Monthly Archives: January 2021

Episode 208: The Happiest Animals in Australia

Thanks to Phoebe for suggesting the quokka and the wombat, two of the cutest, happiest-looking animals in Australia!

Further Reading:

Viral stories of wombats sheltering other animals from the bushfires aren’t entirely true

Satellites reveal the underground lifestyle of wombats

Giant Wombat-Like Marsupials Roamed Australia 25 Million Years Ago

Further Listening:

Animals and Ultraviolet Light (unlocked Patreon episode)

The adorable quokka with a nummy leaf and a joey in her pouch:

Quokka (left) and my chonky cat Dracula (right)

Some quokka selfies showing quokka smiles. That second picture really shows how small the quokka actually is:


A wombat and its burrow entrance:

A wombat mom with her joey peeking out of the rear-facing pouch:

Golden wombats. All they need is some Doublemint Gum:

Two (dead, stuffed) wombats glowing under ultraviolet light:

Show Transcript:

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

This week we’re going to look at two super-cute animals from Australia, both of them suggestions by Phoebe. Thank you, Phoebe!

Let’s start with the quokka. It’s a marsupial, which as you may recall means that it’s a mammal that gives birth to babies that aren’t fully formed yet, and the babies then finish developing in the mother’s pouch. It’s related to kangaroos and wallabies but is quite small, around the size of an ordinary domestic cat. It’s kind of a chonk, though, which means it’s probably closer in size to my big chonk cat Dracula. It’s shaped roughly like a little wallaby or kangaroo but with a smaller tail and with rounded ears, and it’s grey-brown in color.

You may have seen pictures of the quokka online, because the reason it’s considered so incredibly cute is because it looks like it’s smiling all the time. If you take a picture of a quokka’s face, it looks like it has a happy smile and that, of course, makes the people who look at it happy too. Those are real pictures, by the way. Because of the way its muzzle and mouth are shaped, the quokka really does look like it’s smiling.

This has caused some problems, unfortunately. People who want to take selfies with a quokka sometimes forget that they’re wild animals. While quokkas aren’t very aggressive and are curious animals who aren’t usually afraid of people, they can and will bite when frightened. The Nature Conservancy of Australia recommends that people who want to take a selfie with a quokka arrive early in the morning or late in the evening, since quokkas are mostly nocturnal, and that they let the quokkas approach them instead of following one around. Touching a quokka or giving it food or drink is strictly prohibited, since it’s a protected animal.

The quokka lives on a few small islands off the coast of western Australia and a few small forested areas on the mainland. The largest population lives on Rottnest Island, and in fact the island was named by a Dutch explorer who thought the quokkas were rats. It means rat’s nest. The island’s actual name was Wadjemup and it was a ceremonial area for the local Whadjuk Noongar people.

Only an estimated 14,000 quokkas live in the wild today, with most of those on Rottnest Island. It used to be much more widespread, but once white settlers arrived and introduced predators like dogs, cats, and foxes, its numbers started to decline. It’s also threatened by habitat loss. It reproduces slowly, since a female only raises one baby a year.

A baby quokka is born after only a month, but like other marsupial babies, called joeys, it’s just a little pink squidge when it’s born. It climbs into its mother’s pouch where it stays for the next six months. Once it’s old enough to leave her pouch, it still depends on her milk for a few more months. While she’s raising one baby, though, the mother has other babies still in her womb ready to be born but held in suspended animation. This means that if something happens to her joey and it dies, the mother can give birth to another baby very quickly.

The quokka is most active at night. It sleeps during most of the day, usually hidden in a type of prickly plant that helps keep predators from bothering it. It gets most of its water needs from the plants it eats, and while it mostly hops around like a teensy kangaroo, it can also climb trees.

The wombat is another adorable Australian marsupial. For some reason, I’ve talked about the wombat several times in Patreon episodes but have barely mentioned it in the main feed–but that’s about to change. Mostly because I am going to recycle a lot of the information from the Patreon episodes, but I’ve also added a lot of interesting new details.

The wombat mainly lives in southern and eastern Australia, including Tasmania. It looks a little like a cartoon bear, a little like a cartoon badger, and a little like a cartoon giant hamster. Perhaps you notice a theme here. It has short legs, no tail to speak of, and is about the size of a medium-sized dog but stockier, with a broad face and rounded ears. The female has a rear-facing pouch to keep dirt and debris from getting on her baby while digging. There are three species alive today.

The wombat is mostly nocturnal and sleeps in a burrow during the day, although it will come out during the day when it’s overcast. It eats grass and other plants. It can dig really well and some people in Australia consider it a pest because it digs under fences.

