humps are actually made up of fat. Fat is full of water, though, and when the camel can’t find any food or water, its body will reabsorb the fat to keep itself alive. If you see a camel with floppy or skinny humps, you know it’s not had much to eat recently and has had to use up its fat stores.

The wild Bactrian camel grows thick fur in winter to keep it warm in temperatures that can drop to -27 degrees Fahrenheit in winter, or -32.8 Celsius, but it sheds a lot of this heavy coat in summer when temperatures can soar to 99 F, or 37 C. Unlike most animals, it can safely eat snow without risking hypothermia, where the body core temperature falls to dangerous levels. It can also safely drink water that’s even saltier than the ocean. It lives in small herds that travel across the desert from one water source to another, since if it stayed in one area it would soon eat all the food available. It eats any plants it can find.

Mongolia has several rivers and lakes, so naturally it has some interesting water animals too. The taimen [TIE-min] is a large fish sometimes called the Eurasian river trout or Siberian giant trout, but it’s actually more closely related to the salmon. It lives in parts of Mongolia and Russia but is threatened by overfishing and water pollution. Until recently in Mongolia, people didn’t eat much fish, plus the taimen was considered the offspring of an ancient river spirit so was left alone. These days, unfortunately, not only are more people eating fish in Mongolia, sport fishing has become a big tourist draw. Conservationists are encouraging anglers to practice catch and release to save the remaining population.

The taimen grows up to six feet long, or two meters, and is a vicious predator. It will eat anything it can catch, including smaller taimen, and in fact will occasionally try to swallow a fish that’s too big, and will suffocate and die as a result. It lives in swift-moving water but is sometimes found in lakes. It grows slowly and lives a long time, and there are rumors of it hunting in packs. As a result, it’s sometimes called the river wolf. Stay away from anything called the river wolf, that’s my advice.

It wouldn’t be an episode about Mongolian animals if we didn’t talk about a mystery animal called the Mongolian death worm. We talked about it once before way back in episode ten, about electric animals, but that was a long time ago so let’s look at it again now.

The story goes that a huge wormlike creature lives in the western or southern Gobi Desert, and most of the time it stays below ground. During the rains of June and July it sometimes comes to the surface. It’s generally described as looking like a sausage or an intestine, red or reddish in color, as thick as a person’s arm, and as long as three or four feet, or up to about 1.5 meters. Its head and tail look alike, sort of like a giant fat earthworm, although some reports say it has some pointy bristles or spines at one end. Touching a death worm is supposed to lead to a quick, painful death, because why would you name something a death worm if it didn’t kill you? Some people report that it can even spit venom or emit an electrical shock that can kill people or animals at a distance.

The National Geographic Channel has a show called Beast Man, or used to, I don’t know, but in 2018 it aired an episode about the Mongolian death worm. I didn’t watch the whole episode, just clips, and while they didn’t actually find one, it was interesting. One lady they interviewed, who saw a death worm when she was a little girl, said it was about two feet long, or 60 cm, reddish in color, and its head and tail looked the same. This matches up with what other people have reported. In one clip, the show’s host tests the soil moisture content in the southern Gobi and is surprised that underneath the dry surface, the ground is actually quite moist. I’ll put a link to that one in the show notes.

There are actually earthworms that live in parts of the Gobi, including two species described in 2013. The earthworms don’t resemble reports of the Mongolian death worm, but if an earthworm can survive, other soft-bodied creatures can too. That’s assuming that the death worm is actually a worm and not a reptile or amphibian of some kind.

The best suggestion for what the death worm might be is an animal called the amphisbaenian. It’s sometimes also called the worm lizard, and while it’s not any kind of lizard, it is a reptile. Amphisbaenians live in many parts of the world, including most of South America and parts of North America, parts of Africa, southern Europe, and the Middle East. But since amphisbaenians live almost all of their lives underground, it’s very likely that species unknown to science live in other places. And much of Mongolia is extremely remote and probably not very well explored by scientists.

Amphisbaenians resemble snakes but they also resemble worms. The eyes are tiny and can be hard to spot, and the head and tail look very similar as a result. Many species are pink or reddish in color, although some are blue or other colors, including spotted, and many have scales that grow in a ringed pattern that make it look even more like an earthworm. But they’re not big animals, generally around six inches long, or 15 cm. Also, they’re slender like an earthworm, not as big around as someone’s arm. And they’re completely harmless to humans and large animals.

