Episode 369: Animals and Ultraviolet Light

Sorry to my Patreon subscribers, since this is mostly a rerun episode from April 2019. It’s a fun one, though!

The teensy pumpkin toadlet [photo by Diogo B. Provete – http://calphotos.berkeley.edu, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6271494]:

The electromagnetic spectrum. Look how tiny the visible light spectrum is on this scale! [By NASA – https://science.nasa.gov/ems/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=97302056]:

Show transcript:

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

This was supposed to be the 2023 discoveries episode, but not only have I had a really busy week that’s kept me from finishing the research, I’m also coming down with a cold. My voice still sounds okay right now but considering how I feel, it’s not going to sound good for long, and I need to finish the March Patreon episode too! I decided to rerun a very old Patreon episode this week to allow me time to finish the March Patreon episode before my voice turns into an unintelligible croak. I did drop in some fresh audio to correct a mistake I made in the original episode and add some new information.

This is one of my favorite Patreon episodes and I hope you like it too. It’s about animals that can see ultraviolet light.

I was going to make this a frog news episode, but I started writing about a tiny frog from

Brazil called the pumpkin toadlet and the episode veered off in a very interesting direction. But let’s start with that frog.

It’s called the pumpkin toadlet because it’s an orangey-yellow color that is just about the same color as pureed pumpkin. It’s poisonous and lives in the forests of Brazil. During mating season, the pumpkin toadlet comes out during the day, walking around making little buzzing noises. Researchers assumed those were mating calls until they started studying how the pumpkin toadlet and its relations process sounds. It turns out that the pumpkin toadlet probably can’t even hear its own buzzing noise. But they did discover that the pumpkin toadlet fluoresces brightly under UV light.

We’ve talked about this phenomenon before, back in the Patreon episode about animals that glow. Quite a lot of frogs turn out to fluoresce in ultraviolet light, which is a component of daylight. That explains why the pumpkin toadlet comes out during the day in mating season. It wants to be seen by potential mates. It’s actually the frog’s bones that fluoresce, but since it has very thin skin without dark pigment cells, the ultraviolet light can light up the bones.

I wanted to make sure I gave everyone the correct information about ultraviolet light, so I started researching it…and that led me down this rabbit hole. What animals can see in ultraviolet light? Can any humans see ultraviolet light? What does it look like?

Light is made up of waves of varying lengths. The retina at the back of your eyeball contains two types of cells, rods and cones, which are named for their shapes. Rods are for low-light vision and cones are for detail and color vision.

Humans have more cones than rods because we’re diurnal animals, meaning we’re most active during the day. Animals that are mostly nocturnal have more rods than cones, which help them see in low light although they don’t see color as well or sometimes at all as a result.

Most humans can see any color that’s a mixture of red, green, and blue, since we have three types of cone cells that react to wavelengths roughly equivalent to those three colors. Some people have what’s called red-green color blindness, which means either the person doesn’t have cones that sense the color red or cones that sense the color green. Various shades of green and red look alike for these people. Red-green color blindness is much more common in men than in women, with as many as 8% of men having the condition. A lot of times they don’t even know it. When I did my student teaching in a first grade class, one day I prepared a math lesson for the students that involved them sorting a little cup of candy into colors, and after they did the math problems associated with the different colors, they got to eat the candy. One little boy kept sorting certain colors of Skittles into the same column, and when I asked him, he didn’t realize they were different colors. They looked the same to him. So that day I learned to be careful about what kind of candy I used for sorting lessons, and he learned that he had red-green color blindness. My own dad was color blind too. It’s pretty common. Occasionally a person is born without the ability to see colors at all, but that’s extremely rare.

The visible light spectrum, also sometimes called the color spectrum, runs from violet to red. Just below violet is the wavelength referred to as ultraviolet. Many insects and birds can see ultraviolet, but typically an animal that can see ultraviolet can’t see infrared, which is the wavelength of light just past red. Birds that can see ultraviolet can usually see red, but not infrared.

In the original Patreon episode, this is where I said that humans can see ultraviolet light a little, but I was actually wrong. I thought blacklights worked by allowing us to see ultraviolet light, but that’s not the case. Blacklights are lamps that emit mostly ultraviolet light, but we only see a dark purple or blue that the blacklight’s filter allows through. While very few humans can see anything but the purple or blue, insects can see ultraviolet light and are attracted to it. That’s why bug zappers include blacklights. People also like blacklights because the ultraviolet light makes some things glow, which is fun to play with. It can also be useful in surprising ways. A lot of countries print paper money and other important documents with ink patterns that only show up under ultraviolet light. It’s easy to tell if the money or document is a fake if those hidden patterns don’t glow under a blacklight. Some diseases cause the sick person’s urine to glow specific colors under ultraviolet light, which helps a doctor determine what’s wrong with the person so they can be treated. If you have access to a blacklight, remember that even though you can’t see most of the light it emits, it can still hurt your eyes, so don’t stare into it.

Sometimes a person’s eye is diseased or damaged so they have to have the lens replaced with an artificial lens. Very rarely when that happens, the person wakes up after surgery and discovers they’re seeing ultraviolet way more than the rest of us. They report that the color is a pale purplish shade. This sounds cool, except that they have to wear special glasses that block ultraviolet light when they’re outside, since ultraviolet light can damage the eyes. It’s also the spectrum of light that causes sunburns. That’s what the UV means in products that say they block UV light; UV just means ultraviolet.

Many birds have a special cone cell that reacts specially to ultraviolet wavelengths. Urine reflects ultraviolet light, which allows predatory birds to track their prey by following urine trails. Some rodents and marsupials also have this cone cell. Researchers think having four types of cone cells, the three humans have plus the ultraviolet one, used to be the default in all animals, but some have evolved to not have the ultraviolet cone cell since they don’t need it. Some animals only have two types of cone cells, like mice, who can’t see as many colors as humans.

Researchers are just learning that many mammals are able to see ultraviolet much more than the typical human can. Reindeer, for instance, and some common animals like dogs, cats, and ferrets. Since power lines give off ultraviolet light, sometimes in bursts called coronal discharges, researchers now realize animals are affected by the light even though humans can’t see it. Reindeer have always avoided power lines, and now we know why. To them, the coronal discharges are a blaze of bright color that probably hurts their eyes, especially when it reflects off snow. Conservationists are calling for better shielding on power lines to cut down on the light they give out.

Some humans are born with ultraviolet-sensing cone cells, a condition called tetrachromacy. Since the lens of the human eye naturally filters out most ultraviolet light, people can have this extra cone cell and not even know it. They just tend to be better at differentiating colors than people without it. Some studies suggest that as many as 50% of women and 8% of men may be tetrachromatic—and that tetrachromatic women are also carriers of the trait of red-green color blindness. Since my dad was colorblind, that means I carry that trait from the genetic material I inherited from him, but I see colors really well…so maybe I have those extra cone cells! That’s exciting! Maybe you have it too!

But before we all get too excited, think about the mantis shrimp. Instead of four types of cone cells, it has up to 16 types.

Ultraviolet lightwaves are short. Shorter than that are X-rays, and shorter than those are gamma rays, which are ridiculously teeny. If your eyes could see X-rays, it basically just means you’d see a lot of skeletons walking around and it would feel bright all the time even if you closed your eyes, since X-rays penetrate less dense material like skin. If you could see gamma rays, all it would mean is that you could see stuff that was radioactive. Useful, yes, but not everyday useful.

Infrared is a different case, since infrared wavelengths are extremely long. Some animals can see infrared, but mostly they actually sense heat signatures given off by other animals. Night vision goggles work like this, basically allowing whoever wears them to see in infrared. Wavelengths longer than infrared are microwaves and radio waves, which nothing can see because it would pretty much just overwhelm the vision and you could see nothing but light, much of it the afterglow of the Big Bang, when the universe came into being.

A few years ago, a team of scientists working with an infrared laser started reporting occasionally seeing flashes of light where there shouldn’t be visible light. They were scientists, so of course they investigated with a scientific study of the infrared laser on human vision. This was a powerful laser that only emitted infrared light, and emitted it in quick pulses that released a set number of photons at a time. A photon is one particle of light, something along the lines of an atom. I’m not a physicist and don’t really understand it. The study revealed that sometimes, when the laser’s pulses were extremely close together, two photons would be absorbed by a single photopigment in the eye, which was enough to activate the pigment and allow the person to see a flash of light. But because the eye combined the photons, the eye reacted as though the wavelength of the light was half its length, which made it look green.

By the way, rod cells, the ones that help us see in low light, take a few minutes to achieve full sensitivity. That’s why it takes a few minutes for your eyes to adjust after you turn the light out at night.

It’s mind-blowing to think that light is an actual physical thing that actually physically goes into your eyeballs to let you see. There’s more to it than that, of course—nerves and the brain have a lot to do with how we are able to make sense of visual images. If something goes wrong with the eyeball, the nerves that connect it to the brain, or the part of the brain that deals with vision, it can lead to blindness of one kind or another. But at the very basic level, when you see, for instance, a hedgehog, it’s because light photons bounced off that hedgehog and into your eyeball. And that also means that when you look up at the night sky and see stars, you’re seeing the actual physical lightwaves given off by stars millions of light years away that physically go into your eyeball and bounce off the cone and rod cells, activating them and allowing your brain to form an image. That’s amazing, no matter if you can see ultraviolet or if you get the colors of candy mixed up because they look alike to you.

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.

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 347: Two (Sort of) Spooky Amphibians

Thanks to Max for suggesting one of our slightly spooky amphibians this week!

Further reading:

New crocodile newt discovered in Vietnam

Further watching:

Brave Wilderness Giant Screaming Frog!

The new Halloween-y crocodile newt discovered in Vietnam [photo by Phung My Trung and taken from the article linked above]:

A smoky jungle frog:

A screenshot from the video linked above:

Show transcript:

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

It’s the end of September and you know what that means: we’re about to start Monster Month! This year I have so many awesome ideas for episodes that we’re starting monster month early, with a non-spooky episode about two sort of spooky-looking amphibians. Thanks to Max for suggesting one of the animals we’re about to talk about!

Instead of rating the monster month episodes on a spookiness scale from one to five ghosts, this year we’re rating them on a spookiness scale of one to five bats, which seems more appropriate. This episode is only one bat, meaning even our younger listeners shouldn’t find it scary.

But first, a quick correction. Thanks very much to Mary for catching a mistake I made in last week’s rhinoceros episode. I said that black rhinos can weigh 18 kilograms, when I should have said 1800 kilograms. 18 kg is about 40 pounds, so I think you can agree that I made a BIG mistake.

Now, on to the “spooky” amphibians.

Lots of amphibians live in southeast Asia, many of them never seen by scientists. In 2018, a team of scientists were studying crocodile newts in Vietnam when they discovered one that didn’t look like any of the many other crocodile newts that live in Asia. Since there are over 30 species known, with new ones being discovered all the time, including seven others from Vietnam alone, they suspected this might be a species new to science.

