Category Archives: Asia

Episode 245: The Devil-Pig



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Our next monster for monster month is the devil-pig! It’s probably not a devil although it might be a pig.

The Asian tapir and its remarkable snoot:

The New Guinea carving:

The “gazeka” as imagined in the early 20th century:

Domestic and feral hogs are common in New Guinea:

Show transcript:

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

Don’t forget that our Kickstarter is still going on to fund the mystery animals book Beyond Bigfoot & Nessie! There’s a link in the show notes so you can click through and look at the different tiers available. We’re doing really well so far, so thanks to those of you who have already backed the project or just shared it with your friends! https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/kateshaw/beyond-bigfoot-and-nessie

Our next monster month episode is about a mystery animal from New Guinea. We’ve learned a lot about New Guinea’s birds this year, and it comes up repeatedly in other episodes too because it’s such a huge island with varied ecosystems. It also has steep mountains that have hardly been explored by scientists or even locals. If you want to learn more about New Guinea itself, I recommend episode 206, which is the first of our episodes this year about strange birds of New Guinea. But this week, let’s learn about the devil-pig! It’s also sometimes called the gazeka, but we’ll come back to that later.

The story starts in 1875, when a man named Alfred O. Walker sent a letter to the journal Nature about a discovery on the north coast of Papua New Guinea. It wasn’t the discovery of an animal itself but a big pile of dung from an unknown animal. The dung pile was so big that the people who found it thought it must be from some kind of rhinoceros. The problem is that New Guinea doesn’t have any rhinos.

The dung pile was discovered by a British expedition led by Lt. Sidney Smith and Captain Moresby from the ship H.M.S. Basilisk. After the report was published in Nature, a German zoologist wrote to say he’d been to New Guinea too and that the people living there had told him about a big animal with a long snout, which they referred to as a giant pig. It supposedly stood 6 feet tall at the shoulder, or 1.8 meters, and was very rare.

If you do a search for the devil-pig online, you’ll see it called the gazeka in a lot of places. Let’s discuss the word gazeka, because it doesn’t have anything to do with New Guinea. In fact, it comes from an adaptation of a French musical called The Little Michus. I bet you didn’t expect that. The musical is about two girls with the last name of Michu. One girl was given to the Michu family as a baby by her father, a general, who had to leave the country. The Michus had a baby daughter of the same age, and one day without thinking the father decided to give both babies a bath at the same time—and mixed them up. So no one knew which girl was which, but they grew up as sisters who think they’re twins and are devoted to each other. The play takes place when they’re both seventeen and the general suddenly shows up demanding his daughter back.

It’s a funny musical and was popular in the original French in 1897, but in 1905 an English translation was performed in London and was a huge hit. It ran for 400 performances and became part of the pop culture of the day. So where does the gazeka come in?

George Graves was a famous English comic actor, and he added an extra line or two to the play to get a laugh. He tells about a drunken explorer who thought he had seen a strange animal called the gazeka while under the influence of whiskey. The play was so popular, and the gazeka was considered so funny, that the idea just took off. The theater manager ran a competition for people to make drawings of the gazeka, and the winning drawing was made into a design that appeared on little charms, toys, and even in some advertisements for Perrier. The gazeka was even spun off into its own little song and dance in another play.

That was in 1905. In spring of 1906 an explorer called Captain Charles A.W. Monckton led an expedition to Papua New Guinea, and on May 10 two members of the team were sent to investigate some tracks the expedition had found the previous day. The team members included an army private named Ogi and a village constable called Oina who acted as Ogi’s guide. The two became separated at some point, and while he was looking for Oina, Ogi stumbled across two weird animals grazing in a grassy clearing. The devil-pigs!

The animals were only sort of piglike. Later Ogi reported that they were dark in color with a patterned coat, cloven hooves, horse-like tail, and a long snout. They stood about 3.5 feet tall, or 106 centimeters, and were 5 feet long, or 1.5 meters. He shot at one but missed, probably because he was so scared, but he claimed later that his hands were shaking because he was cold.

The tracks the two men were investigating were of a large cloven-footed animal. Captain Monckton thought the tracks must be made by the devil-pigs.

The story hit the newspapers while the gazeka craze was still popular. People started calling the devil-pigs Monckton’s Gazeka. Monckton didn’t appreciate this, because he didn’t like being compared to someone who saw imaginary animals while drunk.

So what could the devil-pig actually be?

One guess is that it was an unknown species of tapir. We talked about the tapir in episode 18, where I chose the only pronunciation of tapir that no one else in the world uses. The tapir looks kind of like a pig but it’s actually much more closely related to horses and rhinos. It has four toes on its front legs, three on its hind legs, and each toe has a large nail that looks like a little hoof. It also has a rounded body with a pronounced rump, a stubby little tail, and a long head with a short but prehensile trunk.

There are four known species of tapir alive today, three in Central and South America and one in Asia. It’s a shy, largely solitary, mostly nocturnal animal that prefers forests near rivers or streams. It spends a lot of time in water, eating water plants and cooling off when it’s hot. It swims well and can use its short trunk as a snorkel. Technically the trunk is called a proboscis, and the tapir mostly uses it to help gather plants.

As far as we know, there have never been any tapirs in New Guinea. The only tapir that lives in Asia today is the Asian tapir, which is mostly white or pale gray with black or dark gray forequarters and legs. It lives in lowland rainforests in Thailand, Sumatra, Myanmar, and a few other places, but not New Guinea. It’s the largest species of tapir alive today, up to 3 feet 7 inches tall, or 110 centimeters.

In 1962 some stone carvings were discovered in Papua New Guinea. The carvings are a few thousand years old and depict a strange animal. It looks a little like an anteater sitting up on its bottom with its front paws on its round belly, although there’s no tail. Its ears are small, its eyes are large, and it has a long nose with large nostrils at the end. It’s usually said to depict the long-beaked echidna, a small spiny monotreme mammal that lives in New Guinea, although it doesn’t look a lot like one.

In 1987 a mammologist named James Menzies looked at the carvings and made a suggestion. Instead of an echidna, he thought the carvings might depict a marsupial called a palorchestid diprotodont. The word diprotodont may make you perk your ears up, because we talked about it earlier this year in episode 224. Palorchestes is a genus of marsupials related to the diprotodont we talked about in that episode, but generally smaller, with the largest species being about the size of a horse. It had large claws on the front feet and a long tongue like a giraffe’s. Until recently, it was thought to have a short proboscis like a tapir, but a June 2020 study indicates it probably had prehensile lips instead. It used all these adaptations to strip leaves from branches.

Since Palorchestes probably didn’t have a trunk after all, and since its fossil remains have only been found in Australia, and since it went extinct around 13,000 years ago, the carvings probably don’t depict it. It probably also doesn’t depict a tapir. New Guinea is close to Australia and all of its native mammals are marsupials. The tapir is a placental mammal. That doesn’t mean a species of tapir didn’t once live on the island, but we have no fossil remains and the carvings don’t resemble a tapir all that much.

One animal that definitely lives in New Guinea is the pig, which was introduced to the island thousands of years ago by humans. Wild boars might be responsible for the huge cloven hoof prints found by explorers in New Guinea.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t an unknown hoofed animal hiding on the island, though. New Guinea is still not very well explored by scientists or even locals, so there are certainly animals living there that are completely unknown to science. Maybe one is a giant tapir or some other, more mysterious animal.

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!


Episode 243: Bats and Rats



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Don’t forget the Kickstarter, as if I’d let you forget it: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/kateshaw/beyond-bigfoot-and-nessie

Let’s pre-game Halloween and monster month with an episode about some Halloween-y bats and rats! Thanks to Connor for the suggestion!

Further reading:

Meet Myotis nimaensis

Hyorhinomys stuempkei: New Genus, Species of Shrew Rat Discovered in Indonesia

Fish-eating Myotis

The orange-furred bat is Halloween colored!

The hog-nosed rat has a little piggy nose and VAMPIRE FANGS:

The fish-eating bat has humongous clawed feet:

The crested rat does not look poisonous but it is:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re getting ready for October by talking about a bat suggested by Connor, along with another type of bat and two rats. It’s the bats and rats episode ushering us into Monster Month with style!

Don’t forget that our Kickstarter for the Strange Animals Podcast book goes live in just over a week! I know, it hasn’t even started yet and I’m already shouting all about it, but I’m excited! There’s a link in the show notes if you want to click through and bookmark that page.

Also, I have a correction from our recent squirrel episode. Nicholas wrote to let me know that vitiligo isn’t actually a genetic condition, although some people are genetically slightly more likely to develop it. I think that’s what caused my confusion. Vitiligo can be caused by a number of things, but it’s still true that you can’t catch it from someone. I’ll include a more in-depth correction in next year’s updates episode.

Okay, let’s start this episode off with Connor’s suggestion. Connor told me about a newly discovered bat called Myotis nimbaensis, and it’s not just any old bat. It’s a Halloween bat! Its body is orange and its wing membranes are black. It’s called the orange-furred bat and it lives in the Nimba Mountains of Guinea in West Africa.

The orange-furred bat was only discovered in 2018, when a team of scientists was exploring abandoned mine shafts in the mountains, looking for the critically endangered Lamotte’s roundleaf bat. The team was surveying the bats in cooperation with a mining company and conservation groups, because they needed to know where the bats were so the old mine shafts could be repaired before they fell in and squished all the bats.

Then one of the team saw a bat no one recognized. It was orange and fluffy with big ears and tiny black dot eyes, and its wings were black. They sent a picture of the bat to an expert named Nancy Simmons, and Dr. Simmons knew immediately that it was something out of the ordinary. Sure enough, it’s a species unknown to science. The team described the bat in 2021.

Next, let’s talk about a rat. It was also discovered recently, in this case in 2013 and described in 2015. It’s usually called the hog-nosed rat. It lives in a single part of a single small island in South Asia, specifically in North Sulawesi, Indonesia. This is one of the same places where the babirusa lives, if you remember episode 218.

The hog-nosed rat is a rodent but it’s not actually that closely related to other rats and mice. It’s even been assigned to its own genus. It’s a soft brown-gray on its back and white underneath, with big ears, a very long tail, and a pink nose that does actually look a lot like a little piggy nose. Its eyes are small but its incisors are extremely long and sharp. In fact, they look like vampire fangs!

In 2013, a team of scientists was studying rodents living in the area. To do this they would put special traps out at night and check them in the morning. This isn’t a regular rat trap that kills rats, of course, but a box that keeps the rodent safe inside so it can be examined before being released again. One day they checked a trap and inside was a rodent no one recognized. Surprise rat!

So, what does the hog-nosed rat eat with those vicious fangs? Earthworms and beetle grubs! Terrifying, I know.

Next, let’s learn about another bat, Myotis vivesi. It’s called the fish-eating bat or the Mexican fishing bat. It lives around the Gulf of California on the west coast of North America, mostly on small islands. It’s brown on top, white or cream-colored underneath, and it has big ears because it’s a bat. Almost all bats have big ears.

