Category Archives: animals

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



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

Further reading:

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

Sea scorpions could get really, really big:

A fossil Eurypterus:

Show transcript:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 204: Frogs of Many Cheery Colors



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

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

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

The astonishing turtle frog:

 

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

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

Show transcript:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is what a northern leopard frog sounds like:

[frog sound]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is what a tomato frog sounds like:

[tomato frog croaking]

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 203: Swarms!



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

Further listening:

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

Further reading:

Ladybugs Are Everywhere!

Monarch butterflies gathered in winter:

The painted lady butterfly:

The bogong moth:

The globe skimmer dragonfly:

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

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

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

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

Show transcript:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 202: Terror Birds and Pseudotooth Birds



Let’s find out about some gigantic birds this week! Thanks to Pranav and Richard for the suggestions!

Further reading:

Exceptionally preserved fossil gives voice to ancient terror bird

Antarctica yields oldest fossils of giant birds with 21-foot wingspans

Look at that beak! Llallawavis scagliai:

Big birdie!

A red-legged seriema and an unfortunate snake:

Another big birdie!

Toothy birdie!

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to learn about some gigantic extinct birds! Pranav wants to hear about Phorusrhacidae, also known as the terror bird. Something called a terror bird is definitely going to be interesting. My brother Richard also tweeted me about some huge extinct birds called pelagornithids, so we’ll talk about them too. Both birds were huge and successful, but extremely different from each other.

Phorusrhacidae is the name for a family of flightless birds that lived from about 62 million years ago to a little under 2 million years ago. Flightless birds may make you think of ostriches and penguins and dodos, but remember that Phorusrhacids were called terror birds. They were carnivores and many of them were enormous.

Most terror birds lived in South America, with one species known from southern North America. A few newly discovered bird fossils from Africa and Europe may have been close relations of terror birds, but palaeontologists are still studying them.

Various species of terror bird ranged in size from about 3 feet tall to 10 feet tall, or 1 to 3 meters, and had long, strong legs that made them fast runners. The terror bird also had a long, strong neck, a sharp hooked beak, and sharp talons on its toes. The beak was strong but the jaw muscles were relatively weak. Researchers think that it ambushed prey and chased it down, then either kicked it to death with its sharp talons or held it down with its feet and stabbed it to death with its beak. Smaller species may have grabbed its prey and thrown it back down with enough force to injure, stun, or outright kill the animal. It may have swallowed small prey whole and regurgitated pellets made up of compressed fur and bones, the way many modern carnivorous birds do today.

Although the beak was strong, it was also hollow. This would have made it weigh less, which meant that the bird could move its head more quickly. Some researchers think that it might also have acted as a resonant chamber, and that the bird could clap its beak closed to make a loud noise to communicate with other terror birds. It had excellent hearing and vision, but a poor sense of smell.

Many details of what we know about terror birds come from a single specimen discovered in 2010 in Argentina. The bird lived around 3 million years ago and stood four feet tall, or 1.2 meters. It was described in 2015 and is named Scaglia’s magnificent bird. I am not going to attempt to pronounce its scientific name [Llallawavis scagliai], but I’ll put it in the show notes along with a picture. Almost the entire skeleton is preserved in stunning detail, including details that hardly ever preserve, like the tiny bones that help the eye focus. Studies of the tiny ear bones and other details of the ear indicate that its hearing was most acute at low frequencies, which meant it would have been good at hearing footsteps. It also probably had a deep voice.

The terror bird had wings, but they were small and probably only used for display. The wings did have claws, though, and may have been used to fight other terror birds over mates or territory. Young terror birds of some species might have been able to fly, although adults certainly couldn’t.

The earliest known terror bird, Paleopsilopterus, lived about 60 million years ago in what is now Brazil. It was relatively small, only about three feet high, or 1 meter. It evolved only a few million years after the non-avian dinosaurs went extinct, and its descendants became larger and more fearsome until they were apex predators throughout South America.

Kelenken, for instance, grew up to ten feet tall, or three meters, and had an enormous beak, 18 inches long or almost 46 cm. It lived in what is now Argentina around 15 mya. It’s the tallest terror bird known but it was more slenderly built than others so was probably a faster runner. It was only discovered in 1999.

Brontornis, however, was the one that puts the terror into terror bird. It grew over 9 feet tall, or 2.8 meters, but it was massively built. It probably wasn’t a very fast runner and would have definitely been an ambush predator. Most likely it hid among trees or other tall vegetation, and when an animal came too close, BOOM! THERE’S A TERROR BIRD! RUN! TOO LATE, ARGH!

Titanis lived in parts of North America, with fossils found in Texas and Florida. It probably stood a little over eight feet tall, or 2.5 meters, although we don’t have any complete skeletons so can only estimate its actual size compared to other species of terror bird. You may find information online that says Titanis lived as recently as 10,000 years ago in Florida, and that it used the claws on its wings like hands to help catch prey. Both these things are wrong, unfortunately. The fossil bones found in the Santa Fe River in Florida had washed out of their original location and were mixed in with much more recent bones, and there’s no evidence that any terror bird used its wings like hands. Terror birds were descended from birds that could fly, not descended directly from dinosaurs, so its wings were still highly modified for flight.

Titanis lived in North America about five million years ago. But how did it get to North America from South America before the Isthmus of Panama formed around three million years ago? Before then, a big stretch of ocean separated the two continents. Researchers think it island-hopped, as the tops of mountains and hills in what is now Central America first emerged from the ocean as sea levels dropped, forming islands. Volcanoes also formed islands in the area. Titanis may have traveled to these islands by swimming or rafting during storms.

Terror birds went extinct after the Isthmus of Panama opened up when sea levels lowered. This connected North and South America, which allowed animals from North America to cross into South America and vice versa. The Andes Mountains also formed about this time and changed the climate of much of South America. Forests became open savanna where terror birds wouldn’t have been able to hide to ambush prey. Climate change combined with increased competition from saber-toothed cats and other North American predators probably led to the terror birds’ extinction.

There are no descendants of terror birds living today, but its closest living relations are probably the seriema birds, the red-legged and the black-legged seriema. Both live in South America and both are carnivorous birds that eat small animals like rodents, lizards, snakes, and even other birds. When it catches an animal, it beats it against the ground until it dies. It will also sometimes eat fruit and eggs.

The red-legged seriema stands a little over three feet tall, or a meter, with long legs, long neck, and long tail. It’s mostly brown and gray and it has a fan-shaped crest low down on its forehead, just above the bill. The gray-legged seriema looks very similar but is mostly gray. The seriema also has a sickle claw on each foot that it uses to cut pieces off its dead prey so it can swallow them more easily.

The seriema can fly, but it prefers to walk or run. It can run up to 15 mph, or 25 km/h. It builds its nest in low bushes so it can just hop up onto the nest instead of having to fly. It’s also aggressive and will attack animals much larger than it is, driving them away from its nest or chicks. Farmers sometimes catch young seriemas and tame them, then allow them to patrol the farmyard to catch rats and snakes and drive away larger predators.

Next, let’s learn about a different giant extinct bird, Richard’s suggestion. Unlike the terror bird, pelagornithids could fly. They’re sometimes called pseudotooth birds because they had teeth, but they weren’t real teeth. They were pointy projections of the jaw bones that grew along the edges of its beak and were covered with keratin. Pelagornithids evolved around the same time as the terror bird, around 62 million years ago, and didn’t die out until about the same time as the terror bird, around 2.5 million years ago.

And like the terror bird, pelagornithids were huge, but in a different way than terror birds. They were sea birds that may have superficially resembled modern albatrosses, but they were much larger. The largest living albatross has a wingspan of about 11 1/2 feet, or 3.5 meters, but the largest known pelagornithid had a wingspan estimated at up to 21 feet, or almost 6.5 meters. Its wings were narrow and pointed like albatross wings are.

Researchers think that the pelagornithid probably mostly ate soft-bodied animals like squid and other cephalopods, because its teeth were not very strong. It probably scooped its prey up from the water while flying, like many modern seabirds do, although it could probably also sit on the water and dip its long, strong beak down to catch anything that swam too close. Its bones were too delicate for diving. It may have had a throat sac like a pelican too. It was probably white or gray in color and its wings and tail were probably black, which is the most common coloration for sea birds of any kind.

It had short legs but enormously long wings, so long that it probably couldn’t flap them. Its strongest muscles were the ones that held the wings out straight. It was definitely a bird, of course, but it was proportioned more like a flying reptile, Pteranodon, even though they weren’t related. You know what that means, of course. Convergent evolution! Researchers think the pelagornithid spent almost all its time soaring on ocean breezes, scooping up cephalopods and fish to swallow whole, and that Pteranodon probably did the same. These days, modern albatrosses fill that particular ecological niche, and the albatross has many similarities to the pelagornithid too.

Pelagornithids of various species were found throughout the world, from the Arctic and Antarctic to the tropics. It was extremely successful and unlike the terror bird, which was restricted to land, it could travel as far as it liked as long as it had a breeze to keep it aloft. It evolved soon after the non-avian dinosaurs went extinct and didn’t die out until the beginning of the Pleistocene. What happened then? Why aren’t these enormous birds still flying around?

