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Episode 212: The River of Giants



Thanks to Pranav for his suggestion! Let’s find out what the river of giants was and what lived there!

Further reading:

King of the River of Giants

Spinosaurus was a swimming dinosaur and it swam in the River of Giants:

A modern bichir, distant relation to the extinct giants that lived in the River of Giants:

Not actually a pancake crocodile:

A model of Aegisuchus and some modern humans:

Show transcript:

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

A while back, Pranav suggested we do an episode about the river of giants in the Sahara. I had no idea what that was, but it sounded interesting and I put it on the list. I noticed it recently and looked it up, and oh my gosh. It’s amazing! It’s also from a part of the world where it’s really hot, as a break for those of us in the northern hemisphere who are sick of all this cold weather. I hope everyone affected by the recent winter storms is warm and safe or can get that way soon.

The Sahara is a desert in northern Africa, famous for its harsh climate. Pictures of the Sahara show its huge sand dunes that stretch to the horizon. This wasn’t always the case, though. Only about 5,500 years ago, it was a savanna with at least one lake. Lots of animals lived there and some people too. Before that, around 11,000 years ago, it was full of forests, rivers, lakes, and grasslands. Before that, it was desert again. Before that, it was forests and grasslands again. Before that, desert.

The Sahara goes through periodic changes that last around 20,000 years where it’s sometimes wet, sometimes dry, caused by small differences in the Earth’s tilt which changes the direction of the yearly monsoon rains. When the rains reach the Sahara, it becomes green and welcoming. When it doesn’t, it’s a desert. Don’t worry, we only have 15,000 more years to wait until it’s nice to live in again.

This wet-dry-wet pattern has been repeated for somewhere between 7 and 11 million years, possibly longer. Some 100 million years ago, though, the continents were still in the process of breaking up from the supercontinent Gondwana. Africa and South America were still close together, having only separated around 150 million years ago. The northern part of Africa was only a little north of the equator and still mostly attached to what is now Eurasia.

Near the border of what is now Morocco and Algeria, a huge river flowed through lush countryside. The river was home to giant animals, including some dinosaurs. Their fossilized remains are preserved in a rock formation called the Kem Kem beds, which run for at least 155 miles, or 250 km. A team of paleontologists led by Nizar Ibrahim have been working for years to recover fossils there despite the intense heat. The temperature can reach 125 degrees Fahrenheit there, or 52 Celsius, and it’s remote and difficult to navigate.

For a long time researchers were confused that there were so many fossils of large carnivores associated with the river, more than would be present in an ordinary ecosystem. Now they’ve determined that while it looks like the fossils were deposited at roughly the same time from the same parts of the river, they’re actually from animals that lived sometimes millions of years apart and in much different habitats. Bones or even fossils from one area were sometimes exposed and washed into the river along with newly dead river animals. This gives the impression that the river was swarming with every kind of huge predator, but it was probably not quite so dramatic most of the time.

Then again, there were some really fearsome animals living in and around the river in the late Cretaceous. One of the biggest was spinosaurus, which we talked about in episode 170. Spinosaurus could grow more than 50 feet long, or 15 m, and possibly almost 60 feet long, or 18 m. It’s the only dinosaur known that was aquatic, and we only know it was aquatic because of the fossils found in the Kem Kem beds in the last few years.

Another dinosaur that lived around the river is Deltadromeus, with one incomplete specimen found so far. We don’t have its skull, but we know it had long, slender hind legs that suggests it could run fast. It grew an estimated 26 feet long, or 8 meters, including a really long tail. At the moment, scientists aren’t sure what kind of dinosaur Deltadromeus was and what it was related to. Some paleontologists think it was closely related to a theropod dinosaur called Gualicho, which lived in what is now northern Patagonia in South America. Remember that when these dinosaurs were still alive, the land masses we now call Africa and South America had been right in the middle of a supercontinent for hundreds of millions of years, and only started separating around 150 million years ago. Gualicho looked a lot like a pocket-sized Tyrannosaurus rex. It grew up to 23 feet long, or 7 meters, and had teeny arms. Deltadromeus’s arms are more in proportion to the rest of its body, though.

Some of the biggest dinosaurs found in the Kem Kem beds are the shark-toothed dinosaurs, Carcharodontosaurus, nearly as big as Spinosaurus and probably much heavier. It grew up to 40 or 45 feet long, or 12 to almost 14 meters, and probably stood about 12 feet tall, or 3 ½ meters. It had massive teeth that were flattened with serrations along the edges like steak knives. The teeth were some eight inches long, or 20 cm.

Researchers think that Carcharodontosaurus used it massive teeth to inflict huge wounds on its prey, possibly by ambushing it. The prey would run away but Carcharodontosaurus could take its time catching up, following the blood trail and waiting until its prey was too weak from blood loss to fight back. This is different from other big theropod carnivores like T. rex, which had conical teeth to crush bone.

Dinosaurs weren’t the only big animals that lived in and around the River of Giants, of course. Lots of pterosaur fossils have been found around the river, including one species with an estimated wingspan of as much as 23 feet, or 7 meters. There were turtles large and small, a few lizards, early snakes, frogs and salamanders, and of course fish. Oh my goodness, were there fish.

The river was a large one, possibly similar to the Amazon River. In the rainy season, the Amazon can be 30 miles wide, or 48 km, and even in the dry season it’s still two to six miles wide, or 3 to 9 km. The Amazon is home to enormous fish like the arapaima, which can grow up to 10 feet long, or 3 m. Spinosaurus lived in the River of Giants, and that 50-foot swimming dinosaur was eating something. You better bet there were big fish.

The problem is that most of the fish fossils are incomplete, so paleontologists have to estimate how big the fish was. There were lungfish that might have been six and a half feet long, or 2 meters, a type of freshwater coelacanth that could grow 13 feet long, or 4 meters, and a type of primitive polypterid fish that might have been as big as the modern arapaima. Polypterids are still around today, although they only grow a little over three feet long these days, or 100 cm. It’s a long, thin fish with a pair of lungs as well as gills, and like the lungfish it uses its lungs to breathe air when the water where it lives is low in oxygen. It also has a row of small dorsal fins that make its back look like it has little spikes all the way down. It’s a pretty neat-looking fish, in fact. They’re called bichirs and reedfish and still live in parts of Africa, including the Nile River.

There were even sharks in the river of giants, including a type of mackerel shark although we don’t know how big it grew since all we have of it are some teeth. Another was a type of hybodont shark with no modern descendants, although again, we don’t know how big it was.

The biggest fish that lived in the River of Giants, at least that we know of so far, is a type of ray that looked like a sawfish. It’s called Onchopristis numidus and it could probably grow over 26 feet long, or 8 meters. Its snout, or rostrum, was elongated and spiked on both sides with sharp denticles. It was probably also packed with electroreceptors that allowed it to detect prey even in murky water. When it sensed prey, it would whip its head back and forth, hacking the animal to death with the sharp denticles and possibly even cutting it into pieces. Modern sawfish hunt this way, and although Onchopristis isn’t very closely related to sawfish, it looked so similar due to convergent evolution that it probably had very similar habits.

The modern sawfish mostly swallows its prey whole after injuring or killing it with its rostrum, although it will sometimes eat surprisingly large fish for its size, up to a quarter of its own length. A 26-foot long Onchopristis could probably eat fish over five feet long, or 1.5 meters. It wouldn’t have attacked animals much larger than that, though. It wasn’t eating fully grown Spinosauruses, let’s put it that way, although it might have eaten a baby spinosaurus from time to time. Spinosaurus might have eaten Onchopristis, though, although it would have to be pretty fast to avoid getting injured.

But there was one other type of animal in the River of Giants that could have tangled with a fully grown spinosaurus and come out on top. The river was full of various types of crocodylomorphs, some small, some large, some lightly built, some robust. Kemkemia, for instance, might have grown up to 16 feet long, or 5 meters, but it was lightly built. Laganosuchus might have grown 20 feet long, or 6 meters, but while it was robust, it wasn’t very strong or fast. It’s sometimes called the pancake crocodile because its jaws were long, wide, and flattened like long pancakes. Unlike most pancakes, though, its jaws were lined with lots and lots of small teeth that fit together so closely that when it closed its mouth, the teeth formed a cage that not even the tiniest fish could escape. Researchers think it lay on the bottom of the river with its jaws open, and when a fish swam too close, it snapped it jaws closed and gulped down the fish. But obviously, the pancake crocodile did not worry spinosaurus in the least.

Aegisuchus, on the other hand, was simply enormous. We don’t know exactly how big it is and estimates vary widely, but it probably grew nearly 50 feet long, or 15 meters. It might have been much longer, possibly up to 72 feet long, or 22 meters. It’s sometimes called the shield crocodile because of the shape of its skull.

We don’t have a complete specimen of the shield crocodile, just part of one skull, but that skull is weird. It has a circular raised portion called a boss made of rough bone, and the bone around it shows channels for a number of blood vessels. This is unique among all the crocodilians known, living and extinct, and researchers aren’t sure what it means. One suggestion is that the boss was covered with a sheath that was brightly colored during the mating season, or maybe its shape alone attracted a mate. Modern crocodilians raise their heads up out of the water during mating displays.

The shield crocodile had a flattened head other than this boss, and its eyes may have pointed upward instead of forward. If so, it might have rested on the bottom of the river, looking upward to spot anything that passed overhead. Then again, it might have floated just under the surface of the water near shore, looking up to spot any dinosaurs or other land animals that came down to drink. Watch out, dinosaur! There’s a crocodilian!

Could the shield crocodile really have taken down a fully grown spinosaurus, though? If it was built like modern crocodiles, yes. Spinosaurus was a dinosaur, and dinosaurs had to breathe air. If the shield crocodile hunted like modern crocs, it was some form of ambush predator that could kill large animals by drowning them. You’ve probably seen nature shows where a croc bursts up out of the water, grabs a zebra or something by the nose, and drags it into the water, quick as a blink. The croc can hold its breath for up to an hour, while most land animals have to breathe within a few minutes or die. The shield crocodile and spinosaurus also lived at the same time so undoubtedly would have encountered each other.

Then again, there’s a possibility that the shield crocodile wasn’t actually very fearsome, no matter how big it was. It might have been more lightly built with lots of short teeth like the pancake crocodile’s to trap fish in its broad, flattened snout. Until we have more fossils of Aegisuchus, we can only guess.

Fortunately, palaeontologists are still exploring the Kem Kem beds for more fossils from the river of giants. Hopefully one day soon they’ll find more shield crocodile bones and can answer that all-important question of who would win in a fight, a giant crocodile or a giant swimming dinosaur?

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or just tell a friend. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us that way and get twice-monthly bonus episodes as well as stickers and things.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 211: The Magnificent Fin Whale



This week let’s venture into the ocean and learn about the fin whale!

Further reading:

The songs of fin whales offer new avenue for seismic studies of the oceanic crust

Fin whales’ big gulp

The fin whale can hold a whole lot of water in its mouth (illustration from the second article linked above):

A fin whale underwater. Look at that massive tail. That’s pure muscle:

A fin whale above water. It’s like a torpedo:

Show transcript:

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

It’s been too long since we had an episode about whales. Yes, okay, two weeks ago we talked about a couple of newly discovered whales, but I want to really learn about a particular whale. So this week, let’s look at the fin whale.

The fin whale is a baleen whale that’s only a little less enormous than the blue whale. The longest fin whale ever reliably measured was 85 feet long, or just a hair shy of 26 meters, but there are reports of fin whales that are almost 90 feet long, or a bit over 27 meters. An average American school bus is half that length, so a fin whale is as long as two school buses. Even a newborn fin whale calf is enormous, as much as 21 feet long, or 6.5 meters. Females are on average larger than males.

It’s a long, slender whale that’s sometimes called “the greyhound of the sea,” because it’s also really fast. It can swim up to 29 mph, or 46 km/hour, and possibly faster. If that doesn’t sound too fast, consider that the Olympic gold-medal swimmer Michael Phelps topped out at about 4.7 miles per hour, or 7.6 km/h.

