Monthly Archives: December 2022

Episode 308: Rescuing Stranded Whales

Yay, we’re at the end of the year and looking forward to 2023! Boo, I caught covid and I’m still recovering, so here’s a repurposed Patreon episode about whale strandings and how people help the whales!

A minke whale calf being transferred via rescue pontoon to a boat to tow her farther out to sea than the pontoon could manage for such a big whale (photo from this article, which explains that she rejoined her mother and swam away safely):

Pilot whales being rescued after stranding:

Show transcript:

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

It’s the last episode of 2022, and…I’ve got Covid. I’m fully vaccinated and fortunate enough to be a basically healthy person, so my symptoms were mostly quite mild and I’m feeling much better although I’m still quarantining. Because my voice isn’t really at 100% due to coughing, and because I haven’t had the energy to do any research, I decided to run an old Patreon episode this week. I always feel bad for my awesome patrons when I do this, but I really like this episode and it’s several years old now. It’s about mass whale strandings but I focused on how people help whales, so even though it’s a sad topic I hope you find it hopeful and interesting.

With the end of 2022, we also say goodbye to the birthday shout-outs since it was only for 2022. I hope I didn’t miss anyone. Let’s have one final birthday shout-out, though. This one’s for everyone! You’re having a birthday in 2023 so I hope it’s the best birthday you’ll have had so far!

Now, let’s learn about mass whale strandings.

[little intro sound to help hide the fact that the audio changes a whole lot here]

This is a sad phenomenon where whales swim onto shore and get beached, and if they don’t get help they die. A whale breathes air, sure, but it’s evolved to be in the water full-time. As soon as it’s on land, the weight of its own body starts to smother it and it also starts to overheat.

Sometimes just one or two whales strand themselves, sometimes it’s a whole pod. We’re still not completely sure of the causes except that there’s undoubtedly more than one cause. Navy sonar may play a part, disorienting and frightening whales, even deafening them. Water pollution, disturbances of the earth’s geomagnetic field, extreme weather, injuries, disease, the whales fleeing predators or pursuing prey, and all sorts of other issues may be causes or partial causes.

Most whales that strand themselves are toothed whales, which rely on echolocation to navigate. Many researchers think that some coastlines that slope very gently can confuse the whales, who think the seafloor is level when the water is actually getting shallower and shallower. Certain areas with gently sloping beaches have mass strandings of whales and dolphins almost every year.

Some species of whale are more prone to stranding than others, too, especially pilot whales, which are actually dolphins despite their name. The largest mass stranding known was of pilot whales, with over a thousand of them beached in 1918 on Chatham Island in New Zealand. Pilot whales can grow more than 23 feet long, or over 7 meters, and live throughout much of the world’s oceans. They mostly eat squid but will eat fish too, and sometimes dive deeply to find food.

Chatham Island is one of those areas where whales get stranded repeatedly, as are several other islands and bays around New Zealand. The coastal waters are shallow with a number of sandbars, and the whales apparently get disoriented and don’t realize they’re coming up onto the beach instead of just crossing another sandbar. Almost every summer some pilot whales become stranded, sometimes hundreds of them.

One species of whale that almost never gets stranded is the killer whale, or orca. Orcas frequently hunt seals, which flee onto land. Orcas learn how to navigate beaches, and will sometimes beach themselves on purpose while attempting to catch a seal, then wriggle back into the sea. But most whales never approach the shore that closely under ordinary circumstances so they never learn how to avoid getting stranded permanently.

When people find stranded whales, our first impulse is to help them. But whales are big and heavy, so much so that most of the time even a group of people can’t lift them. But humans are smart and social, and we’ve worked out a system to help stranded whales.

First, the whales need to be kept as cool as possible until more help arrives. People pour water over stranded whales to help cool them down, but make sure that their blowholes remain clear of sand and water so they can continue to breathe. Wet bed sheets draped over the whales help too, again making sure to keep the blowholes clear.

