Episode 348: Australopithecus and Gigantopithecus

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

Further reading:

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

Human shoulders and elbows first evolved as brakes for climbing apes

You Won’t Believe What Porcupines Eat

Past tropical forest changes drove megafauna and hominin extinctions

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

Show transcript:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for listening!

Episode 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 346: The Rhinoceros!

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

Further reading:

Photos suggest rhino horns have shrunk over past century

The Blue Rhinoceros – In Quest of the Keitloa

A rhino with a very small third horn:

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

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

Show transcript:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for listening!

Episode 345: Spotless Giraffes and Spotted Zebras

This week let’s learn about some astonishing giraffes and zebras that don’t look like you’d expect!

Further reading:

See the Rare, Spotless Giraffe Born at a Tennessee Zoo

Giraffe Conservation Foundation

Brights Zoo

A tale of two zebras: South African photos used in misleading posts about Kenya’s polka-dot foal

Zebra News: Spotted Tira, Zonkeys and Zorses

Further viewing:

The Mysterious Return of Tira the Spotted Dark Zebra in Masai Mara

Kipekee the spotless giraffe [pic is from the first link posted above]:

The picture posted on Facebook by Giraffe Conservation Foundation on Sept. 10, 2023:

Tira the spotted zebra as a baby in 2019:

Tira the spotted zebra is getting so grown up (or was in 2021)!

A DIFFERENT spotted zebra from South Africa:

Show transcript:

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

I’m back from Dragon Con, where I had a great time as usual! I was careful and wore a mask while I was around other people, but masking works best when everyone wears a mask, which as we all know doesn’t happen very often right now. Luckily I didn’t get covid, but I did come down with an ordinary cold. I’m just about over it now, though, so hopefully I don’t sound too bad.

I live in Tennessee, and before I left for Dragon Con I kept seeing news reports about an unusual baby giraffe born in a Tennessee zoo. You may have heard about the giraffe calf too. As you probably know, giraffes have an elaborate pattern of markings called spots, although they’re not spots like a leopard’s spots. They look a lot like the cracks in a dried-up mudpuddle, where the muddy parts are dark brown or orangey-brown, and the cracks in between are tan or white. It’s sometimes called a web pattern, where the lighter design looks like a web overlaid on a darker coat.

Whatever you call it, all giraffes have these markings. But on July 31, 2023, a calf was born that didn’t have any spots at all. She’s completely brown. Also, very beautiful and cute as a little button.

The calf was born at Brights Zoo, which is near a community called Limestone in Tennessee. I’d never heard of the zoo, so I assumed it was in middle or west Tennessee, and I live in east Tennessee. But when I looked it up, it’s actually quite close to me. I will definitely be visiting as soon as I get a chance! (Its website says Google Maps has its address wrong, by the way, in case you plan to visit it too.) It’s a private zoo dedicated to education and conservation, and among the animals they care for are giraffes.

The calf in question is an endangered reticulated giraffe. Conservationists estimate that fewer than 9,000 reticulated giraffes remain in the wild these days, but it does well in captivity and is a popular animal in zoos. The reticulated giraffe was once common throughout northeast Africa, although its range is fractured into little areas now. It’s happy in a number of habitats, including rainforests and savannas.

The zoo came up with four name choices for their calf and invited people to vote for which name they liked best. The winning name was announced just a few days ago as this episode goes live, Kipekee. It means “unique” in Swahili, the official language of Kenya.

Kipekee is healthy and active, and the zoo reports she was immediately accepted by her mother and all the other giraffes as just a regular baby. I guess giraffes understand that what you look like isn’t nearly as important as how you act, and Kipekee acts like a curious little baby giraffe.

In a lot of news reports, you’ll hear that Kipekee is the only unspotted giraffe seen since 1972, when one was born in a zoo in Japan, and that she’s likely the only unspotted giraffe alive in the entire world right now. But then, only a matter of hours before this episode goes live, because I took forever to start working on it, the Giraffe Conservation Foundation dropped a post on their Facebook page. It has a photo of a giraffe mama and baby running along in the wild in Namibia in Africa. And the baby giraffe HAS NO SPOTS!

As of right now, that’s all we know about the other spotless giraffe calf, but I’ll definitely keep you posted in future episodes.

Speaking of updates, reading about the giraffe without spots reminded me of an episode we released at the end of 2019, about Tira the zebra. Instead of stripes like ordinary zebras, Tira had spots!

Tira was first observed by a tour guide in Kenya in September of 2019. The guide’s name is Antony Tira and the foal was named after him. Little Tira was just a baby back then, living with her herd on a national reserve.

But then, according to internet rumor, something awful happened. Little Tira and her mom were captured, put on a truck to smuggle them out of the reserve, and sold to a private collector! There were even pictures of the pair in a truck. And sure enough, Tira was nowhere to be found in the wild.

But things aren’t always what they seem, especially on the internet. Because amazingly, just like little Kipekee being born at about the same time as another super-rare spotless giraffe, little Tira was born at about the same time as another spotted zebra. The second foal was a boy who was observed in South Africa. But unlike Tira, who was safely in protected land, the second foal wasn’t so lucky. A veterinarian named Craig Bull was hired to relocate the mother and baby to a safer location, which he did with the help of his team. People saw pictures of a spotted zebra baby and its mother in a truck and jumped to the wrong conclusions.

Zebras are famous for their black and white stripes, but on very rare occasions, a genetic mutation causes the ordinary striped pattern to be broken up so that it looks like spots. Most people think zebras are white animals with black stripes, but that’s actually backwards. Zebras are black with white stripes, so when the stripe pattern is broken up, the zebra looks like a black or brown animal with white spots and streaks. Every zebra’s pattern is unique, just as every giraffe’s spot pattern is unique, so a close look at the photo of the spotted zebra in a truck shows it’s obviously not the same animal as Tira. Their spot patterns are totally different.

So what did happen to Tira? Why did she disappear? Is she even still alive?

On September 29, 2019, when Tira was probably only a few weeks old, a wildlife photographer spotted her crossing the Sand River into Serengeti Park in Tanzania with her herd. Zebra herds migrate to new pastures periodically, along with other animals like wildebeest, so that wasn’t unusual. But because life in the wild is hard for young animals, no one was really surprised when Tira wasn’t seen again.