That doesn’t mean there can’t be a big amphisbaenian living in the remote parts of the Gobi, rarely seen even by the people who live there. Or, of course, the Mongolian death worm might be a completely different kind of animal, one totally unknown to science—maybe one that’s related to the amphisbaenian but radically different in appearance. Or it might be a mythical monster, although there are enough plausible-sounding witness sightings to think there’s something in the Gobi that looks like a big fat red horrible worm, even if it’s not actually dangerous.

What worries me, though, is that there don’t seem to be any sightings from recent times. Only old people report having seen a death worm back when they were young. Considering that so many Mongolian animals are endangered, it could be that the death worm is also declining in numbers so that fewer of them are around to be seen. Let’s hope Mongolian scientists are out there looking for the death worm and that they figure out what it is so it can be protected and studied in its natural habitat.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. We also have a Patreon at Patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us and get twice-monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 155: Extreme Sexual Dimorphism



Many animals have differences between males and females, but some species have EXTREME differences!

The elephant seal male and female are very different sizes:

The huia female (bottom) had a beak very different from the male (top):

The eclectus parrot male (left) looks totally different from the female (right):

The triplewart seadevil, an anglerfish. On the drawing, you can see the male labeled in very small letters:

The female argonaut, also called the paper nautilus, makes a delicate see-through shell:

The male argonaut has no shell and is much smaller than the female (photo by Ryo Minemizu):

Lamprologus callipterus males are much larger than females:

The female green spoonworm. Male not pictured because he’s only a few millimeters long:

Show transcript:

 


Episode 154: Some Australian animals and how to help



This week let’s learn about some lesser-known Australian animals. A heat wave and dry conditions have led to many terrible bush fires in Australia, with many animals and people left hurt, killed, and homeless. Fortunately, there are ways you can help!

Check out the Animal Rescue Craft Guild for patterns and other information about crafting pouches, beds, and other items needed for injured and orphaned animals, and where to send the items you make.

Animals to the Max has a great episode about the fires and a long list of places where you can donate money where it’s needed most.

Some rescued joeys chilling in their donated pouches:

An Eastern banded bandicoot:

A bilby:

A long-nosed potoroo:

The woylie, or brush-tailed bettong:

The numbat:

Show transcript:

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

As you’ve probably heard, there are terrible fires sweeping through many parts of Australia right now amid a record-breaking heat wave. Both the fires and the heat have killed an estimated half a billion animals in the last few months. This week we’re going to learn about some lesser-known Australian animals and also talk about ways you can help the people in Australia who are helping animals, even if you don’t have any money to spare.

A Facebook group called the Animal Rescue Craft Guild is the resource for anyone who wants to make needed items for injured or orphaned animals. I’ll put a link in the show notes. The group shares what items are needed, patterns to make them, information about what fabrics and what fibers are appropriate for which items, and where to send them.

In the last week I’ve been knitting and crocheting nests for small animals, and this weekend my aunt Janice and I will be sewing pouches for larger animals. Well, Janice will be doing the sewing, I’ll cut out the cloth pieces for her to use. Many of the animals rescued from the fires are young marsupials, called joeys, whose mothers died, so the pouches are for joeys to live in until they’re old enough to be on their own. Being in a pouch makes the joey feel safe because it feels like being in its mother’s pouch. Rescue groups in Australia need all sizes and kinds of pouches, because there are so many different species of marsupial animals in Australia. So let’s learn about a few you may not have heard of.

One Australian marsupial that a lot of people don’t know much about is the bandicoot. There are a number of different species that live in parts of Australia and New Guinea. Some are exclusively herbivorous while some are omnivores. For instance, the Eastern barred bandicoot lives on the island of Tasmania and has recently been reintroduced into its historic range in Victoria in southeastern Australia. It’s still quite rare and threatened by introduced predators like foxes and by diseases. It’s an active animal and a fast runner, and makes a happy grunting noise when it finds food.