Like other baleen whales, the fin whale has a pair of blowholes instead of just one. On its underside, it has up to 100 grooves that extend from its chin down to its belly button. Yes, whales have belly buttons. They’re placental mammals, and all mammals have belly buttons because that’s where the umbilical cord is attached when a developing baby is in its mother’s womb. I don’t know what a whale’s belly button looks like. Also, the proper term for belly button is navel, and if you’re wondering, that’s where navel oranges get their name, because they have that weird thing on one end that looks like a belly button. It’s not, though. I don’t know what it is. You’ll have to find a podcast called Strange Plants to explain it.

Anyway, the grooves on the fin whale’s underside act as pleats, or accordion folds. Other baleen whales have these pleats too. A baleen whale eats tiny animals that it filters out of the water through its baleen plates, which are keratin structures in its mouth that take the place of teeth. The baleen is tough but thin and hangs down from the upper jaw. It’s white and looks sort of like a bunch of bristles at the end of a broom. The whale opens its mouth wide while lunging forward or downward, which fills its huge mouth with astounding amounts of water. As water enters the mouth, the skin stretches to hold even more, until the grooves completely flatten out. The water it can hold in its mouth is about equal to the size of a school bus.

Technically, though, a lot of that water isn’t in the whale’s mouth. It’s in a big pocket between the body wall and the blubber underneath the skin. The ballooning out of the pocket stretches the nerves in the mouth and tongue to more than twice their length, and then the nerves have to fold back up tightly after the water is pushed out. The nerves fold in a complicated double layer to minimize damage during all this stretching.

After the whale fills its mouth with water, it closes its jaws, pushing its enormous tongue up, and forces all that water out through the baleen. Any tiny animals like krill, copepods, small squid, small fish, and so on, get trapped in the baleen. It can then swallow all that food and open its mouth for another big bite. Even more amazing, this whole operation, from opening its mouth to swallowing the food, only takes six to ten seconds.

Because it only eats small animals, the fin whale’s esophagus (which is the inside part of the throat) is actually quite narrow considering what a huge animal it is. In other words, it could not possibly swallow a human, in case you were worried. I was worried. If you did end up in a fin whale’s mouth, it would just spit you back out.

Baleen whales have a sensory organ on the chin that’s found in no other animal. It’s about the size of a grapefruit and situated between the tips of the jaws. It probably helps the whale determine how much potential food is in the water, which saves it from wasting time and energy gulping in water and filtering it out when there’s nothing much to eat.

The fin whale looks a lot like the blue whale and the two species are closely related, so much so that they sometimes interbreed and produce hybrid babies. It usually lives in small groups of up to around 10 individuals and a female fin whale has one baby every two or three years. It probably migrates seasonally to new feeding grounds, but we don’t actually know a whole lot about where it goes and whether all fin whales migrate.

Fin whales have extremely loud vocalizations, but most humans would barely be able to hear them, or wouldn’t be able to hear them at all, because they’re at the very bottom or below the range of sounds that the human ear can detect. The calls can be up to 188 decibels, a measure of loudness, which may be the loudest sounds made by any animal alive today. Technically the blue whale is louder, at 190 decibels, but on average the fin whale is louder. In comparison, a jet plane taking off is measured at 150 decibels. Of course, sound through water is different from sound through air, because water is much denser. A better comparison is with an offshore drill rig at 185 decibels or a supertanker ship at 190 decibels. The fin whale is about as loud as both, although of course the fin whale doesn’t make those noises all the time like drill rigs and ships do. The male fin whale makes short pulses of sound that last a second or two in specific patterns, which he repeats sometimes for days. Since the sounds travel long distances underwater, researchers think a female can hear a male’s calls and follow the sound so she can find him to mate. Of course, this means that females may have trouble finding a male these days since the ocean is full of noise from human-made things like offshore drill rigs and supertanker ships.

The fin whale is not only one of the loudest animals known, its vocalizations are among the lowest in frequency of any animal ever recorded. It turns out that this combination has a surprising benefit to human knowledge in a very specific way.

In an article published in Science just a few days ago as this episode goes live in February of 2021, a team of scientists discovered that fin whale vocalizations can help with seismic imaging of the oceanic crust.

The oceanic crust isn’t just the sea floor but what the earth below the sea floor is made up of. Scientists measure the reflections of a sound wave, and since sound waves travel at different speeds through different materials, and bounce off various types of rocks and other structures at different speeds and angles, the reflections can tell us a lot. Scientists use sensitive seismometers on the ocean floor to read the reflections. The problem is how to get the sound wave in the first place. Researchers usually use a giant air gun to make sound waves, but not only can this be dangerous to ocean life because it’s so loud, it’s also expensive and can’t be used in all areas.

But the fin whale does almost as good a job as an air gun. A pair of researchers studying earthquakes off the Oregon coast in North America noticed that when fin whales were around, their seismometers picked up extra signals. They figured out that the signals were actually from the fin whales’ vocalizations, and were surprised to find that the reflections matched those from the air gun sound waves. As an added benefit, the researchers could pinpoint exactly where each whale was since its signals were picked up by multiple seismometers.

Fin whale vocalizations are at the perfect frequency and strength for sound waves to travel through the ocean floor and be picked up by the seismometers. Best of all, fin whales live throughout almost all of the world’s oceans, including places where air guns can’t be used. Researchers just have to put the seismometers in place and the whales produce as many sound waves as the scientists need.

Because the fin whale makes such low-frequency noises, its hearing is different from other animals’. Big as a fin whale is, the low-frequency vocalizations it makes actually form a sound wave that’s longer than its body, which means the whale actually can’t hear it through its ears. But for a long time, scientists weren’t sure how the fin whale and other big baleen whales could hear those sounds.

Then, in 2003, a fin whale beached in California and died despite attempts to save it. Scientists were allowed to collect the body for research, and they took the head to an X-ray CT scanner designed for rocket motors to get a 3D image they could study. It turns out that the fin whale’s skull has acoustic properties that makes it sensitive to low frequency sounds and actually amplifies the sound waves as the bones of the skull vibrate. So fin whales hear each other with their skull bones instead of their ears.

Absolutely nothing can top that amazing fact, so that’s the end of this episode.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or just tell a friend. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 210: The Mysterious Lightbulb Lizard



Does the Shreve’s lightbulb lizard really emit light? (Hint: sort of.) Let’s find out!

Further reading:

The Lightbulb Lizard of Benjamin Shreve

Shreve’s lightbulb lizard, looking pretty ordinary really:

A web-footed gecko in moonlight:

A Jamaican gray anole showing off his dewlap:

Show Transcript:

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

This week let’s learn about an interesting reptile with a mystery that’s mostly solved, but still really weird. It’s called Shreve’s lightbulb lizard.

The story of this little lizard starts in 1937, when zoologist Ivan Sanderson was collecting freshwater crabs on a mountaintop in Trinidad. They were probably mountain crabs, also called the manicou crab, which is actually a pretty astonishing animal on its own. It’s a freshwater crab that doesn’t need to migrate to the ocean to release its eggs into the water. Instead, the female carries her eggs in a pouch in her abdomen. The eggs hatch into miniature crabs instead of larvae, and they stay in her pouch until they’re old enough to strike out on their own.

The mountains of Trinidad are made of limestone, which means they’re full of caves, and Sanderson was reportedly catching crabs in an underground pool or stream. He noticed a flash of light in the darkness and naturally went to find what had made it. All he found was a little lizard hiding under a ledge. It looked kind of like a brown skink and was pretty boring, but when the lizard turned its head, Sanderson saw a flash of dotted light down both its sides. When he caught the lizard and examined it while it was sitting in his hand, it flashed its lights again.

Sanderson knew he’d found something extraordinary, because lizards don’t bioluminesce. We still don’t know of any terrestrial vertebrate that emits light. Lots and lots of marine animals do, and some terrestrial invertebrates like lightning bugs and glow-worms, but no terrestrial vertebrates.

Sanderson took the lizard back to his camp, where he and his team observed it in different situations to see if it would light up again. They moved it to warmer areas and colder ones, made loud noises nearby, even tickled it, and they did indeed see it light up a few times. The light came from a row of tiny eyespots along its sides, from its neck to its hips. It had one row of these spots on each side, and each spot looked like a tiny white bead. The greenish-yellow flashes of light seemed to shine through the spots, as Sanderson said, like “the portals on a ship.”

Sanderson sent the lizard to The British Museum in London where another zoologist studied it and discovered that it was actually a known species, but apparently very rare. Only two specimens had ever been caught, one a juvenile and one an adult female. The lizard Sanderson caught was male, and it turns out that only adult males have these little eyespots. Sanderson later caught seven more of the lizards.

Let’s jump forward a bit and get a better idea of what these lizards look like. Shreve’s lightbulb lizard grows around 5 inches long at most, or 13 cm, not counting its long tail. It has short legs, a pointy nose, and broad, flat scales on its back and sides. It’s mostly brown in color. It lives in high elevations in the Caribbean island of Trinidad and Tobago, which is just off the coast of Venezuela in South America. It prefers cool climates, unlike most reptiles, and while it turns out that it’s not actually very rare, it’s also hard to study because it lives in such remote areas, so we don’t know much about it. It may be nocturnal and it may be semi-aquatic. It certainly lives along mountain streams, where it eats insects and other small animals.

Now, we have mentioned Ivan Sanderson a number of times in past episodes, and you may remember me sounding pretty skeptical about some of his cryptozoological claims. But Sanderson was a zoologist with a good reputation as a field scientist, and more importantly, he wasn’t the only one who saw the lizard light up.

The British Museum zoologist, H.W. Parker, who studied the first lizard Sanderson found, was actually the scientist who had originally discovered the lizard a few years before. He was very interested in the little portholes along the male lizard’s sides and studied them carefully. But he couldn’t find anything about them that indicated how they lit up. Each tiny eyespot consisted of a transparent center spot with a ring of black skin around it. The eyespots did not contain glowing bacteria, specialized nerve endings, ducts, reflecting structures, or anything else that he could think of that might cause a flash of light.

Other zoologists examined the so-called lightbulb lizard over the next few decades and none of them saw it emit light either. By 1960 no one believed it was bioluminescent.

I’m taking most of my information from a blog post by Dr Karl Shuker, a zoologist who writes a lot about cryptozoological mysteries. If you want to read his article, there’s a link in the show notes. Shuker was the one who got some modern scientists interested in the lightbulb lizard again, and there’ve been some recent studies. The lizard has been reclassified several times recently and its current name is Oreosaurus shrevei. Oreosaurus is spelled Oreo-saurus and it may be pronounced that way, and while I would like to think that the name comes from the white-appearing center of the eyespot with black pigment around it like an Oreo cookie, the name Oreosaurus is older than the cookie and as far as I can tell it means mountain lizard.

Some experiments conducted in the early 2000s finally figured out just what is going on with the lightbulb lizard. Sanderson was right: he and his colleagues really did see light coming from the eyespots. But it’s reflected light, not light emitted by the lizard itself. The white dots in the middle of the eyespots are reflective at some angles. Not only that, but when the lizard feels threatened, the skin around the white dots becomes even darker, which makes the reflection seem brighter. It’s partly optical illusion, partly just optics.

The big question now is why the lightbulb lizard has these reflective spots at all. The female doesn’t have them. That suggests that the male uses them in some way to attract a mate, but we don’t know.

While I was researching this episode, I kept coming across mentions of other lizards named lightbulb lizards. They’re all related to Shreve’s lightbulb lizard and I suspect the name got popular after Sanderson’s findings, which he published in a book of his nature travels called Caribbean Treasure. As far as I can find, none of the other lightbulb lizards have these reflective eyespots. Many are burrowing reptiles and they all have short legs and look a lot like skinks.

