Category Archives: Antarctica

Episode 249: Strange Seals



Sign up for our mailing list! We also have t-shirts and mugs with our logo!

Thanks to Richard from NC for his suggestion that leads us to learn about some interesting seals!

Further reading:

Mystery of Siberian freshwater seal food choice solved

Under Antarctica’s ice, Weddell seals produce ultrasonic vocalizations

Further listening/watching:

Rarely-heard Weddell Seal Sounds in Antarctica

The bearded seal Wikipedia page with audio so you can listen over and over and over

The Baikal seal, the world’s only fully fresh water seal species:

Baikal seal, round boi:

The Baikal seal’s teeth have teeth:

A Weddell seal mama with her pup who seems to be practicing singing:

Look ma, no ears!

The bearded seal. Can you tell where its name comes from? (Moustachioed seal might be more accurate.) (Also, note the ear opening with no external ear flap.)

Show transcript:

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

This week let’s learn about some interesting seals. Thanks to Richard from NC who suggested freshwater seals, which is where we’ll start.

Most seals live on the coast and spend most of the time in the ocean. But there’s one species of seal that lives exclusively in fresh water. That’s the Baikal [bay-CALL] seal, and the only place it lives is a big lake in Siberia called Lake Baikal.

Lake Baikal formed where two sections of the earth’s crust are being pulled apart by continental drift. That’s called a rift lake or rift valley lake. The lake gets bigger every year, but only by a tiny amount—just under an inch, or 2 cm. Since this has been going on for an estimated 25 to 30 million years, though, it’s an extremely big, deep lake. It is, in fact, the deepest lake on earth, and is also the oldest lake on earth. It’s more than twice as old as Lake Tanganyika in East Africa, which is also a large, deep rift lake but only about 12 million years old at the most.

Lake Baikal is almost 400 miles long, or 636 km, and nearly 50 miles wide, or 80 km. At its deepest point, it’s 3,893 feet deep, or 1,186.5 meters. That’s from the surface of the water to the muddy bottom. But that mud and sediment on the bottom has been building up for a very long time and there’s a lot of it—4.3 miles of it, in fact, or 7 km. The water is very clear and very oxygenated, but the surface freezes for several months out of the year. Then again, there are some hydrothermal vents, especially in the deepest areas, that heat the water around them to 122 degrees Fahrenheit, or 50 Celsius.

Because Lake Baikal is so deep, so big, so oxygenated, and so old, lots of species of animal live in and around it that live nowhere else in the world. That includes the Baikal seal.

The Baikal seal is related to the Arctic ringed seal but has lived in the lake exclusively for probably two million years. It only grows five and a half feet long at most, or 1.65 meters, and is usually closer to four feet long, or 1.2 meters. It’s gray in color and has no external ears, so that its head appears smooth. It can still hear, but because it doesn’t have ears sticking out of its head, it’s more streamlined than seals with external ears. It has large eyes, a pair of front flippers that it uses to maneuver in the water and on land, and a pair of hind flippers that act like a tail instead of legs.

That’s actually the main difference between earless and eared seals. Earless seals are more streamlined in general and more adapted for life in the water and for deep diving, but they’re awkward on land because they can’t use their hind limbs for walking. Eared seals have little flaps of external ears and while their hind flippers act as a tail in the water, the seal can turn its hind flippers over to walk on them on land.

The Baikal seal is quite small for a seal, which keeps it from needing as much food as a bigger animal. For a long time people thought the Baikal seal mostly ate fish, but a study published in late 2020 determined that it eats a whole lot of amphipods. Lake Baikal is home to a species of amphipod that grows up to about 10 millimeters long. Amphipods are a type of crustacean and all other freshwater amphipods known are bottom-dwellers. Only the Lake Baikal amphipod is free-floating.

The seal catches these tiny amphipods by sucking them up in a big mouthful of water, closing its teeth tightly, and using its tongue to force the water out through its teeth. The amphipods get caught against the teeth and the seal swallows them, yum. This is a type of filter feeding used by some other species of seal too, including the crabeater seal. Like the crabeater seal, it’s so well adapted to filter feeding that it has specialized teeth with curved projections all around their edges. These projections interlock closely when the seal closes its mouth. Because it doesn’t have to depend on eating fish, the Baikal seal isn’t threatened by commercial fishing. As long as it has plenty of amphipods to eat, it’s happy.

