Monthly Archives: November 2021

Episode 252: Mini Rex



Sign up for our mailing list! We also have t-shirts and mugs with our logo!

Thanks to Zachary for suggesting this topic! Let’s learn about some sightings of what look like miniature theropod dinosaurs running around in the American Southwest!

Further reading:

All About Birds: Wild Turkey

A collared lizard running (photo by Joe McDonald from this page):

Basilisks running:

A female wild turkey:

A male wild turkey (note the tuft of hair-like feathers sticking forward, called a beard) (picture from this page):

Show transcript:

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

Thanks to Zachary for his email a while back that helped shape this episode. Zachary has kept a lot of different kinds of pets, which we had a nice conversation about, and one of the reptiles he’s kept as a pet is in this episode. I’ll reveal which one at the end.

But first, a small correction, maybe. Paul from the awesome podcast Varmints! messaged me to point out that the word spelled A-N-O-L-E is pronounced a-NOLL, not a-NO-lee. I’d looked it up before I recorded so that confused me, so I looked it up again and it turns out that both pronunciations are used in different places and both are correct. So if you’ve always heard it a-NOLL, you’re fine, but now I can’t decide which pronunciation I should use.

This week we’re going to learn about an interesting mystery of the American southwest. Even though non-avian dinosaurs went extinct 66 million years ago, occasionally someone spots what they think is a little dinosaur running along on its hind legs. They’re sometimes called mini rexes.

Many reports come from the American southwest, especially Colorado, Arizona, and Texas. For instance, in the late 1960s two teenaged brothers were looking for arrowheads near their home in Dove Creek, Colorado when they were startled by an animal running away from them at high speed. The boys said it looked like a miniature dinosaur, only about 14 inches tall, or 35 centimeters. It was kicking up so much dust as it ran on its hind legs that the boys had trouble making out details. They did note that it seemed to be brown and possibly had a row of spines running down its back, maybe even two rows of spines, similar to an iguana’s. It had long hind legs and shorter front legs that it held out in front of it as it ran.

The animal left behind three-toed footprints that the boys followed until they disappeared into some brush. The boys were familiar with turkey footprints but these were different, with the toes closer together and no rear-pointing toe prints.

In April 1996, in Cortez, Colorado, a woman saw an animal run past her house on its hind legs, seemingly from a nearby pond. It was greenish-gray and stood about 3.5 feet tall, or about a meter. It had a long neck and long, tapering tail. She didn’t notice its front legs but its hind legs had muscular thighs but were thinner below the hock joint.

One night in July 2001, a woman and her grown daughter were driving near Yellow Jacket, Colorado when they noticed an animal at the edge of the road. At first the driver thought it was a small deer and slammed on the brakes so she wouldn’t hit it, but when it darted across the road both women were shocked to see what looked like a small dinosaur pass through the headlight beams of the car. They reported it was about 3 feet tall, or 91 centimeters, and that it had no feathers or fur. Its legs were thin and long, while its arms were tiny and held out in front of its body. It had a slender neck, a small head, and a long tapering tail.

The witnesses in both the 1996 sighting and the 2001 sighting noted that the animal they saw ran gracefully. They also all agreed that the animals’ skin appeared smooth.

Lots of dinosaurs used to walk on their hind legs, but the reptiles living today are all four-footed. There are a few lizards that run on their hind legs occasionally, though, and one of them lives in the American southwest. The collared lizard, also called the mountain boomer, will run on its hind legs to escape predators. Females are usually light brown while males have a blue-green body and light brown head. The name collared lizard comes from the two black stripes both males and females show around their necks, with a white stripe in between. During breeding season, in early summer, females also have orange spots along their sides.

The collared lizard can run up to 16 miles an hour, or 26 kilometers per hour, for short bursts on its hind legs. It uses its long tail for balance as it runs, and its hind legs are three times the length of its front legs. This makes it a good jumper too. It mostly eats insects but will occasionally eat berries, small snakes, and even other lizards. It hibernates in winter in rock crevices.

While the teenaged boys probably saw a collared lizard in the 1960s, the other two sightings we just covered sound much different. The collared lizard typically only grows up to 14 inches long, or 35 centimeters, including its long tail.

A few other lizards are known to run on their hind legs, such as the basilisk that lives in rainforests of Central and South America. It’s famous for its ability to run across water on its hind legs. It’s much larger than the collared lizard, up to 2.5 feet long, or 76 centimeters, including its long tail. It holds its front legs out to its sides when running on its hind legs, and the toes on its hind feet have flaps of skin that help stop it from sinking. It has a crest on its head, and the male also has crests on his back and tail. It can be brown or green in color.

The basilisk is sometimes kept as an exotic pet. In 1981 in New Kensington, Pennsylvania, four boys playing along some railroad tracks saw a green lizard that they thought was a baby dinosaur. It was 2 feet long, or 61 centimeters, and had a crest and an extremely long tail. It ran away on its hind legs but one of the boys, who was 11 years old, managed to catch it. It startled him by squealing and he dropped it again, and this time it got away. It sounds like an escaped pet basilisk.

But let’s go back to our mini rex sightings from 1996 and 2001, the ones of dinosaur-like animals running gracefully on their hind legs with a long neck and long tail. These don’t sound like lizards at all. When lizards run on their hind legs, they don’t look much like how we imagine a tiny raptor dinosaur would look. They appear awkward while running, with their arms sticking out and their heads pointing more or less upward. While all the lizards known that can run on their hind legs have long tails, they all have relatively short necks.

