Episode 361: The New Hominin

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

Further reading:

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

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

Show transcript:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for listening!

Episode 360: The Emu War

Apologies to patrons for redoing an old Patreon episode, but I have a cold and it’s the holidays.

The noble emu:

A baby emu (picture from this site, which has lots of good info about emus and lots more great pictures):

Show transcript:

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

I had a different episode planned to finish off the year, but I had lots of stuff to do for the holidays so I put it off, and then I came down with a cold. It’s just a cold, at least, and it’s not too serious, but I decided to repurpose a Patreon episode from early 2020 instead of making a new episode, because I don’t feel good. Apologies to my patrons for getting a rerun, but I did give the episode a brush-up and re-recorded it.

Our topic this week is a bird from Australia, the emu, but mostly we’re going to learn about the emu war that happened in 1932.

The emu is a large, flightless bird almost as big as an ostrich, over 6 feet tall, or 2 meters. Like the ostrich, it can run really fast, over 30 miles per hour, or 50 km/hour. It’s only distantly related to the ostrich, though, and in fact it’s much more closely related to the tiny kiwi of New Zealand.

The emu has long legs and a long neck, soft feathers that are gray and brown, and three toes on each foot. It also has small vestigial wings that are only about eight inches long, or 20 cm. The body feathers make the emu look shaggy, but the head and the upper portion of the neck are less heavily feathered so that it sort of looks like it’s wearing a fancy coat with a high collar. It also looks like it has a poofy wedge of a downward-pointing tail, but it actually doesn’t have much of a tail at all. What looks like a tail is mostly part of the body. The emu’s skeleton is built for running, which includes a modified pelvis and leg bones for the attachment of strong leg muscles.

In winter, the female puffs out her feathers and struts around to attract a mate while making drumlike calls. Females sometimes fight each other by kicking, especially if a female approaches a male who already has a mate. The male builds a nest on the ground by placing dry grass, sticks, bark, and other plant materials on a flat, open area where he can see any predators that might approach.

The female lays up to 15 green eggs that are around five inches long, or 13 cm. The male broods the eggs for the next eight weeks and doesn’t eat during that entire time, and only drinks whatever dew he can gather from the plants around the nest without leaving the nest. A male can lose a third of his weight while brooding. Meanwhile, the female often leaves and finds another mate, sometimes laying several clutches of eggs during the nesting season.

When the babies hatch, the father takes care of them for the next six or seven months, at which point they’re fully grown. While he’s in charge, the father won’t let any other emus near the chicks, even their mother. He teaches them to find food and if the babies feel threatened, they’ll run underneath him to hide. Baby emus have gray and white longitudinal stripes and are super cute.

The emu eats plants and insects, and will sometimes travel long distances to find enough food and water. It can go a long time without eating and several days without drinking. It usually only drinks once a day but it will drink a whole lot of water during that one time.

Some populations of emu migrate to the coast after breeding season, where they can find more food and cooler weather. But in 1932 in western Australia, migrating emus didn’t find their usual food supplies. They found a whole lot of wheat fields cultivated by former soldiers, who had been given land after World War I. The Australian government had encouraged the soldiers to clear the land of native vegetation and grow lots of wheat, which they did. Then the emus showed up.

Naturally, without their usual food to eat, the emus sampled the wheat plants. And they found the plants yummy. Also, even though there was a drought that year, there was plenty of water for the wheat, which meant plenty of water for emus. So the emus showed up and showed up and showed up, an estimated 20,000 emus eating as much wheat as they could hold and crashing through fences to get to it.

The farmers sent a group to speak to the Minister of Defence to get help. The Minister of Defence sent a major with a small handful of soldiers to deal with the birds, with the soldiers armed with two lightweight machine guns.

On November 2, 1932, the men encountered their first emus. The birds were too far away to shoot so the men tried to herd them closer, but the emus scattered instead of staying in a group. Two days later, the men encountered approximately a thousand emus and lay in wait until the birds were close enough to shoot at–but the gun jammed and the birds scattered again. At this point the soldiers had killed maybe two dozen birds in all.

That was enough that the emus had figured out the men were a danger. The men reported that each group of birds now had a lookout. The rest of the flock would eat while the lookout kept watch. When the lookout spotted the men, it warned the others and all the emus would scatter.

The men even tried mounting a machine gun on a truck to run the emus down. But the ground was too bumpy to aim while the truck was moving, plus it couldn’t outrun the emus. On one occasion a dead emu got tangled in the steering equipment and the truck crashed into a fence, destroying both the truck and the fence.

On November 8, the men were withdrawn after having only killed around 200 emus, but they’d used a quarter of the ammunition they’d been allotted to do that. One politician suggested sarcastically that the soldiers deserved a medal for their part in the war, and another politician pointed out that the medal should properly go to the emus.

But the emus were still a problem, so after more entreaties from farmers, the same men and guns were sent back to try again. They kept at it for the next month or so and did manage to kill maybe a few thousand birds, but for every bird they killed, they shot ten bullets. Finally they were recalled for good. The government put a bounty on dead emus instead, and the farmers put up larger and stronger fences. It wasn’t until the late 1960s that the bounty was canceled and the emu protected. The current population is large and healthy.

There used to be several smaller subspecies of emu, but they went extinct basically as soon as Europeans showed up. We’re lucky that the mainland emu survived the war and the bounty hunting so that we can appreciate it today.

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 359: The Antarctic Death Star(fish)!

Thanks to Morgan for suggesting this week’s topic, the Antarctic Death Star!

Further reading:

Giant Monster Starfish ALERT

Echinoderm Tube Feet Don’t Suck! They Stick!

Bodies of Starfish and Other Echinoderms Are Really Just Heads, New Research Suggests

The Antarctic death star [from first link listed above]:

The “beartrap” structures, magnified [from first link listed above]:

Show transcript:

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

It’s been way too long since we talked about an invertebrate, so this week we’ll look at one suggested by Morgan, the Antarctic death star.

It has a lot of other names too, including the Antarctic sun starfish and the wolftrap or beartrap starfish. Its scientific name is Labidiaster annulatus. I’m going to call it the death star because I think that’s hilarious.

As you may have guessed from its common names, the Antarctic death star is a starfish that lives in cold ocean waters near the Antarctic, AKA the south pole. But its common names also hint at how it gets its food, and this would be a good time to take a moment and be glad you’re not a copepod that also lives in the Antarctic Ocean.

