Episode 383: The Marsupial Mole

Thanks to Catherine and arilloyd for suggesting the marsupial mole!

Further reading:

Northern marsupial mole: Rare blind creature photographed in Australian outback

The marsupial mole, adorable little not-mole from Australia [photo from article above]:

Grant’s golden mole, adorable little not-mole from Africa:

Show transcript:

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

This week we have a little short episode about a very small Australian animal suggested by two listeners: Catherine, who has the best name ever, and someone called arilloyd who left us a nice review and suggested this animal in the review. I’m not sure I’m pronouncing their name right, so apologies if not. The animal is the unusual but very cute marsupial mole.

There are two closely related species of marsupial mole, one that lives farther north than the other. They look very similar, with silky golden fur, strong, short legs with strong claws for digging, a very short tail, no external ears, and no eyes. The marsupial mole doesn’t have eyes at all. It doesn’t need eyes because it spends almost its entire life underground.

All this sounds similar to other moles, but the marsupial mole isn’t related to other moles. Other moles are placental mammals while the marsupial mole is a (guess, you have to guess), right, it’s a marsupial! That means its babies are born very early and crawl into the mother’s pouch to finish developing. The marsupial mole has two teats, so it can raise two babies at a time.

The marsupial mole grows around 6 inches long, or about 16 cm, and is a little chonky animal with a pouch that faces backwards so sand won’t get in it. It has a leathery nose and small teeth, and its front feet are large with two big claws.

We actually don’t know very much about the marsupial mole because it’s so seldom seen. Not only does it live underground, it lives in the dry interior of Australia, the Great Sandy Desert. It probably also lives in other desert areas of Australia.

Scientists think the marsupial mole originally evolved to dig not in desert sand but in the soft, wet ground in rainforests. Over millions of years Australia became more and more dry, until the rainforests eventually gave way to the current desert conditions. The marsupial mole had time to adapt as its environment changed, and now it’s extremely well adapted to living in sand. It sort of swims through the sand using its big paddle-shaped front feet, kicking the sand behind it with its back legs. Unlike other moles, the marsupial mole doesn’t dig permanent tunnels and the sand just collapses behind it.

While the marsupial mole can’t see, and probably doesn’t have great hearing by our standards, it does have a good sense of smell in order to sniff out insect eggs and larvae, worms, and other small, soft food. It probably searches mainly for insect nests where it can find lots of food at one time, like ant nests. There are also reports of it eating adult insects, seeds, and even small lizards.

The reason the marsupial mole looks and acts so much like placental moles is due to convergent evolution. The mole’s body shape and habits just work really well for an animal that wants to dig around and eat grubs. Like other moles, it has trouble regulating its body temperature since most of the time it doesn’t need to do so. If it gets too hot, it can dig deeper into the sand where it’s cooler.

The marsupial mole is most similar to a completely unrelated placental mammal, Grant’s golden mole, which lives in a few parts of coastal South Africa and Namibia in Africa. Grant’s golden mole lives in sandy areas and swims through the sand like the marsupial mole does. It mainly eats termites and other insects, but it will also eat small reptiles. Its fur is a sandy golden color and it has no external ears, no eyes, and three big claws on its front feet. It only grows about 3 and a half inches long, or 9 cm, which makes it the smallest golden mole. It’s nocturnal and emerges from the sand at night, often hunting aboveground to conserve energy. It mostly hunts by hearing, but since its ears are most effective when it’s underground, it will often stop and stick its head into the sand to listen for potential prey.

Other golden moles are a little bit larger and live in different parts of Africa in different environments, from forests to swamps. But while golden moles are placental mammals, they’re not actually moles despite the name. They look and act like moles, but they’re actually more closely related to the tenrec, which we talked about in episode 324. The golden mole just shares the same traits as true moles due to convergent evolution again.

Just like water animals that all eventually develop a fish-like body shape, it seems that all digging mammals eventually develop a mole-like body shape. That shape also happens to be really cute, which is just a little extra bonus for the animal.

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

Thanks for listening!

 

Episode 379: Animals That Inspired Pokemon

Thanks to Pranav, Isaac, and an anonymous listener for their suggestions this week! Let’s learn about some animals that inspired three Pokemon.

Sandshrew:

Possible Sandshrew inspirations:

Drowzee:

Possible Drowzee inspiration:

Fennekin:

Undoubted Fennekin inspiration:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to do something slightly different. At least two people and probably a lot more have suggested that we talk about some animals that were the inspiration for Pokemon, so I picked three that you might not know about. Thanks to Pranav and Isaac for their suggestions, and if you suggested the same topic at some point and I didn’t write it down, thank you too! Thanks also to an anonymous listener who suggested three of the animals we’ll talk about in this episode. I didn’t intend to cover three animals suggested by the same listener but it worked out that way, which is kind of neat.

Some of you may not be familiar with what Pokemon are. The word is a shortened version of the term “pocket monsters,” and it started as a video game where players catch various monsters and store them in little round cages called pokeballs. A lot of Pokemon are so cute you can’t really call them monsters, but they all have different abilities and can evolve into even more powerful versions with enough training. My only real experience with Pokemon is the game Pokemon Go that came out in 2016, although I don’t play it anymore, but the franchise has had multiple games, including a trading card game that is still really popular, TV shows, movies, and of course lots of toys.

Sometimes it’s easy to figure out what animal inspired a Pokemon. Rhyhorn obviously looks like a rhinoceros, Magikarp looks like a goldfish, and so on. But sometimes it’s not so obvious. Let’s start with Sandshrew.

Sandshrew is a sandy-brown color on its back with a lighter belly and muzzle, and prominent claws. Its tail is big and its ears are small. It’s covered with armor plates, and in some versions of Sandshrew, most notably the Pokemon TV show, it can curl up into a ball. What does that remind you of?

Some of you just said “armadillo” and others of you just said “pangolin.” Both were suggested a while back by an anonymous listener. The two animals aren’t related but they do share some physical similarities, like armored bodies and the ability to curl up into a ball to make their armor even more effective.

We talked about the pangolin in episode 65, about animals that eat ants. The pangolin is related to anteaters, and is sometimes even called the scaly anteater, but it’s not closely related to the armadillo. Their similarities are mainly due to convergent evolution.

The pangolin is a mammal, but it’s covered in scales except for its belly and face. The scales are made of keratin, the same protein that makes up fingernails, hair, hooves, and other hard parts in mammals. When it’s threatened, it rolls up into a ball with its tail over its face, and the sharp-edged, overlapping scales protect it from being bitten or clawed. It has a long, thick tail, short, strong legs with claws, a small head, and very small ears. Its muzzle is long with a nose pad at the end, it has a long sticky tongue, and it has no teeth. It’s nocturnal and lives in burrows, and it uses its big front claws to dig into termite mounds and ant colonies. It has poor vision but a good sense of smell. It’s a good fit for Sandshrew and some species are even the same color as Sandshrew. It lives in southern Asia and much of sub-Sahara Africa, and all species are critically endangered.

Meanwhile, the armadillo is also a mammal that’s covered in armor except for its belly, but its armor is much different from the pangolin’s scales. The armor is made up of bands of hardened, bone-like skin covered with scutes, which are tiny flattened knobs of keratin. Ordinary skin connects the bands so that the animal can move around more easily. Some species roll up when threatened, but others rarely do. Instead they just run into the most thorny, prickly plants they can find. The armadillo’s armor protects it from being hurt by the thorns. Like the pangolin, it has sharp claws and can dig well to get at termites and other invertebrates, and like the pangolin it has poor eyesight but a good sense of smell. Its ears are small, its legs are short, and its tail is long but not as thick as the pangolin’s. Most species are grayish, pinkish, or brownish. It looks less like Sandshrew than the pangolin does, but it might have contributed to Sandshrew’s appearance and habits.

The armadillo lives in the Americas, mostly in South America but also Central and parts of North America. Many species are endangered.

Whichever animal you think inspired Sandshrew, I think we can agree that Sandshrew doesn’t have anything to do with actual shrews.

