Category Archives: big cats

Episode 145: The Cheetah



This week is another suggestion from Wyatt, all about the cheetah!

The cheetah moves fast and can zigzag at the same time:

Baby cheetahs have silvery manes on their backs:

Cheetahs and dogs get along well in captivity:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re talking about cheetahs! This is a suggestion from Wyatt, and it’s also an animal I’ve had on my list to cover for a long time.

You may think the cheetah is just another big cat, but it’s different from other felids in some interesting ways. It’s most closely related to the puma, also called the cougar, and to the jaguarundi, both of which live in the Americas, but the Cheetah mostly lives in Africa. It was once also common throughout parts of Asia, but there are probably fewer than 50 Asiatic cheetahs left alive in the wild today.

The cheetah’s genetic profile shows a bottleneck that occurred about 12,000 years ago. That means the worldwide population of cheetahs dropped so low that it became inbred, which lowered its genetic variability. This is about the same time that a lot of animals went extinct at the end of the Pleistocene, so we’re very lucky the cheetah survived. Since it migrated into Africa about 12,000 years ago, it’s possible that it only survived because it found the right combination of habitat and prey animal at just the right time. The cheetah’s genetic profile actually shows another bottleneck that happened around 100,000 years ago, which researchers think may have occurred as it migrated across Asia. Whatever caused these genetic bottlenecks, the result is that all cheetahs are genetically nearly identical.

Ordinarily, low genetic diversity means an animal is vulnerable to disease and infection due to a weak immune system. But cheetahs hardly ever get sick in the wild. A long-term study of cheetahs on protected land in Namibia found that zero of the 300 cheetahs showed symptoms of infection or disease. The team studying the cheetahs captured some of the cheetahs long enough to perform immunological tests on them—which didn’t hurt them—and compared the results with those of leopards also living in the region. They found that while the leopards had a stronger overall immune system, the cheetahs had a much stronger initial immune response.

The cheetah is tan or yellowish with a white belly and throat. It has black spots over most of its body, and partial or complete rings at the end of its long tail. It has black streaks on its face called tear streaks since they start at the inner corner of the eyes and trace down the sides of the nose and over the cheeks. No other felid has tear streaks, and some researchers think it may help the cheetah see better in bright sunlight.

The cheetah has a small head, long legs, and a long tail and stands about three feet tall, or 90 cm. Its tail is almost as long as it is tall. It’s lightly built. In fact, you might say it’s built for speed.

Because, of course, the cheetah is the fastest land animal alive. The fastest cheetah ever reliably clocked ran at 70 mph, or 112 km/hour. That’s as fast as a car racing down the interstate. Of course, the cheetah can’t keep up that pace for very long, but it can run at around 40 mph, or 64 km/hour, for longer. It has the real-life equivalent of a turbo button in some video games. If it’s chasing an antelope, which is mostly what it eats, and it’s close but not gaining, it hits that turbo speed and zoom! It accelerates long enough to catch the antelope. And it only needs about two seconds to reach its maximum speed. Not only that, it can run that fast while twisting and turning through brush, since antelopes also switch direction frequently to try to outmaneuver the cheetah.

Wyatt specifically wants to know how cheetahs run, and it’s definitely worth going into. The cheetah is incredibly well-adapted for high-speed hunting. It looks more like a greyhound than a big cat, with a deep chest and long slender limbs. The deep chest allows room for the cheetah’s oversized heart and lungs. It also has large nasal passages so it can get plenty of oxygen with every breath. Its long tail acts as a rudder, helping it turn quickly without slowing down. The cheetah also can’t retract its claws all the way like most felids. It can extend the claws somewhat, but they’re always partially extended. This means the cheetah has better traction, since the claws bite into the ground as it runs.

But there are other adaptations that aren’t so obvious. Its leg bones are arranged so that they’re more stable, reducing the risk of a cheetah putting a foot down wrong and wrecking. The cheetah’s spine is long and flexible, and it actually stretches as much as 30 inches, or 76 cm, while the animal is running, to give it an even longer stride.

Its inner ear is also unique. The inner ear is what allows a mammal to balance and move without getting disoriented or falling over. The inner ear consists of three tiny canals filled with fluid and sensory hair cells. The canals are oriented in different directions, so when you move your head around, the liquid in the canals moves too, and the sensory cells tell the brain which direction the liquid is moving, and the brain puts it all together and then you know exactly where you head is in comparison to the ground. And the best thing of all is, you don’t actually have to think about it, your brain just does it automatically. That’s good, because it sounds really complicated.

But the canals in the cheetah’s inner ear are different from those of all other felids. They’re bigger and longer, which allows the cheetah’s brain to fine-tune exactly where its head is even when it’s moving so fast that if it was a car, it would be pulled over for speeding. This means that the cheetah can adjust the position of its head as it runs so that it can get a better view of its surroundings, called visual stability.