At least, she wasn’t seen again until August of 2021, when a tour guide and photographer pair saw her in the middle of the herd. She had grown to the size of a typical two-year-old filly and looked healthy. As is common in zebras, she was still with her mother and still nursing occasionally.

That’s all we know now, but if Tira survived for two years, she’ll probably be just fine. She would be four years old now, basically a young mare, and she might even have a baby of her own by now. Hopefully some lucky photographer will see her again soon and give us an update on everyone’s favorite spotted zebra.

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 344: Psittacosaurus!

Thanks to Clay for suggesting this week’s topic, psittacosaurus! Thanks to Will for a correction about kangaroos too.

Don’t forget to check out the great podcast I Know Dino for all the best big dinosaur info!

Further reading:

What dinosaurs’ colour patterns say about their habitat

Unusual fossil shows rare evidence of a mammal attacking a dinosaur

A countershaded psittacosaurus model [photo by Jakob Vinther, from first article linked above]:

Repenomamus and psittacosaurus, fighting forever [photo from second article linked above]:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to look at a dinosaur suggested by Clay, who has been very patient waiting for this one. In a huge coincidence, the podcast I Know Dino is trading promos with us, so if you haven’t heard about I Know Dino yet, make sure to listen until the very end of this episode for some more information about it. It’s a great podcast that I love to pieces, and I think you’ll love it too.

We also have a quick correction, and I feel really bad because this one should have gone in the updates episode last month. Will emailed me back in April to point out that in episode 73, about phantom kangaroos, I said that kangaroos and wallabies were native to Australia, New Zealand, and New Guinea. In fact, they’re not native to New Zealand, although they’ve been introduced there. So yikes, that was a big oversight on my part, and thanks very much to Will!

Now, on to Clay’s suggestion, psittacosaurus!

Psittacosaurus was a type of ceratopsian that lived during the early Cretaceous, between about 125 and 100 million years ago. We’ve talked about ceratopsians before back in episode 125, so if you remember that episode you’ll know that ceratopsians were big herbivorous dinosaurs famous for their head frills and horns. Triceratops is the most famous example, although it had lots of relations. But Psittacosaurus was a very early ceratopsian, and it’s nothing like Triceratops.

If you had a time machine and went back to look at Psittacosaurus, you might not even think it was related to Triceratops at all. It didn’t have real horns or frills, most species were only about six and a half feet long at most, or two meters, but most importantly, it walked on its hind legs.

We have hundreds of Psittacosaurus fossils, so we know quite a bit about it. Young individuals apparently walked on all four legs, but as it grew up, Psittacosaurus became bipedal. It still ate plants, though, and may have specialized in eating seeds and other tough plant materials. It couldn’t chew its food the way later ceratopsians could, but it did swallow little stones to help it grind up hard plant parts. These gastroliths have been found preserved with Psittacosaurus fossils.

Psittacosaurus lived in what is now Asia, especially eastern and central Asia, and probably spent most of its time in forested areas. Because it lived only in the early Cretaceous, and because it was such a common animal with so many fossils found, if a paleontologist finds a Psittacosaurus fossil at a dig site, they can be pretty confident that the site dates to the early Cretaceous. Paleontologists have identified about twelve species of Psittacosaurus so far, although there’s still debate about the actual number of species, and at least some of them had feathers. We know because we have some well-preserved fossils with feather and skin impressions.

Psittacosaurus wasn’t completely covered with feathers, though. Its feathers were bristle-like and have only been found sticking up along the top of the tail. Scientists think they were probably used for display. That means they were probably brightly colored, so if you go back in that time machine I mentioned earlier, please make sure to take lots of pictures.

In fact, Clay said that Psittacosaurus looks like it’s “half parrot, half porcupine and half dinosaur” (that is actually one and a half animals, Clay, but we know what you mean and that actually is a really good description of it). Psittacosaurus’s bristles stuck up kind of like porcupine quills, although they weren’t sharp. Careful study of the quills shows that they were probably more like highly modified scales instead of feathers like you’d find on a modern bird, and that they grew around 6 inches long, or 15 cm. Some modern birds do actually have bristles like this, including the turkey. Most male turkeys, and some females, have a bundle of hair-like bristles on the breast that’s called a beard.

Psittacosaurus’s name means “parrot lizard” because of the shape of its beak, which may have helped it crack seeds and nuts. Its head kind of resembled that of a turtle, although unlike a turtle it also had teeth. Its head was broad with cheekbones that jutted out sideways, sometimes so far that it looked like it had horns on the sides of its face just above the jaw. At least one species had prominances behind the eye that again, kind of look like little horns but technically aren’t.

We even have a hint about what Psittacosaurus looked like. A study published in 2016 examined preserved melanosomes, which are the structures that pigment an animal’s skin and feathers. The study determined that Psittacosaurus had a light-colored belly and was darker on its back. This is called countershading and it’s very common because it acts as a form of camouflage.

As part of the study, scientists created two life-sized models of Psittacosaurus. One of them they painted gray all over, while the other they painted brown with lighter brown underparts. They took the models to the Bristol Botanic Garden in the UK, which has a section with plants from the Cretaceous. (This sounds awesome and I really want to visit.) They placed the models in various spots and photographed them, then compared how well the models were camouflaged. The countershaded model was most well camouflaged in forested areas, which matches up with what scientists know about how it lived.

In addition to the fossils with skin and feather impressions, we have lots of fossils of Psittacosaurus of all ages, from newly hatched to big old dinosaurs. We even have a fossilized juvenile Psittacosaurus preserved in what would have been the stomach of Repenomamus, and it looks like the little dinosaur was bitten into pieces before being swallowed. Repenomamus was a mammal that was built like a miniature badger.

For a long time scientists weren’t sure if Repenomamus hunted baby dinosaurs or just scavenged ones that were already dead. Then, in 2012, an amazing fossil was unearthed in China. A study of the prepared fossil was just released in July 2023.