The death star is reddish-brown on its dorsal side, white underneath. It’s a large starfish, up to two feet across, or 60 cm, and it also has a lot of legs, more properly called rays—up to 50 of them. The rays are long, narrow, and very flexible, and the undersides have rows of little structures called tube feet. All echinoderms, including starfish, have these tube feet and they’re used for several purposes. One important purpose is helping the animal stick to a hard surface, which allows it to climb around more easily and right itself if it gets flipped over.

For over 150 years scientists thought the tube feet acted like little suction cups, but that didn’t explain how a starfish or other echinoderm could stick to porous surfaces. It wasn’t until 2012 that a study was published explaining how the tube feet actually work. The tube feet exude tiny amounts of a sticky chemical that acts like glue.

The death star’s body also has little spines and bumps all over it, but it also has some structures that give the animal its other names, the wolftrap or beartrap starfish. The structures are called pedicellariae [PED-uh-suh-LAIR-ee-aye], which are also common in echinoderms. Most echinoderms seem to use them to keep algae and other organisms from settling on the body, although scientists aren’t completely sure. Pedicellariae have muscles and sensory receptors, and when something touches them, they snap shut like a trap. In the case of the Antarctic death star, its pedicellariae are extra big and really sharp. When a krill or other tiny animal brushes against one of these little traps, it grabs the animal and then the death star can eat it.

But that’s just part of what’s going on when the death star goes hunting, so let’s discuss it in more detail.

Most starfish spend almost all their time on the ocean floor, walking around looking for food. The death star does this too, but not all the time. Quite often a death star will climb on top of a rock or other large structure, and then it will extend some of its rays up and out into the water. It waves its rays around and if it touches a small animal, it will wrap the rays around it. The pedicellariae also snap shut. Then the death star can eat whatever it caught. Usually this is krill or amphipods, but it’s not a picky eater. Since it will eat animals it finds already dead, researchers aren’t completely sure if the death star ever catches fish. They’ve certainly found dead fish in death star stomachs, but the water it lives in is so cold that not many fish live there anyway. Fish don’t make up a big part of the death star’s diet, whether or not it’s catching them itself. The death star also eats other starfish, including smaller death stars.

Like other starfish, the death star can eat surprisingly large pieces of food because it can evert its stomach. This means it can actually push its stomach out through its mouth and engulf whatever large food it’s found or caught. The digestion process starts right away, which allows the starfish to eat food that can’t actually fit through its mouth. It doesn’t chew its food because it doesn’t have any kind of teeth or jaws, but who needs teeth and jaws if your stomach can just reach out and grab food?

While I was researching the death star, I came across a study published in November 2023 about echinoderms, so let’s learn something surprising about starfish and their relations in general.

Echinoderms demonstrate radial symmetry instead of bilateral symmetry. That’s why you can’t tell when a starfish or other echinoderm is facing forward, because it doesn’t actually have a forward. But it’s actually more complicated than it sounds, because the distant ancestor of echinoderms, which lived during the Cambrian almost half a billion years ago, did demonstrate bilateral symmetry, and the larvae of modern echinoderms do too. When a modern echinoderm larva develops into an adult, the left side of its body is the only part that grows. The right side of its body is absorbed and from then on the body develops radially. It actually shows pentaradial symmetry, with five sections around the central part of the body. That’s why so many starfish have five rays, although obviously not all of them. The death star starts out with five rays but adds more and more as it grows.

For a long time scientists have wondered if echinoderms technically have heads or if they’re just bodies. They don’t have eyes or nostrils or most other body parts that we associate with the head, just an oral opening in the middle of the underside of the disc. Starfish do have cells at the ends of their rays that act as eyespots, which are sensitive to light and dark but can’t actually see anything else. Instead of a brain, it has a nerve ring around its mouth and connected nerve nets in its rays, and its digestive system extends into its rays.

In other words, it sure seems like an echinoderm has no head and is basically just a weird body. But the new study came to a surprising conclusion. The study examined starfish genetics and discovered that the genes associated with head development were there. It was the genes associated with the development of a body and tail that were missing. In other words, the starfish, and echinoderms in general, are just really complicated heads.

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 358: The Bush Dog and the Maned Wolf

Thanks to Dean, Mia, and Lydia for their suggestions this week!

The tayra looks kind of like a canid but is a mustelid [photo by Bob Johnson – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=85291909]:

The bush dog looks kind of like a mustelid but is a canid:

The maned wolf looks like a fox with reallllllly long legs:

Show transcript:

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

This week we have a suggestion from Dean, who wanted to learn about the bush dog. We’re actually going to learn about two animals that share the name bush dog, along with an animal suggested by both Mia and Lydia, the maned wolf.

We’ll start with the bush dog that isn’t a dog. It’s more commonly called the tayra and it’s native to much of Central and South America. It prefers to live in forests, especially tropical forests, but it will travel long distances to find food and can sometimes be found in grasslands and other areas. Despite the name bush dog, it’s not a canid at all. It’s a member of the family Mustelidae, which includes weasels, ferrets, and wolverines. The tayra has a long body and short legs, but it’s also bulkier than most mustelids, more similar to a wolverine. It can grow almost four feet long, or 1.2 meters, including its long tail, and its fur is short and black or dark brown. It also has a patch of lighter fur on its chest that’s a unique shape to every individual, sometimes called a heart patch.

The tayra is mostly active during the day and does a lot of climbing around in trees, where it eats birds, lizards and other reptiles, small mammals, eggs, fruit, honey, and large insects and other invertebrates. It especially likes plantains, which is a type of banana. The tayra will pick green plantains and hide them, then come back to eat them after they ripen. It’s also really good at catching spiny rats, so good that the indigenous peoples in various places would sometimes tame a tayra or two in order to keep spiny rats and other rodents away from their food stores.

The bush dog that is actually a canid is also from South America, but we’re going to start not with the living animal, but with an extinct one. Back in the 19th century, when it was possible to specialize in several fields of science at once, a Danish man named Peter Wilhelm Lund made a name for himself as an archaeologist, a paleontologist, and a zoologist. He moved to Brazil in South America in 1825, went back to Europe in 1829 to finish his doctoral degree, but returned to Brazil in 1832 for the rest of his life. He just really liked it there. He described hundreds of Brazilian plants and animals scientifically and is most well known for his studies of extinct ice age megafauna, along with prehistoric cave paintings.

One of the animals he described was an unusual canid. He discovered its skull in a cave in 1839, so he called it the cave wolf. That makes it sound scary and impressive, but it was actually a fairly small animal. He gave it the scientific name Speothos pacivorus, which means “cave wolf hunter.”