While the Baikal seal is the only truly freshwater seal species, a subspecies of ringed seal lives in a lake in Finland. Unlike the Baikal seal, though, which are numerous and doing just fine, the Saimaa ringed seal is endangered, with only around 400 individuals left in the wild. They’re strictly protected these days, fortunately, and the population is growing after it reached a low of only about 100 animals in 1983.

During the Pleistocene, the land mass that is now Finland was pressed down by the weight of glaciers. Once the glaciers melted, the land began to slowly rise back up until the lake where a population of ringed seals lived was cut off from the ocean.

Some other seals live in lakes that are cut off from the sea, including a population of harbor seals in Iliamna Lake in Alaska and a subspecies of harbor seal in northern Quebec, Canada, but let’s move on to seals that live in the ocean instead of fresh water.

Specifically, let’s discuss two earless seals that make interesting sounds. You may think you know what a typical seal sounds like, such as this kind of barking call:

[barking sound]

That’s actually not a seal but a closely related pinniped called a sea lion. Even though it’s not a seal, it is sort of technically a seal because it shares a family with fur seals and walruses, Otariidae, also called the eared seals that we talked about earlier. Some seals bark like sea lions and make lots of other noises, but it’s the earless seals that can really make weird sounds.

For instance, listen to this eerie sound:

[Weddell seal call]

That’s not a whale, it’s a seal. The Weddell seal lives around Antarctica and can grow quite large, up to 11 ½ feet long, or 3.5 meters. Males and females look alike although females tend to be slightly larger. It eats fish, squid, crustaceans, and pretty much anything else it can catch. It dives deeply and can stay underwater for up to 80 minutes, and while it has good eyesight, it doesn’t need to see to find food. The whiskers on its snout are incredibly sensitive and can sense tiny movements of water that indicate exactly where a fish or other animal is swimming.

Both male and female Weddell seals make various vocalizations, including some that can be described as songs, although the songs seem to be rare and researchers aren’t sure what the seals communicate with them. There’s still a lot we don’t know about these seals. Because Antarctica is so far away from most human activity, it’s extremely quiet most of the time. The seals can hear each other without having to compete with the noise from cars and boats and things like that. A seal sitting on the ice can hear other seals calling from deep in the water below the ice, and in fact the ice can amplify the sounds so well that scientists living in the Antarctic report being able to feel the sounds as well as hear them.

Here’s another clip of Weddell seals. These sounds are taken from an amazing youtube video I’ve linked to in the show notes. It’s short and has two scientists talking a little bit about their experiences hearing the seals, and then there’s about a minute of seal calls afterwards.

[Weddell seals calling]

Another seal with a loud, amazing vocalization is the bearded seal. It lives on the other side of the world from the Weddell seal, in the Arctic Ocean, and can grow almost nine feet long, or 2.7 meters. It eats fish and squid but mostly eats animals that live on the sea floor, including clams, polychaete worms, sea anemones, and many others. Like the Weddell seal and many other seals, its whiskers are incredibly sensitive. The bearded seal uses its long whiskers to feel around in the soft mud at the bottom of the ocean, looking for food.

In the spring, male bearded seals sing loudly and rhythmically, either to attract a mate or to defend a territory, or maybe both or something else—we don’t know. This is what the bearded seal sounds like underwater. I grabbed this audio off Wikipedia if you need to listen to it on repeat for a very long time. It’s an incredible sound.

[bearded seals singing]

This is what a bunch of bearded seals sound like when they’re singing together. This audio was taken on land although the seals sing underwater.

[more bearded seals singing]

These vocalizations sound so much like whale calls that I wondered if some seals can echolocate the way whales and dolphins can. There are quite a few studies into this topic, but right now most of the evidence points to no, seals don’t use echolocation to navigate underwater. Of course, studies in the future might discover something new about potential echolocation in seals. It’s only been very recently that sophisticated studies on bats have discovered that many species use different types of echolocation.

Conclusions of a two-year study published at the very end of 2020 show that a lot of Weddell seal vocalizations are ultrasonic, meaning they’re much higher than humans can hear. While the study doesn’t show any evidence of echolocation, they weren’t actually looking for it either. So you never know.