Meanwhile, in glowing lizard news, scientists discovered in 2018 that chameleons glow fluorescent under ultraviolet light. Even their bones are fluorescent. A lizard called the web-footed gecko, which lives in the desert in Namibia, Africa, has translucent markings on its sides and around its eyes. In daylight the markings don’t show, but in moonlight they glow neon green due to special pigment cells called iridophores. Iridophores are found in cephalopods and other marine animals, but they’ve never been seen before in land animals. Male Jamaican gray anoles have a colorful throat decoration called a dewlap that they extend to attract a mate, and the skin is translucent so that when sunlight passes through it, the colors glow brightly.

All these findings are only a few years old, so obviously we’re only just learning about all the different ways that lizards use light to their advantage. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if a genuinely bioluminescent lizard was discovered eventually. So when you’re outside at night, don’t assume that every little flash of light is a firefly.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or just tell a friend. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 209: Animals Discovered in 2020



Here’s a 2020 retrospective episode that looks at the bright side of the year! Thanks to Page for the suggestion! Let’s learn about some animals discovered in 2020 (mostly).

Further reading:

Watch This Giant, Eerie, String-Like Sea Creature Hunt for Food in the Indian Ocean

Rare Iridescent Snake Discovered in Vietnam

An intrusive killer scorpion points the way to six new species in Sri Lanka

What may be the longest (colony) animal in the world, a newly discovered siphonophore:

New whale(s) just dropped:

A newly discovered pygmy seahorse:

A newly discovered pipefish is extremely red:

So tiny, so newly discovered, Jonah’s mouse lemur:

The Popa langur looks surprised to learn that it’s now considered a new species of monkey:

The newly rediscovered devil eyed frog. I love him:

The newly discovered Lilliputian frog looks big in this picture but is about the size of one of your fingernails:

This newly discovered snake from Vietnam is iridescent and shiny:

A new giant scorpion was discovered in Sri Lanka and now lives in our nightmares:

The Gollum snakehead was technically discovered in 2019 but we’re going to let that slide:

Show transcript:

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

Very recently, Page suggested the topic “animals discovered in 2020.” Since I was already thinking of doing something like this, I went ahead and bumped his suggestion to the top of the list and here we go!

You’d think that with so many people in the world, there wouldn’t be too many more new animals to discover, especially not big ones. But new scientific discoveries happen all the time! Many are for small organisms, of course, like frogs and insects, but there are still unknown large animals out there. In fact, 503 new animals were officially discovered in 2020. Every single one is so amazing that I had a hard time deciding which ones to highlight. In most cases we don’t know much about these new animals since studying an animal in the wild takes time, but finding the animal in the first place is a good start.

Many of the newly discovered species live in the ocean, especially the deep sea. In April of 2020, a deep-sea expedition off the coast of western Australia spotted several dozen animals new to science, including what may be the longest organism ever recorded. It’s a type of siphonophore, which isn’t precisely a single animal the way that, say, a blue whale is. It’s a colony of tiny animals, called zooids, all clones although they perform different functions so the whole colony can thrive. Some zooids help the colony swim, while others have tiny tentacles that grab prey, and others digest the food and disperse the nutrients to the zooids around it. Many siphonophores emit bioluminescent light to attract prey.

Some siphonophores are small but some can grow quite large. The Portuguese man o’ war, which looks like a floating jellyfish, and which we talked about way back in episode 16, is actually a type of siphonophore. Its stinging tentacles can be 100 feet long, or 30 m. Other siphonophores are long, transparent, gelatinous strings that float through the depths of the sea, snagging tiny animals with their tiny tentacles, and that’s the kind this newly discovered siphonophore is.

The new siphonophore was spotted at a depth of about 2,000 feet, or 625 meters, and was floating in a spiral shape. The scientists estimated that the spiral was about 49 feet in diameter, or 15 meters, and that the outer ring alone was probably 154 feet long, or 47 meters. The entire organism might have measured 390 feet long, or almost 119 meters. It’s been placed into the genus Apolemia although it hasn’t been formally described yet.

Another 2020 discovery off the coast of Australia was an entire coral reef a third of a mile tall, or 500 meters, and almost a mile across, or 1.5 km. It’s part of the Great Barrier Reef but isn’t near the other reefs. A scientific team mapping the seafloor in the area discovered the reef and undoubtedly did a lot of celebrating. I mean, it’s not every day that you find an entirely new coral reef. They were able to 3D map the reef for study and take video too. Best of all, it’s a healthy reef with lots of other animal life living around it.

Another big animal discovered in 2020 is one Patreon subscribers already know about, because we started out the year with an episode all about it. It’s a new whale! In 2018 scientists recording audio of animal life around Mexico’s San Benito Islands in the Pacific Ocean heard a whale call they didn’t recognize. They thought it probably belonged to a type of beaked whale, probably a little-known species called Perrin’s beaked whale.

In late 2020 a team went back to the area specifically to look for Perrin’s beaked whales. They did see three beaked whales and got audio, video, and photographs of them, but they weren’t Perrin’s beaked whales. The whale specialists on the expedition didn’t know what these whales were. They don’t match any species of known cetacean and appear to be a species new to science.

And speaking of new species of whale, guess what. Don’t say chicken butt. You can say whale butt, though, because the discovery of another new whale species was just announced. This one’s a 2021 discovery but there’s no way I was going to wait until next year to talk about it. It lives in the Gulf of Mexico and can grow over 41 feet long, or more than 12 meters. It’s a baleen whale, not a beaked whale, and it was hiding in plain sight. It looks a lot like the Bryde’s whale and was long thought to be a subspecies, but new genetic testing shows that it’s much different. It’s been named Rice’s whale, and unfortunately it’s extremely rare. There may only be around 100 individuals alive. It’s mostly threatened by pollution, especially oil spills like the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and by collisions with ships. Hopefully now that scientists know more about it, it can be further protected.

Let’s move on from new gigantic animal discoveries to a much, much smaller one. A new pygmy seahorse was discovered off the coast of South Africa in May 2020. It’s brownish-yellow with pinkish and white markings and is only 20 mm long at most. A dive instructor who had seen the fish but didn’t know what it was told researchers about it and they organized a team to look for it. Its closest known relation lives in southeast Asia almost 5,000 miles away, or 8,000 km. Like other seahorses, it lives in shallow water and uses its flexible tail to hang onto underwater plants, but the area where it lives is full of huge waves rolling in from the ocean. It’s called the Sodwana Pygmy Seahorse after the bay where it was discovered, and officially named Hippocampus nalu. “Nalu” means “here it is” in the local Zulu and Xhosa languages, and it also happens to mean “surging surf” in Hawaiian, and it also happens to be the middle name of the dive instructor who spotted the fish, Savannah Nalu Olivier. Sometimes fate just says “this is the right name.”

A new species of pipefish, which is closely related to the seahorse, was also described in 2020, Stigmatopora harastii. It lives off the coast of New South Wales, Australia and can grow up to 5 ½ inches long, or 14 cm. It was first spotted by scuba divers in 2002. These divers know their fish. It lives among a type of red algae and is the same color red for camouflage. It’s surprising how long it took for scientists to discover it, because it’s not exactly hard to confuse with anything else. Except, you know, algae.

Not all newly discovered animals live in the ocean. In August of 2020 researchers discovered a new mouse lemur in Madagascar. We talked about a different type of mouse lemur in episode 135, that one discovered in 1992 and only growing to 3.6 inches long, or 9 cm, not counting its long tail. The newly discovered Jonah’s mouse lemur is only a little bigger than that. Mouse lemurs are the smallest members of the primate family. They’re also super cute but endangered due to habitat loss.

Another primate discovered in 2020 is one that researchers already knew about for more than a hundred years, but no one realized it was its own species, just like Rice’s whale. In 2020, genetic analysis finally determined that the Popa langur is a new species. It’s a beautiful fuzzy gray monkey with bright white markings around its eyes like spectacles. It lives on an extinct volcano in Myanmar and is critically endangered, with only an estimated 250 individuals left in the wild.

A 2020 expedition to the Bolivian Andes in South America led to the discovery of twenty new species of plant and animal, plus a few re-discoveries of animals that were thought to be extinct. The rediscoveries include a species of satyr butterfly not seen for 98 years, and a frog seen only once before, twenty years ago. The frog is called the devil-eyed frog because of its coloring. It’s purplish or brownish black with red eyes and only grows about an inch long, or 29 mm.

Another frog the team found is one of the smallest frogs in the world. It’s been identified as a frog in the genus Noblella and it only grows about ten mm long. As one article I read pointed out, that’s the size of an aspirin. It’s a mottled brown and black and it lives in tunnels it digs in the leaf litter and moss on the forest floor. It’s being referred to as the Lilliputian frog because of its small size.

In the summer of 2019, a team of scientists surveying the karst forests in northern Vietnam spotted an unusual snake. It was so unusual, in fact, that they knew it had to be new to science. It was dark in color but its small scales shone an iridescent purplish, and it was about 18 inches long, or almost 46 cm. It belongs to a genus referred to as odd-scaled snakes, and we don’t know much about them because they’re so hard to find. They mostly burrow underground or under leaf litter on the forest floor. The new species was described in late 2020.

A new species of giant scorpion was discovered in Sri Lanka in 2020. It lives in the forests of Yala National Park and is nocturnal. The female is jet black while the male has reddish-brown legs, and a big female can grow up to 4 inches long, or a little over 10 cm. It’s called the Yala giant scorpion after the park and is the sixth new scorpion species discovered in the park.

One thing I should mention is that all these scientific expeditions to various countries are almost always undertaken by both local scientists and experts from other places. Any finds are studied by the whole group, resulting papers are written with all members contributing, and any specimens collected will usually end up displayed or stored in a local museum or university. The local scientists get to collaborate with colleagues they might never have met before, while the visiting scientists get the opportunity to learn about local animals from the people who know them best, who also happen to know the best places to eat. Everybody wins!

Let’s finish with an astonishing fish that was technically discovered in 2018 and described in 2019, but was further studied in 2020 and found to be even more extraordinary than anyone had guessed. In 2018, after a bad flood, a man living in the village of Oorakam in Kerala, South India, spotted a fish in a rice paddy. He’d never seen a fish like it before and posted a picture of it on social media. A fish expert saw the picture, realized it was something new, and sent a team to Oorakam to retrieve it before it died or something ate it. It turned out to be a new type of snakehead fish.

There are lots of snakehead species that live in rivers and streams throughout parts of Africa and Asia. But this snakehead, which has been named the Gollum snakehead, lives underground. Specifically, it lives in an aquifer. An aquifer is a layer of water that occurs underground naturally. When rain soaks into the ground, some of it is absorbed by plant roots, some seeps out into streams, and some evaporates into the air; but some of it soaks deeper into the ground. It collects in gravel or sand or fractured rocks, or in porous rocks like sandstone. Sometimes an aquifer carves underground streams through rock, creating caves that no human has ever seen or could ever see, since there’s no entrance to the surface large enough for a person to get through. In this case, the heavy rain and floods in Oorakam had washed the fish out of the aquifer and into the rice paddy.

The Gollum snakehead resembles an eel in shape and grows abound four inches long, or 10 cm. Unlike fish adapted for life in caves, though, it has both eyes and pigment, and is a pale reddish-brown in color. This may indicate that it doesn’t necessarily spend all of its life underground. Aquifers frequently connect to springs, streams, and other aboveground waterways, so the Gollum snakehead may spend part of its life aboveground and part below ground.

When it was first described, the researchers placed the fish in its own genus, but further study in 2020 has revealed that the fish is so different from other snakeheads that it doesn’t just need its own genus, it needs its own family. Members of the newly created family are referred to as dragonfish.

Other snakeheads can breathe air with a structure known as a suprabranchial organ, which acts sort of like a lung, located in the head above the gills. Not only does the Gollum snakehead not have this organ, there’s no sign that it ever had the organ. That suggests that other snakeheads developed the organ later and that the Gollum snakehead is a more basal species. It also has a small swim bladder compared to other snakeheads.