We know so much about how cheetahs run because cheetahs in captivity enjoy chasing an artificial lure. Think of it like a scary version of your pet cat chasing the red dot. This allows scientists to study how the cheetah moves while running, using high-speed cameras and equipment called force plates that measure pressure. In a study published in 2012, researchers compared cheetahs and greyhounds and discovered that even when the two animals run at the same speed, the cheetah keeps its feet on the ground slightly longer than the greyhound. Even though the difference is small, it’s enough to reduce overall stresses on the cheetah’s legs, which means it can run faster without risking an injury. Its toe beans, also called foot pads, are also large and tough, more like a dog’s than a cat’s.

In fact, a lot of the cheetah’s adaptations for running make it resemble a canid more than a felid. That’s a good example of convergent evolution, since dogs and other canids mostly hunt by pursuing their prey while many felids use ambush tactics instead. Because of its adaptations to running, the cheetah can’t climb very well. It’s also active during the day, called diurnal, unlike most felids which are nocturnal.

It’s a social animal too. Males often live together in small groups called coalitions, either brothers or unrelated males. Females are more solitary, but when a female doesn’t have cubs to take care of, she usually spends at least part of her time with other cheetahs.

The cheetah can’t roar, but it makes a lot of other noises. Last week we heard a clip of a chirping cheetah that sounded like a bird, but that’s not the only sound a cheetah makes. It can purr, meow, chirp, growl, yowl, and so forth. Here are some of the sounds cheetahs make. I’ll put more at the end of the episode.

[cheetah sounds]

Cheetah cubs have a mane of silvery-gray fur on the back, which might act as camouflage but which also makes the cubs look a lot like tiny honey badgers. If you remember episode 62, about the honey badger, you may remember why. But even so, lots of animals eat cheetah cubs. Researchers estimate that in some habitats, only about 4% of all cheetahs born actually live long enough to grow up.

The cheetah is fast, but larger, stronger predators live in the same areas where it lives. Lions, leopards, hyenas, and other animals will wait until a cheetah kills an antelope, then will try to take the kill from the cheetah. Habitat loss is also a major factor in the survival of the cheetah. And, of course, people hunt cheetahs, either as trophies or because they mistakenly believe cheetahs kill livestock. Studies have proven that cheetahs actually much prefer antelopes and other wild animals.

Young cheetahs are also sometimes captured to sell as exotic pets. This isn’t a good thing, since quite often the cheetahs aren’t properly cared for, but it has been going on for a very long time. The cheetah isn’t a very aggressive animal and becomes tames fairly easily. In Egypt, tame cheetahs were used to hunt game as far back as 1500 BCE, and probably earlier, although only royalty owned them.

Despite this, cheetahs don’t do very well in captivity. They need a lot of space to move around, and if they don’t have enough space, they suffer from stress-related illnesses. Even the best zoos have trouble taking care of cheetahs properly. The reason you see so many photos of cheetahs and dogs together is that zoos have discovered that dogs make good companions for cheetahs, helping them stay calm. Cheetahs rarely breed in captivity.

So, while we’re talking about really fast animals, what’s the fastest living animal known? The cheetah is the fastest land animal, but the fastest flying animal is the peregrine falcon, which can dive at a recorded speed of 242 mph, or 389 km/hour. For regular flying, the white-throated needletail swift can fly at 105 mph, or 169 km/h, while the Brazilian free-tailed bat has been clocked at more than 99 mph, or 160 km/hour. The fastest swimming animal known is the black marlin, which can swim at 82 mph, or 132 km/h. But, of course, we haven’t measured every living animal to see how fast they can all run, swim, or fly. We didn’t even know about the Brazilian free-tailed bat’s speed until a study a few years ago. The researchers didn’t believe their data at first. But it seems pretty clear that the cheetah doesn’t have a whole lot of competition in the fastest land animal race.

[more cheetah sounds]

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 120: Hybrid Animals



If you’re a subscriber on Patreon, you may recognize some of the information in this episode, but I’ve updated it and added a whole bunch. Thanks to Pranav for the topic suggestion!

A cama, llama/camel hybrid:

A swoose, swan/goose hybrid:

Motty the Asian/African elephant hybrid and his mother:

A zorse, zebra/horse hybrid:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’ve got another listener suggestion. Pranav really really wants me to do an episode about hybrid animals, but I’ve been dragging my feet on it because I actually already did an episode on the topic back in 2017—but only for Patreon subscribers. It wasn’t my best episode so for various reasons I’d decided not to unlock it. But Pranav really really wants to learn about hybrids! So I’ve taken part of the Patreon episode and added a lot of newer information to it to bring it up to date and make it more interesting.

The term for an animal with parents of different species is hybrid. Crossbreed is also a common term, although technically a crossbred animal is one with parents of the same species but different breeds, like a labradoodle is a crossbreed of a Labrador and a poodle. Both parents are domestic dogs.