It’s possible, of course, that even if seals don’t echolocate right now, they might one day evolve the ability. Earless seals are well adapted to the water but still spend part of the time on ice or on land, especially to give birth. Many millions of years from now, the descendants of today’s seals might be completely aquatic the way whales and dolphins are. Because most scientists today think that seals can’t echolocate because their ears need to be useful on land as well in water, a fully aquatic seal that doesn’t need to hear well in the air might then develop echolocation to help it navigate underwater.

I’ll do a follow-up episode about seals and echolocation in a few million years when we can determine whether that’s happening.

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 238: The Pink Fairy Armadillo and Two Adorable Friends



Sign up for our mailing list! We also have t-shirts and mugs with our logo!

This week we’ve got three adorable little animals to learn about! Thanks to Simon and Thia, Elaine, and Henry for their suggestions!

Further reading:

Turning the spotlight on the rusty-spotted cat (Wildlife SOS)

The cute and fuzzy pink fairy armadillo:

The cute and fuzzy rusty spotted cat:

The cute and fuzzy baby Arctic tern:

Adult Arctic terns:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’ve got three strange and adorable animals for you, all listener suggestions because I’m getting really behind on those. Thanks this week to Simon and Thia, Elaine, and Henry!

First, Simon and Thia suggested the pink fairy armadillo. That’s one we covered briefly in a Patreon episode back in 2018, but it deserves to be featured in the main feed because it’s so strange and cute. It lives in deserts and grasslands of central Argentina, South America, but since its range is so restricted and it spends most of its life underground and is rarely seen by humans, we don’t know much about it.

The pink fairy armadillo is the smallest armadillo species known. It only grows about 4.5 inches long, or 11.5 cm, small enough to sit in the palm of your hand. It’s protected by a leathery shell that runs from its nose along the top of its head and down its back to its bottom, and the shell is segmented like a regular armadillo’s shell except that it’s a delicate pink. The fluffy fur on the animal’s sides and tummy is white. It has a short spade-shaped tail, but the rear of its body is flattened, and it uses its flat bottom to compress dirt in the tunnels as it digs. It has a small head, short legs, and gigantic front claws. Its hind claws are big too.

It spends almost all of its life underground, digging shallow tunnels and eating small animals like worms, insect larvae, snails, and insects like ants, which it probably hunts by scent. It has a good sense of smell but its eyes are tiny and its ears don’t show at all, although it does have good hearing. It can dig extremely quickly. It loosens the soil with its huge front claws, kicks it back with its hind claws, and then does a quick reverse to tamp the new dirt heap into a firm column with its flat bottom. This keeps the floor of its burrow clear so the armadillo can breathe properly and helps keep the burrow from collapsing.

Almost the only time the pink fairy armadillo surfaces is when it reaches an obstacle it can’t dig through or around, and then its claws are so big it has trouble walking on hard surfaces. This is bad if it tries to cross a road. Most sightings of pink fairy armadillos are of roadkill animals. Sometimes it surfaces after heavy rain when its burrows are flooded.

The reason the pink fairy armadillo’s shell is pink is that blood vessels show through it. Researchers think it can regulate its temperature according to how much blood flows through the vessels beneath the shell. The shell is only attached to the body by a membrane along the spinal column and doesn’t protect it as well as other armadillo shells do, but then it’s almost always underground so the shell probably mostly protects it from rocks and roots.

The pink fairy armadillo doesn’t do well in captivity, usually dying from stress within a day or two of capture, and since it’s almost always underground it can be hard to find and study. It’s threatened by habitat loss, climate change, poaching, and the use of pesticides. It’s extremely sensitive to changes in temperature and soil.

The pink fairy armadillo has a similar-looking but slightly larger relative, the greater fairy armadillo, which can grow up to 7 inches long, or 17.5 cm. It’s also a burrowing armadillo that lives in South America, which has an additional conservation problem. It’s considered by locals to be the spirit of a dead baby, so if a local sees it they usually kill it.

Next, Elaine suggested the rusty spotted cat. It’s a tiny cat that lives in forests and grasslands in South Asia, especially in India and Sri Lanka, and although it resembles a tiny domestic cat, it’s not all that closely related to domestic cats or their wild cousins.

