Episode 373: The Tasmanian Devil and the Thylacine

Thanks to Carson, Mia, Eli, and Pranav for their suggestions this week!

Further reading:

RNA for the first time recovered from an extinct species

Study finds ongoing evolution in Tasmanian Devils’ response to transmissible cancer

Tasmanian devil research offers new insights for tackling cancer in humans

The Tasmanian devil looks really cute but fights all the time [picture by JJ Harrison (https://www.jjharrison.com.au/) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0]:

The Thylacine could opens its jaws verrrrrrry wide:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to cover two animals that a lot of people have suggested. Carson and Mia both want to learn about the Tasmanian tiger, and Eli and Pranav both want to hear about the Tasmanian devil. We talked about the Tasmanian tiger, AKA the thylacine, in episode 1, and I thought we’d had a Tasmanian devil episode too but it turns out I was thinking of a March 2019 Patreon bonus episode. So it’s definitely time to learn about both!

The thylacine was a nocturnal marsupial native to New Guinea, mainland Australia, and the Australian island of Tasmania, and the last known individual died in captivity in 1936. But thylacine sightings have continued ever since it was declared extinct. It was a shy, nervous animal that didn’t do well in captivity, so if the animal survives in remote areas of Tasmania, it’s obviously keeping a low profile.

The thylacine was yellowish-brown with black stripes on the back half of its body and down its tail. It was the size of a big dog, some two feet high at the shoulder, or 61 cm, and over six feet long if you included the long tail, or 1.8 meters. It had a doglike head with rounded ears and could open its long jaws extremely wide. Some accounts say that it would sometimes hop instead of run when it needed to move faster, but this seems to be a myth. It was also a quiet animal, rarely making noise except while hunting, when it would give frequent double yips.

A 2017 study discovered that the thylacine population split into two around 25,000 years ago, with the two groups living in eastern and western Australia. Around 4,000 years ago, climate change caused more and longer droughts in eastern Australia and the thylacine population there went extinct. By 3,000 years ago, all the mainland thylacines had gone extinct, leaving just the Tasmanian population. The Tasmanian thylacines underwent a population crash around the same time that the mainland Australia populations went extinct—but the Tasmanian population had recovered and was actually increasing when Europeans showed up and started shooting them.

Because the thylacine went extinct so recently and scientists have access to preserved specimens less than a hundred years old, and since the thylacine’s former habitat is still in place, it’s a good candidate for de-extinction. As a result, it’s been the subject of many genetic studies recently, to learn as much about it as possible. It’ll probably be quite a while before we have the technology to successfully clone a thylacine, but in the meantime people in Australia keep claiming to see thylacines in the wild. Maybe they really aren’t extinct.

The Tasmanian devil is related to the thylacine. It’s about the size of a small to average dog, maybe a bulldog, which it resembles in some ways. It’s compact and muscular with a broad head, relatively short snout, and a big mouth with prominent lower fangs. It’s not related to canids at all, of course, and if you just glanced at a Tasmanian devil, your first thought wouldn’t be “dog” or “thylacine,” it would probably be “giant mouse.”

The Tasmanian devil is black or grayish-brown, usually with patches of white on the chest and rump. It also has rounded pinkish ears, long whiskers, paws with relatively long toes, and a long tail. Since the devil stores fat in its tail, a fat-tailed devil is a happy, healthy devil.

It’s mainly a scavenger and will eat roadkill and other dead animals, although it will also kill and eat small or even large animals, and will also eat plant material and insects. It often eats every trace of a carcass, including bones and fur. This is good for other animals and for ranchers, since it reduces the presence of insects attracted to dead animals and reduces the spread of disease. Its digestion is extremely fast and efficient, and its jaws are extremely strong.

The Tasmanian devil is usually solitary, but it does get together with other devils to socialize and fight while eating. When a devil finds a carcass, it will make extremely loud calls to alert other devils to come share its meal. Then, because they’re called devils and not angels for a reason, the animals will fight over the food.

Tasmanian devils fight a lot. Researchers think the white markings help direct other devils to attack parts of the body that are less vulnerable to injury. The white fur is more visible in the dark, giving other devils a target. The white markings are usually on the devil’s chest, sides, and rump, with none on the face or legs. Males fight each other during breeding season, and the females pick the winners to mate with. If a female doesn’t like a male, she’ll fight him.

Devils are marsupials, which means babies are born very early and finish developing in their mother’s pouch. The Tasmanian devil’s pouch is rear-facing and contains four teats. The problem is, the mother has 20 or even 30 babies at a time. They’re born about the size of a jellybean and the only part that’s developed at that point is the forelegs so it can crawl into the mother’s pouch. The legs have claws and—you guessed it—the little squidge babies fight for a teat. Once one gets to a teat, it clamps on and doesn’t let go for the next three months. Babies that don’t get a teat die.