The new newt lives in high elevations in the central highlands in Vietnam, much farther south and in much higher elevations than the other known crocodile newt species. After the initial finding in 2018, the lead scientist, an amphibian and reptile expert named Phung My Trung (apologies because I probably pronounced his name wrong) spent four years searching for more specimens and learning about them before he described it as a new species.

One thing I love is that he was quoted as saying that the adult newts “were so beautiful that I was shaking and could hardly believe I was holding a live specimen in my hand.” And it is absolutely a gorgeous animal. It’s black with orangey-red markings on its back, lovely Halloween colors, and in fact the markings sort of look like the skull, backbone, and ribs of a cartoon skeleton. Females are bigger than males, and a big female can grow as much as 3 inches long, or 7.5 cm, from snout to vent, not counting its tail that’s almost as long as its body.

That’s pretty much all we know so far about this newt. Because it appears to have such a restricted range, it’s most likely endangered due to habitat loss and climate change, but now that we know it’s there, scientists and conservationists can work to keep it and its habitat safe.

Our other amphibian this week is one suggested by Max. Max, by the way, is an incredible artist who specializes in making reptiles and amphibians out of clay. Max asked specifically about the giant screaming frog, which definitely sounds like a Halloween-themed animal.

The giant screaming frog isn’t the actual name of the frog, or at least I couldn’t find a frog with that specific name. I think it’s from an awesome video posted in 2017. I’ll put a link in the show notes if you want to watch the video, which is a YouTube channel called Brave Wilderness. In the video, a man called Coyote Peterson catches a giant frog called the Smoky Jungle Frog. When he does, the frog makes this sound:

[screaming frog!]

That doesn’t actually sound all that spooky. But it is a warning call so I bet other smoky jungle frogs think it’s terrifying!

The smoky jungle frog lives in tropical and subtropical areas of Central and northern South America, where it lives in swamps, ponds, and even rivers, especially in rainforest environments. It’s a bit unusual in that males are larger than females, although only slightly. Both males and females grow about 7 inches long from snout to vent, or 18 cm, and are a mottled brown with darker spots and stripes that help them blend in with dead leaves on the forest floor.

The smoky jungle frog is nocturnal, and during the day it stays hidden in a burrow or buries itself in fallen leaves. At night it comes out to find food, and because it’s such a big, strong frog, it eats animals much larger than insects. It’s been observed eating small birds, especially baby birds, bats, snakes up to 19 inches long, or 50 cm, lizards, and sometimes even other frogs, including poison dart frogs. How embarrassing would that be if you were a bat, with strong wings and the amazing ability to echolocate, and you got eaten by a frog.

When a frog feels threatened, it has several ways to deter potential predators. It can make itself look even bigger by puffing its body up and standing up higher on its legs instead of sitting in a typical frog squat. It also secretes a toxin through its skin, which not only makes it really slippery but also makes it taste awful. It’s not dangerous to humans but can result in a painful burning sensation and rash if the toxin gets into a cut on the skin. If any of the mucus gets into your eyes, they will swell up painfully for hours.

The frog will also give its alarm call if something grabs it. Let’s listen to it again:

[frog ‘screaming’]

During mating season, the male develops little spikes near his wrists and on his chest. This helps him grasp a female without slipping off so he can fertilize her eggs as she lays them. The male uses his back legs to churn up the water and mix it with mucus and sperm to create a foamy nest for the female’s eggs, which protects the eggs from predators and makes sure they won’t dry out. The eggs hatch a few days later, and the tadpoles stay in the nest at first where they eat…well, they eat each other. The tadpoles that hatch first eat the other eggs, and the bigger tadpoles eat the smaller tadpoles. Soon, though, rain washes them out of the nest into open water, where they spend the next month or so eating small insects and algae until they metamorphose into little frogs that live on land. Unlike many frogs, the toes of the smoky jungle frog aren’t webbed since they don’t spend much time in the water.

So many times in this podcast I have to explain that an animal is endangered, so I’m happy to report that the smoky jungle frog is doing just fine. It’s a common animal throughout its range.

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 338: Updates 6 and an Arboreal Clam!?!

This week we have our annual updates and corrections episode, and at the end of the episode we’ll learn about a really weird clam I didn’t even think was real at first.

Thanks to Simon and Anbo for sending in some corrections!

Further reading:

Lessons on transparency from the glass frog

Hidden, never-before-seen penguin colony spotted from space

Rare wild asses spotted near China-Mongolia border

Aye-Ayes Use Their Elongated Fingers to Pick Their Nose

Homo sapiens likely arose from multiple closely related populations

Scientists Find Earliest Evidence of Hominins Cooking with Fire

153,000-Year-Old Homo sapiens Footprint Discovered in South Africa

Newly-Discovered Tyrannosaur Species Fills Gap in Lineage Leading to Tyrannosaurus rex

Earth’s First Vertebrate Superpredator Was Shorter and Stouter than Previously Thought

252-Million-Year-Old Insect-Damaged Leaves Reveal First Fossil Evidence of Foliar Nyctinasty

The other paleo diet: Rare discovery of dinosaur remains preserved with its last meal

The Mongolian wild ass:

The giant barb fish [photo from this site]:

Enigmonia aenigmatica, AKA the mangrove jingle shell, on a leaf:

Show transcript:

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

This week is our annual updates and corrections episode, but we’ll also learn about the mangrove jingle shell, a clam that lives in TREES. A quick reminder that this isn’t a comprehensive updates episode, because that would take 100 years to prepare and would be hours and hours long, and I don’t have that kind of time. It’s just whatever caught my eye during the last year that I thought was interesting.

First, we have a few corrections. Anbo emailed me recently with a correction from episode 158. No one else caught this, as far as I can remember. In that episode I said that geckos don’t have eyelids, and for the most part that’s true. But there’s one family of geckos that does have eyelids, Eublepharidae. This includes the leopard gecko, and that lines up with Anbo’s report of having a pet leopard gecko who definitely blinked its eyes. This family of geckos are sometimes even called eyelid geckos. Also, Anbo, I apologize for mispronouncing your name in last week’s episode about shrimp.

After episode 307, about the coquí and glass frogs, Simon pointed out that Hawaii doesn’t actually have any native frogs or amphibians at all. It doesn’t even have any native reptiles unless you count sea snakes and sea turtles. The coqui frog is an invasive species introduced by humans, and because it has no natural predators in Hawaii it has disrupted the native ecosystem in many places, eating all the available insects. Three of the Hawaiian islands remain free of the frogs, and conservationists are working to keep it that way while also figuring out ways to get them off of the other islands. Simon also sent me the chapter of the book he’s working on that talks about island frogs, and I hope the book is published soon because it is so much fun to read!

Speaking of frogs, one week after episode 307, an article about yet another way the glass frog is able to hide from predators was published in Science. When a glass frog is active, its blood is normal, but when it settles down to sleep, the red blood cells in its blood collect in its liver. The liver is covered with teensy guanine crystals that scatter light, which hides the red color from view. That makes the frog look even more green and leaf-like!

We’ve talked about penguins in several episodes, and emperor penguins specifically in episode 78. The emperor penguin lives in Antarctica and is threatened by climate change as the earth’s climate warms and more and more ice melts. We actually don’t know all that much about the emperor penguin because it lives in a part of the world that’s difficult for humans to explore. In December 2022, a geologist named Peter Fretwell was studying satellite photos of Antarctica to measure the loss of sea ice when he noticed something strange. Some of the ice had brown stains.

Dr Fretwell knew exactly what those stains were: emperor penguin poop. When he obtained higher-resolution photos, he was able to zoom in and see the emperor penguins themselves. But this wasn’t a colony he knew about. It was a completely undiscovered colony.

In episode 292 we talked about a mystery animal called the kunga, and in that episode we also talked a lot about domestic and wild donkeys. We didn’t cover the Mongolian wild ass in that one, but it’s very similar to wild asses in other parts of the world. It’s also called the Mongolian khulan. It used to be a lot more widespread than it is now, but these days it only lives in southern Mongolia and northern China. It’s increasingly threatened by habitat loss, climate change, and poaching, even though it’s a protected animal in both Mongolia and China.

In February of 2023, a small herd of eight Mongolian wild asses were spotted along the border of both countries, in a nature reserve. A local herdsman noticed them first and put hay out to make sure the donkeys had enough to eat. The nature reserve has a water station for wild animals to drink from, and has better grazing these days after grassland ecology measures were put into place several years ago.

In episode 233 we talked about the aye-aye of Madagascar, which has weird elongated fingers. Its middle finger is even longer and much thinner than the others, which it uses to pull invertebrates from under tree bark and other tiny crevices. Well, in October of 2022 researchers studying aye-ayes started documenting another use for this long thin finger. The aye-ayes used it to pick their noses. It wasn’t just one aye-aye that wasn’t taught good manners, it was widespread. And I hope you’re not snacking while I tell you this, the aye-aye would then lick its finger clean. Yeah. But the weirdest thing is that the aye-aye’s thin finger is so long that it can potentially reach right through the nose right down into the aye-aye’s throat.

It’s pretty funny and gross, but wondering why some animals pick their noses is a valid scientific question. A lot of apes and monkeys pick their noses, as do humans (not that we admit it most of the time), and now we know aye-ayes do too. The aye-aye is a type of lemur and therefore a primate, but it’s not very closely related to apes and monkeys. Is this just a primate habit or is it only seen in primates because we have fingers that fit into our nostrils? Would all mammals pick their nose if they had fingers that would fit up in there? Sometimes if you have a dried snot stuck in your nose, it’s uncomfortable, but picking your nose can also spread germs if your fingers are dirty. So it’s still a mystery why the aye-aye does it.

A recent article in Nature suggests that Homo sapiens, our own species, may have evolved not from a single species of early human but from the hybridization of several early human species. We already know that humans interbred with Neandertals and Denisovans, but we’re talking about hybridization that happened long before that between hominin species that were even more closely related.

The most genetically diverse population of humans alive today are the Nama people who live in southern Africa, and the reason they’re so genetically diverse is that their ancestors have lived in that part of Africa since humans evolved. Populations that migrated away from the area, whether to different parts of Africa or other parts of the world, had a smaller gene pool to draw from as they moved farther and farther away from where most humans lived.

Now, a new genetic study of modern Nama people has looked at changes in DNA that indicate the ancestry of all humans. The results suggest that before about 120,000 to 135,000 years ago, there was more than one species of human, but that they were all extremely closely related. Since these were all humans, even though they were ancient humans and slightly different genetically, it’s probable that the different groups traded with each other or hunted together, and undoubtedly people from different groups fell in love just the way people do today. Over the generations, all this interbreeding resulted in one genetically stable population of Homo sapiens that has led to modern humans that you see everywhere today. To be clear, as I always point out, no matter where people live or what they look like, all people alive today are genetically human, with only minor variations in our genetic makeup. It’s just that the Nama people still retain a lot of clues about our very distant ancestry that other populations no longer show.

To remind everyone how awesome out distant ancestors were, here’s one new finding of how ancient humans lived. We know that early humans and Neandertals were cooking their food at least 170,000 years ago, but recently archaeologists found the remains of an early hominin settlement in what is now Israel where people were cooking fish 780,000 years ago. There were different species of fish remains found along with the remains of cooking fires, and some of the fish are ones that have since gone extinct. One was a carp-like fish called the giant barb that could grow 10 feet long, or 3 meters.