In 1842 Lund described a living canid with a similar skull, although its teeth weren’t as big and it was even smaller than the cave wolf. But he didn’t quite make the connection and placed the living animal in a completely different genus. In 1843 another scientist renamed the animal but again placed it in a completely different genus from the cave wolf.

It’s not unusual for an animal to be studied repeatedly and its taxonomy debated by various scientists as they try to figure out what the animal’s closest relations are. But in the case of the bush dog, it kept getting shuffled from genus to genus every few years, so that in the 180 years since it was originally described it’s been placed and re-placed in nine different genera, until it was finally renamed Speothos venaticus and recognized as a close relation, or possibly the direct descendant, of the cave wolf.

Although the bush dog’s ancestors lived in the highlands of Brazil, the bush dog alive today is adapted for forests. It has partially webbed toes that help it walk on soft soil around water, and it spends a lot of time in water. It’s brown all over, although some individuals have a patch of lighter brown fur on the throat, and its legs and tail are often darker. Puppies are black all over. Its legs are short and it has a short snout and small ears. It actually really does look similar in many ways to the other bush dog, the tayra, although its tail is shorter.

The bush dog is incredibly shy and lives in remote areas that are hard for humans to explore, so we actually don’t know a whole lot about it. It’s so shy that it’s even hard to catch on camera traps. It’s a social animal that sometimes hunts by itself and sometimes in groups, and it eats pretty much anything it can catch. Its main prey is rodents, especially large rodents like capybaras, but it also hunts peccaries, tapirs, and the large flightless bird called the rhea.

Part of the reason the bush dog kept getting moved from genus to genus is that it’s not very similar to other canids. The fact that it even looks a lot like a mustelid gives you an idea of how strange it appears. It has a cute puppy face since its snout and ears are so small, and its long chunky body and short legs make it look a little like a corgi. It’s only been recently that scientists have identified one of its closest relations, and it’s a canid you might not expect. It’s also the canid suggested by Mia and Lydia, because everyone loves the maned wolf.

We’ve talked about the maned wolf before, most recently in episode 167. The maned wolf looks kind of like a short-tailed fox with extremely long legs—like, twice as long as a regular fox’s legs or longer. But the maned wolf isn’t a fox and it isn’t a wolf, or a coyote, or a dog, or any other type of canid. It’s its own thing. It lives in the grasslands of central South America, and it needs extremely long legs to help it see over tall grass. It stands over three and a half feet tall at the shoulder, or 110 cm, while the bush dog only stands about one foot tall, or 30 cm.

The maned wolf is mostly solitary, although mated pairs will sometimes share a territory. It’s an omnivore and eats a lot of plant material in addition to hunting small animals that live in the grass. It especially likes a tomato-like fruit called the wolf apple, and it will also eat carrion. If it catches a large animal, or finds a large animal already dead, it will bury what’s left of the body to eat later. It marks the hole it digs with urine so it can more easily find it later. It also marks its territory with urine.

The maned wolf’s urine contains a chemical called pyrazine, which produces a strong smell. Since the smell of pyrazine is produced by many animals and plants that are toxic, it’s possible that having the smell in its urine helps keep other animals away from the maned wolf’s food caches and out of its territory. Humans recognize the smell of pyrazine as something else, marijuana, since the marijuana plant actually contains pyrazine. In 2006 someone at the Rotterdam Zoo in Holland complained that people were smoking marijuana in the zoo, but when police investigated, they discovered that the smell was actually coming from the maned wolf exhibit. This will never not be funny to me.

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 357: When Scientists Ate Mammoth Meat

This week we’re going to talk about stories of scientists, explorers, and other modern people eating meat from long-dead extinct animals. Did it ever really happen?

Check out the great new podcast Herbarium of the Bizarre! I highly recommend it even though they don’t eat any mammoth meat.

Further reading:

Was frozen mammoth or giant ground sloth served for dinner at The Explorers Club?

Study Proves the Explorers Club Didn’t Really Eat Mammoth at 1950s New York Dinner

Company Serves World’s First ‘Mammoth’ Meatball, but Nobody Is Allowed to Eat It

Don’t eat me bro:

Blue Babe, a steppe bison mummy found in Alaska:

Show transcript:

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

We’ve talked about mammoths and other ice age megafauna plenty of times before, but this week we’re going to learn something specific and really weird about these animals, although it’s more accurate to say we’re going to learn how weird humans are.

You may have heard this story before, or something similar to this story. A group of scientists in Siberia or Alaska have unearthed a mammoth carcass that’s been frozen in permafrost for at least 25,000 years. It’s in such good shape that the meat looks as fresh as a fancy restaurant steak that’s ready to go on the grill. At the end of a long day of using pickaxes to dig the mammoth out of ground frozen as solid as rock, the scientists are so hungry that when someone suggests they actually grill some mammoth meat, they all think it’s a good idea. The meat turns out to taste as good as it looks. Everyone has a big steak dinner, even the camp dogs, and when the expedition ends they not only have a mammoth to put on display in their museum, they have a great story to tell about a meal no human has eaten for thousands of years.

You may even have come across an event that inspired this particular story. The incredibly well preserved 44,000 year old Berezovsky mammoth was discovered in Russia in 1900 and excavated in 1901, and it’s now on display in the Zoological Museum in Saint Petersburg. Rumors persisted for years that the expedition members ate some of the mammoth meat, but while we don’t know exactly what happened, definitely no one actually sat down to have a yummy meal of mammoth steak.

It turns out that the meat did look appetizing when thawed, but stank like old roadkill. The expedition erected a big tent over the dig site as they excavated the carcass, which was a slow process in 1901, and the smell became so bad that the expedition members had to take frequent breaks and leave the tent for fresh air.

Apparently the scientists got drunk one night and dared each other to try a bite of the meat, but even after they practically covered it in pepper to disguise the taste, no one could force any down. One man might have managed to eat a single bite, but reports vary. They fed the meat to the camp dogs instead, who were just fine. Dogs and wolves have short, fast digestive tracts and can tolerate eating foods that would make humans very sick.

But that’s not the only story of modern humans eating meat from frozen mammoth carcasses. It supposedly happened on January 13, 1951 at the Roosevelt Hotel’s grand ballroom in New York City. A group called the Explorers Club met for their annual fancy dinner that evening, and as always, the menu contained lots of exotic foods. The main course has gone down in history as being slices of mammoth meat from a 250,000-year-old carcass found in Alaska.