Fish eating is unusual in bats, and marine fish eating is even more unusual. Only one other species of bat, the fisherman bat of Central and South America, catches marine fish regularly, but the two species belong to completely different families. The Mexican fishing bat’s closest relatives don’t eat fish at all.

Because it lives exclusively around the ocean and feeds mostly on fish and crustaceans, although it will occasionally eat insects and algae, the Mexican fishing bat has other unusual adaptations. It drinks seawater instead of fresh water, for one thing. During the day it hides in crevices in rocks, sometimes in cliffs but more often in the rocky ground. It actually wriggles its way about three feet underground, or a meter, where it’s dark and cool.

Why are we talking about this particular bat in our pre-October episode? Because it has humongous feet with long, pointy claws. The bat itself is only about 5 ½ inches long, or 14 cm, but its feet are almost an inch long, or 2.5 cm. It uses its big feet to snag tiny fish out of the water.

We’ll finish with another rodent, the maned rat, or African crested rat. It doesn’t actually look much like a rat, since its tail is furry and it has a short, blunt muzzle sort of like a porcupine’s face. It’s mostly gray and black with white-tipped hairs that make it look frosty, and it has a crest of longer hairs along its back. It also has white stripes along its sides. It grows about 14 inches long, or 36 cm, not counting its thick, furry tail.

The crested rat mostly eats plants, especially fruit and leaves, but will sometimes eat insects and meat too. Its stomach is divided into multiple chambers and is more like a ruminant’s stomach than a rodent’s, which allows it to use a form of foregut fermentation to digest plant material more efficiently.

Also, the African crested rat is POISONOUS.

The crested rat chews on the bark of the poison arrow tree, which contains toxins that can kill most animals. The crested rat isn’t affected by the toxins, though. After it chews the bark, it licks the long hairs of its crest, which are unusually absorbent. The hairs absorb the poison-filled spit so that any animal that tries to take a bite of African crested rat gets sick or even dies. It probably also tastes terrible but that’s just a guess.

The poison arrow tree is a type of milkweed, and most plants in this family contain toxins. North American milkweed plants are the ones that monarch butterfly caterpillars eat, and the caterpillars absorb toxins from the milkweed that keep birds and other animals from eating them. Researchers aren’t sure how the crested rat keeps from getting sick from the toxins, but one theory is that its stomach contains specialized bacteria that break down the toxins.

If an African crested rat feels threatened, it will raise its crest of long hairs. The crest actually parts down the middle of the back, exposing the white section of the hair and warning predators away.

In case you’re too scared by this poisonous fuzzy rodent, you can relax knowing that the African crested rat is a sociable animal that makes purring sounds while it grooms its family members. Just don’t lick it.

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 242: Snakes with Nose Horns



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Check out our Kickstarter pre-launch page!!

Thanks to Max for suggesting the rhinoceros viper! We’ll learn about that one and several other snakes with nose horns this week.

The rhino viper, AKA the butterfly viper because of its beautiful colors and pattern:

The rhino viper has nose horns (photo by Balázs Buzás):

The West African Gaboon viper (Bitis rhinoceros), AKA the other rhino viper:

The rhinoceros snake, AKA the Vietnamese longnose snake (photo taken by me! That’s why it’s kind of blurry!):

The nose-horned viper is a beautiful snake:

Show transcript:

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

Just a reminder about our Kickstarter for the Strange Animals Podcast book! Check the show notes for a link if you want to look at the preliminary cover and maybe bookmark the page for when we go live in just two weeks!!

This week we’ll learn about the rhino viper, which was suggested by Max, who at the time was almost eight years old but that was so long ago I bet Max is eight now or maybe nine or ten. Maybe thirty.

The rhinoceros viper lives in forests in parts of western and central Africa, and can grow three and a half feet long, or 107 cm. It’s a heavy chonk of a snake but it’s beautifully colored, with big triangular blotches and smaller markings of red, yellow, black, and blue or green. If you look at one on a white background it stands out, but on the forest floor where it lives, with dead leaves and plants all around, it blends right in. It has rough scales that make it look bristly, called keeled scales. The rhino viper’s scales are so strongly keeled that they can cut your hand if you pet it. It’s not a good idea to pet wild snakes anyway.

The rhino viper’s scientific name is Bitis nasicornis. At first I thought it was pronounced like “bite us,” which I thought was hilarious, and I was disappointed to find that it’s pronounced “bit-us,” although that’s actually funny too. Actually it’s pronounced “bit-is.” It’s spelled B-I-T-I-S. Nasicornis means nose horn, and it definitely has horns on its nose. It has a pair of horns, in fact, side by side, and they stick up and slightly forward. Some rhino vipers even have three nose horns. They’re not true horns, though. Instead they’re made of modified scales. They’re bendy like scales too.

The rhino viper mostly eats rodents but will also eat frogs, birds, and other small animals if it can catch them. It’s an ambush hunter, meaning it hides among fallen leaves and waits for an animal to come too close. Most of the time it moves slowly, but when it strikes, it does so very quickly, in less than a quarter of a second. It has relatively mild venom, although some other Bitis species have venom that’s deadly to humans.

The rhino viper spends most of its time on the ground, but it can climb trees if it wants to. The end of its blunt tail is even partially prehensile, meaning it can curl around branches to help it hang on. This is the closest thing to a hand that snakes have. It can also swim well.

Sometimes the rhino viper is called the butterfly viper because of its colorful markings, and to stop people from confusing it with another closely related snake called Bitis rhinoceros. Rhinoceros also means nose-horn, by the way. B. rhinoceros is also called the West African Gaboon viper because it lives in West Africa. It looks similar to the other rhino viper with a similar pattern but in more neutral tones of brown and tan. It’s sort of a more sophisticated-looking rhino viper. It also has a pair of nose horns but they’re smaller and generally point up and slightly back.

All snakes in the genus Bitis have a threat display that has earned them the name puff adder, although that’s also the name of a specific species, Bitis arietans, that’s extremely venomous. Some people call the various species of hognose snake found in North America puff adders too because of its behavior when it feels threatened. The hognose snake flattens its neck and raises its head so that it looks like a cobra, all the while hissing in a way that sounds like it’s puffing air in and out. Snakes in the genus Bitis have a similarly impressive display. It appears to inflate and deflate as it hisses loudly, as though you’re being warned away by a bicycle tire innertube with keeled scales and nose horns. This is what it sounds like when a puff adder puffs and hisses:

[snake hissing sounds]

Vipers of all kinds are members of the family Viperidae, which includes a whole lot of venomous snakes from many parts of the world. Vipers have fangs that are so long, they’re actually hinged so they can fit in the mouth. Each fang is attached to a small bone that can rotate forward and back to extend and refold the fangs. Most of the time the viper’s fangs are folded down along the sides of the mouth, protected by a sheath of skin. When it’s ready to bite, either in defense or to kill prey, the viper extends its fangs, but because the fangs are delicate and easily broken, the snake waits to extend its fangs until the last possible moment.

The fangs are also hollow and are connected to venom glands located behind the eyes. That’s why so many vipers have triangular heads, because the venom glands take up extra space at the back of the head. The venom glands are equipped with tiny muscles that the snake contracts to send venom flowing through the fangs and into the bite wound, and it can control how much venom it injects, if any.

Vipers in the genus Bitis have especially long fangs with powerful bites, so that many animals die from the bite itself and not the venom. The reason that snakes inject venom into small prey that it could easily kill and swallow without venom is that the venom begins the digestion process. Most snakes don’t actually have very efficient digestive systems, so by having venom that not only kills its prey but starts digesting it before the snake even swallows it, vipers can extract more nutrients from their food.

The rhino viper and the other rhino viper aren’t the only snakes with nose horns. The rhinoceros snake isn’t a viper but it does have a nose horn—in this case just one nose horn, which grows from the tip of the nose and points straight forward. It’s also called the rhinoceros ratsnake or the Vietnamese longnose snake. It lives in rainforests in northern Vietnam and southern China and spends almost all of its time in trees. Adults are a lovely pale green or blue-green. It can grow over five feet long, or 1.6 m, and is a slender, active snake that mostly eats rodents and other small animals.

Another snake with a nose horn is the nose-horned viper. This one lives in parts of southern Europe and the Middle East, and it’s also called the sand viper. Since lots of vipers live in sandy areas but not all vipers have nose horns, I don’t know how you could possibly look at this snake and decide to call it a sand viper and not a nose-horned viper. Also, it doesn’t live in the sand. It likes rocky areas and can sometimes be found in old stone walls where it has lots of crevices to hide in. It eats small animals, including rodents, lizards and other snakes, large insects like centipedes, and the occasional bird.

The nose-horned viper can grow over three feet long, or about a meter. Individuals can be gray-brown, reddish-brown, coppery-red, dark red, or pale brown, and it has a darker zigzag pattern. Like most vipers it’s a chonky, fairly slow-moving snake. Its nose horn points upward in some subspecies, forward in others.

That brings us to the big question: what are these nose horns used for? Why do these snakes have nose horns at all?

The answer is: we don’t know. They’re soft and bendy, made of scales, so they can’t be used as weapons, not that a four-foot-long snake with massive fangs and deadly venom needs to poke at predators with a little nose horn. They’re probably just for display, but only the snake knows for sure.

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 241: Weird and Wonderful Squirrels



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Our pre-launch Kickstarter page! You can see what the book cover will look like!

Thanks to Liesbet and Enzo for their suggestions this week! Let’s learn about squirrels!

Further reading:

Project Squirrel

Interspecies Breeding Is Responsible for Some Squirrels’ Black Coloring

The Indian giant squirrel, without filter (left) and with filter (right):

Some variable squirrels (see lots more at iNaturalist):

The Eastern gray squirrel:

The Eurasian red squirrel:

The fox squirrel:

White Eastern gray squirrels (photos taken from the White and Albino Squirrel Research Initiative):

A white variable squirrel spotted in Thailand (picture found here):

The African pygmy squirrel:

The least pygmy squirrel of Asia:

Show transcript:

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

It’s finally the squirrel episode! Both Liesbet and Enzo have suggested squirrels as a topic, and Enzo specifically asked about white squirrels, hybrid squirrels, and squirrels in danger. We’re going to cover all those, and also a few squirrel mysteries!

First, though, a quick note to say that the Kickstarter campaign for the Strange Animals Podcast book is definitely going to happen NEXT MONTH! It’ll go live in early October 2021. Don’t worry, I’ll let you know when so you can go pre-order a copy of the book if you want, and in fact I think I’ll do a bonus episode the first day of the Kickstarter. If you want to get an email to remind you when the campaign launches, there’s a link in the show notes to the pre-launch page where you can request an email notification on launch. You can also see what the book cover will look like! Now, on to the squirrels.

The animal we generally just call a squirrel is specifically a tree squirrel, as opposed to ground squirrels. Tree squirrels are arboreal, which means they live in trees, although they spend plenty of time on the ground too. Squirrels mostly eat nuts and seeds, including acorns and the seeds inside pine cones, but will also eat berries, flowers and buds, tree bark and sap, fungus, and sometimes insects, bird eggs, and even baby birds. Squirrels are rodents and are active in the daytime.