Researchers think that the dragonfish family may have separated from other snakehead species as much as 130 million years ago, before the supercontinent of Gondwana began breaking up into smaller landmasses. One of the chunks that separated from Gondwana probably contained the ancestor of the Gollum snakehead, and that chunk eventually collided very slowly with Asia and became what we now call India.

The Gollum snakehead isn’t the only thing that lives in the aquifer, of course. Lots of other species do too, but it’s almost impossible to study them because they live underground with only tiny openings to the surface. The only time we can study the animals that live there is when they’re washed out of the aquifers by heavy rain. It turns out, in fact, that there’s a second species of dragonfish in the aquifer, closely related to the Gollum snakehead, with a single specimen found after rain.

So, next time you’re outside, think about what might be under the ground you’re walking on. You might be walking above an aquifer with strange unknown animals swimming around in it, animals which may never be seen by humans.

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, or just want a sticker, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or just tell a friend. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 208: The Happiest Animals in Australia



Thanks to Phoebe for suggesting the quokka and the wombat, two of the cutest, happiest-looking animals in Australia!

Further Reading:

Viral stories of wombats sheltering other animals from the bushfires aren’t entirely true

Satellites reveal the underground lifestyle of wombats

Giant Wombat-Like Marsupials Roamed Australia 25 Million Years Ago

Further Listening:

Animals and Ultraviolet Light (unlocked Patreon episode)

The adorable quokka with a nummy leaf and a joey in her pouch:

Quokka (left) and my chonky cat Dracula (right)

Some quokka selfies showing quokka smiles. That second picture really shows how small the quokka actually is:

Wombats!

A wombat and its burrow entrance:

A wombat mom with her joey peeking out of the rear-facing pouch:

Golden wombats. All they need is some Doublemint Gum:

Two (dead, stuffed) wombats glowing under ultraviolet light:

Show Transcript:

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

This week we’re going to look at two super-cute animals from Australia, both of them suggestions by Phoebe. Thank you, Phoebe!

Let’s start with the quokka. It’s a marsupial, which as you may recall means that it’s a mammal that gives birth to babies that aren’t fully formed yet, and the babies then finish developing in the mother’s pouch. It’s related to kangaroos and wallabies but is quite small, around the size of an ordinary domestic cat. It’s kind of a chonk, though, which means it’s probably closer in size to my big chonk cat Dracula. It’s shaped roughly like a little wallaby or kangaroo but with a smaller tail and with rounded ears, and it’s grey-brown in color.

You may have seen pictures of the quokka online, because the reason it’s considered so incredibly cute is because it looks like it’s smiling all the time. If you take a picture of a quokka’s face, it looks like it has a happy smile and that, of course, makes the people who look at it happy too. Those are real pictures, by the way. Because of the way its muzzle and mouth are shaped, the quokka really does look like it’s smiling.

This has caused some problems, unfortunately. People who want to take selfies with a quokka sometimes forget that they’re wild animals. While quokkas aren’t very aggressive and are curious animals who aren’t usually afraid of people, they can and will bite when frightened. The Nature Conservancy of Australia recommends that people who want to take a selfie with a quokka arrive early in the morning or late in the evening, since quokkas are mostly nocturnal, and that they let the quokkas approach them instead of following one around. Touching a quokka or giving it food or drink is strictly prohibited, since it’s a protected animal.

The quokka lives on a few small islands off the coast of western Australia and a few small forested areas on the mainland. The largest population lives on Rottnest Island, and in fact the island was named by a Dutch explorer who thought the quokkas were rats. It means rat’s nest. The island’s actual name was Wadjemup and it was a ceremonial area for the local Whadjuk Noongar people.

Only an estimated 14,000 quokkas live in the wild today, with most of those on Rottnest Island. It used to be much more widespread, but once white settlers arrived and introduced predators like dogs, cats, and foxes, its numbers started to decline. It’s also threatened by habitat loss. It reproduces slowly, since a female only raises one baby a year.

A baby quokka is born after only a month, but like other marsupial babies, called joeys, it’s just a little pink squidge when it’s born. It climbs into its mother’s pouch where it stays for the next six months. Once it’s old enough to leave her pouch, it still depends on her milk for a few more months. While she’s raising one baby, though, the mother has other babies still in her womb ready to be born but held in suspended animation. This means that if something happens to her joey and it dies, the mother can give birth to another baby very quickly.

The quokka is most active at night. It sleeps during most of the day, usually hidden in a type of prickly plant that helps keep predators from bothering it. It gets most of its water needs from the plants it eats, and while it mostly hops around like a teensy kangaroo, it can also climb trees.

The wombat is another adorable Australian marsupial. For some reason, I’ve talked about the wombat several times in Patreon episodes but have barely mentioned it in the main feed–but that’s about to change. Mostly because I am going to recycle a lot of the information from the Patreon episodes, but I’ve also added a lot of interesting new details.

The wombat mainly lives in southern and eastern Australia, including Tasmania. It looks a little like a cartoon bear, a little like a cartoon badger, and a little like a cartoon giant hamster. Perhaps you notice a theme here. It has short legs, no tail to speak of, and is about the size of a medium-sized dog but stockier, with a broad face and rounded ears. The female has a rear-facing pouch to keep dirt and debris from getting on her baby while digging. There are three species alive today.

The wombat is mostly nocturnal and sleeps in a burrow during the day, although it will come out during the day when it’s overcast. It eats grass and other plants. It can dig really well and some people in Australia consider it a pest because it digs under fences.

The wombat has a big round rump with tough skin reinforced with cartilage. If a dingo or other animal chases a wombat, it dives into a hole and blocks the hole with its rump. The predator can’t get a purchase on the tough hide and there’s no tail to grab. The wombat isn’t helpless, though. It can kick hard, bite hard, and if the dingo gets its head over the wombat’s back to grab for its neck, the wombat will push upward and crush the dingo’s head against the roof of the tunnel. The wombat takes no prisoners and presents its butt to danger. Also, its poop is square, as you may remember if you listened to the animal poop episode.

The wombat has a very slow metabolism and takes a week or even two weeks to fully digest a meal. It can run fast when it needs to, although it can’t keep up a fast pace for long. Wombats have even been known to knock people down by charging them, which I personally find hilarious. It can also bite ferociously if it feels threatened, and while it mostly uses its long claws for digging, they also make fearsome weapons. So it’s best to leave the wombat alone.

The wombat’s fur can be gray, tan, brown, black, or any variation on those colors, but there are rare reports of wombats with golden fur. In a 1965 letter to The Times, an anonymous writer reported spotting a golden wombat but couldn’t get anyone to believe him. “Of course you were mistaken, my family said. They said it with an irritating sureness… The golden wombat became the subject of family jokes.” And then two years later, the letter-writer saw the golden wombat again. I thought that would be a fine cryptozoological mystery to share, but when I did a search for golden wombat sightings, actual golden wombats in zoos turned up. Golden wombats are a real thing, just extremely rare. The sunshine golden fur is due to a mutation in coat color.

The Cleland Wildlife Park in Adelaide has a pair of golden hairy-nosed wombats that were discovered in 2011 and sent to the park in 2013. Golden wombats don’t survive long in the wild since their coloring makes them stand out to predators. Wombats in general are having trouble in the wild anyway due to habitat loss, introduced predators like domestic dogs, introduced rabbits and other animals that compete with it for food, the mange mite, also introduced to Australia and spread by domestic dogs, and drought.

Last year, during the awful summer bushfires in Australia, there were reports of wombats saving other animals by herding them into their deep burrows when fires approached. It’s a great story, but like many other stories that seem too good to be true, it’s not completely accurate. The wombats didn’t herd other animals into their burrows like little furry firefighters, but lots of animals did take shelter in wombat burrows to escape the fires. A wombat’s burrow isn’t just a little tunnel with a bedroom at the end. It’s way more elaborate than that, with lots of entrances and adjoining tunnels. One wombat’s burrow complex had 28 entrances and almost 295 feet of tunnels, or 90 meters. A wombat usually only sleeps in one particular burrow for a day or two before moving to a different one, and other animals routinely use the other burrows for themselves. As long as the other animal isn’t a threat, the wombat doesn’t seem to mind. So it’s not surprising that lots of animals hide in wombat burrows to escape fire.

In October of 2020 a team of scientists published a paper about ultraviolet fluorescence in the platypus, which glows greenish in ultraviolet light. The discovery was made by accident but prompted scientists throughout the world, and especially Australia, to borrow black lights from other departments to shine on their mammal collections. It turns out that a lot of nocturnal or crepuscular animals have fur that glows various colors under ultraviolet light. This includes the wombat.

There’s more ultraviolet light at dawn and dusk than during full daylight or at night, so some researchers think the glow may be a way for the animals to blend in with the increased ultraviolet light at those times. If this is the case, it’s a new type of camouflage, or rather a very old type since it’s found in animals like the platypus that have been around for a really, really long time.

Ultraviolet light is the wavelength of light beyond purple, which humans can’t see. Most humans, anyway. In April 2019 I released a Patreon episode about animals and ultraviolet light, and I’ve decided to unlock that episode for anyone to listen to. I’ll put a link in the show notes so you can click through and listen. Be aware that I did make a mistake in that episode, where I mentioned that a black light allows humans to see into the ultraviolet spectrum, but actually what people see when they shine a black light around is fluorescence and ordinary violet light.

A relative of the wombat, Diprotodon, is the largest marsupial ever known. It went extinct around 45,000 years ago, not long after the first humans populated Australia, and is also an ancestor of the koala. It and some other of the Australian megafauna may have influenced Aboriginal myths of dreamtime monsters. It stood around 6 ½ feet tall at the shoulder, or two meters, and like the wombat it had a rear-facing pouch and ate plants. Recent analysis of the front teeth, which were large and flat and grew continuously throughout the animal’s life, indicated it might have been migratory. Researchers also think it lived in social groups something like elephants do today. Its feet were flat and toed inward like modern wombat feet, and although it had claws it probably only used them to dig plants up.

A partial fossil found in 1973 in South Australia was finally described in mid-2020 as a wombat relation, although it may not be a direct ancestor to modern wombats. It lived about 25 million years ago and was the size of a bear, and had powerful front legs with claws used for digging up roots. It’s named Mukupirna nambensis and is different enough from other wombat relations that it’s been assigned to a new family of its own.

There have been reports for centuries of giant wombats or wombat-like animals in Australia and even from nearby Papua New Guinea. Some cryptozoologists think the sightings are of a smaller relative of the wombat, Hulitherium tomasetti. Hulitherium lived in the rainforests of New Guinea, and probably went extinct about the same time as Diprotodon, possibly due to hunting from newly arrived humans. It was about three feet high, or one meter, and may have eaten bamboo as a primary part of its diet. Like the panda, it seems to have a number of adaptations to feeding on a bamboo diet, including very mobile front legs, more like an ape’s than a wombat’s. It may have been able to stand on its hind legs like a bear too.

An October 26, 1932 story in The Straits Times, a Singapore newspaper, is interesting in light of the hulitherium’s size and possible appearance. I’ll quote the story, which appears in the 2016 Fortean Zoology Yearbook:

“One of our strangest visits was reserved for this morning, when Mr. Paul Pedrini, wild animal hunter and trainer, arrived leading a curious beast, brown, furry, about two feet high and four feet long and looking like no animal one could call to mind. It was very fat and adorning its neck was a large pink bow. This latter fact was the chief cause of the uneasiness shown by the oldest sub-editor. Mr. Pedrini explained that he found his little pet in Australia eighteen months ago.

“He calls it the ‘What Is It?’ because nobody can give it a name. Described as being something like a wombat, it is certainly not a wombat neither does it belong to any other known family. The ‘What Is It?’ is very tame and friendly and has kind eyes. Its chief diet is bananas and toast. We said good bye to Mr. Pedrini, patted the strange animal and returned, slightly shaken, to the normal round.”

The story isn’t sensational enough to feel like a hoax, but it doesn’t really give enough of a description of the animal to be sure it wasn’t just a larger than usual wombat. After all, the wombat does have kind eyes.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or just tell a friend. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 207: The Dire Wolf!