The wombat has a big round rump with tough skin reinforced with cartilage. If a dingo or other animal chases a wombat, it dives into a hole and blocks the hole with its rump. The predator can’t get a purchase on the tough hide and there’s no tail to grab. The wombat isn’t helpless, though. It can kick hard, bite hard, and if the dingo gets its head over the wombat’s back to grab for its neck, the wombat will push upward and crush the dingo’s head against the roof of the tunnel. The wombat takes no prisoners and presents its butt to danger. Also, its poop is square, as you may remember if you listened to the animal poop episode.

The wombat has a very slow metabolism and takes a week or even two weeks to fully digest a meal. It can run fast when it needs to, although it can’t keep up a fast pace for long. Wombats have even been known to knock people down by charging them, which I personally find hilarious. It can also bite ferociously if it feels threatened, and while it mostly uses its long claws for digging, they also make fearsome weapons. So it’s best to leave the wombat alone.

The wombat’s fur can be gray, tan, brown, black, or any variation on those colors, but there are rare reports of wombats with golden fur. In a 1965 letter to The Times, an anonymous writer reported spotting a golden wombat but couldn’t get anyone to believe him. “Of course you were mistaken, my family said. They said it with an irritating sureness… The golden wombat became the subject of family jokes.” And then two years later, the letter-writer saw the golden wombat again. I thought that would be a fine cryptozoological mystery to share, but when I did a search for golden wombat sightings, actual golden wombats in zoos turned up. Golden wombats are a real thing, just extremely rare. The sunshine golden fur is due to a mutation in coat color.

The Cleland Wildlife Park in Adelaide has a pair of golden hairy-nosed wombats that were discovered in 2011 and sent to the park in 2013. Golden wombats don’t survive long in the wild since their coloring makes them stand out to predators. Wombats in general are having trouble in the wild anyway due to habitat loss, introduced predators like domestic dogs, introduced rabbits and other animals that compete with it for food, the mange mite, also introduced to Australia and spread by domestic dogs, and drought.

Last year, during the awful summer bushfires in Australia, there were reports of wombats saving other animals by herding them into their deep burrows when fires approached. It’s a great story, but like many other stories that seem too good to be true, it’s not completely accurate. The wombats didn’t herd other animals into their burrows like little furry firefighters, but lots of animals did take shelter in wombat burrows to escape the fires. A wombat’s burrow isn’t just a little tunnel with a bedroom at the end. It’s way more elaborate than that, with lots of entrances and adjoining tunnels. One wombat’s burrow complex had 28 entrances and almost 295 feet of tunnels, or 90 meters. A wombat usually only sleeps in one particular burrow for a day or two before moving to a different one, and other animals routinely use the other burrows for themselves. As long as the other animal isn’t a threat, the wombat doesn’t seem to mind. So it’s not surprising that lots of animals hide in wombat burrows to escape fire.

In October of 2020 a team of scientists published a paper about ultraviolet fluorescence in the platypus, which glows greenish in ultraviolet light. The discovery was made by accident but prompted scientists throughout the world, and especially Australia, to borrow black lights from other departments to shine on their mammal collections. It turns out that a lot of nocturnal or crepuscular animals have fur that glows various colors under ultraviolet light. This includes the wombat.

There’s more ultraviolet light at dawn and dusk than during full daylight or at night, so some researchers think the glow may be a way for the animals to blend in with the increased ultraviolet light at those times. If this is the case, it’s a new type of camouflage, or rather a very old type since it’s found in animals like the platypus that have been around for a really, really long time.

Ultraviolet light is the wavelength of light beyond purple, which humans can’t see. Most humans, anyway. In April 2019 I released a Patreon episode about animals and ultraviolet light, and I’ve decided to unlock that episode for anyone to listen to. I’ll put a link in the show notes so you can click through and listen. Be aware that I did make a mistake in that episode, where I mentioned that a black light allows humans to see into the ultraviolet spectrum, but actually what people see when they shine a black light around is fluorescence and ordinary violet light.

A relative of the wombat, Diprotodon, is the largest marsupial ever known. It went extinct around 45,000 years ago, not long after the first humans populated Australia, and is also an ancestor of the koala. It and some other of the Australian megafauna may have influenced Aboriginal myths of dreamtime monsters. It stood around 6 ½ feet tall at the shoulder, or two meters, and like the wombat it had a rear-facing pouch and ate plants. Recent analysis of the front teeth, which were large and flat and grew continuously throughout the animal’s life, indicated it might have been migratory. Researchers also think it lived in social groups something like elephants do today. Its feet were flat and toed inward like modern wombat feet, and although it had claws it probably only used them to dig plants up.

