Monthly Archives: December 2021

Episode 256: Mammoths and the End of the Ice Ages

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Further reading:

Million-year-old mammoth genomes shatter record for oldest ancient DNA

Mammoth Genome Project (with pictures of cave art and ancient carvings of mammoths)

The most famous cave painting of a mammoth, from a cave in France:


Show transcript:

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

It’s the last Monday of 2021, which means the very last extinction event episode. There’ve been way more extinction events in earth’s long history than the five we’ve covered this year, and not all of the extinction events I chose to highlight were even necessarily the biggest. This one, for instance.

You may have noticed a pattern when I talk about ice age megafauna. So many animals went extinct about 11,000 years ago. That’s this week’s topic, the end-Pleistocene extinction event.

The Pleistocene is often called the ice age, or ice ages since it consisted of multiple glaciation periods separated by warmer times when the glaciers would retreat for a while. It started roughly 2.6 million years ago and is considered to have ended 11,700 years ago. Keep in mind, as always, that these dates are just a shorthand to help scientists refer to changes in earth’s history. There was no one day where the sun rose and everything had abruptly changed from one era to another. The changes took place over a long time, hundreds of thousands of years, with different parts of the world changing more quickly or slowly than others depending on local conditions.

At the beginning of the Pleistocene, the world’s continents were roughly in their present positions. Two continental plates in what is now Central America collided very slowly over millions of years, which caused the land to buckle up and magma to erupt through the earth’s crust as volcanoes. The volcanoes created islands in the Central American Seaway, a section of ocean between North and South America that connected the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. By around 5 to 10 million years ago, the volcanoes and land continued to be pushed up, and sediment from rivers filled in between them, until finally instead of islands there was actual land that connected North and South America. That land is called the Isthmus of Panama and it allowed the great American interchange where animals from North America could cross into South America, and vice versa, but that’s a topic for another episode.

Another result of the Isthmus of Panama’s formation is that the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans were more separated. Instead of ocean currents circulating between North and South America, they were cut off and new currents formed. Ocean currents help distribute warm water to colder areas and cold water to warmer areas, which affects air and land temperatures too. Around 2.5 million years ago, the ocean current changes had changed the entire overall temperature of the earth, making it much cooler overall. That wasn’t the only cause of the ice ages, but it was a major factor.

The earth gradually became cooler and dryer, a process that had already started due to other causes and was accelerated by the ocean current changes. As the global temperature dropped, more and more water was locked up in huge glaciers called ice sheets, at first around the poles and then farther south. This meant sea levels dropped a lot. North America was connected to Asia by a stretch of grassland steppe called Beringia that had formerly been submerged.

As the temperatures dropped and the climate changed, animals and plants had to adapt. The ancestors of modern elephants had lived in Africa for millions of years, but they started migrating to other parts of the world around 3 million years ago. Because they were already big, they were good at retaining heat in their bodies and became quite successful as the climate grew cooler and cooler. They evolved long hair to stay even warmer and spread throughout much of the world, including Europe, Asia, and North America. You may know them as mammoths, which were closely related to the modern Asian elephant. The first mammoth known was the South African mammoth that lived around 5 million years ago and stood about 12 feet tall at the shoulder, or 3.7 meters.

We actually know a lot about the various species of mammoth because we have so many remains. Our own distant ancestors left cave paintings and carvings of mammoths and other animals in many parts of the world, we’ve found lots of fossilized remains, and we have lots of subfossil remains too. Because the mammoth lived so recently and sometimes in places where the climate hasn’t changed all that much in the last 10,000 years, namely very cold parts of the world with deep layers of permafrost beneath the surface, sometimes mammoth remains are found that look extremely fresh.

Before people understood extinction and related natural concepts, some people who lived in areas where dead mammoths occasionally weathered out of the permafrost thought they’d only died recently. That’s how fresh the dead animals looked. The people didn’t know what the animals were, though, and assumed that since they were only ever seen partially buried, they must be underground animals. In parts of Siberia, people thought mammoths lived underground and if they accidentally came to the surface, they died.

