Monthly Archives: January 2023

Episode 313: The Wolverine and the Kakapo

This week we learn about two interesting animals from opposite parts of the world! Thanks to Felix and Jaxon for suggesting the wolverine and the kakapo.

Further reading:

Study: Wolverines need refrigerators

Kakapo Comeback [this article has some fantastic pictures!]

The wolverine likes cold weather:

So many young kakapos!

The kakapo is a really big bird:

(Photo by Matu Booth)

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to cover two animals suggested by listeners who spell their names with an X. I had already picked out these topics from the list and just now noticed both suggesters have X’s in their names. Thanks to Jaxon and Felix for these suggestions!

First, Felix suggested we learn about the wolverine. We’ve talked about it before in episode 62, but there’s a whole lot more to learn about this uncommon animal.

The wolverine is a mustelid, which is a family that includes weasels, ferrets, and other small, long, skinny animals with short legs. But the wolverine is big and broad, although its legs are pretty short. It kind of looks like a small bear and stands about 18 inches tall at the shoulder, or 45 cm. It’s light brown with darker brown or black legs, muzzle, tail, and back, and some have silvery-gray markings too. Its tail is short but fluffy. It lives in cold, mountainous areas, including northern Canada and Alaska, Siberia, and parts of Norway, Sweden, and Finland.

The wolverine is mainly a scavenger of animals that are already dead, but it will also kill and eat pretty much anything it can catch. This includes rabbits, mice, rats, porcupines, geese, and other small or relatively small animals, but it sometimes kills animals a lot bigger than it is, like deer. It will also eat eggs, berries, seeds, and anything else it can find. It’s not a picky eater.

The wolverine nearly went extinct in the 19th century due to overhunting for its fur, which is mostly waterproof and frost-proof. People used it to line winter clothes. The wolverine is also vulnerable to habitat loss and climate change, since it needs deep snow and cold temperatures to survive.

Because the wolverine lives where winters are harsh, when it finds a lot of food, it will sometimes bury it in snow to eat later. It chooses a protected area between boulders or a natural crevice in rocks to put the dead animal, then covers it with deep snow to keep it fresh for longer, just like putting meat in a freezer. Females in particular need this stored food, because they give birth in winter and need lots of food so they can produce milk for their babies.

But if you’ve ever taken food out of the freezer, you know it’s hard as a rock. How does the wolverine eat meat that’s frozen solid? Not only does the wolverine have strong jaws and teeth, it actually has a special tooth in the back of the mouth that points inward, one on each side of the upper jaw. The inward-pointing tooth allows the wolverine to tear off chunks of frozen meat more easily. Other mustelids have this arrangement of teeth too.

A male wolverine roams widely through a large territory, which can sometimes be hundreds of square miles. Pairs often mate for life although they don’t spend a lot of time together, and sometimes a male will have two or three mates. In winter, the female digs a den deep into the snow to have her babies, and while she mostly takes care of them by herself, the father wolverine will visit from time to time and bring everyone food. The babies stay with their mother for up to a year, and sometimes the half-grown wolverines will go traveling with their dad for a while.

The wolverine is sometimes called the nasty cat because it has a strong smell, which it uses to mark its territory. “Nasty cat” is the funniest name for an animal I’ve ever heard.

Next, Jaxon suggested the kakapo, which is a weird and adorable bird. It’s flightless and nocturnal, lives only in New Zealand, and is a type of parrot. A flightless, nocturnal parrot!

The kakapo is really big even for a parrot. It can grow over two feet long, or 64 cm, but since it’s flightless its wings and tail aren’t very big. Its legs are relatively short considering it has to walk everywhere. It has green feathers with speckled markings, blue-gray feet, and discs of feathers around its eyes that make its face look a little like an owl’s face. That’s why it’s sometimes called the owl parrot. Males are almost twice the size of females on average.