This week we’re on the cutting edge of science, learning about the brand new genetic study of dire wolves that rearranges everything we know about the dire wolf and other canids! Also, a bonus turtle update.

Further reading:

Dire Wolves Were Not Really Wolves, Genetic Clues Reveal

An artist’s rendition of dire wolves and grey wolves fighting over a bison carcass (art by Mauricio Anton):

The pig-nosed face of the Hoan Kiem turtle, AKA Yangtze giant softshell turtle, AKA Swinhoe’s softshell turtle:

Show transcript:

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

You may have heard the news this past week about the new study about dire wolves. I thought it would make a great topic for an episode, and we’ll also have a quick update about a rare turtle that’s been in the news lately too.

Dire wolves show up pretty often in movies and TV shows and video games and books, because as far as anyone knew until very recently, the dire wolf was an extra big wolf that lived in North America during the Pleistocene until it went extinct around 13,000 years ago. Researchers assumed it was a close cousin of the modern grey wolf.

Well, in a brand new study published in Nature literally less than a week ago as this episode goes live, we now have results of a genetic study of dire wolf remains. The results give us surprising new information not just about the dire wolf, but about many other canids.

The study started in 2016, when an archaeologist, Angela Perri, who specializes in the history of human and animal interactions, wanted to learn more about the dire wolf. She went around the United States to visit university collections and museums with dire wolf remains, and took the samples she collected to geneticist Kieren Mitchell. Perri, Mitchell, and their team managed to sequence DNA from five dire wolves that lived between 50,000 and 13,000 years ago.

Then the team compared the dire wolf genome to those of other canids, including the grey wolf and coyote, two species of African wolf, two species of jackal, and the dhole, among others. To their surprise, the dire wolf’s closest relation wasn’t the grey wolf. It was the jackals, both from Africa, but even they weren’t very closely related.

It turns out that 5.7 million years ago, the shared ancestor of dire wolves and many other canids lived in Eurasia. At this point sea levels were low enough that the Bering land bridge, also called Beringia, connected the very eastern part of Asia to the very western part of North America. One population of this canid migrated into North America while the rest of the population stayed in Asia. The two populations evolved separately until the North America population developed into what we now call dire wolves. Meanwhile, the Eurasian population developed into many of the modern species we know today, and eventually migrated into North America too.

By the time the gray wolf populated North America, the dire wolf was so distantly related to it that even when their territories overlapped, they avoided each other and didn’t interbreed. We’ve talked about canids in many previous episodes, including how readily they interbreed with each other, so for the dire wolf to remain genetically isolated, it was obviously not closely related at all to other canids at this point.

The dire wolf looked a lot like a grey wolf, but researchers now think that was due more to convergent evolution than to its relationship with wolves. Both lived in the same habitats: plains, grasslands, and forests. The dire wolf was slightly taller on average than the modern grey wolf, which can grow a little over three feet tall at the shoulder, or 97 cm, but it was much heavier and more solidly built. It wouldn’t have been able to run nearly as fast, but it could attack and kill larger animals. Its head was larger in proportion than the grey wolf’s and it had massive teeth that were adapted to crush bigger bones.

The dire wolf lived throughout North America and even migrated into South America and back into east Asia. It preferred open lowlands and its most important prey animal was probably the horse, although it also ate ground sloths, camels, bison, and many others. It probably also scavenged dead animals and probably hunted as a pack.

Researchers think the dire wolf went extinct due to a combination of factors, including increased competition with grey wolves and maybe with humans, climate change, and the extinction of the megaherbivores that made up its diet. It will probably be reclassified into a different genus, Aenocyon, instead of staying in its current genus, Canis.

Before this study, most researchers thought that the ancestor of North American canids evolved in Eurasia, but had already migrated into North America before developing into dire wolves, grey wolves, coyotes, and other canid species. But now the history of canids has changed a lot. From what we now know, pending further study, the dire wolf was the only canid in North America for millions of years. Grey wolves, coyotes, and their relations are relative newcomers. It’s an exciting time for scientists studying ice age megafauna. Hopefully we’ll learn more soon as more studies are conducted into the dire wolf’s history.

Next, let’s look briefly at a type of turtle that’s been in the news lately too. Swinhoe’s softshell turtle is considered the most endangered turtle in the world. In early 2019 there were only two individuals known, a male and a female, but they had never bred despite being kept together in captivity. Then the female died in April of that year. No females meant no eggs, no baby turtles, no more Swinhoe’s softshell turtle. The species would be extinct.

But in October of 2020, researchers found a female Swinhoe’s softshell turtle in the wild! Not only that, they spotted what they think is a male turtle in the same lake, and found evidence of what may possibly be a third turtle nearby.

Swinhoe’s softshell turtle is also known as the Yangtze giant softshell turtle and used to be found in many lakes and rivers in Asia. Unfortunately, people killed it for its meat and dug up its eggs to eat, and pollution and habitat loss also killed off many of the turtles. This is the same turtle we talked about in episode 68, the Hoan Kiem turtle of Vietnam. It’s probably the largest freshwater turtle in the world, and the largest one ever measured weighed 546 lbs, or 247.5 kg. It can grow over three feet long, or 100 cm.

The newly discovered wild turtles are being monitored carefully to make sure they’re healthy, their environment is clean and safe, and to see if the female lays eggs this spring. The female was captured briefly, just long enough to take blood samples and verify that she was healthy. Then they released her back into the lake. Fingers crossed that she hatches some baby turtles soon!

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or just tell a friend. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 206: The Bowerbird and the Victoria Crowned Pigeon



This week let’s learn about two birds of New Guinea, bowerbirds and the Victoria crowned pigeon! Both are beautiful and the bowerbird is kind of weird. Thanks to M Is for Awesome for the suggestion!

Further Reading:

The Women Who Removed Birds from People’s Hats

Various bowers made by various species of bowerbird:

The golden-fronted bowerbird:

Not a bowerbird but a close relation, a dead bird of paradise from New Guinea, decorating an old-timey lady’s fancy hat. I would not want to put this on my head:

A Victoria crowned pigeon, wearing a built-in fancy hat:

A Victoria crowned pigeon baby. Such miniature floof:

Show transcript:

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

This week we are finally going to look at some birds of New Guinea, a topic suggested ages ago by M Is for Awesome! There are so many weird and amazing birds in New Guinea that instead of trying to talk about a bunch of them very briefly in one episode, I’m going to make this another ongoing series throughout the year. Every so often we’ll revisit New Guinea (in our minds, anyway) and learn about a few more birds. In this episode we’ll learn some basic information about New Guinea and then learn about two really interesting birds that live there.

New Guinea comes up in lots of episodes because so many animals live there. It’s almost the world’s largest island, second only to Greenland. Australia is considered a continent, not an island. New Guinea is actually pretty close to Australia so there’s a lot of overlap between animals that live in Australia and animals that live in New Guinea.

A big reason New Guinea has so many animals is its geography. It has everything from ridiculously high mountains with glaciers to lowland rainforests, savannas, wetlands, mangrove forests, rivers, lakes, alpine tundra, and coral reefs off the coast. About the only thing it doesn’t have is a desert. Most of the island is warm and humid with lots of rain.

Of course people live in New Guinea too, and have for at least 40,000 years, possibly as long as 60,000 years. Back then, New Guinea was connected to Australia by a land bridge similar to the one that has connected North America with Asia when sea levels were low. Some of the earliest humans to migrate out of Africa settled in New Guinea, and the people there developed agriculture independently of the people who settled in the Middle East. More people arrived much later, only around 3,500 years ago, from parts of Asia. But because the land is so hard to navigate due to the mountains and rivers and so forth, people who moved to a new part of the island were largely isolated from the people in other parts. Some 7,000 languages are spoken on the island right up to the present day, with several hundred more languages once spoken.

Unfortunately, as happens so often, after European explorers discovered the island in the 16th century, they decided they would like to have it for themselves. So they took it, which is just rude. The eastern half of the island is now independent as of 1975, called Papua New Guinea, while the western half, usually just called Papua, is now part of Indonesia. Indonesia is an Asian country and unfortunately, they’re being just as bad to the indigenous people of the area as Europeans were.

There are still lots of places in New Guinea that scientists haven’t explored, mostly in the mountains, and undoubtedly lots and lots of animals and birds that are completely unknown to science. Some of the animals and birds of the mountains may never have been seen by any person at all.

M specifically wanted us to cover bowerbirds, so let’s start with them. Bowerbirds live in Australia and New Guinea along with a few smaller islands, with twenty species known. You may have heard about them before, because a male bowerbird builds what’s called a bower and decorates it with items he selects to attract a female. A bower is a nice little shady area where you’d like to have a picnic, unless you’re a female bowerbird in which case you’d like to examine all the things a male has collected and evaluate his elaborate courtship dance.

Because the female builds a nest and takes care of her eggs and chicks by herself, she’s really picky about who she mates with. She wants the strongest, healthiest male she can find so her babies will be healthy too. She looks for a male who has the energy to build a bower, collect pretty items to decorate it, and then perform an elaborate courtship dance when the female shows up. She will visit numerous bowers before she makes a decision, narrowing them down over the course of several days or even weeks until she chooses between the best candidates.

Researchers think the bowerbird is most closely related to corvids, which as you may remember includes birds like crows, magpies, and jays, but they’re also closely related to birds of paradise. Some bowerbirds are plain black or brown, some are mostly black or brown with green or other colored markings, while some are brightly colored overall. For instance, the male flame bowerbird that lives in rainforests in New Guinea has a bright orangey-red head and shoulders shading to bright yellow body and wings, with a black tail tipped with yellow. The female is more brown but she has a bright yellow belly.

The species most people have heard of is the satin bowerbird, where the male has black feathers that shine iridescent blue in sunlight and who collects almost exclusively blue items to attract a female. The satin bowerbird lives in Australia, not New Guinea. The bowerbirds that live in Australia are more well studied than the ones in New Guinea because it’s easier to find them.

Not all bowerbirds build bowers, though. The catbirds of Australia and New Guinea are mostly green, and instead of the males building bowers to attract a mate who then goes off to lay her eggs and take of the babies herself, both parents take care of the babies.

Let’s talk a little more about these bowers. There are two main types, the maypole bower and the avenue bower, and a particular species of bowerbird will only ever build one or the other. A male who builds a maypole bower chooses a sapling tree or large fern and places sticks against it all around. Some maypole bowers look like little huts. An avenue bower is made of two walls of sticks with a walkway between. These structures can be big, sometimes up to three feet high, or about a meter, although most are smaller. Most bowerbirds are fairly big too, about the size of a jay or magpie.

Once he’s built the bower, the male finds and places items around it that he hopes a female will like. He will spend hours arranging and rearranging them. Some species put light-colored objects down first, then display colored items on top. Some birds will place smaller items in front, larger items in back, so that when the female is inside the bower all the items appear to be about the same size. Different species of bowerbird prefer different colors of item.

The items a male chooses for decoration vary from bird to bird depending on what he can find, or what he can steal from other males, and can include shells, stones, coins, pieces of glass, berries, feathers, bones, flowers, leaves, bottle caps, dead beetles, fungus, moss, snail shells, bark, nuts, and many other things.

Bowerbirds mainly eat fruit, but they also eat insects and some also eat nectar and flowers.

Let’s look into the story of a particular bowerbird before we move on to another type of bird. The male golden-fronted bowerbird is a rusty reddish-brown with a long golden crest, while the female is olive brown. The species was described in 1895 from skins imported to decorate hats.

In the 19th century women wore fancy hats, at least in Europe and America and other places that were influenced by this fancy-hat-wearing trend, and the more well-to-do a woman was, the fancier she wanted her hats. This was before synthetic dyes, so the brightest, fanciest, and most expensive way to decorate a hat was with the feathers of exotic birds. Sometimes it wasn’t just a few feathers or even a lot of feathers, but an entire wing or a bunch of bird wings. As the style grew more and more elaborate, often it was an entire dead bird, stuffed and mounted on a hat. I am not known for my sense of style, but that just seems really gross. But it was the style at the time and it meant hat-makers would pay a lot for exotic birds, especially ones with brightly colored feathers. The demand for feathers was so high, it nearly drove some species to extinction.