Like the thylacine, the Tasmanian devil once lived on mainland Australia but is now restricted to the island of Tasmania. Also like the thylacine, it shows low genetic diversity and was once killed for bounty by early settlers. It’s affected by habitat loss like many other animals, and it’s especially vulnerable to being run over by cars because it eats so much roadkill.

But the devil’s biggest issue today is a disease called devil facial tumor disease, or DFTD. DFTD is spread when an infected animal bites another one, which causes cancerous growths in and around the mouth. After a few months the tumors get so big that the devil can no longer eat and starves to death. Since devils bite each other all the time, the disease spreads quickly throughout a population.

In 2019 some researchers predicted the Tasmanian devil would be extinct by 2024. But here it is 2024 and not only is the devil not extinct, it’s actually doing a lot better now than it was just a few years ago.

Part of that is due to conservation efforts, where healthy devils are quarantined from infected ones in captive breeding programs. But part of it is natural. In 2018 a small population of devils was discovered that appeared to have developed a natural resistance to DFTD. Genetic studies done since then revealed some surprises. Not only are younger devils showing a genetic resistance to DFTD, there’s evidence that resistance to other transmissible cancers has developed in the past. Researchers think the Tasmanian devil might be especially prone to transmissible cancers but is also able to develop resistance relatively quickly. The devils with this resistance start growing tumors, but then the tumors stop growing and soon just disappear. Naturally, scientists are looking at the genetics of this trait to see if it can be applied to humans with certain types of cancer.

While Tasmanian devils fight each other, they don’t actually fight humans. Scientists report that it’s actually quite easy to work with. This makes it a lot easier to check the health of a captured animal. Hopefully it won’t be long before the entire population of Tasmanian devils is healthy and its numbers start to increase again.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us for as little as one dollar a month and get monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 372: Mystery Bovids

Thanks to Will and Måns for their suggestions this week! Let’s learn about some mystery bovids, or cows and cow relations!

Further reading:

A Book of Creatures: Songòmby

Kouprey: The Ultimate Mystery Mammal

A musk ox (top) and a wild yak (bottom):

A young kouprey bull from the 1930s:

Sculpture of two grown kouprey bulls [photo by Christian Pirkl – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=73848355]:

A banteng bull (with a cow behind him) [photo taken from this site]:

A qilin/kilin/kirin looking backwards:

The “purple” calf:

The Milka purple cow:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to learn about some mystery bovids, or cow relations, suggested by Will and Måns, whose name I am probably mispronouncing.

We’ll start with a mystery about the musk ox, which is not otherwise a mysterious animal. Måns emailed about reading a children’s book about animals that had a picture of a musk ox in the part about the Gobi Desert. The problem is, the musk ox is native to the Arctic and was once found throughout Greenland, northern Canada, Alaska, and Siberia. So the question is, was the book wrong or are there really musk oxen in the Gobi Desert?

We’ll start by learning about the musk ox and the Gobi Desert. The musk ox can stand up to 5 feet tall at the shoulder, or 1.5 meters. It has thick, dense, shaggy fur all over, a tiny tail only about four inches long, or 10 cm, and horns that curve down close to the sides of its head and then curve up again at the ends.

The musk ox is well adapted to the cold, which isn’t a surprise since it evolved during the ice ages. Its ancestors lived alongside mammoths, woolly rhinos, and other Pleistocene megafauna. Like many cold-adapted animals, its fur consists of a thick undercoat that keeps it warm, and a much longer layer of fur that protects the softer undercoat. The undercoat is so soft and so good at keeping the animal warm in bitterly cold temperatures that people will sometimes keep musk oxen in order to gather the undercoat in spring when it starts to shed, to use for making clothing and blankets. But it’s definitely not a domesticated animal. It can be aggressive and extremely dangerous.

A warm coat isn’t the musk ox’s only cold adaptation. The hemoglobin in its blood is able to function well even when it’s cold, which isn’t the case for most mammals. It lives in small herds that gather close together in really cold weather to share body heat, and if a predator threatens the herd, the adults will form a ring around the calves, their heads facing outward. Since a musk ox is huge, heavy, and can run surprisingly fast, plus it has horns, if a wolf or other predator is butted by a musk ox it might end up fatally injured.

The main predator of the musk ox is the human, who hunted it almost to extinction by the early 20th century. It was completely extirpated in Alaska but was reintroduced there and in parts of Canada in the late 20th century. Similarly, it was reintroduced to parts of Siberia and even parts of northern Europe, although not all the European introductions were successful.