The kakapo evolved on New Zealand where it had almost no predators. A few types of eagle hunted it during the day, which is why it evolved to be mostly nocturnal. Its only real predator at night was one type of owl. As a result, the kakapo was one of the most common birds throughout New Zealand when humans arrived.

The Maori discovered New Zealand around 700 years ago. They killed the kakapo to eat and to use its feathers in clothing, and they also brought dogs and the Polynesian rat that also liked to kill and eat the kakapo. Then a few hundred years ago Europeans arrived, bringing all sorts of invasive animals with them, and they also chopped down forests to create more farmland.

By the end of the 19th century, the kakapo was becoming increasingly rare everywhere. When Resolution Island was declared a nature reserve in 1891, early conservationists brought kakapos and kiwis to the island in an attempt to save them. But stoats and feral cats killed them all. Attempts to establish captive breeding programs weren’t successful either. By 1970, scientists worried that the kakapo was already extinct.

Fortunately, a few of the birds survived in remote areas. By now conservationists understood that they had to provide a safe environment for the birds, and that took a lot of effort. Several islands were chosen as kakapo refuges, and then all the introduced mammals on the islands had to be eradicated or relocated. This included animals like deer that ate the same plants that the kakapo relied on, as well as predators. Then native plants and trees had to be transplanted to the islands since they’d been mostly killed off by deer and other introduced animals.

Then, finally, all the kakapos scientists could find were relocated to the islands. There weren’t very many, and most of them were males. 65 birds were introduced to four islands and monitored carefully, both to make sure they settled in well and to make sure no predators found their way to the islands.

Kakapo females only lay eggs when they have plenty of high-protein food, especially the fruit of the rimu tree that only ripens every four or five years, so the females were given extra food to encourage them to breed more often. The extra food helped, but it turns out that when the females were allowed to eat as much as they wanted, most of the eggs they laid hatched male chicks. That was the opposite of what the kakapo needed, so conservationists experimented with the amounts of extra food they gave the birds until finally the eggs were hatching equal numbers of females and males.

Many parrot species mate for life and both parents help take care of the eggs and babies, but the kakapo handles things differently. Males gather on hilltops during breeding season and each male digs out a shallow bowl well apart from other males, sometimes several bowls connected with little trails. If a male gets too close to another male, they’ll fight. Each male stands in his bowl and makes a booming call by inflating a special sac in his throat. The bowl helps amplify the sound and often the male will construct his bowl near a surface that reflects sound, like rock. His calls can be heard three miles away in good conditions, or 5 km, and the sound attracts females.

This system of males competing in one area to attract females is called lekking, spelled L-E-K. We’ve actually talked about lekking before but I don’t remember if I specifically mentioned the term. The area where the males gather is called a lekking ground or an arena or sometimes just a lek. The females walk around inspecting each male, who booms and struts to show how strong and fit he is. If a female is especially interested in one male, she’ll approach him and he starts his courtship dance. This sounds fancy but for the kakapo, it basically means he turns his tail with his wings spread, then walks backwards towards the female. Weird dance, but the female kakapo thinks it’s cool.

After a female chooses a male, they mate and then the female leaves him and walks home. She builds a nest in a hollow tree or in a hidden crevice among roots or rocks, and lays one to four eggs. She takes care of the eggs and the babies by herself, and may continue to feed the babies until they’re around six months old.

The kakapo eats nuts, seeds, fruit, leaves, and other plant material. Its legs are short but strong, and it will jog for long distances to find food. It can also climb really well, right up into the very tops of trees. It uses its strong legs and its large curved bill to climb. Then, to get down from the treetop more efficiently, the kakapo will spread its wings and parachute down, although its wings aren’t big enough or strong enough for it to actually fly. A big heavy male sort of falls in a controlled plummet while a small female will land more gracefully.