That’s where things get confusing, though, because supposedly the main course was megatherium meat found in Alaska. Megatherium was a giant ground sloth that hasn’t ever been found frozen in permafrost at all, certainly not in Alaska. It lived in South America. However, the Christian Science Monitor magazine thought megatherium was another word for mammoth and reported that the group was served mammoth meat.

Some of the Explorers Club members genuinely thought they were dining on megatherium. Some may have thought it was mammoth. The club’s press release just said “prehistoric meat,” which doesn’t sound very appetizing.

An Explorers Club member who couldn’t attend the dinner asked that his portion be saved for him in a bottle of formaldehyde that he provided. This was done, and the promoter himself, Wendell Phillips Dodge, better known as Mae West’s one-time film agent, filled out the supplied specimen card as “megatherium meat.” The club member put his bottled meat on display at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut, where he worked.

There the bottle stayed until 2001, when it ended up at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. In 2014, a couple of Yale students ran DNA tests on the meat.

As you may have already guessed, the meat wasn’t from a mammoth or a giant ground sloth. It’s meat from the decidedly not extinct green sea turtle, although the green sea turtle is endangered and protected these days, so don’t eat it. Since green sea turtle soup was also served at the meal, it’s probable that the leftover turtle meat was called megatherium meat as a sort of joke. Dodge even published a statement after the dinner that he’d discovered how to turn green sea turtle into giant sloth meat. But by then the story of mammoth meat being served at the dinner had already passed into history.

But while we don’t know if anyone in modern times has eaten frozen mammoth meat, we do know for certain that a group of scientists did eat the meat of a mummified steppe bison that died around 36,000 years ago.

The bison was discovered in 1979 in Alaska and was nicknamed Blue Babe, both from the folktales of the giant lumberjack Paul Bunyon and his pet, Babe the Blue Ox, and because the mummy was coated in crystals of vivianite, which turns blue when exposed to oxygen. Eventually Blue Babe was taxidermied and put on display in the University of Alaska Museum at Fairbanks.

At some point, the team in charge of the specimen decided to try some of its meat in a stew, which from all accounts turned out okay and didn’t make anyone sick. The scientists examined the meat carefully before deciding to cook and eat it, and decided that it was basically freezer-burned but not actually rotten.

Dale Guthrie was part of the Blue Babe excavation team. I’ll quote the relevant paragraph from page 29 of her booklet Blue Babe. The Bjorn Kjurten mentioned in the quote is the man who helped preserve the mummy, and he was also the guy who interviewed one of the Russian scientists who tried to eat mammoth meat with pepper.

“To celebrate Eirich’s work and the new Blue Babe, we decided to cook a bison stew. A marvelous bit of luck had brought Bjorn Kjurten to Fairbanks for guest lectures, and we invited other friends who were game enough to try the stew. Spring was underway. With a good burgundy to brave the rather muddy tone of the dish, we toasted the past and present in the long evening twilight, a taste of the Pleistocene with friends who shared and added to it with their talents and imagination. It was a special evening.”

Guthrie reported that the meat wasn’t very good, but that anything is edible if you use enough onions.

In March of 2023, a company that produces lab-grown meat for human consumption made a giant meatball grown from mammoth DNA. They displayed it as a way to advertise the possibilities of lab-grown meat, but because this particular meat hasn’t been tested to make sure it’s safe for people to eat, no one was allowed to eat it. But maybe in the future, you’ll be able to order a mammoth steak from your local restaurant. Let me know what it tastes like.

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 356: The Volcano Rabbit

Thanks to Eva for suggesting the adorable volcano rabbit this week!

Further watching:

American Pikas Calling Out

The volcano rabbit is not a volcano but it is a very small rabbit:

The volcano rabbit is SO CUTE:

The American pika looks kind of like its rabbit cousin [photo by Justin Johnsen, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=91574]:

Show transcript:

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

This week we have a suggestion from Eva, who wanted to learn about volcano rabbits! What are volcano rabbits? Do they shoot lava at their enemies? Let’s find out! (No, they don’t shoot lava. Sorry. That’d be awesome!)

The most important thing to know about the volcano rabbit is how small it is. It’s almost the smallest rabbit known. It typically only grows about 9 inches long, or 23 cm, and that’s when it’s stretched out. Rabbits usually sit more bunched up, which makes it look even smaller. Its ears are small and rounded, its tail is short even for a rabbit, and its legs are short. Its fur is also short and very thick, mostly grayish-tan in color.

The second most important thing to know about the volcano rabbit is how rare and endangered it is. That’s because it only lives in one small part of Mexico, specifically on the upper slopes of four volcanoes. Because people also live in this area, which isn’t far from Mexico City, the rabbits’ natural range is fragmented by human-made obstacles like highways that are dangerous for it to cross, along with habitat destruction from logging, livestock grazing, and the building of new houses. People even hunt the rabbit even though it’s a protected animal. We don’t know for sure how many of the volcano rabbits are left in the wild, but the best estimate is around 1,200 rabbits in small populations that are often widely separated. It’s even been declared extinct on another volcano where it used to live, although there may be a small population still hanging on.

The volcano rabbit prefers open woodland in higher elevations where there’s plenty of tall, dense grass native to the area. It makes rabbit-sized tunnels through the grass so it can move around undetected by predators. It also mostly eats this grass. It’s most active at dawn and dusk, which also helps it hide from predators.

When a volcano rabbit does feel threatened, it doesn’t thump its feet to alert other rabbits of danger. Instead, it gives a little alarm squeal. This is really unusual in a rabbit, but it’s something the pika does, and the pika is closely related to rabbits. The pika lives in parts of central Asia and western North America, especially in cold areas like mountaintops. It’s so well adapted to the cold that it can die if the temperature climbs over about 78 degrees Fahrenheit, or 25 Celsius.

The American pika actually looks a lot like the volcano rabbit in some ways, although it’s less rabbit-like in shape and more rodent-like, although it’s not a rodent. It’s a lagomorph. It’s about the same size or a little smaller than the volcano rabbit, with short legs and dense grayish-brown fur that grows longer in winter. It especially likes places with a lot of rocks, since it makes its home in little cracks and crevices between rocks. It prepares for winter by harvesting the plants it eats and storing them in little haypiles. Since it doesn’t hibernate, it needs plenty of food for times when snow and ice make it hard to find plants.