Squirrels can be helpful to trees even though they eat tree nuts, because most species bury nuts to dig up and eat later. The squirrel doesn’t always remember where it hid all its nuts, and in spring the buried nuts sprout and grow into new trees. Some species also hide nuts in caches, often in holes in trees.

A squirrel sleeps in a nest made of dead leaves and sticks it builds in the branches of a tree. The nest is called a drey and it’s lined on the inside with moss, grass, and other soft, warm material. A mother squirrel will line the nest with some of her fur right before her babies are born, so the nest is especially soft and warm. Some species also nest in old woodpecker holes. In winter when it’s cold, several squirrels may share the same drey to stay warm, but squirrels are usually solitary. They don’t hibernate, but like most of us, they sleep more in winter and are less active.

Most people know what a squirrel looks like, because it’s such a common animal throughout most of the world. Some squirrel species get used to humans and often live in people’s yards and in city parks. A tree squirrel has a long, fluffy tail, a long, slender body, relatively short legs, small ears, and large eyes. It’s usually gray or brown and sometimes has spots or stripes.

Some tree squirrels look different from the squirrels you may be used to, depending on where you live. Squirrels of the genus Ratufa are called giant squirrels and they’re the size of domestic cats. They live in parts of Asia, especially southeast Asia. The Indian giant squirrel lives in India, and not only is it especially big, up to 20 inches long, or 50 cm, not counting its long tail, it’s brightly colored. Different individuals and subspecies can have different shades of fur, although the belly and front legs are usually cream-colored. The rest of the body can be tan, dark brown, black, cream-colored, rusty-red, or even a dark maroon color. You may have seen pictures online of brightly colored giant squirrels, and while those are real pictures of real animals, the photographer used a filter that enhances the colors to make them look even brighter than they really are.

The Indian giant squirrel and its close relations eat fruit, nuts, flowers, and other plant material, and hardly ever come down from the tall trees where they live.

Another colorful squirrel is the variable squirrel, which also lives in southeast Asia. It’s on the small side for a tree squirrel, less than 9 inches long at most, or 22 cm, not counting the tail. There are over a dozen subspecies that vary in color and pattern, and some researchers think there may be enough differences that it’s actually more than one species of closely related squirrel. It’s a member of a genus called “beautiful squirrels,” because so many species in the genus have pretty markings. Some variable squirrels are white underneath and red-brown above, with little pointed ears outlined in white, and a reddish tail. Some are glossy black with red markings. Others can be gray, black, orangey-red, reddish-brown, brown, or white with various patterns and markings. It’s so pretty that it’s been introduced in places like Japan, Singapore, Italy, and the Philippines, where it can be an invasive species.

The eastern gray squirrel of eastern North America has also been introduced to other areas where it’s become an invasive species. It was introduced to the UK in 1876 and because it’s a large, aggressive species, the native Eurasian red squirrel has been driven almost to extinction in Britain. It’s still doing fine in the rest of its range, though. Habitat loss is also a factor in the red squirrel’s declining numbers, but the gray squirrel certainly isn’t helping.

The gray squirrel also carries a disease called the squirrel parapoxvirus that causes squirrelpox. Don’t worry, only squirrels can catch it. The gray squirrel is mostly immune to the disease, but the red squirrel isn’t. If an infected gray squirrel is bitten by a mosquito that then bites a red squirrel, the red squirrel can catch squirrelpox from the mosquito bite.

The red squirrel is a reddish-brown in color with tufts on its ears, and in winter it grows a thick undercoat to keep it warm. It also generally looks more gray in winter. Some populations of red squirrel in parts of Europe are black, or nearly black, although it still has a white belly. The red squirrel only grows up to about 9 inches long, or 23 cm, much smaller than the eastern gray squirrel, which can grow up to 12 inches long, or 30 cm. Those lengths don’t include the tail. The red squirrel generally prefers fir trees while the gray squirrel prefers deciduous trees, especially oaks, but the gray squirrel will steal food from the red squirrel no matter what kind of food it is.

In its native range in eastern North America, the eastern gray squirrel often lives alongside other species of squirrel. In 1997 an evolutionary behavioral ecologist named Joel Brown noticed that there are two species of squirrel that live in Chicago, Illinois, a large city in the middle of the gray squirrel’s range. The gray squirrel shares the city with the fox squirrel, which is about the same size and looks very similar to the gray squirrel but is more of a rusty-red color. Dr. Brown noticed that the gray squirrel mostly lives in wealthy neighborhoods while the fox squirrel mostly lives in neighborhoods where people don’t have as much money, and he wanted to figure out why.

Dr. Brown started Project Squirrel to study the mystery. The program teaches people how to tell the difference between the two species so they can report what kind of squirrels they see and where they see them. Right away he started noticing patterns. Fox squirrels live in areas where there are more predators, including feral and free-roaming dogs and cats, urban foxes and coyotes, and hawks. Gray squirrels prefer areas where there aren’t as many predators. Dr. Brown thinks it’s because the fox squirrels are bolder and on average a little larger than gray squirrels, which tend to be more shy. He even noticed a change in his own neighborhood when gray squirrels started becoming more numerous, a shift that happened right after a local leash law went into effect, meaning that fewer pets were running loose.

Project Squirrel has since expanded. There’s an app and everything if you want to take part as a citizen scientist and help solve squirrel mysteries.

Another small squirrel mystery is white squirrels. In August of 2021, just last month as this episode goes live, we had a Q&A episode where we talked about the black squirrels Connor was seeing in Michigan. Those black squirrels turned out to be melanistic eastern gray squirrels. Are white squirrels albino animals or is there something else going on?

Albinism is due to a genetic anomaly that causes an individual to lack pigment. That means its fur or hair is pure white and its skin looks pink because the lack of pigment means its blood shows through and makes it look pink. Its eyes will look red or pink for the same reason, although in some animals the eyes are pale blue instead. Humans with albinism have pale blue eyes.

But most white squirrels have dark eyes and may appear pale brown or gray instead of pure white. Instead of albinism, these squirrels are leucistic. Leucism is related to albinism but instead of a lack of pigment, a leucistic animal has reduced pigment. Sometimes the reduced pigment happens all over the body, sometimes in patches. A leucistic animal often has ordinary colored eyes and skin but pale or white fur. In some domestic species of animal, leucism is bred for or happens frequently in a population, like piebald horses and cows with white spots. It’s a common enough condition that I’ve actually seen leucistic birds while birdwatching. Humans can sometimes show a type of leucism called vitiligo that usually develops in adults, where patches of skin lose their pigment over time. It’s most noticeable on people with dark skin but it also happens to people with light skin. You can’t catch vitiligo from someone else; it’s just a genetic anomaly. Unfortunately, sometimes people who develop the condition get treated badly by others, because people are often afraid of things they don’t understand. Now you know what it is and you can share that knowledge when you need to.

In squirrels, individuals with white fur are usually in more danger from predators. Everything likes to eat squirrels, which is why most squirrel species are gray or reddish-brown as camouflage against tree trunks and branches. A white squirrel shows up like a flashing sign saying, “Snacktime!” As a result, squirrels with white fur are rare to start with and usually don’t live long enough to pass their genes along to the next generation—but in some places, they’re much more common.

In many towns in the United States and Canada, white squirrels are not just common, most squirrels are white. Some towns have white squirrel festivals as a way to promote local pride and bring tourists to the area. Why do some places have white squirrels while most don’t, and why are all the white squirrel populations in North America?

It’s all back to the eastern gray squirrel again. Most squirrel species don’t have a gene that can cause leucism, but the eastern gray squirrel does. Other squirrel species can be albinistic since that’s a genetic anomaly that can happen in any animal, but it’s the eastern gray squirrel that shows leucism most commonly. The closely related fox squirrel also sometimes exhibits leucism.

Some towns have high populations of white squirrels because people think they’re neat. If the white squirrels are in a protected area, like a city park or a college campus, there are fewer predators to start with. People who like the squirrels will leave food out for them and make sure no one hurts them, and as a result the squirrels survive to have babies. Since leucism is a genetic condition, the babies of white squirrels are more likely to be white too.

Remember the variable squirrel we talked about earlier in the episode? Some of them exhibit leucism too, usually a pale brown-white all over with dark eyes.

One thing I learned about black squirrels after last month’s Q&A episode is that some black squirrels are hybrids of eastern gray and fox squirrels. The two species are closely related and often live in the same areas, so it’s not surprising that they sometimes interbreed. Hybrid babies may inherit a genetic variant found in fox squirrels that gives them darker fur. Some researchers think that all gray squirrels with black fur may have inherited the gene for black fur color from fox squirrels in their ancestry.

For the most part, though, tree squirrels don’t hybridize very often, probably because in most places, only one species predominates in any given area. Grey squirrels and Eurasian red squirrels belong to different genera and subfamilies, so aren’t very closely related although their habitats sometimes overlap.

Enzo specifically asked about squirrels in danger, and I’m happy to report that most squirrel species are actually doing just fine. Squirrels are adaptable and can learn to live around humans. As long as they have trees to live in and enough food to support a population, they’re okay. The main danger most squirrels face is habitat loss, especially logging and clear-cutting of forests to build houses or businesses.

A subspecies of fox squirrel called the Delmarva fox squirrel was put on the endangered species list in 1967. It’s native to areas of northeastern North America. It’s about the size of the eastern gray squirrel, which it resembles since it’s gray with a white belly, although it’s usually a more silvery gray in color. By 1967 its population had declined by 90% from habitat loss and overhunting. A conservation plan put in place in 1979 focused on protecting the squirrel’s remaining habitat, restoring its habitat wherever possible, and monitoring the population carefully. The program was such a success that in 2015, the Delmarva fox squirrel was removed from the endangered species list. It’s yet another reminder that protecting an animal’s habitat is just as important as protecting the animal itself. The Delmarva fox squirrel now only lives on the eastern coasts of Maryland and Virginia, a much smaller range than before, so continued conservation efforts are in place to keep it safe and healthy.

Let’s finish with the smallest tree squirrel known, the African pygmy squirrel. It lives in tropical rainforests in parts of western and central Africa. It only grows 5.5 inches long, or 14 cm, and that includes its tail! That’s the size of a mouse. We don’t actually know a whole lot about the African pygmy squirrel, but we do know that it’s an omnivore. This is unusual for squirrels, even though most squirrel species will eat the occasional insect or bird egg. The African pygmy squirrel eats insects regularly as well as fruit, bark, and other plant materials. Unlike most squirrels, it doesn’t store food.

The African pygmy squirrel is the same size as the least pygmy squirrel that lives on three islands in southeast Asia. We know even less about the least pygmy squirrel than we do the African pygmy squirrel…or I guess you could say we know the least about the least pygmy squirrel.