Our next Pokemon is Drowzee. Drowzee is a chonky, strong-looking monster who looks like it’s wearing gray pants but otherwise has ochre yellow skin. Its nose is drawn out into a short proboscis like a miniature elephant trunk, and it has three pointy toes on its hands and what look like cloven hooves on its feet. It doesn’t have a tail.

Drowzee is inspired by the tapir, probably the Asian tapir. The other tapirs alive today live in South and Central America, but the Asian tapir lives in lowland rainforests in parts of south Asia. It’s mostly white or pale gray with black or dark gray forequarters and legs. It’s also the largest species of tapir alive today, standing more than 3 and a half feet tall at the back, or 110 cm. Like other tapirs, it spends a lot of time in water, eating plants and staying cool.

The tapir looks kind of like a pig but it’s actually much more closely related to horses and rhinos. It has four toes on its front legs, three on its hind legs, and each toe has a large nail that looks like a little hoof. It also has a rounded body with a pronounced rump, a stubby little tail, and a long head with a short but prehensile trunk called a proboscis. It uses its proboscis to gather plants, and it can even use it as a snorkel when it’s underwater.

The Asian tapir isn’t a perfect match for Drowzee, but its two-part coloration and short proboscis are pretty close. As far as I know, the Asian tapir doesn’t make you fall asleep and then eat your dreams like Drowzee is supposed to do, but that’s an aspect of a monster in Japanese folklore. The baku is supposed to eat nightmares and traditionally it’s often described as being black and white like a panda, but often with tapir-like traits.

Our last Pokemon today is Fennekin, who is based on the fennec fox, also a suggestion by an anonymous listener. Fennekin is yellow-brown in color with white on its face, a red-orange tip to its tail and red-orange tufts in its gigantic ears.

The fennec fox lives in northern Africa and parts of Asia. Its fur is a pale sandy color with a black tip to the tail. Its eyes are dark and its ears are large. It stands only about 8 inches tall at the shoulder, or 20 cm, but its ears can be six inches long, or 15 cm. It eats rodents, birds and their eggs, insects, and other small animals, as well as fruit. It can jump really far, some four feet in one bound, or 120 cm. Because it lives in desert areas, it rarely needs to drink water. It gets most of its water through the food it eats, and researchers think it may also lap dew that gathers in the burrow where it spends the day.

Fennekin is a fire Pokemon, appropriate since it’s based on a desert animal. It’s also extra adorable, and so is the fennec fox.

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

Thanks for listening!

Episode 371: The Peacock

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

Further reading:

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

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

An ocellated turkey (not a peacock but related):

An Indian peacock male:

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

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

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

A green peacock [photo from this site]:

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

Show transcript:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[peacock sound]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for listening!

Episode 367: The Marozi

Thanks to Pranav for suggesting this mystery big cat this week, the marozi!

Further reading:

From Black Lions to Living Sabre-Tooths: My Top Ten Mystery Cats

Spotted Lions

A young lioness who still has some of her cub spots:

Subadult lions who still have a lot of cub spots:

The skin of an animal supposedly killed in 1931 and said to be a marozi:

Two photos of a “leopon,” a lion-leopard hybrid bred in captivity in a Japanese zoo:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to learn about a mystery animal suggested by Pranav. It’s the marozi, a big cat from the mountains of Kenya.

Kenya is in east Africa, and humans have lived in what is now Kenya since humans existed. Because of this, usually when we talk about Kenya or east Africa, we’re talking about hominins, but today we’re talking about big cats.

Kenya is home to a lot of animals you think of when someone mentions the animals of Africa, like elephants and giraffes, and it’s also home to three big cats: lions, leopards, and cheetahs. The lion is generally a tawny brown color although different individuals and populations can be various shades of brown or gray. A lion cub is born with dark spots, and as it grows the spots fade. Sometimes a young adult lion will still have some spots, especially on its legs and belly, but in general an adult lion has no spots at all. In comparison, both the leopard and the cheetah are famous for their spots.

The lion prefers to live in savannas and open woodlands. These days it’s only found in a few parts of India, along with various places in sub-Saharan Africa. This just means south of the Sahara desert. In the past, though, the lion had a much larger range. It lived throughout most of Africa, the Middle East, southern Asia, and even southern Europe. Overhunting drove it to extinction in many parts of its historic range, which is called extirpation. I’ve used the term before but it specifically means that an animal has been driven to extinction in one area where it once lived, but it isn’t extinct in other areas. Some subspecies of lion have gone extinct, and the lions who remain are vulnerable to habitat loss, poaching, and many other factors. Just because lions are common in zoos doesn’t mean lions in the wild are doing fine.

The same is true of the cheetah, which has an even smaller range than the lion these days but which was once common throughout Africa and the Middle East along with a lot of southern Asia and Europe. We talked about the cheetah in episode 145. It’s actually not closely related to the lion or the leopard, and in fact genetic testing reveals that it’s most closely related to the puma of North America.

The leopard, on the other hand, is a very close relation to the lion. Both belong to the same genus, Panthera, which also includes tigers, jaguars, and snow leopards, but the lion and leopard are the closest cousins. While it’s also vulnerable to habitat loss, poaching, and other factors, it’s more widespread than the lion and cheetah. It lives throughout much of sub-Saharan Africa, Asia–especially India–and even parts of eastern Russia, and in the past it was even more widespread. It prefers forests where its spots help it blend in with dappled sun and shade.

So, the lion, the leopard, and the cheetah all live in Kenya, but there’s another big cat that’s supposed to live there too. It’s called the marozi, also sometimes called the spotted lion.

Stories of lions that have spots like a leopard go back for centuries among the local people. The spotted lion is supposed to be small and the male either has no mane or only a small one. It’s supposed to live in the mountains and is solitary instead of living in family groups like ordinary lions. In fact, “marozi” supposedly means “solitary lion” in the local language. Instead of living in open grasslands, it lives in thick forest where a spotted coat and smaller body size would be useful, allowing it to maneuver through the trees more easily while not being seen.

It wasn’t until the colonial era in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that Europeans became aware of the marozi. The first known sighting of a spotted lion by a European occurred in 1903, when a British soldier reported seeing more than one in the mountains of Kenya. He said the lions were darker in color than an ordinary lion, with leopard-like rosette markings. In 1924, a game warden reported killing a spotted lioness and her cubs, with the lioness having just as many spots as the babies.

In 1931 a farmer shot two small spotted lions in the mountains. He said they were fully grown despite their small size, but they had even more spots than lion cubs do. One was a male and he had a sparse, short mane. The farmer kept the male’s skin, which eventually made its way to the Natural History Museum in London, possibly with the lion’s skull too, although it’s not clear if the skull actually belongs to the same animal. As far as I could find out, no one has tried to test the skin and skull genetically.

Other people, including hunters and game wardens, reported seeing spotted lions in high elevations where ordinary lions didn’t live, with stories continuing through at least the 1960s. Similar stories of a spotted lion have been collected from mountains in other parts of east and central Africa, including Ethiopia, Rwanda, Uganda, and Cameroon, where it has different local names. But so far we don’t have any photographs or a specimen.

There are a few hypotheses about what the marozi might be. One suggestion is that it’s actually a hybrid of a leopard and a lion. Because leopards and lions are so closely related, they can interbreed and produce offspring, although as far as we know this has only happened in captivity. In the wild, lions are actually aggressive towards leopards. A lion will steal a leopard’s food and will sometimes even kill leopards, and as a result leopards try to avoid lions. Since leopards prefer thick forest and lions prefer open forest or grasslands, they don’t cross paths all that often anyway.

In the late 1950s into the early 1960s, a zoo in Japan kept a male leopard and a female lion in the same enclosure to see if they would mate. They did, and eventually they had two litters together. The cubs were larger and heavier than leopards but not as big as lions, and while they generally looked like lions they had leopard spots. The males had small manes.