The pika is intensely territorial, because it doesn’t want any other pikas sneaking around eating up its hay, but it does communicate with other pikas. During breeding season the males will make a singing call to attract a female, and all pikas will call to warn others of a predator nearby. I couldn’t find any recordings of a volcano rabbit, but this is what an American pika sounds like:

(wait for it…)

[pika beeping]

Like other rabbits, the volcano rabbit eats grass and other plant parts. The problem is that most of the plants in its habitat are not very high in protein. The more fragmented its habitat is, the harder it is for the rabbits to find enough food to survive, much less to also reproduce. Every time someone decides to let cattle or other livestock graze on the local plants, the rabbits have that much less food.

Fortunately, conservationists in Mexico are working on educating people so they know this cute little rabbit is a protected species. Captive breeding programs are underway too, and parts of the volcanoes where the rabbit lives are within the bounds of a national park. There are plans to create safe corridors to link the rabbit’s fragmented habitats so it can come and go without getting squished by cars, and to restore its range with more native plants so it has plenty of food.

You might worry that the volcano rabbit, besides having all these issues with habitat loss and habitat fragmentation, is also in danger of its volcano home erupting. The volcanoes where it lives are active, but only one of the four poses any danger, and that volcano has erupted repeatedly in the last several hundred years without affecting the volcano rabbit. It actually even had a small eruption in May 2023. Schools in the area were closed for a few days, but no one was hurt, not even a rabbit.

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 355: Tiny Owls

This week we learn about two tiny owls! Thanks to Elizabeth and Alexandra for their suggestions!

Further reading:

Burrowing Owl

Elf Owl

The burrowing owl is tiny but fierce [photo by Christopher Lindsey, taken from page linked above]:

The elf owl is also tiny but fierce [photo by Matthew Grube, taken from page linked above]:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to learn about two tiny owls. Thanks to Elizabeth and Alexandra for their owl suggestions!

The burrowing owl is native to the Americas, especially the western part of North America, and most of Central and South America. It prefers grasslands and other open areas. It’s a small owl, not much bigger than the average songbird. It’s mostly brown with lighter underparts that are barred with a brown pattern.

You can tell a lot about an owl by the color of its eyes. In general, an owl with dark eyes is most active at night, an owl with orange or red eyes is likely to be most active at dawn and dusk, and an owl with yellow eyes is often active in the day. That’s not a hard and fast rule, but it can help you make a good guess about an owl’s behavior. The burrowing owl has yellow eyes, and it is indeed active in the day. The term for daytime activity is diurnal.

In past episodes I’ve said that owls have long legs that are usually hidden by feathers. In the case of the burrowing owl, its long legs are in plain sight because it spends a lot of the time running around on the ground. It will sometimes chase prey on foot, but other times it will perch on a fence post, tree branch, or some other high place to watch for a small animal to pass by. Then it will swoop down to grab it just like any other owl. It eats mice and other small rodents, lizards, small snakes, frogs, large insects and other invertebrates like scorpions and caterpillars, and birds. It especially likes termites and grasshoppers. Females are more likely to hunt during the daytime, while males are more likely to hunt at night or at dawn and dusk. Sometimes the burrowing owl will eat fruit and seeds too. When the burrowing owl has more food than it can eat, it will store some in underground larders.

The burrowing owl gets its name because it builds a nest in a burrow in the ground, often in burrows dug by other animals like prairie dogs and skunks. Some subspecies of burrowing owl will dig its own burrow, and all subspecies will enlarge an existing burrow until it’s happy with the size. It uses its beak to dig and kicks the dirt out with its feet. Both the male and female will work on the burrow together. Once it’s the right size and shape, the owl will bring in dried grass and other materials to line the burrow. One of its favorite materials is dried animal dung, especially from cattle. The dung releases moisture inside the burrow, making it more comfortable, and attracts insects that the owls eat. Win-win! It will also scatter animal dung around the entrance of its burrow and will sometimes also collect trash like bottle caps and pieces of foil to decorate the entrance.

The female lays her eggs in the burrow and spends most of her time incubating the eggs, only going outside briefly to stretch her legs. The male stands guard at the entrance to the burrow or nearby except when he’s out hunting. He brings food back for the female.

When the eggs hatch, both parents take care of the babies. At first the chicks stay in the burrow, but as they grow older they come out to play outside and start learning how to fly. Since burrowing owls usually nest in small colonies, there’s always an adult watching for danger somewhere nearby.

Most birds abandon their nests after their chicks are grown. The burrowing owl often uses its burrow year-round, although populations that migrate will usually make a new burrow when they return to their summer range. The burrow gives the owls a place to nap during the hottest part of the day, and it’s also a good place to hide if a predator approaches. Rattlesnakes also use burrows for the same purposes, and when a burrowing owl runs from a predator and hides in its burrow, it will mimic the rattling and hissing of an angry rattlesnake. A lot of times that’s enough to make a predator think twice about digging up the burrow.

This is what a burrowing owl sounds like when it’s not imitating an angry rattlesnake:

[burrowing owl call]

The burrowing owl is increasingly threatened by habitat loss and introduced predators likes cats and dogs. Luckily it’s an adaptive bird and is happy to use artificial burrows in protected areas. It’s a useful bird to have around since it eats a lot of insects, prairie dogs, and other animals that are considered pests by humans. Plus it’s an incredibly cute bird. I mean, it’s a tiny owl with long legs! How could you not find that cute?

Small as it is, the burrowing owl isn’t the smallest owl known. The elf owl is even smaller, about the size of a sparrow. It’s only about 5 inches tall, or 13 cm, with a wingspan of only 9 inches, or 22 cm. It lives in parts of the southwestern United States during the summer and parts of Mexico during the winter.

The elf owl is nocturnal like most other owls, and this is where our guideline of owl eye color breaks down, because the elf owl has yellow eyes. Its feathers are mostly gray or grayish-brown with white streaks. When it’s sitting on a twig, it kind of looks like a dead leaf or a broken-off branch.

It mostly eats insects, but it also likes scorpions, spiders, and centipedes. Occasionally it eats small reptiles or mammals. When it catches a scorpion, it removes the stinger before eating the scorpion, but it doesn’t seem to be hurt by actually being stung. It’s a fast, acrobatic flyer and catches insects on the wing, but it also hunts for insects on the ground and has long legs like the burrowing owl.

The elf owl nests in holes made by woodpeckers in trees or cacti, and the male brings the female food while she keeps the eggs warm. After the babies hatch, the male brings them food too and also continues to feed the female for another couple of weeks, until she starts to hunt again. The male will also catch a tiny snake called the western threadsnake, which looks a lot like an earthworm and only grows a foot long at most, or 30 cm, and is usually much smaller than that. It lives underground most of the time and while it has eyes, they don’t work except to sense light and dark. It eats insects, especially termites and ants. When an elf owl catches one of these little snakes, it doesn’t eat it. Instead, it brings the snake back to the nest and lets it go. The snake eats all the insects it can find, including parasites that might hurt the baby owls. Then again, sometimes the nest is inhabited by tree ants that do the same thing, cleaning up all the parasites and scraps of leftover food while not bothering the owls.