While the kakapo is doing a lot better now than it has in decades, it’s still critically endangered. The current population is 249 individuals according to New Zealand’s Department of Conservation. Scientists and volunteers help monitor the birds, especially newly hatched chicks. If a mother bird is having trouble finding enough food for all her babies, or if any of the babies appear sick or injured, a team of conservationists will decide if they need to help out. They sometimes move a chick from a nest where the mother bird has a lot of other babies to one where there are only one or two babies. Some chicks are raised in nurseries if necessary and reintroduced to the wild when they’re old enough.

The kakapo can live for a long time. This isn’t unusual for parrots, which can live as long as a human, but the kakapo is especially long-lived. There are reports of individuals who have reached 120 years old. This means that potentially, only six kakapo generations ago, the first East Polynesian sailors, ancestors of the modern Maori, became the first humans ever to set foot on the shores of New Zealand. And there were some weird parrots there.

This is what the male kakapo sounds like when it’s booming:

[booming call]

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 312: Little Bouncy Animals

Thanks to Zachary and Oran for this week’s topic, some little animals that bounce around like tiny kangaroos!

Further reading:

Evolution of Kangaroo-Like Jerboas Sheds Light on Limb Development

Supposedly extinct kangaroo rat resurfaces after 30 years

High-Speed Videos Show Kangaroo Rats Using Ninja-Style Kicks to Escape Snakes

Williams’s jerboa [picture by Mohammad Amin Ghaffari –, CC BY 4.0,]:

A drawing of a jerboa skeleton. LEGS FOR DAYS:

The San Quintin kangaroo rat lives! [photo from article linked above]

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to learn about two cute little animals suggested by Zachary and Oran! Both of these animals are rodents but although they look remarkably alike in some unusual ways, they’re not actually all that closely related.

First, Zachary suggested the jerboa. We talked about the pygmy jerboa in episode 136, but we haven’t talked about jerboas in general. It’s a small rodent that’s native to the deserts of Asia, north Africa, and the Middle East. It’s usually brown or tan with some darker shading on the back and tail. It looks sort of like a gerbil with long ears, long hind legs, and a tuft at the end of the tail. Its front legs are short and it has an adorable whiskery nose.

The reason the jerboa’s hind legs are so long while its front legs are really short is that it jumps around on its hind legs like a kangaroo. Not only can it jump really fast, up to 15 mph, or 24 km/h, it can change directions incredibly fast too. This helps it evade predators, because most animals are fastest when running in a straight line. The jerboa bounces in all sorts of directions, hopping or just running on its long hind legs, with its long tail held out for balance. It can also run on all fours with its short front legs helping it maneuver, but for the most part it’s a bipedal animal. It has tufts of stiff hairs under its toes that help it run through loose sand.

The jerboa eats plants, although sometimes if it finds a nice juicy insect it will eat it too. Mostly it just eats leaves, bulbs, roots, and some seeds. It gets all of the moisture it needs from its diet, which is good because it lives in the desert where there’s not much water available.

Some species of jerboa mainly eat insects and spiders, and some have short ears instead of long ears. This is the case for the thick-tailed pygmy jerboa that lives in parts of China, Mongolia, and Russia. Its head and body only measures about two inches long, or almost 5 cm, but its tail is twice that length. The reason it’s called a thick-tailed jerboa is because it stores fat at the base of its tail, which makes the tail look thick compared to many rodent tails.

The jerboa is mostly active at dawn and dusk, although some species are fully nocturnal. It spends the day in a burrow it digs in sand or dirt. A jerboa will usually have more than one burrow in its territory, with the entrances usually hidden under a bush or some other plant. Different burrows have different purposes. Some have numerous entrances and lots of side tunnels but are relatively shallow, which is useful if the jerboa lives in an area with a rainy season. A shallow burrow won’t flood if it rains a lot. Some burrows are temporary, which the jerboa may dig if it’s out and about during the day looking for food. A mother jerboa will dig a burrow with a roomy nesting chamber to raise her babies, and a jerboa’s winter burrow has a nesting chamber that’s deep underground to help it stay warm. Some species of jerboa construct unusual burrows, like the lesser Egyptian jerboa that has spiral-shaped burrows with storage chambers. Most jerboas are solitary animals, although sometimes a group will hibernate together in winter to help everyone stay warmer.