The fossil is of two animals, Repenomamus and Psittacosaurus. The Psittacosaurus was bigger than the Repenomamus but not by much. The two animals died suddenly when they were buried in a mudslide following a volcanic eruption, and their skeletons are tangled up together. But this wasn’t just chance. A close look reveals details that show they’d been fighting ferociously even while the mudslide was bearing down on them. Repenomamus has one little front foot wrapped around the jaw of Psittacosaurus, a back foot wrapped around one of the dinosaur’s hind legs, and its jaws are biting at Psittacosaurus’s ribs. It looks like the mammal was winning the fight, but in this particular case no one got out alive.

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!

Rediscover your love for dinosaurs with I Know Dino, the Big Dinosaur Podcast!

A new dinosaur is discovered and named nearly every week and I Know Dino covers the latest scientific discoveries, fun facts about dinosaurs, and a deep dive into a specific dinosaur.

I Know Dino is made by adults for adults, but we keep it clean so kids who are science buffs can listen too. You can find it wherever you get your podcasts.

Episode 343: Mystery Jellyfish

This week we finish out Invertebrate August with some mysterious jellyfish, including a suggestion by Siya!

Further reading:

Mystery giant jellyfish washes up in Australia

New jellyfish named after curious Australian schoolboy

Mysterious jellyfish found off the coast of Papua New Guinea intrigues researchers

Newly discovered jellyfish is a 24-eyed weirdo related to the world’s most venomous marine creature

Rare jellyfish with three tentacles spotted in Pacific Ocean

The Immortal Jellyfish

A mystery jellyfish washed up on an Australian beach [photo by Josie Lim]:

The tiny box jellyfish found in a pond in Hong Kong:

The very rare Chirodectes:

The mystery jelly that may be Chirodectes or a close relation:

A mystery deep-sea jelly with only three tentacles:

Bathykorus, a possible relation of the three-tentacled mystery jelly:

Show transcript:

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

It’s hard to believe Invertebrate August is already ending, so let’s finish the month out with some mystery jellyfish, including a recent suggestion from Siya!

When you visit the beach, it’s pretty common to find jellyfish washed ashore. They’re usually pretty small and obviously you don’t want to touch them, because many jellies can sting and the stings can activate even if the jelly is dead. Well, in February 2014, a family visiting the beach in Tasmania found a jelly washed ashore that was a little bit larger than normal. Okay, a lot larger than normal.

The jellyfish they found measured almost five feet across, or 1.5 meters. It had flattened out under its own weight but it was still impressive. The family was so surprised at how big it was that they sent pictures to the state’s wildlife organization, who sent scientists to look at it. The scientists had heard reports of a big pink and white jellyfish for years, and now they had one to examine. Dr. Lisa-ann Gershwin thought it might even be a new species of lion’s mane jelly.

New species of jellyfish are discovered all the time. Dr. Gershwin has described over 200 new species herself. One example is a jellyfish discovered by a nine-year-old.

In 2013, a nine-year-old boy in Queensland, Australia was fishing in a canal with his dad and a friend, when he noticed a jellyfish and scooped it up with a net. Its bell was only about an inch long, or 2.5 cm, and the boy thought it was really cute and interesting. He wanted to know what kind of jellyfish it was, so after some pestering on his part, his dad helped him send it to the Queensland Museum for identification.

Dr. Gershwin was the jellyfish expert at the museum at the time, and she was as surprised as the boy’s dad to discover that the jellyfish was new to science! The boy’s name was Saxon Thomas, and to thank him for being so persistent about getting his jellyfish looked at by a scientist, the jellyfish was named Chiropsella saxoni. It’s a type of box jellyfish, which can be deadly, but this one is so small that it’s probably not that dangerous to humans. You still wouldn’t want to be stung by one, though, I bet.

In 2022, a diver visiting Papua New Guinea got video of several really pretty jellyfish. He sent the video to Dr. Gershwin, who realized the jelly was either a very rare jelly called Chirodectes, or it was new to science.

Chirodectes was only discovered in 1997 and described in 2005. It’s a type of box jellyfish and only one specimen has ever been collected, caught off the coast of Queensland, Australia near the Great Barrier Reef after a cyclone. Its bell was about 6 inches long, or 15 cm, but if you include the tentacles it was almost 4 feet long, or 1.2 meters. It’s pale in color with darker rings and speckles on its bell.

The 2022 video appears to show a jellyfish without speckles or other markings, and it’s also larger than the single known Chirodectes specimen. Its bell appears to be about the size of a soccer ball, or a football if you live in most of the world. However, Dr. Gershwin and other experts who have studied the video say that it’s similar in many ways to Chirodectes and may be a close relation. Since all we have is the video, there’s no way to tell for sure if it’s a species new to science.

Most box jellies live around Australia and New Guinea, but in 2020 scientists in Hong Kong studying organisms living in an intertidal shrimp pond noticed a jellyfish they didn’t recognize. It was tiny, even smaller than Saxon’s little box jelly, with a bell barely half an inch long, or about 15 mm. There were hundreds of the little jellies in the pond, which connects to the ocean with a narrow tidal channel, and they appeared to be eating the tiny shrimp living in the pond. Close study of the jelly determined that it was indeed a new species.

The box jelly gets its name from its bell shape, which is shaped sort of like a cube. Most species are transparent to some degree, with tentacles that hang down from the corners of its cube-shaped bell. Most box jellies are fast swimmers, able to use jet propulsion to move around. Some species, including the newly discovered Tripedalia maipoensis from Hong Kong, even have paddle-like structures at the end of their tentacles to help them swim. Tripedalia probably isn’t dangerous to humans, but the scientists who studied it don’t know for sure because no one wanted to volunteer to be stung by it.

In 2015, the Ocean Exploration Trust was conducting an expedition in the Pacific Ocean, pretty much as far away from land as it’s possible to get, when they saw a mysterious little jellyfish. It was brown in color, but it only had three tentacles—and those tentacles emerge from the top of its bell, not from underneath. Then, in June 2023, another Ocean Exploration Trust expedition spotted the same type of jelly. It’s only the second time it’s been seen, and we know almost nothing about it.

The mystery jelly swims with its tentacles pointing forward, and scientists think that it hunts other jellies and small animals. When its tentacles touch an animal, it grabs it. But that’s pretty much all we know about it so far. Researchers think it might be related to the deep-sea hydrozoan Bathykorus, which was only described in 2010.