The Eastern barred bandicoot is about the size and shape of a rabbit but with shorter ears and a long nose that it uses to probe into the soil to find worms and other small animals that it then digs up. You can tell where one has been because it leaves a series of little holes in the ground called snout pokes. It’s light brown with darker and lighter stripes on its rounded rump, and has a short mouse-like tail. The Western barred bandicoot is a little smaller than the eastern but looks and acts very similar. Both are nocturnal and solitary, and spend the day sleeping in a nest lined with grass and leaves. When it rains, the bandicoot pushes dirt over its nest to help keep it dry. It eats plant material like seeds and roots as well as small animals like insects, worms, and snails. If something startles it, it will give a big jump, and as soon as it comes down it digs a burrow to hide in. Its pouch faces backwards so dirt won’t get into it when it digs.

Scientists are still working out what other animals the bandicoot is closely related to and how the different species are related to each other. It doesn’t help that many bandicoot species are already extinct. We do know that the bandicoot is most closely related to an animal called the bilby.

The bilby looks even more like a rabbit than the bandicoot does, and in fact sometimes it’s called the rabbit-bandicoot or the rabbit-eared bandicoot. Its fur is silky and slate gray on the back with white underneath, and it has a long nose, long ears, little pink paws, and a long tail. It grows to about 22 inches long, or 55 cm, not counting the tail, which is another 11 inches long, or 29 cm. Males are generally considerably larger than females. It even hops sort of like a hare.

There used to be two species of bilby, but the lesser bilby went extinct in the mid-20th century. The greater bilby is vulnerable due to habitat loss and introduced animals likes foxes and cats, but conservation efforts are underway with captive breeding programs and reintroduction of bilbies into areas where they used to live. There’s also a push to educate people about the bilby, and instead of chocolate Easter bunnies, a lot of people in Australia have started giving each other chocolate Easter bilbies.

The bilby is an omnivore and eats seeds, fruit, plant bulbs, insects, worms, and other small animals. Its large ears contain lots of blood vessels close to the surface. As blood travels through the ears, it radiates heat and returns to the heart much cooler than before, which helps cool the whole body.

The bilby sleeps in a burrow during the day, usually alone or with a few other bilbies, and it digs tunnels to connect different burrows throughout its territory. Like the bandicoot, its pouch faces backwards so dirt won’t get in it. Some bilbies may have a dozen burrows and will dig a new one every few weeks, which is helpful to other species of animal too since other animals may move into old bilby burrows.

The potoroo is another animal that people outside of Australia may not know about. It’s related to kangaroos and wallabies, but looks more like a rodent with a long, thin snout that curves downward. It’s brown with small ears and a thin tapering tail, and its hind legs are longer than its front legs so that it hops like a little kangaroo with its front feet tucked to its chest.

All species of potoroo are endangered even though when European settlers first arrived, it was a common animal all over Australia. Gilbert’s potoroo is so critically threatened that it’s estimated that only 70 are still alive today. In fact, it was suspected to be extinct until a small population was discovered in 1994. The long-footed potoroo was only discovered when one was caught in a trap in 1967. The long-nosed potoroo is less endangered than the other two species, but it’s still threatened by habitat loss, fires, and introduced predators like foxes, cats, and dogs.

The long-nosed potoroo grows to about 15 inches long at most, or 38 cm, with a tail about nine inches long, or 24 cm. Like the bandicoot and bilby, it’s nocturnal, solitary, omnivorous, and digs for a lot of its food. When it’s foraging, it sniffs the ground while moving its head side to side, and when it smells something it wants to eat, it digs to find it. It eats seeds, fruit, flowers, some leaves, and insects and other invertebrates, but it especially likes fungi like mushrooms.

Another little-known Australian marsupial is the bettong, also called the rat kangaroo. It’s related to potoroos and therefore to kangaroos, and looks similar. There are five species, all of them about the size of a rabbit. It hops on its hind legs and has a tail about the length of its body, specifically up to 15 inches, or 38 cm. Its fur is grey or brown, sometimes reddish. It’s nocturnal and solitary and sleeps in a nest during the day, much like the bandicoot. But since it has a prehensile tail, it actually carries its nesting material to the nest with its tail. Since it often lives in desert areas, it digs a warren of burrows and tunnels to stay out of the heat. Like the potoroo, it especially likes to eat mushrooms, but it will eat a lot of plant materials as well as invertebrates.