When an American woman named Harriet Hemenway heard about the slaughter of birds happening all around the world just so women could have fancier and fancier hats, she and her cousin Minna Hall started spreading the word to all the women they knew: stop buying and wearing hats with dead birds on them. The women attracted more and more supporters, both among hat-wearing ladies and people who just liked birds, and Hemenway and Hall pushed for a boycott of the feather trade. They even started the Massachusetts Audubon Society, the forerunner of the National Audubon Society that’s still around today.

You would think that this would be an obvious law to put into place. I mean, yes, don’t kill millions of rare birds just for hat decorations. But there was a lot of money involved in feather imports back then. People who were getting rich off dead birds called the Audubon Society extremists who wanted to put people out of jobs. Fortunately, the women persisted, and in 1900 the first federal conservation act was put into place in the United States to stop the import of feathers.

But before the feather trade was banned, some scientists made a habit of looking through imports of feathers and bird skins to find new species. That’s how one ornithologist discovered the golden-fronted bower bird, but he didn’t know where it was from. He described the species from the skin and that’s where the story ended for almost a century.

In 1979, a biologist named Jared Diamond was hired to survey New Guinea for the site of a national park. He spent a month hiking through areas where no scientist had ever been before, and returned in 1981 for another few weeks to look for bowerbirds specifically. And as you may have guessed, he saw golden-fronted bowerbirds alive and well in the Foja Mountains. The mountains are steep and inaccessible, which has helped protect the bird from hunters and habitat loss. The first photographs of the bird were only taken in 2005.

Next, let’s look at a pigeon that lives in New Guinea. New Guinea has a whole lot of pigeons and doves, something like 60 species although some are now extinct due to habitat loss and other factors. The Victoria crowned pigeon is a beautiful bird that lives in the lowlands and swampy forests. It’s increasingly threatened in the wild due to habitat loss and hunting, but it’s so pretty that many people keep it in captivity. Unfortunately that also means people trap the wild birds to sell, even though it’s illegal and the birds are hard to take care of properly, although they do tend to be easy to tame. Some zoos let them wander around the grounds the same way peacocks often do.

The Victoria crowned pigeon is indeed a pigeon. It’s a soft blue-grey all over with a reddish patch on its breast, lighter blue wing bars and tail tip, red eyes in a dark blue mask, and a gorgeous spray of feathers on its head that are tipped with white. It’s just lovely. It’s the sort of bird that people would have put on hats in the olden days, but I’m glad they don’t anymore. It’s an especially large bird, too, at least twice as big as ordinary pigeons you see in cities. Basically it’s the size of a big chicken. It mostly eats fruit, especially figs, although it will also eat seeds and small animals like insects, and it doesn’t fly much. It mostly eats fruit that has fallen from trees.

Like all pigeons it’s a sociable bird that usually forages in a small flock or in pairs. It only lays one egg at a time and its baby is blue with white streaks. Both parents feed the baby with crop milk, which we’ve talked about before in various episodes. It’s not actually milk, just a nutritious shed lining of the crop.

During courtship, the male dances for the female to show off his crest, and he also makes a loud booming noise that doesn’t actually sound like a pigeon call. It sounds more like a special effect from a movie set in space. This is what it sounds like:

[pigeon booming]

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or just tell a friend. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 205: Sea Scorpions and the Late Ordovician Mass Extinction Event



Happy new year! This week we’ll learn about the oldest mass extinction event, some 450 million years ago, and also sea scorpions.

Further reading:

Coming up for air: Extinct sea scorpions could breathe out of water, fossil detective unveils

Sea scorpions could get really, really big:

A fossil Eurypterus:

Show transcript:

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

Hello, 2021, please be better than 2020 was. I’ve got lots of fun, interesting episodes planned for this year, but let’s start the year off right with an episode about, uh, a major extinction event. Specifically it’s the Late Ordovician mass extinction, which occurred around 450 million years ago. This is the first of a series of episodes about extinction events I have planned for this year, which I hope you’ll find interesting. We’ll also learn about an animal called the sea scorpion.

If you’ve listened to episode 69, about the Cambrian explosion, you may remember that the fossil record shows that around 540 million years ago life on earth evolved from simple organisms into much more complicated ones. This happened relatively quickly in geologic terms, about 15 to 25 million years for life to go from microbial mats, simple worms, and single-celled animals to fantastical creatures with shells and spikes and novel ways of feeding as animals adapted to fit new ecological niches.

But what happened after that? A series of extinction events, that’s what.

The first extinction event researchers can identify from the fossil record is called the End-Botomian extinction event, which happened around 510 million years ago in two phases. We’re not sure what caused the extinctions, but the main theory is that a series of massive volcanic eruptions caused climate changes that led to acidification of the oceans and a resulting loss of oxygen from the water. This was followed by another extinction event around 500 million years ago. All told, during these ten million years or so, about 40% of all species of animal went extinct.

But remember, all we have to work with is the fossil record. Researchers know how old particular rock strata are, strata being the term for layers, so when they find a fossil embedded in a rock they know roughly how long ago it lived. Only a small percentage of animals that ever live end up fossilized, and only a small percentage of fossils are ever found by humans, and only a small percentage of fossils found by humans get studied by experts. So while scientists do their best, they’re working with a limited amount of data to determine what happened half a billion years ago. It’s like trying to determine the rise and fall of empires from a series of random photographs.

But when older rocks show a whole lot of fossils of various kinds, and then slightly younger rocks show way fewer or no fossils, researchers can be pretty sure that something catastrophic happened to kill off a lot of animal life in a relatively short amount of time. If they find the same changes in rocks of the same age in different parts of the world, the catastrophe was probably worldwide and serious enough to impact life on Earth for thousands or even millions of years. That’s what happened in the late Ordovician.

Around 460 million years ago, about the time that life was getting back to normal after the last extinction event, glaciers started to form across the land. Most of the continents at this time were smushed together into a supercontinent called Gondwana, which was mostly in the southern hemisphere. Much of the rest of the Earth was one big ocean, and it was hot and tropical just about everywhere. But that changed when temperatures dropped drastically. Glaciers formed, sea levels fell, and some 60% of all life on Earth went extinct, all possibly within about one million years.

We don’t know why, but we do have some clues and some theories. We know there was a major meteor event around 467 million years ago, which can be pinpointed because of the craters and specific minerals and bits of meteorites found that can only come from meteors hitting the earth. The impacts kicked dust into the atmosphere that then reflected sunlight back into space, causing less light to reach the earth.

Another cause might have just been a cyclical movement of the Earth in space. As you hopefully know, Earth rotates on its axis in a 24 hour period, giving us day and night, and at the same time it’s moving in an elliptical orbit around the sun in a 12-month period, which of course is a year. The sun and the other planets and everything else in our solar system are also moving in space in a larger orbit, and there are other even larger orbits that our solar system is part of within our galaxy, which is moving too. With all this movement all the time, it’s not surprising that Earth’s climate is affected in very long cycles, together with the effects of the moon’s gravitational pull making the Earth’s orbit just slightly wobbly. A combination of events, including where the Earth was in its orbit, might have caused the Earth to cool just enough that it set off an ice age. If this happened at about the same time that the meteor event also caused the Earth to cool a little, that would explain why the onset of glaciation happened so quickly in geological terms.

Whatever the cause or causes, it had serious repercussions. The cooling climate and drop in ocean levels as ice formed caused rapid extinctions of animals that lived in shallow water and were adapted to tropical climates.

But the extinction event was a one-two punch. The cold didn’t kill off every animal, of course, and those that remained evolved to take advantage of ecological niches that were suddenly empty. This is always how life manages after an extinction event. But these new species were adapted to the cold. And then, almost as suddenly as they formed, the glaciers melted.

Sea levels rose dramatically. The Earth warmed again, although not to its former levels. As the glaciers melted, cold fresh water flowed into the ocean and may have caused deep ocean water to rise to the surface, a process called upwelling. The deep ocean water brought nutrients with it that then spread across the ocean’s surface, and this would have set off a massive microbial bloom.

Microbial blooms sometimes happen today in small areas of the ocean or in lakes, especially in places where fertilizers make it into the water. Algae or bacteria that feed on certain nutrients suddenly have a whole lot of food, and they reproduce as fast as possible to take advantage of it. But the microbes use up oxygen, so much of it that the water can become depleted. This leads to massive die-offs of fish and other animals. But these modern microbial blooms are relatively small. The ones 450-odd million years ago might have been worldwide. As the glaciers melted they exposed more land, which meant more nutrients flowing into the ocean, feeding the microbial blooms that continued to deplete oxygen from the ocean.

The result was a severe lack of oxygen in the water that would have driven more species to extinction. Some researchers think it took three million years for the oceans to recover.

There are many other possible causes for the Late Ordovician mass extinction, although right now the cooling and then warming of the earth seems to be the most widely accepted among scientists. But whatever the causes, the results were dramatic. Entire families of animal went extinct, probably around 100 of them, and many others were affected. Some 70% of trilobite species went extinct, for instance.

The Late Ordovician mass extinction marks the end of the Ordovician era and the beginning of the Silurian around 443 million years ago. Remember that these names for eras are just the way that geologists and other scientists can indicate the age of an event or rock or fossil. It’s not like trilobites and brachiopods had little calendars and on one particular day that calendar said “Extinction” and everyone died. It was a gradual process, no matter how fast it occurred in geologic terms. If you had a time machine and could travel back to 450 million years ago, whatever day you arrived, the world would just look normal. You’d have to observe for at least hundreds of years to understand that the Earth was in the process of an extinction event.

You’ll be glad to know that the Silurian lasted almost 25 million years and was nice and quiet geologically. Life rebounded after the extinctions, as it always does, and more animals and plants adapted to live on land. Fish evolved rapidly during this time, developing bony skeletons and jaws. The Earth was comfortably warm but stormy, since the warm water and massive oceans would have spawned hurricanes that make the ones today look puny. But for the most part life was good in the Silurian.

The ocean was populated with lots of animals, including early fish, trilobites, crinoids, corals, leeches, and shelled animals called brachiopods as well as the more familiar mollusks. Sea levels were high and the land was mostly flat. There weren’t many mountains. So around Gondwana were lots of islands that were barely higher than the water level.

In the shallow oceans around what is now North America, an arthropod called the eurypterid was incredibly common, with some 250 species known. Many of them persisted until about 250 million years ago and they lived throughout the world. Eurypterids are often called sea scorpions, but they didn’t look much like modern scorpions. The typical Eurypterid looked a lot like the modern horseshoe crab, but with a longer segmented body and tail. But even though it looked sort of like a horseshoe crab, it may have been more closely related to modern scorpions.

The earliest sea scorpion known was Pentecopterus, which has been found in the fossil record in rocks dated to about 467 million years ago. It grew up to five feet 7 inches long, or 1.7 meters. One interesting thing to note is that it lived in a particular round basin some three miles across, or a bit over 5 km, in what is now Iowa in the United States. Researchers think it was actually a crater from a meteor impact near the ocean’s shore, and that the water in it was probably brackish. Remember how there was a major meteor event 467 million years ago? Pentecopterus was probably living in a crater made by one of those pieces of meteorite. It would have been the apex predator in that small environment, eating anything it could catch with its crablike legs. Later sea scorpions developed a pair of crab-like pincers at the front, along with a flattened tail that sometimes had a pointed barb at the end.

Eurypterids lived in the water. While some grew less than an inch long, or a few cm, some grew quite large. One species of Jaekelopterus could grow 8 ½ feet long, or 2.6 meters. That doesn’t even include the claws at the front that could extend at least another 18 inches, or 45 cm. It was probably a freshwater animal, and despite its size it was streamlined and lightweight, so it would have been an active predator. We even have fossilized fish bones that show puncture wounds that might have been made by its claws. Some eurypterids weren’t very good swimmers, though, and probably spent more time walking along the bottom of the shallow ocean.