This sounds a lot like reports of the marozi, but again, in the wild lions and leopards mostly avoid each other. The only time a lion and a leopard would consider each other potential mates instead of potential trouble is when they’re put together artificially as in the Japanese zoo. Even if an occasional leopard and lion do sometimes breed in the wild, it wouldn’t happen often enough to cause all the sightings documented about the marozi. Besides, the marozi is only reported from the mountains, where lions don’t live.

Another hypothesis is that there’s a population of ordinary lions that have moved into the mountains to escape factors like habitat loss, poaching, and a decline in prey animals, and that people occasionally see a young adult lion that hasn’t completely lost its cub spots. This isn’t too likely either since stories of the marozi go back to long before these modern pressures on lion populations.

There might very well be an unknown, very rare species or subspecies of lion that has always lived in the mountains in parts of east and central Africa, and that it does actually have spots as an adult. If this is the case, hopefully it’s safe in its mountain habitat from the pressures faced by ordinary lions. Let’s hope also that it comes to the attention of scientists soon so it can be studied and protected.

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

Thanks for listening!

Episode 365: A New Temnospondyl

Let’s take a look at some new findings about the temnospondyls this week!

Further reading:

Ancient giant amphibians swam like crocodiles 250 million years ago

Fossil of Giant Triassic Amphibian Unearthed in Brazil

Kwatisuchus rosai was an early amphibian [picture taken from article linked above]:

Koolasuchus was a weird big-headed boi:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to revisit an animal we talked about way back in episode 172, the temnospondyl. That’s because a new species of temnospondyl has been named that lived about 250 million years ago, and some other new information has been published about temnospondyls in general.

In case you haven’t listened to episode 172 in a while, let’s brush up on some history. The temnospondyls arose about 330 million years ago during the Carboniferous period. Ocean levels were high, the continents were coming together slowly to form the supercontinent Pangaea, and much of the land was flooded with warm, shallow water that created enormous swampy areas full of plants. Naturally, a whole lot of animals evolved to live in the swamps, and the temnospondyls were especially successful.

Temnospondyls were semi-aquatic animals that probably looked a lot like really big, really weird salamanders. This was before modern amphibians evolved, and scientists still aren’t sure if the temnospondyls are the direct ancestors of modern amphibians or just cousins that died out with no living descendants. Temnospondyls do share many traits with modern amphibians, but they still had a lot in common with their fish ancestors.

Most temnospondyls had large heads that were broad and flattened in shape, often with a skull that was roughly triangular. Some had smooth skin but many had scales, including some species with scales that grew into armor-like plates. The earliest species had relatively small, weak legs and probably spent most of their time in the water, but it wasn’t long before species with stronger legs developed that probably lived mostly on land.

Many temnospondyls were small, but some grew really big. The biggest found so far is Prionosuchus, which is only known from fragmentary specimens discovered in Brazil in South America. It had an elongated snout something like a ghavial’s, which is a type of crocodilian that mostly eats fish, and a similar body shape. That’s why its name ends in the word “suchus,” which refers to a crocodile or an animal that resembles a crocodilian. Inside, though, prionosuchus probably had more in common with its fish ancestors than with modern crocodiles, and of course it wasn’t a reptile at all. It was an amphibian, possibly the largest one that’s ever lived. The biggest specimen found so far had a skull that measured just over 5 feet long, or 1.6 meters. That was just the skull! The whole animal, tail and all, might have measured as much as 30 feet long, or about 9 meters, although most paleontologists think it was probably more like 18 feet long, or 5-1/2 meters. That’s still incredibly big, as large as the average saltwater crocodile that lives today.

The resemblance of many temnospondyls to crocodilians is due to convergent evolution, since researchers think a lot of temnospondyls filled the same ecological niche as modern crocodiles. If you’re an ambush predator who spends a lot of time hiding in shallow water waiting for prey to get close enough, the best shape to have is a long body, short legs, a long tail that’s flattened side to side to help you swim, and a big mouth for grabbing, preferably with a lot of teeth. A study published in March of 2023 examined some trace fossils found in South Africa that scientists think were made about 255 million years ago by a temnospondyl. The fossils were found in what had once been a tidal flat or lagoon along the shore of the ancient Karoo Sea. You didn’t need to know it was called the Karoo Sea but I wanted to say it because it sounds like something from a fantasy novel. Truly, we live in a wonderful world. Anyway, there aren’t very many footprints but there are swirly marks made by a long tail and body impressions where the animal settled onto the floor to rest.

From those trace fossils, scientists can learn a lot about how the animal lived and moved. The swirly tail marks show that it used it tail to swim, not its legs. Since there are hardly any footprints, it probably kept its legs folded back against its body while it was swimming. When it stopped to rest, it may have been watching for potential prey approaching from above, since its eyes were situated on the top of its head to allow it to see upward easily. All these traits are also seen in crocodiles even though temnospondyls aren’t related to crocodilians at all.

Other big temnospondyls that filled the same ecological niche as crocodiles were species in the family Benthosuchidae. Some grew over 8 feet long, or 2.5 meters. That may not seem very big compared to a dinosaur or a whale, but this is your reminder that it was an early amphibian, and that amphibians are usually little guys, like frogs and newts.

The newly discovered fossil I mentioned at the beginning of this episode has been identified as a member of the family Benthosuchidae. It’s been named Kwatisuchus rosai and was discovered in Brazil in 2022. That’s a big deal, because while temnospondyl fossils have been found throughout the world, until Kwatisuchus, benthosuchids have only been found in eastern Europe. It was five feet long, or 1.5 meters, and it was probably an ambush predator that mostly ate fish.

Kwatisuchus lived only a few million years after the end-Permian extinction event, also called the Great Dying, which we talked about in episode 227. That extinction event wiped out entire orders of animals and plants. Temnospondyls in general survived the Great Dying and hung on for another 100 million years afterwards.

The last temnospondyl that lived, as far as the fossil record shows, was Koolasuchus. It lived in what is now Australia and went extinct about 120 million years ago. This is a lot more recent than most temnospondyls, so much so that when it was first discovered, scientists at first didn’t think it could be a temnospondyl. It was only described in 1997, although it was first discovered in 1978.

Not only was Koolasuchus the most recently living temnospondyl, it was also big and heavy and very weird-looking. It was about 10 feet long, or about 3 meters, and might have weighed as much as 1,100 lbs, or 500 kg. It lived in fast-moving streams and filled the same ecological niche as crocodiles, which eventually replaced it after it went extinct.

Like its relations, Koolasuchus had a roughly crocodile-shaped body with short legs and a fairly long tail, but its head was almost as big as its body. Most temnospondyls had big heads, and Koolasuchus’s was broad and rounded with a blunt nose. It also had what are called tabular horns that projected from the rear of the skull, which gave its head a triangular appearance. Its body was relatively slender compared to the chonky head, which made it look kind of like a really really big tadpole.

Remember, as an amphibian, Koolasuchus would have laid eggs that hatched into a larval form the same way frogs do today. We have a lot of larval temnospondyl fossils and even some fossilized eggs that paleontologists think were laid by a temnospondyl, which were attached to water plants the same way many species of frog do today. Larval temnospondyls did look a lot like tadpoles. In other words, Koolasuchus looked like a tadpole in shape but its larval form was also probably tadpole-like. Extra, extra tadpole-shaped.

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

Thanks for listening!

Episode 363: The Dodo and Friends

Thanks to Wilmer and Carson for suggesting we revisit the dodo!

Further reading:

Dodos and spotted green pigeons are descendants of an island-hopping bird

On the possible vernacular name and origin of the extinct Spotted Green Pigeon Caloenus maculata

Giant, fruit-gulping pigeon eaten into extinction on Pacific islands

A taxidermied dodo:

The Nicobar pigeon, happily still alive [photo by Devin Morris – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=110541928]:

The 1823 illustration of the spotted green pigeon:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to revisit a bird that everyone’s heard of but no one has seen alive, because it’s famously extinct. We talked about the dodo way back in episode 19, so it’s definitely time we talked about it again. Thanks to Wilmer and Carson for suggesting it! We’re also going to learn about some of the close relations of the dodo.