In February of 2021, a genetic study of mammoth DNA found in teeth was published in Nature. Nature is one of the most important scientific journals in the world and they don’t just publish any old genetic study these days, now that DNA is so much easier to sequence than it used to be. In this case, though, the DNA came from three mammoth teeth that were more than one million years old and possibly around 1.5 million years old. The teeth were found in the 1970s in different places. Before DNA was successfully found in the teeth, the oldest DNA sequenced was from a horse bone that was about 780,000 years old at the most.

Genetic material breaks down relatively quickly once an animal dies, becoming more and more fragmented as the years pass by. That’s why we don’t have any dinosaur DNA—they just lived too long ago for any usable genetic material to remain. The mammoth genetic study is a big deal since it’s pushed back scientists’ ability to sequence ancient DNA, at least of some samples. In the case of both the mammoth teeth and the ancient horse bone, the remains were preserved in permafrost that slowed the fragmentation of the DNA.

The study found that one of the teeth belonged to an early woolly mammoth and the other two were from early steppe mammoths, but it’s not as simple as it sounds. The two steppe mammoth teeth looked alike but their genetic story was very different. One had genetic markers that identified it as an ancestor of woolly mammoths–but the other didn’t. The one that didn’t is called the Krestovka sample and was found in Russia. Researchers aren’t sure yet if it’s actually a new species or subspecies, but it was obviously part of a population isolated from other steppe mammoths.

But it gets even more complicated, because Columbian mammoths from North America do show that some of their ancestors were related to the Krestovka sample–and Columbian mammoths are also related to woolly mammoths. Researchers suspect that the Columbian mammoth was a species that developed from hybrids of the Krestovka steppe mammoths and woolly mammoths. Over half a million years ago, there were enough of these hybrid mammoths that they were actually numerous enough to form their own stable species. Hybrid speciation is still a relatively new concept but as genetic studies get more sophisticated, we’re getting more evidence of it happening.

Researchers are hopeful that even older genetic samples can eventually be sequenced, but there’s a hard limit to DNA found in permafrost. That limit is 2.6 million years, which is when the permafrost began forming. And that brings us back to the ice age.

Mammoths weren’t the only animals adapted to cold conditions, of course. They weren’t even the only elephant lineage that adapted to the cold. Mastodons aren’t actually that closely related to mammoths but they are an elephant relation.

The woolly rhinoceros was about the size of living rhinoceros species but was covered in thick fur. It had a massive hump on its shoulders that was made up of fat reserves and muscle, much like modern bison. It went extinct about 10,000 years ago.

A giraffe relation, Sivatherium, lived in Africa and parts of Asia during the Pleistocene. Its neck wasn’t as long as a modern giraffe’s but it was still tall, over 7 feet tall at the shoulder, or more than 2 meters, and almost 10 feet tall including the head and neck, or 3 meters. The males had two pairs of ossicones that resembled antlers, a large pair on its head and a smaller pair over its eyes. Ossicones are bony projections usually covered with skin and hair, and modern giraffes have ossicones too.

Mammals weren’t the only megafauna, though. Mega just means big, and fauna just means animal. There were megafauna birds and reptiles too, such as the Asian ostrich. It lived throughout much of Asia and the Middle East until around 8,000 years ago and was related to the modern ostrich. The wonambi was an Australian constrictor snake, not related to the snakes living in Australia now, that could grow up to 30 feet long, or 9 meters.

So what happened to cause the extinction of all these amazing animals? Surely we know more about this extinction event than we do about older ones since it happened so recently, right?

Actually, no. Although it feels significant to us now, the end-Pleistocene extinction event actually wasn’t very big compared to the others we’ve discussed this year. A lot of ice age megafauna are still around, including bears, wolves, moose, reindeer, horses, bison, elephants, giraffes, lions, tigers, camels, kangaroos, tapirs, ostriches, condors, and lots more. Even humans are ice age megafauna since we spread throughout the world during the Pleistocene.