A mule, on the other hand, is a hybrid between a horse and a donkey, specifically a mare and a jack, which is what a male donkey is called. The offspring of a stallion and a lady donkey, known as a jenny, is a hinny.

So why can a horse and a donkey breed while, for instance, a possum and a rat can’t? The two species must belong to the same family, and with very few exceptions, they must also belong to the same genus. The genus is indicated in an animal’s scientific name. Equus caballus is a horse and Equus africanus is a donkey, while a Labrador and a poodle are both Canis familiaris, or Canis lupus familiaris depending on who you ask. The Virginia opossum is Didelphis virginiana while the brown rat is Rattus norvegicus. They’re not even slightly related, although superficially they look alike.

If the hybrid’s parents are from species with different numbers of chromosomes, hybrid males will almost always be sterile. You can’t cross two mules to get more mules, for instance, because male mules can’t make babies. Female mules are sometimes fertile but very rarely conceive. Horses have 64 chromosomes while donkeys have 62. Mules end up with 63. Hinnies are much rarer than mules because if the female of a pair of related species has fewer pairs of chromosomes than the male, it’s less likely that any offspring will result.

More closely related species can have fertile offspring. Killer bees, for instance, are hybrids of a European honeybee and an African honeybee. The two are actually subspecies of the honeybee, Apis mellifera, so it’s less like creating a hybrid and more like crossing a Labrador and a poodle to get an adorable happy pup with curly hair. It seemed like a really good idea. The result was supposed to be a tropical bee that would produce more honey. What actually happened was killer bees. Which do actually kill people. Hundreds of people, in fact, since they escaped into the wild in 1957 and started spreading throughout the Americas.

When animals hybridize even though they aren’t of the same genus, it’s called an intergeneric hybrid. That’s the case with sheep and goats. While sheep and goats are related on the subfamily level, they belong to separate genuses. Sheep have 54 chromosomes while goats have 60. That’s enough of a difference that most hybrid babies don’t survive long enough to be born alive, but it does happen occasionally. Usually the babies have 57 chromosomes, and sometimes the babies survive and even prove to be fertile when crossed with either a goat or a sheep. So that’s weird.

Just because someone wants to find out what you get when you cross, say, a sheep and a goat, doesn’t mean the sheep and goat in question are willing to make that effort. The less closely related the two animals are, the less interested they are in mating. Occasionally hybrids are produced by artificial insemination, or rarely by genetic manipulation of embryos, although genetic manipulation technically results in a chimera, not a hybrid.

Another intergeneric hybrid is a cross between a male camel and a female llama. In this case it’s accomplished by artificial insemination and has only produced a handful of living babies, called camas. Researchers were hoping to produce a camel-sized animal with a llama’s more cooperative temperament, but camas turn out to act like camels. So basically they’re just camels that aren’t as big or strong as camels.

In the 1970s, Chester Zoo in Cheshire in the UK kept a female Asian elephant and a male African elephant together in the same enclosure. The pair mated but no one thought they could produce a hybrid calf, since Asian elephants and African elephants aren’t that closely related. They’re another pair of animals that don’t share a genus. But a calf named Mottie was born in 1978. Surprise!

Many hybrids resemble one or the other of their parents. Motty was a fascinating blend of both. He had five toenails on his forefeet and four on the hind feet like his mom. African savannah elephants like his dad have four front toenails and three hind toenails. But he had longer legs and bigger ears than an Asian elephant. His trunk was wrinkled like his dad’s, but had only one digit at the tip like his mom’s. African elephants have two digits at the tip of their trunks. Even the shape of Motty’s head and back were a mixture of his parents’ characteristics.

So why would anyone want to cross species to get a hybrid? I mean, you might end up with killer bees.

A lot of times hybrids show what is known as hybrid vigor. This is more common in hybrid plants, but some hybrid animals combine the best features of their parents. Mules, for instance, have more stamina than horses and are stronger than donkeys. A hybrid of a domestic cow and an American bison is called a beefalo, which is bred to produce leaner meat in an animal that is better for the environment than a cow but easier to handle than a bison. But a lot of times, hybrids are the result of human ignorance, such as keeping related animals together without realizing babies might result, or human curiosity. We just want to see what might happen.

Unfortunately, for every healthy mule-like hybrid, there’s an unhealthy, malformed, or stillborn animal from parents who should have never produced offspring. Motty the elephant was premature and died of infection when he was only eleven days old, probably because his immune system was weakened due to his hybridized genetics.