Scientists have been studying the jerboa to learn how different animals have evolved radically different leg lengths. The jerboa’s incredibly long hind legs are very different from its very short front legs, but it evolved from animals that had four short legs. But jerboas are born with four short legs, and as the babies grow up their hind legs grow longer and longer.

The jerboa is an incredibly efficient runner. Some species can jump as far as six feet in a single bound, or 1.8 meters, and up to three feet, or 90 cm, straight up.

The jerboa isn’t the only rodent that hops on its hind legs like a kangaroo. The kangaroo rat does too, and it’s Oran’s suggestion. Oran pointed out that a long time ago, I think in the humans episode, I said that humans are the only fully bipedal mammal, meaning we only ever walk on our hind legs. (Crawling when you’re a baby or trying to find something under the couch don’t count.) I was wrong about that for sure, because the kangaroo rat, the jerboa, and a few other mammals are also bipedal.

The kangaroo rat is native to parts of western North America. It looks a lot like a jerboa, with long hind legs and a long tail, although its ears are smaller. But the kangaroo rat and the jerboa aren’t closely related, although both are rodents. Their similarities are due to convergent evolution, since both animals live in very similar environments with the same selective pressures.

The largest species of kangaroo rat, the giant kangaroo rat, grows around 6 inches long, or 15 cm, with a tail about 8 inches long, or 20 cm. It can jump even longer than the jerboa although it doesn’t move as fast on average.

Like the jerboa, the kangaroo rat can change directions quickly, and it’s also mostly nocturnal and spends the day in a burrow. Some species spend almost all the time in burrows, only emerging for about an hour a night to gather seeds. Since owls like to eat kangaroo rats, you can’t blame them for wanting to stay underground as much as possible.

Snakes also like to eat kangaroo rats, especially the sidewinder rattlesnake. It’s a fast predator with venom that can easily kill a little kangaroo rat, but the kangaroo rat isn’t helpless. A study published in 2019 filmed interactions in the wild between the desert kangaroo rat and the sidewinder, using high-speed cameras. They had to use high-speed cameras because the snakes can go from completely unmoving to a strike in under 100 milliseconds. That’s less time than it takes you to blink. But the kangaroo rat can react in even less time, as little as 38 milliseconds after the snake starts to move. A lot of time the kangaroo rat will completely leap out of range of the snake, but if it can’t manage that, it will kick the snake with its long hind legs, which are strong enough to knock the snake away. Little fuzzy ninjas.

Unlike the jerboa, the kangaroo rat mostly eats seeds. The jerboa’s teeth aren’t very strong so it can’t bite through hard seeds, but the kangaroo rat’s teeth are just fine with seeds. The kangaroo rat also has cheek pouches, and it will carry lots of seeds home to its burrow. It keeps extra seeds in special burrow chambers called larders.

The kangaroo rat sometimes lives in colonies that can number in the hundreds, but it’s still a mostly solitary animal. It has its own burrow that’s separate from the burrows of other members of its colony, and it doesn’t share food or interact very much with its neighbors. It will communicate with other kangaroo rats by drumming its hind feet on the ground, including warning its neighbors to stay away and alerting them to predators in the area.

The kangaroo rat is vulnerable to habitat loss, since it mostly lives in desert grassland and humans tend to view that kind of land as useless and in need of development. An example of this is the San Quintin kangaroo rat, which is only found in western Baja California in Mexico. Only two large colonies were known when it was discovered by science in 1925, although it used to be much more widespread. But in the decades since 1925, the land was developed for agriculture until by 1986 the two colonies were completely wiped out. Scientists worried the species had gone extinct. Then, in 2017, a colony was discovered in a nature preserve and everyone breathed a sigh of relief. Other colonies have been discovered on farmland that has been abandoned due to drought. Still, the San Quintin kangaroo rat is critically endangered.