So what about the Gobi Desert? It’s nowhere near the Arctic. Not all deserts are hot. A desert just has limited rainfall, and the Gobi is a cold desert. Parts of the Gobi are grasslands and parts are sandy or rocky, and it covers a huge expanse of land in central Asia, mainly divided between northern China and southern Mongolia. Some parts of it do get limited rainfall in the summer and limited snowfall and frost in the winter, but for the most part it’s dry and therefore has limited vegetation for animals to eat.

Animals do live in the Gobi, though. The wild Bactrian camel, which has two humps, is found nowhere else in the world and is critically endangered. The Mongolian wild ass lives in parts of the Gobi, as do several species of antelope and gazelle, wild sheep, and ibex. The Gobi bear, which is the rarest bear in the world, also lives in the Gobi, along with smaller animals like hares, foxes, polecats, marmots, and various lizards, snakes, and birds. Occasionally wolves and snow leopards visit parts of the Gobi. So do humans, specifically nomadic herders who travel through parts of the desert to find food for their animals.

Of all the animals found in the Gobi, and in central Asia in general, the musk ox is not listed on any scholarly site I could find. Despite its name, it’s not actually closely related to other cattle and is instead most closely related to goats and sheep. However, a close relation of the domestic cow and its ancestors is the wild yak, the ancestor of the domestic yak. The wild yak lives mostly in the Himalayas these days but was once much more widespread, and the domestic yak is farmed by nomadic herders in the colder, more mountainous parts of the Gobi.

The yak isn’t closely related to the musk ox, but it does have a very similar-looking long, shaggy coat. Its horns point forward and up like cattle horns, but to someone who doesn’t really know much about yaks or musk ox, it would be easy to get the two confused. This seems to be what has happened in the case of the children’s book Måns read and in various non-academic websites. I think we can call this mystery solved.

Next, let’s go on to Will’s suggestion of mystery bovids. The family Bovidae includes not just the domestic cow and its relations but goats, sheep, antelopes, and many other animals with cloven hooves who chew the cud as part of the digestive process–but not deer or giraffes, and not the pronghorn even though people call it an antelope. Many bovids have horns, usually only two but sometimes four or even six, and those horns are never branched. Sometimes only the male has horns, sometimes both the male and female. Bovids don’t have incisors in the front of the upper jaw, only in the lower jaw, and instead has a tough dental pad that helps it grab plants.

One mystery bovid is a creature from Madagascar, called the habeby. It’s supposed to look like a big white sheep with brown or black spots. It has cloven hooves and droopy ears but not horns, and it’s supposed to be nocturnal and never seen in the daytime. Its eyes are very large and staring. It’s shy and fortunately not dangerous. Bovids are almost always diurnal, so a nocturnal bovid would be quite unusual.

Since sheep and other bovids aren’t native to Madagascar, it’s much more likely that the habeby is a type of large lemur that looks enough like a sheep at a distance that people thought it was a sheep. Either it’s extinct now or it lives in such remote areas that it’s never seen anymore.

Another Madagascar mystery animal is called the songòmby, which either looks like a wild ox or a horse depending on the story. Like the habeby it has floppy ears, a spotted coat, and hooves. Some stories say it has a single horn, some stories say it has a pair of horns, and other stories say it has no horns at all. It lives in mountainous areas and can run incredibly fast uphill, but is much slower downhill because its long ears flop over its eyes and it has trouble seeing where it’s going. This is fortunate, because it’s also supposed to eat people.

One clue to the songòmby’s possible real identity comes from some stories that state it always looks backwards over its back, and is only ever seen from the side. This is reminiscent of how the Chinese kilin is often represented, and also explains why the songòmby has a varying number of horns and looks like a cow or horse but is supposed to eat people. The kilin is often depicted as having both hooves and fangs, and may have a single horn, a pair of horns, or no horns at all. Arab traders began stopping in Madagascar around a thousand years ago and would have brought Chinese goods, including some items decorated with kilins. It’s possible that the kilin artwork inspired the story of the songòmby, but it’s also so similar to the habeby in some ways that details of that animal may have been incorporated into the story of the songòmby, or vice versa.

Way back in episode 100 we talked briefly about an animal called the kouprey. It’s a wild ox native to southeast Asia, sometimes called the forest ox. It can stand over six feet tall at the shoulder, or two meters, and while bulls are dark brown, cows and calves are a lighter brownish-gray. Both have white lower legs with a dark stripe down the front of the front legs. The bull’s horns look like those of a domestic cow or wild yak, but are extremely large and curve forward, but the cow’s horns grow up and back, more like an antelope’s horns. As a bull ages, the tips of his horns start to fray and end up looking almost tassled. A bull also develops a large dewlap as he ages, which in older bulls can actually be so big it touches the ground.