We do have hints of what might have caused the end-Pleistocene extinction event, and one big hint comes from what happened in Australia. Like the rest of the world, Australia’s climate was cooler and dryer during the ice ages and animals that had adapted to the cold lived throughout the continent. This included diprotodon that we talked about in episode 224, along with kangaroos, wombats, koalas, and other marsupial mammals that were bigger than the ones living today. But extinctions in Australia started a lot earlier than they did in the rest of the world, around 45,000 years ago. There’s also no corresponding extinction event among marine animals. By about 40,000 years ago almost 90% of all species of Australian megafauna had gone extinct, while smaller animals and marine animals were mostly just fine.

One specific event that happened around 45,000 years ago was the colonization of Australia by humans. Humans had visited and even lived in Australia as far back as 70,000 years ago, but by 45,000 years ago they were really spreading throughout the land. The animals of Australia had never encountered smart, fast tool-users before and didn’t know what to do except try to avoid them. Humans had weapons like spears that could kill at long range, and humans worked together to kill animals that before then had no predators due to their size. Humans also drink a lot of water because we developed in a part of Africa where water is abundant. Fresh water isn’t nearly as abundant in Australia, so humans would stake out water sources and keep other animals away.

The Australian extinctions were probably a combination of climate change, humans hunting large animals that reproduced slowly, and humans outcompeting animals for water sources. The same causes probably led to extinctions in other parts of the world, but because humans took longer to spread to continents like the Americas that are far away from Africa, those extinctions mostly took place later than in Australia. It’s also important to note that Africa showed almost no extinctions at the end of the Pleistocene. Researchers think this is because the animals of Africa evolved alongside humans and knew how to deal with us.

Natural climate change was definitely a contributing cause to the extinctions, though. Ice sheets melted, glaciers retreated, and the world warmed over the course of just a few thousand years. Animals that were well adapted to the cold had to move to places where it was still cold, but those places didn’t always have the right foods or enough food. The sea levels rose too, cutting off access to parts of the world. Beringia became covered with ocean again, for instance, where it remains today, separating Asia from North America.

Humans probably finished off the mammoths by hunting the last ones to extinction, but some populations survived much later than the 10- to 12,000 years ago commonly given as their extinction date. There were still mammoths alive in the world only 4,000 years ago and maybe only 3,700 years ago—but only on an island where humans didn’t live.

Wrangel Island is located in the Arctic Ocean near western Siberia, more than 85 miles from the nearest coast, or 140 km. It has low mountains and sea cliffs and is cold and dry most of the year, which is the kind of climate mammoths preferred.

The woolly mammoths that lived on Wrangel Island were probably cut off from the mainland when sea levels rose and flooded Beringia. They lived on for thousands of years after their mainland relations had gone extinct. Gradually the mammoths became more and more inbred, leading to genetic defects at a much higher rate than in a healthy population. Even so, the mammoths might have managed to survive even longer except for one thing. Around 1700 BCE, humans arrived on the island. Shortly afterwards, the mammoth was extinct.

Wrangel Island is a nature sanctuary these days and home to lots of animals, including polar bears, walruses, Arctic foxes, seals, reindeer, musk ox, and wolves. All of these are considered ice age megafauna, so although the mammoths are gone, other megafauna remain.

While we don’t know for sure that humans played a big part in the end-Pleistocene extinction event, we sure didn’t help. We can’t blame our ancient ancestors for their actions but we can learn from their mistakes. We’re in the middle of another extinction event right now, often called the Holocene extinction or Anthropocene extinction, directly due to our actions. Habitat loss, pollution, overhunting, and human-caused climate change are driving more species of animal and plant to extinction every year.