Lions, tigers, leopards, and other big cats can all interbreed, but the resulting babies sometimes have unusual health issues. When a male lion and a female tiger breed, the resulting babies are known as ligers, and ligers are enormous. They’re much bigger and heavier than both their parents. This sounds neat, but it happens because of a genetic anomaly that means the animals just grow and grow much faster and longer than a normal tiger or lion cub. This puts stress on the body and can lead to health problems. Ligers can sometimes weigh over 1200 pounds, or over 550 kg, and grow up to 12 feet long, or 3.6 meters, bigger than a full-grown tiger or lion. The offspring of a puma and a leopard, often called a pumapard, has the opposite problem, with cubs usually inheriting a form of dwarfism. The cubs are only half the size of the parents.

The savannah cat is now accepted as a domestic cat breed by some organizations, but it was first developed in 1986 by crossing a female domestic cat and a male serval. The serval is a wild cat from Africa with large ears, long legs, and a spotted and striped coat pattern. It’s a little larger than a domestic cat and is sometimes kept as an exotic pet, although it’s not domesticated. The hybrid babies inherited their mother’s domesticated nature and turned out to be mostly sociable with humans, although some are less tame. But while Savannah cats are pretty, the kittens of a serval and domestic cat are often stillborn or premature, and many male offspring are infertile. Savannah cats are also prone to certain health issues, especially heart problems. Some areas have banned savannah cats since they’re not considered fully domesticated.

The more closely related the parents, the more likely a hybrid baby will result, and the more likely it will be healthy. Many wolf-like canids can and do easily hybridize with other wolf-like canids, since they have 78 chromosomes in the same arrangement and are closely related. Offspring are usually fertile. The wolf-like canids include wolves, domestic dogs, coyotes, jackals, and dholes. Where the ranges of these various species overlap in the wild, hybrids are not uncommon. But canids that are less closely related to the wolf-like canids, like foxes and raccoon dogs, can’t and don’t hybridize with their cousins.

Some whales will hybridize in the wild, including the fin whale and the blue whale, which are closely related. Dolphins of different species sometimes hybridize when they’re kept together in captivity, such as the false killer whale and the bottlenose dolphin. The resulting babies don’t usually live very long. Occasionally dolphins also hybridize in the wild too. In 2017 a hybrid baby of a rough-toothed dolphin and a melon-headed whale, which is actually a species of dolphin, was spotted off the coast of Hawaii. Researchers were able to get a small tissue sample from the young hybrid to DNA test, which confirmed its parentage. The melon-headed whale mother was also spotted with her calf in a pod of rough-toothed dolphins.

Birds also sometimes hybridize in the wild. This happens occasionally where the range of two closely related species overlap. Since the resulting babies may look very different from both their parents, this makes bird-watching even more challenging. Some warbler species hybridize so often that the hybrid offspring are well-known to birders, such as Brewster’s warbler and Lawrence’s warbler. These two birds are both offspring of a golden-winged warbler and a blue-winged warbler mate, with the appearance different depending on which traits the babies inherit from which parent.

Occasionally a domestic chicken will mate with a wild pheasant and produce babies, since chickens and pheasants are related. Very rarely, a swan and goose will mate and produce babies, although the babies don’t usually survive very long. One swan-goose hybrid that did survive was hatched in 2004 in Dorset in the UK, with a mute swan mother and a domestic goose father. The baby was referred to as a swoose and it was the only of the offspring to survive. It looks like a goose but with a longer, more swan-like neck and head.

If you’ve listened to episode 25, part one of the humans episode, you’ll recall that human DNA contains traces of DNA from our extinct cousins, including Neandertals. If Neandertals were still around, we could undoubtedly produce hybrids with them. But what about our living cousins, the other great apes? Humans are closely related to chimpanzees, but could a human produce a hybrid with a chimp? It’s possible but very unlikely. We belong to different genuses and have different numbers of chromosomes, not to mention the enormous ethical issues involved.

Let’s finish up with my favorite hybrid animal, the zebroid. This is a term for any hybrid where one parent is a zebra and the other parent is a horse, a donkey, or a pony, which also leads to the terms zorse, zedonk, and zony. These all crack me up, especially zedonk.

Zebroids are usually at least partially striped, frequently on the legs and neck but sometimes all over. The mane may stand up like a zebra’s or fall over the neck like a horse’s. The zebroid is adorable because of the stripes, but it’s also ornery and can be aggressive. There goes my dream of having a stripy horse.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.com. We’re on Twitter at strangebeasties and have a facebook page at facebook.com/strangeanimalspodcast. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 109: Convergent Evolution



I mention convergent evolution occasionally, but what is it really? This week we learn about what it is and some animals that demonstrate it. Thanks to Richard E. and Llewelly for their suggestions this week! Jaguars and leopards look so similar I’m not 100% sure this picture actually shows one of each:

The adorable sucker-footed bat from Madagascar:

The equally adorable TOTALLY UNRELATED disk-winged bat from South America:

Metriorhynchus looked a lot like a whale even though it was a crocodile ancestor:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to learn about some animals that represent convergent evolution. That’s a term that I mention every so often, so it’s time to really dig into it and see what it’s all about. We’ll start with animals that are fairly closely related, then work our way backwards to those that aren’t related at all.