The Pleistocene, of course, was the ice age, or more properly the ice ages. Its onset resulted from a lot of factors, including the movement of continents that changed ocean currents radically. Once the changes started, they accelerated quickly. As more water froze and became massive glaciers that weighted down entire continents, sea levels dropped and more land was exposed, including the Isthmus of Panama that connected North and South America. This would have radically changed the air currents that pelagornithids used to travel around the world, from nesting sites to feeding sites and back. It also drove many sea animals to extinction as their environments became too cold or too warm for them to adapt to, or the water where they lived just dried up completely.

The one place where pelagornithids couldn’t go was across continents. They needed constant sea breezes and lots of water where they could catch prey, and steep cliffs near water to nest on. As the ecological changes of the Pleistocene became more pronounced, pelagornithids had more and more trouble surviving, and finally they went extinct. Modern albatrosses, gulls, and cormorants expanded at the same time to fill the ecological niche left open by the pelagornithid.

While there are no living descendants of pelagornithids, researchers tentatively think they’re most closely related to living ducks, geese, and swans. Since most pelagornithid fossils are badly damaged and fragmented, so that we only have one or two bones preserved from any given animal, it’s hard for scientists to make conclusions as to what they were most closely related to. Hopefully more and better fossils will be found soon so we can learn more about these gigantic birds!

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 and get twice-monthly bonus episodes for as little as one dollar a month.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 201: The African Grey Parrot and More Mantises



This week we’ll learn about a fascinating parrot and some more weird praying mantises! Thanks to Page and Viola for the suggestions!

Further watching:

Nova Science Now: Irene Pepperberg and Alex

Alex: Number Comprehension by a Grey Parrot

The Smartest Parrots in the World

Further reading:

Why Do Parrots Talk?

Ancient mantis-man petroglyph discovered in Iran

Alex and Irene Pepperberg (photo taken from the “Why do parrots talk?” article above):

Two African grey parrots:

The “mantis man” petroglyph:

The conehead mantis is even weirder than “ordinary” mantis species:

Where does Empusa fasciata begin and the flower end (photo by Mehmet Karaca)?

The beautiful spiny flower mantis:

The ghost mantis looks not like a ghost but a dead leaf:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to look at two completely unrelated animals, but both are really interesting. Thanks to Page and Viola for the suggestions!

We’ll start with Page’s suggestion, the African gray parrot. We haven’t talked about very many parrots in previous episodes, even though parrots are awesome. The African gray parrot is from Africa, and it’s mostly gray, and it is a parrot. Specifically it’s from what’s called equatorial Africa, which means it lives in the middle of the continent nearest the equator, in rainforests. It has a wingspan of up to 20 inches, or 52 cm, and it has red tail feathers.

The African gray parrot is a popular pet because it’s really good at learning how to talk. It doesn’t just imitate speech, it imitates various noises it hears too. It’s also one of the most intelligent parrots known. Some studies indicate it may have the same cognitive abilities as a five year old child, including the ability to do simple addition. It will also give its treats to other parrots it likes even if it has to go without a treat as a result, and it will share food with other parrots it doesn’t even know.

Despite all the studies about the African grey in captivity, we don’t know much about it in the wild. Like other parrots, it’s a highly social bird. It mostly eats fruit, seeds, and nuts, but will also eat some insects, snails, flowers, and other plant parts. It mates for life and builds its nest in a tree cavity. Both parents help feed the babies. That’s basically all we know.

It’s endangered in the wild due to habitat loss, hunting, and capture for sale as pets, so if you want to adopt an African grey parrot, make sure you buy from a reputable parrot breeder who doesn’t buy wild birds. For every wild parrot that’s sold as a pet, probably a dozen died after being taken from the wild. A good breeder will also only sell healthy birds, and will make sure you understand how to properly take care of a parrot. Since the African grey can live to be up to sixty years old, ideally it will be your buddy for basically the rest of your life, but it will require a lot of interaction and care to stay happy and healthy.

One African grey parrot named Alex was famous for his ability to speak. Animal psychologist Dr. Irene Pepperberg bought Alex at a pet shop in 1977 when he was about one year old, not just because she thought parrots were neat and wanted a pet parrot, but because she wanted to study language ability in parrots.

Pepperberg taught Alex to speak and to perform simple tasks to assess his cognitive abilities. Back then, scientists didn’t realize parrots and other birds were intelligent. They thought an animal needed a specific set of traits to display intelligence, such as a big brain and hands. You know, things that humans and apes have, but most animals don’t. Pepperberg’s studies of Alex and other parrots proved that intelligence isn’t limited to animals that are similar to us.

Alex had a vocabulary of about 100 words, which is average for a parrot, but instead of just mimicking sounds, he seemed to understand what the words meant. He even combined words in new ways. He combined the words banana and cherry into the word banerry to describe an apple. He didn’t know the word for cake, so when someone brought a birthday cake into the lab and he got to taste it, he called it yummy bread. When he saw himself in a mirror for the first time, he said, “What color?” because he didn’t know the word gray. He also asked questions about new items he saw. So not only did he understand what words meant, he actually used them to communicate with humans. As Pepperberg explains, Alex wasn’t super-intelligent or unusual for a parrot. He was just an ordinary parrot, but was trained properly so he could express in words the intelligence that an average parrot uses every day to find food and live in a social environment.

Alex died unexpectedly in 2007 at only 31 years old. I’ve put a link in the show notes to a really lovely Nova Science Now segment about Alex and Dr. Pepperberg, and some other videos of Alex and other parrots. Pepperberg has continued to work with other parrots to continue her studies of language and intelligence in birds.

This is audio of Alex speaking with Pepperberg. You’ll notice that he sounds like a parrot version of her, which is natural since he learned to speak by mimicking her voice, meaning they have the same intonations and pronunciations.

[Alex the parrot speaking with his trainer, Dr. Pepperberg]

Next, Viola wants to learn about praying mantises. We had an episode about them not too long ago, episode 187, but there are more than 2,400 known species, so many that we could have hundreds of praying mantis episodes without running out of new ones to talk about.

Today we’ll start somewhere I bet you didn’t expect, an ancient rock carving from central Iran.

The carving was discovered while archaeologists were surveying the region in 2017 and 2018. I’ll put a picture of it in the show notes, but when you first look at it, you might think it was a drawing of a plant or just a decoration. I’ll try to describe it. There’s a central line that goes up and down like a stick, with three lines crossing the central line and a rounded triangle near the top. The three lines have decorations on each end too. The bottom line curls downward at the ends, the middle line ends in a little circle at each end, and the top line curves up and then down again at the ends. It’s 5 1/2 inches tall, or 14 cm, and a little over four inches across at the widest, or 11 cm. Archaeologists have estimated its age as somewhere between 4,000 years old and 40,000 years old. Hopefully they’ll be able to narrow this age range down further in the future.

The team that found the carving, which is properly called a petroglyph, was actually looking specifically for petroglyphs that represented invertebrates. So instead of thinking, “Oh, that’s just a tree” or “I don’t know what that is, therefore it must just be a random doodle,” the archaeologists thought, “Bingo, we have a six-legged figure with a triangular head and front legs that form hooks. It looks a lot like some kind of praying mantis.”

But while archaeologists might know a lot about petroglyphs, they’re not experts about insects, so the archaeologists asked some entomologists for help. They wanted to know what kind of praying mantis the carving might depict.

The entomologists thought it looked most like a mantis in the genus Empusa, and several species of Empusa live in or near the area, although they’re more common in Africa. So let’s talk about a few Empusa species first.

The conehead mantis is in the genus Empusa and is native to parts of northern Africa and southern Europe. Like most mantises, females are larger than males, and a big female conehead mantis can grow up to four inches long, or 10 cm. The body is thin and sticklike, with long, thin legs, and individuals may be green, brown, or pink to blend in among the shrubs and other low-growing plants where it lives. It eats insects, especially flies. So far this is all pretty normal for a praying mantis. But the conehead mantis has a projection at the back of the head that sticks almost straight up. It’s called a crown extension and it helps camouflage it among sticks and twigs. It also often carries its abdomen so that it curves upward.

Other members of the genus Empusa share these weird characteristics with the conehead mantis. Empusa fasciata lives in parts of western Asia to northeastern Italy and is usually green and pink with lobe-shaped projections on its legs that help it blend in with leaves and flowers. It mostly eats bees and flies, and females spend a lot of time waiting on flowers for a bee to visit. And then you know what it does…CHOMP. The more I learn about insects that live on flowers, the more I sympathize with bees. Everything wants to eat bees. E. fasciata also has a crown extension that makes its head look like a knob on a twig, and it also sometimes carries its abdomen curved sharply upward so that it looks a lot like a little spray of flowers.

Most mantids are well camouflaged. We talked about the orchid mantis in episode 187, which mimics flowers the same way E. fasciata does. But a few mantis species look like they should really stand out instead of blending in, at least to human sensibilities. The spiny flower mantis is white with green or orange stripes on its legs and a circular green, yellow, and black pattern on its wings. When I first saw a photo of it, I honestly thought someone had photoshopped the wing pattern on. But if something threatens a spiny flower mantis, it opens its wings in a threat display, and the swirling circular pattern suddenly looks like two big eyes. It also honestly looks like really nifty modern art. I really like this mantis, and you know I am not fond of insects so that’s saying something. It lives in sub-Saharan Africa and females grow about two inches long, or 5 cm.