It can feel overwhelming, but there are lots of small things you can do to help. Just picking up trash and putting it in the waste bin or remembering to take your reusable bags to the grocery store can make a difference. No one person can fix all the world’s problems, but if everyone does a little bit to help, the big problems get smaller and more manageable. If everyone pitches in, we can make the world a cleaner, better place for animals and for people.

Happy new year! Let’s make it a great one!

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 Podchaser, or just tell a friend. We also have a Patreon at if you’d like to support us for as little as one dollar a month and get monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 255: Reptiles with Something Extra

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Thanks to Ethan and Simon this week for their suggestions! This week we’re looking at some extinct reptiles that each have a little something extra (and unexpected).

Further reading:

Two Extinct Flying Reptiles Compared

Cretaceous ‘Four-Limbed Snake’ Turns Out To Be Long-Bodied Lizard

Kuehneosaurids may have resembled big Draco lizards although they weren’t related:

Big turtle:

Purussaurus was big enough to eat even really big turtles (from Prehistoric Wildlife):

Meiolania had a pointy head and a pointy tail:

Not a snake with legs after all:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’ll learn about an extinct reptile suggested by Ethan, some extinct turtles suggested by Simon, and an extinct snake that might not be a snake at all. All these animals had physical details you wouldn’t expect, as we’ll see.

First, though, a reminder that I have five Kickstarter backers who haven’t sent me their birthday shout-out names and birthdays yet! I sent messages to them last month and haven’t heard back, so if you backed the Kickstarter and added on the birthday shout-out, but never got the opportunity to send me your names and birthdays, please message me as soon as possible! The shout-outs start in January!

So, on to the extinct reptiles that each have something a little extra. Let’s start with Ethan’s suggestion, the kuehneosaurids. Kuehneosaurus, kuehneosuchus, and their relations lived around 225 million years ago in what is now England. The first dinosaurs lived around the same time but kuehneosaurids weren’t dinosaurs. They were lizard-like reptiles that grew about two feet long, or 70 cm, including a long tail, and probably lived in trees and ate insects. Oh, and they had wings.

They weren’t technically wings but extended ribs. Kuehneosaurus’s wings weren’t all that big, although they were big enough that they could act as a parachute if the animal fell or jumped from a branch. Kuehneosuchus’s wings were much longer. In a study published in 2008, a team of scientists built models of kuehneosuchus and tested them in a wind tunnel used for aerospace engineering. It turned out to be quite stable in the air and could probably glide very well.

We don’t know a whole lot about the kuehneosaurids because we haven’t found all that many fossils. We’re not even sure if the two species are closely related or not. We’re not even sure they’re not the same species. Individuals of both were uncovered in caves near Bristol in the 1950s, and some researchers speculate they were males and females of the same species. Despite the difference in wings, otherwise they’re extremely similar in a lot of ways.

Generally, researchers compare the kuehneosaurids to modern Draco lizards, which we talked about in episode 237, even though they’re not related. Draco lizards are much smaller, only about 8 inches long including the tail, or 20 cm, and live throughout much of southeastern Asia. They have elongated ribs that they use to glide efficiently from tree to tree, and they eat insects. Draco lizards can fold their wings down and extend them, which isn’t something the kuehneosaurids appear to have been able to do.

Next, let’s look at Simon’s turtles. Stupendemys geographicus lived a lot more recently than the kuehneosaurids, only about 6 million years ago in northern South America. It was a freshwater turtle the size of a car: 13 feet long, or 4 meters. As if that wasn’t impressive enough, the males also had horns—but not on their heads. The male Stupendemys had projections on its shell, one on either side of its neck, that pointed forward and were probably covered with keratin sheaths to make them sharper and stronger. Males used these horns to fight each other, and we know because some of Stupendemys’s living relations do the same thing, although no living species actually have horns like Stupendemys. They’re called side-necked turtles and most live in South America, although they were once much more widespread.