By 1937, when a kouprey was sent to a zoo in Paris, the animal was probably mostly restricted to the forests of Cambodia. Before then it had been completely unknown to science, but after that, European big game hunters went to Cambodia to kill as many as possible. It was already rare and by the 1950s there were probably fewer than 500 individuals left alive. By the 1960s, there were probably no more than 100 animals left alive. The last verified sighting of one was in 1983.

Recently, some scientists have questioned whether the kouprey actually existed at all. Its description sounds a lot like another bovid, the wild banteng. A bull banteng is dark brown or black while the cows are light brown or reddish-brown. Both have white lower legs and a white patch on the rump. Some scientists started to think that either the kouprey was a misidentification of the banteng or the hybrid offspring of a banteng and a domestic cow.

A 2006 genetic study suggested that this was the case, that the kouprey was just a hybrid animal. But a follow-up study, including genetic testing of a kouprey skull that dated back to before cattle were domesticated, came to a different conclusion. The kouprey was a distinct species, not a hybrid animal. The real mystery now is whether it’s still alive or if it has gone extinct in the last 40 years.

We’ll finish with a domestic cow that’s a little bit of a mystery. A popular brand of chocolate in Europe is Milka, and since 1973 many of its advertisements have included a light purple and white cow with a bell around her neck. Well, in 2012 a calf was born in Serbia that actually looked like the Milka purple cow. It was a purple cow!

In January of 2012 a bull calf was born on a small farm in Serbia. There’s not a lot of information available about it, but it looks like it was a breed of cattle called the busa, or maybe a busa cross. The busa is mainly raised in the mountainous parts of Serbia and mostly raised as a meat animal. It’s rare these days but was once extremely popular in the area, so a lot of cattle raised in Serbia have at least some busa ancestry. The busa can be white with darker markings, or a solid color with no white or very little white. It can be red-brown, black, or gray.

In pictures, the purple calf’s mother looks to be black and white. The calf itself is white with markings that look pale blue-gray, almost lilac. The pictures aren’t very good so it’s hard to tell. The farmer was surprised when he saw the calf and called a veterinarian to make sure it was healthy, which it was. The veterinarian suggested the calf’s strange coloration was just a rare color mutation.

As it happens, a blue-gray coloration is common in a variety of busa cattle raised in Macedonia. It’s also a common coloration in other breeds of cattle. A pale version of this color can look almost like a shade of lilac. Since I can’t find a follow-up to the 2012 articles about the calf, it’s probable that as he grew up, his spots darkened to look more gray than purple. The farmer said that he would be keeping the little purple cow instead of slaughtering him to make steaks and hamburgers, so hopefully there’s still a handsome purple and white bull living his best life in the mountains of Serbia.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us for as little as one dollar a month and get monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 371: The Peacock

Thanks to Ari for suggesting this week’s episode, about the peacock!

Further reading:

Peacock tail feathers shake at resonance and hold eye-spots still during courtship displays

Indian peafowls’ crests are tuned to frequencies also used in social displays

An ocellated turkey (not a peacock but related):

An Indian peacock male:

An Indian peahen with chicks [photo from this site]:

Close-up of a male Indian peacock’s crest [photo by Jatin Sindhu – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=49736186]:

A male Indian peacock with train on display [photo by Thimindu Goonatillake from Colombo, Sri Lanka – Peacock Dance, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19395087]:

A green peacock [photo from this site]:

The mysterious Congo peacock [photo by Terese Hart, taken from this site]:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to talk about a beautiful bird that almost everyone has seen pictures of, and a lot of people might have seen in zoos and parks. It’s a suggestion by Ari, who wants to learn about the peacock!

The name peacock is technically only used for the male bird, with the female called a peahen and the birds all together referred to as peafowl. Most people just say peacocks, though, because the male peacock has such a fabulous tail that it’s what people think of when they think of peafowl. I’m happy to report that baby peafowl are called peachicks.

The peacock most people are familiar with is native to India, specifically called the Indian peafowl. It’s a surprisingly large bird, with a big male weighing more than 13 lbs, or 6 kg. Females are smaller. It’s the size of a wild turkey and in fact it’s related to the turkey, along with pheasants, partridges, and chickens. Back in episode 144 we talked about a bird called the ocellated turkey, a brightly colored turkey that lives in the Yucatan Peninsula, which is part of Mexico. The male’s tail feathers have the same type of colorful eyespots seen on a peacock’s tail.