The first report of a dodo was in 1598 by Dutch sailors who stopped by the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. Mauritius is east of Madagascar, which is off the eastern coast of Africa. The last known sighting of a dodo was in 1662, just 64 years later. The dodo went extinct so quickly, and was so little known, that for a couple of centuries afterwards many people assumed it was just a sailor’s story. But there were remains of dodos, and in the 19th century scientists gathered up everything they could find to study the birds. More remains were found on Mauritius.

In the wild, the dodo was a sleek bird that could run quite fast. It may have eaten crabs and other small animals as well as roots, nuts, seeds, and fruit. It was also probably pretty smart. People only thought it was dumb because it didn’t run away from sailors—but it had no predators on Mauritius so never had to worry about anything more dangerous than an occasional egg-stealing crab before.

When humans arrived on Mauritius, they killed and ate dodos and their eggs. What the sailors didn’t eat, the animals they brought with them did, like pigs and rats. It was a stark and clear picture of human-caused extinction, shocking to the Victorian naturalists who studied it.

A lot of the drawings and paintings we have of dodos were made from badly taxidermied birds or from overfed captive birds. At least eleven live dodos were brought to Europe and Asia, some bound for menageries, some intended as pets. The last known captive dodo was sent to Japan in 1647.

The dodo grew over three feet tall, or almost a meter, with brown or gray feathers, a floofy tuft of gray feathers as a tail, big yellow feet, and a weird head. The feathers stopped around the forehead, making it look sort of like it was wearing a hood. Its face was bare and the bill was large, bulbous at the end with a hook, and was black, yellow, and green. The dodo looks, in fact, a lot like what you might expect pigeons to evolve into if pigeons lived on an island with no predators, and that’s exactly what happened.

The dodo’s closest living relation is the Nicobar pigeon, which can grow 16 inches long, or over 40 cm. Like other pigeons, the dodo’s feathers probably had at least some iridescence, but the Nicobar pigeon is extra colorful. Its head is gray with long feathers around its shoulders like a fancy collar, and the rest of its body is metallic blue, green, and bronze with a short white tail. Zoos love to have these pigeons on display because they’re so pretty. It’s a protected animal, but unfortunately it’s still captured for sale on the pet black market or just hunted for food. It only lays one egg a year so it doesn’t reproduce very quickly, and all this combined with habitat loss make it an increasingly threatened bird. Scientists are trying to learn more about it so it can be better protected.

The Nicobar pigeon lives on a number of islands in the South Pacific and it can fly. Sometimes an errant individual is discovered in Australia, often after storms. Imagine going into your back yard one day and seeing a 40-centimeter-long bird whose feathers shine like jewels! The Nicobar pigeon lives in small flocks and eats seeds, fruit, and other plant material.

An even closer relative to the dodo is also the most mysterious. We don’t even know for sure if it’s extinct, although that’s very likely. It’s the spotted green pigeon and we only have one specimen–and we don’t even know where it was collected, just that it was an island somewhere in the South Pacific. There used to be two specimens, but no one knows what happened to the second one.

For a long time researchers weren’t even sure the spotted green pigeon was a distinct species or just a Nicobar pigeon with weird-colored feathers, but in 2014, DNA testing on two of the remaining specimen’s feathers showed it was indeed a separate species. Researchers think the spotted green pigeon, the dodo, and another extinct bird, the Rodrigues solitaire, all descended from an unknown pigeon ancestor that liked to island hop. Sometimes some of those pigeons would decide they liked a particular island and would stay, ultimately evolving into birds more suited to the habitat.

The specimen we have of the spotted green pigeon is 13 inches long, or 32 cm. Its feathers are dark brown with green iridescence and it has long neck feathers like the Nicobar pigeon. It also has little yellowish spots on its wings and a yellow tip to its bill. Researchers think it was probably a fruit-eating bird that lived in treetops.

The only reason we know there were once two specimens of this mystery bird is from a book about birds published in 1783, where the author mentions having seen two specimens. There was also an 1823 book about birds with an illustration of the spotted green pigeon that differs from the known specimen in some details. Researchers think the illustration might have been painted from the now-missing specimen.

There’s more to this mystery, though, because in 2020 an ornithologist studied a 1928 book about Tahiti that mentioned a bird that sounds a lot like the spotted green pigeon. It was even called a pigeon in the book. Since the author of that book had drawn on studies made by her grandfather almost a hundred years before, and since her grandfather had interviewed Tahitians about their history and traditions and they told him about the pigeon, the ornithologist suggested the spotted green pigeon might actually be from Tahiti. Now that scientists have a clue about where to start looking for remains of the bird, we might learn more about it soon.

Also in 2020, a study was published about another pigeon from the Pacific Islands. Fossils of it were found on the island of Tonga, and the scientists determined that the bird probably went extinct soon after humans first arrived on the island 2,850 years ago. The pigeon has been named Tongoenas burleyi. It grew about 20 inches long, or 50 cm, not counting its tail. It could fly and probably spent a lot of its time in trees, eating fruit. There are lots of different trees on the island that produce really big fruit, some of it as big as a tennis ball. Scientists think the pigeon was adapted to swallow these huge fruits whole, digest them, and poop out the seeds. The trees still exist but they’re in decline and scientists think it may be because no birds remain on the island that can spread their seeds effectively.

We don’t have any feathers from the newly described pigeon, but it was probably colorful. We do have a lot of bones, because many charred bones have been discovered in cooking pits excavated by archaeologists.

We don’t know yet how or if Tongoenas is related to the dodo. The Pacific islands are home to at least 90 living species of pigeon, and many of them we don’t know much about. There are undoubtedly many more waiting to be discovered by scientists, whether living or extinct.

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

Thanks for listening!

Episode 361: The New Hominin

Welcome to 2024! Let’s learn about some exciting new discoveries in our own family tree!

Further reading:

476,000-Year-Old Wooden Structure Unearthed in Zambia

Mysterious 300,000-year-old skull could be new species of human, researchers say

Show transcript:

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

It’s time to start the new year off with an episode that has me really excited. I was initially going to include this in the updates episode that usually comes out around summertime, but I just can’t wait. In 2023, scientists discovered what they think might be a new lineage of extinct human ancestors!

We’ll come back to that in a moment, but first I want to highlight another amazing human-relateded discovery from 2023.

And just to let you know, I am going to be using the words “humans” and “people” and “hominins” more or less interchangeably. I try to make it clear when I’m talking about Homo sapiens versus other species of ancient hominin, but these are all our ancestors–in many cases our direct ancestors–so they’re all people as far as I’m concerned.

As you may know, especially if you’ve listened to previous episodes where we’ve discussed ancient human ancestors, the ancestors of all humans evolved in Africa. Specifically, we arose in the southern part of Africa, in areas that had once been dense forest but gradually changed to open woodland and savanna. Because there weren’t very many trees, our far-distant hominin ancestors, the australopiths, no longer needed to be able to climb trees as well as their ape cousins. Instead, they evolved an upright stance and long legs to see over tall grasses, and the stamina to run after the animals they hunted until the animal was exhausted and couldn’t run anymore. Once our ancestors were walking on two legs all the time, their hands were free to carry babies and food and anything else they wanted.

Being fully bipedal meant that women had a harder time giving birth, since the pelvis had to change position to allow them to walk and run, so babies started being born when they were smaller. This meant the babies needed a whole lot more care for a lot longer, which meant that family groups became even more important and complicated. One thing we’ve learned about sociability in animals is that it leads to increased intelligence, and that’s definitely what happened with our long-distant ancestors. As their brains got bigger, they became more creative. They made lots of different types of tools, especially weapons and items that helped them process food, but eventually they also made artwork, baskets, clothing, jewelry, and everything else they needed.