Stupendemys probably grew to such a huge size because there were so many huge predators in its habitat. It lived in slow-moving rivers and wetlands, where it probably spent a lot of time at the river’s bottom eating plants, worms, crustaceans, and anything else it could find. It was too big and heavy to move very fast, but a full-grown turtle was a really big mouthful even for the biggest predator in the rivers at the time, Purussaurus.

Purussaurus was a genus of caiman, related to crocodiles, that might have grown up to 41 feet long, or 12.5 meters. We don’t know for sure since the only Purussaurus fossils found so far are skulls. It ate anything it could catch, and we even have Stupendemys fossils with tooth marks that show that Purussaurus sometimes ate giant turtles too. One Stupendemys fossil has a 2-inch, or 5 cm, crocodile tooth embedded in it.

Stupendemys is the largest freshwater turtle known and the second-largest turtle that ever lived. Only Archelon was bigger, up to about 15 feet long, or 4.6 meters. Archelon was a marine turtle that lived around 70 million years ago. We talked about it in episode 75.

Simon also told me about another turtle genus, Meiolania, which lived in what is now Australia and parts of Asia around 15 million years ago. It might even have remained in some areas as recently as 11,000 years ago. The shell, or carapace, of the largest species grew over 6.5 feet long, or 2 meters. Even the smallest species had a carapace over 2 feet long, or about 70 cm. Since the fossils of smaller species have only been found on islands, researchers think the small size may have been due to island dwarfism. It probably lived on land and ate plants. It also had horns, but not on its shell. These horns were actually on its head, although they aren’t technically horns.

The horn-like projections pointed sideways and its tail also had spikes at its end. That meant it couldn’t pull its head under its shell to protect it like most other turtles can, but on the other hand, anything that tried to bite its head or tail would get a painful mouthful of spikes.

We don’t know a whole lot about Meiolania, including if it’s related to living species of turtle. When the first fossils were found, early paleontologists thought they were lizards, not turtles. What we do know, though, is that people ate them. Bones of some species appear in the middens, or trash sites, of ancient people in Australia, and there’s evidence that they were hunted to extinction within a few hundred years after humans settled where the turtles lived. That would also explain why the island-dwelling species seemed to have lived longer than the mainland species, since people didn’t live on the islands where they’ve been found.

Finally, we’ll finish with Tetrapodophis amplectus, leading to the philosophical question about whether a snake with legs is really a snake. That’s the same question researchers were asking themselves too until very recently. Tetrapodophis was only described in 2015 and was initially determined to be an early snake that had four legs.

Tetrapodophis lived around 120 million years ago in what is now Brazil in South America. It grew about a foot long, or 30 cm, and had a slender, elongated body with small but well-developed legs. Is it a lizard with snake-like characteristics or an early snake that hadn’t completely lost its legs yet?

It had hooked teeth and we know it ate small animals because one specimen actually has the fossilized remains of its last meal in its fossilized digestive system. Initially researchers thought it might have been a burrowing animal, using its small legs to help it grab onto items and push itself forward.

The type specimen was a complete skeleton, which is really rare. Unfortunately it was illegally exported and the paleontologist who described the species didn’t bother to at least invite a Brazilian paleontologist to study the Brazilian fossil. He was also incredibly rude when asked about it so I’m not going to give you his name, but he seems to be a really sketchy guy, which is too bad.

He also made some mistakes that might not have been mistakes. If a person is dishonest in one area, they’re probably dishonest in other areas too. When he described Tetrapodophis, he mischaracterized some aspects of its anatomy to make it seem more snake-like. A new study published in November 2021 corrects those mistakes and determines that instead of being a flashy exciting snake with legs, Tetrapodophis was most likely just a small member of the lizard family Dolichosauridae. I’m happy to report, by the way, that one of the lead authors of the new study is named Tiago Simões, a paleontologist from Brazil.