But the peacock’s tail is way bigger than any turkey’s tail. It’s called a train and most of the time it’s folded so that it’s not in the way. A big male can grow a train that’s much longer than the rest of his body, more than five feet long, or 1.5 meters. Most of the train’s elongated feathers end in a colorful eye-spot, around 200 of them in total. The eyespot pattern really does resemble a big eye, with a dark blue spot in the middle surrounded by a ring of blue-green and a bigger ring of bronze. The bronze color is surrounded by pale green and the rest of the feather is a darker green. As far as we know, the eyespots aren’t supposed to look like eyes the way some animal markings are. A leopard or other predator doesn’t attack the tail thinking it’s a peacock’s head. It’s just a pattern.

For a long time scientists were divided as to what the peacock’s train was really used for. Not everyone thought it was for showing off for peahens. Some thought it was just for camouflage in the jungle. The main confusion was why the peacock would grow such a long, conspicuous train, which can be a hindrance to him in thick undergrowth and can attract the attention of predators. But many male birds have long, ornamental tails that may impede their mobility, such as various bird of paradise species, that are definitely meant to show off for females. This appears to be the case for the peacock too.

During mating season, male peacocks gather at what’s called a lekking site, where they hang out waiting for females. When a female approaches a male, he spreads his train into a fan and shivers it, which rattles the feathers together and also shows off the iridescent colors. The male struts around, showing off his tail, and the female may ignore him completely or take a good look at his tail. In studies where scientists snipped all the eyespots off a male’s train feathers, females never bothered to even look at the male, but since immature males don’t have eyespots, it could be the females thought the eyespot-less male was just a kid.

A 2016 study took a closer look at the shivering motion that the male produces during displays. Not only does the sound interest the female, the study discovered that the eyespots are locked together with microscopic hooks that help them stay still while the remainder of any particular feather moves, since it isn’t locked with other feathers. This makes it look like the eyespots are floating against a shimmery green background. Who wouldn’t love watching that? The brighter the eyespot’s iridescence, the more attractive the male is to females.

The rest of the Indian peacock is bright too. His back and most of his body is bronze, while his long neck is a brilliant green-blue. He has white markings on his face and a crest growing from the back of his head. The crest consists of a bundle of mostly bare feather shafts, with a little tuft of blue-green at the end. The female has a similar crest but it’s brown in color along with most of the rest of her feathers, although she does have some metallic green on her neck. She doesn’t have a long train, but she will sometimes spread her tail feathers and rattle them to communicate warnings to other peafowl. A 2018 study learned that the crests of both male and female peafowl are sensitive to vibrations, specifically to the sound frequencies produced by tail rattling.

Peafowl eat plant materials like seeds, fruit, and flower buds, but they also eat a lot of worms, insects, frogs, and other small animals, including small snakes. Because they’re so beautiful and do well in captivity, lots of zoos and parks keep peacocks. They’ve even been selectively bred to produce different colors, including a white peacock and a mostly black peacock.

Ari specifically mentioned hearing that peacocks cry happy tears. Crying tears as a result of emotions, whether happy or sad, is very specific to humans, and scientists aren’t sure why we do it. It seems to be a visual signal to other humans that the person crying needs help or support in some way. Other animals sometimes have weepy eyes, but that’s due to simple eye discharge, not emotions.

The idea that peacocks cry tears dates back many centuries. Medieval bestiaries published in Europe said that the peacock was vain of his beauty and strutted around proudly, but whenever he noticed his ugly feet he would cry. Similar proverbs date back at least several thousand years from ancient Rome and India. Some proverbs say that the peacock tries to hide his feet and that’s why he doesn’t fly very often, or that he cries first thing every morning when he first wakes up, either because he sees his feet and thinks they’re ugly, or because he’s worried he’s lost his beautiful feathers overnight. Some proverbs say that when the peacock cries at his ugly feet, the peahen will swallow one of his tears and that’s how her eggs are fertilized instead of in the usual way.

These stories are interesting, but they don’t have any basis in fact. The peacock doesn’t care what his feet look like because he’s a bird, not a human. Anyway, he has big, handsome feet that let him walk around as much as he wants. The peacock also doesn’t actually cry tears, whether happy or sad.

What he does do, though, is make a wailing noise that can sound like someone crying. It sounds like this:

[peacock sound]

Most of the time it’s only the male bird that makes these calls, as a way to attract a mate or just announce that he’s around. It’s also an alarm call if the peacock spots a potential predator. People in the olden days observed this behavior and thought the peacock might really be crying. That led to the stories about his supposedly ugly feet, because the rest of the bird is so beautiful that he couldn’t possibly be crying about the rest of his appearance.