Bathykorus is sometimes called the Darth Vader jellyfish, because the shape of its bell kind of resembles Darth Vader’s helmet. Unlike Darth Vader, though, Bathykorus is mostly transparent and has eight tentacles. Four grow from the top of its bell, four grow from the bottom, and it holds the top tentacles up while it swims. It’s been found as deep as 8,200 feet below the surface of the Arctic Ocean, or 2,500 meters. And that’s pretty much all we know about this jelly, even though scientists have been able to carefully capture a few specimens and keep them alive for a few days in specially constructed tanks that mimic conditions found in the deep sea.

Let’s finish with a suggestion from Siya, the immortal jellyfish. It’s tiny, barely more than 4 mm across as an adult, and lives throughout much of the world’s oceans, especially where it’s warm. It eats tiny food, including plankton and fish eggs, which it grabs with its tiny tentacles. Small as it is, the immortal jellyfish has stinging cells in its tentacles. It’s mostly transparent, although its stomach is red and an adult jelly has up to 90 white tentacles.

The immortal jellyfish starts life as a larva called a planula, which can swim, but when it finds a place it likes, it sticks itself to a rock or shell, or just the sea floor. There it develops into a polyp colony, and this colony buds new polyps that are clones of the original. These polyps swim away and grow into jellyfish, which spawn and develop eggs, and those eggs hatch into new planulae.

Polyps can live for years, while adult jellies, called medusae, usually only live a few months. But if an adult immortal jellyfish is injured, starving, sick, or otherwise under stress, it can transform back into a polyp. It forms a new polyp colony and buds clones of itself that then grow into adult jellies.

This is all really interesting, and scientists are studying the immortal jellyfish to learn more about how it manages this incredible feat. It’s the only organism known that can revert to an earlier stage of life after reaching sexual maturity. But only an individual at the adult stage, called the medusa stage, can revert to an earlier stage of development, and an individual can only achieve the medusa stage once after it buds from the polyp colony. If it reverts to the polyp stage, it will remain a polyp until it eventually dies. However, it will bud off clones of itself that develop into medusae.

In other words, an immortal jellyfish isn’t technically immortal, but it can certainly prolong its life in an extraordinary way. It’s also really cute.

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 342: Giant Snails and Giant Crabs

Thanks to Tobey and Anbo for their suggestions this week! We’re going to learn about some giant invertebrates!

Further reading:

The Invasive Giant African Land Snail Has Been Spotted in Florida

A very big shell:

The giant African snail is pretty darn giant [photo from article linked above]:

The largest giant spider crab ever measured, and a person:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to learn about some giant invertebrates, suggested by Tobey and Anbo. Maybe they’re not as big as dinosaurs or whales, but they’re surprisingly big compared to most invertebrates.

Let’s start with Tobey’s suggestion, about a big gastropod. Gastropods include slugs and snails, and while Tobey suggested the African trumpet snail specifically, I couldn’t figure out which species of snail it is. But it did lead me to learning a lot about some really big snails.

The very biggest snail known to be alive today is called the Australian trumpet snail, Syrinx aruanus. This isn’t the kind of snail you’d find in your garden, though. It’s a sea snail that lives in shallow water off the coast of northern Australia, around Papua New Guinea, and other nearby areas. It has a coiled shell that’s referred to as spindle-shaped, because the coils form a point like the spindle of a tower. It’s a pretty common shape for sea snails and you’ve undoubtedly seen this kind of seashell before if you’ve spent any time on the beach. But unless you live in the places where the Australian trumpet lives, you probably haven’t seen a seashell this size. The Australian trumpet’s shell can grow up to three feet long, or 91 cm. Not only is this a huge shell, the snail itself is really heavy. It can weigh as much as 31 lbs, or 14 kg, which is as heavy as a good-sized dog.

The snail eats worms, but not just any old worms. If you remember episode 289, you might remember that Australia is home to the giant beach worm, a polychaete worm that burrows in the sand between high and low tide marks. It can grow as much as 8 feet long, or 2.4 meters, and probably longer. Well, that’s the type of worm the Australian trumpet likes to eat, along with other worms. The snail extends a proboscis into the worm’s burrow to reach the worm, but although I’ve tried to find out how it actually captures the worm in order to eat it, this seems to be a mystery. Like other gastropods, the Australian trumpet eats by scraping pieces of food into its mouth using a radula. That’s a tongue-like structure studded with tiny sharp teeth, and the Australian trumpet has a formidable radula. Some other sea snails, especially cone snails, are able to paralyze or outright kill prey by injecting it with venom via a proboscis, so it’s possible the Australian trumpet does too. The Australian trumpet is related to cone snails, although not very closely.

Obviously, we know very little about the Australian trumpet, even though it’s not hard to find. The trouble is that its an edible snail to humans and humans also really like those big shells and will pay a lot for them. In some areas people have hunted the snail to extinction, but we don’t even know how common it is overall to know if it’s endangered or not.

Tobey may have been referring to the giant African snail, which is probably the largest living land snail known. There are several snails that share the name “giant African snail,” and they’re all big, but the biggest is Lissachatina fulica. It can grow more than 8 inches long, or 20 cm, and its conical shell is usually brown and white with pretty banding in some of the whorls. It looks more like the shell of a sea snail than a land snail, but the shell is incredibly tough.

The giant African snail is an invasive species in many areas. Not only will it eat plants down to nothing, it will also eat stucco and concrete for the minerals they contain. It even eats sand, cardboard, certain rocks, bones, and sometimes other African giant snails, presumably when it runs out of trees and houses to eat. It can spread diseases to plants, animals, and humans, which is a problem since it’s also edible.

Like many snails, the African giant snail is a simultaneous hermaphrodite, meaning it can produce both sperm and eggs. It can’t self-fertilize its own eggs, but after mating a snail can keep any unused sperm alive in its body for up to two years, using it to fertilize eggs during that whole time, and it can lay up to 200 eggs five or six times a year. In other words, it only takes a single snail to produce a wasteland of invasive snails in a very short amount of time.