There’s another type of animal that’s closely related to the dinosaurs, though, and every single one walks on its hind legs. That’s right: birds! All the birds alive today are descended from dinosaurs whose front legs evolved for flight. Even flightless birds are well adapted to walk on two legs.

Let’s look at the details of those two sightings again. Both were of animals estimated as about three feet tall or a little taller, or up to about a meter, with long neck, small head, long tapering tail held above the ground, and long, strong legs that were nevertheless thin. Both also appeared smooth. In one of the sightings, the front legs were tiny and held forward; in the other, the witness didn’t notice the front legs.

My suggestion is that in these two sightings, at least, the witnesses saw a particular kind of bird, a wild turkey. That may sound ridiculous if you’re thinking of a male turkey displaying his feathers, but most of the time turkeys don’t look round and poofy. Most of the time, in fact, the wild turkey’s feathers are sleek and its tail is an ordinary-looking long, skinny bird tail instead of a dramatic fan. Its feathers are mostly brown and black, the upper part of its long neck is bare of feathers, as is its small head, and its legs are long and strong but relatively thin. It also typically stands 3 to 3.5 feet tall, or up to about a meter, although some big males can stand over 4 feet tall, or 1.2 meters. As for the front legs seen by witnesses in 2001, a full-grown male turkey has a tuft of long, hair-like feathers growing from the middle of his breast, called a beard. It sticks out from the rest of the feathers and might look like tiny arms if you were already convinced you were looking at a dinosaur instead of a bird.

That’s not to say that all mini-rex sightings are of turkeys, of course, but some of them probably are. The wild turkey lives throughout much of the United States, including most of Colorado. Since birds are the closest animals we have to dinosaurs these days, though, that’s still pretty neat.

Finally, the reptile Zachary kept as a pet was the collared lizard. I didn’t want to say so at the beginning and potentially spoil part of the mystery for some people!

You can find Strange Animals Podcast 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. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or Podchaser, or just tell a friend. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us for as little as one dollar a month and get monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 251: Modern Mimics and HIREC



Sign up for our mailing list! We also have t-shirts and mugs with our logo!

This week let’s look at some animals that have evolved rapidly to adapt to human-caused environmental pressures. Thanks to Otto and Pranav for their suggestions!

Further reading:

Long-term changes of plumage between urban and rural populations of white-crowned sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys)

A light-colored peppered moth (left) and darker-colored peppered moths (right):

Soot is hard to clean off buildings and other items (image from this page):

A white-crowned sparrow in the California countryside:

A (deceased museum specimen being photographed) white-crowned sparrow from the city of San Francisco, CA (taken from the study linked above):

A decorator crab that has attached bits of plastic and other trash to its body (image from this page):

The hermit crab sometimes uses trash instead of shells to hide in:

Show transcript:

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

This week we have two listener suggestions. Otto suggested we learn about camouflage that mimics modern things, and Pranav suggested animals that show rapid evolution due to humans.

We’ve talked about animals that use camouflage in lots of episodes, especially episode 191, Masters of Disguise. If you want to learn more about camouflage itself, that’s a good one to listen to. In addition, rapid evolution due to humans is a hot area of research right now. It even has its own scientific term, human-induced rapid evolutionary change, often shortened to the acronym HIREC.

Let’s start this episode with the story of a humble moth, because it’s a classic example of both HIREC and modern camouflage.

The peppered moth lives throughout much of the northern hemisphere. Its wingspan is a little over 2 inches across, or about 6 centimeters, and its caterpillar looks just like a little twig. Not only that, the caterpillar can change its coloring to match the twigs of the tree it’s on. But it’s not the caterpillars we’re talking about today.

The peppered moth gets its name from the coloring of its wings, which are white with black speckles, like pepper spilled on a plate. The pattern of speckles is unique to each individual, with some moths having more pepper speckles than others. Some moths have so many speckles that they look gray. But in the 19th century, geneticists studying moths in England noticed that the peppered moth seemed to be changing color as a species. Specifically, some of the peppered moths were completely black.

Black peppered moths had never been documented before 1811. They were still rare in the mid-19th century, but by 1900 almost all of the peppered moths in cities in England were black. Scientists noticed this and tried to figure out what was going on.

Pollution is what was going on. The industrial revolution was in full swing, but all those factories and trains and even ordinary houses were burning coal. Burning coal results in soot that’s carried on smoke and settles on everything. If you have a coal fire in your house, your walls and furniture are going to end up dark with soot. My aunt and uncle renovated a house from the late 19th century and had a lot of trouble cleaning soot from the walls and woodwork, even the old curtains that had been in the house. Similarly, when I lived briefly near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, there were still a lot of brick and stone buildings that were black from soot, but one beautiful old church had recently been cleaned and it turned out that the stone it was built from was pale gray, not black.

It wasn’t coal soot getting on the moths, though. It was coal soot on the trees where the moths spent most of their time. Most tree trunks are gray, but with all that coal soot in the air, the trees were coated with it and were much darker gray or even black. A light-colored moth that settled on a black tree branch showed up to predators, but a black moth on the same branch was camouflaged. The black moths survived more often to lay eggs while the white or gray moths didn’t, passing on the genetic likelihood that their babies would grow up to be dark-colored instead of light-colored.