There’s another species of peacock that’s just as spectacular as the Indian peacock, although it’s less well known because it’s harder to keep in captivity. The green peafowl lives in many parts of southeast Asia and is endangered due to habitat loss, poaching, and capture for the illegal pet trade. It’s more lightly built than the Indian peacock but the male can have an even longer train, over six and a half feet long, or 2 meters. The male is green and blue all over. The female is also mostly green, but with coppery speckles on her neck. Both have crests, although they point straight up instead of back.

That brings us to a mystery peacock, although fortunately it’s not a mystery anymore, or not as much of one.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the Congo basin in central Africa was colonized by Belgium, and Belgian authorities kept hearing interesting reports from local people and colonizers alike about a strange, shy animal that lived in the forest. In 1913 a small expedition was sent to find the animal, but it failed. Eventually the animal was discovered by scientists, and we know it by the name okapi. We talked about it in episode 218. (It’s not a peacock, it’s a relative of the giraffe.) One of the scientists in the expedition was James Chapin, and while he was in Africa he bought some feather headdresses from local people and took them home to examine the feathers.

He was able to identify all but one of the feathers. The mystery feather looked like it came from a guineafowl or pheasant, but it was too big and didn’t quite match any known species. Chapin set the mystery feather aside to look at again when he had more time.

Twenty-one years later, in 1936, Chapin visited a museum in Belgium to study a big collection of taxidermied birds that had been donated in 1914. The museum specialized in items and animals from central Africa, so when Chapin noticed two stuffed birds that looked like pheasants, he knew there was something weird going on with them. True pheasants aren’t found in Africa. The card attached to the specimens said they were young peacocks, and that didn’t make sense either. Peacocks are only found in Asia.

Chapin examined the birds and realized that they really were an unusual type of peacock. Not only that, he recognized the feathers. His mystery feather from 1915 matched the mystery peacock.

The following year, Chapin traveled to the Congo to look for the bird in the wild. Sure enough, it was there!

The Congo peacock looks a lot like a turkey at first glance, or a big guineafowl. Instead of a long train, the male has a more turkey-like fan of tail feathers, but they’re deep blue and black in color. He also has blue on his wings and his neck is red, with a black head with a black and white crest. The female has a red neck with a red crest, and her back is green while the rest of her is a soft brown. We don’t know a whole lot about the bird, but it’s increasingly threatened by habitat loss and hunting.

The Congo peacock isn’t a true peacock, although it’s very closely related. While the male does fan his tail during courtship displays, he’s actually fanning a different set of feathers than true peacocks. A peacock’s train is actually made up of the upper tail coverts, a set of feathers near the tail but not actually making up the tail. A peacock’s actual tail feathers are shorter and bronzey-brown in color.

All peacocks can fly, even males with the longest trains, although they prefer to spend most of the time on the ground. Outside of mating season, males shed the long feathers of their train and regrow them the following year. Many zoos that keep peacocks will collect these shed feathers and sell them so that people can use them in crafts and decorations, because everyone loves peacock feathers.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us for as little as one dollar a month and get monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 370: Animals Discovered in 2023

Let’s look at some of the most interesting animals discovered last year!

Further reading:

Newly-discovered ‘margarita snails’ from the Florida Keys are bright lemon-yellow

Tiny spirits roam the corals of Japan—two new pygmy squids discovered

Strange New Species of Aquifer-Dwelling Catfish Discovered in India

Bizarre New Species of Catfish Discovered in South America

Unicorn-like blind fish discovered in dark waters deep in Chinese cave

New Species of Hornshark Discovered off Australia

Cryptic New Bird Species Identified in Panama

New Species of Forest Hedgehog Discovered in China

New species of voiceless frog discovered in Tanzania

The weird new spiny katydid:

Show transcript:

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

It’s time for our annual discoveries episode, where we learn about some animals discovered in the previous year! There are always lots more animals discovered than we have time to talk about, so I just choose the ones that interest me the most.

That includes the cheerfullest of springtime-looking marine snails discovered in the Florida Keys. The Florida Keys are a group of tropical islands along a coral reef off the coast of Florida, which is in North America. A related snail was also discovered off the coast of Belize in Central America that looks so similar that at first the scientists thought they were the same species with slightly different coloration. A genetic study of the snails revealed that they were separate species. The one found in the Keys is a lemony yellow color while the one from Belize is more of a lime green.

The snails have been placed into a new genus but belong to a group called worm snails. When a young worm snail finds a good spot to live, it sticks its shell to a rock or other surface and stays there for the rest of its life. Its shell isn’t shaped like an ordinary snail shell but instead grows long and sort of curved or curly. The snail spreads a thin layer of slime around it using two little tentacles, and the slime traps tiny pieces of food that float by.