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 239: Mystery Crocodiles



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Thanks to Pranav and Max for their suggestions. Let’s learn about some mystery crocodiles (and crocodile mysteries) this week!

Further reading:

Huge prehistoric croc ‘river boss’ prowled waterways

Extinct “horned” crocodile’s ancestry revealed

New species of crocodile discovered in museum collections

Rediscovery of “Lost” Caiman Leads to New Crocodilian Mystery

The Orange Cave-Dwelling Crocodiles

The horned crocodile’s fossil skull:

A baby Apaporis River caiman, looking fierce but cute (picture from link above):

An orange crocodile (later released, picture from link above):

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw. We’ve got a crocodile episode this week you can really sink your teeth into. Thanks to Pranav and Max for their suggestions! (Yes, I do have a cold but hopefully I don’t sound too bad. I got a covid test today to make sure it’s just a cold, and it’s just a cold.)

We talked about crododilians in episode 85, so if you want to learn more about the saltwater crocodile or how to tell the American crocodile from the American alligator and so forth, that’s the episode to listen to. This episode is going to talk about mystery crocodiles!

The partial skull of a massive extinct crocodilian discovered in Queensland, Australia over a century ago was finally described in June of 2021. All we have is the partial skull from an animal that lived between 2 and 5 million years ago, but researchers can estimate the size of the whole animal by comparing the dimensions of its skull with its closest living relation. That happens to be an animal called the false gharial that lives on a few islands in South Asia, including Java and Sumatra. It’s the only living member of the subfamily Tomistominae, which used to be common worldwide. The false gharial can grow as long as 16 feet, or 5 meters, but its extinct Australian cousin was much bigger. The new species, Gunggamarandu maunala, may have grown up to 23 feet long, or 7 meters.

A smaller extinct crocodile, called the horned crocodile, lived in Madagascar until only about 1,400 years ago. It grew a little over 16 feet long, or 5 meters. It had two projections at the back of its head that look like horns, although they weren’t actually horns and probably weren’t all that big or noticeable when the crocodile was alive.

Like Gunggamarandu, the horned crocodile’s fossils were discovered almost 150 years ago but only definitively described in 2021. In this case, though, the delay was because no one could decide where the horned crocodile belonged in the crocodilian family tree. The Nile crocodile lives on Madagascar now, and some researchers assumed that the horned crocodile was either a close relation of the Nile croc or its ancestor. Since new evidence points to the Nile crocodile being a fairly recent arrival to the island, that’s not likely, so researchers analyzed the fossil remains and reclassified the horned croc as a member of the dwarf crocodiles in 2007. Finally, though, a research team analyzed the horned croc’s DNA and determined that it belongs in its own genus and is most closely related to the ancestral species of all living crocodiles. This suggests that crocodiles evolved in Africa and spread throughout the world from there.

Researchers aren’t sure what caused the horned croc to go extinct, but it may have been a combination of factors, including a drying climate on Madagascar, the arrival of humans, and the arrival of the Nile crocodile.

Speaking of the Nile crocodile and DNA, a 2011 genetic study of the Nile crocodile resulted in a surprising discovery. The study tested not just DNA samples gathered from 123 living Nile crocodiles but from 57 crocodiles mummified in ancient Egypt. The goal was to see if there were differences between modern crocodiles and ones that lived several thousand years ago, and to determine whether maybe there was a subspecies of Nile crocodile that hadn’t been recognized by science. Instead, they discovered that what was previously known as the Nile crocodile is actually two completely different species!

The Nile croc lives in Africa and is a large, aggressive animal that can grow just over 19 feet long, or almost 6 meters. The West African croc also lives in Africa and is a smaller, less aggressive animal that can grow up to 13 feet long, or 4 meters. Since crocodiles of all species show a lot of variation in size and appearance, no one realized until 2011 that there were two species living near each other. They’re not even all that closely related.

After the finding was published, zoos across the world tested their crocodiles and discovered that a lot of their Nile crocs are actually West African crocs.

Something similar happened more recently, in 2019, when a team of scientists did a genetic study of the New Guinea crocodile. They gathered DNA from 51 museum specimens from 7 different museums, and compared them to living New Guinea crocodiles. They were hoping to determine if there are actually two species of crocodile living in different parts of New Guinea, which had been suspected for a while. It turns out that yes, there are two separate species! Knowing exactly what kinds of animals live in a particular environment helps conservationists protect them properly.

In 1952 a subspecies of the spectacled caiman was discovered by science, called the Apaporis River caiman. It lives in Colombia, South America and is relatively small as crocs go, maybe 8 feet long at most, or 2.5 meters. After that, though, it wasn’t seen again. This was partly due to how remote and hard to navigate its habitat is, and partly due to a dangerous political situation, with rebel forces occupying the jungle where the crocodiles live. A peace treaty signed in 2016 made it safe for scientists to travel to that area at last, and a Colombian biologist named Sergio Balaguera-Reina visited with various indigenous tribes of the area to ask about the Apaporis caiman and learn everything they knew about it.

At night, he and two local people paddled upriver in a canoe and searched for the caimans—and he found lots of them. He caught as many as he could to take DNA samples before releasing them again. When he got home, he tested the DNA and made a surprising discovery. Even though the Apaporis caimans look very different from another subspecies of spectacled caiman found in other parts of South America, their DNA is quite similar. That means the differences, especially the Apaporis caiman’s much narrower snout, are due to selective pressures in its environment. Balaguera-Reina is working on figuring out the causes of the Apaporis caiman’s physical differences.

The Siamese crocodile was once common throughout South Asia, but habitat loss has had a major impact on the species and for a long time it was thought to be extinct in the wild. It grows up to 13 feet long at most, or 4 meters, and is not very aggressive. It’s kept in captivity in crocodile farms, where it’s bred and killed for its meat and skin, but a lot of those farms have multiple species of closely related crocodiles and they can and do interbreed, meaning that the Siamese crocodiles in the farms are most likely hybrid animals.

In 2001 a team of conservationists traveled to Thailand to search for tigers, and one of their camera traps recorded a Siamese crocodile just walking along the river like it was no big deal. The photograph was especially lucky because it shouldn’t have even happened. The camera traps used actual film, not digital cameras which were still expensive and not very good back then. The rolls of film could capture 36 pictures before the film ran out, but the crocodile appeared on the 37th picture. Film is manufactured in long strips, then cut into pieces and rolled up and put in little canisters for a photographer to put in the camera, and the roll is a little longer than it needs to be because the ends have to be anchored in place. This particular strip of film just happened to be long enough to take 37 pictures instead of 36. If it hadn’t been, the conservationists wouldn’t have known the crocodile was still alive.

A follow-up expedition to look specifically for crocodiles discovered more of them. Since then a captive breeding program was set up, and in 2013 the first hatchlings were released into the wild.

Sometimes when a crocodile is killed, interesting things turn up in its stomach. This is what happened in 2019 when a crocodile farm in Queensland, Australia necropsied one of their saltwater crocs to see what he had died of. The croc was over 15 feet long, or 4.7 meters, and was about 60 years old. When they opened up his stomach, they found a piece of metal and six screws, the kind of metal called an orthopedic plate. It’s used to join two pieces of broken bone or strengthen an injured bone so it won’t break.

Medical devices like this are always etched with a serial number, but the metal was inside the croc’s belly for so long that the serial number was corroded off by stomach acid. This would have taken decades to happen, so the crocodile had to have eaten the metal decades ago, possibly as long as 40 years ago.

The farm contacted the police but so far they haven’t been able to trace what might have happened. The croc wasn’t bred on a farm but had been caught wild. The farm owner sent pictures of the plate to a surgeon, who determined that yes, it was probably from a human, not an animal, and that it looks like a type of plate used in Europe. The farm owner hopes the discovery will one day help solve a missing persons case.

Let’s finish with an interesting discovery in the rainforests of Gabon, a small country on the west coast of central Africa. The Abanda caves in the area are extensive, not very well explored, and full of bats and insects. A man named Olivier Testa, a professional explorer who often leads scientific expeditions into remote areas, heard a rumor about a population of orange [I read this as strange instead of orange and was too lazy to fix it] crocodiles living in the cave system. A lot of people would have just laughed, because everyone knows crocs and other reptiles like hot weather, sunshine, and warm water to hunt in. But when Testa got the opportunity to join an expedition into the cave system in 2010, he remembered the crocodiles.

Guess what they found in the cave. I bet you all guessed correctly. There really were crocodiles in the caves, specifically African dwarf crocodiles, and the biggest ones did look slightly orangey in color. Crocs don’t live in caves, but there they were. The following year the expedition returned, and this time they were there to find out more about the crocs.

A crocodile expert named Matthew Shirley came along, and he figured out why the crocodiles were in the cave. There are an estimated 50,000 bats living in the cave system, so many that the crocodiles could basically just reach up and snap bats off the walls to eat. There are lots of crickets in the cave too, and young crocs eat lots of insects.

As for the orange color of the older crocs, that comes from the water in the cave. Bats have to pee just like every other animal does, and where they roost over the water they pee into the water, naturally. So much bat urine actually has an effect on the water composition, turning it extremely alkaline. This affects the skin color of animals that stay in it for a long time, as the older crocs have.

The cave crocodiles appear to spend the dry season in the caves, eating bats and avoiding humans who hunt crocs. During the rainy season, they emerge from the caves to mate and lay their eggs in rotting vegetation outside.

This is the first population of crocodiles ever found that spends time in caves deliberately. Some researchers speculate that the crocodiles could eventually evolve into a new subspecies of dwarf crocodile that’s especially adapted to the cave system.

You know what we call those? We call them dragons.

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!


Episode 238: The Pink Fairy Armadillo and Two Adorable Friends



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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 237: Geckos and Other Arboreal Reptiles



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Thanks to Riley, Richard, and Aiden and Aiden’s unnamed friend for suggestions this week! We’re going to learn about some geckos and other reptiles that live in trees. Thanks also to Llewelly for a small correction about lions. Also, I mispronounced Strophurus–it should be more like Stroff-YOUR-us but I’m too lazy to fix it.

Further reading:

Cancer Clues Found in Gene behind ‘Lemon Frost’ Gecko Color

A chameleon’s feets:

A rare healthy lemon frost domestic leopard gecko (photo taken from article linked above):

An ordinary leopard gecko:

I don’t remember what kind of gecko this is (golden spiny-tailed?) but I love it:

A crested gecko looking surprised:

The green iguana:

A black mamba. Watch out!

Flying snake alert!

The draco lizard with its “wings” extended (male) and the draco lizard with its “wings” folded (female):

A parachute gecko showing how it works:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to learn about some reptiles, specifically reptiles that live in trees. This is a suggestion from Riley, who wanted to hear about arboreal reptiles in general and the crested gecko in particular. Thanks also to my brother Richard, who suggested the dragon-tailed gecko. An anonymous reviewer also suggested the leopard gecko so we’ll learn about that one too. Specifically, the anonymous reviewer said “me and my friend Aiden suggest either red foxes or leopard geckos.” We actually covered the red fox in episode 138, about city animals, and in episode 106, about domestication, but we’ve only mentioned the leopard gecko briefly way back in episode 20.