It wasn’t just peppered moths that this happened to, either. More than 100 species of moth were documented to be dark gray or black during this time when they were ordinarily much lighter in color. Scientists call this industrial melanism.

Soot is made up of tiny particles that work their way into the crevices of wood and stone and everything else they come in contact with. You can’t just wipe or rinse it off. It’s acidic too and will kill plants, especially lichens that grow on trees, and it even eats away at stone and brick. It’s dangerous to breathe because the tiny particles lodge in your lungs and eventually stop you from being able to absorb oxygen as efficiently. If you’ve heard of the infamous London smog from the olden days, a big contributor to the smog was coal smoke. In 1952 a five-day smog event in London killed an estimated 12,000 people. That led directly to the Clean Air Act of 1956, and these days London doesn’t have that kind of deadly smog anymore.

Once factories and homes switched to electricity, natural gas, or other alternatives to burning coal, and trains switched to diesel fuel, trees stopped being coated with soot. Older trees that had survived were still dark, but young ones grew up with normal colored trunks and branches. Gradually, the black moths became less and less numerous compared to light-colored moths.

Cities in general result in rapid evolution of animals, including how they camouflage themselves. A study published in May of 2021 found that some birds living in cities are developing different colored feathers. Specifically, white-crowned sparrows living in San Francisco, California have much duller, darker feathers on their backs than white-crowned sparrows living outside of the city. Other studies have found that birds in cities sing much louder and at a higher pitch than birds in the countryside, since they have to compete with traffic and other noise.

A Swiss study on the effects of light on ermine moths indicated that while moths who developed from caterpillars collected from the countryside showed a normal attraction to light, moths from caterpillars collected in the city ignored the light. Since moths often die when they collide with electric lights, the city moths who survived to lay eggs were the ones who didn’t fly into a hot lightbulb.

Another study compared the genomes of white-footed mice that live in various parks in New York City with white-footed mice that live in state parks well outside of the city. The mice in city parks showed a lot less genetic diversity, naturally, since those mice are isolated populations. Mice can’t take cabs to visit mice in other parks, much less leave the city for a vacation. But the city mice showed another surprising difference. Their digestive systems have adapted to a much different diet than their country cousins. Some researchers suggest that the city mice may eat more junk food, which people throw away and the mice find, while other researchers think it’s just a difference in the kinds of insects and plants available in city parks for the mice to eat. Either way, it’s a distinct genetic difference that shows how the city mice are evolving to adapt to their urban environments.

Another example is a type of reptile called the crested anole. It’s related to the iguana and is native to the Americas. There are lots of species and subspecies of anole, many of which live on islands and show distinct adaptations to various habitats. The crested anole lives in Puerto Rico and on some nearby islands and grows up to 3 inches long, or 7.5 cm, not counting its long tail. The male is more brightly colored than the female, usually green or brown with darker spots. It’s not related to the chameleon but it is able to change color. It eats small animals, including insects, worms, even other anoles. Anoles are really interesting animals that deserve their own episode one day, so let’s just talk about how the crested anole that lives in cities has adapted to urban life.

One thing the crested anole is known for is its ability to climb right up tree trunks and even perch head-down in a tree. Its toe pads have microscopic scales and hairs that help them adhere to smooth surfaces, something like a gecko’s toes. But there’s a big difference in a tree trunk, no matter how smooth it is, and a pane of glass. Anoles in cities can climb up and down windows and painted walls. Researchers examined the toe pads of city crested anoles and compared them to the toe pads of crested anoles who lived in the countryside. They found that the city anoles had larger toes with more scales, and they even had longer legs. The research team also raced anoles along various surfaces and filmed them in slow motion to study how they were able to maneuver, which sounds like a great day at work.

The crested anoles have only lived in cities for a few decades, so their differences from country anoles evolved very quickly. But not all species of anole can adapt as well and as rapidly as the crested anoles have. Other city anole species don’t show differences from their country cousins.

Human-induced rapid evolutionary change isn’t restricted to cities. Trophy hunters who target the biggest animals with the biggest horns or antlers and leave smaller individuals alone have resulted in only smaller males with smaller horns or antlers surviving to breed. Many populations of bighorn sheep now actually only have small horns. Similarly, elephants have been killed for their tusks for long enough that many elephants are being born without tusks, because tuskless elephants are the ones that survive to breed. Entire populations of some fish species are smaller overall after many generations of being caught with nets, because only the individuals who are small enough to escape the nets survive to breed.

I tried hard to find more examples of animals that camouflage themselves to blend in to human-made items like roads. I’m sure this is happening throughout much of the world, but I couldn’t find any scientific studies about it. If any of you are thinking of going into biology, that might be an interesting field of study. But I did find one other example.

Self-decoration is a type of camouflage I don’t think we’ve talked about before. It’s where an animal decorates its body with items that help it blend in with its surroundings. Some caterpillars will stick little bits of lichen or other plant pieces to their bodies to help them hide, and some invertebrates of various kinds actually pile their own poop on their back as a disguise.

A group of crabs called decorator crabs will stick plants, sponges, and other items to their backs, and different species have preferences as to what items they use. Some species prefer stinging or toxic decorations, such as certain sea anemones which they basically pick up and plant on their backs. Researchers think the sea anemones actually benefit from being used as camouflage, because crabs are messy eaters and the anemones can catch and eat pieces of food that float away from the crab’s mouthparts. A decorator crab’s carapace is often rough in texture with tiny hooks to help things stick to it like Velcro.