So between Jaekelopterus in fresh water and the earliest known sea scorpion, Pentecopterus, in possibly brackish water, it’s obvious that from the very beginning the sea scorpion could adapt to various environments that other animals couldn’t. This adaptability is probably why the sea scorpion survived the extinction event that killed off so many other animals, and it continued to thrive for hundreds of millions of years afterwards.

Not only that, one fossil takes its adaptability a step farther. A geology professor named James Lamsdell heard about a strange eurypterid found in France that had been in a Scottish museum for 30 years. He arranged to have the fossil imaged with a CT scanner, which revealed its gills. And to Lamsdell’s surprise, the gills contained structures found in modern scorpions and spiders, which keep the gill plates from collapsing when it’s out of water. These structures have been retained in modern arachnids from their marine ancestors, and finding them in a eurypterid was shocking. It means that particular eurypterid could spend time on land. Lamsdell and his team think it came out of the water to lay its eggs, either in sheltered pools or in wet sand.

Eurypterids died out eventually, but their cousins, modern scorpions, are doing just fine after surviving many other extinction events. So try to be more like a scorpion, because obviously they’re doing something right.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or just tell a friend. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 204: Frogs of Many Cheery Colors



Let’s finish off a very weird year and welcome in the new year with a basket of colorful frogs!

The northern leopard frog comes in many color morphs, all of them pretty:

The starry dwarf frog is also pretty and has an orange tummy:

The astonishing turtle frog:

 

Poison dart frogs are colorful and deadly (blue poison dart frog, golden poison dart frog):

The tomato frog looks like a tomato that is also a frog:

Show transcript:

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

It’s the very last week of 2020, and good riddance. Let’s kick the old year out the back door and welcome in the new year with a basket of pretty frogs. That’s right, we’ve got a frog episode this week!

Let’s start with the northern leopard frog, with thanks to an anonymous reviewer who gave the podcast a really nice five-star review and only signed the review “norhern lepord frong.” I looked that frog up online to see what it looked like, and it’s so pretty, honestly, it’s just the prettiest frog! If you had a basket of northern leopard frogs, they might just look like friendly flowers, because while most are green or brown with darker spots, some are much brighter green with yellow markings, some are dark brown, and some are even pinkish white because of a rare albino trait. Its spots are outlined with yellow or light green and it has two folds of skin that run the length of the body and are sometimes yellow. These folds of skin are called dorsolateral folds and many frogs have them, although they’re not always as easy to spot as in the northern leopard frog.

The northern leopard frog is native to the northern part of North America, especially southern Canada and the northern and western United States. It grows up to 4.5 inches long, or 11.5 cm, measured from snout to vent. As you may recall from previous frog episodes, that’s how frogs are always measured. It basically just means nose to butt. Females are larger than males, which is also the case for most frogs.

It lives anywhere that it can find fresh water, including rivers, streams, creeks, ponds, marshes, even drainage ditches, but it prefers slow-moving or quiet water. As a result, it’s threatened by loss of habitat, pollution, and climate change, all of which affect the water it needs to live, and it’s also threatened by non-native animals and diseases. But while it doesn’t live in as many places as it used to, right now it’s doing fine overall and isn’t considered endangered.

Like most frogs, the northern leopard frog eats insects and any other small animal it can swallow. It has a long sticky tongue that it can shoot out so quickly that even an insect can’t outfly it, but it doesn’t just eat insects. It’s a big frog with a big mouth, and it’s been recorded eating other species of frog, small snakes, small birds, and even a bat. But mostly it eats insects, slugs, snails, and worms. Probably the frog that was documented as catching and eating a bat is famous in the northern leopard frog world, or at least it would be if real life was like the inside of my head and frogs had their own tiny newspapers.

The northern leopard frog was once considered a delicacy, with most frogs’ legs coming from this particular species. It’s also sometimes kept as a pet. It’s mostly nocturnal and semi-aquatic, sometimes called the meadow frog because it will leave the water to hunt for food in grassy areas. It hibernates in winter but is better adapted to cold weather than a lot of frogs are.

There’s also a southern leopard frog that looks very similar to the northern leopard frog but lives farther south, which you probably guessed from the name. It’s also slightly larger than the northern leopard frog, up to five inches long, or 13 cm.

Male leopard frogs, like many other frogs, have special vocal sacs in the throat that allow a male to make a loud call in spring to attract females. Different species of frog have different calls, naturally, and the vocal sacs are shaped differently in every species. The male leopard frog, northern and southern, has two vocal sacs that he fills with air like balloons, which amplifies the sound of his voice and makes it much louder.

This is what a northern leopard frog sounds like:

[frog sound]

Another colorful frog is from India and was only discovered in 2010. A team of scientists surveying the mountains for reptiles and amphibians noticed a teensy frog in the leaf litter one night. Its back was brown with light blue dots that looked like stars in a night sky, but its belly was orange like a sunset. It’s a very pretty frog.

The researchers caught several of the frogs and thought they were pretty but not especially unusual. There are at least 400 known frogs in India and new species are found pretty frequently. The team named it the starry dwarf frog because of the blue dots and its size, less than 20 mm long, or around half an inch. That’s about the size of an adult’s thumbnail.

After the expedition, though, when the team examined the frogs more closely, they realized they had something different from other frogs. It didn’t seem to be related to any other frog species in India or anywhere else. A genetic analysis indicated that the starry dwarf frog is literally not closely related to any frog alive today. For millions of years India was a big island after it separated from Madagascar and Africa but before it collided with mainland Asia, so many species evolved independently from species in other parts of the world. Scientists hope to learn more about the starry dwarf frog to learn more about how other frogs evolved.

Let’s move on to another colorful frog, and a very weird one, the turtle frog. Simon brought this one to my attention, so thank you, Simon! This frog gets its name because it sort of looks like a tiny turtle without a shell.

The turtle frog lives in western Australia in areas that are much dryer than most frog habitats. Its body is bulbous with strong, stubby legs that allow it to burrow into the sand. Generally, when a frog burrows into sand or mud it does so by moving backwards, digging itself deeper with its strong hind legs. But the turtle frog digs forward, using its front legs to dig. Turtles are also forward diggers. Unlike most other frogs, the turtle frog doesn’t have long hind legs that it uses for jumping. It just has short legs in front and back.

It ranges in color from brown to reddish-brown to pink and it grows up to 2 inches long, or 5 cm. Its head is small, rounded, and distinct from the body, like a baby turtle’s head sticking out from its shell–but without a shell, without a beak, and with small black-dot eyes.

Obviously the turtle frog isn’t related to the turtle at all. Turtles are reptiles while frogs are amphibians. The turtle frog has adapted to a semi-arid climate and a diet of termites by evolving the ability to dig deep burrows, some of them almost four feet deep, or 1.2 meters, and the ability to break into termite nests. As a result, its body plan is different from most other frogs.

That’s not all that’s different, though. Most frogs lay eggs in water, which hatch into tadpoles that live in the water until they metamorphose into small frogs. The turtle frog doesn’t have that kind of luxury. It doesn’t have a lot of water most of the time, so it hatches into a tiny froglet instead of a tadpole.

The most colorful frogs in the world live in the tropics, especially the poison dart frogs of Central and South America. Poison dart frogs are diurnal, meaning they’re most active during the daytime, and they’re fairly small, with the biggest species growing to no more than about two and a half inches long, or 6 cm. Different species of poison dart frogs are different colors and patterns, ranging from a lovely bright blue to red or yellow. These little frogs need to be brightly colored so that predators know to leave them alone, and the reason they should leave them alone is that poison dart frogs are incredibly toxic.

You may have heard the story that natives of South America would rub the tips of their darts or arrows on these frogs to transfer the frogs’ toxic secretions to the weapons. That’s where the name poison dart frog comes from. That’s sort of true, but not completely true. Not all poison dart frogs were used in this way, just four of the largest species that are especially toxic.

One of these four species is the golden poison dart frog, which lives in the rainforests of Colombia. It’s usually bright yellow with black eyes, although some individuals are a minty green or orange. It looks cheery, but a single frog has enough poison to kill two African elephants, not that it would because it lives in South America and not Africa and the elephants would not try to eat the frog. One frog has enough poison to kill 10 to 20 humans, though, so don’t try to eat one. In fact, don’t even touch it, because poison dart frogs store their poison in skin glands and if a frog feels threatened, it will secrete a tiny amount of the poison. If that poison gets into your body, you will die.

So why do people keep golden poison dart frogs as pets? That would be like having a pet stick of dynamite, right? Actually, it turns out that frogs born in captivity don’t develop the toxins that wild frogs have. Frogs that are captured in the wild and kept in captivity will eventually lose the toxins, although it may take several years. This is because the frog doesn’t manufacture the toxins itself but retains toxins found in some insects it eats, although researchers aren’t sure yet which insect or insects.

The golden poison dart frog lays its eggs on the ground. This sounds weird until you remember that it lives in a rainforest and the ground is covered with dead leaves that are constantly wet from rain. When the eggs hatch into tadpoles, though, they need more than just wet leaves, so the parent frogs squat down and the tadpoles wriggle onto the parents’ backs. They stick there and the parents carry them not to a pond but up into the trees. Water collects in the middle of large leaves of some rainforest tree species, and of course there are always little hollows and holes in tree trunks that can fill with rainwater. The frogs deposit the tadpoles into these little puddles, where the tadpoles eat mosquito larvae and algae. But even then, the parents don’t abandon their babies. Golden poison dart frogs are social animals, not generally a trait you associate with frogs, and they live in little groups of around half a dozen individuals. When the tadpoles finish developing and metamorphose into adult frogs, the parents lead their babies to other golden poison dart frogs so they can join a group.

Finally, our last colorful frog of the episode and the very last animal we’ll cover for 2020 is the tomato frog. As you might have guessed, the tomato frog is red-orange in color. It lives in Madagascar and a big female can grow up to 4 inches long, or 10.5 cm. Males are much smaller and are more yellow than red. But the tomato frog doesn’t use its coloring to hide among tomato plants. Its coloring advertises that it’s toxic, although its toxin is much different from those found in poison dart frogs and not deadly.

The tomato frog mostly eats worms and termites, which it finds by digging around in the leaf litter. It also catches insects with its sticky tongue. It’s not a very good swimmer, surprisingly, and spends most of its time on land or in swampy areas. It’s a mostly nocturnal frog.

If a tomato frog feels threatened, it will puff itself up to appear larger, which also incidentally makes it look even more like a tomato. It will also secrete a sticky white toxin that irritates a predator’s mucus membranes and can cause serious allergic reactions in humans. The toxin is so sticky that it will remain in the predator’s mouth for days. So if you live in Madagascar and have a tomato garden, carefully examine every tomato before you take a bite.

This is what a tomato frog sounds like:

[tomato frog croaking]

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or just tell a friend. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 203: Swarms!



Thanks to Nicholas and Juergen for their suggestions! Let’s learn about some insects that migrate and swarm!

Further listening:

The Animal Migrations Patreon episode (it’s unlocked so anyone can listen)

Further reading:

Ladybugs Are Everywhere!

Monarch butterflies gathered in winter:

The painted lady butterfly:

The bogong moth:

The globe skimmer dragonfly:

Ladybugs spend the winter in bunches, sometimes in your house:

A stink bug, one of many potentially in your house:

This person is not afraid of locusts even though I would be freaking out:

A field in Australia being eaten by locusts (the brown part):

Show transcript:

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

Let’s learn about some insects this week, but not just any old insects. Let’s learn about insects that swarm. Thanks to Nicholas and Juergen for suggestions that led to this episode!

Nicholas suggested long-distance migrators ages ago, and I did do an episode about migration for a Patreon episode. I’ve unlocked that episode so anyone can listen to it, with a link in the show notes. I’ve also used some of the information in that episode for this one, specifically the part about monarch butterflies.