The kangaroo rat is actually helpful for the environment. Because it stores seeds underground, and sometimes forgets where it put them, it helps native plants spread. Its burrows help increase soil fertility and the spread of water through the soil. This is similar to the jerboa, which also eats enough insects to help reduce the number of agricultural pests in some areas.

There are also two species of kangaroo mouse, which are closely related to kangaroo rats. They mostly live in the state of Nevada in North America. There are also jumping mice that look like ordinary mice but with long hind legs. It also has cheek pouches. While some jumping mice live in western North America, some live in northeastern North America and Canada and are adapted to cold weather and long winters. One species of jumping mouse lives in the mountains in parts of China. There’s also a larger jumping rodent called the springhare that lives in parts of Africa, and which is about the size of a squirrel or a small rabbit. Like all these other rodents, it’s bipedal and hops on its hind legs like a little kangaroo, using its long tail for balance and to prop itself up when it’s standing. It mostly eats plants but will sometimes eat insects, and it spends most of the day in burrows. There’s also a hopping mouse native to Australia, which is a rodent with long hind legs and a long tail and long ears. It’s not closely related to the jerboa or the kangaroo rat, but it looks a lot like both because of convergent evolution. It mostly eats seeds.

All these animals are rodents, but Australia also has another animal called the kultarr that looks a lot like the kangaroo rat and the jerboa. It’s not a rodent, though. It’s actually a marsupial that’s completely unrelated to rodents although it looks like a rodent. That’s definitely what you call convergent evolution.

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 311: The Mystery Deep-Sea Spider

Thanks to Llewelly for this suggestion, and thanks to Dr. Thomas A. Hegna for providing me with the two papers I reference in this episode!

Images are taken from the papers.

The mystery “spider”:

Long-legged isopods:

Show transcript:

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

My carefully planned out episode schedule has already gotten messed up, but I got excited about this topic and couldn’t wait to share it! It’s a mystery invertebrate from the deep sea that has been solved! Thanks to Llewelly for bringing this to my attention, and thanks to arthropod paleontologist Dr. Thomas A. Hegna for posting this information on Mastodon in the first place, and for providing the relevant papers to me. People are pretty great.

I knew about this topic from the book The Search for the Last Undiscovered Animals by Karl Shuker, but I hadn’t been able to find out more. Until now.

In the late 1980s, a program called DISCOL 1 was launched to study disturbances on the sea floor due to underwater mining. It focused on the deep sea in the South Pacific. One of the things the expedition did was drop underwater cameras with bait tied to them. When an animal came to investigate the bait, the camera took pictures. I have a birdfeeder like this now although I don’t have to drop it anywhere.

In February 1989, the camera descended to about 13,600 feet, or 4,150 meters, in the Peru basin. When it was hauled up a few days later and the pictures retrieved, the scientists saw something they didn’t recognize on 20 of the photos. It looked like a spider.

The scientists were able to get a good idea of the animal’s size because they knew how big the bait was and how big the metal rod was that the bait was tied to. The animal’s body was about 2 and a half inches long, or 6 cm, and about half that width, not counting its long, jointed legs. It had five pairs of appendages, including three pairs of walking legs. The other two pairs of appendages were longer and might be feelers of some kind, with the front pair possibly used to manipulate food. The estimated legspan was almost 8 inches across, or more than 20 cm.

The scientists published a short article about the finding later in 1989 and proposed that the animal be tentatively placed in the phylum Arachnida with spiders and their relations. But this placement is a big deal, because there are no known spider relations that live in deep water. Some spiders have evolved to live in water at least part of the time, but they always have to have access to the air.

For a long time that’s all anyone knew. Most scientists thought the animal was probably a pycnogonid [pik-NA-gunid], an arthropod commonly called a sea spider although it’s not actually an arachnid. We talked about sea spiders in episode 105, so I’ll revisit some of the information from that episode.