The new snails are small and while the snail’s body is brightly colored, its shell is drab and helps it blend in with the background. Scientists think that the colorful body may be a warning to potential predators, since its mucus contains toxins. It mainly lives on pieces of dead coral.

Another invertebrate discovery last year came from Japan, where two new species of pygmy squid were found living in seagrass beds and coral reefs. Both are tiny, only 12 mm long, and are named after little forest spirits from folklore. Despite its small size, it can eat shrimp bigger than it is by grabbing it with its little bitty adorable arms. Both species have been seen before but never studied until now. The scientists teamed up with underwater photographers to find the squid and learn more about them in their natural habitats.

As for invertebrates that live on land, an insect called the blue-legged predatory katydid was discovered in the rainforests of Brazil. It’s a type of bush-cricket that’s dark brown in color except for the last section of its legs, which are greenish-blue. Those parts of its legs are also really spiny. That is literally all I know about it except for its scientific name, Listroscelis cyanotibiatus, but it’s awesome.

Let’s leave the world of invertebrates behind and look at some fish next. This was the year of the catfish, with new species discovered in both India and South America. Catfish can be really weird in general and both these new species are pretty strange.

The first is tiny, only 35 mm long at most, or a little over an inch, and it has four pairs of barbels growing from its face. It looks red because its blood shows through its skin, because its skin doesn’t have any pigment. The fish also doesn’t have any eyes. If this makes you think it’s a cave-dwelling fish, you’re exactly right, but instead of an ordinary cave it actually lives in an aquifer.

An aquifer is a source of water underground. It’s actually a layer of rock that’s broken up or otherwise permeable so that water can get through it, but with a non-permeable layer underneath. The water is trapped in the layer, sometimes far underground. If you’ve ever seen a spring, where water bubbles up from the ground, that water comes from an aquifer that has found its way to the surface. If you’ve ever drunk water pumped or dipped up from a well, the well-water also comes from an aquifer. The water gets into the aquifer in the first place when rain soaks into the ground, but it takes a long time to fill up.

There are really deep aquifers that are completely sealed off from the surface, created thousands or even millions of years ago. As far as we know, nothing lives in those, although we could be wrong. Aquifers that are closer to the surface with some surface openings develop unique ecosystems, including animals that are found nowhere else on earth. That’s the case with the tiny red catfish found in the state of Kerala in India.

Scientists asked people in the area to watch out for any unusual animals when they had a new well dug or cleaned, and before long people from four towns reported finding the little red fish. Three other related species had previously been found in the state.

On the other side of the world, in South America, a much different type of catfish was discovered in Bolivia and Brazil. This one is an armored catfish, and the male actually grows short dermal teeth on the sides of his head that he uses to fight other males. Dermal teeth are teeth that grow on the skin instead of in the mouth, and it’s surprisingly common in fish, especially armored catfish.

The new catfish has been named Sturisoma reisi and it grows about 8 inches long, or 20 cm. It’s actually been known to scientists for a long time, but until recently no one realized it wasn’t one of five other catfish in the genus Sturisoma. They all look kind of similar. It’s a slender, active catfish with a long tail and a pointy rostrum that lives in swift-moving rivers. It was actually described in 2022, not 2023, but I only just realized I have the wrong year so let’s just move along quickly to another fish.

This one isn’t a catfish but it looks like one at first glance since it has barbels around its mouth. These are the whisker-like feelers that give the catfish its name. The newly discovered fish needs feelers because it doesn’t have working eyes, and it also doesn’t have scales or pigment in its skin. It was found in a cave in China, and in fact it’s only been found in a single pool of water in a single cave. The pool is only about 6 feet across, or 1.8 meters, and about two and a half feet deep, or 80 cm, but it’s home to a perfectly healthy population of fish. The fish grow about 5 inches long on average, or 13 cm.

The fish is a new member of the genus Sinocyclocheilus, and of the 76 known species in the genus, most live in caves. The new fish has been named S. longicornus because of a structure on its head that kind of looks like a unicorn horn, if the unicorn was a pink cave fish and its horn was shaped sort of like the tip of a ballpoint pen, also called a biro.

Some other species in this genus also have a so-called horn, although the new fish’s is larger than most. It juts forward and extends above what we can describe as the fish’s forehead. Scientists have absolutely no idea what it’s for. Since the fish can’t see, it can’t be to attract a mate. It’s also not likely to be a navigational aide since the fish has its barbels and a well-developed lateral line system to find its way around. Besides, it lives in a pool of water not much bigger than the desk I’m sitting at. It doesn’t exactly travel very far throughout its life.