The woylie, or brush-tailed bettong, is one of the rarest species. It sometimes collects seeds of the Australian sandalwood tree to eat later, burying them in shallow holes. Like squirrels burying acorns, sometimes the woylie forgets where it hid the seeds and they germinate to grow into new trees.

Several species of bettong are threatened by habitat loss, fire, and introduced predators, but there are conservation plans in place to protect the bettong and its habitat.

The last animal we’ll learn about today is the numbat, which sounds like a Pokemon but which is a marsupial related to the extinct thylacine. It’s brown, gray, or reddish with white stripes over its back and rump, and a black streak through its eye, which also has a white ring around it. It grows to almost a foot long, or 29 cm long, with a long bushy tail that adds another eight inches to its length, or 21 cm.

The numbat eats termites and only termites. Termites are soft, so although the numbat has lots of little peg teeth—fifty of them, although sometimes less—it doesn’t need them. Its jaw is weak as a result but it has a long tongue with sticky saliva to lick up termites, and the roof of its mouth is ridged to scrape the termites off its tongue. Then it just swallows them.

The numbat needs to eat up to 20,000 termites every single day. Most marsupials are nocturnal, but the numbat is active during the day since it needs to be awake when the termites are active. It has good eyesight too, unlike many marsupials. It hunts termites by both sight and smell, and digs into the shallow tunnels termites dig outside of their nests. A termite’s nest is too tough for the numbat’s small claws to damage, but the tunnels leading away from the nest are easy for it to uncover.

At night the numbat sleeps in a burrow or sometimes in a hollow tree. Its burrow is usually a long tunnel that ends in a cozy round nesting chamber that it lines with grass, leaves, feathers, flowers, and other soft items. Its rump is protected by especially thick skin, and if a predator tries to get into its burrow, it will block the entrance with its rump. It can also climb trees with its sharp claws.

Male numbats have a scent gland on the chest that starts exuding a smelly oil during the summer, which it uses to mark its territory. The smell attracts females and warns other males away. Babies stay in their mother’s pouch for six months or so, until they’re so big the mother can’t walk properly. At that point she dumps them in the nest although she continues to nurse them. A few months after that the babies start to eat termites instead of just milk.

Like the other animals we’ve talked about today, the numbat is threatened by habitat loss and introduced predators, especially foxes and cats. But conservation programs have helped its numbers increase, and it’s been reintroduced into areas where it once lived.

Australia cares about all its animals, little and big, and I know that you care about animals too, or you wouldn’t be listening to this podcast. It’s easy to feel helpless when you hear the news about so many animals dying in fires. But there are ways you can help. Even if you don’t know how to sew, knit, crochet, or do woodworking, you probably know someone who does. Just ask them to teach you how. You’d be surprised at how easy it is to learn, and the patterns posted on the Facebook group I link to in the show notes are all quite simple. For the lining of most pouches, you can use old flannel sheets or even cotton t-shirts, as long as it’s clean, soft, and has no frayed or pilled areas. The outer layer of the pouches can usually be ordinary cloth, and some of the outer pouches can be knitted from regular old acrylic yarn.

If you aren’t able to craft, or you don’t have access to craft materials, you can raise money to donate to wildlife rescue groups in Australia. Check with any groups you may already belong to, like your place of worship, book clubs, gaming groups, your school or college, even your employer. Many groups may be interested in holding a bake sale or yard sale, or just gather donations from members to send to Australia. Last week’s episode of the great podcast Animals to the Max had an interview with an Australian wildlife expert, so I’ve linked to it in the show notes so you can listen if you haven’t already, and because that episode’s show notes have lots of great links where you can send donations.

Whatever you do to help, the people and animals of Australia appreciate it! Even if all you can do is learn about Australian animals so you can share that knowledge with other people, everything helps.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us and get twice-monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 153: The White River Monster



Let’s start out the new year with a bona fide mystery animal, the White River Monster from Arkansas! Is it a real animal? If so, is it a known animal or something new to science? If it’s a known animal, what could it be? Lots of questions, maybe a few answers! Happy new year!