Basically, when unrelated organisms develop similar form, structure, or functions as each other, that’s called convergent evolution. One simple example is bats and birds. They’re not related, but both can fly using forelimbs that have been modified into wings.

This topic idea was sparked by an idea from Richard E., who suggested an episode about evolution and how it doesn’t “improve” anything, just adapts. That’s an important distinction. Evolution is a reactive force, not a proactive. Sometimes we use terms like advanced to describe certain animals, and primitive to describe others with traits that haven’t changed in a long time. That implies that some animals are “better” than others, or better adapted. In actuality, one trait is not better or worse than another, as long as both traits help the animal survive and thrive. If an animal has traits that haven’t changed in millions of years but it’s still doing well, it’s as adapted as it needs to be. An animal that’s extremely specialized to an environment can sometimes be much more vulnerable to environmental change than a more generalized animal, too.

From a scientific point of view, while it may look like species become more advanced as time goes on, all it means is that a lot of animals have evolved to occupy specific ecological niches. One example Richard gives is the panda, which we talked about in episode 42 about strange bears.

The panda is an extremely specialized animal. It’s a bear that is no longer a carnivore, for one thing, and not only does it not eat meat, or hardly any meat since it will eat small animals and bird eggs when it finds them, it mostly just eats one type of plant. That plant, of course, is bamboo, which is low in nutrients. The panda has adapted in all sorts of ways to be able to digest bamboo, and one of the most obvious adaptations is what looks like a sixth toe on its forefeet. It’s not a toe but a projecting sesamoid bone that acts as a toe and helps the panda grasp bamboo.

But the panda’s sixth toe evolved because of selective pressures, because pandas born with the toe were able to eat more bamboo and were therefore healthier and more likely to have babies than pandas without the toe.

Richard also mentioned the similarities between jaguars and leopards. They are related, but not closely. The jaguar is more closely related to the leopard than to the lion, but the leopard is more closely related to the lion than to the jaguar. That’s not confusing at all. But both cats look very similar, tawny or golden in color with black spots called rosettes, and both frequently demonstrate an all-black coloring called melanism. But the jaguar lives in the Americas while the leopard lives in Asia and parts of Africa. Why do they look so similar?

In this case, a big part of the similarities between jaguars and leopards are that they share a common ancestor that lived around three and a half million years ago. The jaguar migrated from Africa into Europe and then into North America on the land bridge Beringia, while the leopard mostly stayed put but expanded its territory into Asia. New research into feline genetics suggests that the jaguar interbred with lions at some point, which gave it a heavier build and stronger jaws than the leopard.

But leopards and jaguars look very different from other big cats, and very similar to each other. This is where convergent evolution comes in. Leopards and jaguars live in similar habitats, dense forests and jungle where light is dim and filtered through leaves. A spotted animal is harder to see where there’s a lot of dappled shade, and an all-black animal is harder to see when there’s not a lot of light. Melanistic jaguars, those that are all-black, are extremely common, and melanistic leopards are more common in populations living in thicker forests than in populations that live in more open forests with more light.

Leopards and jaguars share a genus, Panthera, which means they’re pretty closely related. But Llewelly suggested we talk about sucker-footed and disk-winged bats, and while they’re both microbats, they’re much less closely related than jaguars and leopards. And they share a really weird adaptation for climbing on smooth leaves.

The sucker-footed bat lives in Madagascar, the big island off the coast of Africa that’s full of lemurs. Madagascar is also home to a tree called the traveler’s palm, although it’s not actually a palm tree. It’s an amazing tree with huge leaves that grow in a fan shape. I don’t mean the tree has a lot of leaves growing in fan shapes, I mean the main part of the tree is one giant fan of enormous leaves. The leaves can be 36 feet long, or 11 meters, and some trees can grow 100 feet high, or 30 meters. It’s supposedly called the traveler’s palm because the fan tends to grow along an east-west line so it gets the most sun, or possibly because the stems catch and hold rainwater that thirsty travelers could drink. Its white flowers are pollinated by ruffed lemurs and it has bright blue seeds. But the traveler’s palm also has extremely smooth leaves, and the sucker-footed bat roosts on the leaves. But the leaves are so slick and smooth that most insects can’t even hold on to them. How does a bat manage it?

As you may have guessed from the name, the sucker-footed bat has little cuplike pieces of skin on its thumb joint and its feet that excrete lots of sweat-like fluid. The bat presses the cups against the leaf and they act just like suction cups, although the main suction comes from wet adhesion. You know how a suction cup holds better if you lick it first? That’s pretty much how it works. Also, hey kids, don’t lick suction cups, they’re dirty. Also don’t drink rainwater out of leaves, that sounds clean but it’s full of dirt and drowned bugs.