In June 2023, some African giant snails were found near Miami, Florida and officials placed the whole area under agricultural quarantine. That means no one can move any soil or plants out of the area without permission, since that could cause the snails to spread to other places. Meanwhile, officials are working to eradicate the snails. Other parts of Florida are also under the same quarantine after the snails were found the year before. Sometimes when people go on vacation in the Caribbean they bring back garden plants, without realizing that the soil in the pot contains giant African snail eggs, because the giant African snail is also an invasive species throughout the Caribbean.

Next, Anbo wanted to learn about the giant spider crab, also called the Japanese spider crab because it lives in the Pacific Ocean around Japan. It is indeed a type of crab, which is a crustacean, which is an arthropod, and it has the largest legspan of any arthropod known. Its body can grow 16 inches across, or 40 cm, and it can weigh as much as 42 pounds, or 19 kg, which is almost as big as the biggest lobster. But its legs are really really really long. Really long! It can have a legspan of 12 feet across, or 3.7 meters! That includes the claws at the end of its front legs. Most individual crabs are much smaller, but since crustaceans continue to grow throughout their lives, and the giant spider crab can probably live to be 100 years old, there’s no reason why some crabs couldn’t be even bigger than 12 feet across. Its long legs are delicate, though, and it’s rare to find an old crab that hasn’t had an injury to at least one leg.

The giant spider crab is orange with white spots, sort of like a koi fish but in crab form. Its carapace is also bumpy and spiky. You wouldn’t think a crab this size would need to worry about predators, but it’s actually eaten by large octopuses. The crab sticks small organisms like sponges and kelp to its carapace to help camouflage it.

The giant spider crab is considered a delicacy in some places, which has led to overfishing. It’s now protected in Japan, where people are only allowed to catch the crabs during part of the year. This allows the crabs to safely mate and lay eggs.

There’s another species called the European spider crab that has long legs, but it’s nowhere near the size of the giant spider crab. Its carapace width is barely 8 ½ inches across, or 22 cm, and its legs are about the same length. Remember that the giant spider crab’s legs can be up to six feet long each, or 1.8 meters. While the European spider crab does resemble the giant spider crab in many ways, it’s actually not closely related to it. They two species belong to separate families.

The giant spider crab spends most of its time in deep water, although in mating season it will come into shallower water. It uses its long legs to walk around on the sea floor, searching for food. It’s an omnivore that eats pretty much anything it can find, including plants, dead animals, and algae, but it will also use its claws to open mollusk shells and eat the animals inside. It prefers rocky areas of the sea floor, since its bumpy carapace blends in well among rocks.

Scientists report that the giant spider crab is mostly good-natured, even though it looks scary. Some big aquariums keep giant spider crabs, and the aquarium workers say the same thing. But it does have strong claws, and if it feels threatened it can seriously injure divers. I shouldn’t need to remind you not to pester a crab with a 12-foot legspan.

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 341: The Leaf Sheep and the Mold Pig

Thanks to Murilo and an anonymous listener for their suggestions this week!

Further reading:

The ‘sheep’ that can photosynthesize

Meet the ‘mold pigs,’ a new group of invertebrates from 30 million years ago

A leaf sheep:

Shaun the sheep:

A mold pig:

Show transcript:

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

This week let’s learn about two animals that sound like you’d find them on a farm, but they’re much different than their names imply. Thanks to Murilo for suggesting the leaf sheep, which is where we’ll start.

The leaf sheep isn’t a sheep or a leaf. It’s actually a type of sea slug that lives in tropical waters near Japan and throughout much of coastal south Asia. The reason it’s called a leaf sheep is because it actually looks a lot like a tiny cartoon sheep covered with green leaves instead of wool.

Back in episode 215 we talked about the sea bunny, which is another type of sea slug although it’s not closely related to the leaf sheep. The leaf sheep is even smaller than the sea bunny, which can grow up to an inch long, or about 25 mm. The leaf sheep only grows about 10 mm long at most, which explains why it wasn’t discovered until 1993. No one noticed it.

The leaf sheep’s face is white or pale yellow with two tiny black dots for eyes set close together, which kind of makes it look like Shaun the Sheep. It also has two black-tipped protuberances that look like ears, although they’re actually chemoreceptors called rhinophores. The rest of its body is covered with leaf-shaped spines called cerata, which are green and often tipped with pink, white, or black. This helps disguise it as a plant, but there’s another reason why it’s green.

The leaf sheep eats a particular kind of algae called Avrainvillea, which looks like moss or fuzzy carpet. While algae aren’t exactly plants or animals, many do photosynthesize like plants. In other words, they transform sunlight into energy to keep them alive. In order to photosynthesize, a plant or algae uses a special pigment called chlorophyll that makes up part of a chloroplast in its cells, which happens to be green.

The leaf sheep eats the algae, but it doesn’t digest the chloroplasts. Instead, it absorbs them into its own body and uses them for photosynthesis. That way it gets nutrients from eating and digesting algae and it gets extra energy from sunlight. This is a trait shared by other sea slugs in the superorder Sacoglossa. Because they need sunlight for photosynthesis, they live in shallow water, often near coral reefs.

When the leaf sheep’s eggs hatch, the larvae have shells, but as they mature they shed their shells.

This is a good place to talk about cyanobacteria, which was requested ages ago by an anonymous listener. Cyanobacteria mostly live in water and are also called blue-green algae, even though they’re not actually classified as algae. They’re considered bacteria, although not every scientist agrees. Some are unicellular, meaning they just consist of one cell, while others are multicellular like plants and animals, which means they have multiple cells specialized for different functions. Some other cyanobacteria group together in colonies. So basically, cyanobacteria looked at the chart of possible life forms and said, “yes, thanks, we’ll take some of everything.” That’s why it’s so hard to classify them.

Cyanobacteria photosynthesize, and they’ve been doing so for far longer than plants–possibly as much as 2.7 billion years, although scientists think cyanobacteria originally evolved around 3.5 billion years ago. The earth is about 4.5 billion years old and plants didn’t evolve until about 700 million years ago.

Like most plants also do, cyanobacteria produce oxygen as part of the photosynthetic process, and when they started doing so around 2.7 billion years ago, they changed the entire world. Before then, earth’s atmosphere hardly contained any oxygen. If you had a time machine and went back to more than two billion years ago, and you forgot to bring an oxygen tank, you’d instantly suffocate trying to breathe the air. But back then, even though animals and plants didn’t yet exist, the world contained a whole lot of microbial life, and none of it wanted anything to do with oxygen. Oxygen was toxic to the lifeforms that lived then, but cyanobacteria just kept producing it.