The rusty spotted cat is reddish-gray with darker stripes on the face and small rusty-red spots over most of its body. It’s about half the size of a domestic cat and grows up to 19 inches long at most, or 48 cm, not counting its tail, which adds another 12 inches or so to its length, or 30 cm. This is where I tried to measure my cats with the soft plastic tape measure I use for sewing, but they thought it was a toy so I never did figure out how long they are. Also, my tape measure has holes in it now from claws and teeth. The rusty spotted cat only weighs up to about 4 pounds, or 1.8 kg. Keep in mind that these numbers are for the biggest possible rusty spotted cats. Most are much smaller. They’re basically kitten-sized.

The rusty spotted cat is mostly nocturnal and eats small animals like mice and other rodents, birds, lizards, and insects. It mostly hunts on the ground and mostly only climbs trees to escape predators. It’s a fierce hunter and can be very aggressive despite its small size, so even though it’s really cute and some people want to keep it as a pet, it’s very wild and not friendly. You’re way better off adopting a small domestic cat. Besides, the rusty spotted cat is endangered in the wild due to habitat loss and hunting for its fur, so we shouldn’t be keeping it as pets.

Conservationists are working to protect the rusty spotted cat by educating people who live in the area about what the cat is. While a mother rusty spotted cat is out hunting, she leaves her kittens in a little nest in long grass. If she makes her nest in a cultivated field, like a tea plantation, sometimes a worker harvesting or caring for the plants will find the kittens. People are basically good at heart and want to help baby animals, so a lot of times the worker will take the kittens home thinking they’re abandoned. A conservation group called Wildlife SOS is working to teach people to leave the babies alone, and when they hear about someone who’s found a kitten, they send someone out to learn where the kitten was found and when, and will reunite the kittens with their mother. Wildlife SOS also helps other animals in India, including leopards and elephants. There’s a link in the show notes if you want to find out more and maybe donate to the program to help these adorable teeny-tiny wildcats.

Finally, Henry suggested the Arctic tern, a bird that lives…pretty much everywhere, in fact, not just the Arctic. It breeds along the coasts in the northern parts of the northern hemisphere, including parts of Canada, Greenland, northern Europe, and Siberia, but after its babies are grown and the short northern summer comes to an end, it takes off for the southern hemisphere and spends the winter—which is summer in the southern hemisphere—around South Africa and Australia and New Zealand, all the way down to the Antarctic. When that summer ends, it flies back north to breed again. That’s an astoundingly long migration.

The Arctic tern spends most of its life flying above the ocean, hunting for small animals like fish, krill, amphipods, and crabs. It’s not a picky eater, though. It will also eat worms, insects, and berries, although it mostly eats these land foods when it’s nesting. It’s a beautiful bird that looks a little like a seagull, but is more lightly built and slender than most gulls. It’s white and pale gray with a black cap that extends down the back of the neck, a red bill, and short red legs and webbed feet. Its tail is forked like a swallow’s tail and it has long wings, which allow it to catch even the smallest sea breeze and fly extremely fast. Its wingspan is about 2.5 feet across, or 75 cm.

The Arctic tern mates for life. Even though the male and female have traveled literally around the world separately for most of the year, they both return to the same nesting ground, find each other, and start their summer courtship. The pair will fly high together with the female chasing the male, and then they’ll fly lower where the male will catch a little fish and offer it to the female. On land, they’ll do a little courtship dance where they raise and lower their tail and wings while strutting around together. Finally the pair decides where they want to build a nest.

The nest isn’t fancy, just a little scooped out place in the ground with maybe some grass in it. Parents take turns keeping the eggs warm and defending the nest from potential predators. It’s an aggressive bird and will even attack polar bears and drive them away, even though it’s just a delicate little bird. It will dive at the predator’s face and peck with its strong, sharp bill. Once the babies hatch, both parents feed the chicks until they learn how to fly.

An Arctic tern chick is possibly the cutest bird you will ever see, at least today. It’s gray and white with short legs, and it’s super super fluffy. The coloration helps it blend in with the rocks around the nesting site.