Some decorator crabs don’t seek out particular decorations but just make use of whatever small items they find in their local environment. In the past few decades, scientists, divers, and other people who find crabs interesting have noticed more and more decorator crabs using little pieces of trash as decoration. This includes fragments of plastic and pieces of fishing nets.

This is similar to what’s happening with hermit crabs, which we talked about in episode 182. In many places hermit crabs are using trash like bottle caps instead of shells since there’s so much trash on beaches these days. This is your reminder to pick up any trash you find on the beach, but be careful not to cut yourself and also make sure you’re picking up actual trash and not a camouflaged crab.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast 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. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or Podchaser, or just tell a friend. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us for as little as one dollar a month and get monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 250: Mystery of the Golden Toad



Sign up for our mailing list! We also have t-shirts and mugs with our logo!

This week let’s look at a scientific mystery: what caused the golden toad to go extinct, and is it still alive after all?

Further reading:

A deadly fungus is killing frogs, but the bacteria on their skin could protect them

The male golden toad:

The female golden toad (photo by Mary Crump):

Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve is gorgeous and hopefully still hides some golden toads:

Show transcript:

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

This is our 250th episode, not counting the various bonus episodes, and I should have prepared a special show as a result but I didn’t notice until just now. But let’s pretend this is a special episode 250 show. It’s all about the golden toad.

The golden toad is from a tiny area of Costa Rica in Central America. I really do mean a tiny area. North of the city of Monteverde is the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, and the toad was only known from one small part of the reserve that was less than two square miles in size, or about four square kilometers. Specifically, it’s from a single ridge in the nature reserve.

A cloud forest is a type of high altitude rainforest. Because temperatures tend to be much cooler than in an ordinary rainforest, a cloud forest can look very different and sometimes wonderfully strange. Cloud forests are foggy a lot of the time and the trees are often covered in thick mosses. In some cloud forests the trees are quite small while ferns and other plants can grow extremely large.

The Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve is home to thousands of plant and animal species, many of them found nowhere else in the world. That includes the golden toad.

The golden toad gets its name from the male’s coloring. The males are a beautiful golden orange while the females are mostly gray or black with yellow, red, or green markings. As in many frogs and toads, females are larger than males, with a big female growing over two inches long from nose to butt, or about 5.5 centimeters.

The golden toad was only discovered by scientists in 1964 and described in 1966. The last golden toad was a male observed in May of 1989 during what should have been the mating season, but he was all alone. The golden toad was declared extinct in 2004 after repeated searches turned up no toads at all.

It’s easy to think that because the golden toad was restricted to such a small area, it was inevitable that it would go extinct, but the toads were actually common throughout their range until suddenly they weren’t. We’re not sure what happened. Here’s the story.

When the toad was first discovered, researchers estimated that there were around 1,500 adult toads living on the ridge. Most of the time the toads were hard to find, since during the dry season, or when they weren’t actively hunting the insects they ate, they’d stay in underground burrows where it was always nice and damp. But when the spring rains started, the males would hop out and gather around shallow puddles at the base of trees. Females would join the males, and because there were always more males than females, they’d all try to be the one to fertilize her eggs. During this time researchers were able to observe and count the toads, which they described as looking like living jewels.

The female golden toad laid her eggs in the pools of rainwater. The eggs hatched quickly but the tadpoles needed to live in their pool for at least four more weeks until they metamorphosed into toadlets that lived on land. If there was too much rain, the pools would overflow and the tadpoles were in danger of being washed out to die. If there wasn’t enough rain, the pools would dry out and the tadpoles would also die. But most years conditions were pretty good and lots of tadpoles lived to grow up. Until 1987.

A behavioral ecologist who specializes in amphibians, Martha Crump, was studying the golden toads in 1987. In April things seemed normal. The females laid their eggs in the shallow pools as usual, but then the rains stopped. The pools dried out and the eggs and tadpoles all died. When it rained again in May, the females laid more eggs and Dr. Crump counted them, because scientists do a lot of counting. She counted about 43,500 toad eggs. But the pools dried up again, and it was sadly easy for Dr. Crump to count how many tadpoles survived. It was only 29.

The next year, in 1988, there were only ten adult golden toads found. In 1989, one golden toad. In 1990 and beyond, zero golden toads.

The unusually dry spring of 1987 was a devastating blow to the golden toad population, but the adults weren’t affected. They had their nice damp burrows to live in and lots of insects to eat. Dry conditions happen every so often but not every year. Obviously something else happened between 1987 and 1988 to kill off almost all the adult toads too.

Researchers couldn’t figure out what might have happened. One hypothesis was that drought caused by the El Niño weather pattern was unusually severe in 1987 and killed off the adults as well as that year’s eggs and tadpoles. Another was that pesticides had found their way into the environment and killed the toads. Many researchers hoped that the toads were actually still alive, just hiding in their burrows until conditions improved, and every spring for many years toad experts waited to see if the living jewels would emerge during the spring rains. But they never did.

At the same time, though, toads, frogs, and other amphibians around the world were declining in numbers and going extinct. A veterinarian named Lee Berger, who was working toward her doctorate degree, discovered why in 1998. It’s a disease called chytridiomycosis, which is caused by a fungus. The disease infects the animal’s skin, and since amphibians absorb water, oxygen, and some essential minerals through their skin, the disease kills them rapidly.