In other ancient human news, the oldest human footprint was discovered recently in South Africa. You’d think that we would have lots of ancient human footprints, but that’s actually not the case when it comes to footprints more than 50,000 years old. There are only 14 human footprints older than that, although there are older footprints found made by ancestors of modern humans. The newly discovered footprint dates to 153,000 years ago.

It wouldn’t be an updates episode without mentioning Tyrannosaurus rex. In late 2022 a newly discovered tyrannosaurid was described. It lived about 76 million years ago in what is now Montana in the United States, and while it wasn’t as big as T. rex, it was still plenty big. It probably stood about seven feet high at the hip, or a little over 2 meters, and might have been 30 feet long, or 9 meters. It probably wasn’t a direct ancestor of T. rex, just a closely related cousin, although we don’t know for sure yet. It’s called Daspletosaurus wilsoni and it shows some traits that are found in older Tyrannosaur relations but some that were more modern at the time.

Dunkleosteus is one of a number of huge armored fish that lived in the Devonian period, about 360 million years ago. We talked about it way back in episode 33, back in 2017, and at that time paleontologists thought Dunkleosteus terrelli might have grown over 30 feet long, or 9 meters. It had a heavily armored head but its skeleton was made of cartilage like a shark’s, and cartilage doesn’t generally fossilize, so while we have well-preserved head plates, we don’t know much about the rest of its body.

With the publication in early 2023 of a new study about dunkleosteus’s size, we’re pretty sure that 30 feet was a huge overestimation. It was probably less than half that length, maybe up to 13 feet long, or almost 4 meters. Previous size estimates used sharks as size models, but dunkleosteus would have been shaped more like a tuna. Maybe you think of tuna as a fish that makes a yummy sandwich, but tuna are actually huge and powerful predators that can grow up to 10 feet long, or 3 meters. Tuna are also much heavier and bigger around than sharks, and that was probably true for dunkleosteus too. The study’s lead even says dunkleosteus was built like a wrecking ball, and points out that it was probably the biggest animal alive at the time. I’m also happy to report that people have started calling it chunk-a-dunk.

We talked about trace fossils in episode 103. Scientists can learn a lot from trace fossils, which is a broad term that encompasses things like footprints, burrows, poops, and even toothmarks. Recently a new study looked at insect damage on leaves dating back 252 million years and learned something really interesting. Some modern plants fold up their leaves at night, called foliar nyctinasty, which is sometimes referred to as sleeping. The plant isn’t asleep in the same way that an animal falls asleep, but “sleeping” is a lot easier to say than foliar nyctinasty. Researchers didn’t know if folding leaves at night was a modern trait or if it’s been around for a long time in some plants. Lots of fossilized leaves are folded over, but we can’t tell if that happened after the leaf fell off its plant or after the plant died.

Then a team of paleontologists from China and Sweden studying insect damage to leaves noticed that some leaves had identical damage on both sides, exactly as though the leaf had been folded and an insect had eaten right through it. That’s something that happens in modern plants when they’re asleep and the leaves are folded closed.

The team looked at fossilized leaves from a group of trees called gigantopterids, which lived between 300 and 250 million years ago. They’re extinct now but were advanced plants at the time, some of the earliest flowering plants. They also happen to have really big leaves that often show insect damage. The team determined that the trees probably did fold their leaves while sleeping.

In episode 151 we talked about fossils found with other fossils inside them. Basically it’s when a fossil is so well preserved that the contents of the dead animal’s digestive system are preserved. This is incredibly rare, naturally, but recently a new one was discovered.

Microraptor was a dinosaur that was only about the size of a modern crow, one of the smallest dinosaurs, and it probably looked a lot like a weird bird. It could fly, although probably not very well compared to modern birds, and in addition to front legs that were modified to form wings, its back legs also had long feathers to form a second set of wings.

Several exceptionally well preserved Microraptor fossils have been discovered in China, some of them with parts of their last meals in the stomach area, including a fish, a bird, and a lizard, so we knew they were generalist predators when it came to what they would eat. Now we have another Microraptor fossil with the fossilized foot of a mammal in the place where the dinosaur’s stomach once was. So we know that Microraptor ate mammals as well as anything else it could catch, although we don’t know what kind of mammal this particular leg belonged to. It may be a new species.

Let’s finish with the mangrove jingle shell. I’ve had it on the list for a long time with a lot of question marks after it. It’s a clam that lives in trees, and I actually thought it might be an animal made up for an April fool’s joke. But no, it’s a real clam that really does live in trees.

The mangrove jingle shell lives on the mangrove tree. Mangroves are adapted to live in brackish water, meaning a mixture of fresh and salt water, or even fully salt water. They mostly live in tropical or subtropical climates along coasts, and especially like to live in waterways where there’s a tide. The tide brings freshly oxygenated water to its roots. A mangrove tree needs oxygen to survive just like animals do, but it has trouble getting enough through its roots when they’re underwater. Its root system is extensive and complicated, with special types of roots that help it stay upright when the tide goes out and special roots called pneumatophores, which stick up above the water or soil and act as straws, allowing the tree to absorb plenty of oxygen from the air even when the rest of the root system is underwater. These pneumatophores are sometimes called knees, but different species of mangrove have different pneumatophore shapes and sizes.

One interesting thing about the mangrove tree is that its seeds actually sprout while they’re still attached to the parent tree. When it’s big enough, the seedling drops off its tree into the water and can float around for a long time before it finds somewhere to root. If can even survive drying out for a year or more.

The mangrove jingle shell clam lives in tropical areas of the Indo-Pacific Ocean, and is found throughout much of coastal southeast Asia all the way down to parts of Australia. It grows a little over one inch long, or 3 cm, and like other clams it finds a place to anchor itself so that water flows past it all the time and it can filter tiny food particles from the water. It especially likes intertidal areas, which happens to be the same area that mangroves especially like.

Larval jingle shells can swim, but they need to find somewhere solid to anchor themselves as they mature. When a larva finds a mangrove root, it attaches itself and grows a domed shell. If it finds a mangrove leaf, since mangrove branches often trail into the water, it attaches itself to the underside and grows a flatter shell. Clams attached to leaves are lighter in color than clams attached to roots or branches. Fortunately, the mangrove is an evergreen tree that doesn’t drop its leaves every year.

So there you have it. Arboreal clams! Not a hoax or an April fool’s joke.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or Podchaser, or just tell a friend. 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 332: Hunting Partners and Mutualism

Thanks to Vaughn and Jan for their suggestions this week! We’re going to learn about mutualism of various types.

Further reading:

The odd couple: spider-frog mutualism in the Amazon rainforest

What Birds, Coyotes, and Badgers Know About Teamwork

Octopuses punch fishes during collaborative interspecific hunting events

An Emotional Support Dog Is the Only Thing That Chills Out a Cheetah

Buddies [picture from the first link above]:

The honeyguide bird:

Cheetahs and dogs can be friends:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to learn about a topic that I’ve been wanting to cover for a long time, mutualism. It’s a broad topic so we won’t try to cover everything about it in this episode, just give an overview with some examples. Vaughn suggested symbiotic behavior ages ago, and Jan gave me a great example of this, also ages ago, so thanks to both of them!

Mutualism is similar to other terms, including symbiosis, often referred to as “a symbiotic relationship.” I’m using mutualism as a general term, but if you want to learn more you’ll quickly find that there are lots of terms referring to different interspecies relationships. Basically we’re talking about two unrelated organisms interacting in a way that’s beneficial to both. This is different from commensalism, where one organism benefits and the other doesn’t but also isn’t harmed, and parasitism, where one organism benefits and the other is harmed.

We’ll start with the suggestion from Jan, who alerted me to this awesome pair of animals. Many different species have developed this relationship, but we’ll take as our specific example the dotted humming frog that lives in parts of western South America.

The dotted humming frog is a tiny nocturnal frog that barely grows more than half an inch long from snout to vent, or about 2 cm. It lives in swamps and lowland forests and spends most of the day in a burrow underground. It comes out at night to hunt insects, especially ants. It really loves ants and is considered an ant specialist. That may be why the dotted humming frog has a commensal relationship with a spider, the Colombian lesserblack tarantula.

The tarantula is a lot bigger than the frog, with its body alone almost 3 inches long, or 7 cm. Its legspan can be as much as 8 and a half inches across, or 22 cm. It’s also nocturnal and spends the day in its burrow, coming out at night to hunt insects and other small animals, although not ants. It’s after bigger prey, including small frogs. But it doesn’t eat the dotted humming frog. One or even more of the frogs actually lives in the same burrow as the tarantula and they come out to hunt in the evenings at the same time as their spider roommate.

So what’s going on? Obviously the frog gains protection from predators by buddying up with a tarantula, but why doesn’t the tarantula just eat the frog? Scientists aren’t sure, but the best guess is that the frog protects the spider’s eggs from ants. Ants like to eat invertebrate eggs, but the dotted humming frog likes to eat ants, and as it happens the female Colombian lesserblack tarantula is especially maternal. She lays about 100 eggs and carries them around in an egg sac. When the babies hatch, they live with their mother for up to a year, sharing food and burrow space.

This particular tarantula also gets along with another species of frog that also eats a lot of ants. Researchers think the spiders distinguish the frogs by smell. The ant-eating frogs apparently smell like friends, or at least useful roommates, while all other frogs smell like food. Or, of course, it’s possible that the ant-eating frogs smell and taste bad to the spider. Either way, both the frogs and the tarantulas benefit from the relationship–and this pairing of tiny frogs and big spiders is one that’s actually quite common throughout the world.

Mutualism is everywhere, from insects gathering nectar to eat while pollenating flowers at the same time, to cleaner fish eating parasites from bigger fish, to birds eating fruit and pooping out seeds that then germinate with a little extra fertilizer. Many mutualistic relationships aren’t obvious to us as humans until we’ve done a lot of careful observations, which is why it’s so important to protect not just a particular species of animal but its entire ecosystem. We don’t always know what other animals and plants that animal depends on to survive, and vice versa.

Sometimes an individual animal will work together with an individual of another species to find food. This may not happen all the time, just when circumstances are right. Sometimes, for example, a coyote will pair up with a badger to hunt. The coyote is closely related to wolves and can run really fast, while the American badger can dig really fast. Both are native to North America. They also both really like to eat prairie dogs, a type of rodent that can run really fast and lives in a burrow. Some prairie dog tunnels can extend more than 30 feet, or 10 meters, with multiple exits. The badger can dig into the burrow and if the prairie dog leaves through one of the exits, the coyote chases after it. When one of the predators catches the prairie dog, they don’t share the meal but they will often continue to hunt together until both are able to eat.

Other animals hunt together too. Moray eels will sometime pair up with a fish called the grouper in a similar way as the coyote and badger. The grouper is a fast swimmer while the eel can wriggle into crevices in rocks or coral. The grouper will swim up to the eel and shake its head rapidly to initiate a hunt, and if the grouper has seen a prey item disappear into a crevice, it will lead the eel to the crevice and shake its head at it again.