Scientists have a lot of other questions about the fish, including how it survives in such a tiny pool of water.

Speaking of fish with horns, a new species of hornshark was discovered last year off the northern coast of Australia. Hornsharks live in shallow warm waters throughout much of the Pacific and Indian oceans, where they spend most of the time at the bottom looking for small invertebrates like crustaceans to crunch up, although sea urchins are their favorites. They’re also called bullhead sharks because they all have short snouts and broad heads with prominent brows. The name hornshark comes from the fins, some of which have spines.

One species of hornshark is the zebra hornshark, which lives in the Indo-Pacific, from southern Japan down to northern Australia. As you may guess from the name, it has stripes, which makes it popular in aquariums and zoos. It only grows to about 4 feet long, or 1.25 meters. Until last year, scientists thought that all the zebra hornsharks around Australia belonged to the same species. Then they noticed that one population that lives off of northwestern Australia has a different stripe pattern and only grows about two feet long, or 60 cm. After a genetic study, it turns out that it’s a totally different species.

A lot of animal discoveries are like this, where everyone thinks an animal is one species, but after close study and genetic testing they find out it’s two or more species that just look very similar. That’s one of the great things about DNA testing being so effective and quick these days, but it’s not always as cut and dried as it sounds. There’s no easy way to determine for sure if animals are different species, subspecies, or just the same species with population variants. Scientists can’t just rely on genetics, but they also can’t always rely on observations of the animal’s physical traits or its behavior in the wild. They have to look at all the data available, and then they still argue about the best interpretation of the data.

The notion of a separate species or subspecies is an artificial one that gives us a way to better understand a natural process. If a population of animals is separated from another population, eventually both will develop separately until they’re two related but very different animals. There’s no way to point at a specific generation and say, “well, NOW they’re different from the last generation” because the process is so slow and the changes are usually so small. It’s like looking at a rainbow and trying to determine exactly the point where red turns into orange and orange turns into yellow.

Take the slaty-backed nightingale-thrush as an example. It’s a dark gray songbird with a short tail and bright orange legs and beak, and it lives in the mountains of Central and northern South America. It spends most of its time in thickets where it’s hard to see but easy to hear, since it has a lovely song. This is an example of what it sounds like, although its song varies depending on where it lives.

[bird song]

It turns out that there’s a lot of variation in the bird’s song because the slaty-backed nightingale-thrush probably isn’t all one species. In late 2023 a team of researchers published a ten-year study of the bird, looking at everything from song variations to genetics. They determined that not only was it not a single species, it was most likely seven different species and four subspecies. Because the bird lives in the mountains and doesn’t fly very far during its lifetime, populations that are separated by steep mountains and valleys have developed into separate species.

Naturally, not everyone agrees with these findings, but it’s always good when a little-studied animal gets some attention. Until last year, no one knew much about this shy little bird, and the controversy of whether it’s one species or lots of closely related species will hopefully lead us to learn even more about it. One population of the bird discovered in Panama had never been documented before, too.

This episode is getting pretty long for someone who just got over a cold, so let’s cover one newly discovered mammal and a newly discovered frog. A new species of forest hedgehog was discovered in China last year and it’s adorable! It’s related to the hedgehogs found in Europe and other areas, but is most closely related to four known species of forest hedgehog that live mostly in central Asia. The new species was discovered in eastern China, over 1,000 km away from the nearest population of other forest hedgehogs. Another species was only discovered in 2007 from southwestern China.

Unlike most hedgehogs, the new species is sexually dimorphic, meaning that males and females don’t look identical. Males are mostly gray while females are more reddish-brown in color.

Let’s finish with another adorable animal, a little frog from Tanzania, a country in east Africa. It’s a type of spiny-throated reed frog, which are all rare and increasingly threatened. They’re also very small, not much bigger than an inch long, or about 30 mm. The male has tiny little spines on his throat that researchers think might be a way that females recognize the males of their own species during mating season instead of by a distinctive croaking sound. That’s because spiny-throated reed frogs can’t make sounds, leading to their other common name of the voiceless frog.

In 2019, researchers were in the Ukaguru Mountains in Tanzania looking for a completely different frog, the beautiful tree toad, which may be extinct. While they didn’t find any of the toads, they did find a little greenish-brown frog with copper-colored eyes that turned out to be completely new to science. It was found in a nature reserve and appears to be common locally, which is good, but the nature reserve is also very small, which is not so good. Hopefully now that we know the little frog exists, it will lead to further protections of the area that will help all the other animals and plants where it lives, including the beautiful tree toad.

This is what the voiceless frog sounds like:


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