Sea spiders live throughout the world’s oceans and there are well over a thousand known species. Most are small and live in shallow water, but a few live in water up to 23,000 feet deep, or 7,000 meters. The biggest species live in the cold waters around Antarctica, with the very largest individual ever found having a legspan of about 27 inches across, or 70 cm.

The sea spider has four pairs of legs, although a few species have five or six pairs of legs instead. Some species have one or two pairs of simple eyes, but other species have no eyes at all. The body is quite small in relation to the legs, which are extremely long, which means the digestive tract is actually partly in the legs, because the body is too small for it. It walks along the bottom of the ocean or may swim by pulsing its long legs like a jellyfish with legs instead of a bell. In species that swim, the legs may be lined with long bristles.

Some species have mouthparts, but most eat using a proboscis that it uses to suck fluids out of its prey. Some species have spines at the tip of the proboscis. It sticks its proboscis into a sponge, worm, jelly, sea anemone, or other invertebrate, injects digestive fluids that liquefy the surrounding tissues, and slurps the fluids up. Sometimes this kills the prey animal, sometimes it doesn’t.

All this does sound a lot like the spider-like animal photographed in 1989. But in 2004 a new paper was published about the animal, where the original scientists teamed with some other experts to re-examine the photographs. Their conclusion is that the mystery animal wasn’t a spider or a sea spider but something else: a munnopsidid isopod.

Isopods are crustaceans that have been around for at least 300 million years. They live all over the world, on land and in both fresh water and in the ocean. The animal sometimes called the woodlouse or pill bug or roly-poly or sow bug are actually isopods. All isopods have segmented exoskeletons, as you may have seen in roly-polies or whatever you call those little guys, and all have two pairs of antennae and seven pairs of jointed legs.

Isopods are very common animals in the ocean and the most common isopods are members of the family Munnopsidae. Most have short legs but some have long legs, including some species in the subfamily Bathyopsurinae.

While Munnopsids are common, there are only four species in two genera in Bathyopsurinae. The biggest isopods live in the deep sea and while these four species are pretty big, up to 2 and a half inches long, or 6 cm, they’re nowhere near the size of the largest isopods known. That would be the giant isopod that can grow up to 20 inches long, or 50 cm, but it’s not closely related to these four species.

As to which species the mystery isopod belongs to, the photographs aren’t close enough or clear enough for a definite identification. It’s possible the mystery isopod belongs to a species unknown to science.

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 310: The Crab-Eating Fox

Thanks to Dean for this week’s suggestion, the crab-eating fox!

Further reading:

Jaguars could prevent a not-so-great American biotic exchange

The crab-eating fox is not actually a fox:

Show transcript:

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

I’m happy to report that I’m feeling healthy and testing negative for covid now. Even my lingering cough has pretty much cleared up! I hope you’re healthy too. Anyway, this week let’s learn about an unusual animal suggested by Dean, the crab-eating fox.

The crab-eating fox lives in parts of South America east of the Andes Mountains. It likes forests and open woodlands, and sometimes lives in savannas too although it prefers areas with a lot of tree cover and rivers. It’s a fairly small animal that rarely weighs more than 18 pounds, or 8 kg, and stands about 16 inches tall at the shoulder, or 40 cm. It has a thick coat that’s mostly gray or brown with reddish ears and paws, black markings on the ears, tail, and legs, and a black stripe down its spine. It also has a bushy tail and a relatively short muzzle.

There are two important questions we need to answer about the crab-eating fox. First, does it actually eat crabs? Second, is it actually a fox?

The crab-eating fox does indeed eat crabs, although it’s an omnivore and will eat pretty much anything it can find. This includes insects, eggs, fruit, carrion, and small animals of various kinds, especially rodents. But during the wet season, when it rains a whole lot and rivers flood and ebb repeatedly, the crab-eating fox eats a whole lot of crabs and other crustaceans.