A partial fossil found in 1973 in South Australia was finally described in mid-2020 as a wombat relation, although it may not be a direct ancestor to modern wombats. It lived about 25 million years ago and was the size of a bear, and had powerful front legs with claws used for digging up roots. It’s named Mukupirna nambensis and is different enough from other wombat relations that it’s been assigned to a new family of its own.

There have been reports for centuries of giant wombats or wombat-like animals in Australia and even from nearby Papua New Guinea. Some cryptozoologists think the sightings are of a smaller relative of the wombat, Hulitherium tomasetti. Hulitherium lived in the rainforests of New Guinea, and probably went extinct about the same time as Diprotodon, possibly due to hunting from newly arrived humans. It was about three feet high, or one meter, and may have eaten bamboo as a primary part of its diet. Like the panda, it seems to have a number of adaptations to feeding on a bamboo diet, including very mobile front legs, more like an ape’s than a wombat’s. It may have been able to stand on its hind legs like a bear too.

An October 26, 1932 story in The Straits Times, a Singapore newspaper, is interesting in light of the hulitherium’s size and possible appearance. I’ll quote the story, which appears in the 2016 Fortean Zoology Yearbook:

“One of our strangest visits was reserved for this morning, when Mr. Paul Pedrini, wild animal hunter and trainer, arrived leading a curious beast, brown, furry, about two feet high and four feet long and looking like no animal one could call to mind. It was very fat and adorning its neck was a large pink bow. This latter fact was the chief cause of the uneasiness shown by the oldest sub-editor. Mr. Pedrini explained that he found his little pet in Australia eighteen months ago.

“He calls it the ‘What Is It?’ because nobody can give it a name. Described as being something like a wombat, it is certainly not a wombat neither does it belong to any other known family. The ‘What Is It?’ is very tame and friendly and has kind eyes. Its chief diet is bananas and toast. We said good bye to Mr. Pedrini, patted the strange animal and returned, slightly shaken, to the normal round.”

The story isn’t sensational enough to feel like a hoax, but it doesn’t really give enough of a description of the animal to be sure it wasn’t just a larger than usual wombat. After all, the wombat does have kind eyes.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or just tell a friend. We also have a Patreon at if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 207: The Dire Wolf!

This week we’re on the cutting edge of science, learning about the brand new genetic study of dire wolves that rearranges everything we know about the dire wolf and other canids! Also, a bonus turtle update.

Further reading:

Dire Wolves Were Not Really Wolves, Genetic Clues Reveal

An artist’s rendition of dire wolves and grey wolves fighting over a bison carcass (art by Mauricio Anton):

The pig-nosed face of the Hoan Kiem turtle, AKA Yangtze giant softshell turtle, AKA Swinhoe’s softshell turtle:

Show transcript:

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

You may have heard the news this past week about the new study about dire wolves. I thought it would make a great topic for an episode, and we’ll also have a quick update about a rare turtle that’s been in the news lately too.

Dire wolves show up pretty often in movies and TV shows and video games and books, because as far as anyone knew until very recently, the dire wolf was an extra big wolf that lived in North America during the Pleistocene until it went extinct around 13,000 years ago. Researchers assumed it was a close cousin of the modern grey wolf.

Well, in a brand new study published in Nature literally less than a week ago as this episode goes live, we now have results of a genetic study of dire wolf remains. The results give us surprising new information not just about the dire wolf, but about many other canids.

The study started in 2016, when an archaeologist, Angela Perri, who specializes in the history of human and animal interactions, wanted to learn more about the dire wolf. She went around the United States to visit university collections and museums with dire wolf remains, and took the samples she collected to geneticist Kieren Mitchell. Perri, Mitchell, and their team managed to sequence DNA from five dire wolves that lived between 50,000 and 13,000 years ago.

Then the team compared the dire wolf genome to those of other canids, including the grey wolf and coyote, two species of African wolf, two species of jackal, and the dhole, among others. To their surprise, the dire wolf’s closest relation wasn’t the grey wolf. It was the jackals, both from Africa, but even they weren’t very closely related.

It turns out that 5.7 million years ago, the shared ancestor of dire wolves and many other canids lived in Eurasia. At this point sea levels were low enough that the Bering land bridge, also called Beringia, connected the very eastern part of Asia to the very western part of North America. One population of this canid migrated into North America while the rest of the population stayed in Asia. The two populations evolved separately until the North America population developed into what we now call dire wolves. Meanwhile, the Eurasian population developed into many of the modern species we know today, and eventually migrated into North America too.

By the time the gray wolf populated North America, the dire wolf was so distantly related to it that even when their territories overlapped, they avoided each other and didn’t interbreed. We’ve talked about canids in many previous episodes, including how readily they interbreed with each other, so for the dire wolf to remain genetically isolated, it was obviously not closely related at all to other canids at this point.