Arboreal animals have some traits in common, whether they’re reptiles or mammals or something else. In general, an animal that spends most of its time in trees is small and lightweight, either has long legs or very short legs, may have a long tail to help it balance, and may also have various adaptations to its feet to help it maneuver through branches.

This is the case with the chameleon, which is arboreal and has weird feet. Its feet look more like mittens. The feet are called zygodactylous, which means it has two toes pointing forward and two pointing backwards. A lot of birds have feet like this too. Chameleons have other adaptations for arboreal life, like prehensile tails that can twine around a twig to help it keep its balance. The chameleon really deserves its own episode some day, so let’s move on to learn about some geckos.

The biggest gecko known grows up to two feet long, or 60 cm, but most are much smaller. There are more than 1,800 species known and they’re all really interesting and honestly, adorable. They’re mostly nocturnal and eat small animals like insects. About 60% of all gecko species have toe pads that allow them to walk up walls and windows and even across ceilings.

Like many other lizards, most geckos species can drop their tail if a predator attacks. The tail thrashes around on its own for several minutes, distracting the predator so the gecko can escape. The gecko later regrows a little stumpy tail, but it can’t drop it a second time. Many species of gecko store fat in the tail, so it needs that tail. A genus of gecko called the fish-scaled gecko, which lives on Madagascar and nearby islands, has big scales that come loose easily if an animal tries to bite it or if a scientist tries to capture it. The predator gets a mouthful of scales while the gecko runs off. The scales grow back eventually and can be lost again.

Scientists are always interested in animals that can regenerate parts of the body, to learn how that works. A study published in 2017 identified the type of cells that allow the gecko to regrow the part of its spinal cord that’s lost with its tail. In 2018, the same team published their discovery that geckos renew brain cells. This is amazing, since humans and many other animals are born with all the brain cells they’ll ever have, and if something happens to injure the brain, the damage can’t be repaired. Maybe one day people will be able to heal their brains just like the gecko does.

Most species of gecko don’t have eyelids. Instead, the gecko has a protective scale over its eyeball. To remove dust and other debris from the scale, the gecko licks its eyes.

The leopard gecko grows about 11 inches long, or almost 28 cm, and is one of the species that doesn’t have toe pads. That makes it easier to keep in captivity, since it’s less likely to climb out of its terrarium. It’s a handsome lizard that’s yellowish or orangey in color with black spots, but baby leopard geckos actually have black stripes. It’s native to parts of the Middle East and south Asia where it’s mostly hot and dry, and in the wild it spends its day in a burrow and only comes out at night to hunt.

The leopard gecko has been kept as a pet for so long that some people consider it the first truly domesticated lizard. It’s easy to take care of and is usually comfortable around people. Breeders select for brighter colors than are found in wild geckos, including various color and pattern morphs.

One color variety of domestic leopard gecko is called the lemon frost morph, an especially attractive coloration. It’s a pastel yellow with white underneath and brown or black speckles that form broad bands over the lizard’s back. It’s really pretty and when the trait cropped up unexpectedly around 2015, its owner started breeding for the color. Lemon frost babies were rare and incredibly expensive, with people paying up to $2,000 for a single gecko.

Unfortunately, people soon learned that lemon frost geckos were prone to a type of rare skin cancer that affects the iridophores, which are pigment-producing cells. Up to 80% of all lemon frost morphs develop the cancer. Geneticists have discovered that the color morph is due to a single mutation in a single gene, but that the change in that gene also makes the gecko susceptible to cancer. Scientists are now trying to figure out more about how it works in hopes of learning how to prevent skin cancer in humans.

The dragon-tailed gecko is one name for the golden spiny-tailed gecko, one of twenty species in the genus Strophurus. All Strophurus geckos are from Australia and they all spend most of their lives in trees and shrubs. Unlike other geckos, Strophurus geckos don’t drop their tails when threatened. Instead, they have a unique way of deterring predators. A Strophurus gecko can squirt an incredibly smelly liquid from tiny pores in its tail. If it feels threatened, instead of dropping its tail, it will raise its tail up and wave it back and forth as a warning. It also opens its mouth to reveal a bright yellow or blue lining, which alerts the potential predator that this is not a lizard it wants to mess with. If that doesn’t scare the predator away, it will squirt liquid at its face. The liquid is sticky and smells horrible, and if it gets in an animal’s eyes it can cause eye irritation.

Strophurus geckos grow up to 5 inches long, or 13 cm, and species may look very different from each other. Some are drab and spiny, some are smooth and brighter in color. The dragon-tailed gecko has a broad reddish or golden stripe down the top of its tail.

The crested gecko is native to a collection of remote Pacific islands called New Caledonia. It can grow more than 10 inches long, or 25 cm. It has tiny spines above its eyes that look like eyelashes and more spines in two rows down its back, like a tiny dragon. It can be brown, reddish, orange, yellow, or gray, with various colored spots, which has made it a popular pet. These days all pet crested geckos were bred in captivity, since it’s now protected in the wild.

The crested gecko spends most of its time in trees, and not only does it have adhesive toe pads, it also has tiny claws. Most geckos don’t have claws. It can drop its tail like other geckos, but it doesn’t grow back. This doesn’t seem to bother the gecko, though.

The crested gecko was discovered by science in 1866, but wasn’t seen after that in so long that people thought it was extinct. Then it was rediscovered in 1994, so hurrah for the crested gecko!

Let’s move on from geckos to some other arboreal reptiles. A lot of reptiles live mostly in trees, and not all of them are small. The green iguana, for instance. It’s native to southern Mexico into parts of South America but has been introduced in many other places in the Americas, where it’s often considered an invasive species. In warm weather it lives in trees, although it will climb down to the ground in cool, rainy weather, and it can grow up to six and a half feet long, or 2m.

Although the iguana can be really long, most of its length is tail. It has an incredibly long tail for its size. It’s not that heavy, either, with the biggest green iguana ever weighed only a little more than 20 lbs, or 9.1 kg. Most are much lighter. It has long legs and long toes with claws, which makes it a good climber. It uses its tail to balance. It’s usually a drab olive-green or brown in color, although babies are brighter green with reddish spots and some adults are more orange in color. The tail is patterned with broad stripes. It has spines along its back and down its chin, and males develop a large dewlap that hangs down under the neck.

Although the iguana looks like a small dragon, it eats leaves, flowers, fruit, and other plant material, although it will also sometimes eat a grasshopper or snail and even bird eggs every so often. Many people keep green iguanas as pets, but they can be hard to keep healthy in captivity.

Another big reptile that lives in trees is the black mamba, a snake that lives in parts of Africa. It’s a slender snake that can be black in color, but that’s actually rare. The name black mamba comes from the inside of the snake’s mouth, which is black. When it feels threatened, it will raise its head high and open its mouth as a threat display. It can even flatten its neck to look like a hood like some cobras do. You really don’t want to see this threat display, because the black mamba’s venom is deadly and it’s an aggressive snake. Without treatment and antivenin, someone who is bitten can die within 45 minutes.

The mamba’s body can be gray, gray-green, brown, or brownish-yellow. It can grow nearly 15 feet long, or 4.5 meters, which makes it the second-longest venomous snake in the world, after the king cobra that we talked about in our Q&A episode last week.

The black mamba mostly lives in open forests and savannas, and it’s equally at home on the ground and in trees. It hides in termite mounds or in holes in trees at night, then comes out in the morning to warm up in the sunshine. Then it goes hunting, usually for small animals like rodents but also for larger ones like the rock hyrax. The rock hyrax can grow almost two feet long, or 50 cm, and looks kind of like a big rodent even though it’s not a rodent. It’s actually most closely related to the elephant. The black mamba will sneak up on a hyrax, bite it quickly, and then just wait until it dies to swallow it whole. The mamba also hunts birds and bats, which is why it spends so much time in the trees.

Some reptiles are so well adapted to living in trees that they can glide from tree to tree, like the flying snakes we talked about in episode 56. Flying snakes live in southeast Asia, and of course they can’t really fly. A flying snake has ridged scales on its belly that help it climb trees, and when it wants to move from one tree to another, it can flatten its body by flaring its ribs. This gives it more surface area to catch air, like a long skinny Frisbee. It’s been measured as gliding as far as 100 meters, or 109 yards, which is just a little longer than an American football field.

The largest species of flying snake, the golden tree snake, can grow over four feet long, or 1.3 meters. It’s striped black, gold, and yellow although some may be green and black. It eats small animals it finds in trees, including frogs, birds, bats, and lizards. It’s venomous, but its venom is weak and not dangerous to humans.

Many lizards can glide too, including the draco lizard. The draco lizard is common throughout much of southeast Asia and spends almost its whole life in trees, eating insects like ants and termites. It’s a small, slender lizard that only grows about 8 inches long at most, or 20 cm, and that includes its very long tail. Many gliding animals, like the flying squirrel, have gliding membranes called patagia that stretch from the front legs to the back legs, but the draco lizard is different. It has greatly elongated ribs that it can extend like wings, and the skin between the ribs acts as a patagium. This skin is usually yellow or brown so that the lizard looks like a falling leaf when it’s gliding.

The male draco also has a brightly colored dewlap under its chin that it can extend to attract a mate. When a female is ready to lay her eggs, she climbs down from her tree, finds some soil that’s soft enough for her to stick her head into to make a little hole, and then lays her eggs in the hole and covers them with dirt to hide them.

The draco lizard is beautiful and looks like a tiny dragon, and I want one to live in my garden and every time I go out to water my plants or pull weeds, I want it to fly down and ride around on my shoulder.

To bring us full circle, some geckos can also glide using thin membranes of skin around their body, legs, tail, and toes that act as patagia. They’re called parachute geckos, which is just perfect.

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!


BONUS Q&A Episode!



It’s our bonus question and answer episode, which turned out to be ridiculously long but hopefully interesting!