Next, as the tide comes in and the water rises around the whales, it’s important to help turn the whales onto their bellies. The whales usually can’t do it themselves, especially if they’ve been stranded for hours and are exhausted and having difficulty breathing. If they aren’t turned upright, they may drown as the water covers their blowholes before it’s deep enough to float the whales.

Sometimes, frustratingly, as soon as a stranded whale is floated out to sea so it can swim away, it will turn around and beach itself again. No one’s sure why. It may be responding to the same confusion or anomaly that caused it to strand itself in the first place, or it may be responding to the distress calls of other whales that are still stranded.

Rescuers have used the sociability of whales to help them too. In one case in New Zealand, in 1984, almost 150 pilot whales became stranded in Tryphena Harbour. As the tide rose, the helpers floated the whales out to sea—but so many of them returned to beach themselves again that when they floated a mother whale and her calf out to sea, the rescuers made sure to keep her in place. She and the baby called to the other whales, which made them come to her instead of return to the beach. 67 of the whales were saved and ultimately swam out to sea.

In 1991, 14 pilot whales stranded near Shipwreck Bay in New Zealand were rescued by truck. The surf was too dangerous to refloat them at the beaching site and something had to be done. 18 whales had already died. Hundreds of volunteers turned out to help, including local businesses who donated the use of trucks and other items. The whales were lifted by log-loader onto three big trucks, their beds lined with hay, and hay bales were used to keep the whales propped up during the ride. People rode with them to douse them with water too. The police escorted the trucks as they drove 90 minutes to the mouth of a river, where the whales were lowered into the water and floated out to sea.

Two of the whales promptly turned around and beached themselves again, but the volunteers had brought Rescue Pontoons designed to refloat beached whales. The two whales were brought back out to sea where they rejoined the rest of the rescued whales, which then swam off together.

The rescue pontoons were designed in 1984 by New Zealander Steve Whitehouse after he saw the damage ropes did to whales as rescuers tried to pull them back out to sea. They’re made up of inflatable cylinders with handles and quick release clips. After the first one was made it was tested by moving a huge concrete pipe filled with sandbags into the ocean and back repeatedly. It was first used to rescue a whale in 1986 when a Southern Bottlenose whale was stranded among rocks that would have kept it from being moved by ordinary means. But Steve and his team traveled to the whale, rolled it onto the pontoon and inflated it, then refloated it into the sea. The whale was saved and the rescue pontoon proved it could do the job it was designed for.

Since then, the rescue pontoon has saved hundreds, probably thousands, of whales and dolphins throughout the world. It’s also been used to rescue stranded manta rays, sunfish, and even grounded boats. So hooray for Steve and his rescue pontoon! Best invention ever.

Humans aren’t the only ones who want to help stranded whales. Sometimes other whales or dolphins help, usually local populations of dolphins who know the area well. In 2008 a New Zealand bottlenose dolphin named Moko, well-known to swimmers, helped a pair of pygmy sperm whales. The pair were a mother and calf, and every time they were refloated they would get disoriented and beach themselves again on a sandbar that blocked their way out of the harbor. Then Moko showed up.

One of the rescuers, Juanita Symes, said, “Moko just came flying through the water and pushed in between us and the whales. She got them to head toward the hill, where the channel is.” Moko escorted the whales all the way out to sea, where they successfully swam away.

[little outro sound]

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 307: Coquí Frogs and Glass Frogs

Thanks to Miranda and Henry for this week’s frog suggestions!

Further reading:

Shattering the Glass Frog Ceiling

The Puerto Rican wetland frog, AKA coquí llanero:

The golden coquí in happier times:

Glass frog from above and below:

A female granulosa glass frog named Millie (in one of the few successful breeding programs of these frogs), looking demure:

Laura’s glass frog, rediscovered after almost 70 years [photos from this article]:

Show transcript:

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

This week we have suggestions from Henry and Miranda, so we’re going to learn about some weird but cute frogs!