All this took a long time, naturally. We know Australopithecus used stone tools over three million years ago, but we don’t have evidence of human ancestors using fire until a little over 1.5 million years ago. Homo sapiens was once thought to have only evolved around 100,000 years ago, maybe less, but as scientists find more remains and are able to use more sophisticated techniques to study those remains, the date keeps getting pushed back. Currently we’re pretty certain that actual humans, if not the fully modern humans alive today, arose about 300,000 years ago and maybe even earlier. Homo sapiens evolved from Homo erectus, which arose about two million years ago and went extinct about 100,000 years ago. They were probably the first hominin to use fire, which allowed humans to start migrating longer distances into colder climates. They might also have communicated with language. Basically, Homo erectus was a lot like us but not quite us yet.

The modern-day country of Zambia is in the middle of south-central Africa, and naturally it’s been home to humans and our ancestors for as long as humans have existed. One especially important part of Zambia is also one of its most beautiful places, Kalambo Falls, which is really close to the equally important and beautiful country of Tanzania. Scientists have known that humans of one kind or another have lived around Kalambo Falls for at least 447,000 years, long before Homo sapiens actually evolved.

When a team of archaeologists excavated a sandbar near the falls in 2019, they were surprised to find wooden artifacts. Wood doesn’t usually preserve for very long and the site they were excavating was quite old. In addition to wooden tools, they found two logs that had been shaped and notched to allow them to fit together securely. The researchers thought the logs had once been part of a structure like a walkway that would keep people’s feet out of the mud and water, or possibly the floor of a wooden structure used to store food. It might even have been the floor of a little house.

Wood can be dated with simple tests to find out its age, but the test is only useful for trees that died within the last 50,000 years. Anything older than that is just, you know, older than 50,000 years. The tools and logs tested as older, which the scientists expected. Fortunately there are other ways to date older wood, but the results of those tests were surprising even to the scientists. The tools were at least 324,000 years old, possibly as much as 390,000 years old, but the logs were even older, about 476,000 years old.

Remember, Homo sapiens didn’t even evolve until about 300,000 years ago. That means humans didn’t make those tools or build anything with those shaped logs. Some other hominin did, although we’re not sure who. Even more exciting, close examination of the logs suggests that they may have been subjected to fire at some point. That might mean a natural fire or it might mean that the people who were building with the logs were also using fire as much as two million years before we thought people were using fire.

Obviously scientists are going to look carefully for more clues about who might have shaped these logs and when. Hopefully we’ll learn more soon.

Around the same time that scientists uncovered the wooden items in southern Africa, another discovery was made in 2019, this one in East China. A team found a jaw, skull, and leg bones of a hominin that didn’t match up to any known human ancestor. The bones were dated to 300,000 years ago, at the dawn of Homo sapiens. Other hominins had migrated to eastern Asia long before this, however, including populations of Homo erectus.

The newly discovered bones don’t belong to Homo erectus, though. They don’t belong to Homo sapiens either, or any other known hominin. They represent a completely new hominin, and at the moment scientists don’t know where exactly they fit in our own family tree.

The bones show traits found in modern humans, like a flat face, but lack other uniquely human traits, most notably a chin. Homo sapiens have chins, unlike every other hominin, and no one’s sure why. It might have something to do with speech or maybe early humans with chins were just considered more attractive, and now everyone has a chin.

The mystery hominin is still being studied, but preliminary findings indicate that we might have discovered the ancestor of a very close relation. The bones show some traits also found in Neandertals, our very closest evolutionary cousins, even though they’re extinct. There’s a possibility that this new hominin gave rise to another line of very close human relations, one we don’t have any fossils of yet.

I know there are a lot of excited scientists wanting to learn more about the hominin bones. Hopefully more bones will turn up soon so we can get a better idea of who this distant relative is. It’s a little too early to throw them a welcome home party, but maybe we can start planning it now.

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

Thanks for listening!

Episode 354: Sheep and Sivatherium

Thanks to Hannah, who suggested sheep as this week’s topic! We’ll also learn about a few other hoofed animals, including the weird giraffe relative, sivatherium.

Further reading:

The American Jacob Sheep Breeders’ Association

What happened with that Sumerian ‘sivathere’ figurine after Colbert’s paper of 1936? Well, a lot.

A Jacob sheep ewe with four horns (pic from JSBA site linked above):

The male four-horned antelope [photo by K. Sharma at this site]:

A modern reconstruction of sivatherium that looks a lot like a giraffe [By Hiuppo – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2872962]:

The rein ring in question (on the left) that might be a siveratherium but might just be a deer:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to look at an animal suggested by Hannah a long time ago. Hannah suggested we talk about sheep, and I can’t even tell you how many times I almost did this episode but decided to push it back just a little longer. Finally, though, we have the sheep episode we’ve all been waiting for! We’re also going to learn about a strange animal called sivatherium and a mystery surrounding when it went extinct.

The sheep has cloven hooves and is a ruminant related to goats and cattle. It mostly eats grass, and it chews its cud to further break down the plants it eats. It’s one of the oldest domesticated animals in the world, with some experts estimating that it was first domesticated over 13,000 years ago. Mammoths still roamed the earth then. Sheep are especially useful to humans because not only can you eat them, they produce wool.

Wool has incredible insulating properties, as you’ll know if you’ve ever worn a wool sweater in the snow. Even if it gets wet, you stay nice and warm. Even better, you don’t have to kill the sheep to get the wool. The sheep just gets a haircut every year to cut its wool short. Wild sheep don’t grow a lot of wool, though. They mostly have hair like goats. Humans didn’t start selecting for domestic sheep that produced wool until around 8,000 years ago.

Like other animals that were domesticated a very long time ago, including dogs and horses, we’re not sure what the direct ancestor of the domestic sheep is. It seems to be most closely related to the mouflon, which is native to parts of the middle east. The mouflon is reddish-brown with darker and lighter markings and it looks a lot like a goat. Other species of wild sheep live in various parts of the world but aren’t as closely related to the domestic sheep. The bighorn and Dall sheep of western North America are closely related to the snow sheep of eastern Asia and Siberia. The ancestors of all three species spread from eastern Asia into North America during the Pleistocene when sea levels were low and Asia and North America were connected by the land bridge Beringia.

The male sheep is called a ram and grows horns that curl in a spiral pattern, while the female sheep is called a ewe. Some ewes have small horns, some don’t. This is the case for both wild and domestic sheep. Sheep use their horns as defensive weapons, butting potential predators who get too close, and they also butt each other. Rams in particular fight each other to establish dominance, although ewes do too.

But some breeds of domestic sheep are what is called polycerate, which means multi-horned. That means a sheep may have more than two horns, typically up to six. Many years ago I kept a few Jacob sheep, which are a polycerate breed, and in a Patreon episode from 2018 I went into really too much detail about this particular breed of sheep. I will cut that short here.

The Jacob is a hardy, small sheep with tough hooves, and it’s white with black spots. Ideally, a Jacob sheep will have four or six well-balanced horns. In a six-horned sheep, the upper pair branch upward, the middle pair curl like an ordinary ram’s horns, and the lower pair branch downwards. Sometimes a sheep will have three or five horns, or will start out with four horns but as they grow, two will merge so it looks like they have a single horn on one side. Sometimes a ram’s horns will grow so large that the blood supply is choked off for the lower pair, which will die and stop growing. Breeding a pair of six-horned Jacob sheep doesn’t guarantee that the babies will have more than two horns, though. It’s still a recessive trait.

Sheep, goats, cattle, and some antelopes are all bovids. Polyceratism appears to be a bovid trait. It’s caused by a mutation where the horn core divides during the animal’s development.

Occasionally, a sheep of non-polycerate breed, or a goat, or even a cow, is born with multiple horns. The blue wildebeest is also occasionally born with multiple horns. Sometimes an animal grows a lot of horns, like eight, but usually it’s three, four, five, or six.

Another animal with more than two horns is the four-horned antelope that lives in India and Nepal. Its horns are quite small, just a pair of tiny points on the forehead with a pair of longer points behind them. The antelope itself is also small, not much more than two feet tall at the shoulder, or 60 cm. Its coat is reddish or yellowish-brown with white underparts, and a black stripe down the front of the legs. The longer horns grow up to about five inches long, or 12 cm, but the front horns are no longer than two inches, or five cm.