Groupers also sometimes pair up with octopuses to hunt together, as will some other species of fish. Like the eel, the octopus can enter crevices to chase an animal that’s trying to hide. But the octopus isn’t always a good hunting partner, because if the grouper catches a fish, sometimes the octopus will punch the grouper and steal its fish. Not cool, octopus.

Birds have mutualistic relationships too, including the honeyguide that lives in parts of Africa and Asia. It’s a little perching bird that’s mostly gray and white or brown and white, with the males of some species having yellow markings. It eats insects, spiders, and other invertebrates, and it especially likes bee larvae. But it’s just a little bird and can’t break open wild honeybee hives by itself.

Some species of honeyguide that live in Africa have figured out that humans can break open beehives. When the honeyguide bird finds a beehive, it will fly around until it hears the local people’s hunting calls. The bird will then respond with a distinct call of its own, alerting the people, and will guide them to the beehive. This has been going on for thousands of years. The humans gather the honey, the honeyguide feasts on the bee larvae and wax, and everyone has a good day except the bees.

The honeyguide is also supposed to guide the honey badger to beehives, but there’s no definitive evidence that this actually happens. Honey badgers do like to eat honey and bee larvae, though, and when a honey badger breaks open a beehive, honeyguides and other birds will wait until it’s eaten what it wants and will then pick through the wreckage for any food the badger missed. But the honeyguide might lead the honey badger to the hive, we just don’t know for sure.

Humans sometimes even help other animals into a commensal relationship. Vaughn gave me an example of a cheetah in a zoo who became best friends with a dog. This hasn’t just happened once, it’s happened lots of times because zookeepers have found that it helps cheetahs kept in captivity. Cheetahs are social animals but sometimes a zoo doesn’t have a good companion for a cheetah cub. The cub could be in danger from older, unrelated cheetahs, but a cheetah all on its own is prone to anxiety. It’s so important for a cheetah to have a sibling that if a mother cheetah only has one cub, or if all but one cub dies, a lot of times she’ll abandon the single cub. If this happens in the wild, it’s sad, but if it happens in captivity the zoo needs to help the cub.

To do this, the zoo will pair the cub with a puppy of a sociable, large breed of dog, such as a Labrador or golden retriever. The cub and the puppy grow up together. The cheetah has a mellow friend who helps alleviate its anxiety, and the dog has a friend who’s really good at playing chase.

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

Thanks for listening!

Episode 314: Animals Discovered in 2022

Let’s learn about some of the animals discovered in 2022! There are lots, so let’s go!

Further Reading:

In Japanese waters, a newly described anemone lives on the back of a hermit crab

Rare ‘fossil’ clam discovered alive

Marine Biologists Discover New Giant Isopod

Mysterious ‘blue goo’ at the bottom of the sea stumps scientists

New Species of Mossy Frog Discovered in Vietnam

A Wildlife YouTuber Discovered This New Species of Tarantula in Thailand

Meet Nepenthes pudica, Carnivorous Plant that Produces Underground Traps

Scientists discover shark graveyard at the bottom of the ocean

Further Watching:

JoCho Sippawat’s YouTube channel

A newly discovered sea anemone (photo by Akihiro Yoshikawa):

A mysterious blue blob seen by a deep-sea rover:

A newly discovered frog:

A newly discovered tarantula (photo by JoCho Sippawat):

Show transcript:

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

It’s the 2022 discoveries episode, where we learn about some of the animals discovered in 2022! Most of the time these animals were actually discovered by scientists before 2022, but the description was published in that year so that’s when we first learned about them. And, of course, a lot of these animals were already known to the local people but had never been studied by scientists before. There are lots of animals in the world but not that many scientists.

The great thing is, so many animals get discovered in any given year that I have to pick and choose the ones I think listeners will find most interesting, which in a stunning coincidence turns out to be the ones that I personally find most interesting. Funny how that works out.

We’ll start in the ocean, which is full of weird animals that no human has ever seen before. It’s about a hermit crab who carries a friend around. The hermit crab was already known to science, but until a team of scientists observed it in its natural habitat, the deep sea off the Pacific coast of Japan, no one realized it had an anemone friend.

The sea anemone is related to jellyfish and is a common animal throughout the world’s oceans. Some species float around, some anchor themselves to a hard surface. Many species have developed a symbiotic relationship with other animals, such as the clownfish, which is sometimes called the anemonefish because it relies on the anemone to survive. Anemones sting the way jellyfish do, but it doesn’t sting the clownfish. Researchers aren’t sure why not, but it may have something to do with the clownfish’s mucus coating. Specifically, the mucus may have a particular taste that the anemone recognizes as belonging to a friend. If the anemone does accidentally sting the clownfish, it’s still okay because the fish is generally immune to the anemone’s toxins.

The clownfish lives among the anemone’s tentacles, which protects it from predators, and in return its movements bring more oxygen to the anemone by circulating water through its tentacles, its droppings provide minerals to the anemone, and because the clownfish is small and brightly colored, it might even attract predators that the anemone can catch and eat.

Anemones also develop mutualistic relationships with other organisms, including a single-celled algae that lives in its body and photosynthesizes light into energy. The algae has a safe place to live while the anemone receives some of the energy from the algae’s photosynthesis. But some species of anemone have a relationship with crabs, including this newly discovered anemone.

The anemone anchors itself to the shell that the hermit crab lives in. The crab gains protection from predators, who would have to go through the stinging tentacles and the shell to get to the crab, while the anemone gets carried to new places where it can find more food. It also gathers up pieces of food that the crab scatters while eating, because crabs are messy eaters.

The problem is that hermit crabs have to move into bigger shells as they grow. Anemones can move, but incredibly slowly. Like, snails look like racecar drivers compared to anemones. The anemone moves so slowly that the human eye can’t detect the movement.

What the team of scientists witnessed was a hermit crab spending several days carefully pushing and pinching the anemone to make it move onto its new shell. If it wasn’t important, the crab wouldn’t bother. The sea anemone hasn’t yet been officially described since it’s still being studied, but it appears to be closely related to four other species of anemone that also attach themselves to the shells of other hermit crab species.

In other marine invertebrate news, a researcher named Jeff Goddard was turning rocks over at low tide at Naples Point, California a few years ago. He was looking for sea slugs, but he noticed some tiny clams. They were only about 10 mm long, but they extended a white-striped foot longer than their shells. Goddard had never seen anything quite like these clams even though he was familiar with the beach and everything that lived there, so he took pictures and sent them to a clam expert. The expert hadn’t seen these clams before either and came to look for the clams in person. But they couldn’t find the clams again. It took ten trips to the beach and an entire year before they found another of the clams.

They thought the clam might be a new species, but part of describing a new species is examining the literature to make sure the organism wasn’t already described a long time ago. Eventually the clam research team did find a paper with illustrations of a clam that matched, published in 1937, but that paper was about a fossilized clam.

They examined the 1937 fossil shell and compared it to their modern clam shell. It was a match! But why hadn’t someone else noticed these clams before? Even Goddard hadn’t seen them, and he’s a researcher that spends a lot of time along the coast looking specifically for things like little rare clams. Goddard thinks the clam has only recently started extending its range northward, especially during some marine heatwaves in 2014 through 2016. He suspects the clam’s typical range is farther south in Baja California, so hopefully a future expedition to that part of the Pacific can find lots more of the clams and we can learn more about it.

We talked about deep-sea isopods just a few weeks ago, in episode 311. They’re crustaceans related to crabs and lobsters, but also related to roly-polies that live on land. The deep-sea species often show deep-sea gigantism and are referred to as giant isopods, and that’s what this newly discovered species is. It was first found in 2017 in the Gulf of Mexico and is more slender than other giant isopods. The largest individual measured so far is just over 10 inches long, or 26 cm, which is almost exactly half the length of the longest giant isopod ever measured. It’s still pretty big, especially if you compare it to its roly-poly cousins, also called pillbugs, sow bugs, or woodlice, who typically grow around 15 mm at most.

Before we get out of the water, let’s talk about one more marine animal. This one’s a mystery that I covered in the October 2022 Patreon episode. It was suggested by my brother Richard, so thank you again, Richard!

On August 30, 2022, a research team was off the coast of Puerto Rico, collecting data about the sea floor. Since the Caribbean is an area of the ocean with high biodiversity but also high rates of fishing and trawling, the more we can learn about the animals and plants that live on the sea floor, the more we can do to help protect them.

When a remotely operated vehicle dives, it sends video to a team of scientists who can watch in real time and control where the rover goes. On this particular day, the rover descended to a little over 1,300 feet deep, or around 407 meters, when the sea floor came in view. Since this area is the site of an underwater ridge, the sea floor varies by a lot, and the rover swam along filming things and taking samples of the water, sometimes as deep as about 2,000 feet, or 611 meters.

The rover saw lots of interesting animals, including fish and corals of various types, even a fossilized coral reef. Then it filmed something the scientists had never seen before. It was a little blue blob sitting on the sea floor.

The blue blob wasn’t moving and wasn’t very big. It was shaped roughly like a ball but with little points or pimples all over it and a wider base like a skirt where it met the ground, and it was definitely pale blue in color.

Then the rover saw more of the little blue blobs, quite a few of them in various places. The scientists think it may be a species of soft coral or a type of sponge, possibly even a tunicate, which is also called a sea squirt. All these animals are invertebrates that don’t move, which matches what little we know about the blue blob.

The rover wasn’t able to take a sample from one of the blue blobs, so for now we don’t have anything to study except the video. But we know where the little blue blobs are, so researchers hope to visit them again soon and learn more about them.

It wouldn’t be a newly discovered species list without at least one new frog. Quite a few frogs were discovered in 2022, including a tree frog from Vietnam called Khoi’s mossy frog. It lives in higher elevations and is pretty big for a tree frog, with a big female growing over 2 inches long, or almost 6 cm, from snout to vent. Males are smaller. It’s mostly brown and green with little points and bumps all over that help it blend into the moss-covered branches where it lives. That’s just about all we know about it so far.

Our next discovery is an invertebrate, a spider that lives in bamboo. Specifically it lives in a particular species of Asian bamboo in Thailand, and when I say it lives in the bamboo, I mean it really does live inside the bamboo stalks. Also, when I say it’s a spider, specifically it’s a small tarantula.

It was first discovered by a YouTuber named JoCho Sippawat, who travels around his home in Thailand and films the animals he sees. I watched a couple of his videos and they’re really well done and fun, and he’s adorable even when he’s eating gross things he finds, so I recommend his videos even if you don’t speak the language he speaks. I’m not sure if it’s Mandarin or another language, and I’m not sure if I’m pronouncing his name right either, so apologies to everyone from Thailand for my ignorance.

Anyway, Sippawat found a tarantula where no tarantula should be, inside a bamboo stalk, and sent pictures to an arachnologist. That led to a team of scientists coming to look for more of the spiders, and to their excitement, they found them and determined right away that they’re new to science. It was pretty easy to determine in this case because even though there are more than 1,000 species of tarantula in many parts of the world, none of them live in bamboo stalks. The new spider was placed in a genus all to itself since it’s so different from all other known tarantulas.