The Arctic tern travels over 40,000 miles every single year, or more than 70,000 km, and still manages to find its way back to the same breeding colony. How does it know where it is and where it’s going? Like many birds, it can sense the earth’s magnetic field. It combines this sense with where the sun is in the sky and can pinpoint exactly where it is in the world and where it needs to go. It’s like having built-in Google Maps.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or Podchaser, or just tell a friend. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us for as little as one dollar a month and get monthly bonus episodes. There are links in the show notes to join our mailing list and to our merch store.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 236: Updates 4 and a Mystery Snake!



Sign up for our mailing list! We also have t-shirts and mugs with our logo!

It’s our fourth annual updates and corrections episode! I’ve already had to make a correction to this episode!

Further reading:

Cassowary, a rare emu-like bird, attacks and kills Florida man, officials say

The dog Bunny’s Facebook page

3D printed replicas reveal swimming capabilities of ancient cephalopods

Enormous ancient fish discovered by accident

A rare observation of a vampire bat adopting an unrelated pup

Pandemic paleo: A wayward skull, at-home fossil analyses, a first for Antarctic amphibians

Neanderthals and Homo sapiens used identical Nubian technology

Entire genome from Pestera Muierii 1 sequenced

Animal Species Named from Photos

Cryptophidion, named from photos:

The sunbeam snake showing off that iridescence:

Show transcript:

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

 

It’s our fourth annual updates and corrections episode, and to keep it especially interesting we’ll also learn about a mystery snake. Make sure to check the show notes for lots of links if you want to learn more about these updates.

 

First, we have a small correction from episode 222. G emailed with a link about a Florida man who was killed by a cassowary in 2019, so cassowaries continue to be dangerous.

 

We also have a correction from episode 188, about the hyena. I called hyenas canids at one point, and although they resemble canids like dogs and wolves, they’re not canids at all. In fact, they’re more closely related to cats than dogs. Thanks to Bal for the correction!

 

In response to the talking animals episode, Merike told about a dog who uses computer buttons to communicate. The dog is called Bunny and she’s completely adorable. I’ll link to her facebook page. I have my doubts that she’s actually communicating the way it looks like she is. She’s obviously a clever dog but I don’t think she understands the English language so well that she can choose verbs like “is” from her list of words. I think she’s probably mostly taking unconscious cues from her owner. But I would be happy to be proven wrong.

 

Following up from our recent deep-sea squid episode, a team of paleontologists studying ancient cephalopods 3-D printed some replicas of what the animals would have looked like while alive. Then they took the models into a swimming pool and other water sources to study how their shells affected the way they could move through the water. They discovered that a type of cephalopod with a straight shell, called an orthocone, probably mostly moved up and down in the water to find food and could have moved extremely fast in an upward or downward direction. A type of cephalopod with a spiral shaped shell, called a torticone, also spun slightly as it moved around. The same team has previously worked with 3-D models of ammonoids, which we talked about in episode 86. The models don’t just look like the living animals, they have the same center of balance and other details, worked out mathematically.

 

Speaking of ancient animals, a collector in London bought a fossil found in Morocco thinking it was part of a pterodactyl skull. When the collector asked a palaeontologist to identify it, it turned out to be a fossilized coelacanth lung. The collector donated the fossil for further study, and the palaeontologist, David Martill, worked with a Brazilian coelacanth expert, Paulo Brito, to examine the fossil.

 

The fossil dates to the Cretaceous, about 66 million years ago, and is bigger than any coelacanth lung ever found. Modern coelacanths grow a little over six feet long at most, or 2 meters, but the estimated length of this Coelacanth is some 16 ½ feet, or 5 meters. The fossil is being donated to a university in Morocco.

 

We talked about vampire bats way back in episode 11, and I love bats and especially vampire bats so I try to keep an eye on new findings about them. Everyone thinks vampire bats are scary and creepy, but they’re actually social, friendly animals who don’t mean to spread rabies and other diseases to the animals they bite. It just happens.

 

Vampire bats live in colonies and researchers have long known that if a female dies, her close relations will often take care of her surviving baby. Now we have evidence that at least sometimes, the adoptive mother isn’t necessarily related to the birth mother. It’s from a recently published article based on a study done in 2019.

 

A team researching how unrelated vampire bats form social bonds captured 23 common vampire bats from three different colonies and put them together in a new roost where their interactions could be recorded by surveillance cameras. One particular pair of females, nicknamed Lilith and BD, became good friends. They groomed each other frequently and shared food. If you remember from episode 11, vampire bats share food by regurgitating some of the blood they drank earlier so the other bat can lap it up. Since vampire bats can starve to death in only a few nights if they can’t find blood, having friends who will share food is important.