The dire wolf looked a lot like a grey wolf, but researchers now think that was due more to convergent evolution than to its relationship with wolves. Both lived in the same habitats: plains, grasslands, and forests. The dire wolf was slightly taller on average than the modern grey wolf, which can grow a little over three feet tall at the shoulder, or 97 cm, but it was much heavier and more solidly built. It wouldn’t have been able to run nearly as fast, but it could attack and kill larger animals. Its head was larger in proportion than the grey wolf’s and it had massive teeth that were adapted to crush bigger bones.

The dire wolf lived throughout North America and even migrated into South America and back into east Asia. It preferred open lowlands and its most important prey animal was probably the horse, although it also ate ground sloths, camels, bison, and many others. It probably also scavenged dead animals and probably hunted as a pack.

Researchers think the dire wolf went extinct due to a combination of factors, including increased competition with grey wolves and maybe with humans, climate change, and the extinction of the megaherbivores that made up its diet. It will probably be reclassified into a different genus, Aenocyon, instead of staying in its current genus, Canis.

Before this study, most researchers thought that the ancestor of North American canids evolved in Eurasia, but had already migrated into North America before developing into dire wolves, grey wolves, coyotes, and other canid species. But now the history of canids has changed a lot. From what we now know, pending further study, the dire wolf was the only canid in North America for millions of years. Grey wolves, coyotes, and their relations are relative newcomers. It’s an exciting time for scientists studying ice age megafauna. Hopefully we’ll learn more soon as more studies are conducted into the dire wolf’s history.

Next, let’s look briefly at a type of turtle that’s been in the news lately too. Swinhoe’s softshell turtle is considered the most endangered turtle in the world. In early 2019 there were only two individuals known, a male and a female, but they had never bred despite being kept together in captivity. Then the female died in April of that year. No females meant no eggs, no baby turtles, no more Swinhoe’s softshell turtle. The species would be extinct.

But in October of 2020, researchers found a female Swinhoe’s softshell turtle in the wild! Not only that, they spotted what they think is a male turtle in the same lake, and found evidence of what may possibly be a third turtle nearby.

Swinhoe’s softshell turtle is also known as the Yangtze giant softshell turtle and used to be found in many lakes and rivers in Asia. Unfortunately, people killed it for its meat and dug up its eggs to eat, and pollution and habitat loss also killed off many of the turtles. This is the same turtle we talked about in episode 68, the Hoan Kiem turtle of Vietnam. It’s probably the largest freshwater turtle in the world, and the largest one ever measured weighed 546 lbs, or 247.5 kg. It can grow over three feet long, or 100 cm.

The newly discovered wild turtles are being monitored carefully to make sure they’re healthy, their environment is clean and safe, and to see if the female lays eggs this spring. The female was captured briefly, just long enough to take blood samples and verify that she was healthy. Then they released her back into the lake. Fingers crossed that she hatches some baby turtles soon!

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or just tell a friend. We also have a Patreon at if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 206: The Bowerbird and the Victoria Crowned Pigeon

This week let’s learn about two birds of New Guinea, bowerbirds and the Victoria crowned pigeon! Both are beautiful and the bowerbird is kind of weird. Thanks to M Is for Awesome for the suggestion!

Further Reading:

The Women Who Removed Birds from People’s Hats

Various bowers made by various species of bowerbird:

The golden-fronted bowerbird:

Not a bowerbird but a close relation, a dead bird of paradise from New Guinea, decorating an old-timey lady’s fancy hat. I would not want to put this on my head:

A Victoria crowned pigeon, wearing a built-in fancy hat:

A Victoria crowned pigeon baby. Such miniature floof:

Show transcript:

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

This week we are finally going to look at some birds of New Guinea, a topic suggested ages ago by M Is for Awesome! There are so many weird and amazing birds in New Guinea that instead of trying to talk about a bunch of them very briefly in one episode, I’m going to make this another ongoing series throughout the year. Every so often we’ll revisit New Guinea (in our minds, anyway) and learn about a few more birds. In this episode we’ll learn some basic information about New Guinea and then learn about two really interesting birds that live there.

New Guinea comes up in lots of episodes because so many animals live there. It’s almost the world’s largest island, second only to Greenland. Australia is considered a continent, not an island. New Guinea is actually pretty close to Australia so there’s a lot of overlap between animals that live in Australia and animals that live in New Guinea.

A big reason New Guinea has so many animals is its geography. It has everything from ridiculously high mountains with glaciers to lowland rainforests, savannas, wetlands, mangrove forests, rivers, lakes, alpine tundra, and coral reefs off the coast. About the only thing it doesn’t have is a desert. Most of the island is warm and humid with lots of rain.