Finally, the ghost mantis is really not very well named because it doesn’t look anything like a ghost, unless a ghost looks like a dead leaf. It looks so much like a leaf that it should be called a leaf mantis, but there are actually lots of different species called leaf mantis or dead leaf mantis. This particular one is Phyllocrania paradoxa, and it also grows to about two inches long, or 5 cm. It lives in Africa and most individuals are brown, although some are green or tan depending on the humidity level where it lives. It looks exactly like a dead leaf that’s sort of curled up, except that this leaf has legs and eats moths and flies. It even has a crown extension that looks like the stem of a leaf. Unlike most mantis species, it’s actually pretty timid and less aggressive toward members of its own species. In other words, ghost mantises are less likely to eat each other than most mantis species are.

People keep all these mantises as pets, which I personally think is weird but that’s fine. They’re easier to take care of than parrots are, although you’ll never manage to teach a praying mantis to talk.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 200: Elephants



This week we’re going to learn about elephants! Thanks to Damian, Pranav, and Richard from NC for the suggestions!

Further Reading:

Dwarf Elephant Facts and Figures

An Asian elephant (left) and an African elephant (right). Note the ear size difference, the easiest way to tell which kind of elephant you’re looking at:

Business end of an Asian elephant’s trunk:

An elephant living the good life:

Can’t quite reach:

Elephant teef:

A dwarf elephant skeleton:

An elephant skull does kind of look like a giant one-eyed human skull:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to learn about some elephants! We’ve talked about elephants many times before, but not recently, and we’ve not really gone into detail about living elephants. Thanks to Damian, Pranav, and Richard from NC for the suggestions. Damian in particular sent this suggestion to me so long ago that he’s probably stopped listening, probably because he’s grown up and graduated from college and started a family and probably his kids are now in college too, it’s been so long. Okay, it hasn’t been that long. It just feels like it. Sorry I took so long to get to your suggestion.

Anyway, Damian wanted to hear about African and Asian elephants, so we’ll start there. Those are the elephants still living today, and honestly, we are so lucky to have them in the world! If you’ve ever wished you could see a live mammoth, as I often have, thank your lucky stars that you can still see an elephant.

Elephants are in the family Elephantidae, which includes both living elephants and their extinct close relations. Living elephants include the Asian elephant and the African elephant, with two subspecies, the African savanna elephant and the African forest elephant. The savanna elephant is the largest.

The tallest elephant ever measured was a male African elephant who stood 13 feet high at the shoulder, or just under 4 meters, which is just ridiculously tall. That’s two Michael Jordans standing on top of each other, and I don’t know how you would clone Michael Jordan or get one of them to balance on the other’s head, but if you did, they would be the same size as this one huge elephant. The largest Asian elephant ever measured was a male who stood 11.3 feet tall, or 3.43 meters. Generally, though, it’s hard to measure how tall or heavy a wild elephant is because first of all they don’t usually want anything to do with humans, and second, where are you going to get a scale big and strong enough to weigh an elephant? Most male African elephants are closer to 11 feet tall, or 3.3 meters, while females are smaller, and the average male Asian elephant is around 9 feet tall, or 2.75 meters, and females are also smaller. Even a small elephant is massive, though.

Because of its size, the elephant can’t jump or run, but it can move pretty darn fast even so, up to 16 mph, or 25 km/h. The fastest human ever measured was Usain Bolt, who can run 28 mph, or 45 km/h, but only for very short distances. A more average running speed for a person in good condition is about 6 mph, or 9.6 km/h, and again, that’s just for short sprints. So the elephant can really hustle. Its big feet are cushioned on the bottoms so that it can actually move almost noiselessly. And I know you’re wondering it, so yes, an elephant could probably be a good ninja if it wanted to. It would have to carry its sword in its trunk, though. The elephant is also a really good swimmer, surprisingly, and it can use its trunk as a snorkel when it’s underwater. It likes to spend time in the water, which keeps it cool, and it will wallow in mud when it can. The mud helps protect it from the sun and from insect bites. Its skin is thick but it’s also sensitive, and it doesn’t have a lot of hair to protect it.

The elephant is a herbivore that only eats plants, but it eats a lot of them. An adult elephant eats several hundred pounds of food a day, or more than 100 kg, and will drink enough water every day to fill a bathtub. It eats grass, leaves, twigs, fruit, and bark, and elephants in captivity also eat hay. And since we’re getting close to the winter holidays, some zoos have an agreement with Christmas tree sellers, who donate any unsold Christmas trees to the zoos for the elephants to eat. They can’t feed used trees because there might be leftover ornaments or ornament hangers on them. The elephant just puts one foot on the tree and rips off the branches with its trunk, which it then eats.

The elephant has a pair of big teeth on each side of its mouth that look more like the bottoms of running shoes than ordinary teeth, which it uses to grind up the tough plants it eats. Elephants technically have 26 teeth, two incisors and 24 molars. The incisors are modified into tusks, which we’ll talk about in a minute. The molars aren’t all in the mouth at once, though. Every so many years, the four molars in an elephant’s mouth start to get pushed out by four new molars. It doesn’t happen the same way you lose your baby teeth, though. Instead of a new tooth pushing up through the gum until the baby tooth gets loose and falls out, the new molars grow in at the back of the mouth and start moving forward, pushing the old molars farther forward until they fall out. This happens six times throughout the elephant’s life, with the last set usually growing in around the early 40s. Since elephants can live much longer than that, well into their sixties, that last set may have to last a long time, since there are no elephant dentists that can make gigantic elephant dentures.

The tusks are much different than the molars, naturally. The tusks start to grow from the upper jaw when the elephant is a little over six months old, and continue growing throughout its life. It uses its tusks for all kinds of activities, including moving obstacles from its path, digging for water, and defending itself. But not all elephants have tusks. Many Asian elephants don’t have tusks at all, or only have very small ones. Because poachers who want the tusks to sell as ivory shoot elephants that have the biggest tusks, many populations now have smaller tusks overall or none, since elephants without them are less likely to be killed.

The elephant’s trunk is strong but sensitive, sort of like a human’s arm and hand but with many more uses (and also no bones). The elephant breathes and smells through its trunk, since it’s an extension of the nose and upper lip, but it also makes noise with its trunk to communicate with other elephants, uses it to gather food and move it into the mouth, sucks up water with the trunk and splooshes it into the mouth to drink or onto its body to wash. It can reach plants that are way up high or it can dig into soft ground for roots or to reach water. It can open nuts with its trunk, scratch an itch, play wrestle with a friend, lift incredibly heavy things out of the way, and all sorts of other things. Elephants probably wonder how humans can function without a trunk. I am starting to wonder how I function without a trunk.

The easiest way to tell an Asian elephant apart from an African elephant is by looking at the ears. African elephants have much larger ears, especially savanna elephants. The ears are full of small blood vessels to help release heat from the body into the atmosphere. An elephant will flap its ears to stay cool on a hot day. Asian elephants are also smaller overall and have a different body shape. Asian elephants have somewhat shorter legs, a bulkier forehead, different numbers of toes on the feet, and even different trunks. The African elephant has two little projections at the tip of the trunk that act as fingers, while the Asian elephant only has one.

Elephants evolved in what is now Africa and are the largest land animals alive today. The earliest elephant ancestors lived around 56 million years ago, not long after the extinction of the non-avian dinosaurs. It was still a small animal then, only about a foot tall at the shoulder, or 30 cm. It probably spent a lot of time in the water, eating plants, and it probably had small ears and a large nose, but not an actual trunk. If you could go back in time and look at it, you’d never guess that it was an ancestral elephant.

By 27 million years ago, though, elephant ancestors were starting to look like elephants. Eritreum was a lot bigger, over four feet tall at the shoulder, or 1.3 meters, and it probably had short tusks and a trunk. If you looked at a living Eritreum, you’d definitely know it was a kind of elephant, even though it would have looked weird compared to modern elephants since its head was long and flattened in shape. Eritreum already had the same tooth system that modern elephants have, where new molars continually grow and replace worn-out older ones.

Eritreum’s descendants spread to Eurasia and then to North America. By about 2.5 million years ago, at the beginning of the Pleistocene, elephants were all over the place–not just the ancestors of modern elephants, but relations from other parts of the elephant family tree. This includes Palaeoloxodon, a suggestion by Richard from NC.

Palaeoloxodon namadicus lived throughout much of Asia, with fossils found in India, Japan, and Sri Lanka, and it was enormous. We don’t have a complete skeleton, but estimates of Palaeoloxodon’s size suggest it was the largest elephant that we’ve ever discovered. An estimate of the largest specimen found so far is 17.1 feet tall at the shoulder, or 5.2 meters. This is about the same height at the shoulder as Paraceratherium, which we talked about in episode 50 about tallest animals, but it might have actually been taller than Paraceratherium. The tallest giraffe ever measured was 19.3 feet tall, or 5.88 meters, but that’s at the top of its head, not its shoulder, and giraffes are much less heavy than elephants. Whichever one was actually tallest doesn’t really matter, though, because they all belong to the Ridiculously Tall Animals Club, also known as the Animals That Could Squish You Flat by Accident Club.