First, Miranda listened to episode 270 about the tapir frog and commented about a little frog native to Puerto Rico that sounds very similar. It’s call the coquí frog and it has an adorable beep! It sounds like this:

[frogs beeping]

You can definitely hear why the coquí frog is called that. It sounds like it’s saying “coquí.”

The coquí is a type of tree frog although most species prefer to live on or near the ground. Instead of webbed toes, their toes have discs that act sort of like suction cups that help them stick to leaves. Different species of coquí frogs are different colors, including brown, green, gray, and yellow. Their tummies are usually white or yellow. Most species are quite small, although a few species grow as big as 3 inches long, or about 8 cm.

There are at least 17 species of coquí frog known in Puerto Rico, with more species found in other parts of the Caribbean and in Central and South America. New species are discovered from time to time, including the tiniest species, the Puerto Rican wetland frog. It was only discovered in 2005 and described in 2007. It’s about 15 mm long from nose to butt, or more properly snout to vent, and while males are bright yellow, females are browner. It lays its eggs on the leaves of a plant called the bulltongue arrowhead, and it only lays one to five eggs at a time. Instead of hatching into tadpoles, the eggs hatch into miniature frogs which are ready to hop out and eat lots of ticks, because that’s mainly what this species of coquí eats. And that’s about all we know about this particular species except that it only lives in one small area of Puerto Rico and is critically endangered.

Another species of coquí is the golden coquí, which is almost as small as the Puerto Rican wetland frog. It’s yellow or golden in color, or sometimes a more olive green. Instead of laying eggs that hatch into tadpoles that develop into frogs, the golden coquí skips most of these steps and just gives birth to fully developed teeny baby frogs, three to six of them at a time.

The golden coquí lives in a small, specific habitat, a moist subtropical forest where bromeliad plants grow. Bromeliads are shrubby plants with succulent-type leaves that retain water. Pineapples are a type of bromeliad, although not the ones the golden coquí lives in. Unfortunately, the golden coquí is also critically endangered and may actually be extinct. No one has seen one since 1981.

Most species of coquí lay their eggs on leaves instead of in water. The eggs still need to stay moist, though, so in many species the male will bring water to the eggs. He does this by just dunking himself in water, then returning to the leaf where the eggs are and plunking himself down on the eggs. He will also guard the eggs from potential predators. The eggs of all coquí species hatch into frogs instead of tadpoles.

A few species of coquí have been introduced to other parts of the world, either by accident or on purpose, and have become invasive species. This is especially true in Hawaii, where the coquí has become incredibly common and as a result is causing some native frogs to decline in numbers, along with other animals. But in Puerto Rico, where the coquí belongs, people are naturally proud of their loud little frogs. The indigenous people of Puerto Rico, the Taíno, incorporated the frog into their legends, and there’s even 700-year-old cave art on nearby Mona Island that includes paintings of coquí frogs.

The coquí frog mostly eats small invertebrates, including lots of cockroaches and other beetles, so they’re good to have around. Unfortunately, as is the case with so many frog species around the world, their numbers are in decline due to habitat loss, climate change, pollution, introduced predators, and a deadly fungus that we talked about in episode 250. Studies have shown that some populations of the coquí show a natural resistance to the fungus, so if we can just protect their habitats, the frogs will be okay.

Next, Henry wanted to learn more about the glass frog, which lives in Central and South America. We’ve talked about it very briefly in episode 148 and a couple of old Patreon episodes, but we’ve never really gone in-depth about it. Let’s do that now, because this is a really weird and interesting frog!

The glass frog lives in forests of Central and South America, mostly in treetops. They’re small frogs, no longer than about three inches, or 7.5 cm, from snout to vent. Most species are bright green, and in many species, the belly skin is almost completely transparent. You can see right through to their insides: guts, blood vessels, even bones. One newly discovered species from the Amazon also has a translucent chest so you can see its heart. In some species, even the organs are translucent. Some species even have green bones.

The blue-green color of the bones comes from high levels of biliverdin [bill-uh-ver-din] in the blood, which has evolved at least 40 times in 11 different frog families, with more species that have blue-green blood and bones discovered all the time.