Cyanobacteria are tiny, but there were a lot of them. Over the course of about 700 million years, the oxygen added up until other lifeforms started to go extinct, poisoned by all that oxygen in the oceans and air. By two billion years ago, pretty much every lifeform that couldn’t evolve to use or at least tolerate oxygen had gone extinct. So take a deep breath of life-giving oxygen and thank cyanobacteria, which by the way are still around and still producing oxygen. However, they’re still up to their old tricks because they also produce what are called cyanotoxins, which can be deadly.

That brings us to another animal in our imaginary farm, the mold pig. It’s not a pig or a mold, and unlike the leaf sheep and cyanobacteria, it’s extinct. At least, we think it’s extinct.

The mold pig is a microinvertebrate only discovered in 2019. The only reason we know about it at all is because of amber found in the Dominican Republic, on an island in the Caribbean Sea. As we’ve discussed in past episodes, especially episode 108, amber is the fossilized resin of certain types of tree, and sometimes the remains of small animals are found inside. Often these animals are insects, but sometimes even tinier creatures are preserved that we would otherwise probably never know about.

The mold pig was about 100 micrometers long, or .1 millimeter. You’ve probably heard of the tardigrade, or water bear, which we talked about in episode 234, and if so you might think the mold pig was a type of tardigrade just from looking at it, since it looks similar. It had four pairs of legs like tardigrades do, but while scientists think they were related, and that the mold pig was probably also related to mites, it was different enough that it’s been classified in its own genus and may need to belong to its own phylum. Its official name is Sialomorpha.

The mold pig probably ate mold, fungus, and microscopic invertebrates. It lived around 30 million years ago, and right now that’s about all we know about it. There’s a good chance that it still survives somewhere in the world, but it’s so tiny that it’s even easier to overlook than the leaf sheep. Maybe you will be the person who rediscovers its living descendants.

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 340: Whale Lice and Sea Lice

Thanks to Eilee for suggesting the sea louse this week!

Further reading:

Secrets of the Whale Riders: Crablike ‘Whale Lice’ Show How Endangered Cetaceans Evolved

Parasite of the Day: Neocyamus physeteris

A whale louse [By © Hans Hillewaert, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19259257]:

The salmon sea louse [By Thomas Bjørkan – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7524020]:

Show transcript:

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

It’s now officially August, so we’re officially kicking off Invertebrate August with two invertebrates with the word louse in their names, even though neither of them are technically lice. Thanks to Eilee for suggesting sea lice, and thanks to our patrons because I used some information from an old Patreon episode for the first part of this episode.

That would be the whale louse. The whale louse isn’t actually a louse, although it is a parasite. Lice are insects adapted for a parasitic lifestyle on the bodies of their hosts, but whale lice are crustaceans—specifically, amphipods specialized to live on whales, dolphins, and porpoises.

There are many species of whale louse, with some only living on a particular species of whale. In the case of the sperm whale, one species of whale louse lives on the male sperm whale while a totally different species of whale louse lives on the female sperm whale and on calves. This was a fact I found on Wikipedia and included in the Patreon episode, but at the time I couldn’t find out more. It’s puzzled me ever since, which is one of the reasons I wanted to revisit this topic. I couldn’t figure out how the male calves ended up with male sperm whale lice, and I couldn’t figure out why males and females would have different species of lice. I’m happy to report that I now know the answers to both questions, or at least I can report what experts hypothesize.

Male sperm whales spend more time in polar waters while females spend more time in warmer waters to raise their calves. Sperm whales are actually host to three different whale lice species, but one species prefers colder water and is much more likely to live on males, while another species prefers warmer water and is much more likely to live on females and calves. Any sperm whale might have lice from any of the three species, though, and whale lice are spread when whales rub against each other. This happens when the whales mate, but it also happens when males fight or when whales are just being friendly.

The whale louse has a flattened body and legs that end in claws that help it cling to the whale. Different species are different sizes, from only five millimeters up to an inch long, or about 25 mm. Typically the lice cling to areas where water currents won’t sweep them away, including around the eyes and genital folds, ventral pleats, blowholes, and in wounds. Barnacles also grow on some whales and the lice live around the barnacles. But even though all that sounds horrible, the lice don’t actually harm the whales. They eat dead skin cells and algae, which helps keep wounds clean and reduces the risk of infection.

The right whale is a baleen whale that can grow up to 65 feet long, or almost 20 meters. Right whales have callosities on their heads, which are raised patches of thickened, bumpy skin. Every whale has a different pattern of callosities. Right whales are dark in color, but while the callosities are generally paler than the surrounding skin, they appear white because that’s where the whale lice live, and the lice are white. This allows whales to identify other whales by sight. It’s gross but it works for the whales. Right whales also usually host one or two other species of louse that don’t live on the callosities.

Dolphins typically have very few lice, since most dolphins are much faster and more streamlined than whales and the lice have a harder time not getting washed off. Some dolphins studied have no lice at all, and others have less than a dozen. Almost all whales have lice.

Scientists study whale lice to learn more about whales, including how populations of whales overlap during migration. Studies of the lice on right whales helped researchers determine when the whales split into three species. But sometimes what researchers learn from the lice is puzzling. In 2004 researchers found a dead southern right whale calf and examined it, and were surprised to find it had humpback whale lice, not southern right whale lice. Researchers hypothesize that something had happened to the calf’s birth mother and it was adopted by a humpback whale mother. Another study determined that a single southern right whale crossed the equator between one and two million years ago and joined up with right whales in the North Pacific. Ordinarily right whales can’t cross the equator, since their blubber is too thick and they overheat in warm water. Researchers suggest that the right whale in question was an adventurous juvenile who crossed in an unusually cool year. The lice that whale carried interbred with lice the North Pacific whales carried, leaving a genetic marker to tell us about the whale’s successful adventure.