Further listening:

MonsterTalk

The not exactly useful picture supposedly of the White River Monster, taken in 1971:

A northern elephant seal, AKA Mr. Blobby:

A Florida manatee:

A bull shark:

Two bottlenose dolphins:

An alligator gar (below) and a human (above):

Alligator gar WEIRD FISH FACE:

Gulf sturgeon:

Show transcript:

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

If you’ve listened to the final episode of 2019 last week, you’ll remember it was about some mystery water animals of various kinds. Well, I’ve got another water mystery for you today to start off the new year, the White River monster. I heard about this one in a recent episode of MonsterTalk, which is a great podcast I recommend if you don’t already listen to it.

The White River is in North America, originating in the mountains in northwestern Arkansas and flowing from there through Missouri, then back into Arkansas where it joins the Mississippi River. In 1915 a man near the small town of Newport, in the central Ozarks region of Arkansas, saw an enormous animal with gray skin in the river.

A few other people saw it too, but it wasn’t until July of 1937 that things really heated up. The monster returned, and this time a lot of people saw it. News of it hit the local papers and spread throughout the country, and people started showing up to look for it. Some people came prepared to kill or catch it while others just wanted to see it.

Estimates of the monster’s size varied quite a bit. A man named Bramlett Bateman, who owned a lot of the farmland along that stretch of the river, was quoted in several newspaper articles. He described the monster as being the length of three cars in one article, but in another his estimate was smaller, only 12 feet long, or 3.7 m, and four or five feet wide, or 1.2 to 1.5 meters. But it doesn’t seem that he or anyone else got a really good look at it.

It was described by numerous people as being gray-skinned. Bateman said it had “the skin of an elephant…with the face of a catfish.” I dug into as many original newspaper articles as I could find without actually paying for access to them, and very few of them have a real description of the animal. The only description given in a New York Times article from July 23, 1937 is this:

“Half a dozen eye-witnesses…reported seeing a great creature rise to the surface at rare intervals, float silently for a few minutes and then submerge, making its presence known only by occasional snorts that bubbled up from the bottom.”

Another article quotes Bateman as saying he saw the monster “lolling on the surface of the water.”

Bateman decided he was going to blow the monster up with dynamite. What is it about people whose go-to solution to seeing an unidentified animal is to throw dynamite in the water? The local authorities said, uh no, you cannot just throw dynamite into the river, but other people brought machine guns and other weapons and patrolled the river looking for the monster. A plan to make a giant net and catch the monster petered out when people found out that making and deploying a net that big is expensive and difficult.

The monster was mostly reported in an eddy of the river that stretched for about a mile and was unusually deep, about 60 feet deep, or 18 meters. The river is about 75 feet wide at that point, or 23 meters. The Newport Chamber of Commerce hired a diver from Memphis named Charles B. Brown, who brought an eight-foot harpoon with him when he descended into the river. He didn’t find anything, but the tourists had fun.

Suggestions as to what the monster might be ranged from a sunken boat that sometimes bobbed briefly to the surface to a monstrous catfish. Many people were convinced it was a huge fish of some kind, especially an alligator gar.

Eventually sightings tapered off and the excitement died down until June of 1971, when it started being seen again. Again the size estimates were all over the place, with one witness saying it was the size of a boxcar, which would be about 50 feet long, or 15 meters, and 9 feet wide, or 2.8 meters. Another witness said it was only 20 feet long, or 6 meters. Some witnesses said it had smooth skin that looked like it was peeling all over, had a bone sticking out of its forehead, and it made sounds that one witness described as similar to both a horse’s neigh and a cow’s moo. On July 5, 1971, three-toed tracks 14 inches long, or 36 cm, were also found on an island together with crushed plants that showed a huge animal had come out of the water.

This time, at least, no one tried to dynamite or even net the monster. Instead, in 1973 Arkansas passed a law creating the White River Monster Refuge along that section of the river, to protect the monster. But no one has seen it since.

There is a photo of the monster taken in 1971, but it’s a blurry Polaroid that was reproduced in a newspaper and the original lost. The photo was taken by a man named Cloyce Warren, who was out fishing with two friends. Warren said it had “a spiny ridged backbone and [was] splashing all around.”

So what could the White River Monster be? Is it a misidentified known animal, a completely unknown animal, or just a hoax?

Obviously people are seeing something in that part of the White River. But it’s reportedly so big that if there was a population living anywhere in the river, it would be spotted all the time. So maybe it’s an animal that only sometimes strays into the White River and actually lives in the much larger Mississippi River—or even in the Gulf of Mexico, where it sometimes swims upriver.