The sucker-footed bat roosts head-up instead of hanging upside-down, only one of six species known to roost head-up. It’s about two inches long, or 5 cm, and eats insects. Because it mostly only roosts in the traveler’s palm and is mostly solitary, it doesn’t carry any parasites in its fur or on its skin. Parasites can’t walk across those slick leaves.

The disk-winged bat, meanwhile, lives in the tropical parts of Central and South America. Like the sucker-footed bat, it has cuplike discs made of skin and cartilage on its thumbs and feet that act as suction cups. It roosts head-up in smooth curled-up leaves, generally in small groups. But its suction cups are different from the sucker-footed bat’s. They actually use suction to stay in place, whereas the sucker-footed bat’s suction cups mostly just use wet adhesion from the sweat it produces, with the actual suction being weak and not really necessary.

So let’s back it up some more and look at two animals that have evolved in similar directions that aren’t related. Like crocodiles and whales, or at least a crocodile relative and modern dolphins.

Metriorhynchids [met-ree-oh-rink-id] were croc relatives that lived around 150 million years ago, about 100 million years before whales and their relatives evolved. Metriorhynchids were marine animals, and while we don’t know a whole lot about them since we don’t have very many fossils, we do know that they grew up to ten feet long, or three meters, and lived in the ocean.

Metriorhynchus ate fish, ammonites, and whatever else it could catch, and it was a fast swimmer. It was streamlined with a long snout, smooth skin instead of armored, and even had a finned tail sort of like a shark’s that probably provided its propulsion through the water. It had four long flippers to help it maneuver.

In other words, in a lot of ways it looked like a dolphin, because it was so well adapted to live in the same environment. Whales and their relations have streamlined shapes, smooth bodies to reduce drag in the water, fluked tails, and flippers. Even the shape of metriorhynchus’s snout mirrors the longer rostrums that some dolphins have evolved to help them catch prey.

Finally, let’s look at convergent evolution between two animals that look totally different, are totally unrelated, but which share one similar feature. If you guessed primates and parrots, you are correct!

Specifically, this is about how the brain manages higher-order processing. In other words, intelligence. Primates, including humans, have an enlarged section of the brain called the pontine nuclei that transfers information between the brain’s cortex and cerebellum, allowing primates to process information in a more sophisticated way than most other mammals studied. But parrots and a lot of other birds are also intelligent, and researchers have recently discovered how their brains do the same thing.

Instead of a big pontine nuclei, birds use a part of the brain called the medial spiriform nucleus that performs the same transfer of information from the cortex and the cerebellum. In intelligent birds like parrots, that part of the brain is very large, five times larger than it is in chickens. I’m sorry, chickens, you’re very pretty birds and taste delicious, but you’re not known for your high-level reasoning abilities.

So convergent evolution is more than just two animals that evolve to look or act similar because they live in the same environment. In fact, there’s so much to convergent evolution that there’s no way I can do more than brush along the surface of the topic in a single episode. It might be a fun topic to revisit now and then.

In the meantime, now you know a little bit about what convergent evolution is. Just remember that if you explain it to a parrot, it’s processing your information with a totally different part of its brain than you are. That’s pretty awesome.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.com. We’re on Twitter at strangebeasties and have a facebook page at facebook.com/strangeanimalspodcast. 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 whatever platform you listen on. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!

 


Episode 083: Lions, tigers, and other big cats…of mystery!



I’ve been meaning to do a big cat episode for a while, thanks to listener Damian who suggested lions and tigers! But when I started my research, I immediately got distracted by all the reports of mysterious big cats. So here’s another mysteries episode!

Here are the links to some Patreon episodes that I’ve unlocked for anyone to listen to. Just click on the link and a page will open, and you can listen on the page. No need to log in.

Marsupial lions

Blue tigers and black lions

The Queensland tiger, which is not actually about any kind of actual tiger

A lion and cub. This picture made me die:

The Barbary lion, possibly extinct, possibly not:

Watch out! Tigers!

A king leopard with stripe-like markings instead of spots:

Further reading:

Hybrid and Mutant big cats

Peruvian mystery jaguar skulls studied

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to learn about some mystery big cats. We’ve touched on big cats before in various episodes, including the British Big Cats phenomenon in episode 52. We’re definitely going to see some more out of place animals this week, along with lots of information about big cats of various kinds. Thanks to Damian who requested an episode about lions and tigers ages ago.

I’ve also unlocked three Patreon episodes so that anyone can listen to them. They won’t show up in your feed, but there are links in the show notes and you can click through and listen on your browser without needing a patreon login. The first is about marsupial lions and the second is about blue tigers and other big cats with anomalous coat colors. The sound quality on the blue tigers episode is not that great, but it’s a long episode with lots of information about blue tigers, white tigers, black tigers, white lions, king cheetahs, and lots more. The third is about the Queensland tiger, an Australian animal that’s not a feline of any kind, but why not?