Dolichosaurs were marine lizards with small legs and snake-like bodies and were actually pretty closely related to mosasaurs. You know, the marine reptiles that lived at the same time as dinosaurs and could grow more than 50 feet long in some species, or 15 meters.

There’s some controversy in the mosasaur camp too, because some researchers think mosasaurs were most closely related to snakes while others think they were most closely related to monitor lizards. It just goes to show that scientific knowledge is forever growing and adapting to new information as it comes to light, but that answers aren’t always clear.

What is clear is that extinct reptiles are awesome, but you probably already knew that.

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 Podchaser, or just tell a friend. We also have a Patreon at if you’d like to support us for as little as one dollar a month and get monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 254: The Saola and the Striped Bunny

Thanks to Elaine for suggesting the saola this week!

Further reading:

The saola: rushing to save the most ‘spectacular zoological discovery’ of the 20th century

Striped rabbit revealed in Laos forest

Saola horns:

A saola from a 1999 camera trap (photo taken from link above):

A female saola (named Martha) who unfortunately only survived in captivity a few weeks (photo taken from link above):

A striped bunny!! The Annamite striped rabbit:

Show transcript:

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

This week’s topic is a remarkable hoofed animal suggested last year by Elaine, the saola, and another remarkable animal I learned about while researching the saola. Both animals are newly discovered by science.

The scientific story of the saola starts in May of 1992. The Southeast Asian country of Vietnam had established a new nature reserve a few years before and wanted to learn more about the kinds of animals and plants living there. A team of scientists surveyed the area and one of the things they found was a skull with horns they didn’t recognize. The horns were long and straight and very close together.

They knew the skull came from an animal new to science, so they tried to find one to see what it looked like alive. But they couldn’t find one. It wasn’t until 1998 that a scientist saw a live saola, a female captured by hunters and kept in captivity until it died a few weeks later.

The saola is an antelope-like bovid that looks a lot like an oryx. We talked about the Arabian oryx in episode 218 and there are other species of oryx that live in parts of Africa. Oryx have long, straight horns that grow side by side too. But genetic analysis of saola remains indicates that the saola is much more closely related to cattle than to oryxes. The saola was described formally in 1993 and placed in its own genus, Pseudoryx, meaning false oryx.

The saola stands about 3 feet tall at the shoulder, or 92 centimeters, and is mostly chocolate brown with white markings on the head and a black stripe down its spine. Both males and females have horns, although males grow longer horns. The horns grow side by side, usually only a few inches apart, or about 8 or 9 centimeters, and are dark brown or black. They grow up to about 20 inches long, or 50 centimeters, and are often about the same distance apart at their tips as they are at the base of the skull. People sometimes call the saola the Asian unicorn because it’s so rare and its horns look sort of like unicorn horns, although they grow back from the skull instead of forward and aren’t spiral shaped. So, not actually very much like unicorn horns.

The saola also has a short tail, slender legs, and a short muzzle, but its tongue is over 6 inches long, or 15 centimeters. It’s rough like a cat’s tongue and it uses it to groom itself, just like a cat, and to help it gather the plants it eats, unlike a cat. It lives in forested mountains and migrates to lower elevations in winter, although its fur is thick and soft to keep it warm in higher elevations. It also has special pores around its eyes that secrete a special fluid it uses to mark plants and rocks the way many antelopes do. Because the saola hasn’t been observed in the wild, we don’t know if it’s marking its territory or just letting other saola know where it is.

The saola is critically endangered, mostly due to poaching. A team of forest guards patrols the park looking for traps that hunters set. Poachers often hunt animals in the park not because the hunters are hungry but because they can make a lot of money selling exotic animals to other countries as so-called medicine. The saola isn’t considered to have any medicinal uses, though, so while a hunter will sometimes kill one to eat, mostly it just gets caught in traps set for other animals. Since it’s so rare to start with, every saola killed in this way could ultimately cause the entire species to go extinct.