We don’t know much about Palaeoloxodon since so few fossils have been found so far. We mostly just know it was a massive animal that probably went extinct 24,000 years ago. That’s really not that long ago in geologic terms. It was probably a member of the straight-tusked elephants, a group of animals that were mostly quite large even for elephants.

Straight-tusked elephants weren’t actually straight-tusked, just straighter than most elephant tusks. They all also had an unusual feature on the head called a parieto-occipital crest, which was a ridge of bone high up on the forehead above the eyes that jutted out. The crest was barely noticeable in young elephants but grew larger as the elephant matured, and researchers think it was the attachment site for massive neck muscles to hold up the animal’s massive head.

One interesting thing about Palaeoloxodon is that some other members of the genus were dwarf species that lived on some Mediterranean islands. Pranav wanted to learn about these and other pygmy elephants of the Mediterranean Islands. Fossil elephants have been found on many islands, including islands in the Mediterranean, in south Asia, and the Channel Islands off the coast of California, although they weren’t all closely related. I think we’ve talked about insular dwarfism before, but let’s go over it again briefly. When a large animal like an elephant becomes restricted to a small environment, like an island, there aren’t enough resources for a full population of full-grown animals. As a result, only smaller individuals get enough food to thrive well enough to reproduce, which means their babies are more likely to be smaller too. Over time this results in a population of animals that are much smaller than their relations who don’t live in a restricted environment.

The opposite of insular dwarfism is island gigantism, by the way. When species that are small ordinarily, like pigeons, colonize an island where there are plenty of resources and very few or no predators, they evolve into much larger animals, like dodos.

Insular dwarfism isn’t just about mammals. Palaeontologists have identified dwarf species of dinosaur too, including a pocket-sized sauropod. Okay, maybe not pocket-sized since they still grew nearly 20 feet long, or 6 meters, but since their mainland relations could grow 100 feet long, or 30 meters, that’s a big difference.

Anyway, back to dwarf elephants. It’s so easy to get distracted by all this neat information. The elephants that lived in the Mediterranean islands were mostly straight-tusked elephants, although at least one was a type of mammoth. During the Pleistocene, when a lot of the world’s water was frozen in enormous glaciers, the sea levels were much lower. This exposed a lot more land, and of course animals lived on that land. Then, during the interglacial periods when much of the ice melted and sea levels rose, animals moved to higher ground and eventually some were cut off from the mainland and lived on islands. All of these species that survived exhibited insular dwarfism. It’s helpful to remember that the islands we’re talking about are mostly pretty big. I mean, they’re not the size of Gilligan’s Island. People live on many of these islands today and there are cities and towns and farms and national parks and so forth. The island of Crete, for instance, which is a part of Greece, is 3,260 square miles in size, or 8,450 square km.

One dwarf elephant that once lived on Crete may have only grown 3.7 feet tall at the shoulder, or 1.13 meters. That was the mammoth relation, but a species of Palaeoloxodon also lived on Crete, although not necessarily at the same time as the dwarf mammoth. As the sea levels rose and fell over the centuries, different species of elephant and other animals ended up living on the islands at different times.

We don’t know a whole lot about these dwarf elephants, unfortunately, since we don’t have a lot of remains. Mostly we have teeth, which do tell a lot about the elephant but not everything. But we do know roughly when the various species finally went extinct, and you will not be surprised to learn that these dates often coincide with human arrival on the islands. The Tilos Island elephant probably didn’t go extinct until 6,000 years ago. That’s well into the modern era, and humans lived or at least hunted on the island starting around 10,000 years ago. If you are Greek, your ancestors may have hunted Tilos Island dwarf elephants. It grew up to around 5 feet 3 inches tall, or 1.6 meters, which coincidentally is my height.

Many historians think that the bones and fossils of dwarf elephants may have led to the legend of the cyclops in ancient Greece. The skull of an elephant has a big opening in the front for the nasal passages, with relatively small eye sockets on the sides of the skull. If you’re not familiar with living elephants and you see an elephant skull, it really does look like an enormous human skull with one eye socket in the middle of the forehead.

All elephants live in small family groups that consist of a leader, called the matriarch, who is usually the oldest female in the group, and her close relations and their babies, usually her daughters and grandchildren. When a young male elephant grows up, he leaves his family group, but daughters usually stay.

Although elephants live in these small groups, they’re social animals. The family groups interact with each other when they meet, and they may meet up purposefully just to say hi. A family with a lot of babies may meet up with another family for help taking care of the young ones. When a member of the group is in estrus, meaning she can get pregnant, local males will join the group and try to get her attention. But although the males don’t spend all their time with family groups, they make friends with other males and sometimes form small bachelor groups of their own led by an older male. The older male not only teaches the younger ones how to find food and react to danger, he keeps them from running wild and acting up. During the 1990s, a nature reserve in South Africa introduced a lot of young males that were orphaned and had no family–but without an older male to keep them in line, they went on a rampage and killed 36 rhinoceroses. Finally the park introduced an older male and he put a stop to all that. The young elephants straightened up and left the rhinos alone.

Females usually come into estrus during the rainy season, which is in the second half of the year in Asia and parts of Africa. During this time, mature males may enter a condition called musth for at least some of the time. During musth a male is more aggressive and struts around showing off. It’s easy to tell when a bull elephant is in musth because a gland on each side of his face releases fluid that makes his cheeks wet. Females prefer to mate with males in musth, and usually in a group of males only the most dominant male will be in musth.

Elephants these days are all threatened by poaching, especially for their tusks. Elephant tusks are known as ivory, and ivory sales are banned throughout most of the world. Unfortunately, people still kill elephants to sell the ivory on the black market. Elephants are also threatened by habitat loss, since they need a whole lot of land to find enough to eat and people want that land for their domestic animals or crops.

I could go on and on about elephants for hours. There’s so much to learn about them that it’s just not possible to fit into one podcast episode. I haven’t even touched on their intelligence, their use as working animals in Asia and other parts of the world, and many other interesting things. But we’ll finish with this interesting fact: elephants are afraid of bees, so farmers can keep elephants from eating their crops by making a fence out of bee hives.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 199: Carnivorous Sponges!



Thanks to Lorenzo for this week’s topic, carnivorous sponges! How can a sponge catch and eat animals? What is its connection to the mystery of the Eltanin Antenna? Let’s find out!

Further reading/watching:

New carnivorous harp sponge discovered in deep sea (this has a great video attached)

How Nature’s Deep Sea ‘Antenna’ Puzzled the World

Asbestopluma hypogea, beautiful but deadly if you’re a tiny animal:

The lyre sponge, also beautiful but deadly if you’re a tiny animal:

The ping-pong tree sponge, also beautiful but deadly if you’re a tiny animal:

The so-called Eltanin antenna:

A better photo of Chondrocladia concrescens, looking less like an antenna and more like a grape stem:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to learn about carnivorous sponges, which is a suggestion from Lorenzo.

When I got Lorenzo’s email, I thought “oh, neat” and added carnivorous sponges to the giant, complicated list I keep of topic suggestions from listeners and my Aunt Janice, and also animals I want to learn more about. When I noticed carnivorous sponges on the list the other day, I thought, “Wait, sponges are filter feeders. Are there even any carnivorous ones?”

The answer is yes! Most sponges are filter feeders, sure, but there’s a family of sponges that are actually carnivorous. Caldorhizidae is the family, and it’s made up of deep-sea sponges that have only been discovered recently. We know there are lots more species out there because scientists have seen them during deep-sea rover expeditions without being able to study them closely.

We talked about sponges way back in episode 41, with some mentions of them in episodes 64 and 168 too, but only the filter feeder kind. Let’s first learn how a filter feeder sponge eats, specifically members of the class Demosponge, since that’s the class that the family Caldorhizidae belongs to.

Sponges have been around for more than half a billion years, since the Cambrian period and possibly before, and they’re still going strong. Early on, sponges evolved a simple but effective body plan and just stuck to it. Of course there are lots and lots and lots of different species with different shapes and sizes, but they almost all work the same way.

Most have a skeleton, but not the kind of skeleton that you think of as an actual skeleton. They don’t have bones. The skeleton is usually made of calcium carbonate and forms a sort of dense net that’s covered with soft body tissues. The tissues are often further strengthened with small pointy structures called spicules. If you’ve ever played a game called jacks, where you bounce a ball and pick up little metal pieces between each bounce, spicules sort of resemble jacks.

The sponge has lots of open pores in the outside of its body, which generally just resembles a sack or sometimes a tube. One end of the sack is attached to the bottom of the ocean, or a rock or something. The pores are lined with cells that each have a teensy structure called a flagellum, which is sort of like a tiny tail. The sponge pumps water through the pores by beating those flagella. Water flows into the sponge’s tissues, which are made up of lots of tiny connected chambers. Cells in the walls of these chambers filter out particles of food from the water, much of it microscopic, and release any waste material. The sponge doesn’t have a stomach or any kind of digestive tract, though. The cells process the food individually and pass on any extra nutrients to adjoining cells.