Cryptozoologists and other interested people have made suggestions over the years. One suggestion is that it’s an elephant seal. The northern elephant seal is an enormous animal, although it’s nowhere near 50 feet long. The male is much larger than the female, up to 16 feet long, or 4.8 meters, and bulky with blubber that keeps it warm when diving deeply for food in the Pacific Ocean where it lives.

But wait, the Pacific Ocean? You mean it doesn’t live in the Gulf of Mexico?

Nope, the endangered elephant seal only lives in the Pacific. And the Pacific Ocean is separated from the Gulf of Mexico by a whole lot of the North American continent.

A man named Joe Nickell, who’s a paranormal investigator and who was interviewed on MonsterTalk episode 204, has suggested the White River Monster is a manatee—specifically the Florida manatee, which is a subspecies of West Indian manatee. In the winter it mostly lives around Florida but in summer many individuals travel widely. It’s sometimes found as far north as Massachusetts along the Atlantic coast, and as far west as Texas in the Gulf of Mexico.

The manatee is large, up to 15 feet long, or 4.6 meters, with females being somewhat larger than males. Its skin is gray but since it moves slowly, it can look mottled in color due to algae growing on its skin, and it sometimes also has barnacles stuck to it the way some whales do. It has a pair of front flippers with three or four toenails, no hind legs, and a paddle-like tail. It eats plants and only plants, and is completely harmless to humans, fish, and other animals. Also because it moves slowly and spends a lot of time at the surface, since it’s a mammal and has to breathe air, it’s vulnerable to being injured by boats.

In the 1970s there were only a few hundred manatees alive and it nearly went extinct. It was listed as an endangered species and after a lot of effort by a lot of different conservation groups, it’s now only considered threatened. So while people might recognize a manatee these days, back in the 1970s it was practically unknown everywhere except southern Florida since it was so rare. And in the decades before 1971, people didn’t travel as much and didn’t know much about increasingly rare animals that didn’t live in their particular part of the world.

In other words, it’s completely possible that people from Arkansas would see a manatee in 1915, 1937, and 1971 and not know what it was. But could a manatee really travel that far from the ocean and survive?

The Mississippi River empties into the Gulf of Mexico in Louisiana in the United States. Texas is to the west of Louisiana, then Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida to the east. In other words, it’s well within the known range of the Florida manatee. Manatees are known to sometimes travel up the Mississippi. This happened most recently in October of 2016 when a manatee traveled as far as Memphis, Tennessee before it was found dead in a small lake connected to the river. That’s a distance of 720 miles, or 1,158 km, and that was with wildlife officials trying to capture it to return it to the Gulf. That same year a manatee also traveled as far as Rhode Island along the Atlantic coast. Memphis is actually much farther up the Mississippi than the White River is, so if the manatee had branched off into the White River it might have led to new sightings of the White River Monster.

The manatee can live in fresh water perfectly well. One species, the Amazonian manatee, is a fully freshwater animal that never leaves the South American rivers where it lives. But despite its size, the manatee doesn’t have a lot of blubber or fat to keep it warm. The farther away it travels from warm water, the more likely it is to die of cold.

But while an errant manatee might explain some White River Monster sightings, it doesn’t fit with all of them. Other animals from the Gulf of Mexico sometimes find their way up the Mississippi too. It’s a huge river, and since an ocean animal doesn’t understand what a river is, it doesn’t know it’s never going to reach the ocean again unless it turns around. Most marine animals can’t survive for long in fresh water, but some animals, like the manatee, can tolerate fresh water much better. That’s also the case for the bull shark.

In 1937, the same year the White River Monster was spotted for the second time, a five-foot bull shark, or 1.5 meters, was caught in Illinois, which is even farther upstream from the Gulf of Mexico than Tennessee and Arkansas. Bull sharks live throughout much of the world’s oceans in warmer water near coasts and are often found in rivers and lakes, although they don’t live as long in fresh water as they do in salt water. The largest bull shark ever measured was 13 feet long, or 4 meters, so a large one is about the size of a manatee.