Further listening/watching:

The Axolotl Song

~~~Buy my books!~~~

Whiskers used to have two eyes and a nose. In the background, Dracula (left) and Poe (right):

Black squirrel!

King cobra!

Pufferfish, puffed:

Dog nose:

Show transcript:

Welcome to the bonus Q&A episode of Strange Animals Podcast! I’m your host, Kate Shaw, and this is a little extra episode where I answer listener questions. So let’s jump right into it.

To start us off, Simon and Thia wanted to know how I first became interested in animals. I really don’t know! When I was little, I didn’t want to play with dolls, I wanted to play with my stuffed animals. I actually have a toy cat named Whiskers who I’ve had since I was four. Whiskers is older than all my teeth! I especially loved horses as a kid and since my family couldn’t afford to buy me a horse, I took riding lessons and read everything I could find about horses, fiction and nonfiction. All that reading about horses led to reading about other animals, and the more I read, the more interested I became in animals of all kinds.

Next, Melissa of the awesome podcast Bewilderbeasts asked, “What was the fact or episode that really slapped you out of left field, like, ‘I didn’t see that coming AT ALL’?”

OH MY GOSH, how many times has that happened to me? The most astounding fact I can think of isn’t actually about an animal at all but about trees. While I was researching the Temnospondyl episode, which had a related Patreon episode that ran at about the same time, I came across the fact that when trees first developed, nothing could break down the tough compound called lignin that hardens a tree’s cells to make wood and bark. When a tree died, its trunk just stayed where it fell forever, and this happened for at least 50 million years and possibly 100 million years. 100 million years of tree trunks just lying all over the ground! You wouldn’t be able to walk anywhere! You’d have to climb over hundreds of millions of fallen tree trunks, although naturally as the years passed the older ones would get buried deeper and deeper in the earth. But there would always be more!

This blew my mind, and later I came back to it, determined to do more research and make sure it was accurate. I did a whole lot of research, because it just didn’t seem possible, and that information ended up in episode 214.

As for an animal that blew my mind, I still have trouble believing ice worms are real. They’re worms that live in snow and ice! We covered them last August in episode 185 and I’m still reeling.

Next, Llewelly asks what my favorite extinct animal is, or animals. Why would you make me choose? This is so hard. Okay, fine, I’ll narrow it down to hoofed Pleistocene megafauna like the giant deer and elasmotherium and so many other animals with weird horns and ossicones and things like that. What really gets me is that they lived so recently! Many of them only died out 11,000 years ago, and some were probably around much more recently in a few isolated areas. It also really reminds me to appreciate the megafauna that’s still around. We live at the same time as giraffes!

Next, Richard E. asked, “Does your job involve the study of animals and/or is the pod something that you really wanted to do?” Tracie also asked what my background is, if I’m a professor or zookeeper or something similar. Helenka also asked my background and how I got interested in strange animals.

I’m kind of embarrassed that I never have pointed out that I’m not an animal expert, to steal a phrase from the awesome podcast Varmints! I actually work as a test proctor, AKA invigilator, in a large community college, so my work doesn’t have anything to do with animals. My background is in elementary education although I didn’t teach long. Basically I got my K-8 teaching certification and M.Ed., did some substitute teaching afterwards, and ended up getting my current job instead of taking a teaching position. I still love teaching, so when I decided I wanted to start a podcast, I knew it would be nonfiction. My undergraduate degree is in English literature, and I took so many history courses that I minored in history almost by accident, so I’m really good at research and can write an essay about any topic in the world in very little time. I didn’t know it when I was in college, which was long before podcasts existed anyway, but I have the perfect background for creating a nonfiction podcast.

Liesbet has three questions about the podcast: what inspired me to start it, what motivates me to keep going without missing any episodes, and what I enjoy most about it. I’m so pleased that someone noticed I’ve never missed a single episode! Not that it would be the end of the world if I did, of course, but if I did, I’d feel bad thinking about people who were looking forward to listening to the new episode and were disappointed when there wasn’t one.

Here is the raw, honest truth about why I started Strange Animals Podcast. It was several things combined and the whole story is kind of dumb. First, my friend Kevin makes a great pop culture podcast called The Flopcast, and after I’d listened to it for a while I thought, “Hey, that sounds like fun. I think I’ll start a podcast.” About the same time, I was listening to a back episode of a podcast I will not name, and it gave some misinformation about the Irish elk, specifically the outdated theory that it went extinct because its antlers were too big. I mentioned that in episode 4 and how I kept thinking about it and got kind of angry that a large, influential podcast hadn’t bothered to do enough research about an animal that lots of people are interested in. I decided I could do better and that my podcast would be about animals. Also at the same time, I was trying to find a good podcast about mystery animals that was well researched and didn’t skate off into speculation too much. I couldn’t find one that satisfied me, so I had to make one myself.

I wasn’t exactly sure what my focus would be when I first started the podcast. You can kind of tell when you listen to the first six months or so of the podcast that I was trying out new things and figuring out what worked best and what I liked best. I’m still figuring that out, for that matter.

It’s hard to decide what I like best about making the podcast. I like the whole process, except maybe not the frustrating parts of recording and editing. I think my favorite part has to be when I uncover information I find really exciting. I get to share that information with everyone who listens! It’s fantastic!

Next, let’s get into some questions about animals.

Pranav asked if I would explain how poisons work, which is a great question and also just a tiny bit alarming. No one eat anything Pranav cooks for you unless he’s eating some too. Actually, of course, he’s just wanting to learn more about poisonous animals, and I’ll talk about venomous animals too.

A poisonous animal contains toxins somewhere in its body, like the hooded pitohui bird that we talked about in episode 222 that has poisonous feathers. The poison stops other animals from trying to eat it. In the case of the hooded pitohui, its poison causes your skin to burn when you touch it, so an animal that tries to bite it will have a burning mouth. If it actually eats any of the poison, the animal can die. Many amphibians secrete toxins through their skin, like the poison dart frog, and many other animals concentrate toxins in their muscles or internal organs.

A venomous animal has toxins that it can inject into a wound to hurt or kill another animal. Some snakes can inject venom with special fangs, but some amphibians have pointed ribs that are sharp enough to stab a potential predator. The ribs will project through the amphibian’s sides through tiny spots that are filled with toxins. The toxins coat the points of the ribs, and if the predator tries to bite down, it gets those toxins stabbed right into its mouth. Some fish have spines that are coated in toxins, and of course many insects, arachnids, and other invertebrates have stingers that inject toxins.

Generally, a poisonous animal absorbs toxins from a food it eats, often a toxic insect, and instead of getting sick, it uses those toxins to protect it from predators. A venomous animal usually produces its own toxins in its body, especially animals that use venom to kill or disable prey. It costs energy for the animal to make venom, and it doesn’t want to waste it. That’s why snakes will sometimes give what are called dry bites in self-defense, where it bites but doesn’t inject any venom. It’s hoping that the pain of the bite itself will make a potential predator retreat without the snake needing to use venom.

Different toxins have different effects, naturally, and animals produce so many different kinds of toxins that we could talk about it all day and not even cover them all. Instead, let’s quickly discuss two animals, one venomous and one poisonous.

Our venomous example is the king cobra. It can grow over 18 feet long, or 5.5 meters, and lives in southern Asia. It mostly eats other snakes and some lizards. Its venom contains numerous toxins that do different horrible things. The neurotoxins in its venom affect the central nervous system, which can cause all sorts of issues like dizziness, pain, blurred vision, sleepiness, and even paralysis. Other toxins in the venom are called cardiotoxic because they affect the heart, making it weak so that circulation of blood slows down. If a king cobra bites you and injects venom, you can die within 30 minutes as the venom basically just shuts your body down, one process at a time. If your heart stops or your diaphragm becomes paralyzed so you can’t breathe, that’s it for you. Fortunately, in ordinary situations the king cobra is shy and avoids people, so if you don’t bother it, it won’t bite you.

Our poisonous example is the pufferfish. Some species of pufferfish are incredibly poisonous. You may have heard about fugu, which is considered a delicacy even though it’s so poisonous that in Japan and some other countries, chefs have to be specially trained and licensed to prepare the fish to eat. The part of the fish that’s considered tastiest is also the part that’s most poisonous, the liver. It contains tetrodotoxin, which is a neurotoxin that stops your nerves from sending the tiny electrical signals that allow them to move. If you’re poisoned with tetrodotoxin, you start to feel dizzy and sick, then you start having difficulty speaking and moving, then you have trouble breathing, and then, ultimately, you’re paralyzed and can’t breathe, at which point you die. Since the toxin doesn’t affect your brain, you remain completely aware of what’s happening to you but there’s nothing you can do about it. There’s no antidote. Fortunately, you have the option of not eating fugu. Also, it turns out that the pufferfish’s poison comes from a type of bacteria, so fish raised in careful conditions in captivity aren’t poisonous.

Most poisonous and venomous animals are harmless to humans!

Next, Connor wrote and said, “I recently moved to Michigan from West Virginia and noticed a lot of black squirrels around. Are they a different species/sub-species or just melanistic individuals?”

I looked into this and sure enough, Michigan and other areas around the Great Lakes are known for a large population of black squirrels. I’ve never seen a black squirrel but now that I’ve looked at pictures of them, they are awesome and I wish I had some in my yard.

The eastern gray squirrel is the most common species of squirrel in eastern North America, and a black morph of that species and other squirrel species is not that unusual. The color difference is due to a small mutation in the gene that controls how much pigment the squirrel’s fur contains. Connor is right that the coloration is due to melanistic individuals.

But that doesn’t explain why there are so many black squirrels in Michigan and surrounding areas. No one’s completely sure why that is. In other animals, including the gray wolf and the leopard, melanistic individuals are more common in areas where there’s thick vegetation that blocks a lot of sunlight. A dark-colored wolf or leopard is better camouflaged in the shadows, which allows it to sneak up on prey. But the squirrel isn’t a predator, and black squirrels don’t seem to be any more common in heavily forested areas compared to more park-like areas.

One suggestion is that black squirrels find it easier to stay warm in cold weather, because dark fur absorbs more heat than gray fur. This actually does seem to have some basis in fact. Black squirrels are much more common in northern areas, including parts of Canada where the eastern gray squirrel ordinarily doesn’t live. Black squirrels are correspondingly rare in more southern areas where winters are mild, which explains why I’ve never seen one. Then again, the fox squirrel is also common in eastern North America, often living in the same areas where eastern gray squirrels live, and they also have a black morph, but black fox squirrels mostly live in the southeast. So it’s a mystery.

Black squirrels are the same as ordinary colored squirrels. They just look different. That reminds me that I have an episode about squirrels planned for some time later this year, especially unusual squirrels.

Next, Anna has a question about dogs. She says, “We have a dog named Sadie, who is a beagle mix. She is much more aware of the sounds and smells around us and often howls and barks at things that we can’t see. How do dogs have such a strong sense of smell and good hearing?”

The wild ancestors of dogs were wolves. Wolves are generally nocturnal, and as a result, dogs have sensitive hearing and smell to find prey when it’s dark. A dog can hear in the ultrasonic range, which refers to sounds higher than human hearing. Humans can hear sounds up to 20,000 hertz, while dogs can hear sounds up to 50,000 hertz. A dog also has a lot of muscles in its ears that allow it to turn its outer ear to find sounds. While some dog breeds have lapped-over ears, wolves and many dog breeds have pricked-up ears that act as little satellite dishes to gather up as many sounds as possible. If you cup your hands behind your ears, you can get a sense of how this helps. A dog also has a relatively large ear canal, which is the inside part of the ear. A large ear canal allows more sound vibrations in. Cats actually have even better hearing than dogs, but cats don’t have nearly the same ability to smell.