It’s mostly black and dark brown with narrow white stripes on its legs, and its body is only about an inch and a half long, or 3 1/2 cm. It can’t make holes into the bamboo plants itself, so it has to find a hole made by another animal or a natural crack in the bamboo. It lines its bamboo stalk with silk to make a little home, and while there’s a lot we don’t know yet about how it lives, it probably comes out of its home to hunt insects and other small animals since tarantulas don’t build webs.

Finally, let’s wrap around to the sea anemone again, at least sort of. If you remember episode 129, we talked about the Venus flytrap sea anemone, which is an animal that looks kind of like a carnivorous plant called the Venus flytrap. We then also talked about a lot of other carnivorous plants, including the pitcher plant. Well, in 2022 a new species of pitcher plant was discovered that has underground traps.

The pitcher plant has a type of modified leaf that forms a slippery-sided pitcher filled with a nectar-like liquid. When an insect crawls down to drink the liquid, it falls in and can’t get out. It drowns and is dissolved and digested by the plant. Almost all known carnivorous plants are pretty small, but the largest are pitcher plants. The biggest pitcher plant known is from a couple of mountains in Malaysian Borneo, and its pitchers can hold over 2 ½ liters of digestive fluid. The plant itself is a messy sort of vine that can grow nearly 20 feet long, or 6 meters. Mostly pitcher plants just attract insects, especially ants, but these giant ones can also trap frogs, lizards, rats and other small mammals, and even birds.

The newly discovered pitcher plant grows in the mountainous rainforests of Indonesian Borneo and is relatively small. Unlike every other pitcher plant known, its pitchers develop underground and can grow a little over 4 inches long, or 11 cm. Sometimes they grow just under the surface, with leaf litter or moss as their only covering, but sometimes they grow deeper underground. Either way, they’re very different from other pitcher plants in other ways too. For one thing, scientists found a lot of organisms actually living in the pitchers and not getting eaten by the plant, including a new species of worm. Scientists aren’t sure why some animals are safe in the plant but some animals get eaten.

The new pitcher plant is found in parts of Indonesian Borneo that’s being turned into palm oil plantations at a devastating rate, leading to the extinction or threatened extinction of thousands of animal and plant species. The local people are also treated very badly. Every new discovery brings more attention to the plight of the area and makes it even more urgent that its ecosystems are protected from further development. The fastest way to do this would be for companies to stop using so much palm oil. Seriously, it’s in everything, just look at the ingredients list for just about anything. I try to avoid it when I’m grocery shopping but it’s just about impossible. I didn’t mean to rant, but the whole palm oil thing really infuriates me.

You know what? Let’s have one more discovery so we don’t end on a sour note.

A biodiversity survey of two of Australia’s marine parks made some really interesting discoveries in 2022. This included a new species of hornshark that hasn’t even been described yet. It’s probably related to the Port Jackson shark, which grows to around five and a half feet long, or 1.65 meters, and is a slow-moving shark that lives in shallow water off the coast of most of Australia. Instead of a big scary mouth full of sharp teeth, the Port Jackson shark has a small mouth and flattened teeth that allow it to crush mollusks and crabs. The newly discovered shark lives in much deeper water than other hornsharks, though, around 500 feet deep, or 150 meters.

Another thing they found during the survey wasn’t a new species of anything, but it’s really cool so I’ll share it anyway. It was a so-called shark graveyard over three miles below the ocean’s surface, or 5400 meters. The scientists were trawling the bottom and when they brought the net up to see what they’d found, it was full of shark teeth–over 750 shark teeth! They were fossilized but some were from modern species while some were from various extinct species of shark, including a close relative of Megalodon that grew around 39 feet long, or 12 meters. No one has any idea why so many shark teeth are gathered in that particular area of the sea floor.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or Podchaser, or just tell a friend. 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 307: Coquí Frogs and Glass Frogs

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

Further reading:

Shattering the Glass Frog Ceiling

The Puerto Rican wetland frog, AKA coquí llanero:

The golden coquí in happier times:

Glass frog from above and below:

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

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

Show transcript:

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

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

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

[frogs beeping]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or Podchaser, or just tell a friend. 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 300: The Loveland Frog

Here it is, our 300th episode! Which just happens to fall on Halloween! We have a spooooooky episode for sure this time, a full five out of five ghosts on our spookiness scale. Beware!!

Don’t forget to order your copy of Beyond Bigfoot & Nessie, available wherever you buy books!

Check out the great podcast Bring Birds Back. They were kind enough to run a promo for us in the middle of their Halloween episode so I’ve returned the favor.

Further reading:

‘Loveland Frogman’ Spotted Again?

The Loveland Frogman Is Back!!! Beware.

Officer who shot ‘Loveland Frogman’ in 1972 says story is a hoax

Close Encounter at Kelly (PDF)

A picture from the 2016 sighting:

“Jim” the frogman cosplayer (from the second article linked to above):

The 27 March 1972 Cincinnati Post article, titled “Loveland monster” by Si Cornell (p.7):

A really big iguana:

The 1955 sighting, drawn in 1956 by the witness’s interviewer:

Show transcript:

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

It’s finally Halloween, and it’s also our 300th episode! Wow! I don’t think I’ve ever made 300 of anything before. To celebrate, this episode is going to be our most Halloween-y yet, a solid five out of five ghosts on our spookiness scale. Beware, muahahaha!

As usual in our Halloween episodes, we have a little bit of housekeeping before we start. The Beyond Bigfoot & Nessie book is still available everywhere you order books. I have six or seven copies of the paperback if you want to buy a signed copy directly from me. Just drop me an email if you’re interested.

This past year has been extremely busy for me. Apart from the podcast, I also sold my house and moved to an apartment, went to a lot of conventions to sell books, and worked on my fiction writing. I self-published a novella this summer called Royal Red, which is about dragons, but it’s not appropriate for younger readers so I won’t link to it. Everything I’ve done this year has been positive ultimately, but it was incredibly stressful at the time. Now that things are settling down, I’ve had time to think about what I want to do in the future.

I love making Strange Animals Podcast, but it’s also taking up more and more of my time. I have a lot of hobbies and interests outside of podcasting, which I haven’t had time to do very much in the last few years. I need to pull back and regain time for myself. But don’t worry, we’ll still have an episode every week! The episodes will just be shorter on average. Hopefully you won’t even notice the change.

Feel free to continue sending in your suggestions and feedback. I know I’m really backed up on suggestions and hope to get to a bunch of them in the next few months. If you worry that I never got your suggestion, you can send it again! Also, if you want a sticker, send me your mailing address and I’ll mail you one. That’s true all the time, not just right now.

Thanks to everyone for supporting the podcast over the last 300 episodes! Let’s aim for another 300. Also, stick around to the very end of the episode to hear a promo from a great podcast called Bring Birds Back. I think you’ll really like the show.

Now, it’s time to learn about the LOVELAND FROG. Which does not sound spooky, but believe me, it is.

The story doesn’t start in 2016, but that’s where we’re going to start. In early August 2016, a young man named Sam Jacobs was playing Pokemon Go with his girlfriend in Loveland, Ohio. They were near Lake Isabella when Sam noticed a big frog in the water. It was getting dark at this point and all Sam could see was the frog’s eyes reflecting light and its head and back above the water. It was so big that he took pictures and even video, but then the frog stood up out of the water and walked around on its hind legs, the size of a human.

But that wasn’t the first time someone had seen a giant frog-man in the area. In 1972 it was seen twice, both times by policemen.

On March 3, 1972, a policeman named Ray Shockey was driving along Riverside Road at about one in the morning. This was just outside Loveland, Ohio, and as the road’s name implies, the road followed along the Little Miami River. Officer Shockey saw what he initially thought was a dog in the road, but as he came closer, the animal stood up on its hind legs. He said it was about four feet tall, or 1.2 meters, with a face that looked like a frog’s or a lizard’s. Its skin looked leathery but textured. The creature stared at the car for a moment, then jumped over a guard rail and down toward the river.

Shockey was shocked, naturally, and hurried to the station. He told another officer on duty about what he’d seen, Mark Matthews, and the two returned to the spot where Shockey had encountered the creature. They found what looked like scrape marks on the ground leading down to the river, but nothing else.

A few weeks later, Mark Matthews saw the creature himself. He was driving along the river when he saw what he thought was a dead animal on the road. He stopped to move it off the road when it sat up, hurried to the guard rail and climbed over it. Officer Matthews shot at the creature but either missed, or the animal wasn’t hurt badly enough to stop.

But this still isn’t the first time the creature was sighted. We have to go back to 1955 for the first sighting of the creature now known as the Loveland frog or the Loveland frogman. There are various versions of the story but in general, in May of 1955, a businessman named Robert Hunnicott was driving along the Little Miami River at about 3:30 in the morning and saw three strange creatures standing on their hind legs. He was so shocked that he stopped his car to get a better look.

The creatures were no more than 4 feet tall, or 1.2 meters, and had gray leathery skin and faces like frogs. Instead of hair, the skin on their heads was deeply wrinkled. He also noticed they had webbed hands and feet. As Hunnicott stared, one of the figures raised a wand over its head and sparks shot out of it. At this point Hunnicott decided it was time to go, and he drove away quickly.

So, you have to admit, this is a truly spooky event. It may be the spookiest thing we’ve ever discussed on this podcast. But things aren’t all that they seem, so let’s revisit all three stories and learn a little more.

If you read the Wikipedia entry for the Loveland frog, at least as of late October 2022, under the “Popular culture” heading it discusses the 2016 sighting and finishes “It was later revealed to be a local student from Archbishop Moeller High School in a homemade frog costume.” This statement cites as its source a November 13, 2020 article written by a student for the Moeller Crusader, the high school’s newspaper.

But if you actually read the article, which I’ve linked to in the show notes, you’ll notice that it’s meant to be funny. For instance, this paragraph, which purports to be a quote from a student called Jim:

“‘I’ve been obsessed with the Loveland frog since I was a little boy,’ said Jim. ‘He’s like my idol. I dress up as him and go to the tunnel and hop around a few times a week. I sometimes make little chocolates shaped as flies and I’ll eat them while I hop around. And no, I don’t think it’s weird.’”

This actually made me laugh. But nowhere in the article does it state that “Jim” was in the lake in 2016 while Sam Jacobs and his girlfriend were playing Pokemon Go. If Jim was an Archbishop Moeller High School student in November 2020 when the article was published, he would not have been a high school student in August 2016 unless he had to stay in high school for five years instead of the usual four. Either that or he started wearing his costume around in middle school but was only seen once until the article ran in 2020. Also, in the pictures accompanying the article, the frog costume is just an oversized head made of plush fur, not the sort of thing you’d want to wear into a lake and not matching the size of the creature photographed in 2016. Anyway, as I said, the article is clearly meant to be funny, not factual.

In other words, while Wikipedia is a perfectly good source of general knowledge on a topic, make sure you double-check the references cited for accuracy, and don’t use Wikipedia as your only source.