The four-horned antelope is shy and solitary, and lives in open forests near water. Since it’s so small, it frequently hides in tall grasses. Sometimes a four-horned antelope’s front two horns are just bumps covered with fur, which makes them look like ossicones although they’re still actually horns.

That brings us to the other group of animals with multiple horns, although they’re not actually horns. I mentioned ossicones in the tallest animals episode, about giraffes. They’re made of ossified cartilage instead of bone, and are covered in skin and fur instead of a keratin sheath. Antlers are actually very similar to ossicones in many ways. A deer’s antlers grow from a base that is similar to an ossicone, and as they grow, the antlers are covered with tissue called velvet that later dries and is scraped off by the deer to show off the bony antlers. Unlike horns, which are always unbranched, the ossicones of some extinct animals can look like antlers.

We talked about sivatherium in episode 256, about mammoths. It was an ancestor of modern giraffes that lived in Africa and India around a million years ago. It stood around 7 feet tall at the shoulder, or just over two meters, but had a relatively long neck that made it almost 10 feet tall in total, or about three meters. It had two pairs of ossicones, one pair over its eyes and another between its ears. Like the four-horned antelope, the front pair were smaller than the rear pair, but the rear pair was broad and had a single branch.

Sivatherium was once believed to be closely related to elephants, and reconstructions of it often made it look like a moose with a short trunk. But modern understanding of its anatomy suggests it looked like a heavily built giraffe with shorter legs and neck, sort of like the giraffe’s closest living relative, the okapi.

One interesting thing about Sivatherium is how recently it may have been alive. Some researchers think it may have been around only 8,000 years ago. There’s rock art in India and the Sahara that does seem to show a long-necked animal with horns that isn’t a giraffe. The art has been dated to around 15,000 years ago. But the big controversy is a figurine discovered in 1928.

That’s when a copper rein ring was found in Iraq and dated to about 2800 BCE. A rein ring was part of the harness to a four-wheeled chariot, with two holes to thread the reins through to keep them from tangling. Above the rings was a little decorative figure of an animal. This particular rein ring’s figure shows an animal with short horns above the eyes and branching horn-like structures farther back, between the ears. When it was originally discovered, scientists thought the figure represented a type of fallow deer found in the area, with the ends of the antlers broken off. But one researcher, Edwin Colbert, pointed out that no deer known has four antlers and the figure clearly has two little bumps over its eyes that are separate from the branched antler or horn-like structures farther back. In 1936 he published his conclusion that the animal wasn’t a deer at all but sivatherium, and a lot of scientists agreed.

That would mean sivatherium might have been alive less than 5,000 years ago. Part of the issue is that sivatherium’s branched ossicones weren’t very big in comparison to its head, while the fallow deer’s antlers are proportionally quite large. The figurine has structures that match sivatherium’s ossicones more than a deer’s antlers. But in 1977, two little pieces of copper were found in a storage box where they’d been since the original discovery of the rein ring. The pieces fit exactly onto the ends of the figure’s horns, showing that the horns are much bigger than originally thought.

That doesn’t explain everything, though. The figure still has those extra little horns over its eyes, and while the branched horns look like deer antlers, they still don’t look like fallow deer antlers. Some researchers point out that sivatherium had a lot of variation in the size and shape of its ossicones, too.

Ultimately there’s not enough evidence either way of whether the figurine depicts a deer or sivatherium. If sivatherium did live as recently as a few thousand years ago, hopefully remains of it will be found soon. Until we know for sure, you can still be glad that the giraffe is alive, because it’s just as amazing as its extinct relation.

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

Thanks for listening!

Episode 348: Australopithecus and Gigantopithecus

Thanks to Anbo for suggesting Australopithecus! We’ll also learn about Gigantopithecus and Bigfoot!

Further reading:

Ancient human relative, Australopithecus sediba, ‘walked like a human, but climbed like an ape’

Human shoulders and elbows first evolved as brakes for climbing apes

You Won’t Believe What Porcupines Eat

Past tropical forest changes drove megafauna and hominin extinctions

An Australopithecus skeleton [photo by Emőke Dénes – kindly granted by the author, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=78612761]:

Show transcript:

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

It’s officially monster month, also known as October, so let’s jump right in with a topic suggested by Anbo! Anbo wanted to learn about Australopithecus, and while we’re at it we’re going to talk about Gigantopithecus and Bigfoot. On our spookiness rating scale of one to five bats, where one bat means it’s not a very spooky episode and five bats means it’s really spooky, this one is going to fall at about two bats, and only because we talk a little bit about the Yeti and Bigfoot at the end.

In 1924 in South Africa, the partial skull of a young primate was discovered. Primates include monkeys and apes along with humans, our very own family tree. This particular fossil was over a million years old and had features that suggested it was an early human ancestor, or otherwise very closely related to humans.

The fossil was named Australopithecus, which means “southern ape.” Since 1924 we’ve discovered more remains, enough that currently, seven species of Australopithecus are recognized. The oldest dates to a bit over 4 million years old and was discovered in eastern Africa.

Australopithecus was probably pretty short compared to most modern humans, although they were probably about the size of modern chimpanzees. A big male might have stood about 4 ½ feet tall, or 1.5 meters. They were bipedal, meaning they would have stood and walked upright all the time. That’s the biggest hint that they were closely related to humans. Other great apes can walk upright if they want, but only humans and our closest ancestors are fully bipedal.

In 2008 a palaeoanthropologist named Lee Rogers Berger took his nine-year-old son Matthew to Malapa Cave in South Africa. Dr. Berger was leading an excavation of the cave and Matthew wanted to see it. While he was there, Matthew noticed something that even his father had overlooked. It turned out to be a collarbone belonging to an Australopithecus boy who lived almost 2 million years ago. Later, Dr Berger’s team uncovered more of the skeleton and determined that the remains belonged to a new species of Australopithecus, which they named Australopithecus sediba. More remains of this species were discovered later, including a beautifully preserved lower back. That discovery was important because it allowed scientists to determine that this species of Australopithecus had already evolved the inward curve in the lower back that humans still have, which helps us walk on two legs more easily. That was a surprise, since A. sediba also still shows features that indicate they could still climb trees like a great ape.

It’s possible that Australopithecus, along with other species of early humans, climbed trees at night to stay safe from predators. In the morning, they climbed down to spend the day mostly on the ground. One study published only a few weeks ago as this episode goes live suggests that the flexible shoulders and elbows that humans share with our great ape cousins originally evolved to help apes climb down from trees safely. Monkeys don’t share our flexible shoulder and elbow joints because they’re much lighter weight than a human or ape, and don’t need as much flexibility to keep from falling while climbing down. Apes and hominins like humans can raise our arms straight up over our heads, and we can straighten our arms out completely flat. Australopithecus could do the same. The study suggests that when another human ancestor, Homo erectus, figured out how to use fire, they stopped needing to climb trees so often. They evolved broader shoulders that allowed them to throw spears and other weapons much more accurately.

Australopithecus probably mostly ate fruit and other plant materials like vegetables and nuts, along with small animals that they could catch fairly easily. This is similar to the diet of many great apes today. The big controversy, though, is whether Australopithecus made and used tools. Their hands would have been more like the hands of a bonobo or chimpanzee, which have a lot of dexterity, but not the really high-level dexterity of modern humans and our closest ancestors. Stone tools have been found in the same areas where Australopithecus fossils have been found, but we don’t have any definitive proof that they made or used the tools. There were other early hominins living in the area who might have made the tools instead.

We also don’t really know what Australopithecus looked like. Some scientists think they had a lot of body hair that would have made them look more like apes than early humans, while some scientists think they had already started losing a lot of body hair and would have looked more human-like as a result.

There’s no question these days that Australopithecus was an early human ancestor. We don’t have very many remains, but we do have several skulls and some nearly complete skeletons, which tells us a lot about how our distant ancestor lived. But we know a lot less about a fossil ape that lived as recently as 350,000 years ago, and it’s become confused with modern stories of Bigfoot.