Occasionally a dolphin travels up the Mississippi River, but marine dolphins can’t survive for long in fresh water and will die soon if they can’t make their way back to the ocean. A dolphin in fresh water starts to develop skin lesions and then the skin begins to peel, leading to bacterial infection and death. Remember that some witnesses in 1971 described the White River Monster as a gray animal with peeling skin.

Nine different species of dolphin and many species of whale live in the Gulf of Mexico. Of those, only the bottlenose dolphin lives close to the coast and is usually the species that accidentally travels into fresh water and can’t find its way out. The bottlenose dolphin isn’t any larger than the manatee, up to about 13 feet long, or 4 meters.

1971 was an active hurricane year, including the category 5 Hurricane Edith that killed 37 people in mid-September. Marine animals that can travel quickly, like dolphins and sharks, will flee to calmer waters when a hurricane approaches, and while that usually means out to sea, it wouldn’t be out of the question for a frightened dolphin or other large marine animal to make its way into the Mississippi by accident ahead of a hurricane, especially a hurricane as big as Edith.

Another possible identity for the White River Monster is one that was suggested in 1937, the alligator gar. It’s a freshwater fish that lives throughout the Mississippi River and other rivers and lakes in the southern United States and parts of northern Mexico. The alligator gar gets its name because of its toothy jaws, which do resemble an alligator’s, and it can grow up to ten feet long, or 3 meters. It’s a really weird fish and eventually I’ll probably do a full episode on it and its relatives, just as I have a full episode planned about the manatee. It has gills like other fish, but it can also breathe air through its swim bladder, which is lined with lots of blood vessels that absorb oxygen. Every so often an alligator gar will come to the surface and gulp air to replenish the oxygen in its swim bladder, so it would be seen at the surface briefly but periodically as was described by many witnesses. This is also the case for the manatee and dolphin, who breathe air.

The alligator gar is an ambush predator, which means it waits in the water without moving much at all until an animal approaches. Then it shoots forward and grabs it. It mostly eats small fish, invertebrates of various kinds, and waterfowl like ducks.

The final possibility of the White River Monster’s identity is the gulf sturgeon. It’s a subspecies of the Atlantic sturgeon that lives in the Gulf of Mexico, although it’s also known from various rivers in the southeastern United States. The reason it’s found in rivers is that the gulf sturgeon is anadromous [a-NADro-mus], the term for a fish that migrates from the ocean into fresh water to spawn. The salmon is the most famous anadromous fish, which fights its way upriver to spawn and then die. In the case of the gulf sturgeon, it hatches in fresh water and lives there for the first two years or so of its life before making its way downstream to the ocean. Then it returns to freshwater to spawn every spring, usually the same river where it was hatched, and goes back to the ocean in autumn.

The gulf sturgeon fits a lot of the descriptions of the White River Monster sightings. It’s covered with five rows of scutes that project from the back and sides in a sort of low sawtooth pattern, which fits the “spiny ridged backbone” that Cloyce Warren reported seeing in 1971, and its elongated snout has sensory barbels like a catfish, which matches Bramlett Bateman’s 1937 description of the monster having the face of a catfish. It’s gray, gray-green, or brownish in color with a lighter belly, and it can grow up to 15 feet long, or 4.5 meters, although most are about half that length.

The gulf sturgeon usually migrates in groups, but occasionally one can get separated from its group and find its way into a stretch of water by itself. It also doesn’t eat much during the summer when it’s in freshwater. In the winter it lives just off the coast in shallow water, where it’s a bottom feeder. It sucks up invertebrates from the sea floor, feeling for them with their barbels. It gains lots of weight during the winter and then loses it all in the summer. Sturgeons do sometimes jump out of the water, especially in summer–as much as fix feet out of the water. No one’s sure why. Also during the summer, the sturgeon makes a sound like a creaky hinge.

I think it’s probable that the White River Monster sightings are of more than one type of animal, and while we can make an educated guess as to which animals might have been spotted and misidentified, we can’t know for sure. So while at least some of the sightings may have been of a manatee or a gulf sturgeon or another of the animals we talked about today, there’s also the possibility that something else occasionally swims up the Mississippi from the Gulf and into the White River. Hopefully, next time the White River Monster appears, someone gets a really good look at it and some good pictures so we know for sure.

This is what a sturgeon sounds like, by the way:

[sturgeon creaky sound]

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us and get twice-monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!