In most animals, high levels of biliverdin are a result of liver disease, since it’s a toxin, but in these frogs, the biliverdin is retained in the blood instead of filtered out by the kidneys. Researchers think the biliverdin serves two purposes. Because it makes the frog green all the way through, it helps camouflage the frog among the leaves where it lives, even in infrared light. Researchers recently discovered that at least two species of glass frog reflect infrared light, which may also help keep them concealed from predators that can see in infrared. The high levels of biliverdin may also make the frog taste bad. Some researchers also think it may help protect the frog from parasites.

This doesn’t appear to be related to their see-through tummies, though. No one’s sure why glass frogs are see-through from underneath. Most species have green backs, which helps them blend in to the leaves they live on. Since the glass frog’s legs are usually partially transparent along with its belly, one study has determined that it’s actually the legs that help with camouflage. When the frog sits on a leaf with its legs folded up on either side, the way frogs often sit, the color of the leaf is partially visible through the legs. This helps make the frog look less frog-shaped since its edges sort of blend in with the leaf.

Most of the time glass frogs live high in the treetops, but during breeding season they come down closer to the ground. The female lays her eggs on leaves hanging over running water, which the male fertilizes. In some species, males guard the eggs until they hatch. When the eggs hatch, the tadpoles drop into the water.

Not all glass frogs have translucent undersides, though. Most are ordinary-looking frogs that may be green or occasionally brown or orangey in color, sometimes with little spots. There are also probably a whole lot more of these frogs than scientists know about, since they live in such hard-to-study areas. Several new species have been discovered in just the last few years, including one rediscovery of a species called Laura’s glass frog.

Until a few years ago, the only specimen of Laura’s glass frog was a male collected in 1955 in the foothills of the Andes Mountains in Ecuador. Then a team of scientists studying frogs in the Colonso-Chalupas Biological Reserve, also in Ecuador, found two frogs that weren’t familiar to them. One was male and the other a young female, both living near small creeks where lots of other frog species were common. They were green with tiny yellow spots surrounded by black rings, and were only a few centimeters long, or less than an inch. After several years of study, the team determined that the frogs were Laura’s glass frogs, and they published their findings almost exactly one year ago, in December 2021.

Hopefully, in 2023 scientists will discover and rediscover even more frog species, and we’ll be able to learn more about them so they and their habitats can be protected.

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 306: Two Million Years Ago in Greenland

This week we’re going to learn about a brand new study in Nature about animals and plants that lived in Greenland about two million years ago.

Happy birthday to Dillon!

Further reading:

A 2-million-year-old ecosystem in Greenland uncovered by environmental DNA

Scientists Reconstruct 2-Million-Year-Old Ecosystem from Environmental DNA

No bones? No problem: DNA left in cave soils can reveal ancient human occupants

Greenland now:

Greenland two million years ago [art by Beth Zaiken, taken from the second article linked above]:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to do something a little different and talk about a new study just published in the journal Nature. A little section of this episode is taken from a recent Patreon episode, for those of you who listen and think, “Wait, I’m pretty sure I’ve heard that before.”

Before we get started, though, we have a birthday shoutout! A great big happy birthday to Dillon! I hope you do something really silly and fun on your birthday, like dance around wearing a ridiculous party hat and then eat cake.

Greenland is a big island off the eastern coast of Canada, but way far north, more or less in the Arctic. Even though it’s off the coast of North America, it’s considered part of Europe because for the last thousand years, it’s been controlled by Norway or Denmark at various times. Denmark’s got it right now. A little over 56,000 people live there today, most of them Inuit.

A big part of Greenland is covered in an ice sheet over a mile thick, which is so heavy it has pushed the central section of the island down so that it’s almost a thousand feet, or over 300 meters, below sea level. The land is much higher around the edges of the country. Basically Greenland is a gigantic bowl full of ice.

In 1966, the U.S. Army drilled into the ice to see what was under it, and the answer is dirt, as you might have expected. They took a 15-foot, or 4.5 meter, core sample and stuck it in a freezer, where everyone promptly forgot about it for 51 years. At some point it ended up in Denmark, where someone noticed it in 2017.