Obviously, this body plan is really effective for filter feeding, not so effective for chasing and killing small animals to eat. The sponge you may have in your kitchen is probably synthetic or manufactured from a sponge gourd, not an actual bath sponge animal, but it’s arranged the same way. Go look at that sponge, or just imagine it, and then compare it mentally to, say, a tiger. Very different.

But in 2007, an underwater rover captured something on film that astounded researchers. The rover was investigating some undersea caves in the Mediterranean, where a tiny sponge known as Asbestopluma hypogea lives. The sponge only grows about half an inch long, or 1.5 cm, and everyone assumed it was just a regular old sponge. You know, a filter feeder. It did have an unusual structure of filaments covered with hook-like spicules, but until 2007 no one realized those spicules were actually hooks and used to snag tiny animals like copepods, nematodes, and even brittle stars. Then they saw it on film and freaked out! Well, they probably freaked out. I like to think they did.

But wait, you are probably saying, or at least thinking, sponges don’t even have a digestive system! How do they eat the animals they catch?

It works like this. When a tiny animal floats or swims past and gets snagged by the hooked spicules, which by the way is a passive process, the sponge starts growing a membrane that envelops the animal within a few hours. The membrane is made up of specialized cells that contain beneficial bacteria, and the bacteria help digest the animal so that the cells can absorb the nutrients. The process can take up to ten days. It’s similar in some ways to how carnivorous plants digest animals, as we talked about in episode 129.

One interesting thing is that while A. hypogea is a deep-sea sponge, it’s also found in shallow underwater caves. Further research has suggested that underwater caves may shelter other animals that are usually deep-sea dwellers. One cave where the sponge is found is only 16 feet below the surface, or five meters, whereas it lives around 2,300 feet deep, or 700 meters, in open ocean. Since its discovery in both the caves and in deeper parts of the Mediterranean, it’s been classified as a protected species and parts of the Mediterranean where it lives have also been protected.

It wasn’t until 2012 that the harp sponge was discovered off the coast of northern California. The harp sponge lives up to 11,500 feet below the surface, or 3,500 m, and it gets its name because of its shape. Like a harp, which has strings stretched down from an arched frame, the harp sponge has a structure called a vane that consists of a horizontal branch with straight, thin branches growing up from it in a row. The harp sponge can have up to six vanes, and where they connect in the middle the sponge has root-like filaments that anchor it to the sea floor. It’s no wonder that people used to think sponges were plants.

The vanes of the harp sponge are covered with hooked spicules like the grabby half of Velcro, but pointier. At the top of the vertical branches, little balls of sperm form and are released into the water to fertilize the eggs of other harp sponges. The sponge also has egg development areas about halfway up the vertical branches, which have tiny filaments to help it catch sperm released by other sponges. When it catches sperm, the cells of the filament fuse with it and use it to fertilize the nearest eggs. You can see both the sperm packets and the egg development areas in a picture in the show notes, and both look like little bulbs.

I should mention that all these carnivorous sponges are incredibly pretty.

The harp sponge can grow up to almost 15 inches across, or 37 cm, which is pretty big for a sponge.

The ping-pong tree sponge is another newly discovered carnivorous sponge, and arguably it has the best name. It can grow up to 20 inches tall, or 50 cm, but most of its height comes from its central stalk that anchors it to the sea floor. At the top of the stalk, smaller stems branch out and at the end of the stalks, little bulbs around 3 to 5 mm in diameter grow like grapes on a grape stem. The bulbs resemble little ping-pong balls (also known as table tennis, but ping-pong is funnier and refers to the sound the little hollow ball makes as it bounces from a paddle and off the table).

We don’t know much at all about the ping-pong tree sponge. It’s been found off the coast of South America near Easter Island, around 8,800 feet deep, or 2,700 meters. So far it seems to live in areas where the sea floor is made up largely of hardened lava.

We’ll finish with a mystery related to carnivorous sponges! In 1964 a research ship called the USNS Eltanin was photographing the sea floor in the Antarctic, and on August 29th it took a photograph of something weird off the coast of Cape Horn. Cape Horn is the very southern tip of South America except for a few islands, and is considered the point where the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans meet. That’s an arbitrary distinction made by humans since obviously the world’s oceans are connected everywhere, but it’s useful for telling people where you found a weird thing in the water. The picture was taken at a depth of almost two and a half miles, or 3,904 meters.

The picture shows what looks like a stick growing straight up from the ocean floor, with cross-shaped pieces of equal lengths sticking straight out to the sides, and a little bulb at the very top. It looks for all the world like a weird radio antenna, and it’s actually been called the Eltanin antenna.

The picture appeared in a newspaper article later that year, 1964, and drew the attention of UFO enthusiasts. By 1968 many people thought the picture showed a piece of machinery left by alien visitors for unknown but probably sinister purposes, although why they left the machinery at the bottom of the ocean, no one could say. Other people thought the antenna had been planted by the Soviets for likewise unknown but probably sinister purposes, ditto no idea why it was at the bottom of the ocean. Other people pooh-poohed all that and said it was probably just something that had fallen off a ship and lodged upright in the mud.

Instead, it turns out that the so-called antenna is probably actually a carnivorous sponge, Chondrocladia concrescens, known to science since 1880 although no one knew it was carnivorous back then. Disappointingly, better pictures of the sponge show that it looks more like a grape stem than an antenna. These days even diehard UFO researchers acknowledge that the Eltanin antenna was just a sponge, although a pretty neat one. Mystery solved!

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 198: Pop Goes the Mustelid



Let’s learn about a whole lot of mustelids, including some otters, weasels, and their relations and ancestors! Thanks to Jacob for the suggestion!

Further reading:

Weasels in Stone: Mustelid Evolution

With voices joined in chorus, giant otter families create a distinct sound signature

Further watching/listening:

Video of giant river otters making noise

Giant river otters:

The least weasel is possibly the most cute:

This mink would like to keep its fur for itself please and thank you:

The Patagonian weasel:

The greater grison looks like a badger and a honey badger:

The fisher:

The Chinese ferret badger has a long nose compared to most mustelids:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’ll learn about some mustelids, better known as weasels and their close relations! Thanks to Jacob for this week’s suggestion.

The weasel is a member of the family Mustelidae. Members of the family are called mustelids, which includes wolverines and badgers, which we talked about in episode 62, otters, which we talked about in episode 37, and ferrets, which we talked about in episode 150. Most mustelids have short legs and long, slender, flexible bodies, although badgers are an exception since they’re broad-bodied. This body shape allows a mustelid to enter the burrows of other animals and kill them, because mustelids are carnivores.

But not all animals that look like weasels and ferrets are actually mustelids. The mongoose, for instance, is not a mustelid.

The study of how mustelids evolved and spread throughout much of the world is a pretty hot topic these days, which makes it confusing to summarize since so much new knowledge keeps shaking up what we know. But I’ll do my best.

The first mustelids evolved around 30 million years ago in what is now Eurasia, and spread to North America much later and eventually into South America. The oldest mustelid fossils found in North America are a group of animals called oligobunines. I read that word as oligobunnies every single time, but they didn’t look like bunnies. They probably looked like wolverines, which are related to badgers but look more like miniature bears with longer tails, but they probably spent more time underground than wolverines do.

At least one oligobunid might have grown as big as a black bear, at least a small bear. Megalictis was probably an ambush predator and lived around 21 million years ago in what is now the upper Midwest of North America. It had teeth meant for crushing bones. Another oligobunid, Zodiolestes, is one we talked about briefly in episode 103, about trace fossils. The first fossil Zodiolestes was found in a corkscrew-shaped Palaeocastor burrow, presumably because it got stuck in the burrow while it was hunting, but Zodiolestes was also adapted to dig. The oligobunids went extinct around 10 million years ago, possibly outcompeted by a new wave of modern mustelids that evolved in Asia and spread into North America.

One mustelid, Ekorus ekakeran, lived about six million years ago in what is now Africa, with fossils found in Kenya. But it didn’t look like any other mustelid. It had long legs, for one thing. It stood almost two feet tall at the shoulder, or 60 cm, and was built more like a leopard than a mustelid. It would have been a much faster runner than other mustelids as a result, although it was probably an ambush predator. Researchers think it was eventually outcompeted by big cats when they evolved as the forests changed into grasslands.

The biggest mustelid that ever lived, as far as we know, is Enhydriodon, a type of gigantic otter. It lived in Africa around 4 million years ago and may have been the size of a small bear, even bigger and heavier than Megalictis. We only have a single fossil of Enhydriodon, though, a skull, so scientists can only estimate the animal’s size compared to what we know about extinct and living otters. It probably lived on land, although that’s about as far as our knowledge of it goes.

Another giant mustelid was Plesiogulo, which evolved in Asia and crossed into North America 6 1/2 or 7 million years ago when the continents were connected by the Bering land bridge. Researchers weren’t sure for a long time if Plesiogulo was directly ancestral to living wolverines, but recent studies indicate that it probably was. It was larger than modern wolverines.