The crab-eating fox is not, in fact, a fox. It’s definitely related to foxes, since it’s a canid and the family Canidae includes foxes as well as wolves, dogs, coyotes, and all their relations, and it looks like a fox. It’s the only member of its own genus, but it’s grouped together with some other South American canids that look like foxes but are more closely related to wolves. But they’re not all that closely related to either foxes or wolves. Another member of this group is the maned wolf, the one with super long legs, which we talked about most recently in episode 167.

Scientists think that the crab-eating fox’s closest relation is another South American canid called the short-eared dog, which we talked about in episode 195. Unlike the crab-eating fox, the short-eared dog likes heavy forests and lives in the Amazon rainforest. We know so little about it that researchers sometimes refer to it as the ghost dog.

The crab-eating fox is nocturnal and spends most of the daytime sleeping in a den. Sometimes it makes a den by burrowing into thick grass, sometimes it will dig a burrow, but it prefers to find a den made by another animal and move into it if it’s empty. It may have several dens in its territory, which it often shares with its mate. Both parents help take care of the babies, and a female may have two litters a year.

I’m happy to report that the crab-eating fox is not endangered. It’s doing just fine in most places. It’s an adaptable, intelligent animal, which helps it thrive in a changing environment the same way coyotes do in North America. In fact, it fills the same ecological niche in South America that the coyote fills in North America, and this has led to a really weird potential problem.

The crab-eating fox is native to South America, but it has been spreading northward into Central America. Likewise, the coyote is native to North America, but it has been spreading southward into Central America. Neither species likes thick forested areas, but as more rainforests are cleared for agriculture and housing, people have inadvertently made a sort of corridor for both species. Having people around doesn’t bother either the crab-eating fox or the coyote. Coyotes have made it as far south as Panama, almost to South America.

If this continues, with crab-eating foxes migrating north and coyotes migrating south in ever greater numbers, eventually they’ll start to compete with each other. This isn’t good for either of them.

The only thing stopping coyotes from migrating farther south at this point is a thick strip of tropical forest called Darien National Park in Panama, where jaguars live. Unlike coyotes and crab-eating foxes, jaguars are very shy of humans and need a lot of dense forest to live in. This is exactly the kind of place that coyotes and crab-eating foxes like least, not to mention that a jaguar would be more than happy to catch and eat either species of canid. So as long as the forest in the national park remains intact, it acts as a barrier to keep both canid species apart, and that’s good. It’s also good for the jaguars and lots of other animals. Hooray for protected forests!

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 309: The Red Panda

Thanks to Zola for suggesting this week’s topic, the red panda!

Further reading:

Study Reveals Key Differences in Skulls of Red and Giant Panda

A red panda:

A red panda asleep in a tree [photo by By Aconcagua – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,]:

Not exactly a real red panda but pretty darn cute (from the Disney/Pixar movie Turning Red):

Show transcript:

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

Happy new year! I’m still getting over covid but feeling much better and have mostly regained my sense of smell and taste. I’m still coughing, though, so apologies that my voice doesn’t sound great (at least, I don’t think it does).

One of my goals for this year is to really clear out the backlog of suggested topics. So many people have sent me such great ideas for episodes, and while I really do try to get to as many of them as possible, some people have been waiting literally years for me to cover their suggestion. So I’m just going to pick one every week until we’re more or less caught up.

We’ll start with someone who’s probably used to being at the end of the line when you have to line up alphabetically. Zola suggested the red panda and I have no idea why we’ve never talked about this amazing animal!

The red panda lives in parts of the Himalaya Mountains in various countries, including China, India, Tibet, Myanmar, and Nepal, where it mostly lives in high elevations where there’s plenty of water and bamboo. When it gets really cold, it can lower its metabolism and enter a torpid state something like hibernation, although only for short amounts of time, and it also wraps itself up in its big fluffy tail to stay warm. It’s mostly nocturnal and spends a lot of time in trees, although it’s perfectly comfortable on the ground too, although it almost always sleeps in a tree.