In 2019, the frozen core sample was finally studied by scientists. They expected to find mostly sand and rock. Instead, it was full of beautifully fossilized leaves and other plant material.

The main reason scientists were so surprised to find leaves and soil instead of just rock is that ice is really heavy, and it moves—slowly, but a mile-thick sheet of ice cannot be stopped. If you remember episode 277 about the rewilding of Scotland, you may remember that Scotland doesn’t have a lot of fossils from the Pleistocene because it was covered in glaciers that scoured the soil and everything in it down to bedrock, destroying everything in its path. But this hasn’t happened in Greenland.

Where the ice sheet now is, there used to be a forest. Obviously, the ice sheet hasn’t always covered Greenland. Research is ongoing, but a study of the sediment published in 2021 indicates that Greenland was ice free within the last million years, and possibly as recently as a few hundred thousand years.

If you go back a little farther, around two million years ago, Greenland was radically different. Not only was it ice free, it was much warmer than it is today. In north Greenland, which is now a polar desert, there was once an open forest where an incredible number of plants and animals lived. We know because of environmental DNA sequencing, often referred to as eDNA.

At this point most of us have a good understanding of what DNA is, but I’ll give you a quick explanation in case you’re not sure. DNA stands for Deoxyribonucleic acid, and it’s a polymer chain found in every organism’s cells that contains genetic instructions, essentially a guide on how to grow a particular type of animal. It’s way more complicated than that, but that gives you a basic idea. When cells replicate as an organism develops, either from an egg cell or a seed, the DNA directs what sequences of development happen at what stages. You inherit DNA from your parents but your personal DNA is always a little different from both parents’.

True crime podcasts talk about DNA a lot because every individual organism has a unique DNA profile, and since every single cell in our bodies contains DNA, criminals leave their unique signature at every crime scene. Now that scientists can sequence DNA from really tiny samples, many crimes have been solved when the only evidence was something like “this criminal murdered someone and then smoked a cigarette, and left the cigarette butt, and the DNA from their saliva on the cigarette butt was sequenced and run through a database of criminal DNA profiles, and now we know who the murderer is.” And then you get six commercials for mattresses and phone games.

But animal podcasts talk about DNA a lot because every species of organism has a unique genetic profile in addition to having a unique personal genetic profile. Scientists can retrieve DNA from a poop found in the forest and determine what species of animal left that poop. It probably wasn’t a Bigfoot. Scientists can also compare DNA from different animal populations to learn how closely related they are.

The most recent advance in DNA studies is environmental DNA, and it’s increasing our knowledge of the world in amazing ways. If you look at a lake, even if you go Scuba diving in the lake, even if you send a rover down to look at things in the lake, you won’t be able to see every single animal and plant and other organism that lives there. Fish are always moving around and may swim away from a diver or rover, or the water may be murky, and lots of animals stay hidden in the mud at the lake’s bottom. But if you take samples of the lake water and test it for DNA, suddenly you’re going to have more information than what you’d gather in days or weeks of just looking. Of course it’s important to observe animals in their natural habitats, but if you need to know whether an invasive species is living in the lake, or if an animal that hasn’t been seen for a long time is still extant in the lake, or if there are animals in the lake that no one’s ever seen before, eDNA can do that. The water is full of genetic material shed by different organisms.

It’s not just water, either, although testing water samples is pretty easy. DNA degrades quickly in ordinary circumstances, so while you can test soil to see what animals and plants live nearby, in most cases you’ll only find DNA that was deposited recently. But if the soil has been protected from sunlight, weather, and oxygen, such as soil found in a cave, there’s a chance that some ancient DNA can be found in it. That can tell us a lot about what animals lived in the cave a long time ago.