Gigantopithecus first appears in the fossil record about 2 million years ago. It lived in what is now southern China, although it was probably also present in other parts of Asia. It was first discovered in 1935 when an anthropologist identified two teeth as belonging to an unknown species of ape, and since then scientists have found over a thousand teeth and four jawbones, more properly called mandibles.

The problem is that we don’t have any other Gigantopithecus bones. We don’t have a skull or any parts of the body. All we have are a few mandibles and lots and lots of teeth. The reason we have so many teeth is because Gigantopithecus had massive molars, the biggest of any known species of ape, with a protective layer of enamel that was as much as 6 mm thick. Some of the teeth were almost an inch across, or 22 mm. A lot of the remaining bones were probably eaten by porcupines, and in fact the mandibles discovered show evidence of being gnawed on. This sounds bizarre, but porcupines are well-known to eat old bones along with the shed antlers of deer, which supplies them with important nutrients. The teeth were too hard for the porcupines to eat.

We know that Gigantopithecus was a big ape just from the size of its mandible, but without any other bones we can only guess at how big it really was. It was potentially much bigger and taller than even the biggest gorilla, but maybe it had a great big jaw but short legs and it just sat around and ate plants all the time. We just don’t know.

What we do know is that its massive jaw and teeth were adapted for eating fibrous plant material, not meat. The thick enamel would help protect the teeth from grit and dirt, which suggested it ate tubers and roots that would have had a lot of dirt on them, although its diet was probably more varied. Scientists have even discovered traces of seeds from fruits belonging to the fig family stuck in some of the fossilized teeth, and evidence of tooth cavities that would have resulted from eating a lot of fruit long before toothpaste was invented.

Many scientists thought at first that Gigantopithecus was a human ancestor, but one that grew to gigantic size. It was even thought to be a close relation to Australopithecus. Other scientists argued that Gigantopithecus was more closely related to modern great apes like the orangutan. The debate on where Gigantopithecus should be classified in the ape and human family tree happened to overlap with another debate about a giant ape-like creature, the Yeti of Asia and the Bigfoot of North America.

We talked about the Yeti way back in episode 35, our very first monster month episode in 2017. Expeditions by European explorers to summit Mount Everest, which is on the border between China and Nepal, started in 1921. That first expedition found tracks in the snow resembling a bare human foot at an elevation of 20,000 feet, or 6,100 meters. They realized the tracks were probably made by wolves, with the front and rear tracks overlapping, which only looked human-like after the snow melted enough to obscure the paw pads. Expedition leader Charles Howard-Bury wrote in a London Times article that the expedition’s Sherpa guides claimed the tracks were made by a wild hairy man, but he also made it clear that this was just a superstition. But journalists loved the idea of a mysterious wild man living on Mount Everest. One journalist in particular, Henry Newman, interviewed the guides and specifically asked them about the creature. He wrote a sensational account of the wild man, but he mistranslated their term for it as the abominable snowman.

The word Yeti comes from a Sherpa term yeh-teh, meaning “animal of rocky places,” although it may be related to the term meh-teh, which means man-bear. But the peoples who live in and around the Himalayas belong to different cultures and speak a lot of different languages. There are lots of stories about the hairy wild man of the mountains, and lots of different words to describe the creature of those stories. And the idea of the Yeti that has become popular in Europe and North America doesn’t match up with the local stories. Locals describe the Yeti as brown, black, or even reddish in color, not white, and it doesn’t always have human-like characteristics. Sometimes it’s described as bear-like, panther-like, or just a general monster.

The abominable snowman, or Yeti, became popular in newspaper articles after the 1921 Mount Everest expedition, and it continued to be a topic of interest as expeditions kept attempting to summit the mountain. It wasn’t until May 26, 1953 that the first humans reached the tippy-top of Mount Everest, the New Zealand explorer Edmund Hillary and the Nepali Sherpa climber Tenzing Norgay. Many other successful expeditions followed, including some that were mounted specifically to search for the Yeti.

In the meantime, across the planet in North America, a Canadian schoolteacher and government agent named John W. Burns was collecting reports of hairy wild men and giants from the native peoples in British Columbia. He’s the one who coined the term Sasquatch in 1929. In the 1930s, a man in Washington state in the U.S, which is close to British Columbia, Canada, carved some giant feet out of wood and made tracks with them in a national forest to scare people, leading to a whole spate of big human-like tracks being faked in California and other places. But it wasn’t until 1982 that the hoaxes started to be revealed as the perpetrators got old and decided to clear up the mystery.

But in the 1920s and later, the popularity of the abominable snowman in popular media, giant gorillas like King Kong in the movies, the Yeti expeditions in the Himalayas, the mysterious giant footprints on the west coast of North America, and John Burns’s articles about the Sasquatch all combined to make Bigfoot, a catchall term for any giant human-like monster, a modern legend. People who believed that Bigfoot was a real creature started looking for evidence of its existence beyond footprints and reports of sightings. In 1960, a zoologist writing about a photograph of supposed Yeti tracks taken in 1951 suggested that the Yeti might be related to Gigantopithecus.

On the surface this actually makes sense. The Yeti, AKA the abominable snowman, is reported in the Himalayan Mountains of Asia. The mountain range started forming 40 to 50 million years ago when the Indian tectonic plate crashed into the Eurasian plate very slowly, pushing its way under the Eurasian plate and scrunching the land up into massively huge mountains. It’s still moving, by the way, and the Himalayas get about 5 mm taller every year. The eastern section of the Himalayas isn’t that far from where Gigantopithecus remains have been found in China, and we also know that at many times in the earth’s recent past, eastern Asia and western North America were connected by the land bridge Beringia. Humans and many animals crossed Beringia to reach North America, so why not Gigantopithecus or its descendants? That would explain why Bigfoot is so big, since in 1957 one scientist estimated that Gigantopithecus might have stood up to 12 feet tall, or 3.7 meters.

Some people still think Gigantopithecus was a cousin of Australopithecus, that it walked upright but was huge, and that its descendants are still around today, hiding in remote areas and only glimpsed occasionally. But people who believe such an idea are stuck in the past, because in the last 60 years we’ve learned a whole lot more about Gigantopithecus.

These days, more sophisticated study of Gigantopithecus fossils have allowed scientists to classify it as a great ape ancestor, not an early human. Gigantopithecus was probably most closely related to modern orangutans, in fact, and may have shared a lot of traits with orangutans. It probably could walk upright if it wanted to, but it wasn’t fully bipedal the way humans and human ancestors are. One theory prevalent in 2017 when we talked about the Yeti before was that Gigantopithecus mostly ate bamboo and might have gone extinct when the giant panda started competing with its food sources. This theory has already fallen out of favor, though, and we know that Gigantopithecus was eating a much more varied diet than just bamboo.

We also know that Gigantopithecus lived in tropical broadleaf forests common throughout southern Asia at the time. About a million years ago, though, many of these forests became grasslands. Gigantopithecus probably went extinct as a direct result of its forest home vanishing. It just couldn’t find enough food and shelter on open grasslands, and even though it held on for hundreds of thousands of years, by about 350,000 years ago it had gone extinct. Around 100,000 years ago the forests started reclaiming much of these grasslands, but by then it was too late for Gigantopithecus. Meanwhile, the oldest evidence we have of the land bridge Beringia joining Asia and North America was 70,000 years ago.

There is no evidence that any Gigantopithecus descendant survived to populate the Himalayas or migrated into North America. For that matter, there’s no evidence that Bigfoot actually exists. If a live or dead Bigfoot is discovered and studied by scientists, that would definitely change a lot of things, and would be really, really exciting. But even if that happened, I’m pretty sure we’d find that Bigfoot wasn’t related to Gigantopithecus. Whether it would be related to Australopithecus and us humans is another thing, and that would be pretty awesome. But first, we have to find evidence that isn’t just some footprints in the mud or snow.