Chytridiomycosis doesn’t kill every frog. Some species are more or less immune to the disease’s effects, but when infected frogs are taken to other places by people, as pets or food or whatever reasons people have for moving frogs around, the disease spreads rapidly. By the time Dr. Berger identified the cause, dozens of species of amphibian had already gone extinct as a direct result of the disease, and it’s continued ever since. The fungus spreads through water, so if a healthy frog moves into an infected pond, it’s likely to contract the disease.

There’s no cure for chytridiomycosis and treatment isn’t always effective. It doesn’t mean all amphibians are doomed, though. Studies of species that show natural immunity reveal that some amphibians have beneficial bacteria on their skin that stops the fungus from infecting it. Frogs from parts of Costa Rica show various levels of resistance to the fungus even though Costa Rica is particularly hard-hit when it comes to the disease.

The fungus especially thrives in cooler areas in high elevations—exactly the kind of place where the golden toad lived. Even so, the golden toad might have survived and developed a resistance to the disease, except for the bad luck of a drought year that killed off all the eggs and tadpoles at the worst possible time.

But while researchers have searched for the golden toad for years without luck, it might still be around. In 1991 one farmer reported seeing a pool full of healthy golden toads in a remote part of the cloud forest, including young toads. Other people have reported sightings too.

The important thing is that the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve is still protecting the golden toad’s habitat, along with all the other animals and plants in the reserve. If the golden toad is still hanging on, hopefully with individuals that have developed a resistance to chytridiomycosis, it has a safe place to increase in numbers.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast 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. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or Podchaser, or just tell a friend. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us for as little as one dollar a month and get monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 249: Strange Seals



Sign up for our mailing list! We also have t-shirts and mugs with our logo!

Thanks to Richard from NC for his suggestion that leads us to learn about some interesting seals!

Further reading:

Mystery of Siberian freshwater seal food choice solved

Under Antarctica’s ice, Weddell seals produce ultrasonic vocalizations

Further listening/watching:

Rarely-heard Weddell Seal Sounds in Antarctica

The bearded seal Wikipedia page with audio so you can listen over and over and over

The Baikal seal, the world’s only fully fresh water seal species:

Baikal seal, round boi:

The Baikal seal’s teeth have teeth:

A Weddell seal mama with her pup who seems to be practicing singing:

Look ma, no ears!

The bearded seal. Can you tell where its name comes from? (Moustachioed seal might be more accurate.) (Also, note the ear opening with no external ear flap.)

Show transcript:

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

This week let’s learn about some interesting seals. Thanks to Richard from NC who suggested freshwater seals, which is where we’ll start.

Most seals live on the coast and spend most of the time in the ocean. But there’s one species of seal that lives exclusively in fresh water. That’s the Baikal [bay-CALL] seal, and the only place it lives is a big lake in Siberia called Lake Baikal.

Lake Baikal formed where two sections of the earth’s crust are being pulled apart by continental drift. That’s called a rift lake or rift valley lake. The lake gets bigger every year, but only by a tiny amount—just under an inch, or 2 cm. Since this has been going on for an estimated 25 to 30 million years, though, it’s an extremely big, deep lake. It is, in fact, the deepest lake on earth, and is also the oldest lake on earth. It’s more than twice as old as Lake Tanganyika in East Africa, which is also a large, deep rift lake but only about 12 million years old at the most.

Lake Baikal is almost 400 miles long, or 636 km, and nearly 50 miles wide, or 80 km. At its deepest point, it’s 3,893 feet deep, or 1,186.5 meters. That’s from the surface of the water to the muddy bottom. But that mud and sediment on the bottom has been building up for a very long time and there’s a lot of it—4.3 miles of it, in fact, or 7 km. The water is very clear and very oxygenated, but the surface freezes for several months out of the year. Then again, there are some hydrothermal vents, especially in the deepest areas, that heat the water around them to 122 degrees Fahrenheit, or 50 Celsius.

Because Lake Baikal is so deep, so big, so oxygenated, and so old, lots of species of animal live in and around it that live nowhere else in the world. That includes the Baikal seal.

The Baikal seal is related to the Arctic ringed seal but has lived in the lake exclusively for probably two million years. It only grows five and a half feet long at most, or 1.65 meters, and is usually closer to four feet long, or 1.2 meters. It’s gray in color and has no external ears, so that its head appears smooth. It can still hear, but because it doesn’t have ears sticking out of its head, it’s more streamlined than seals with external ears. It has large eyes, a pair of front flippers that it uses to maneuver in the water and on land, and a pair of hind flippers that act like a tail instead of legs.

That’s actually the main difference between earless and eared seals. Earless seals are more streamlined in general and more adapted for life in the water and for deep diving, but they’re awkward on land because they can’t use their hind limbs for walking. Eared seals have little flaps of external ears and while their hind flippers act as a tail in the water, the seal can turn its hind flippers over to walk on them on land.

The Baikal seal is quite small for a seal, which keeps it from needing as much food as a bigger animal. For a long time people thought the Baikal seal mostly ate fish, but a study published in late 2020 determined that it eats a whole lot of amphipods. Lake Baikal is home to a species of amphipod that grows up to about 10 millimeters long. Amphipods are a type of crustacean and all other freshwater amphipods known are bottom-dwellers. Only the Lake Baikal amphipod is free-floating.