Of course people live in New Guinea too, and have for at least 40,000 years, possibly as long as 60,000 years. Back then, New Guinea was connected to Australia by a land bridge similar to the one that has connected North America with Asia when sea levels were low. Some of the earliest humans to migrate out of Africa settled in New Guinea, and the people there developed agriculture independently of the people who settled in the Middle East. More people arrived much later, only around 3,500 years ago, from parts of Asia. But because the land is so hard to navigate due to the mountains and rivers and so forth, people who moved to a new part of the island were largely isolated from the people in other parts. Some 7,000 languages are spoken on the island right up to the present day, with several hundred more languages once spoken.

Unfortunately, as happens so often, after European explorers discovered the island in the 16th century, they decided they would like to have it for themselves. So they took it, which is just rude. The eastern half of the island is now independent as of 1975, called Papua New Guinea, while the western half, usually just called Papua, is now part of Indonesia. Indonesia is an Asian country and unfortunately, they’re being just as bad to the indigenous people of the area as Europeans were.

There are still lots of places in New Guinea that scientists haven’t explored, mostly in the mountains, and undoubtedly lots and lots of animals and birds that are completely unknown to science. Some of the animals and birds of the mountains may never have been seen by any person at all.

M specifically wanted us to cover bowerbirds, so let’s start with them. Bowerbirds live in Australia and New Guinea along with a few smaller islands, with twenty species known. You may have heard about them before, because a male bowerbird builds what’s called a bower and decorates it with items he selects to attract a female. A bower is a nice little shady area where you’d like to have a picnic, unless you’re a female bowerbird in which case you’d like to examine all the things a male has collected and evaluate his elaborate courtship dance.

Because the female builds a nest and takes care of her eggs and chicks by herself, she’s really picky about who she mates with. She wants the strongest, healthiest male she can find so her babies will be healthy too. She looks for a male who has the energy to build a bower, collect pretty items to decorate it, and then perform an elaborate courtship dance when the female shows up. She will visit numerous bowers before she makes a decision, narrowing them down over the course of several days or even weeks until she chooses between the best candidates.

Researchers think the bowerbird is most closely related to corvids, which as you may remember includes birds like crows, magpies, and jays, but they’re also closely related to birds of paradise. Some bowerbirds are plain black or brown, some are mostly black or brown with green or other colored markings, while some are brightly colored overall. For instance, the male flame bowerbird that lives in rainforests in New Guinea has a bright orangey-red head and shoulders shading to bright yellow body and wings, with a black tail tipped with yellow. The female is more brown but she has a bright yellow belly.

The species most people have heard of is the satin bowerbird, where the male has black feathers that shine iridescent blue in sunlight and who collects almost exclusively blue items to attract a female. The satin bowerbird lives in Australia, not New Guinea. The bowerbirds that live in Australia are more well studied than the ones in New Guinea because it’s easier to find them.

Not all bowerbirds build bowers, though. The catbirds of Australia and New Guinea are mostly green, and instead of the males building bowers to attract a mate who then goes off to lay her eggs and take of the babies herself, both parents take care of the babies.

Let’s talk a little more about these bowers. There are two main types, the maypole bower and the avenue bower, and a particular species of bowerbird will only ever build one or the other. A male who builds a maypole bower chooses a sapling tree or large fern and places sticks against it all around. Some maypole bowers look like little huts. An avenue bower is made of two walls of sticks with a walkway between. These structures can be big, sometimes up to three feet high, or about a meter, although most are smaller. Most bowerbirds are fairly big too, about the size of a jay or magpie.

Once he’s built the bower, the male finds and places items around it that he hopes a female will like. He will spend hours arranging and rearranging them. Some species put light-colored objects down first, then display colored items on top. Some birds will place smaller items in front, larger items in back, so that when the female is inside the bower all the items appear to be about the same size. Different species of bowerbird prefer different colors of item.

The items a male chooses for decoration vary from bird to bird depending on what he can find, or what he can steal from other males, and can include shells, stones, coins, pieces of glass, berries, feathers, bones, flowers, leaves, bottle caps, dead beetles, fungus, moss, snail shells, bark, nuts, and many other things.

Bowerbirds mainly eat fruit, but they also eat insects and some also eat nectar and flowers.

Let’s look into the story of a particular bowerbird before we move on to another type of bird. The male golden-fronted bowerbird is a rusty reddish-brown with a long golden crest, while the female is olive brown. The species was described in 1895 from skins imported to decorate hats.