If a predator grabs an elf owl, or a scientist nets and handles one, the owl pretends to be dead. A lot of times this will cause the predator to relax its jaw muscles, which often allows the owl to wiggle free and fly away. The scientists are a little more careful about relaxing their hands, but when a scientist handles an elf owl, it’s usually to do a quick examination and maybe put a leg band on for identification purposes, and then they let the owl go again anyway.

This is what an elf owl sounds like:

[elf owl call]

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

Thanks for listening!

Episode 354: Sheep and Sivatherium

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

Further reading:

The American Jacob Sheep Breeders’ Association

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

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

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

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

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

Show transcript:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for listening!

Episode 353: Warm-Blooded Fish

This week we’re going to learn about some fish that feature warm-bloodedness! Thanks to Eilee for suggesting the moonfish, or opah.

Further reading:

Are all fish cold-blooded?

The Opah Fish Is Warm-Blooded!

Basking Sharks Are Partially Warm-Blooded, New Research Suggests

Megalodon Was Partially Warm-Blooded, New Research Shows

The opah, or moonfish, looks like a pancake with fins but is an active swimmer [picture from first article linked above]:

An opah not having a good day [photo by USA NOAA Fisheries Southwest Fisheries Science Center – https://swfsc.noaa.gov/ImageGallery/Default.aspx?moid=4724, Public Domain]:

Show transcript:

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

Months ago now, Eilee suggested we talk about the sunfish. We’re actually not going to talk about the sunfish this week, although it is on the list to cover eventually. Instead, we’re going to talk about something else in Eilee’s email. Eilee asked if there was a moonfish too, and not only is there a moonfish, it’s basically the most unique fish alive today in one particular way. It’s warm-blooded!

The moonfish is also called the opah. It’s golden-orange in color with little white spots, and it’s very round and flattened side-to-side, like a pancake with orange fins. It has big golden eyes and a tiny mouth. It’s also quite large, with the biggest species growing up to 6 and a half feet long, or 2 meters. That’s a really big pancake. It lives in the ocean, sometimes diving deeply, and despite looking like a pancake, it can swim very quickly to catch squid and small fish. It also eats krill. The reason it can swim so quickly is because it has huge muscles that power its fins, and the muscles also generate a lot of heat, enough to keep its entire body at least several degrees warmer than the surrounding water. This is a warm-blooded trait, but fish are supposed to be cold-blooded.

The scientific term for warm-bloodedness is endothermy. Mammals and birds are endothermic, meaning our internal body temperature stays roughly the same no matter what temperature it is outside. Cold-bloodedness, called ectothermy, means an animal’s internal body temperature fluctuates depending on the temperature outside its body. Reptiles, amphibians, fish, and invertebrates are all cold-blooded.

To us as mammals, it feels like warm-bloodedness is a really good idea, but it comes at a high cost. Mammals and birds have to eat a lot more and a lot more often than cold-blooded animals do, because keeping our body temperature steady takes a whole lot of energy. An endothermic animal generates heat mainly by metabolizing food, although muscle movements like shivering and running also generate heat. An endothermic animal can be as active at night as it is during the day, and can be as active in winter as it is in summer.

Some otherwise cold-blooded animals can generate enough heat with muscle movements to warm parts of the body, called regional endothermy, or can generate heat with muscle movements in certain situations, called facultative endothermy. The female of some species of snake, especially some pythons, will wrap her body around her eggs and shiver, which generates enough heat to keep the eggs warm. Bumblebees can also shiver to warm their bodies enough to allow them to fly in cold weather. At least some species of sea turtle, including the green sea turtle and the leatherback, generates enough heat in its muscles while swimming that it’s able to migrate long distances in very cold water. Some scientists think all marine reptiles may be regional endotherms to some degree.

Some fish demonstrate regional endothermy too. So far, 35 species of fish are known to be partially warm-blooded, including some species of tunas, sharks, and billfish. Scientists originally thought that only predatory fish needed the extra boost of speed and endurance that endothermy provides, but then they discovered the basking shark is regionally endothermic, and the basking shark is a filter feeder that doesn’t need to chase after fast-moving fish. Also, almost nothing eats it, so it’s not running from anything either.

The basking shark is also huge, one the largest sharks alive today. It can grow over 40 feet long, or more than 12 meters, and possibly longer, although most individuals are closer to 25 feet long, or around 7 1/2 meters. It mostly lives in cold waters, sometimes diving quite deeply but sometimes feeding at the surface of the ocean. It just goes where it can find lots of tiny food that it filters out of the water with structures called gill rakers. The basking shark just swims forward with its gigantic mouth open, water flows through its gills, and the gill rakers catch any tiny particles of food. The gill rakers funnel the food toward the throat so the shark can swallow it. It mostly swims slowly and isn’t a threat to anything in the ocean except the tiniest of tiny animals. So why does it need parts of its body to be warmer than the water it’s in?

Scientists think it may have something to do with how far the basking shark travels in a year, since endothermy provides more energy for endurance swimming. The basking shark migrates thousands of miles, presumably following the best conditions to find plenty of food, although we don’t know for sure. It could be that it prefers a specific type of environment to breed or have babies. In the summer basking sharks do congregate in groups even though the rest of the year they’re solitary. The female retains fertilized eggs in her body, where the eggs hatch and the babies continue developing until they’re born a few months later. Scientists think the unborn babies eat unfertilized eggs after the food in their yolk sacs runs out.

The basking shark is critically endangered and is protected in many countries, but because it migrates such long distances it doesn’t always stay where it’s safe. Learning more about it helps conservationists know how best to protect it, and that’s how scientists discovered it was regionally endothermic. It generates heat from muscles deep inside its body as it swims, which helps keep its organs warmer than the surrounding water.

Other sharks are known to share this trait, and in June of 2023, a new study about megalodon indicated that it was probably regionally endothermic too. Megalodon went extinct almost 4 million years ago and was so big that it makes even the largest great white shark look like a teeny little baby shark. I may be exaggerating a little bit. The great white’s teeth grow around 2 and a half inches long, or a little over 6 cm. Megalodon’s teeth were 7 inches long, or 18 cm. We don’t know how big Megalodon’s body was, but it could probably grow at least 34 feet long, or 10.5 meters, and possibly grew as much as 67 feet long, or 20 meters. It ate whales. Like the basking shark and some other living sharks, including the great white, the heat generated by its muscles as it swam would have kept its internal organs, eyes, and brain warmer than the water around it.