Conservationists are working hard to help the saola and its habitat. Logging has been banned in the park and the forest guards are on the lookout for illegal logging activity too. The forestry service is working to educate the local people that the saola only lives in their mountains and nowhere else in the world, which is something for them to be proud of. The park is near the border of another country, Laos, which is also helping with conservation efforts since the saola probably lives there too. You won’t find a saola in any zoos, though, because it doesn’t do well in captivity.

Other animals new to science have been discovered in the park and nearby areas, specifically around the Annamite Mountains along the border of Vietnam and Laos. This includes a new species of rabbit.

In 1996 a biologist named Rob Timmins was looking through a market in Laos when he saw three dead rabbits for sale as food. But these rabbits didn’t resemble any rabbits known from the area. They had short ears, reddish rumps, and dark brown stripes. Stripy rabbits! There is a similar-looking species that lives a thousand miles away, or 1,600 kilometers, in the mountains of Sumatra and Indonesia. The Sumatran striped rabbit is brown with darker brown stripes and blotches, but it’s been known to science since 1880. Timmins was the first scientist to see the Laotian rabbits.

Timmins bought the rabbits, of course, so they could be studied. Genetic studies determined that the rabbits are a distinct species, although it’s closely related to the Sumatran striped rabbit. It was described as a new species in 2000 and camera traps have since taken pictures of it in Vietnam, but we still know very little about it and its cousin in Sumatra.

Both species of striped rabbit are threatened by hunting and habitat loss. Hopefully they can be protected, along with their mountain homes, and a captive breeding program started to ensure their survival. Also, I would like one as a pet.

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 Podchaser, or just tell a friend. We also have a Patreon at if you’d like to support us for as little as one dollar a month and get monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 253: The Sand Striker

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This week let’s learn about a weird marine worm and its extinct ancestor!

Further reading:

Eunice aphroditois is a rainbow, terrifying

The 20-million-year-old lair of an ambush-predatory worm preserved in northeast Taiwan

Here’s the money shot of the sand striker with its jaws open, waiting for an animal to get too close. The stripy things are antennae:

The fossilized burrow with notes:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going back in time 20 million years to learn about an animal that lived on the sea floor, although we’ll start with its modern relation. It’s called the sand striker and new discoveries about it were released in January 2021.

Ichnology is the study of a certain type of trace fossil. We talked about trace fossils in episode 103, but basically a trace fossil is something associated with an organism that isn’t actually a fossilized organism itself, like fossilized footprints and other tracks. Ichnology is specifically the study of trace fossils caused by animals that disturbed the ground in some way, or if you want to get more technical about it, sedimentary disruption. That includes tracks that were preserved but it also includes a lot of burrows. It’s a burrow we’re talking about today.

Because we often don’t know what animal made a burrow, different types of burrows are given their own scientific names. This helps scientists keep them organized and refer to a specific burrow in a way that other scientists can immediately understand. The sand striker’s fossilized burrow is named Pennichnus formosae, but in this case we knew about the animal itself before the burrow.

The sand striker is a type of polychaete worm, and polychaete worms are incredibly successful animals. They’re found in the fossil record since at least the Cambrian Period half a billion years ago and are still common today. They’re also called bristle worms because most species have little bristles made of chitin. Almost all known species live in the oceans but some species are extremophiles. This includes species that live near hydrothermal vents where the water is heated to extreme temperatures by volcanic activity and at least one species found in the deepest part of the ocean that’s ever been explored, Challenger Deep.

A polychaete worm doesn’t look like an earthworm. It has segments with a hard exoskeleton and bristles, and a distinct head with antennae. Some species don’t have eyes at all but some have sophisticated vision and up to eight eyes. Some can swim, some just float around, some crawl along the seafloor, and some burrow in sand and mud. Some eat small animals while others eat algae or plant material, and some have plume-like appendages they use to filter tiny pieces of food from the water. Basically, there are so many species known—over 10,000, with more being discovered almost every year, alive and extinct—that it’s hard to make generalizations about polychaete worms.