The seal catches these tiny amphipods by sucking them up in a big mouthful of water, closing its teeth tightly, and using its tongue to force the water out through its teeth. The amphipods get caught against the teeth and the seal swallows them, yum. This is a type of filter feeding used by some other species of seal too, including the crabeater seal. Like the crabeater seal, it’s so well adapted to filter feeding that it has specialized teeth with curved projections all around their edges. These projections interlock closely when the seal closes its mouth. Because it doesn’t have to depend on eating fish, the Baikal seal isn’t threatened by commercial fishing. As long as it has plenty of amphipods to eat, it’s happy.

While the Baikal seal is the only truly freshwater seal species, a subspecies of ringed seal lives in a lake in Finland. Unlike the Baikal seal, though, which are numerous and doing just fine, the Saimaa ringed seal is endangered, with only around 400 individuals left in the wild. They’re strictly protected these days, fortunately, and the population is growing after it reached a low of only about 100 animals in 1983.

During the Pleistocene, the land mass that is now Finland was pressed down by the weight of glaciers. Once the glaciers melted, the land began to slowly rise back up until the lake where a population of ringed seals lived was cut off from the ocean.

Some other seals live in lakes that are cut off from the sea, including a population of harbor seals in Iliamna Lake in Alaska and a subspecies of harbor seal in northern Quebec, Canada, but let’s move on to seals that live in the ocean instead of fresh water.

Specifically, let’s discuss two earless seals that make interesting sounds. You may think you know what a typical seal sounds like, such as this kind of barking call:

[barking sound]

That’s actually not a seal but a closely related pinniped called a sea lion. Even though it’s not a seal, it is sort of technically a seal because it shares a family with fur seals and walruses, Otariidae, also called the eared seals that we talked about earlier. Some seals bark like sea lions and make lots of other noises, but it’s the earless seals that can really make weird sounds.

For instance, listen to this eerie sound:

[Weddell seal call]

That’s not a whale, it’s a seal. The Weddell seal lives around Antarctica and can grow quite large, up to 11 ½ feet long, or 3.5 meters. Males and females look alike although females tend to be slightly larger. It eats fish, squid, crustaceans, and pretty much anything else it can catch. It dives deeply and can stay underwater for up to 80 minutes, and while it has good eyesight, it doesn’t need to see to find food. The whiskers on its snout are incredibly sensitive and can sense tiny movements of water that indicate exactly where a fish or other animal is swimming.

Both male and female Weddell seals make various vocalizations, including some that can be described as songs, although the songs seem to be rare and researchers aren’t sure what the seals communicate with them. There’s still a lot we don’t know about these seals. Because Antarctica is so far away from most human activity, it’s extremely quiet most of the time. The seals can hear each other without having to compete with the noise from cars and boats and things like that. A seal sitting on the ice can hear other seals calling from deep in the water below the ice, and in fact the ice can amplify the sounds so well that scientists living in the Antarctic report being able to feel the sounds as well as hear them.

Here’s another clip of Weddell seals. These sounds are taken from an amazing youtube video I’ve linked to in the show notes. It’s short and has two scientists talking a little bit about their experiences hearing the seals, and then there’s about a minute of seal calls afterwards.

[Weddell seals calling]

Another seal with a loud, amazing vocalization is the bearded seal. It lives on the other side of the world from the Weddell seal, in the Arctic Ocean, and can grow almost nine feet long, or 2.7 meters. It eats fish and squid but mostly eats animals that live on the sea floor, including clams, polychaete worms, sea anemones, and many others. Like the Weddell seal and many other seals, its whiskers are incredibly sensitive. The bearded seal uses its long whiskers to feel around in the soft mud at the bottom of the ocean, looking for food.

In the spring, male bearded seals sing loudly and rhythmically, either to attract a mate or to defend a territory, or maybe both or something else—we don’t know. This is what the bearded seal sounds like underwater. I grabbed this audio off Wikipedia if you need to listen to it on repeat for a very long time. It’s an incredible sound.

[bearded seals singing]

This is what a bunch of bearded seals sound like when they’re singing together. This audio was taken on land although the seals sing underwater.

[more bearded seals singing]

These vocalizations sound so much like whale calls that I wondered if some seals can echolocate the way whales and dolphins can. There are quite a few studies into this topic, but right now most of the evidence points to no, seals don’t use echolocation to navigate underwater. Of course, studies in the future might discover something new about potential echolocation in seals. It’s only been very recently that sophisticated studies on bats have discovered that many species use different types of echolocation.

Conclusions of a two-year study published at the very end of 2020 show that a lot of Weddell seal vocalizations are ultrasonic, meaning they’re much higher than humans can hear. While the study doesn’t show any evidence of echolocation, they weren’t actually looking for it either. So you never know.

It’s possible, of course, that even if seals don’t echolocate right now, they might one day evolve the ability. Earless seals are well adapted to the water but still spend part of the time on ice or on land, especially to give birth. Many millions of years from now, the descendants of today’s seals might be completely aquatic the way whales and dolphins are. Because most scientists today think that seals can’t echolocate because their ears need to be useful on land as well in water, a fully aquatic seal that doesn’t need to hear well in the air might then develop echolocation to help it navigate underwater.

I’ll do a follow-up episode about seals and echolocation in a few million years when we can determine whether that’s happening.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast 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. 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 patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 248: The Giant Jellyfish Revisited



Sign up for our mailing list! We also have t-shirts and mugs with our logo!

We’re down to the last few days to back our Kickstarter!

We’ve got a slightly different type of episode this week. Follow along as I try to find out more about the giant jellyfish that nearly sank a ship!