In the 19th century women wore fancy hats, at least in Europe and America and other places that were influenced by this fancy-hat-wearing trend, and the more well-to-do a woman was, the fancier she wanted her hats. This was before synthetic dyes, so the brightest, fanciest, and most expensive way to decorate a hat was with the feathers of exotic birds. Sometimes it wasn’t just a few feathers or even a lot of feathers, but an entire wing or a bunch of bird wings. As the style grew more and more elaborate, often it was an entire dead bird, stuffed and mounted on a hat. I am not known for my sense of style, but that just seems really gross. But it was the style at the time and it meant hat-makers would pay a lot for exotic birds, especially ones with brightly colored feathers. The demand for feathers was so high, it nearly drove some species to extinction.

When an American woman named Harriet Hemenway heard about the slaughter of birds happening all around the world just so women could have fancier and fancier hats, she and her cousin Minna Hall started spreading the word to all the women they knew: stop buying and wearing hats with dead birds on them. The women attracted more and more supporters, both among hat-wearing ladies and people who just liked birds, and Hemenway and Hall pushed for a boycott of the feather trade. They even started the Massachusetts Audubon Society, the forerunner of the National Audubon Society that’s still around today.

You would think that this would be an obvious law to put into place. I mean, yes, don’t kill millions of rare birds just for hat decorations. But there was a lot of money involved in feather imports back then. People who were getting rich off dead birds called the Audubon Society extremists who wanted to put people out of jobs. Fortunately, the women persisted, and in 1900 the first federal conservation act was put into place in the United States to stop the import of feathers.

But before the feather trade was banned, some scientists made a habit of looking through imports of feathers and bird skins to find new species. That’s how one ornithologist discovered the golden-fronted bower bird, but he didn’t know where it was from. He described the species from the skin and that’s where the story ended for almost a century.

In 1979, a biologist named Jared Diamond was hired to survey New Guinea for the site of a national park. He spent a month hiking through areas where no scientist had ever been before, and returned in 1981 for another few weeks to look for bowerbirds specifically. And as you may have guessed, he saw golden-fronted bowerbirds alive and well in the Foja Mountains. The mountains are steep and inaccessible, which has helped protect the bird from hunters and habitat loss. The first photographs of the bird were only taken in 2005.

Next, let’s look at a pigeon that lives in New Guinea. New Guinea has a whole lot of pigeons and doves, something like 60 species although some are now extinct due to habitat loss and other factors. The Victoria crowned pigeon is a beautiful bird that lives in the lowlands and swampy forests. It’s increasingly threatened in the wild due to habitat loss and hunting, but it’s so pretty that many people keep it in captivity. Unfortunately that also means people trap the wild birds to sell, even though it’s illegal and the birds are hard to take care of properly, although they do tend to be easy to tame. Some zoos let them wander around the grounds the same way peacocks often do.

The Victoria crowned pigeon is indeed a pigeon. It’s a soft blue-grey all over with a reddish patch on its breast, lighter blue wing bars and tail tip, red eyes in a dark blue mask, and a gorgeous spray of feathers on its head that are tipped with white. It’s just lovely. It’s the sort of bird that people would have put on hats in the olden days, but I’m glad they don’t anymore. It’s an especially large bird, too, at least twice as big as ordinary pigeons you see in cities. Basically it’s the size of a big chicken. It mostly eats fruit, especially figs, although it will also eat seeds and small animals like insects, and it doesn’t fly much. It mostly eats fruit that has fallen from trees.

Like all pigeons it’s a sociable bird that usually forages in a small flock or in pairs. It only lays one egg at a time and its baby is blue with white streaks. Both parents feed the baby with crop milk, which we’ve talked about before in various episodes. It’s not actually milk, just a nutritious shed lining of the crop.

During courtship, the male dances for the female to show off his crest, and he also makes a loud booming noise that doesn’t actually sound like a pigeon call. It sounds more like a special effect from a movie set in space. This is what it sounds like:

[pigeon booming]

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or just tell a friend. We also have a Patreon at if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 205: Sea Scorpions and the Late Ordovician Mass Extinction Event

Happy new year! This week we’ll learn about the oldest mass extinction event, some 450 million years ago, and also sea scorpions.

Further reading:

Coming up for air: Extinct sea scorpions could breathe out of water, fossil detective unveils

Sea scorpions could get really, really big:

A fossil Eurypterus:

Show transcript:

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

Hello, 2021, please be better than 2020 was. I’ve got lots of fun, interesting episodes planned for this year, but let’s start the year off right with an episode about, uh, a major extinction event. Specifically it’s the Late Ordovician mass extinction, which occurred around 450 million years ago. This is the first of a series of episodes about extinction events I have planned for this year, which I hope you’ll find interesting. We’ll also learn about an animal called the sea scorpion.