The term big cat refers to tigers, lions, leopards, snow leopards, and jaguars, but it can also include cheetahs and cougars depending on who you ask. Big cats have round pupils instead of slit pupils like domestic cats and other smaller cats.

Lions, tigers, leopards, and jaguars can all roar. Snow leopards, cheetahs, and cougars can’t. But snow leopards, cheetahs, and cougars can purr, while lions, tigers, leopards, and jaguars can’t. The ability to roar is due to special adaptations in the larynx, but these adaptations also mean big cats can’t purr. So basically a cat can either roar or purr but not both.

The word panther, incidentally, refers to any big cat and not to a specific type of animal. So a black panther, in addition to being an awesome movie, is any kind of big cat exhibiting melanism, which causes the animal’s fur to be black all over. Leopards and jaguars are most commonly referred to as black panthers. Lions, tigers, and cheetahs do not exhibit true melanism as far as researchers have found.

Let’s start with lions. Lions live only in Africa these days, but were once common throughout parts of southern Asia too and possibly even parts of southern Europe. The lion is most closely related to the leopard and jaguar, less closely related to the tiger and snow leopard, but it’s so closely related to all those big cats that it can interbreed with them in rare cases.

There are two species of lion, the African and the Asian. Until recently there were also several subspecies of African lions, including the American lion, which once lived throughout North and South America. It only went extinct around 11,000 years ago. The American lion is the largest subspecies of lion ever known, about a quarter larger than modern African lions. It probably stood almost four feet tall at the shoulder, or 1.2 meters. Cave paintings and pieces of skin preserved in caves indicate that its coat was reddish instead of golden. It lived in open grasslands like modern lions and even in cold areas. There are reports of a reddish, short-maned cat supposedly called a “jungle lion” sighted in South America, but I can’t find much information about it and it’s much more likely to be a jaguar or cougar than a relic population of American lions. But wouldn’t that be awesome if it was.

The Barbary lion was a subspecies of African lion that lived in northern Africa until it was hunted to extinction. The Barbary lion was the one that battled gladiators in ancient Rome and was hunted by pharaohs in ancient Egypt, a big lion with a dark mane. The last one was supposedly killed in 1922, but recent research indicates that they survived much longer—maybe as late as 1958 or later. The last recorded sighting was in 1956, but the forest where it was seen was destroyed two years later.

One zoo in Morocco claims that their lions are purebred Barbary lions, descended from royal lions kept in captivity for centuries. But since we don’t have a full genetic profile of the Barbary lion to start with, it’s hard to determine whether the royal lions are Barbary lions. So far a 2005 DNA test on five of the royal lions indicates they probably aren’t, but DNA testing has come a long way since then and new tests on the royal lions and on preserved Barbary lion skins will hopefully be done soon.

The Sumatran golden lion, also called the cigau [pronounced chee-gow] is a mystery lion that is supposed to be golden in color with no markings, a relatively short tail, and with a mane or ruff of fur that’s sometimes described as white. It’s only about the size of a small donkey or large goat, but stocky like a lion. The most recent sightings are from the 1960s, where one supposedly attacked and killed a man. Some researchers think it may be a subspecies of the nearly extinct Asiatic lion, but others say it’s more likely to be an animal of folklore. Then again, there are tigers on Sumatra and it’s always possible it’s an anomalous coated tiger with no stripes, or stripes that are almost the same color as its coat. Tigers do have a white ruff around the face.

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

Let’s talk about tigers next. Tigers are awesome animals, with the Bengal tiger being the biggest big cat alive today—on average even bigger than the lion. Tigers are good swimmers and most really like the water, unlike most cats. They live throughout Asia but once were much more common and widespread. I’ve found a lot of mystery tiger reports, but if you’re interested in tigers of unusual colors, I really do recommend you go listen to the unlocked Patreon episode about blue tigers.

The so-called beast of Neamt is a modern mystery from Romania. In spring of 2016, farmers started finding livestock killed during the night, but not eaten. The predator was clearly extremely strong, much stronger and larger than a dog. Its method of killing didn’t suggest a bear, which locals were familiar with anyway.

Some of the sightings seem normal, of a catlike animal the size of a calf. Other sightings were more bizarre. Some people reporting seeing a huge animal running on two legs, one guy said he’d wounded it with an axe but it didn’t bleed, and of course there were the predictable reports that animals it killed were drained of blood.

But in this case, DNA testing solved the mystery of what was killing the animals. The beast was injured by a barbed-wire fence, and a test of its blood indicated it was a Siberian tiger. The Siberian tiger is also called the Amur tiger, which we talked about in episode 44, Extinct and Back from the Brink. But there are probably no more than 500 Siberian tigers alive in the wild, and none of them live within 3,000 miles of Romania, or 5,000 km. So while we know what the beast of Neamt is, we don’t know how it got there. Out of place tigers, hurrah!