Further reading:

Kraken: Monster of the Deep

A lion’s mane jellyfish:

A giant squid:

The first photo ever taken of a giant squid:

Show transcript:

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

Halloween is behind us and we’re all now ready to head into winter, if we live in the northern hemisphere, or summer, if we live in the southern hemisphere. This week’s episode is a little different, but hopefully you’ll like it.

Before we get into this week’s topic, let me give you the very last Kickstarter update, I promise! From here on out you’ll only get updates through the Kickstarter page if you backed the project. If you’re listening to this episode within a day or two of its release on November 1, 2021, you still have time to back the Beyond Bigfoot & Nessie book! The campaign ends on Nov. 5, but at 12:03 am eastern time, and one of the many things I’ve learned about running a Kickstarter is maybe don’t launch the project at midnight because then it ends at midnight. Remember that if we reach 100 backers before the end, I’ll release a second bonus episode from the audiobook. I’m really late getting this episode done so it’s actually Halloween as I record this, and we currently have 67 backers, which is amazing! Remember, we have a $1 tier if you just want to pitch a dollar in.

That reminds me, after the campaign is over I’m going to update the first bonus episode and take out the ten minutes of Kickstarter talk that starts it. Thanks again to everyone who’s backed the project. I’m blown away by everyone’s support! If you want a copy of the book but not right now, it’ll be available to buy from your regular book-buying places but only after all the Kickstarter backer rewards are sent.

As it happens, this week’s episode is connected with the Beyond Bigfoot & Nessie book. Specifically, I decided to add a chapter about the giant jellyfish we talked about in episode 16, but to do that I needed to do a lot more research.

That story has actually bothered me for a long time. When I first started the podcast, I wasn’t always as diligent in my research as I am now. If a story came from a source I trusted or had enough realistic-sounding details, I’d assume it was accurate. This story met both criteria but whenever I thought about it, something felt off. So I was glad to dig in and find out more.

This episode is about the research process I went through, which will give you a little bit of a behind-the-scenes look at how I approach each episode. We’ll also learn about a couple of other weird events where a ship or boat was seemingly attacked by a sea monster.

Let’s start with the story as I reported it in episode 16. I think you will appreciate how much better our audio quality is these days. Here it is:

“In 1973, the Australian ship Kuranda collided with a huge jelly in the South Pacific while traveling through a storm on her way to the Fiji Islands. The jelly was so enormous that the deck was covered in jellyfish goo and tentacles up to two feet deep [61 cm]. One crew member died after getting stung. The weight of the jelly was so great, an estimated 20 tons [18 metric tons] that it started to push the ship nose-down and the captain, Langley Smith, sent out an SOS. The salvage tug Hercules arrived and sprayed the Kuranda’s deck with a high-pressure hose, dislodging the jelly. Samples were sent to Sydney and tentatively identified as a lion’s mane jelly.”

My first step was to find where I got that story. I was pretty sure it was from Karl Shuker’s blog but when I looked, it wasn’t there. I checked his books that I own and it wasn’t there either. A quick internet search turned up the story in a lot of places with more or less identical wording, but no one said where they’d found the story—except one site, which referenced a book called Mysteries and Monsters of the Sea.

I looked it up and discovered it was a 1998 book, also published as Mysteries of the Deep, made up of articles from FATE Magazine. One of those articles is titled “Giant Jellyfish” and is by Karl Shuker.

The story appeared in the March 1994 issue of FATE, so my next step was to find the article. Karl Shuker is a zoologist who writes a lot about mystery animals, and he’s very good about sharing his sources.

FATE Magazine is still around and isn’t giving its old issues away for free. Then, in one of those amazing, wonderful coincidences, I found an ebay auction for that very issue that had nice clear photographs of several pages to show how good a condition it was in. One of those pages just happened to be the one I needed. I grabbed a screenshot and enlarged it so I could read the text. Shuker writes, “One of the most dramatic cases on record was documented by James Sweeney in Sea Monsters (1977), and took place in January 1973.”

Bingo! Now I just had to find a copy of that book. I found a used copy online that wasn’t very expensive and ordered it, but a little more searching online led me to a digitized version that I was able to access by logging in to the Internet Archive.

I found the story on pages 73-76. It has lots of details that should be easily corroborated, although unfortunately there isn’t a specific date. My next step was my newspapers.com account to see how the event was reported at the time.

This is where I came up against a blank wall. There was nothing in any of the hundreds of digitized newspaper archives available. I searched for the name of the ship, the Kuranda. I searched for the name of the captain, Langley Smith. I couldn’t find a single mention of either, never mind an encounter with a gigantic jellyfish.

It wasn’t looking good for the story, but I had one more clue. The account starts out in Sweeney’s book:

One of the strangest, and probably best documented, sea monster stories to be found anywhere is recorded in the Colonial Secretary’s File of the Archives, State Library, Melbourne, Australia. Written testimony submitted by the officer of the watch and others tells clearly what happened to the steamer Kuranda.”

Melbourne is in Victoria, so after some searching online for the archives mentioned in the book and not finding them, I used the Ask a Librarian feature on the State Library Victoria website. I got a response only a few hours later asking for a little more information, which I supplied. I gave the gist of the story, including the details of the ship’s name, the captain’s name, and so forth, and I even gave the link to the digitized version of Sweeney’s book.

A few days later I got a response from a librarian named Jane. I’ll break it down for you.