But what about living mustelids? The biggest known mustelid that’s still alive is the giant otter, which lives in much of northern and central South America, especially around the Amazon River, although it’s increasingly rare due to habitat loss, hunting for its fur, and pollution. It can grow up to 5 1/2 feet long, or 1.7 meters. It mostly eats fish but will eat other animals too, including crabs, snakes, turtles, and even small caimans. It’s a social animal that lives in family groups of up to twenty members that hunt and play together. It has short dense fur that’s usually brown or sometimes reddish, but it has white markings on its throat and upper chest. When it pops its head and neck out of the water, called periscoping, other otters can see its unique white markings and recognize who they’re looking at. It’s also really noisy as it communicates with other otters with barks, whines, growls, and softer sounds like humming. Each family group has a unique vocalization that identifies the group to other otters, and if a strange otter approaches the territory the whole family will scream at it to get out or else.

The sea otter is a little shorter than the giant otter, just under 5 feet long, or 1.5 meters, but it’s heavier than the giant otter. A big male can weight up to 119 pounds, or 54 kg. It lives along the coast of the North Pacific and while it can walk, it spends almost all its time in the water. Instead of blubber to keep it warm, the sea otter has incredibly dense fur, the densest coat ever measured. For almost two centuries people hunted it so aggressively for its fur that by 1911, there were fewer than 2,000 of them left. Fortunately, conservationists worked to get an international ban on sea otter hunting, and its numbers have rebounded although it’s still endangered.

The sea otter eats fish and anything else it can catch, especially shellfish, and it uses its front paws while hunting. It catches fish with its paws instead of with its mouth, it turns over rocks to look underneath them, and it pulls mollusks off of rocks and twists them open with its paws. This is all really unusual. No other otter uses its paws in this way. Not only that, the sea otter is a tool-user. It uses rocks to break open shellfish that it can’t twist open or bite through, and will in fact use two rocks at once for this purpose. One of the rocks it holds, but the other it keeps in a little pouch of skin under its arms to act as a hard surface to set the mollusk on. The sea otter also uses this built-in pocket to hold food. It has two pockets, one under each front leg, and it usually keeps its rock in the right pocket while it keeps its food in the left pocket. It floats on its back to eat, then rolls over and over in the water to clean its fur of any bits of food. It has to keep its fur incredibly clean for it to insulate the otter properly, so it grooms itself throughout the day. Pascal in Animal Crossing is a sea otter, by the way, and adorable.

The smallest living mustelid is the least weasel, which is native to northern North America and much of Eurasia but has been introduced in New Zealand and several islands throughout the world, where it’s an invasive species. The smallest subspecies of least weasel grow less than 10 inches long, or 26 cm, with a short tail. It’s brown with a white belly during the summer but its winter coat is completely white. It eats mice, voles, and other small rodents and will even kill rabbits although rabbits are much bigger than it is. Generally it only attacks young rabbits, though.

So that gives us some background about mustelids. Let’s talk about some interesting kinds of mustelid next, starting with the mink. You may have heard something about the mink in the news lately, because mink are kept in large numbers in fur farms and they’ve started to contract a mutated version of the Covid-19 virus. The virus is so widespread among mink in the country of Denmark that as of last week as this episode goes live, Denmark has decided to kill every single mink in captivity. That’s as many as 19 million animals. Keep in mind that these animals were eventually going to be killed anyway for their fur. That doesn’t make it any less sad, though. The same mutated virus has spread through fur farms in other countries, including Spain and the United States, leading to thousands of animals being killed to stop the spread. So far studies do not indicate that the minks are spreading the mutated version of the virus to humans. The Netherlands had already been planning to ban mink farming in a few years, but after an outbreak of the coronavirus earlier in 2020 the country decided to ban it by the end of this year. Good for them.

In the wild, where it belongs, the mink lives near rivers, lakes, or other sources of fresh water, and sometimes even along the coast. It eats fish, rabbits and other small mammals, eggs, small crustaceans like crayfish, and anything else it can catch. A big male can grow up to two feet long, or 62 cm, and it’s brown in color with a dense undercoat that helps keep it warm in cold weather. There’s a species that lives in North America and a species that lives in Europe, but while they look almost identical, they’re actually not very closely related.

If you think of weasels, you probably think of an animal that looks a lot like the mink or the ferret, with sleek fur. But the Patagonian weasel is quite different in many ways. It lives in Patagonia, which is the southern part of South America, and is the only member of its own genus. Its coat is shaggy with a bushy tail. It’s mostly white or off-white with brown patches and grows up to 14 inches long not counting its short tail, or 35 cm. We know almost nothing about the Patagonian weasel. We’re not even sure what it eats, except that it does probably eat small burrowing rodents, and it’s sometimes been kept by ranchers to kill rats the way ferrets were once used in England.

The greater grison is another unusual-looking mustelid native to Central America and northern South America. It’s shaped sort of like an otter but instead of brown fur it’s gray on top and black underneath. A white stripe separates the gray and black fur on its head and the sides of its neck. Most of its face is black, then the white stripe usually just above the eyes, then gray on top of its head. It can grow up to two feet long, or 60 cm, not counting its bushy tail, which can grow up to 14 inches long, or 20 cm. Like all mustelids, its ears are small and round and its body is long with short legs. Although it looks like an otter, including having webbed toes, it’s probably more closely related to the Patagonian weasel, and like the Patagonian weasel, we don’t know a whole lot about it.

The fisher is a mustelid that lives in North America, mostly in parts of Canada and in mountainous areas of northern and western United States. It used to be more widespread, but, you guessed it, it was trapped and killed for its fur until the 1930s and even as late as the 1980s in some areas.

Despite its name, the fisher doesn’t actually eat fish very often. The name fisher comes from a Dutch word, visse, which refers to a different mustelid, the European polecat. The fisher is also sometimes called the fisher cat even though it and the polecat are not cats. It’s a big animal, too. A big male fisher can grow nearly four feet long, or 1.22 m, although females are much smaller, and part of that length is the tail that can be as much as 16 inches long, or 41 cm.

The fisher has big feet that helps it walk on snow, retractable claws, and it can even rotate its hind feet nearly completely backwards, which means it can climb down trees headfirst. It lives in forests and spends a lot of time in trees, hunting birds and other small animals, but it mostly eats showshoe hares and porcupines. Yes, porcupines! Almost nothing will bother a porcupine, but the fisher will attack it from the front, biting its less protected face repeatedly until it dies. In areas where fishers were hunted to extinction, porcupines became so numerous that they started killing trees, since in winter porcupines eat tree bark and will also eat sapling trees. Fortunately, the population of fishers has grown and conservationists have reintroduced it into parts of its former range. It’s no longer considered endangered, hurrah! This is good because they’re hard to keep in captivity and they’re also susceptible to accidental poisoning when they eat rodents that have died from eating poison.

The fisher is supposed to be a loud animal with a terrifying scream at night, but people who study fishers don’t report hearing them scream or make loud sounds at all. The calls are all probably made by the red fox, which sounds like this:

[fox sound]

There are so many mustelids that I don’t even know what other ones to feature. It’s surprising how little we know about so many of them. The Vietnam ferret-badger was only described in 2011, for instance, and only known from two specimens. It’s related to other ferret-badgers found in Asia, including the Chinese ferret-badger. As you might guess from the name, it looks sort of like a badger but also like a ferret, which is a neat trick because those two animals do not actually look very much alike. It grows around 17 inches long, or 43 cm, plus another 9 inches, or 23 cm, for its tail. It’s dark brown above and lighter brown underneath, with a white stripe on its head and neck and a black mask on its face. Its muzzle is longer than most mustelids’, who usually have quite short noses. It’s an omnivore that eats fruit as well as insects, worms, frogs, and other small animals.

In general, as I’ve mentioned over and over, mustelids have historically been killed for their fur. Sable and ermine are both names of furs that come from mustelids. At least one species was driven to extinction by fur hunters, the sea mink. It lived along the northeastern coast of North America and was related to the American mink. We don’t even know exactly how big it was, because it was driven to extinction before it could be examined by scientists, except that it was probably bigger than the American mink. We don’t even have a complete specimen, just some skull fragments and teeth. It wasn’t as aquatic as otters are, but it occupied a similar ecological niche and spent much more time in the water than its close relations. It probably went extinct in the late 19th century. Other species of mustelid may have been driven to extinction without ever being known to science too. Certainly many species came close to extinction and are still threatened by habitat loss and other factors.

That’s depressing to think about, so let’s finish with a mystery that’s a little different from our usual mystery animals. This one’s a mystery song called “Pop Goes the Weasel.” You’re probably familiar with the tune even if you’re not sure about the words. There are lots of different lyrics to the song with various versions in different places. I learned it this way:

Round and round the mulberry bush / The monkey chased the weasel / The monkey stopped to pull up his socks / Pop! Goes the weasel.

A penny for a spool of thread / A penny for a needle / That’s the way the money goes / Pop! Goes the weasel.

What on earth do those lyrics mean? Do they mean anything? Why is there a weasel in the song?

The earliest lyrics known date back to at least the early 19th century in England, because the oldest versions of the song reference a famous pub in London from the time. The melody was probably much older and the words were fitted to the song at some point. By 1850 it was a popular dance, but even then no one knew what the lyrics meant.