 

During the study, Lilith gave birth to a baby, but shortly afterwards she started getting sick. She had trouble getting enough food and couldn’t groom or take care of her baby as well as a mother bat should. Her friend BD helped out, grooming the baby, sharing food with Lilith, and eventually even nursing the baby when Lilith got too sick to produce milk. After Lilith died, BD adopted the baby as though it was her own. By the time the study ended, BD was still caring for the baby bat.

 

We talked about spiders in the Antarctic in episode 221, and mentioned that Antarctica hasn’t always been a frozen wasteland of ice and snow. In a new study of fossils found in Antarctica, published in May of 2021, the first Antarctic amphibian skull has been identified. It lived in the early Triassic, not long after the end-Permian mass extinction 252 million years ago. It’s been named Micropholis stowi and is a new species of temnospondyl that was previously only known from South Africa. The skull, along with other fossils from four individuals, was discovered in the Transantarctic Mountains in 2017 and 2018, and the research team studied them from home during the 2020 pandemic lockdowns.

 

In news about humans and our extinct close relations, a new finding shows that Neanderthals and humans used the same type of tools. Researchers studied a child’s tooth and some stone tools, all found in a cave in the mountains of Palestine, and determined that the tooth was from a Neanderthal child, not a human. The tooth was discovered in 1928 but was in a private collection until recently, so no one had been able to study it before now. The tools are a specific type developed in Africa that have only been found associated with humans before. Not only that, but until this finding, there was no evidence that Neandertals ever lived so far south.

 

The child is estimated to have been about nine or ten years old, which is the age when you’re likely to lose a baby tooth as your adult teeth start growing in. I like to think about the child sitting next to their Mom or Dad, who were either creating new tools or using ones they’d already made to do something like cut up food for that evening’s dinner. Maybe the child was supposed to be helping, and they were, but they had a loose tooth and kept giving it a twist now and then, trying to get it to come out. Then, finally, out it popped and bounced onto the cave floor, where it was lost for the next 60,000 years.

 

Researchers have just announced that they’ve sequenced the genetic profile of a woman who lived in what is now Romania about 35,000 years ago. Judging from her skull shape and what is known about ancient humans in Europe, the team had assumed she would be rather restricted in her genetic diversity but that she would show more Neanderthal ancestry than modern humans have. Instead, they were surprised to find that the woman had much more genetic diversity than modern humans but no more Neanderthal genes than most human populations have these days.

 

This was a surprise because modern humans whose prehistoric ancestors migrated out of Africa show much less genetic diversity than modern humans whose ancestors stayed in Africa until modern times. Researchers have always thought there was a genetic bottleneck at some point during or not long after groups of humans migrated out of Africa around 80,000 years ago. Lots of suggestions have been made about what might have caused the bottleneck, including disease, natural disaster, or just the general hardship of living somewhere where humans had never lived before. A genetic bottleneck happens when a limited number of individuals survive long enough to reproduce—in other words, in this case, if so many people die before they have children that there are hardly any children left to grow up and have children of their own. To show in the general population as it does, the bottleneck has to be widespread.

 

Now researchers think the genetic bottleneck happened much later than 80,000 years ago, probably during the last ice age. Humans living in Europe and Asia, where the ice age was severe, would have had trouble finding food and staying warm.

 

I’m getting close to finishing the Strange Animals Podcast book, which I’ll talk about a little more in our Q&A episode later this week. It’s a collection of the best mystery animals we’ve covered on the podcast, along with some new mystery animals, and I’m working hard to update my research. If you remember back in episode 83, about mystery big cats, we discussed the Barbary lion, which was thought to be an extinct subspecies of lion that might not actually be extinct. Well, when I looked into it to see if any new information had turned up, I found more than I expected. I rewrote those paragraphs from episode 83 and I’ll read them here as an update:

 

Lions live mostly in Africa these days, but were once common throughout southern Asia and even parts of southern Europe. There even used to be a species called the American lion, which once lived throughout North and South America. It only went extinct around 11,000 years ago. The American lion is the largest species of lion ever known, about a quarter larger than modern African lions. It probably stood almost 4 feet tall at the shoulder, or 1.2 meters. Rock art and pieces of skin preserved in South American caves indicate that its coat was reddish instead of golden. It lived in open grasslands like modern lions and even in cold areas.