Jane discovered there were two ships named Kuranda. One was broken up in 1936, the other wrecked in 1969.

In 1973, when this story was supposed to have taken place, there was no longer a colonial secretary in any Australian state. Therefore there is no Colonial Secretary’s File of the Archives from 1973 or after.

And there are no records of a Langley Smith who is a ship’s captain.

At this point I decided, reluctantly, that the story is probably fiction. I actually dug around looking at the table of contents of various 1970s magazines that might have published a fictional story about the giant jellyfish and claimed or implied it was real. I even thought about finding Sweeney’s email and just asking him if he remembered where he learned about this story. Sadly, it turns out that he died in 2019.

According to his obituary, Sweeney worked as a forest ranger for most of his life and was also a voracious reader. I don’t want to believe that a forest ranger who likes to read could possibly stretch the truth so I assume he read about the giant jellyfish somewhere, thought it was a true story, and added it to his book. This was long before the internet so he couldn’t just look stuff up online like I’m doing.

Just to make sure, though, let’s take a look at something else Sweeney mentions in his book. He writes, “Perhaps those aboard Kuranda were luckier than they realized. For the Times of London carried a story somewhat similar. Unfortunately, it ended in absolute horror.”

Back I went to newspapers.com, and by the way, a big thanks to the podcast’s Patreon supporters whose contributions allow me to subscribe. The Times isn’t listed on the site, which mostly focuses on American newspapers, but when I did a search for the name of the ship given in Sweeney’s book, the steamer Strathowen, during the 1870s when he reported it occurred, I got lots of hits.

Here’s an excerpt from The Freeman’s Journal of Dublin, Ireland from July 2, 1874.

“The octopus is likely to lose none of its popularity in the Brighton Aquarium, if we are to believe a strange story which comes from India. The master of the screw steamer Strathowen, on his way to Madras, observed a little schooner lying becalmed, and between him and her what he at first thought to be a bank of weed. The mass was perfectly quiet, but after a time began to move towards the schooner. Suddenly it struck her, and sunk her to the bottom. The master of the Strathowen put about, dropped boats, and saved five men from the sunken ship. James Floyd, the master, was rescued, and he tells his story in the most circumstantial fashion. The Pearl schooner, 150 tons, was bound from the Mauritius to Rangoon. On the 10th of May about five in the evening he observed a great mass rising slowly out of the sea. It remained stationary, and looked like the back of a huge whale. In a hapless moment he took his rifle and hit the monster, which began to lash about furiously. … All the men were then ordered up, and knives and hatchets and cutlasses were grasped, and all awaited the advent of the terrible stranger. The narrator proceeds: ‘We could now see a huge oblong mass moving by jerks just under the surface of the water, and an enormous train following; the oblong body was at least half the size of our vessel in length, and just as thick. The wake or train might have been 100 feet long. In the time that I have taken to write this, the brute struck us, and the ship quivered under the thud; in another moment, monstrous arms like trees seized the vessel, and she heeled over. In another second the monster was aboard, squeezed in between the two masts…. [T]he brute holding on by his arms, slipped his vast body overboard, and pulled the vessel down with him on her beam ends.” The general opinion amongst the sailors is that the big bank of sea-weed was an octopus, but we dare say a little confirmation of the story would be welcomed by us all whether naturalists or not.”

This is actually a brief and measured account of the story that appeared in the Times and which later hit the American papers. The longer account reads very much like fiction. The Dublin paper’s tone of interested skepticism matches what I feel, but the story does corroborate what Sweeney wrote in his book about sea monsters, so at least Sweeney wasn’t making stuff up.

I found a 2019 article in Skeptical Inquirer that did all the research about the octopus or squid sinking the Pearl. According to the author, there’s no record of a ship named the Strathowen or a captain named James Floyd. The author also points out that Jules Verne’s novel Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea was published in 1869, only five years before, and included an attack on the submarine by giant cephalopods.

Before you get too discouraged, though, the Skeptical Inquirer article also talks about a giant squid attacking a small boat, and that one actually happened.

In October 1873 in Conception Bay, Newfoundland, two fishermen and a boy were crossing the bay in a rowboat and noticed something floating in the water. As they neared it, it grabbed the boat with two tentacles and pulled so hard that the boat started to take on water. Luckily there was a hatchet in the boat, and the boy grabbed it and chopped off the tentacles. Later he sold the longer tentacle to a minister who lived nearby and who was interested in squid, which were often referred to as devil-fish back then. The minister, Moses Harvey, wrote about it later and reported that the partial tentacle was as thick as a man’s wrist and measured 19 feet long, or almost 6 meters.

Only a few weeks later Harvey bought a giant squid that had been tangled in a fishing net and hauled ashore. He arranged to get a photograph of it because he knew a lot of people wouldn’t believe how big it was otherwise, and his photo was the very first one taken of a giant squid. It wasn’t until 2004 that the first photographs of a living giant squid were taken.

We talked about the giant squid in episode 74 and we talked about some other types of huge squid in episode 235. I’m willing to bet that there are even larger squid living their quiet squid lives in the depths of the ocean, just as there are probably jellyfish larger than any human has ever seen. Let’s just hope they leave ships and boats alone.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast 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. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or Podchaser, or just tell a friend. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us for as little as one dollar a month. This month’s Patreon episode is about two hikers in the Pyrenees Mountains who heard a ferocious, terrifying roar out of the darkness near their camp.

Thanks for listening!