There are lots of suggestions, some of which make more sense than others. The oldest lyrics seem to be these:

Half a pound of tuppenny rice / Half a pound of treacle / That’s the way the money goes / Pop! Goes the weasel.

Up and down the City road / In and out the Eagle / That’s the way the money goes / Pop! Goes the weasel.

The line “that’s the way the money goes” basically tells the story. It’s a song about how everything is a penny here, a penny there, and suddenly you’re broke. And if you’re going in the Eagle Tavern on London’s City Road too often, you’re drinking up whatever money you have left. But that still doesn’t explain the weasel.

One explanation is that to pop something was slang for pawning it, and that the term weasel is Cockney rhyming slang for a coat. You know, “weasel and stoat” rhyme with coat, therefore you can just say weasel and everyone who knows the rhyme knows that you’re talking about a coat. So if you pop a weasel, you’re pawning your coat to get a little extra money.

This sounds plausible, and there’s some evidence that the line “pop goes the weasel” was the only line of the song originally, with the other lyrics added later, which would explain why that one line is slang while the other lines aren’t. Anyway, it’s a fun song that you will not be able to get out of your head now.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 197: Titanoboa!



Thanks to Pranav for this week’s suggestion, Titanoboa, the biggest snake that ever lived!

Parts of this episode come from an old Patreon episode about super-gigantic snakes, which is unlocked and you can listen to it here.

A modern anaconda vertebra next to a Titanoboa vertebra. Guess which one is which:

Carlos Jaramillo, one of the scientists who found Titanoboa and Acherontisuchus (taken from a Smithsonian Channel video):

Show transcript:

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

This has been a really busy week for me and I wasn’t able to finish researching the episode I had planned. Instead, we’ll have a short episode on a topic Pranav suggested ages ago, TITANOBOA! In September 2017 I released a Patreon episode about giant snakes, including Titanoboa, but this episode is all new. Ha ha, I thought it would take me less time to research it than finishing the research for what will be next week’s episode, ha ha I was wrong. Anyway, I’m going to unlock the giant snakes Patreon episode so anyone can listen. There’s a link in the show notes if you want to click through and listen on your browser.

Oh, a big congratulations to the winner of my book giveaway, Arthina! Thanks to everyone who entered.

In 1994, a geologist named Henry Garcia found an unusual-looking fossil in northeastern Colombia in South America. Specifically, it was an area that had been strip-mined for coal. Fifty-eight million years ago the region was a hot, swampy, tropical forest along the edge of a shallow sea. The Andes Mountains hadn’t yet formed. The environment was probably most similar to the Everglades and the Mississippi River delta in North America, but the climate was much warmer than it is now. These days what was once swamp is a field of rock uncovered by coal mining, which is not good for the environment but is unbelievably good for palaeontology.

Garcia thought he’d found a piece of fossilized tree. The coal company in charge of the mine displayed it in their office along with other fossils. And there it sat until 2003, when palaeontologists arranged an expedition to the mine to look for fossil plants. A researcher named Scott Wing was invited to join the team, and while he was there he poked around among the fossils displayed by the mining company. The second he saw the so-called petrified branch he knew it wasn’t a plant. He sent photos to a colleague who said it looked like the jawbone of a land animal, probably something new to science.

In 2007, the fossil was sent for study, labeled as a crocodile bone. But the palaeontologists who examined the fossil in person immediately realized it wasn’t from a crocodile. It was a snake vertebra—but so enormous that they couldn’t believe their eyes. They immediately arranged an expedition to search for more of them, and they found them! Comparisons to living anacondas and boas, the snake’s closest living relatives, helped researchers estimate the snake’s size. They named it Titanoboa cerrejonensis and described it in an article published in 2009 in Nature.

In 2012, a partial Titanoboa skull was found. Snake skulls are fragile and don’t fossilize nearly as often as the more robust vertebrae and ribs. It turned out that Titanoboa had lots and lots of teeth, more teeth than modern boids have.

Palaeontologists have found fossilized remains from around 30 individual snakes, including young ones. The adult size is estimated to be 42 feet, or 13 meters. The largest living snakes are anacondas, which may grow up to 29 feet, or 8.8 meters, but which are usually less than half that length. Reticulated pythons grow up to about 26 feet, or almost 8 meters, and possibly longer, but are also usually less than half that.

Titanoboa might have grown up to 50 feet long, or 15 meters, and could weigh more than 2,500 pounds. That’s one and a quarter tons, or more than 1100 kg. The thickest part of its body would have been waist-high compared to an average human male. Of course, these are all estimations since we don’t have a complete skeleton or a living specimen to examine, and most estimates these days put the maximum length at around 42 feet, or 13 meters. Still humongous. Females were probably larger than males, as is the case with most snakes.

Once the skull was found containing all those little teeth, researchers determined that Titanoboa probably ate a lot of fish. That’s unusual for constrictors, but it makes sense to think that a snake that large, living in a hot, tropical area, would spend most of its time in the water.

Even though snakes are cold-blooded, which means their internal temperature fluctuates with the temperature of their environment, a snake that size would retain a lot of heat and even generate heat from metabolic processes. Metabolic processes are related to digestion, chemical reactions that break down food into nutrients that can be used by the body. This releases heat, and in an animal with a bulky body that heat is retained more than in an animal with a slender body. Titanoboa was so big that some researchers think it would have overheated from its own metabolic processes if it didn’t stay cool somehow. Therefore, it might have lived in deep water where it could stay cool. Modern anacondas spend most of its time in the water, although usually in the shallows where it can hide in wait for prey.

Titanoboa undoubtedly ate a type of lungfish that grew nearly ten feet long, or 3 meters, but it probably also ate anything else it could catch, including crocodilians. A gigantic crocodilian found in the same area as Titanoboa, Acherontisuchus, grew up to 21 feet long, or almost 6.5 meters. It lived in the water too and probably mostly ate fish, but it didn’t so much compete with Titanoboa as avoid it as much as possible. After all, a full-grown Titanoboa was more than twice the size of a full-grown Acherontisuchus and could have swallowed it whole after suffocating it.

Several gigantic freshwater turtles also lived alongside Titanoboa. One had a shell that measured 5 feet 8 inches long, or 1.72 meters. Another grew five feet long, or 1.5 meters, but had a shell that was almost perfectly round. Researchers think its shape kept it safe from Titanoboa, since it would have been too big for Titanoboa to swallow. Snakes have bones and jaws that can dislocate to allow them to swallow large prey whole, and stretchy skin, but they have limits. Another turtle had a shell that was described as being as thick as a dictionary. Since other crocodilians have since been found in the area too, the thick shell was probably a defense against crocodilian jaws and teeth. Basically, this was a dangerous place to live no matter how big you were, unless, of course, you were a gigantic snake.

Titanoboa and the other animals of the swampy rainforest lived only about ten million years after the extinction event that killed off the non-avian dinosaurs. Obviously they’d been evolving to fill ecological niches left empty by the dinosaurs. Little did they know, though, that continental drift would lead to a cooling climate that would drive many reptiles to extinction and give rise to the age of mammals!

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 196: Many Monkeys



Thanks to Nick and Richard from NC for their suggestions this week! Let’s learn about A BUNCH OF MONKEYS!

Further reading:

How we solved the Green monkey mystery–and found an important clue to Bronze Age world

Field Notes: Singing Titi Monkeys (with a video of them singing)

Dracula monkeys and Dracula:

The Dracula monkey orchid (not a vampire, not a monkey, but it is an orchid):

A capuchin monkey insisting a friend “see no evil”:

Abu!

Mandrills gonna get as colorful as monkily possible:

Rafiki! Why is your tail so long?

One of the “blue monkey” wall frescos and some grey langurs:

The fluffy titi monkey:

Show transcript:

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

Halloween is over for another year, but that doesn’t mean things get boring. This week let’s learn about some monkeys, including a few monkey mysteries that were solved with science! Thanks to Nick and Richard for their suggestions.

We’ll start with the Dracula monkey, suggested by Richard from North Carolina, who also sent me an article a while back about the monkey. I meant to include this topic in an episode before October but got distracted by all the other awesome animals that have been suggested lately.

The Dracula monkey is also called Miller’s Grizzled langur, but that’s a mouthful and Dracula monkey is funnier. It’s not called the Dracula monkey because it has fangs, but because its body is gray with a white ruff that sticks out on either side of the neck like the collar of Dracula’s cape in the movies. Its face is also gray except for a white U-shaped marking under its nose like a little white mustache. It grows up to 22 inches long, or 56 cm, not counting its tail which is even longer than its body.

The Dracula monkey eats young leaves and unripe fruit, along with flowers, seeds, and sometimes eggs. It spends most of its time in trees and is endangered by habitat loss and hunting, and it only lives in one place, in rainforests on the island of Borneo in South Asia. It was spotted by scientists in 2012 after it was suspected to be extinct, but that was the last anyone saw of it for years.

An Animal Planet show called “Extinct or Alive” was filming in Borneo in spring of 2019, unless it was 2018, it’s not clear from the article, searching for the Dracula monkey. The host and his team set up camera traps in the forest, braving literally hundreds of bee stings as they did so. But it worked, catching the monkey on camera and proving it wasn’t extinct. When an animal is declared extinct, conservationists lose funding to help it and it’s removed from the list of protected animals, so it’s important to search for animals that are suspected to be extinct but might not be.