It’s not a few genetic sequences found in a single sample, either. As one scientist put it, there are trillions of DNA fragments in every single spoonful of dirt. Not all the samples are complete enough to sequence, but the ones that are can tell us a lot about the organisms that encountered that spoonful of dirt when it was at the surface of the cave. In Denisova Cave in Siberia, where a few remains of the Denisovan people were first discovered, researchers have learned that Denisovans and Neandertals lived in the cave for tens of thousands of years at different times, even though there aren’t any bones or artifacts remaining.

But the sediment from the Greenland eDNA study wasn’t from a cave. It had been preserved in permafrost for two million years without anything disturbing it, especially humans. It’s the oldest eDNA that’s been studied so far, more than a million years older than the previously oldest DNA. That was also found in permafrost and was recovered from a mammoth tooth.

Two million years ago in northern Greenland, poplar, birch, and thuja trees grew in an open forest along with various shrubs and other plants like ferns and moss. The thuja is sometimes called the tree of life or arborvitae and it’s an evergreen tree that’s related to junipers, sequoias, and cypresses. A lot of the plant DNA found was a surprise, since pollen from the plants had never been recovered in the area. Lots of plants related to modern roses and azaleas grew in the area, so we know there were flowers in spring and summer.

The area is called Kap København, and while it was still pretty cold, it was warm enough that much of the Greenland ice sheet had melted. In winter the temperature might have sometimes been as warm as 50 degrees Fahrenheit, or 10 Celsius, and only dipped to around 2 degrees Fahrenheit on average, or -17 Celsius. This is a whole lot warmer than modern days, where the winter temperature can drop to -50 Celsius, which is about the same in Fahrenheit, and almost never climbs above freezing except in summer.

Some of the animals that lived in the forest two million years ago were mastodons, reindeer, hares, geese, and various rodents related to voles and lemmings. There was even horseshoe crab DNA found from coastal water that had been pushed farther inland during flooding. All the animals found are related to modern animals that still live today, but only one, the Arctic hare, had actually been found in the fossil record in Greenland. They also found DNA of ants and fleas, plankton, algae, and lots of microbial life.

There is no ecosystem on earth today that quite matches that of Kap København from two million years ago. Until this study, scientists thought that not much lived in the area at the time, certainly not mastodons. Hopefully, environmental DNA can be recovered from even older sediments so we can learn more about the ancient world.

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 305: The Chamois and the Cave Goat

Thanks to Isaac for suggesting the chamois, our main topic this week!

Further reading:

The chamois in New Zealand

Extinct goat was cold-blooded

Myotragus balearicus: Extinction of mouse-goats

A chamois in its summer coat:

A chamois in its winter coat:

Myotragus, the “cave goat,” may have looked something like this museum restoration:

Nuralagus’s femur (left) compared to a regular rabbit femur:

Show Transcript:

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

This week we’re going to talk about an animal suggested by Isaac, the chamois, along with a few other animals. I realize we’ve talked about a lot of mammals lately so I’ll try to switch it up for the last few episodes of the year.

The chamois is a species of what are called goat-antelopes. Its name is French and is spelled c-h-a-m-o-i-s, but in English a lot of people pronounce it “shammy.” Shammy is also what people call polishing cloths of various types, because it’s short for chamois. If you ever heard those commercials on TV for something called the sham-wow, that’s a paper towel thingy that’s based on the shammy cloth. The reason for all this confusion between an animal and a cloth is that the original shammy cloth was a piece of leather from the animal that was used to polish high-quality items like fancy cars since it’s very soft and won’t scratch anything. Most shammy cloths you buy these days are likely to be made from plush cloth or the skin of domestic goats or sheep.

As for the animal, it’s native to mountainous parts of Europe, including the Alps. It’s also been introduced to New Zealand’s South Island where it’s an invasive species that threatens many native plants. Since chamois meat is considered a delicacy, commercial hunters in New Zealand travel into the mountains by helicopter, kill as many of the animals as possible, and bring the meat back to sell to restaurants. This is encouraged by the New Zealand government in an attempt to protect native plants, although red deer, feral goats, and hares are also introduced animals that do a lot of damage to the delicate mountain environment.