All that aside, it’s a good possibility that the 2016 sighting was a hoax. The pictures and video are grainy since it was dark out, so basically all you can see is what seems to be a dark green or gray human-like figure standing in the water about waist-deep. The glow of its eyes is so bright they look like LED lights instead of the normal eyeshine of a nocturnal or crepuscular animal. The lights also appear to be white. White eyeshine is generally only found in fish, while frogs generally have green eyeshine. Of course, the Loveland frog isn’t actually a frog, and if it is something new to science it could potentially have any color of eyeshine. But such bright white eyeshine is more likely to be due to an artificial light source causing the glow, not the reflection of light.

Let’s go back to the 1972 sightings next. The initial sighting made by Ray Shockey happened in early March. Loveland is a community on the outskirts of Cincinnati, Ohio, and according to online weather history archives, the temperature dipped down to 24 degrees Fahrenheit that night, or -4 Celsius. The following day, Saturday, the temperature only reached 39 F, or 4 C.

It was also windy, which would make it feel even colder.

The Cincinnati Post newspaper reported on the sighting in a March 27, 1972 article. The article takes a humorous tone but it does have some solid reporting, so I’m going to quote a lot of it.

Patrolman Ray Shockey, 23, was cruising along the river late at night when he saw ‘an animal two to three feet tall with dark green or blackish scaly skin.’ The thing ducked over the bank into the river.

Ten days ago, Patrolman Mark Matthews, 21, was driving home from duty along the same road at 6 a.m. Near Loveland’s city limits, a good quarter mile from the first sighting but still close to the river, he saw ‘the same type of creature’ and was able to partially swing his headlights on it.

Matthews said the irritated monster ‘stuck its tongue out at me…it was forked like a serpent’s.’ He fired three shots, apparently missing, and the monster skedaddled towards the water. He estimated the thing as two to four feet high.”

Now we have some real details! The article ends with a quote from a local zookeeper, who noted that the sketch the two officers had made from their reports resembled The Creature from the Black Lagoon, a monster movie that had only been released the year before.

The forked tongue is a telling detail, because there’s a particular animal that mostly fits the creature’s description that does have a noticeable forked tongue. That’s the monitor lizard, and we’ve talked about various monitors in lots of past episodes. Monitor lizards are popular pets in the United States and can easily grow three or four feet long, or 91 to 122 cm. The monitor’s snout is relatively blunt and can look frog-like, although it’s at the end of a relatively long neck. It also has a long tail, so while some details fit the sightings, it’s not a perfect match.

Besides, the monitor lizard is a reptile, and therefore cold-blooded, or ectothermic, meaning its internal body temperature depends on the temperature outside. It can’t function well in cold temperatures and will die if it gets too cold. The same is true of frogs and other amphibians, for that matter, many of which hibernate in burrows, crevices in rocks or logs, and other places protected from freezing temperatures.

It was warmer when Matthews spotted the creature on March 17, 1972, although still not much above freezing. The high temperature that day was 48 F, or almost 9 C, but at 6am it was probably colder. That’s still really cold for a reptile or amphibian to be out and about in the dark.

But that’s not all, because in 2016, after Sam Jacobs and his girlfriend saw the Loveland frog, Mark Matthews contacted the Cincinnati news station WCPO and his story had changed a lot in the 44 years since his own sighting. Even the spelling of his name had changed, with Matthews spelled with one T instead of two, but the 2-T spelling might have been a mistake in the original reports from 1972.

In his 2016 interview, Matthews now said he “was driving on Kemper Road near the boot factory when he saw something run across the road. However, it wasn’t walking upright and didn’t climb over the guardrail as the urban legend of the Frogman goes. The creature crawled under the guardrail. […] ‘I know no one would believe me, so I shot it,’ he said.

“Mathews recovered the creature’s body and put it in his trunk to show Shockey. He said Shockey said it was the creature he had seen, too. It was a large iguana about 3 or 3.5 feet long, Mathews said. The animal was missing its tail, which is why he didn’t immediately recognize it.

“Mathews said he figured the iguana had been someone’s pet and then either got loose or was released when it grew too large. He also theorized that the cold-blooded animal had been living near the pipes that released water that was used for cooling the ovens in the boot factory as a way to stay warm in the cold March weather.”

A big male iguana can get quite large, up to 6 feet long including the tail, or 1.8 meters, and they’re also popular pets. The iguana has a shorter neck than a monitor lizard and a blunt muzzle that could be considered froglike. However, it also has a long tail, a dewlap under the throat, and a row of little spikes down the spine. All these details are distinctive and not reported in the initial reports. It does have a forked tongue, but it’s not noticeable unless you get a good look at it from up close. If Matthews had killed the animal and examined it, he might have seen the tongue and gave that detail to a reporter in 1972, but why didn’t he also mention the spikes and dewlap? If he was trying to protect his fellow officer from ridicule by backing up his story, he didn’t need to stick to details he really saw. He could have made up anything, but instead he just said that the animal stuck a forked tongue at him and ran toward the water.

Besides, it seems awfully convenient that Mark Matthews’s iguana was missing a tail, which would have made it look more froglike, and was active on two nights, one of them below freezing. Iguanas are not nocturnal. It’s also convenient that although he supposedly had the dead animal in his patrol car, he didn’t take any pictures or show anyone except Shockey, who had already died by the time Matthews made his 2016 claim. I don’t think Mark Matthews killed an iguana or anything else that night.

One suggestion is that the animal might have been a mammal with a bad case of mange, which made its skin look like textured leather and made it hard to recognize. But with so few concrete details, no physical evidence, and a witness who changed his story considerably, we can’t even make a guess.

Finally, going back to the 1955 sighting is even more difficult. The best documentation of what happened appears in a publication called Close Encounter at Kelly and Others of 1955, published in 1978 by the Center for UFO Studies. The bulk of the publication is concerned with what’s now called the Kelly-Hopkinsville encounter that happened in Kentucky. I won’t get into the details here because it could and probably one day will be an episode all to itself, but it happened in late August 1955. Part two of Close Encounter at Kelly talks about other strange occurrences that happened not too far away or too long before or after the Kelly-Hopkinsville encounter. According to that publication, the story originally appeared in a September 2, 1955 zine called the CRIFO Orbit, where CRIFO stands for “Civilian Research, Interplanetary Flying Objects.” The editor, Leonard Stringfield, recounts the original article:

“…We should like to cite a case involving a prominent businessman, living in Loveland. Occurring several weeks ago, this person…saw four ‘strange little men about three feet tall’ under a certain bridge. He reported the bizarre affair to the police and we understand that an armed guard was placed there.”

Already we see a lot of discrepancies from the story as it’s usually told these days, but it gets even more complicated and weird. Following that article in the CRIFO Orbit, Stringfield met with another UFO enthusiast who had some corrections to the story. The businessman, he said, was actually a young volunteer policeman. Stringfield went to the chief of police to find out more. He learned the witness’s name, although he only gives his initials, C.F., and that he was 19 years old in either late June or early July 1955 when his sighting took place.

“The witness, C.F., was driving a Civil Defense truck at the time and as he was crossing a bridge in the Loveland area (there is one vehicular bridge into Loveland over the Little Miami River from Clermont County), he noticed four small figures on the river bank beneath the bridge. A terrible smell hung over the area. C.F. immediately drove to police headquarters in Loveland and reported the incident.”

Stringfield next went to talk to C.F., who didn’t really want to discuss his sighting since he’d been laughed at by too many people about it, but he did say that he’d seen “four more-or-less human-looking little men about three feet high,” and that he’d only seen them for about ten seconds. Since this interview took place within a year of the sighting, it’s probably as good as we can get now.

But things get even more complicated, because the very next chapter in the Close Encounter at Kelly publication is titled “The Hunnicutt Encounter at Branch Hill.” Now we have the name seen online attached to the businessman, Robert Hunnicutt, and the date May 25, 1955. Stringfield learned about this sighting from the police chief when they were discussing the other sighting.

The police chief was woken at about four in the morning by someone pounding on his front door. It was Robert Hunnicutt, a short-order cook in a Loveland restaurant, and he looked like he’d seen a ghost. He “told the police chief that while he was driving northeast through Branch Hill (in Symmes Township) on the Madeira-Loveland Pike, he had seen a group of ‘strange little men’ along the side of the road with ‘their backs to the bushes.’ Curious, he had stopped the car and gotten out. …[T]he witness claimed he had seen ‘fire coming out of their hands,’ and that a ‘terrible odor’ permeated the place. When Hunnicutt realized he was looking at something quite out of the ordinary he became frightened; jumping back into his car, he had driven directly to the police chief’s home.”

The chief of police knew Hunnicutt and while he believed the man had had a real fright, he didn’t believe the story as Hunnicutt told it. He also mentioned that Hunnicutt didn’t smell as though he’d been drinking alcohol. The police chief drove out to the spot Hunnicutt described and drove around looking for the creatures, without luck.

You better believe that Stringfield didn’t let this opportunity pass him by. He interviewed Robert Hunnicutt on September 1, 1956.

Hunnicutt said he was out at 3:30am on the night of the sighting because he was driving home from work, and he was driving down a slight hill when his headlights lit up three figures in the grass on the right-hand side of the road. He thought they were people kneeling in the grass for some reason, which is why he stopped his car.

“The figures were short, about three and a half feet in height, and they stood in a roughly triangular position facing the opposite side of the road. […] The forward figure held his arms a foot or so above his head and it appeared to Hunnicutt as though he were holding a rod, or a chain, in this upraised position. […] Sparks, blue-white in color and two or three at a time, were seen jumping back and forth from one hand to the other, just above or below the ‘rod.’ It was Hunnicutt’s impression that the beings were concentrating on some spot directly across the road, although he could see nothing unusual in the woods to the west of the Pike.

“As Hunnicutt got out of the left side of his car, the forward figure lowered his arms and near his feet appeared to release whatever he had been holding. To the witness, ‘it looked as if he tied it around his ankles.’ Then, as Hunnicutt stood by the left side of the car, all three figures simultaneously turned slightly toward their left so that they now faced the witness. Motionless, and without sound or change of expression, they stared directly at him. In the car lights Hunnicutt was able to observe a number of details.

“This most extraordinary trio was made up of three humanoid figures of a greyish color—approximately the same shade of grey for their heads as for their ‘garments.’ ‘Fairly ugly’ were the words Hunnicutt used to describe them. A large, straight mouth, without any apparent lip muscles, crossed nearly the entire lower portion of their faces—an effect which reminded the witness of a frog. The nose was indistinct, with no unusual feature that the witness could discern. The eyes seemed to be more or less normal, except that no eyebrows could be seen. The pate was bald and appeared to have rolls of fat running horizontally across the top, rather like the corregated [sic] effect of a doll’s painted-on hair—except that there was no difference in color.

“The most remarkable feature was the upper torso: the chest was decidedly lopsided. On the right side it swelled out in an unusually large bulge that began under the armpit and extended down to the waist, giving the figures a markedly asymmetrical appearance. The arms seemed to be of uneven length, the right being longer than the left, as though to accommodate this unusual feature. […] Hunnicutt saw nothing unusual about the hands, although he could not say how many fingers they had. […] He could see no feet, but the figures stood in six-inch high grass.”