 

Much more recently, the Barbary lion lived in northern Africa until it was hunted to extinction in the area. The Barbary lion was the one that battled gladiators in ancient Rome and was hunted by pharaohs in ancient Egypt. It was a big lion with a dark mane, and was thought to be a separate subspecies of lion until genetic analysis revealed in 2006 that it wasn’t actually different from Panthera leo leo.

 

The last wild Barbary lion was sighted in 1956, but the forest where it was seen was destroyed two years later. The lions in a few zoos, especially in Ethiopia and Morocco, are descended from Barbary lions kept in royal menageries for centuries.

 

Lions are well known to live on the savanna despite the term king of the jungle, but they do occasionally live in open forests and sometimes in actual jungles. In 2012 a lioness was spotted in a protected rainforest in Ethiopia, and locals say the lions pass through the reserve every year during the dry season. That rainforest is also one of the few places left in the world where wild coffee plants grow. So, you know, extra reason to keep it as safe as possible.

 

Finally, we’ll finish with a mystery snake. In 1968, during the Vietnam War, the United States Naval Medical Research Unit discovered a small snake in central Vietnam. It was unusual enough that they decided to save it for snake experts to look at later, but things don’t always go to plan during wartime. The specimen disappeared somewhere along the line. Fortunately, there were photographs.

 

The photos eventually made their way to some biologists, and in 1994 a paper describing the snake as a new species was published by Wallach and Jones. They based their description on the photos, which were good enough that they could determine details like the number of scales on the head and jaw. They named it Cryptophidion annamense and suggested it was a burrowing snake based on its characteristics.

 

Other biologists thought Cryptophidion wasn’t a new species of snake at all. In 1996 a pair of scientists published a paper arguing that it was just a sunbeam snake. The sunbeam snake is native to Southeast Asia, including Vietnam, and can grow over 4 feet long, or 1.3 meters. It’s chocolate-brown or purplish-brown but has iridescent scales that give it a rainbow sheen in sunshine. It’s a constricting snake, meaning it squeezes the breath out of its prey to kill it, but it only eats small animals like frogs, mice, and other snakes. It’s nocturnal and spends a lot of its time burrowing in mud to find food.

 

Wallach and Jones, along with other scientists, argued that there were too many differences between the sunbeam snake and Cryptophidion for them to be the same species. But without a physical specimen to examine, no one can say for sure if the snake is new to science or not. If you live in or near Vietnam and find snakes interesting, you might be the one to solve this mystery.

 

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. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us that way.

 

Thanks for listening!


Episode 221: Arachnids in the Antarctic!



Thanks to Ella for this week’s suggestion. There may not technically be spiders in the Antarctic, but there are mites.

A nunatak (note the size of the research vehicles at the bottom left):

I don’t have any pictures of the Antarctic mites, so here are some red velvet mites, although they’re giants compared to their Antarctic cousins:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to have a short episode, because I get my second Covid-19 vaccine on the Thursday before this episode goes live and I want to have the episode all finished before then. That way if I feel bad afterwards I can rest. Thanks to Ella for this week’s suggestion!

Back in episode 90, about some mystery spiders, I mentioned that spiders live everywhere in the world except Antarctica. Well, guess what. Ella sent me some links about spiders that live in…Antarctica!

Antarctica is a landmass at the South Pole, specifically a continent about twice the size of Australia. It looks bigger than it really is because ice projects out from the land and is only supported by water, called an ice shelf. It’s not a little bit of ice, either. It’s over a mile thick, or nearly 2 km. The ice is called the Antarctic ice sheet and it covers 98% of the continent. The only places not covered in ice are some rock outcroppings and a few valleys, called dry valleys because they basically get no precipitation, not even snow and certainly not rain. Researchers estimate that it hasn’t rained in these dry valleys in almost two million years. There are no plants, just gravel. There are no animals but some bacterial life that live inside rocks and under at least one glacier. Scientists have used these dry valleys to test equipment designed for Mars. This is not a hospitable land. Everything that lives in Antarctica is considered an extremophile.