The chamois is small, only about two and a half feet tall at the shoulder, or 80 cm. It has cloven hooves and both males and females have small black horns. The horns are mostly straight but bend backwards at the tips into a sort of hook shape, and while males have thicker horns, they aren’t usually that much longer than the female’s. Horns grow up to 11 inches long, or 28 cm.

In summer the chamois’s fur is light brown with a darker stripe on each side of the face that runs from the nostrils, over the eyes, and up to the horns. In winter its fur grows very thick to keep it warm in its mountainous habitat, and it’s a much darker brown, almost black. It still has the dark band on its face with lighter colored fur on its cheeks and jaw, though. Its tail is very short and isn’t usually visible.

Female chamois live in small groups along with their offspring. Males are solitary most of the year, but during mating season in autumn and early winter, called the rut, males fight each other for the attention of females. The female gives birth to a single kid in late spring. In the winter the chamois migrates to lower elevations where there’s more food, but in summer it migrates to high elevations above the treeline where it’s safer from predators. It can run extremely fast, up to about 30 miles per hour, or 50 km/hour, and can jump as much as 20 feet, or 6 meters. It can even jump over six and a half feet high, or 2 meters, straight up. It’s very bouncy.

I mentioned that the chamois is a goat-antelope, so let’s go back to that term. The goat-antelope isn’t actually a type of antelope, although it is an antelope relation. Goat-antelopes are bovids, along with antelopes, actual goats, sheep, cows, and many others. The goat-antelopes are members of the subfamily Caprinae, which includes goats, sheep, musk ox, mountain goats, takins, and many other interesting animals that we need to talk about one day. One of these is the extinct Myotragus, called the mouse goat or the Balearic Islands cave goat because the first fossils were found in a cave. It didn’t actually live in caves, although it was weird in other ways.

The cave goat was a small animal, only about 18 inches tall, or 46 cm, and both males and females had small horns that probably looked like a goat’s horns. Like most other goat-antelopes, researchers think the cave goat was a browser that ate lots of different kinds of plants, although its ancestors had probably been grazers that ate mostly grass. But its eyes were oriented for binocular vision like a predator’s eyes, instead of being on the sides of its head as in most herbivores, which allows an animal a much wider range of vision to watch for predators. Since the cave goat had lived on islands for several million years and didn’t need to worry about large predators, it didn’t need the adaptations that other prey animals have. For instance, it probably was a slow walker and couldn’t jump at all, sort of the opposite of the chamois.

An analysis of the rate of growth in the cave goat’s bones discovered something really weird. Most mammals grow quickly and steadily throughout their youth and then stop growing when they reach adulthood. The cave goat grew very slowly and sometimes stopped growing completely for a while, and didn’t reach full maturity where growth stopped until it was about 12 years old. Most goat-antelope species reach their full size within a year or two. This pattern resembles that of a reptile, not a mammal, and researchers think it was an adaptation to its restricted habitat. An island only has so much food available at any given time, so being able to slow or stop growing for a while when food is scarce, then resume growing when there’s more food to convert to energy, is an efficient way to deal with scarcity. When the finding was published in 2009, a lot of articles called the cave goat cold-blooded, or ectothermic, but we don’t actually know if this was the case.

The cave goat went extinct around 3,000 years ago when humans arrived on the islands where it lived. But instead of ending on that sad note, let’s look very quickly at another animal that lived on the same islands before the cave goat. It was a gigantic weird rabbit called Nuralagus rex.

Nuralagus was a rabbit but due to island gigantism, it was way larger than an ordinary rabbit and would have looked very different. It was about 20 inches tall at the highest point of its back, or 50 cm. Like the cave goat but unlike other rabbits, it couldn’t jump. Its spine was stiff and there weren’t very many predators to worry about, so it could just walk around and find plants and other giant bunnies and that’s all it needed. It didn’t have very good hearing compared to most rabbits, so its ears were probably much shorter in relation to its body. It was only described in 2011, which just goes to show how many weird animal discoveries are still waiting to be found.

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