Some animals do eat whale lice, including a little fish called topsmelt. Topsmelt live in shallow water along the Pacific coast of North America. It grows up to around 14 inches long, or 37 cm, and has tiny sharp teeth that it uses to eat zooplankton. But in mid-winter through spring, gray whales arrive in the warm, shallow waters where the topsmelt live to give birth. Then schools of topsmelt will gather around the whales, eating lice and barnacles from the whale’s skin. Good for those little fish. That makes me feel better for the whales.

Eilee suggested the sea louse a while back, and when I looked it up initially I was horrified. Sea lice is another name for a skin condition called seabather’s eruption that consists of intense itching and welts on the skin, that occurs after someone has been swimming in some parts of the world. That includes around parts of New Zealand, off the coast of Queensland, Australia, off the eastern coast of Africa, parts of south Asia, the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico, and many other places. It usually shows up a few hours after a swimmer gets out of the water, and since it almost always shows up in people who keep wearing their bathing suit for a while after swimming, or wear their suit into a shower to rinse off, people used to think the itching was due to a type of louse that got caught in the suit. They were half-right, because it is due to a microscopic animal that gets trapped against a person’s skin by their bathing suit. It isn’t a louse, though, but the larvae of some species of jellyfish. The larvae aren’t dangerous to humans or anything else, but they do each have a single undeveloped nematocyst. That’s a stinging cell, the same kind that adult jellyfish have. In the case of the larvae, the sting only activates when a larva dies, and it dies if it dries out or gets soaked in fresh water. Fortunately, seabather’s eruption isn’t a very common occurrence and while it’s uncomfortable for a few days, it’s not dangerous and can be treated with anti-itch cream.

There is a type of animal called the sea louse, of course, but it doesn’t want anything to do with humans and wouldn’t bite a human even if it could. It’s a parasitic crustacean like the whale louse, but it only lives on fish. It’s also not related to the whale louse and doesn’t look anything like the whale louse. The whale louse looks kind of like a flattened shrimp without a tail, while the sea louse is hard to describe. It has a flattened shield at the front, with a thinner tail-like section behind, although it’s actually not a tail but the louse’s abdomen. Its legs are underneath its body and are short and hooked so it can keep hold of its host fish, although the shape of its shield acts as a sort of suction cup that also helps it remain attached.

Like the whale louse, different species of sea louse live on different species of fish. It’s usually quite small, less than 10 mm long, although at least one species can grow twice that length. Males are much smaller than females. It eats the mucus, skin, and blood of its host fish, and its mouthparts form a sharp cone that it uses to stab the fish and suck fluids out. Naturally, this isn’t good for the fish.

Most of the time a fish only has a few sea lice, if any, but sometimes when conditions are right a fish can have a much heavier infestation. This can lead to the fish dying in really bad cases, sometimes due to diseases spread by the lice, infected wounds caused by the lice, or just from anemia if the lice drink too much of the fish’s blood.

Conditions are right to spread sea lice when fish are crowded in a small space, and this happens a lot in farmed fish. It’s especially bad in salmon, so while we don’t know a lot about most sea lice, we know a whole lot about the species of sea louse that parasitizes salmon. It’s called Lepeophtheirus salmonis and it’s the sea louse that grows bigger than most others. Salmon are big fish, with the largest growing over 6 ½ feet long, or 2 meters.

The salmon sea louse has a complicated life cycle and only lives on fish part of the time, which is probably true of all sea lice. The female louse develops a pair of egg strings that hang down from the rear of her body, and each string has around 150 eggs. The eggs hatch into tiny larvae that mostly just drift along through the water, although they can swim. A larva molts its exoskeleton every few days as it transforms into new stages of development, and all the time it’s looking for a host fish.

Once it finds a salmon, the sea louse grabs hold and stays put until it molts again and reaches the next stage of its development, which doesn’t take long. Then it’s able to walk around on the fish and it can swim too if it needs to.

The sea louse can’t survive very long in fresh water, but that’s weird if you know anything about salmon. Salmon are famous for migrating from the ocean into rivers to spawn, and after spawning, most adult salmon die. Some Atlantic salmon will survive and return to the ocean, but most salmon die within a few days or weeks of spawning. Because all the sea lice die once the salmon enter fresh water, the new generation of salmon don’t get sea lice until they make their way into the ocean.

That’s a natural way that sea lice populations are kept under control. The salmon sea louse will also live on a few other species of fish, including the sea trout. But people like eating salmon, and farming salmon is an important industry. Unfortunately, as I mentioned earlier, having lots of fish in one place means the sea louse can also increase in numbers easily.

Salmon farmers have tried all kinds of things to get rid of sea lice, from underwater lasers that zap the lice to kill them, to putting cleaner fish among the salmon to eat the lice. Scientists are even trying to breed a variety of salmon that’s much more resistant to sea lice infestation, although this is controversial since it makes use of genetic modification. Not all countries allow genetically modified fish to be sold as human food.

For the most part, though, wild fish generally don’t have a lot of sea lice—and if they do, they can just visit a cleaner fish. Thank goodness for cleaner fish!

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 339: The Tully Monster!

Is it an invertebrate? Is it a vertebrate? It’s the Tully monster!

Further reading:

3D Tully monster probably not related to vertebrates

Has the “Tully monster” mystery finally been solved after 65 years?

Possibly what the Tully monster looked like while alive:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to learn about an ancient creature surrounded by mystery. When I was working on last week’s updates episode, I found some new information about it and intended to include it as an update. Then I realized I was referencing a Patreon episode, which I also reworked into a chapter of the Beyond Bigfoot & Nessie book. So instead, I included the new information in this episode all about the Tully monster.

In 1955, an amateur fossil collector named Francis Tully discovered a really weird fossil. This was in one particular area of Illinois in the United States, roughly in the middle of North America. The fossil was about six inches long, or 15 cm, and Tully thought it resembled a tiny torpedo.

He took the fossil to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago in hopes that somebody could tell him what his fossil was. The paleontologists he showed it to had no idea what it was or even what it might be related to. It was described in 1966 and given the name Tullimonstrum, which means Mr. Tully’s monster, which is pretty much what everyone was calling it already.