Hunnicutt described the creatures’ movements as graceful, and he only noticed the smell when he got back into his car and drove off. He described it as “a combination of ‘fresh-cut alfalfa, with a slight trace of almonds,’” which sounds wonderful to me. He also said that a few months later, possibly July or August, he was driving the same stretch of road with his girlfriend and they both noticed the same smell. He stopped, but they didn’t see anything unusual.

After that, the publication goes on to talk about various UFO sightings in the area, so that’s all we have of first-hand accounts of the Loveland frogman.

It’s obvious that people have conflated the two different 1955 sightings, mixing them up so that some retellings repeat information from the original CRIFO Orbit report and others include more information from the Close Encounter at Kelly publication.

Were the creatures aliens, as Stringfield thought? Talking about potential aliens is beyond the scope of this podcast, but I will point out that organisms that evolved on a different planet are unlikely to look anything like humans or other tetrapods. Tetrapods are animals with four limbs of one kind or another, which includes mammals, reptiles, birds, and amphibians on Earth, and apparently also includes most aliens as seen in popular culture. But even on Earth, not every living thing has four limbs—in fact, most things don’t. Just think about jellyfish, octopuses, starfish, spiders, flies, centipedes, slugs, and trees.

But don’t forget about C.F.’s short report about what he saw. We don’t know when his sighting took place but it was probably during the day. All he saw was “four small figures on the river bank beneath the bridge” as he drove over the bridge, along with a terrible smell. He didn’t describe the smell, but most terrible smells near a road are rotting roadkill…and roadkilled animals attract a specific type of bird: vultures. Both turkey vultures and black vultures are common throughout Ohio and surrounding areas, and both are extremely large birds. C.F. didn’t get a good look and was also looking down at them from the bridge as he drove over. Four vultures sitting around a dead animal might easily look like four small human-like figures from a distance, especially when seen at such a strange angle.

As for Hunnicutt’s sighting, remember that it came only a few months after C.F.’s. Both C.F. and Hunnicutt knew the chief of police, so it’s also possible they had other acquaintances in common. C.F. had stopped talking about his sighting after he’d been laughed at by others who didn’t believe him, but it’s possible that Hunnicutt had heard the story. And remember, people see what they expect to see. If Hunnicutt was driving home after a tiring day at work, he might even have fallen asleep, his car drifted to a stop, and he dreamed he met the same weird creatures that C.F. saw.

Then again, I wasn’t there and it’s not fair for me to look back on a secondhand account from 67 years ago and decide that the witness dreamed it all. So we’ll just have to admit that the Loveland frog-man as seen in 1955, 1972, and 2016…might have been something truly strange after all.

Happy Halloween!

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or Podchaser, or just tell a friend. 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 299: Entombed in Stone!

This week’s episode rates one out of five ghosts on the spookiness scale. It’s not too spooky unless the thought of being ENTOMBED IN STONE creeps you out! Which it might, if you are a frog.

Further reading:

A Tenacious Pterodactyl

Further watching:

“One Froggy Evening”

A frog supposedly found mummified in a stone:

The Texas horned lizard kind of looks like a pointy toad with a tail:

Show transcript:

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

We’re getting really close to Halloween and our 300th episode, and it’s going to be a spooky one! This week, though, I rate this episode as one ghost out of five on our spookiness scale, meaning it’s not very spooky at all…unless you’re a frog!

Most of us know this story. A worker helping to demolish a building finds a mysterious box hidden in the building’s cornerstone. He opens the box and discovers a living frog—a frog that can sing and dance! But only when no one else is looking!

That’s the classic Looney Tunes cartoon “One Froggy Evening,” and while it’s really funny, it’s also based on many stories about frogs, toads, and other animals supposedly discovered entombed but alive, or only recently dead, in clay, bricks, tree trunks, coal, and even rocks.

For example, in 1782, the American politician and naturalist Benjamin Franklin was living in France, and while he was there he heard about some workmen in a quarry who had found some living toads encased in stone. I’ll quote from Franklin’s writing:

“At Passy, near Paris, April 6th, 1782, being with M. de Chaumont, viewing his quarry, he mentioned to me, that the workmen had found a living toad shut up in the stone. On questioning one of them, he told us, they had found four in different cells which had no communication; that they were very lively and active when set at liberty; that there was in each cell some loose, soft, yellowish earth, which appeared to be very moist. We asked, if he could show us the parts of the stone that formed the cells. He said, No; for they were thrown among the rest of what was dug out, and he knew not where to find them. We asked, if there appeared any opening by which the animal could enter. He said, No. […] We asked, if he could show us the toads. He said, he had thrown two of them up on a higher part of the quarry, but knew not what became of the others.

“He then came up to the place where he had thrown the two, and, finding them, he took them by the foot, and threw them up to us, upon the ground where we stood. One of them was quite dead, and appeared very lean; the other was plump and still living. The part of the rock where they were found, is at least fifteen feet below its surface, and is a kind of limestone. A part of it is filled with ancient seashells, and other marine substances. If these animals have remained in this confinement since the formation of the rock, they are probably some thousands of years old.”

Since limestone generally takes about a million years to form, and requires considerable pressure and lots of chemical reactions to do so, we can be certain that the toads were not in the limestone for all that long. But limestone is porous, and the mention of damp yellow earth inside the capsules of stone suggests that there were significant fissures in the stones where the toads were found. Limestone dissolves in water, although it takes a long time. That’s how caves form. Maybe over many years, tiny cracks and holes had formed in the limestone, large enough for some well developed tadpoles or young toads to end up in the holes, maybe during a rainstorm or flood.

Then again, the whole thing might have been a mistake. The toads might not have actually been inside the stones, only nearby when the stones were broken open. The workers might have thought they were inside. Or it might just have been a hoax made up by a bored quarry worker.

Stories of animals found encased in stone or other impossible conditions go back hundreds of years, in many parts of the world, but for some reason they got really popular around the mid-19th century in England. Suddenly people were finding toads and other animals in all sorts of weird places, or said they had. The Rev. Robert Taylor of St. Hilda’s Church, Hartlepool, for instance, exhibited a toad and the stone it was found in, with the chamber inside the stone being exactly the size and shape of the toad before it was broken open and freed in April 1865. But a geologist who examined the stone found obvious chisel marks where it had been hollowed out and shaped to look like the toad had been inside.

It wasn’t just toads found in rocks, of course, although those were the most popular. A mouse was supposedly found in a rock in 1803, three salamanders of a presumed extinct species were supposedly found in a rock sometime before 1818, and a horned toad was supposedly found in a building cornerstone in 1928. The horned toad is actually a lizard, in this case a Texas horned lizard that lives in various parts of the south-central United States and northeastern Mexico.

The Texas horned lizard does actually resemble a toad in some ways. Its body is broad and rounded and its face has a blunt, froglike snout. A big female grows about 5 inches long, or almost 13 cm, not counting its tail, while males are smaller. It’s covered with little pointy scales, and if it feels threatened, it will puff up its body so that the scales stick out even more. It also has true horns on its head, little spikes that are formed by projections of its skull.

The Texas horned lizard eats insects, especially a type of red ant called the harvester ant. The harvester ant is venomous but the horned lizard is resistant to the venom and is specialized to eat lots and lots of the ants. Its esophagus produces lots of mucus when it’s eating, which collects around the ants and stops them from being able to bite before they die.

The horned lizard supposedly found in a cornerstone of a building was nicknamed Ol’ Rip after Rip Van Winkle, the main character in a short story by Washington Irving who fell asleep and woke up 20 years later. Ol’ Rip the Texas horned lizard was supposedly placed into the hollow cornerstone brick as part of a time capsule when the Eastland County Courthouse was being built in 1897.

In 1928, the courthouse was torn down and a newspaper reporter advertised the opening of the time capsule, including the story about the horned lizard. Sure enough, a live horned lizard was removed from the cornerstone when it was opened, which by the way was the inspiration for the “One Froggy Evening” cartoon.

Ol’ Rip became a celebrity and was displayed all over the United States, and the Texas horned lizard became such a popular pet that the population declined severely, since people went out and caught them to sell as pets. Since the horned lizard eats a lot of insects that damage crops, its decline in numbers actually led to farmers losing money to insect damage. The Texas horned lizard is still endangered, for that matter, and is now a protected species that isn’t allowed to be kept as a pet. Ol’ Rip died less than a year after he was supposedly discovered in the cornerstone.

Even at the time, a lot of people were skeptical that Ol’ Rip had really been in the cornerstone brick for 31 years. It’s much more likely that one of the officials presiding over the time capsule’s opening brought a horned lizard with him and pretended to find it in the brick.

For one thing, the Texas horned lizard needs bright sunshine to survive. Its body can only produce vitamin D when it gets a lot of sunshine, and without vitamin D it will eventually die. It spends a lot of time sunbathing and while it does dig a burrow to sleep in at night, as soon as the sun’s out in the morning, the lizard comes out to bask in the sunshine. A Texas horned lizard trapped in a brick without food, water, air, or sunshine wouldn’t survive long.

The weirdest animal ever supposed to have been found in a stone was reported in the Illustrated London News in 1856. According to the article, during the construction of a railway tunnel in France, a huge block of stone was dislodged with dynamite. The workers were breaking it into smaller pieces when they exposed a chamber inside the rock. A creature emerged that looked something like an enormous bat, but was obviously not a bat. It had a long neck, sharp teeth in its mouth, four long legs with long claws on its talons, and its front and hind legs were connected with flying membranes. It was black with bare skin.

The animal shook its wings but promptly dropped dead, and was sent to a naturalist who identified it as Pterodactylus anas, which had died 64 million years before. Its wingspan was measured as 10 feet, 7 inches across, or 3 meters, 22 cm.

There is no species of pterodactyl named Pterodactylus anas, but anas is Latin for duck. The word for duck in French is canard, which in English means something more like “a hoax or tall tale.”

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or Podchaser, or just tell a friend. 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 275: The Axolotl, the Hellbender, and Friends

This week it’s Zoe and Dillon’s episode! They wanted to learn about some really interesting salamanders, including the axolotl and the hellbender!

A big birthday shout-out to Heather R. too. The very happiest of birthdays to you!

Further reading:

Mexico City’s endangered axolotl has found fame—is that enough to save it?

How Do Salamanders Breathe?

Most wild axolotls are brown:

Most captive-bred axolotls are leucistic:

The hellbender doesn’t have external gills as an adult:

The red eft, the juvenile stage of the red-spotted newt:

Adult mudpuppies have external gills just like axolotls do:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. We’re your cohosts, Zoe and Dillon. And I’m your third cohost, Kate Shaw.

This week we have Zoe and Dillon’s episode, and they want to learn about the axolotl, the hellbender, and some other salamanders. It’ll be the greatest amphibian episode ever!

But first, we have a birthday shout-out! Happy birthday to Heather R.! I hope the weather is perfect for your birthday and you get to go out and appreciate it.