But the opah takes this a step farther. Instead of keeping parts of its body warm, it’s just full-on endothermic. It’s warm-blooded. It mainly generates heat by moving its muscles, and it retains heat with a layer of special fatty tissue around its gills, organs, and some muscles. It also has a heat exchange system in its blood vessels that’s incredibly efficient. Cold water flowing through the gills chills the blood, but as the chilled blood flows deeper into the body, it’s warmed up by passing closely alongside heated blood flowing out from the heart. As a result, the opah can maintain its body temperature even when spending lots of time in cold water.

We actually don’t know that much about the opah, even though it’s a fish people like to catch and eat. It was described scientifically in 1799, which means it took well over 200 years for scientists to figure out that it was a warm-blooded fish. That means it’s very likely that it’s not the only endothermic fish alive today, it’s just the only one we’ve found so far.

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 352: The Not-Deer

Happy Halloween! We have a super spooky episode for you this week, a full five out of five bats on the spookiness scale, all about the not-deer of modern folklore!

Join our Patreon and get bonus episodes and other perks! You can also buy copies of the Beyond Bigfoot & Nessie book and Kate’s other books!

Further reading:

Not Deer, or a Deer?

Days before Halloween, creepy trail photo reveals deer standing on 2 legs in NC woods

Sharon A Hill’s Spooky Geology (not about the not-deer but a lot of fun even so)

The white-tailed deer uses its bright white tail to warn other deer of danger:

White-tailed deer sometimes stand on their hind legs to reach vegetation or fight:

Show transcript:

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

Happy Halloween! It’s time for our spookiest episode of the year! It’s rated five out of five bats on our spookiness scale. If you like scary stories on Halloween, make some cocoa and popcorn and sit back to be spooked. If you’re not really a fan of the scarier stuff, you might want to skip this one. Some people also really don’t like hearing about diseases, and that’s one of the things we’ll be discussing. We’re going to talk about a really weird cryptid called the not-deer.

Before we get started, though, we have a little bit of housekeeping, as the big podcasters call it. First, I want to reassure everyone who has sent me suggestions that I’m trying to get to them as soon as possible. I love how many people listen and want to share their enthusiasm about animals, but I do feel bad that some people have been waiting a really long time for their suggestion to make it off of the massive humongous ever-growing ideas list into an episode.

At the same time, I’ve been thinking of ways to make money off the podcast without running ads. I make Strange Animals Podcast because I love helping people learn about animals and science, and I also really value the people who are able to support the podcast through Patreon. But I do put an awful lot of work into each episode, so much that it’s basically a second job. I thought about it, and decided to make a new Patreon tier that’s a little different from the others. It’s called the terror bird tier, and when I drew the art for it I forgot that terror birds didn’t have actual teeth, but we’ll call that artistic liberty. It’s a $25 a month tier, and not only do you get access to the bonus episodes that all patrons can listen to, after three months at that tier you can message me your episode idea AND tell me what week you’d like that episode to run. I’ve limited the new tier to 25 backers, to make it fair for people who don’t have the money for that, and honestly I don’t expect to get very many people at that level at all, because that’s a lot of money, but I thought I’d give it a try.

Finally, the Beyond Bigfoot & Nessie book is still available, as are my other books, and in 2024 I’m planning to attend some conventions again to sell copies of the book. I’ll let you know where I’ll be as I find out, in case you want to come say hi. I’m also very slowly working on a sequel to the book, tentatively titled Small Mysteries, which is all about mystery animals that are really small, like frogs and insects and teeny fish. It probably won’t be ready to publish for a few years, so I’m working hard to make sure it’s got a whole lot of footnotes with references. That’s one of the things I regret not doing for Beyond Bigfoot & Nessie.

Now, with all that out of the way, on to the spookiness!

The not-deer is a cryptid, or mystery creature, that’s mostly reported from the Appalachian region of the United States. I live in the southern Appalachians near the Smoky Mountains, but I’d never heard of the not-deer until a few months ago. I subscribe to Sharon Hill’s Strange Times newsletter, and also love her Spooky Geology website where you can learn all the science behind weird events like earthquake lights. There’s a link in the show notes, but you can search for https://spookygeology.com/ to find it. Sharon Hill wrote about the not-deer in mid-2023 in her newsletter, where she said the not-deer “looks like a deer until you REALLY look and find that it’s not a deer. It displays unsettling characteristics that scare the heck out of people.”

Reports vary, but in general, the not-deer is supposed to look like an ordinary deer at first glance, but then the witness realizes it’s really weird in some ways. Some people report that the deer appears to have extra joints in its legs, a misshapen or overly large head, an overly long neck or legs that are too long or too short, eyes that are close together on the front of its head instead of on the sides of its head as is normal with hoofed animals, and so on. It might walk on its hind legs like a human, and sometimes people say the creature appears to be unusually intelligent and not afraid of people.

The not-deer became popular online around the summer of 2020, especially on TikTok, with the term not-deer apparently coined in August 2019 on Tumblr, but the idea goes back several decades at least. According to Sharon Hill, Jerry Clark, the editor of Fate Magazine, collected two accounts of not-deer in 1971, although he didn’t call them not-deer because that term wasn’t invented yet.

To give you an idea of what we’re talking about, here are three accounts from a Reddit thread. I’ve reworded the stories to make them shorter and more appropriate for a general audience, but I haven’t changed any details.

First is a 2020 report from a Redditor in northern Georgia:

I live at the foothills of the Appalachian mountains halfway in between Chattanooga and Atlanta and sometimes my family takes trips to the mountains. One day up there me and my cousin drove around to just take in the views. At around 8pm we were headed back and were nearly at our cabin when we saw a deer on the side of the road. We slowed down but as we got close, it walked into the road. I hit the brakes and then it stood up and started walking around on its back legs. My cousin and I have been out in nature with animals our whole lives but we’d never seen anything like it. It just looked so wrong! Its joints didn’t move right and it had arms not front legs, and its upper half was like a human excluding the head.

The next story is from a Redditor in Virginia, who at the time of their encounter was riding a motorcycle slowly along the Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park at night, although when they encountered the deer they stopped to get a better look.