If you’ve listened to episode 69, about the Cambrian explosion, you may remember that the fossil record shows that around 540 million years ago life on earth evolved from simple organisms into much more complicated ones. This happened relatively quickly in geologic terms, about 15 to 25 million years for life to go from microbial mats, simple worms, and single-celled animals to fantastical creatures with shells and spikes and novel ways of feeding as animals adapted to fit new ecological niches.

But what happened after that? A series of extinction events, that’s what.

The first extinction event researchers can identify from the fossil record is called the End-Botomian extinction event, which happened around 510 million years ago in two phases. We’re not sure what caused the extinctions, but the main theory is that a series of massive volcanic eruptions caused climate changes that led to acidification of the oceans and a resulting loss of oxygen from the water. This was followed by another extinction event around 500 million years ago. All told, during these ten million years or so, about 40% of all species of animal went extinct.

But remember, all we have to work with is the fossil record. Researchers know how old particular rock strata are, strata being the term for layers, so when they find a fossil embedded in a rock they know roughly how long ago it lived. Only a small percentage of animals that ever live end up fossilized, and only a small percentage of fossils are ever found by humans, and only a small percentage of fossils found by humans get studied by experts. So while scientists do their best, they’re working with a limited amount of data to determine what happened half a billion years ago. It’s like trying to determine the rise and fall of empires from a series of random photographs.

But when older rocks show a whole lot of fossils of various kinds, and then slightly younger rocks show way fewer or no fossils, researchers can be pretty sure that something catastrophic happened to kill off a lot of animal life in a relatively short amount of time. If they find the same changes in rocks of the same age in different parts of the world, the catastrophe was probably worldwide and serious enough to impact life on Earth for thousands or even millions of years. That’s what happened in the late Ordovician.

Around 460 million years ago, about the time that life was getting back to normal after the last extinction event, glaciers started to form across the land. Most of the continents at this time were smushed together into a supercontinent called Gondwana, which was mostly in the southern hemisphere. Much of the rest of the Earth was one big ocean, and it was hot and tropical just about everywhere. But that changed when temperatures dropped drastically. Glaciers formed, sea levels fell, and some 60% of all life on Earth went extinct, all possibly within about one million years.

We don’t know why, but we do have some clues and some theories. We know there was a major meteor event around 467 million years ago, which can be pinpointed because of the craters and specific minerals and bits of meteorites found that can only come from meteors hitting the earth. The impacts kicked dust into the atmosphere that then reflected sunlight back into space, causing less light to reach the earth.

Another cause might have just been a cyclical movement of the Earth in space. As you hopefully know, Earth rotates on its axis in a 24 hour period, giving us day and night, and at the same time it’s moving in an elliptical orbit around the sun in a 12-month period, which of course is a year. The sun and the other planets and everything else in our solar system are also moving in space in a larger orbit, and there are other even larger orbits that our solar system is part of within our galaxy, which is moving too. With all this movement all the time, it’s not surprising that Earth’s climate is affected in very long cycles, together with the effects of the moon’s gravitational pull making the Earth’s orbit just slightly wobbly. A combination of events, including where the Earth was in its orbit, might have caused the Earth to cool just enough that it set off an ice age. If this happened at about the same time that the meteor event also caused the Earth to cool a little, that would explain why the onset of glaciation happened so quickly in geological terms.

Whatever the cause or causes, it had serious repercussions. The cooling climate and drop in ocean levels as ice formed caused rapid extinctions of animals that lived in shallow water and were adapted to tropical climates.

But the extinction event was a one-two punch. The cold didn’t kill off every animal, of course, and those that remained evolved to take advantage of ecological niches that were suddenly empty. This is always how life manages after an extinction event. But these new species were adapted to the cold. And then, almost as suddenly as they formed, the glaciers melted.

Sea levels rose dramatically. The Earth warmed again, although not to its former levels. As the glaciers melted, cold fresh water flowed into the ocean and may have caused deep ocean water to rise to the surface, a process called upwelling. The deep ocean water brought nutrients with it that then spread across the ocean’s surface, and this would have set off a massive microbial bloom.

Microbial blooms sometimes happen today in small areas of the ocean or in lakes, especially in places where fertilizers make it into the water. Algae or bacteria that feed on certain nutrients suddenly have a whole lot of food, and they reproduce as fast as possible to take advantage of it. But the microbes use up oxygen, so much of it that the water can become depleted. This leads to massive die-offs of fish and other animals. But these modern microbial blooms are relatively small. The ones 450-odd million years ago might have been worldwide. As the glaciers melted they exposed more land, which meant more nutrients flowing into the ocean, feeding the microbial blooms that continued to deplete oxygen from the ocean.