So, let’s start with the axolotl, because everyone loves it! “Axolotl” isn’t the way it’s pronounced in its native country of Mexico, since it comes from the name of an Aztec god of fire and lightning, but it’s the common pronunciation in English so I’m going to stick with that one. In addition to Zoe and Dillon, at least one other listener has suggested we cover the axolotl. That would be Rosy, and I apologize to anyone else who suggested it but whose name didn’t make it onto the suggestions list.

Way back in episode 104, about tiger salamanders, we learned that the tiger salamander is closely related to the axolotl. But the two species look very different most of the time because the axolotl exhibits a trait called neoteny. In most salamanders, the egg hatches into a larval salamander that lives in water, which means it has external gills so it can breathe underwater. It grows and ultimately metamorphoses into a juvenile salamander that spends most of its time on land, so it loses its external gills in the metamorphosis. Eventually it takes on its adult coloration and pattern. But the axolotl doesn’t metamorphose. Even when it matures, it still looks kind of like a big larva, complete with external gills, and it lives underwater its whole life.

Very rarely, an axolotl metamorphoses into an adult form, at which point it looks a whole lot like a tiger salamander. This generally happens if the individual is exposed to excess iodine in its diet, and metamorphosing like this may actually lead to the axolotl’s death. Axolotls exhibit neoteny because it gives them an advantage in their natural range, so even though it seems strange to us compared to all those other salamanders, it’s what the axolotl is supposed to do.

The axolotl’s natural range is very specific. Originally it lived in two large, cold lakes in the Valley of Mexico. This is where Mexico City is and it’s been a hub of civilization for thousands of years. A million people lived there in 1521 when the Spanish invaded and destroyed the Aztec Empire with introduced diseases and war. The axolotl was an important food of the Aztecs and the civilizations that preceded them, and if you’ve only ever seen pictures of axolotls you may wonder why. Salamanders are usually small, but a full-grown axolotl can grow up to 18 inches long, or 45 cm, although most are about half that length.

Also if you’ve only ever seen pictures of axolotls you may think they’re all white or pink. That’s actually rare in the wild. Most wild axolotls are brown, greenish-brown, or gray, often with lighter speckles. They can even change color somewhat to blend in with their surroundings better.

It’s captive axolotls that are so often white or pink, or sometimes other colors or patterns. That’s because they’re bred for the pet trade and for medical research, because not only are they cute and relatively easy to keep in captivity, they have some amazing abilities. Their ability to regenerate lost and injured body parts is remarkable even for amphibians, but, interestingly, axolotls that have been induced to metamorphose have much less regeneration ability. Researchers study axolotls to learn more about how regeneration works, how vertebrates evolved various aspects of anatomy, how genetics of coloration work, and much more. They’re so common in laboratory studies that you’d think there’s no way they could be endangered—but they are. Some conservationists think there may be as few as 50 individuals left in the wild.

The main problem is habitat loss. One lake where the axolotl was once found is completely gone, drained to control flooding and provide more land for people to use. The other lake isn’t so much a lake anymore as a series of canals in Mexico City, and they’re polluted and home to introduced species of fish that eat axolotl eggs. Even though part of their range was designated as a nature reserve in 1993, that hasn’t done much to stop the pollutants or invasive fish.

Not only that, the captive-bred axolotls are so different from their wild cousins that some people think they should be considered a different species. You couldn’t take a pet axolotl and dump it into a lake and expect it to live. Conservation efforts in Mexico are focusing on a captive breeding program of axolotls caught in the wild. Since the salamander’s native range isn’t healthy right now, the group is trying to establish temporary homes in university ponds prepared just for that purpose. So far the project is a success.

At the same time, conservationists and just regular people who like axolotls are working hard to get its native habitat cleaned up. This includes educating people about the axolotl, and helping people set up small farms that use traditional methods that don’t require fertilizer or insecticides that run off into the water. These farms are called chinampas and are made up of artificial islands with canals around them. The islands actually help filter pollutants from the surrounding water, and the canals are ideal for axolotls to live in. The farmers also install screens with filters to keep invasive fish out and clean up the water even more, and some of the captive-bred wild axolotls have been introduced to these canals successfully.

Even though the axolotl has external gills to collect oxygen from the water, it has lungs too. It will sometimes gulp air from the surface, but most of the time it gets all the oxygen it needs from its gills. It eats small animals like worms, insects, and even small fish, but while it does have tiny teeth, they’re actually vestigial. The axolotl doesn’t chew its food but instead sucks its prey whole right down into its stomach.

We talked about the hellbender briefly in episode 14, but that was five years ago. In fact, it was exactly five years ago. Episode 14 was released on May 8, 2017, and this episode is being released on May 9, 2022. I swear I did not plan it that way but it’s pretty neat.

The hellbender has a restricted range too, although it’s not as restricted as the axolotl’s. It lives in parts of the eastern United States, especially in the Appalachian Mountains and the Ozarks. It can grow nearly 30 inches long, or 74 cm, and is heavy for its size, up to 5.5 lbs, or 2.5 kg. This is the fifth heaviest amphibian alive today in the whole world! It needs clean, shallow, fast-moving streams with lots of rocks, because it spends almost all its life in the water hiding among rocks. But the rocks are important for another reason too. As water rushes over and around rocks, it splashes around and absorbs more oxygen. Well-oxygenated water helps the hellbender breathe, which is even more complicated than it sounds.

Like other salamanders, the hellbender hatches from eggs laid in the water and at first are just big tadpoles with external gills. They metamorphose in stages until they’re full grown at almost two years old, at which point they lose their gills, although they may retain a nonfunctioning gill slit. The adult hellbender has large lungs, but it doesn’t use them for breathing. They’re just for buoyancy. The hellbender absorbs oxygen from the water through its skin, which is why it needs well-oxygenated water flowing quickly across it all the time. To increase its surface area and help it absorb that much more oxygen, its skin is loose and has folds along the sides.

The hellbender is flattened in shape, which helps it hide under rocks and helps keep it from being swept away by currents when it’s moving around in the water. It’s brown with black speckles on its back. It mostly eats crawdads, also called crayfish, but it will eat small fish and amphibians, tadpoles, the eggs of frogs and fish, and in fact it will also eat the eggs of other hellbenders. Occasionally a hellbender will eat a smaller hellbender too. It’s a solitary animal except during breeding season, and even then, once the female has laid her eggs in a nest the male makes and the male fertilizes them, the pair don’t spend any time together. The male actually chases the female away. Then he spends the next few months guarding the eggs and making sure they get enough oxygen by waving his tail and skin folds over them.

The hellbender doesn’t have very good eyesight, although it has a good sense of smell. It’s very territorial and seldom leaves the small stretch of water where it lives and hunts. Very occasionally it will leave the water and walk around on land. Most of the time it walks around underwater, though, instead of swimming. Its toes have rough pads that help it walk even on slippery rocks. During the day, though, it usually hides under its home rock. Its skin contains light-sensitive cells, which are mostly concentrated in its tail. This means that it can actually sense how much light is shining on its body even if its head is hidden under a rock. The reason its tail has more light-sensing cells is because its tail is more likely to be sticking out from under its rock. Since a lot of animals eat the hellbender, it needs to be fully hidden by its rock during the day.

Some people think the hellbender is poisonous or venomous, but it’s actually completely harmless unless you are a very small aquatic animal.

Because salamanders, like other amphibians, have to keep their skin moist, they’re vulnerable to water pollution. Any pollutants in the water are liable to be absorbed into the salamander’s body, which can make it sick. Habitat loss, disease, and invasive species are also major causes of declines in salamander species.

Salamanders have been around for at least 180 million years. Amphibians in general probably developed from lobe-finned fish around 360 million years ago. A study published in 2020 examined 3D scans of skulls from 148 species of salamander to compare minute differences and learn more about how they evolved. Animals that undergo metamorphosis, including salamanders, have very different skulls from animals that don’t, since different parts of the skull develop in stages independently of other parts. The study found that while salamanders have always been metamorphic, different life cycles have evolved separately at least eleven times.

One of the things Zoe asked in particular was whether salamanders actually breathe through their nostrils. It depends on the species. Salamanders are definitely complicated when it comes to breathing. Like many amphibians, the salamander doesn’t have special muscles to move air in and out of its lungs the way mammals do. Instead, it moves air in and out by gular pumping, also called buccal pumping.

A salamander lowers the floor of its mouth, expanding the throat, which pulls air into the throat by way of the nostrils. Then the salamander closes its nostrils and raises the floor of its throat. This causes the air to enter the lungs. It does the same process in reverse to breathe out. That’s why salamanders and other amphibians appear to be gulping all the time. That’s how they breathe.

Complicated as this sounds, the salamander doesn’t have to concentrate to do it any more than we have to concentrate to breathe. Also, even if it mostly gets oxygen through its lungs, all salamanders appear to be able to absorb a certain amount of oxygen through the skin too.

Zoe and Dillon were especially interested in salamanders that live in their part of the world, which is the state of Pennsylvania in the eastern United States. In addition to the hellbender, there are several dozen salamander species known from Pennsylvania, and probably quite a few that haven’t been discovered yet. This includes the red-spotted newt, which lives in forests in muddy or wet areas. It grows up to about 5 inches long, or 13 cm, and eats insects, worms, frog eggs and tadpoles, and other small animals.

As an adult, the red-spotted newt is greenish-brown, often with a row of red spots outlined with black along its sides and tiny black dots all over, and a yellow or orange belly. The adult mostly lives in the water, but during the juvenile stage it mostly lives on land and can travel widely, especially after rain. It also looks very different during the juvenile stage, with a bright orangey-red body and spots outlined with black, which is why it’s often called a red eft. An eft is a juvenile salamander. The bright red coloring may tell you not to eat the red eft, because it’s poisonous! Its skin contains toxins that make it taste bad and can make a potential predator sick.

Another salamander common throughout Pennsylvania is the spotted salamander, which can grow almost 10 inches long, or 24 cm. It’s a big, strong salamander that’s black or gray with big yellow or orangey spots all over. As a juvenile it looks very similar, although smaller, but with tiny spots or no spots.

Finally, to wrap around to where we started, another large species of salamander that lives in parts of western Pennsylvania, and other nearby areas, is the mudpuppy. It looks a lot like a juvenile hellbender but isn’t as big, with the largest measured adult growing just over 17 inches long, or almost 44 cm. Like the axolotl, the mudpuppy exhibits neoteny. It lives in lakes, ponds, and streams and retains its gills throughout its life. Its gills are large and reddish in color. If a mudpuppy lives in your pond or backyard stream, you can be sure the water is clean because its gills are very sensitive to pollutants.

The mudpuppy spends most of its time under rocks and walking along the bottom of the lakebed or streambed, looking for food. It’s gray, black, or reddish-brown, sometimes with speckles or spots. It has a lot of tiny teeth where you’d expect to find teeth, and more teeth on the roof of its mouth where you would not typically expect to find teeth. It needs all these teeth because it eats slippery food like small fish, worms, and frogs, along with insects and other small animals.

Even though the mudpuppy has all those teeth, it’s harmless to humans and just wants to be left alone, but that’s pretty much the case for all salamanders. And some people.

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