Most species of polychaete worm are small. The living species of sand striker generally grows around 4 inches long, or 10 centimeters, and longer. We’ll come back to its size in a minute. Its exoskeleton, or cuticle, is a beautifully iridescent purple. It doesn’t have eyes, instead sensing prey with five antennae. These aren’t like insect antennae but look more like tiny tentacles, packed with chemical receptors that help it find prey.

The sand striker lives in warm coastal waters and spends most of its time hidden in a burrow in the sand. It’s especially common around coral reefs. While it will eat plant material like seaweed, it’s mostly an ambush hunter.

At night the sand striker remains in its burrow but pokes its head out with its scissor-like mandibles open. When the chemical receptors in its antennae detect a fish or other animal approaching, it snaps its mandibles on it and pulls it back into its burrow. Its mandibles are so strong and sharp that sometimes it will cut its prey in half and then, of course, it pulls both halves into its burrow to eat. If the prey turns out to be large, the sand striker injects it with venom that not only stuns and kills it, it starts the digestive process so the sand striker can eat it more easily. It does all this so quickly that it can even catch fish and octopuses. The mandibles are at the end of a feeding apparatus called a pharynx, which it can retract into its body.

If a person tries to handle a sand striker, they can indeed get bitten. The sand striker’s mandibles are sharp enough to inflict a bad bite, and if it injects venom it can make the bite even more painful. Not only that, the sand striker’s body is covered with tiny bristles that can also inflict stings, with a venom strong enough that it can cause nerve damage in a human that results in permanent numbness where the person touched it. Don’t pet a sand striker.

Remember how I said the sand striker grows 4 inches or longer? That’s actually the low end of its size. The average sand striker is about 2 feet long, or 61 centimeters, but it can sometimes grow 3 feet long, or 92 centimeters, or even more. Sometimes a lot more.

In January 2009, someone noticed something in a float along the side of a mooring raft in Seto Fishing Harbor in Japan. The mooring raft had been in place for 13 years at that point and no one knew that a sand striker had moved into one of the floats. It had a nice safe home to use as a burrow. Sand strikers grow quickly and this one was living in a more or less ideal situation, so it just grew and grew until when it was found, it was just shy of 10 feet long, or 3 meters. Even so, it was still only about an inch thick, or 25 millimeters.

There are unverified reports of even longer sand strikers, some up to 50 feet long, or 15 meters. Look, seriously, do not pet it. Since sand strikers spend most of the time in burrows, it’s rare to get a good look at a full-length individual in the wild and we don’t know how long they can really get.

In case you’d forgotten, though, we started the episode talking about a fossilized burrow. In a fossil bed in northeast Taiwan, a team of paleontologists uncovered hundreds of strange burrows dating to about 20 million years ago. The burrows were L-shaped and as much as 6.5 feet long, or 2 meters, and about an inch across, or 2.5 centimeters. Even more confusingly, the fossilized sediment showed feather-like shapes in the upper section of the burrows.

The team of scientists studying the burrows had no idea what the feather-like structures were. The burrows were mysterious from start to finish anyway, since they were so much larger than most burrows in the seafloor.

They decided to do something unusual to solve some of the mysteries. They reached out not only to marine biologists but to marine photographers and aquarium keepers to get their insights. And, as you’ve probably guessed by now, the fossilized burrows most closely match those of the sand striker.

They even found out what the feather-shaped structures were. When a sand striker grabs a fish or other prey and drags it into its burrow, a lot of time it’s still alive, at least at first. Its struggles to get away can cause the sides of the burrow to shift. The sediment can’t collapse all the way because the worm lines it with mucus, so the partial collapsing and shifting results in feathery shapes.

These fossilized burrows are the first trace fossils known to be made by a marine ambush predator, which is pretty awesome. It’s even more awesome that some modern sand strikers are using the same type of burrows over 20 million years later.

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