That doesn’t mean there’s no life in Antarctica, though, just that it’s only found in a few places, mostly along the coast or on nearby islands. Emperor penguins and Adelie penguins, several species of seal, and some sea birds live at least part of their lives in and around Antarctica, as do some whales. There are lichens, algae, and a few low-growing plants like liverwort and moss. And there are some invertebrates, although not very many and not large at all. The largest is a flightless midge that only grows 6 mm long. But what we’re interested in today are mites found only in Antarctica.

We talked about mites in episode 186 when we learned about the red velvet mite. Mites are arachnids, although they’re not technically spiders, but frankly we’re just quibbling at this point. It has eight legs and is in the class Arachnida, so I say there are spiders in Antarctica. Or close enough.

There are 30 species of mite in Antarctica. They mostly live on islands throughout the Antarctic peninsula, which sticks out from one side of the continent like a tail pointing at the very tip of South America. All the mites eat moss, algae, and decomposing lichens. They’re also teeny-tiny, less than a millimeter long.

One type of mite is found on the mainland of East Antarctica instead of just on islands. It’s called Maudheimia and it only lives on big rock outcroppings that stick up through the ice. These rocks are called nunataks and are covered with lichens. But nunataks are far apart, sometimes hundreds of miles apart, and the mites are so tiny they’re just about microscopic. How did they get from one nunatak to the next?

To find out, we have to learn some history about Antarctica. It hasn’t always been at the South Pole. It was once part of the supercontinent Gondwana, and 500 million years ago it was right smack on the equator. You know, tropical. As the centuries passed and the continents continued their slow, constant dance around the Earth, Gondwana drifted southward and broke apart. Antarctica was still connected to Australia on one side and South America on the other, and was still subtropical. Then it broke off from Australia around 40 million years ago, drifted farther southward, and ultimately, about 25 million years ago, separated from South America. Ever since it’s been isolated at the South Pole, and by 15 million years ago it was ice-covered.

Fossils of dinosaurs and other ancient animals have been discovered in Antarctica, but it’s hard to find fossils and excavate them when the ground is under a mile of ice. The animals and plants that once lived in Antarctica went extinct gradually as its climate became less and less hospitable, and most of the remaining holdouts went extinct when the ice age began and the continent’s climate was even colder and harsher than it is now.

But one animal remains, toughing it out on rock outcroppings where the temperature can drop to -31 degrees Fahrenheit, or -35 Celsius. Maudheimia, the brave little mite.

Maudheimia was probably common throughout Antarctica’s mountains before the big freeze happened, and would have already been well adapted to the cold of high elevations. As the continent grew colder and colder, the little mite adapted even more. The fluids in its body contain an organic antifreeze agent so it doesn’t freeze solid. As the ice covered more of its home, it migrated, in its tiny way, to the rocks that stayed ice-free and allowed lichen to survive too. It’s reasonably common despite its restricted habitat, which is good because the female Maudheimia only lays one egg every year or two. There are four species known.

Maudheimia probably isn’t the only animal that survived Antarctica’s ice age, though. Species of springtail only found in Antarctica live alongside Maudheimia, and there are tardigrades and tiny nematode worms around too. All these were probably around long before the end of the ice age around 12,000 years ago.

There may be other microscopic or nearly microscopic animals we haven’t discovered yet. The Antarctic is the only place in the world that humans have never colonized, although a small number of people live in scientific outposts while conducting research of various kinds. There’s a lot we don’t know about the continent.

For instance, there are at least 400 subglacial lakes in Antarctica. The lakes form between the bedrock and the ice sheet, like a little bubble of water. Iceland, Greenland, and Canada have some too. They’re hard to study, naturally, because it requires drilling through over a mile of ice to get a water sample. So far researchers have discovered extremophile microbes in these lakes, but so few samples have been taken that we certainly don’t know everything that’s down there. Most of the lakes occasionally overflow into nearby subglacial lakes, but at least some appear to have been isolated under the ice for potentially millions of years. They may contain bacteria and other microbial life that are radically different from modern species.

There’s one other place that we know has a subglacial lake, discovered in 2018. It’s on the planet Mars. I wonder if there’s anything living in that one.

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

Thanks for listening!