Some Bigfoot enthusiasts suggest that the reason we haven’t found any Bigfoot remains is the same reason why we don’t have Gigantopithecus bones, because porcupines eat them. But while porcupines do eat old dry bones they find, they don’t eat fresh bones and they don’t eat all the bones they find. For any bone to fossilize is rare, so the more bones that are around, the more likely that one or more of them will end up preserved as fossils. Bones of modern animals are much easier to find, porcupines or no, but we don’t have any Bigfoot bones. We don’t even have any Bigfoot teeth, which porcupines don’t eat.

Porcupines can be blamed for a lot of things, like chewing on people’s cars and houses, but you can’t blame them for eating up all the evidence for Bigfoot.

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

Thanks for listening!

Episode 346: The Rhinoceros!

Thanks to Mia for suggesting the black rhino this week! We’ll also learn about other rhinos and their relations, including a mystery rhino.

Further reading:

Photos suggest rhino horns have shrunk over past century

The Blue Rhinoceros – In Quest of the Keitloa

A rhino with a very small third horn:

Some rhinos have really big second horns [photo by David Clode and taken from this site]:

The “blue rhinoceros,” or keitloa, as illustrated in the mid-19th century:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to talk about an animal I can’t believe we haven’t covered before. Thanks to Mia for suggesting the rhinoceros, specifically the black rhino! We’ll also learn about a mystery rhino.

We’ve talked about elephants lots of times, hippos quite a few times, and giraffes a couple of times, but pretty much the only episodes where we discussed a rhinoceros were 5 and 256. Episode 256 was mostly about mammoths, although we talked very briefly about the woolly rhinoceros, while episode 5 was about the unicorn and didn’t actually specifically talk about the rhino. So after almost 350 episodes of this podcast, one of the most amazing animals alive is one we literally haven’t learned about! Let’s fix that now.

Most people are pretty familiar with what a rhinoceros looks like. Basically, it’s a big, heavy animal with relatively short legs, a big head that it carries low to the ground like a bison, and at least one horn that grows on its nose. It’s usually gray or gray-brown in color with very little hair, and its skin is tough. It eats plants.

The rhinoceros isn’t related to the elephant or the hippopotamus. It’s actually most closely related to the horse and the tapir, which are odd-toed ungulates. The rhino has three toes on each foot, with a little hoof-like nail covering the front of each toe, but the bottom of the rhino’s foot is a big pad similar to the bottom of an elephant’s foot.

The rhino’s nose horn isn’t technically a horn because it doesn’t have a bony core. It’s made of long fibers of keratin all stuck together, and keratin is the same protein that forms fingernails and hair. That makes it even weirder that some people think a rhinoceros horn is medicine. It’s literally the same protein as fingernails, and no one thinks of fingernails are medicine. The use of rhinoceros horn as medicine isn’t even all that old. Ancient people didn’t think it was medicine, but some modern people do, and they’ll pay a whole lot of money for part of a rhino horn to grind up and eat. Seriously, they might as well be eating ground-up fingernails. (That’s gross.)

Because rhino horns are so valuable, people will kill rhinos just to saw their horns off to sell. That’s the main reason why most species of rhino are so critically endangered, even though they’re protected animals. Sometimes conservationists will sedate a wild rhino and saw its horn off, so that poachers won’t bother to kill it. A 2022 study determined that the overall size of rhino horns has shrunk over the last century, probably for the same reason that many elephants now have overall smaller tusks. Poachers are more likely to kill animals with big horns, which means animals with smaller horns are more likely to survive long enough to breed.

The species of rhinoceros alive today are native to Africa and Asia, but it used to be an animal found throughout Eurasia and North America. It’s one of the biggest animals alive today, but in the past, some rhinos were even bigger. We’ve talked about Elasmotherium before, which lived in parts of Eurasia as recently as 39,000 years ago. It had long legs and could probably gallop like a horse, but it was the size of a mammoth. It also probably had a single horn that grew in the middle of its forehead, which is why it’s sometimes called the Siberian unicorn.

We’ve also talked about Paraceratherium before. It was one of the biggest land mammals that ever lived, and while it didn’t have a horn, it was a type of rhinoceros. It lived in Eurasia between about 34 and 23 million years ago, and it probably stood about 16 feet tall at the shoulder, or 5 meters. The tallest giraffe ever measured was 19 feet tall, or 5.88 meters, at the top of its head. Paraceratherium had a long neck, possibly as much as eight feet long, or 2.5 meters, but it would have held its neck more or less horizontal most of the time. It spent its time eating leaves off of trees that most animals couldn’t reach, and when it raised its head to grab a particularly tasty leaf, it was definitely taller than the tallest giraffe, and taller than any other mammal known.

While rhinos are famous for their horns, not every rhinoceros ancestor had a horn. But because rhino horns are made of keratin and not bone, we don’t always know if an extinct species had a horn. Most of the time the horns rotted away without being preserved. We do know that some ancient rhinos had a pair of nose horns that grew side by side, that some had a single nose horn or forehead horn, that some had both a nose horn and a forehead horn, and that some definitely had no horns at all.

The rhinos alive today have either one or two horns. The Indian rhinoceros has one horn on its nose, and the closely related Javan rhino also only has one horn. The Sumatran rhino has two horns, as do the white rhino and the black rhino. Sometimes an individual rhino will develop an extra horn that grows behind the other horn or horns and is usually very small. This is extremely rare and seems to be due to a genetic anomaly. There are even reports of rhinos that have four horns, all in a row, but the extra ones, again, are very small.

Mia specifically wanted to learn about the black rhino. It and the white rhino are native to Africa. You might think that the white rhino is pale gray and the black rhino is dark gray, but that’s actually not the case. They’re both sort of a medium gray in color and they’re very closely related. It’s possible that the word “white” actually comes from the Dutch word for “wide,” referring to the animal’s wide mouth. The black rhino has a more pointed lip that looks a little bit like a beak.

One interesting thing about the black and white rhinos is that neither species has teeth in the front of its mouth. It uses its lips to grab plants instead of its front teeth, and then it uses its big molars to chew the plants. The white rhino mostly eats grass while the black rhino eats leaves and other plant material.

A big male black rhino can stand over 5 1/2 feet tall at the shoulder, or 1.75 meters, and is up to 13 feet long, or 4 meters. It can weigh as much as 4,000 lbs, or 1,800 kg. This sounds huge and it is, but it’s actually smaller than the white rhino, which is the biggest rhino alive today. A big male white rhino can stand over 6 1/2 feet tall at the shoulder, or 2 meters, can be 15 feet long, or 4.6 meters, and can weigh up to 5,300 lbs, or 2,400 kg. These are really really big animals. Nothing much messes with the rhino because it’s so big and heavy, its skin is so tough, and it can do a lot of damage with its horn if it wants to. The rhino doesn’t see very well, but it has good hearing and a good sense of smell.

The nose horn is always the bigger one in species that have two horns, and in the black rhino it can grow quite long. One nose horn was measured as being over 4 1/2 feet long, or 1.4 meters, although most are only about 20 inches long, or 50 cm. The rear horn, which grows roughly over the eyes, is about half the length of the front horn, and is sometimes no more than a little bump. But some black rhinos found in South Africa have a rear horn that’s at least as long as the front horn, and sometimes longer, and that brings us to our mystery rhino.

A rhino with this trait is referred to as a keitloa, a word taken from the Tswana language spoken in the area. In the 19th century, the keitloa was referred to by European colonizers as the blue rhinoceros. The blue rhino wasn’t blue, but it was considered quite rare and different from the ordinary black rhino. It was supposed to be bigger and and even more solitary than the black rhino.

Until 1881, many scientists thought the keitloa was a separate species of rhino from the black rhino, which it otherwise resembled. In 1881, though, a study of black rhinos and blue rhinos determined that they were the same species. A century later, in 1987, scientists found that black rhinos with better access to water grew larger horns than black rhinos living in dryer areas.

There are a number of subspecies of black rhino recognized by scientists, some of them still alive today and some driven recently to extinction. Some people still think that the keitloa may be a separate subspecies of black rhino. That’s one of many reasons why it’s so important to protect all rhinoceroses and their habitats, so we can learn more about these amazing animals.

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

Thanks for listening!