The result was a severe lack of oxygen in the water that would have driven more species to extinction. Some researchers think it took three million years for the oceans to recover.

There are many other possible causes for the Late Ordovician mass extinction, although right now the cooling and then warming of the earth seems to be the most widely accepted among scientists. But whatever the causes, the results were dramatic. Entire families of animal went extinct, probably around 100 of them, and many others were affected. Some 70% of trilobite species went extinct, for instance.

The Late Ordovician mass extinction marks the end of the Ordovician era and the beginning of the Silurian around 443 million years ago. Remember that these names for eras are just the way that geologists and other scientists can indicate the age of an event or rock or fossil. It’s not like trilobites and brachiopods had little calendars and on one particular day that calendar said “Extinction” and everyone died. It was a gradual process, no matter how fast it occurred in geologic terms. If you had a time machine and could travel back to 450 million years ago, whatever day you arrived, the world would just look normal. You’d have to observe for at least hundreds of years to understand that the Earth was in the process of an extinction event.

You’ll be glad to know that the Silurian lasted almost 25 million years and was nice and quiet geologically. Life rebounded after the extinctions, as it always does, and more animals and plants adapted to live on land. Fish evolved rapidly during this time, developing bony skeletons and jaws. The Earth was comfortably warm but stormy, since the warm water and massive oceans would have spawned hurricanes that make the ones today look puny. But for the most part life was good in the Silurian.

The ocean was populated with lots of animals, including early fish, trilobites, crinoids, corals, leeches, and shelled animals called brachiopods as well as the more familiar mollusks. Sea levels were high and the land was mostly flat. There weren’t many mountains. So around Gondwana were lots of islands that were barely higher than the water level.

In the shallow oceans around what is now North America, an arthropod called the eurypterid was incredibly common, with some 250 species known. Many of them persisted until about 250 million years ago and they lived throughout the world. Eurypterids are often called sea scorpions, but they didn’t look much like modern scorpions. The typical Eurypterid looked a lot like the modern horseshoe crab, but with a longer segmented body and tail. But even though it looked sort of like a horseshoe crab, it may have been more closely related to modern scorpions.

The earliest sea scorpion known was Pentecopterus, which has been found in the fossil record in rocks dated to about 467 million years ago. It grew up to five feet 7 inches long, or 1.7 meters. One interesting thing to note is that it lived in a particular round basin some three miles across, or a bit over 5 km, in what is now Iowa in the United States. Researchers think it was actually a crater from a meteor impact near the ocean’s shore, and that the water in it was probably brackish. Remember how there was a major meteor event 467 million years ago? Pentecopterus was probably living in a crater made by one of those pieces of meteorite. It would have been the apex predator in that small environment, eating anything it could catch with its crablike legs. Later sea scorpions developed a pair of crab-like pincers at the front, along with a flattened tail that sometimes had a pointed barb at the end.

Eurypterids lived in the water. While some grew less than an inch long, or a few cm, some grew quite large. One species of Jaekelopterus could grow 8 ½ feet long, or 2.6 meters. That doesn’t even include the claws at the front that could extend at least another 18 inches, or 45 cm. It was probably a freshwater animal, and despite its size it was streamlined and lightweight, so it would have been an active predator. We even have fossilized fish bones that show puncture wounds that might have been made by its claws. Some eurypterids weren’t very good swimmers, though, and probably spent more time walking along the bottom of the shallow ocean.

So between Jaekelopterus in fresh water and the earliest known sea scorpion, Pentecopterus, in possibly brackish water, it’s obvious that from the very beginning the sea scorpion could adapt to various environments that other animals couldn’t. This adaptability is probably why the sea scorpion survived the extinction event that killed off so many other animals, and it continued to thrive for hundreds of millions of years afterwards.

Not only that, one fossil takes its adaptability a step farther. A geology professor named James Lamsdell heard about a strange eurypterid found in France that had been in a Scottish museum for 30 years. He arranged to have the fossil imaged with a CT scanner, which revealed its gills. And to Lamsdell’s surprise, the gills contained structures found in modern scorpions and spiders, which keep the gill plates from collapsing when it’s out of water. These structures have been retained in modern arachnids from their marine ancestors, and finding them in a eurypterid was shocking. It means that particular eurypterid could spend time on land. Lamsdell and his team think it came out of the water to lay its eggs, either in sheltered pools or in wet sand.

Eurypterids died out eventually, but their cousins, modern scorpions, are doing just fine after surviving many other extinction events. So try to be more like a scorpion, because obviously they’re doing something right.

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Thanks for listening!