In fact, let’s start with the monarch butterfly. The monarch is a good-sized butterfly, with orange and black wings with white spots along the edges and a wingspan of up to four inches, or 10 cm. It lives in many parts of the world, but only the North American subspecies of monarch migrates.

Every autumn, monarch butterflies living in North America, where they breed, head south to winter in the mountains of central Mexico, a trip that can be as long as 3,000 miles, or 4,800 km. They spend the winter in oyamel fir trees, millions of butterflies in the branches. When spring arrives, the butterflies head north again, but they don’t get all the way back to their original range. If they’re lucky, they reach Texas, where they mate and lay eggs on milkweed plants before dying. The caterpillars hatch, eat up the milkweed, spin cocoons, and emerge transformed into new butterflies that continue the flight north, deeper into North America. But those butterflies don’t make it all the way to their parents’ home range either. They too stop to mate, lay eggs, and die. It can take four or five generations for monarch butterflies to reach Canada and other distant parts of North America, and by that time it’s autumn again. The butterflies fly back to Mexico.

Butterflies heading north live out their entire life cycle in only five or six weeks, but the butterflies that return to Mexico live up to eight months. Researchers think the northward migration follows the blooming of milkweed plants. Milkweed contains toxins that make the monarchs poisonous to a lot of animals, but some birds and a lot of insects will eat the caterpillars. Some populations of North American monarchs overwinter in California, Arizona, or Florida instead of Mexico.

The North American monarch is declining in numbers, probably mostly due to the decline of milkweed. The best way to help the butterfly is to plant milkweed in any area you don’t want to mow very often.

While the monarch migration is astounding, it’s not the only butterfly that migrates. A small, pretty butterfly called the painted lady lives throughout much of the world, even the Arctic, but not South America for some reason. Some populations stay put year-round, but some migrate long distances. One population winters in tropical Africa and travels as far as the Arctic Circle during summer, a distance of 4,500 miles, or 7,200 km, which takes six generations. The butterflies who travel back to Africa fly at high altitude, unlike monarch butterflies that fly quite low to the ground most of the time. Unlike the monarch, painted ladies like many kinds of flowers, not just one plant, and they don’t always migrate every year.

In Australia, some populations of the bogong moth migrate some 600 miles, or 965 km. It’s a dark brown moth with a wingspan of up to two inches across, or 5 cm, and naturally enough, it migrates at night. Unlike the butterflies we’ve talked about, the migration doesn’t take successive generations. In spring the moths fly from the lowlands into the mountains, where they spend the summer mostly hiding in caves and other dark places. The bogong moth actually breeds and lays eggs in winter, because it doesn’t like hot weather.

Birds and some other animals depend on the moth migration for food, when they can eat a lot of big fat moths and get lots of protein. Some Aboriginal tribes of southeastern Australia also used to follow the migration into the mountains, where they would gather lots of moths from caves and roast them. Apparently they taste like nuts.

But the insect that migrates farthest is a species of dragonfly. The globe skimmer, also called the wandering glider or winged wanderer, lives in much of the world, but not in Europe. Researchers think it can’t cross the Sahara to reach Europe, but it can cross the Himalayas. It’s the highest-flying dragonfly known as a result. Even though it’s a small dragonfly, less than two inches long, or 4.5 cm, it has big wings, with a wingspan of almost three and a half inches, or 8 and a half cm. Its abdomen is usually yellow, although males are sometimes more reddish. It’s a strong, fast flier and that’s a good thing, because an individual dragonfly may fly as far as 3,700 miles, or 6,000 km, during migration.

Different populations migrate to different areas, naturally, but scientists have compared the genetic profiles of globe skimmers from different parts of the world and discovered that they’re all extremely similar. This can only happen if the dragonflies from different continents are breeding with each other, which suggests that they’re traveling even farther than we already know. The globe skimmer crosses the Indian Ocean between Asia and Africa, and it shows up on incredibly remote islands, so obviously it’s able to cross vast distances without too much trouble.

The reason the globe skimmer migrates is that it needs fresh water to lay its eggs in. Many parts of the world have well-defined rainy seasons and dry seasons, and the globe skimmer wants to stay where it’s rainy. As it travels, it meets up with other dragonflies, mates, and lays eggs as it goes. The eggs develop quickly and the larvae mature within a few weeks, and immediately join the migration.

The reason the globe skimmer is able to migrate is because of its big wings and flying style. Its wings are broad as well as long, which allows it to ride the wind like a surfer riding a wave. It can glide long distances without needing to move its wings, which saves a lot of energy.

But most insects don’t exactly migrate, or at least they only travel relatively short distances to find a place to winter. The ladybug, for instance.

Juergen emailed me a few months ago about meeting one ladybug outside, then going inside to find a bajillion ladybugs. This happens a lot in autumn and it’s amazing how such a pretty little insect can suddenly seem horrifying when there are hundreds or even thousands of them in your home. It happens because many species of ladybug gather together to spend the winter in a sheltered area. Usually the sheltered area is a forest floor or a rock with lots of crannies for them to hide in. But sometimes it’s your house.

The outside of a light-colored house reflects heat from the sun, which is good for your house but which also attracts ladybugs. When a ladybug finds a nice place to spend the winter, it releases pheromones that attract other ladybugs, and before you know it, your house is ladybug central. Even if you bring in an exterminator to get rid of the bugs, the pheromones remain and will continue to attract ladybugs for years. All you can do is make sure ladybugs can’t get into your house by sealing up every little crack and gap. If the ladybugs do remain, a lot of them will probably die because most houses are too dry for them in winter. The ones that do survive will leave in spring, and at least they don’t eat anything while they’re hibernating. Ladybugs eat aphids and other plant pests during warmer months, so they’re helpful to gardeners and farmers. There are special traps you can get that attract ladybugs and hold them inside until you take them out and release them.

Another insect, commonly called the stinkbug for the nasty odor it releases if it feels threatened, also called the shield bug for its shape, also sometimes comes into houses to spend the winter, sometimes in huge numbers. The most common species in North America these days is the brown marmorated stinkbug, which is a mottled brown with small black and white markings to help it blend in with tree bark. It can grow up to three-quarters of an inch long, or two cm, and is big and heavy and a very clumsy flyer.

The brown marmorated stinkbug is an invasive species from Asia that arrived in North America in the 1990s and has spread throughout the continent, especially the eastern United States. It eats plants and can destroy fruit crops and other crops like beans and tomatoes. So unlike the ladybug, it’s not a beneficial insect to humans. But despite its bad smell, it’s not dangerous to humans or pets. The stinkbug will often appear in your house in fall but also in spring, when it emerges from its little hiding spot in your house and tries to find its way outside.

Finally, let’s look at an infamous swarming insect, the locust. Locusts are responsible for untold thousands of humans dying of starvation when clouds of them sweep through a location, eat up every scrap of food they can find, and move on when all the food is gone. But what are locusts, and why do they do this?

The locust is a type of grasshopper. Specifically, it’s one of several species of short-horned grasshoppers. Ordinarily the grasshoppers are no different from other grasshoppers. But occasionally there’s a drought where a population of the grasshoppers live, and after the drought is over and the plants that died back start to grow really fast, the grasshoppers change.

First, the grasshoppers start to breed much more than usual. When those eggs hatch, the nymphs, which is what baby grasshoppers are called, stay together in groups instead of dispersing and start moving together. They don’t have wings until they grow up so they just hop together and meet up with more and more nymphs. Once they metamorphose into adult grasshoppers, they’re called locusts although they’re still the same grasshoppers as before, just with different behaviors. Some species also look a little different during swarming seasons, often larger than usual and sometimes with different coloration or markings.

Many of these species of grasshopper are large, up to four and a half inches long, or 11 cm, with large wings that make them strong fliers. The swarms can fly up to 93 miles a day, or 150 km, and land when they find a lot of food, which may be crops planted by humans. After the swarm has eaten everything it can find, it moves on to find more. It also leaves behind lots of eggs that soon hatch into new grasshopper nymphs that eat anything that’s started growing again.

If you’re wondering how even a whole bunch of grasshoppers can cause people to starve to death, you don’t have an idea yet of the size of the swarms. Locust swarms can contain tens of billions of grasshoppers. That’s billion with a B. An individual swarm can easily cover more than 100 square miles, or 260 square km, and when they land, they will literally eat every growing plant down to the ground, every single leaf, every single blade of grass, everything. Not only is there nothing left of crops when a locust swarm has come through, there’s no grass or leaves for animals to eat.

The largest locust swarm that we know of was seen in 1875 in the western United States. The swarm covered an estimated 198,000 square miles, or 510,000 square km. That’s larger than the entire state of California. There may have been over 12 trillion individual grasshoppers in that swarm.

This was the Rocky Mountain locust, which was adapted to the prairies of North America. As white settlers pushed west and planted crops where there had formerly only been prairie grass and other prairie plants, the farmers were repeatedly visited by locusts that ate not just their crops, but everything else they could find. The locusts ate leather, wool, wood, and there are even reports of locusts eating the clothes people were actually wearing. There were so many locusts that they couldn’t be avoided. They would get into houses and eat up food in the pantries, along with blankets and clothing. People tried everything they could think of to destroy the locusts, from setting entire fields on fire to building horse-drawn bulldozers that smashed the locusts flat. But nothing helped. There were too many of them.

But as the years passed and more and more prairie was converted to fields or pastures for cattle, and more cities and towns grew up in the west, the Rocky Mountain locust started to decline in numbers. In 2014 it was declared extinct, but by then no one had seen a Rocky Mountain locust since 1902. It’s possible they’re still around in small numbers, but a combination of habitat loss and active eradication of the insect probably drove it to extinction. Another species of North American grasshopper, the high plains locust, is rare these days and almost never swarms, with the last big swarm reported in the 1930s.

But there are plenty of other locusts throughout the world, reported throughout recorded history, including the ancient Egyptians, ancient Greeks, and ancient Chinese. Plagues of locusts feature in the Quran and the Bible. The most well known species are the desert locust, which lives in Africa and parts of the Middle East and Asia, and the migratory locust, which lives in Africa, Asia, Australia, New Zealand, and Europe, although it’s quite rare in Europe these days.

Not all locust swarms are enormous, of course, but even a small swarm can destroy local farms and pastures. In the days before easy communication and travel, this could mean people starved in one village even if the next village over was fine. Researchers estimate that a locust swarm that’s only one square kilometer in size, which is less than half a square mile, or about 250 acres, can eat as much as 35,000 people in a single day. WHOA, I did not realize when I wrote that that it would make it sound like the locusts were eating people. Locusts don’t eat people, they don’t hurt you, but the locusts eat as much food as 35,000 people do. That’s what I meant.

The thought of locust swarms is scary, but fortunately it doesn’t happen every year or even every decade. But it does still happen. In 1988, locusts swarming in Africa crossed the Atlantic Ocean and arrived in South America. This year, 2020, started out with desert locusts swarming in parts of north and east Africa in January, spreading into parts of Asia by May. In November, some localized swarms of locusts were spotted in parts of Australia after heavy rains, especially in west and northwest Victoria.

These days, though, people have the advantage of early warning. Locust swarms can be tracked by satellite and drones, people whose crops are eaten up can have food shipped in to help keep anyone from starving, and there are pesticides that can kill a lot of locusts in a short amount of time. But a new experimental biological control has been working really well. The dried spores of a fungus that kills grasshoppers are sprayed on the ground where locusts are laying eggs, since grasshoppers lay their eggs in soil or sand. The fungus kills the grasshoppers and stays on the ground to kill the ones that hatch or arrive later. Best of all, unlike chemical pesticides, the fungus doesn’t kill other insects.

And don’t forget, of course, that the locust is edible. Cultures throughout much of the world traditionally ate locusts and they’re still considered delicacies in many places. They’re also more nutritious than meat from mammals like cattle. Besides, if locusts arrive and eat all your food, it’s just smart to eat the locusts that ate your food. You gotta get that food back somehow.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or just tell a friend. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!