A dog’s sense of smell is incredible. Humans have about six million olfactory receptors in our noses. That sounds like a lot, but a dog has over 200 million olfactory receptors! It can also process all those smells incredibly well in its brain, so that with training a dog can detect unbelievably faint smells. That’s why dogs are used to sniff out dangerous items like bombs and illegal drugs, or find people who are buried in rubble after an earthquake or other disaster, or track down people who are lost. Dogs can even learn to detect the smell of some diseases, including cancer, malaria, and tuberculosis.

A dog’s nose is much different from a human nose. If you have a dog, or can borrow a friend’s dog, sit down and take a look at their nose. Ha ha, the dog just licked you in the face! That’s hilarious! The dog’s nose has nostrils in the front but if you look carefully, you’ll see that the nostril openings continue along the sides of its nose, in a little slit. There’s also a little fold of tissue inside the nose. The tissue separates the air into two streams. One stream goes into the lungs, but the other gets circulated into the nose to come in contact with all those olfactory receptors. Then, when the dog breathes out, the air goes out the side slits instead of out the main nostrils, so it doesn’t push any odors out of the nose. A dog’s nose works best when it’s damp, which is why a healthy dog has a wet nose.

When you hear a sound, you can usually tell which direction it’s coming from by turning your head, because the sound will be slightly louder in one ear than the other and your brain can make sense of this difference. Dogs can tell which direction a smell is coming from because its brain can tell which nostril is picking up more of the smell.

A dog’s sense of smell is so acute, and so important to the animal, that a dog that loses its vision can often do just fine. It can smell its way around. Naturally, some dog breeds have a better sense of smell than others, and some individuals are better at smelling than others too.

Don’t feel bad about your sense of smell, though. Humans may not be as good at smelling as dogs are, but we can train ourselves to be more sensitive to faint odors. The next time you take a walk, pay attention to what you’re smelling and I bet you’ll notice a lot more scents than you realize.

Next, Helenka also wanted to know about my writing. Thank you so much for asking! Now I can plug my books and also tell you how the strange animals podcast book is coming along!

I mostly write fantasy fiction. I have a steampunk adventure book available called Skytown, and a related collection of short stories about the same characters from the book, which is called Skyway. Sometimes I get the titles confused because they’re really similar, but Skytown is called that because there’s a city in the book that can only be reached by air, which in this fantasy world is mostly airships. The main characters are two young women named Jo and Lizzy, friends who are airship pirates. It’s a lot of fun, and the short story collection actually tells how Jo and Lizzy met and what they did together right up to the start of the novel. If that sounds interesting, I’d love it if you could pick up a copy of one or both books. They’re published by small independent publishers, who don’t make a lot of money and have trouble getting books into physical stores. There’s a link in the show notes.

Okay, so now I get to tell you all about the Strange Animals Podcast book! I’ve been working on it all year and it’s getting really close to being done. The title is Beyond Bigfoot and Nessie: Lesser-Known Mystery Animals from Around the World, and most of the material is taken directly from mystery animal episodes from the last four-plus years, BUT I’ve made sure to update the chapters as much as possible and I’ve added some new chapters.

I’ve decided to self-publish the book, so I’m planning a Kickstarter to cover the costs of hiring a cover artist and things like that. I’d like to run the Kickstarter in October, which would give me time to get it published hopefully in time for the holidays in case people want to order copies to give as gifts. We’ll see how that goes, though. There’s a ton of work that goes into running a successful Kickstarter, and although I don’t need a whole lot of funding for the book, it still worries me that maybe no one will be interested and it won’t meet its funding goal and I’ll have to pay for everything out of pocket. I’m already kind of broke this year from paying about $5,000 to the emergency vet to save my cat Poe’s life, but honestly, if the choice is between having Poe running around and playing or self-publishing a book, I will choose Poe every single time.

Anyway, one way or another I’ll make sure the Beyond Bigfoot and Nessie book is available to buy before the podcast’s fifth year anniversary in February 2022!

Finally, this wasn’t sent in as a question but I thought it would be a nice way to finish off the episode. In a really nice review, a listener who I think is named Meg said “I think she’s southern like me but not sure.” Yes, I am southern, although I don’t have much of an accent. I was born in Georgia and grew up in East Tennessee, where I live now.

Thanks to everyone who sent in questions! We’ll probably have another Q&A episode eventually, maybe next year, so feel free to send me your questions! I think I got everyone’s questions answered this time, but if I missed yours, definitely let me know. The best way to get in touch with me is through email, strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com.

To finish us off, Richard from NC wanted me to play the Axolotl song. I won’t play the whole thing, because it’s kind of long, but here’s a clip and there’s a link in the show notes. It’s by an animator and musician called Joel Veitch. I’ve had this song stuck in my head ever since Richard sent me the link, so now you will too. Also, I promise I’ll make a whole episode about the axolotl soon.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 234: Sun Bears, Water Bears



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Thanks to Enzo and Lux for their suggestions! Let’s learn about the sun bear and the water bear this week!

Sun bear just chillin:

Sun bears got long tongues:

The water bear, AKA tardigrade, is not actually a bear. For one thing, it has twice the number of legs as bears have:

Show transcript:

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

It’s summer in the northern hemisphere, which means hot weather and sunshine and, if you’re lucky, a trip to the lake or ocean. To celebrate summertime, let’s talk about two animals suggested by Enzo and his sister Lux. They wanted to hear about the sun bear and the water bear. Get it? Sun and water?

Enzo’s suggestion is the sun bear, which we talked about a little bit way back in episode 76, but which is a fascinating animal that deserves a lot more attention.

The sun bear lives in southeast Asia in tropical forests and is most closely related to the black bear. It has silky black fur, although some are gray or reddish, and a roughly U-shaped patch of fur on its chest that varies in color from gold to almost white to reddish-orange. Its muzzle is short and is lighter in color than the rest of its face, usually gray. It has small ears too. It’s the world’s smallest bear, only around three feet long from head to tail, or 150 cm, and four feet tall when standing on its hind legs, or 1.2 meters. Researchers think its chest spot acts as a threat display. When a sun bear stands on its hind legs, the chest spot is really obvious, which may warn potential predators away. Even so, tigers and leopards will attack and eat sun bears.

The sun bear spends a lot of time in trees, more than any other bear. It has long claws that it uses for climbing and to tear open logs to get at insect larvae. It eats a lot of termites and especially loves honey, which it licks from the hive with its long tongue–up to 10 inches long, or 25 cm. It also eats a lot of plant material, especially fruit and acorns. It will catch and eat birds and small animals, or sometimes larger animals like deer, but it mostly eats insects and fruit.

The female sun bear makes her den in a hollow tree to give birth. She has one or two cubs at a time, and like other bear cubs they’re born extremely small and with their eyes and ears sealed shut. This is the case with animals like dogs and cats too, but newborn bears are tiny compared to how big the mother bear is. The eyes and ears continue developing after the cub is born, but it’s a few months before it can see and hear properly. A cub remains with its mother for almost three years.

Other than mothers and babies, the sun bear is solitary. Adults don’t typically interact except to mate, although adult sun bears kept in captivity will play together. A 2019 study of sun bears came to a surprising conclusion that they communicate with each other by mimicking facial expressions. This is something humans do all the time, of course, and apes do too. Dogs also mimic facial expressions. Humans, apes, and dogs are all intensely social animals, so researchers have always assumed that the mimicking of facial expressions is important because of that sociability. I mean, that just makes sense. If you see a friend approaching and they have a big smile on their face, naturally you’re going to smile too. But here are these solitary bears with facial communication just as well-developed as in apes. Researchers think it may be a trait that’s so important to mammals as a whole that it develops even in species that don’t spend a lot of time interacting.

The sun bear is threatened by habitat loss and hunting, but it does well in captivity and is popular in zoos. Conservation efforts are in place to protect the sun bear in the wild as well as continue a healthy captive breeding program around the world.

Lux wanted to hear about the water bear, which is also called the tardigrade or the moss piglet. I can’t believe we haven’t covered the tardigrade before—we even have one in our new logo! Patrons may remember parts of this section from a Patreon bonus episode from 2017, but I’ve updated it a lot.

The water bear isn’t a bear at all but a tiny eight-legged animal that barely ever grows larger than 1.5 millimeters. Some species are microscopic. Pictures of the water bear are taken with an electron microscope because otherwise they just look like a teensy little dot.

There are about 1,300 known species of water bear and they all look pretty similar. It looks for all the world like a plump eight-legged stuffed animal made out of couch upholstery. It uses six of its fat little legs for walking and the hind two to cling to the moss and other plant material where it lives. Each leg has four to eight long hooked claws. It has a tubular mouth that looks a little like a pig’s snout or a bear’s snout.

An extremophile is an organism adapted to live in a particular environment that’s considered extreme, like undersea volcanic vents or inside rocks deep below the ocean floor. Tardigrades aren’t technically extremophiles, but they are incredibly tough. Researchers have found tardigrades in environments such as the gloppy ooze at the bottom of the ocean to the icy peaks of the Himalayas. It can survive massive amounts of radiation, dehydration for up to five years, pressures even more intense than at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, temperatures as low as -450 Fahrenheit, or -270 Celsius, heat up to 300 degrees Fahrenheit, or 150 Celsius, and even outer space. It’s survived on Earth for at least half a billion years. Mostly, though, it just lives in moss.

One thing to remember is that different species of tardigrade are good at withstanding different extreme environments. Not every tardigrade is able to do everything we just talked about. They’re tough, but they’re not invulnerable. Many species can withstand incredible heat, but only for half an hour or less. Long-term temperature increases, even if only a little warmer than it’s used to, can cause the tardigrade to die.

Most species of tardigrade eat plant material or bacteria, but a few eat smaller species of tardigrade. It has no lungs since it just absorbs air directly into its body by gas exchange. It has a teeny brain, teeny eyes, and teeny sensory bristles on its body. Its legs have no joints. Its tubular mouth contains tube-like structures called stylets that are secreted from glands on either side of the mouth. Every time the tardigrade molts its cuticle, or body covering, it loses the stylets too and has to regrow them. In some species, the only time the tardigrade poops is when it molts. The poop is left behind in the molted cuticle.

The tardigrade’s success is largely due to its ability to suspend its metabolism, during which time the water in its body is replaced with a type of protein that protects its cells from damage. It retracts its legs and rearranges its internal organs so it can curl up into a teeny barrel shape, at which point it’s called a tun. It needs a moist environment, and if its environment dries out too much, the water bear will automatically go into this suspended state, called cryptobiosis.

The tardigrade’s DNA gets fractured during dehydration but it’s incredibly successful at repairing its DNA upon rehydration, which explains a big part of its success. In 2016, Japanese researchers sequenced the genome of the species of tardigrade that best resists radiation. In the process, they discovered a new protein in the tardigrade’s genome, which they named DSUP, short for damage suppressor. Even more interesting, when cultured human cells were given the ability to create DSUP, after exposure to X-rays, they showed half the DNA damage that non-DSUP cells showed.