While I was researching the Dracula monkey, I learned about a rare orchid called the Dracula monkey orchid. It has fuzzy reddish-brown and white flowers that look remarkably like a monkey’s face. It doesn’t actually look like Dracula or a Dracula monkey, though. Who names these organisms? In this case, scientists. The orchid’s scientific name is Dracula simia, and the genus Dracula is named because some of the orchids in the genus are red or black and white and the long spurs supposedly hang down like fangs. The Dracula monkey orchid is found in southeastern Ecuador in South America, and only grows in moist high-altitude forests. The flowers smell like oranges. This has been your bonus plant fact of the week.

The Dracula monkey orchid actually looks more like a capuchin monkey than a Dracula monkey, so let’s learn about the capuchin next.

You probably know what the capuchin monkey looks like because it’s so common in movies. The monkey in Raiders of the Lost Ark (you know, the “bad dates” monkey) was a capuchin, but the noises he makes in the movie are actually voiced by a human actor named Frank Welker. Welker also voiced the monkey Abu in Disney’s Aladdin from 1992. In the live-action remake from 2019, he’s still a capuchin but computer-animated.

The capuchin monkey lives in forests in Central and South America, but there are lots of species. Most are dark brown with cream-colored markings on the face and around the neck. It lives in trees and unlike many monkeys, it’s an omnivore. It eats leaves, fruit, nuts, flowers, and other plant parts, but it also eats insects, frogs, crabs, shellfish, and other small animals. It’s about the same size as the Dracula monkey, up to 22 inches long, or 56 cm, with a tail the same length as the body.

The reason so many capuchin monkeys are used in movies and TV shows is because they’re one of the most intelligent monkeys known, social, adaptable, and easy to train. But they’re wild animals and they don’t make great pets. They can be dangerous if they’re upset, and to be happy they need the company of other capuchin monkeys in a situation as much like their social structure in the wild as possible. In the wild, the capuchin lives in groups of up to 35 individuals that travel around the group’s territory throughout the day, looking for food. Their social structure is complicated, which is usually the case with intelligent animals, and members of the group interact constantly, whether they’re grooming each other, playing, gathering food, or watching for danger.

The capuchin monkey is a tool user, which was well known to locals but wasn’t observed in the wild by scientists until 2004. It uses rocks to break open shellfish and nuts, and it will use different sized rocks to break different kinds of nuts. For really hard nuts it will use large, heavy rocks, but for smaller nuts it will use a smaller, lighter rock. This sounds like a duh moment, but that’s because humans are the ultimate tool users and we understand that of course you shouldn’t smash open a cashew with a gigantic rock because you’d just pulverize the nut, while tapping at a really hard nut with a little pebble won’t do anything to break it open.

Not only do the capuchin monkeys in Brazil use different sized rocks to break open nuts, they select the rocks carefully and prefer ones that are rounded and easy to handle. They’re called cobbles. They set the nuts on a hard surface like another rock or an exposed tree root and use the cobbles to break the nuts open.

In 2016, researchers chose a site where capuchin monkeys have been using these stones to open nuts for many years. They treated it as an archaeological site and excavated it by digging carefully and documenting what they found. They found that the site had been used for at least 3,000 years, with some evidence that the monkeys’ diet had changed from eating smaller nuts to larger, harder nuts. Researchers aren’t sure if the diet change came from changes in the foods that were available or if the monkeys became better at breaking open hard nuts so were able to eat more of them.

This is what a capuchin monkey actually sounds like, including the little birdlike trills:

[monkey sounds]

Nick suggested that we learn about the mandrill, so let’s do that next. The mandrill is a big monkey that lives in forests and rainforests in parts of the west coast of central Africa. Not only is it a big monkey, it’s the biggest monkey, or at least the heaviest. Males are much larger than females and a big male can weigh as much as 119 lbs, or 54 kg, and possibly more. It’s a muscular, compact animal that looks more like an ape than a monkey, and it spends most of its time on the ground instead of in trees. It’s dark gray or greeny-brown with a white belly, a long muzzle, and a little stub of a tail.

And, of course, the mandrill is really colorful. A dominant male develops bright blue and red markings on his muzzle and blue, pink, and purplish colors on his bare bottom. Females and subordinate males are less colorful. During mating season, females who are in estrus, which means they’re fertile and can have a baby, develop enlarged red bottoms to attract a male.

All this is interesting, and cheerfully colorful, but if you stop and think about it for a moment, how many mammals can you think of that have skin that is bright blue or purple? Not very many. For a long time researchers weren’t sure what caused the color. It’s not a pigment, so it has to be caused some other way. The blue coloring of many birds is caused by the way light reflects off the black pigment in the feathers. It turns out that in mammals with blue and purple skin, the same is true. Skin contains a protein called collagen, which is very tough and which grows in a random pattern. But in the areas where a mandrill’s skin is blue or purple, the collagen fibers grow in a parallel pattern. This means that when light reflects off the skin, only the blue wavelengths of light bounce off. The other wavelengths are canceled out. The closer together the collagen fibers are, the brighter the blue.

The mandrill lives in much larger groups than other monkeys do, sometimes numbering several hundred. One group had over 1,300 members. Generally, each group is made up of females and their babies, with a dominant male that lives on the outskirts of the group most of the time. The exception is during mating season, which lasts from June to October. During this time the females allow males to join the group so they can mate. A female usually only has one baby every two years, and a mother mandrill’s female relatives help care for the baby. When male babies grow up they leave the group and live on their own, while females remain in the group.

The mandrill is an omnivore although it most eats fruit and other plant material, but it will eat insects and other invertebrates, eggs, and small vertebrates like frogs, rats, and birds. It has long canine teeth that help it kill small animals and even larger animals if it can catch them. It even has cheek pouches so it can carry food around to eat later. It mostly feeds on the ground but will climb trees to get food and it also sleeps in trees at night.

Since we were talking about movie monkeys earlier, the character of Rafiki in the Lion King is a mandrill.

Next, let’s look at a couple of monkey mysteries that were recently solved. The Greek island of Santorini, once called Thera, is famous for its murals, which were uncovered by archaeologists around 50 years ago and are studied to learn about the people who lived on the island 3,600 years ago. The frescos, or wall paintings, were preserved by volcanic ash that destroyed the city of Akrotiri. Some of the frescos depict monkeys of various kinds, including one type of monkey that’s been a mystery for years. Historians assumed the monkeys had to be from Africa, since the Aegean people of the island traded with Egypt. But the paintings didn’t quite match any monkey known from Africa. Finally, the historians studying the frescos called in some primatologists to see if they could figure out the mystery.

The monkeys are depicted as blue-grey with long tails carried upward in a curve like a big question mark. This detail gave the primatologists the clue they needed. The mystery monkeys were Hanuman langurs, also called the gray langur, which carry their tails in exactly this way. They’re from India, not Africa, which means that the Aegeans must have had trade routes that were far more extensive than previously known.

The gray langur lives throughout the Indian subcontinent and there are several species. They mostly eat leaves, along with seeds, lichen, fruit, moss, and lots of other plant materials, but they’ll occasionally eat insect larvae and spider webs. I do not know why they eat spider webs. Seems like it would get caught in their teeth.

The gray langur is an adaptable monkey and lives in forests, rainforests, deserts, mountains, and villages. Human villages, I should add. The monkeys don’t make little villages of their own. They even live in large cities, where they will steal food from people and sometimes bite.

For our other monkey mystery, let’s finish up with an unusual monkey that once lived on the island of Jamaica in the Caribbean. Like many island animals, it had no predators and evolved many unique traits. Also like many island animals, it went extinct after humans moved in. The Jamaican monkey, Xenothrix mcgregori, probably only went extinct around 500 years ago, and it was pretty weird-looking. We mostly only know anything about it because of remains found in caves.

The Jamaican monkey had a long tail but short legs compared to most other monkeys. It had leg bones that look more like the legs of a rodent than a monkey. It did live in trees like most monkeys do and probably ate fruit, nuts, and other plant materials. But it didn’t have very many teeth and it moved slowly, which is not a typical monkey trait. It was about the size of the capuchin monkey, up to 22 inches long, or 56 cm.

Scientists had no idea what kind of primate it was until a team managed to extract DNA from some bones. Results of the genetic study were published in 2018 and reveal that the Jamaican monkey was most closely related to the titi monkey.

The titi monkey lives in South America and spends almost all of its time in trees. Its fur is long and soft, and depending on the species it can be brown, gray or black, or even reddish, sometimes with white markings. Unlike the other long-tailed monkeys we’ve talked about today, its tail is not prehensile.

The titi lives in family groups, basically just parents and their children, and pairs mate for life. This is pretty unusual among monkeys. The female usually only has one baby a year and the male cares for it most of the time. If something happens to the parents, sometimes another pair of monkeys will adopt the baby.

This is what the titi monkey sounds like, specifically the black-fronted titi monkey. There’s a link in the show notes if you want to watch the whole video, which goes on for a full minute and is hilarious and adorable.

[monkey sounds]

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

Thanks for listening!