It was like a deer drawn by someone who had never seen a deer after someone else described it to them. It stood on the left side of the road on the mountainside, and I saw the eyes long before my headlight showed it fully. It was easily the biggest deer I’ve seen, and the lack of any antlers that time in the year suggested that it was a doe. The head was almost bovine in shape, the legs seemed too long in proportion to the body (think maned wolf proportions), and the body was extremely barrel chested.

As soon as I crossed into the other lane, it rose up onto its hind legs. It took two jerky, unnatural steps towards the center of the lane on 2 legs and froze again, staring directly at me. It suddenly shook its head wildly like a dog with a toy, took another short step, then HOPPED on two legs several times until it disappeared into the darkness on the right side of the road.

I turned the light towards the side of the road. On that side, there was a sheer drop off compared to the roadway, and the deer’s head was just peeking over the edge, still looking at me. The drop off was about 40 to 50 feet [that’s about 12 to 15 meters], so there’s no way it was standing at the base of the mountainside.”

Finally, in June of 2023 a Redditor wrote:

I believe I saw a not-deer 3 weeks ago on KY 10 just outside of Lenoxburg. I was driving home to Cincinnati and decided to take the back route. It was dusk and the deer were out and moving. I looked out to my driver’s side and saw a few deer in the field, however there was one closer to the road that was…off. It had small squatty hind legs and long almost ape-like front legs and its neck was too long. The second I laid eyes on it my stomach dropped and I felt a fear I’ve never experienced before. My dogs began to tremble and whine and the feeling didn’t go away until I got back across the river to Ohio.

The most common deer in the Appalachian Mountains is the white-tailed deer. It’s common throughout most of North and Central America down into northern South America. It’s also an invasive species in some parts of the world where people have introduced it as a game animal. Different populations and subspecies vary in size, but the Virginia subspecies found in Appalachia generally grows up to 4 feet tall at the shoulder at most, or about 1.2 meters. Males are larger than females on average. It’s crespuscular, meaning it’s most active at dawn and dusk.

In summer the white-tailed deer is reddish-brown, and in winter its coat is more gray-brown. It gets its name from the underside of its tail, which is bright white. When a deer feels threatened, it raises its tail to warn other deer to be alert, and to warn a potential predator that the deer has spotted it. Baby deer, called fawns, are born in spring and have white spots that help camouflage them in dappled sunlight and shade under trees.

The male white-tailed deer, called a buck or stag, starts growing a new set of antlers in the summer. Antlers are made of bone, but they grow faster than any other mammal bones. While they’re growing, they’re covered in a special type of highly vascularized skin called velvet. The velvet supplies nutrients and oxygen to the antler as it grows, and since the antlers grow so fast, they need a whole lot of nutrients. A deer in poor health or who can’t find enough to eat will grow small antlers, while a healthy deer who has lots to eat will grow larger antlers. Older males usually have bigger antlers than younger males too. The female deer, called a doe, is attracted to bucks with bigger antlers because she can be sure he’s healthy.

Once the antler has finished growing, it actually dies. The velvet dries up and the deer will rub his antlers on a branch or other object to help remove it. Because there are so many blood vessels in the velvet, sometimes a deer who is shedding the velvet has his antlers, head, and face splattered in blood, but he’s not hurt, just messy. Bucks use their antlers to fight each other, although they also use them to attack potential predators. Around the end of winter or early spring, the buck sheds his old antlers in preparation for growing a new set.

Many sightings of not-deer are probably due to people seeing diseased or injured deer. Two diseases that are especially hard on deer are Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease, or EHD, and Chronic Wasting Disease, or CWD.

EHD is a virus spread by biting flies and midges, and while many species of deer can catch it, white-tailed deer are especially vulnerable to it. Humans can’t catch it, so don’t worry unless you are a deer. Symptoms of EHD include lameness, swelling of the head and neck, a lack of fear of humans, drooling and a runny nose, panting, and fever, which leads to sick deer sometimes lying down in water to cool off. Many deer who catch EHD eventually recover.

CWD is a more serious disease, sometimes called zombie deer disease. It’s related to the so-called mad cow disease found in cattle, and scrapie found in sheep and goats, and it can affect various species of deer. It’s always fatal but it can take a long time to develop, up to two years after exposure until the first symptoms. It’s caused when a protein in the animal’s nervous system is abnormally folded, a condition that spreads and causes neurodegeneration and holes in the brain. CWD is spread from animal to animal, but it can also spread through the environment in water and soil. So far the disease hasn’t been found to spread to humans.

Variations of CWD have been around for a very long time in various animals, but it was first identified in 1967 in a population of captive mule deer in Colorado. By 1981 it had spread to wild elk and it continues to spread in both wild and captive deer, although it’s still very rare. Symptoms include trembling and staggering, repetitive motions like walking in circles, grinding of teeth, drooling, confusion, and loss of fear of humans.

In addition to all this, perfectly healthy deer can have unusual behavior that isn’t witnessed by humans very often. Deer can and do stand and even walk short distances on their back legs, mostly to reach food growing up high. Does in particular will sometimes fight by standing on their hind legs and boxing each other with their front hooves. I own an amazing book called The Deer of North America by Leonard Lee Rue III, and here’s an interesting quote from that book:

“The oddest example of deer locomotion I ever heard of…was witnessed by five people. In July of 1967, the group had been out looking for deer when their trip was cut short by heavy rain. On the way home they saw two deer in a field of high weeds. Suddenly one of the deer raised both of his hind feet in the air, as if it were doing a handstand, balancing and walking on its forefeet. They thought the deer was injured and had to walk that way, but then the second deer did the same thing. Both deer walked on just their front legs for a distance of about 75 feet to where they could no longer be seen. […] We are constantly learning new things about deer.”

Leonard Lee Rue III suggested that the deer were just playing around and having fun.

Most people don’t know a whole lot about deer behavior. Most not-deer reports come from people who witnessed the creature while driving in the dark, so they didn’t get a very good look at it. Plus, as I’ve said over and over, people see what they expect to see. The not-deer has become popular online over the last few years, which means when someone is driving along and sees a deer behaving in what they think is an unusual manner, they remember the not-deer stories. Their brain automatically fills in details they can’t really see, leading to the person remembering things like a deer with human arms or six eyes.

In addition, people like telling spooky stories to scare each other. It’s probable that at least some of the scariest not-deer accounts are fiction. So if you see a deer, you don’t have to be scared. Just observe it and you might just learn something new about deer behavior. (Or something spooky will happen, in which case you have a great opportunity for a TikTok video.) Happy Halloween!

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. 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!