Tests in 2007 and 2011 that exposed tardigrades to outer space led to some speculation that tardigrades might actually be from outer space, and that they, or organisms that gave rise to them, might have hitched a ride on a comet or some other heavenly body and ended up on earth. But this isn’t actually the case, since genetic studies show that tardigrades fit neatly into what we know of animal development and evolution.

The tardigrade is probably most closely related to arthropods, like insects and spiders. Their closest relatives were probably lobopodians, extinct wormlike organisms with stubby legs. The famous Hallucigenia creature is a lobopodian, which we talked about in episode 69 about the Cambrian explosion. There’s still a lot we don’t know about the tardigrade’s ancestry, since we have so few fossilized water bears, but many researchers think their oldest ancestors were probably much bigger than the microscopic or nearly microscopic living animals. In other words, maybe once there were water bears you could pick up and hug. Well, they probably weren’t that big, but I like to imagine it. I think that if you hugged a water bear too hard, it would make this noise: [little prrrt sound]

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, and don’t forget to join our mailing list. There’s a link in the show notes.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 232: Almost Domesticated



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Thanks to “dog freak Ruby,” we’re going to learn about some animals that aren’t exactly domesticated but aren’t really wild either.

Further reading:

Memories of Ángela Loij

Mongolian horse and its person:

Mongolian horses:

OH MY GOSH HEART HEART HEART (photo from this website):

Dingos!

An artist’s rendition of the Fuejian dog (left) and a picture of the cuelpo (right):

The cuelpo, happy fox-like canid:

A very fancy rat:

Show transcript:

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

Before we get started, and before I forget again to tell you about this, I’m planning a bonus Q&A episode for August. If you have any questions about the podcast, podcasting in general, me, or anything else, feel free to email me at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com, or otherwise contact me through social media!

A few episodes ago I mentioned in passing that the Australian dingo is a type of feral dog. It’s a more complicated situation than it sounds, so while I didn’t want to confuse the issue at the time, I kept thinking about it. Then I remembered that a listener emailed me a while back wanting to know more about how dogs were domesticated. We covered the topic pretty thoroughly back in episode 106, but I realized that there’s an aspect of domestication we didn’t cover in that episode. So thanks to “dog freak Ruby,” here’s an episode about a few animals that are only semi-domesticated.

Domestication, after all, isn’t a switch you can flip. It’s a process, and depending on the animal species and the circumstances, it can take a really long time. It’s not the same thing as taming an animal, either. An individual animal might become tame with the right treatment, but that doesn’t mean any individual of that species would react the same way. Domesticated animals show genetic changes that their wild counterparts don’t, changes that make them more likely to treat humans as friends instead of potential predators.

Generally, a fully domesticated animal requires some level of care from a human to survive, even if it’s just feral cats living near humans so they can find and kill rodents and avoid most predators. Feral domesticated cats don’t live the same way as their wild ancestors do. But sometimes it’s not as cut and dried as it sounds. While mustangs and other feral horse populations are considered domesticated animals, they live like wild animals and don’t need humans to survive. They mostly just need humans to leave them alone so they can thrive on their own. But if you capture a mustang that’s lived its whole life in the wild, with the right treatment it will eventually become tame, because its ancestors were bred for thousands of years to trust and depend on humans.

That brings us to our first semi-domesticated animal, the Mongolian horse. Yes, I’m still really into Mongolia and the Hu, and I’m excited to say I have tickets to see the Hu twice in concert this fall, if everything goes well. I’ve been listening to a program called the Voice of Mongolia in English, which is primarily a shortwave radio program but it’s also released as a podcast, and it talks about various aspects of Mongolian culture. Recently they had an episode about horses, so some of my information comes directly from that show.

Mongolia is a country in central Asia that’s mostly open steppes, which is a type of grassland. The soil isn’t right for most crops, but it’s great for horses. The people of Mongolia are traditionally nomadic, moving around from place to place to find grazing for their horses and other livestock, and about half of the current population still lives this way.

The Mongolian horse is a small, tough breed that probably hasn’t changed much in the last thousand years, possibly longer. It’s one of the oldest breeds of horse in the world and the ancestor of many other horse breeds. For a long time people assumed it was the domesticated descendant of the wild Przewalski’s horse, but genetic testing has determined that domestic horses developed from a different wild horse species that’s extinct now. Genetic testing also showed that the Mongolian horse has the highest genetic diversity of any horse breed tested. It’s incredibly strong for its size, can gallop for miles without tiring, has strong hooves that never need trimming or shoeing, and seldom needs or receives veterinary care.

The main reason for all these traits is that Mongolian horses live like wild horses in most ways. They live loose, grazing as they like, and if they get too far away from their humans, the owners will go out to find them. But they’re still domesticated. Mare’s milk is an important part of the Mongolian diet, so the mares are used to being milked, and people use their horses to ride, carry packs, and pull carts. The stallions are frequently raced. At the same time, though, they’re not really pets. Mongols don’t give their horses names, but instead refer to them with a detailed description. The Voice of Mongolia in English says the Mongolian language has over 300 words to describe horses, while Wikipedia says it’s over 500. Either way, the terminology is so precise that everyone knows exactly which horse someone’s talking about, which if you think about it is more useful than a name.

The Australian dingo is in a similar situation. It’s considered a feral dog breed, but it doesn’t need people to survive. Most feral dogs throughout the world barely scrape by, eating garbage and rats and often dying of starvation or disease. Dingos live like wild animals and do just fine. But at the same time, they’re happy to hang out with people from time to time, acting as hunting companions who are neither dependent on humans nor frightened of them.

The dingo is a strong, tough, lean dog that stands around 22 inches tall at the shoulder, or 56 cm. It has flexible joints like the Norwegian lundehund we talked about in episode 230, which allows it to climb cliffs and fences and otherwise navigate difficult terrain. It’s usually a yellowy or ginger color, sometimes with small white markings, although some dingoes are black and tan. It can survive on very little water. It often hunts in packs and will hunt animals larger than it is, like the red kangaroo.

The dingo was probably brought to Australia by humans, although we’re not sure when. Dingo fossils have been found dating to 3,500 years ago in western Australia, so it was at least that long ago. Genetic studies show that the modern dingo and the dingo of 3,500 years ago are pretty much identical. It also shows that it’s definitely a domestic dog, related to other dog breeds that were once common in Asia around 7,000 years ago, but which are rare now. It’s most closely related to the New Guinea singing dog, which makes sense since New Guinea is so close to Australia. Until somewhere between 6,500 and 8,000 years ago, New Guinea and Australia were connected when sea levels were low. Genetically the two dog breeds have been separated for about 8,300 years, which suggests that the dingo has been in Australia for at least that long.

Traditionally, Aboriginal Australians would take a dingo puppy from its den to keep as a pet, a hunting dog, or sometimes a herding animal. Sometimes the dingo would stick around when it was grown, but sometimes it would return to the wild. There’s a lot of controversy about breeding dingoes as pets, since it would be easy to breed the wild traits and behaviors out. Since the dingo has been killed as a livestock pest since white settlers arrived in Australia, in many places its numbers are in decline and there are worries that the wild dingo could go extinct. There are already problems with the dingo cross-breeding with other dog breeds. It’s a complicated topic, because while the dingo is a dog, it’s not precisely domesticated at this point but also not precisely a wild animal.

There used to be a domesticated canid in South America called the Fuegian dog, which was probably used as a hunting dog, especially to hunt otters. On cold nights, the dogs would wrap themselves around their people like living blankets so everyone stayed nice and warm.

The Fuegian dog wasn’t a dog, though. It was the domesticated form of the culpeo, also called the Andean fox. It’s actually not a fox although it looks a lot like one. It’s related to wolves and jackals, and it lives on the western slopes of the Andes Mountains all the way down to the southern tip of Patagonia. It eats small animals like rodents and introduced European rabbits. While the culpeo is sandy or tawny in color with gray on its back and a black tip to its tail, the Fuegian dog was sometimes brown and white or all white. Reportedly the Fuegian dog was not very tame in general and was an aggressive animal compared to actual dogs. It would hunt on its own and basically acted like a wild animal that just happened to hang out with humans a lot, like the dingo does today.

The culpeo is doing just fine, but the Fuegian dog is extinct. The Fuegian dog was tamed by a Patagonian people called the Selk’nam [shelknam], or ‘Ona, who were nomadic hunter-gatherers. They lived in such a remote part of South America that Europeans didn’t encounter them until the late 19th century when settlers showed up to raise sheep and rubber trees. We’ve talked about what happened to them in a previous episode, although I can’t remember which one. The Selk’nam didn’t understand the concept of livestock, so they figured those sheep were literally fair game. The sheep were living on their own hunting grounds, after all. The Selk’nam killed some of the sheep, and in retaliation, the European settlers murdered all the Selk’nam. I was going to tell you the name of the man who started the genocide, but I don’t think anyone should remember his name. It wasn’t just “oh, you killed my sheep, I’m going to shoot you because I’m mad,” either. There was a bounty on Selk’nam people, and that’s all I’m going to say because it’s just too awful and disturbing.

By 1930, only about 100 Selk’nam remained alive, and the very last member of the people, Ángela Loij, died in 1974. There’s a link in the show notes to a page with lots of information about her as a person.

In 1919 when Christian missionaries visited what was left of the Selk’nam, they discovered that all the dogs had been killed off by the people themselves because the dogs were too fierce and killed livestock. It sounds like a last, desperate attempt by the Selk’nam to stop the murder of their people by keeping their dogs from killing any sheep. But by then it was too late, and the genocide wasn’t really about the sheep in the end. It was racism and hatred. Remember that all people are equal, no matter what they look like or how they live. Don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise.

Okay. Let’s finish with the story of another semi-domesticated animal, one that doesn’t involve people being terrible to each other. The kind of rat you can buy as a pet is considered semi-domesticated, and it hasn’t actually been domesticated for very long. The person mainly responsible for the pet rat is a man called Jack Black. Not the actor Jack Black; this was a different guy who lived in the mid-19th century.

Jack Black was a ratcatcher in London, England who said he was the Queen’s official rat-catcher even though he wasn’t. He was definitely an extravagant character who always wore what he called his uniform, which included a big leather sash over one shoulder decorated with rats made of iron, a crown, and the initials V.R. for Victoria Regina, or Queen Victoria. He told people the queen herself gave him the sash, but actually his wife made it for him. Black also carried a big domed cage with him to hold the rats he caught.

He mainly caught rats to sell to people who were training their dogs to kill rats, which was also a popular thing to watch. I mean, that doesn’t sound like any fun to me but this was before video games were invented. Occasionally, though, Black would catch a rat that had interesting markings or that was an unusual color. These rats he would keep, tame, and breed to produce more rats with different colors and patterns. He sold the tame, pretty young rats to people as pets. He especially liked white rats, which made popular pets then and are still popular today.

Pet rats, usually called fancy rats, are a subspecies of the brown rat, or Norway rat, which we talked about in episode 143. We also talked about Jack Black briefly in that episode, but at the time I didn’t realize he wasn’t really a royal rat catcher. By 1900 fancy rats were popular pets and remain so today, and are becoming more and more domesticated. If they’re not fully domesticated they’re well on their way, all thanks to a guy who thought rats were neat.

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!