300 million years ago, in what is now the state of Illinois, a strange animal lived in the shallow sea that covered part of the area. The land that bordered this sea was swampy, with many rivers emptying into the ocean. These river waters carried dead plant materials and mud, which settled to the bottom of the ocean. When an animal died, assuming it wasn’t eaten by something else, its body sank into this soft muddy mess. The bacteria in the mud produced carbon dioxide that combined with iron that was also present in the mud, which formed a mineral called siderite that encased the dead animal. This slowed decay long enough that an impression of the body formed in the mud, and as the centuries passed and the mud became stone, the fossilized body impression was surrounded by a protective ironstone nodule. That’s why we know about the soft-bodied animals from this area, even though soft-bodied animals rarely leave fossil evidence.

So what did this weird animal look like?

The Tully monster was shaped sort of like a slug or a leech, and it had a segmented body. Its eyes were on stalks that jutted out sideways, although the stalks were more of a horizontal bar that grew across the top of the head. The tail end had two vertical fins, which argues that the Tully monster was probably a good swimmer. But at the front of its body it had a long, thin, jointed proboscis that ended in claws or pincers lined with eight tiny tooth-like structures.

It’s easy to assume that the pincers acted as jaws and therefore the proboscis was a mouth on a jointed stalk, but we really don’t know. The Tully monster may have used its proboscis to probe for food in the mud at the bottom of the sea, but because the proboscis had a joint, it probably couldn’t act as a sort of straw. The pincers may have grabbed tiny prey and conveyed it to a mouth that hasn’t been preserved on the specimens we have.

The Tully monster resembles nothing else known, and is so bizarre that researchers aren’t sure where to place it taxonomically. And it wasn’t rare. Paleontologists have since found lots of Tully monster fossils in the Illinois fossil beds, known as the Mazon Creek formation. The Mazon Creek formation is also the source of highly detailed fossils of hundreds of other plant and animal species, including some that have never been found anywhere else.

Scientists have suggested any number of animal groups that the Tully monster might belong to. It might be a type of arthropod, a mollusk, a segmented worm…or it might be a vertebrate. The tiny tooth-like structures in the pincers have been analyzed and some researchers think they were more similar to keratin than chitin. Keratin is a vertebrate protein while chitin is an invertebrate protein.

In 2016 a study argued that pigments in the eyes are arranged the same way as they are in vertebrates, which meant the Tully monster might have been a vertebrate. The problem is that some invertebrates also have these same pigment arrangements, notably cephalopods like octopuses. A 2019 study also looked at the chemical makeup of the fossil eyes, this time with even more advanced equipment—specifically, a synchrotron radiation lightsource, which is a type of particle accelerator. It sounds so science-y. This study suggested that the Tully monster’s eyes had a different chemical makeup than the vertebrates found in the same fossil beds, which means the Tully monster probably wasn’t a vertebrate after all. But it also didn’t match up with known invertebrates from the same fossil beds.

Of course, it might be a deuterostome. The animals in this superphylum develop a nerve cord at some stage of life, usually as an embryo, but may not retain it into adulthood. This includes echinoderms such as sea stars and sea urchins, tunicates like sea squirts, and possibly acorn worms although some scientists disagree. All vertebrates are also members of the superphylum too.

One suggestion is that the Tully monster is related to a type of animal called a conodont. Technically the term conodont refers to its teeth, with the animal itself known as conodontophora, but conodont is easier to say. We know very little about the conodont, since almost the only fossils we have of it are the tiny teeth. We also have eleven body impressions, so we know it was long and skinny like an eel and grew up to 20 inches long, or 50 cm. We also know it had large eyes, a notochord (or primitive spine), and fins on the tail end.

Conodont teeth first appear in the fossil record during the Cambrian, some 525 million years ago. They disappear entirely from the fossil record about 200 million years ago during the Triassic-Jurassic extinction event. But during those 300-some million years they were around, they left a whole lot of tiny fossil teeth, so many that they’re considered an index fossil, which helps scientists determine how old a particular strata of rock is.

When I say tiny teeth, I mean tiny—they’re microfossils usually measured in micrometers, although some of the larger ones were as much as 6 mm long. But they weren’t teeth like modern animal teeth, and the mouth wasn’t like anything we know today.

The conodont’s mouth is called a feeding apparatus by scientists, and it’s very different from what most of us think of as a mouth. This was long before jawed animals evolved some 400 million years ago, and the conodont’s teeth are technically known as conodont elements since they’re not really teeth. There were three types of the conodont elements, meaning they had different shapes and probably different functions.

Some species of conodont may have used the elements to crush prey, but they probably weren’t very strong swimmers so may have mostly eaten very small animals. Some researchers even suggest the conodont used the elements to filter plankton from the water, while others think the conodont might have been parasitic on larger animals, like the sea lamprey is. Conodonts were probably related to hagfish and lampreys and may have looked similar, although not everyone agrees with this classification. Some researchers even think conodonts might have been invertebrates.

Another possibility is that the Tully monster was related to Anomalocarids, which you may remember from the Cambrian explosion episode. Anomalocaris and its relations were arthropods that resemble nothing else alive. It had eyes on stalks, clawed appendages that grew from its front near the mouth, and the rear of its body was segmented with tail fins. Another Cambrian arthropod, Opabinia, had a single flexible feeding proboscis with claws at the end, five eyes on stalks, and a segmented body, so the Tully monster may have been related to it. But we don’t have anything definitive yet one way or another as to what it was related to.

The most recent study on whether the Tully monster was an invertebrate or a vertebrate was published in early 2023 in the journal Nature. The study used high-resolution 3D scanning to examine 153 Tully monster specimens. The scientists determined that the tooth-like structures at the end of the proboscis don’t appear to be keratin, and the Tully monster has segmentation in its head, which is not something found in vertebrates. These and other findings mean that as of now, it looks like the Tully monster was an invertebrate.

However, we still have no idea what kind of invertebrate it might have been. The 2023 study suggests it was either a non-vertebrate chordate or a protostome. Non-vertebrate chordates include hagfish and tunicates, while protostomes include a whole lot of invertebrates, including insects, worms, and mollusks.

The reason all this is important is because there’s a whole lot we don’t know yet about how jawed animals evolved from jawless fish. If the Tully monster really was a vertebrate, it would give us new information about jawless animals. But part of the reason it’s hard to determine where the Tully monster should be placed taxonomically is because of how incredibly weird it is, and that’s exciting too.

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!