The red panda is about the size of a dog but with short legs. It’s bigger than a raccoon but resembles one superficially, including a bushy ringed tail and a dark stripe across the eyes that continues down the cheeks. It’s mostly reddish-brown or orangey in color, with white markings on the ears and face and darker red or black belly and legs. Its tail is almost as long as its body, around 19 inches long for a big male, or 48 cm, while its head and body is about 25 inches long, or 63 cm. It has a round head with a short muzzle and big triangular ears.

The red panda has a lot in common with the giant panda, and that has caused a lot of confusion in the past and even today. We talked about the giant panda in episode 42, including its extra toe. It’s not really a toe although it acts like a thumb. The giant panda’s front paws have five toes just like all bears, and also a modified wrist bone that juts out from the base of the paw and helps the panda hold bamboo stalks as it eats the leaves.

The red panda has a false thumb too, also formed from a projecting wrist bone. It’s not as dexterous as the giant panda’s false thumb, but both animals use it to help it hold bamboo. In the red panda’s case, though, the false thumb probably originally evolved to help it climb trees. It also has flexible joints in its legs that allow it to climb more easily, including straight down a tree head-first, and it has semi-retractable claws.

The red panda even lives in some of the same places as the giant panda. Researchers weren’t sure how the two species could live in the same places and eat the same foods without one species out-competing the other. The red panda mostly eats bamboo just as the giant panda does, and both are considered carnivores even though they hardly eat anything but plants, but a study published in 2014 determined that the two animals actually eat different parts of the bamboo plant. The red panda is able to climb up to eat the smaller, more tender leaves and stems while the giant panda has a stronger jaw that allows it to eat larger, tougher leaves and shoots.

But is the red panda closely related to the giant panda? Scientists still aren’t completely sure. The red panda was known to science long before the giant panda was, and was just called the panda. After the giant panda was discovered, scientists thought that it had to be related to the red panda, which they started calling the lesser panda or red panda to differentiate it from the giant panda. The two animals eat the same thing and have some traits in common, so it made sense that they were related. But that was before the giant panda was well understood.

Once scientists figured out that the giant panda is actually a type of weird bear, they reclassified it and determined that the red panda was probably more closely related to procyonids, which includes the raccoon and the coatimundi we talked about a few weeks ago. After genetic studies, currently the red panda is placed in its own family and is probably most closely related to the family Mephitidae, which includes skunks, but is also closely related to procyonids like raccoons and mustelids like weasels and otters. While it is distantly related to the giant panda, its false thumb and other similarities to the giant panda are probably due to convergent evolution.

In the wild red pandas seem to be mostly solitary except during breeding season, which is in winter, although it’s difficult to observe in the wild so we don’t know for sure. In captivity it’s more sociable and will play-fight with its friends. While it mostly eats bamboo, it will also eat flowers, bird eggs, berries, and leaves from other plants.

The female red panda gives birth to three or four cubs in summer, and while they’re born with fur they need their mother’s care for several months before they can start to learn independence. They’re usually old enough to leave their mother at around 7 or 8 months old, at which point they set off to find small territories of their own.

The red panda is endangered by habitat loss, pollution, competition with livestock, and poaching for its fur. This is despite the animal being a protected species everywhere it lives. Fortunately, more and more people in the countries where it lives are helping to protect the red panda’s habitat. In Nepal, for instance, lots of schoolchildren have learned about the red panda and are helping with conservation efforts, including putting up fences to keep livestock out of bamboo forests. Red pandas also do well in captivity and are popular zoo exhibits because one thing I haven’t mentioned is that they’re completely adorable!

The third Saturday in every September is International Red Panda Day to raise awareness and money for conservation efforts. You have approximately 9 and a half months to prepare for International Red Panda Day 2023.

This is what a red panda sounds like:

[red panda 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!