Another mystery tiger is from Chad in Africa. This one is sometimes called the mountain tiger, and it’s supposed to be the size of a lion but with reddish fur, white stripes, no tail, and huge fangs.

This doesn’t sound like anything alive today—but it does sound like an extinct cat called Machairodus. It was the size of a lion, or over 3 feet tall at the shoulder, or 1 meter, and around 6 ½ feet long, or 2 meters. It was a type of saber-toothed cat like Smilodon, although it wasn’t closely related to Smilodon and its fangs weren’t as big. It probably had a short tail. But Machairodus and its relatives died out probably a million years ago, although it might have persisted to only 130,000 years ago. That’s still a lot of years, so it’s not too likely that a population of its descendants still lives in Chad. For one thing, northern Chad is part of the Sahara, while southern Chad is a savanna. It’s not dense jungle or remote mountains.

But there are similar reports of the mountain tiger in other parts of Africa, where there are steep mountain ranges that aren’t well explored. And, oddly enough, similar reports also come from South America and even from Mexico. Machairodus did live in Africa, Eurasia, and North America, although its fossils haven’t been found in South America. Maybe the reports aren’t of a living animal but were inspired by fossil remains. Hunters who stumbled across fossil machairodus bones would recognize them as similar to tiger or lion skeletons, but wouldn’t know that the living animal was long gone.

Another South American big cat report comes from Ecuador. It’s called the rainbow tiger or rainbow jaguar, and it sounds really pretty. In the Macas region in southeastern Ecuador, in the Amazon jungle, locals have a story about a big cat properly called Tshenkutshen. The cat is the size of a jaguar, or up to six feet long not counting the tail, or 1.85 meters, but instead of having a pattern of dark rosettes on a tawny background coat, the rainbow tiger is black with stripes on its chest. The stripes are different colors: white, red, yellow, and black, which gives it the rainbow name. One report I saw says it’s white with black spots in addition to the stripes on its chest. It lives in the trees in remote areas, is rare, and at least one report says it has a hump on its shoulders and monkey-like forepaws but with claws. One was supposedly shot and killed in 1959, but there are no pictures of the carcass and no one knows where it went, if it even existed in the first place.

Naturally, the rainbow tiger isn’t actually a tiger since tigers don’t live in South America. If it is a real animal and not a folktale, it’s probably a type of jaguar. But the whole monkey hands thing implies it’s probably more of a mythological creature than a flesh and blood one, because no feline of any kind has forepaws that resemble hands.

There’s an interesting addition to the rainbow tiger mystery. Dutch primatologist Dr. Marc van Roosmalen spotted a strange jaguar during an expedition through Brazil in the late 1990s. It was mostly black, but had a white pattern around its throat.

There are plenty of other South American big cat mysteries, including the yemish that we covered in episode 59 along with the onza, a mystery cat from Mexico and central America. But one especially interesting report is from Peru. Peter Hocking is a Peruvian ornithologist, or someone who studies birds, but he’s also interested in other animals. In 1996 he got his hands on two skulls that were similar to jaguar skulls but reportedly not from jaguars, but from strange striped big cats instead.

In 2010, zoologist Darren Naish asked for and finally received high-quality plaster replicas of the skulls so he could study them. His conclusion is that both skulls are actually from jaguars, but he points out that most big cat species do occasionally produce anomalously striped individuals. No one knows where the pelts of these two jaguars are, unfortunately. Hopefully they’ll turn up eventually, or another striped jaguar will be found and can be studied so we can learn if it’s just an individual with an anomalous coat pattern, or an actual subspecies of jaguar with stripes instead of spots.

I couldn’t find any mystery cheetah reports beyond one called the Tennessee red cheetah. That excited me because I live in Tennessee and I’d never heard of it before. The Tennessee red cheetah is supposed to resemble the cheetah, golden brown with black spots, but with a reddish dorsal stripe and tail. Some reports say it’s reddish-brown all over with black spots.

That’s it. That’s all the information I can find. I was so disappointed, but basically it sounds like a tall tale or maybe a sighting of a jaguar. That’s the problem with mystery big cat reports. There are so many reports of so many animals that don’t correspond to any known species or subspecies of big cat, with few concrete details. In the case of the Tennessee red cheetah, the only details I could find were vague stories about one being shot and skinned, but the skin was missing. No date, no place, no names, nothing.

You can’t treat a report like that with anything but skepticism, so let’s move on to another mystery big cat, the Zanzibar leopard. When I was making notes for this episode, I wrote “probably extinct, may be too depressing to use.” But there’s always a chance it’s not extinct.

The Zanzibar leopard lives on Zanzibar Island off of Tanzania. It’s not a big island, only around 50 miles long, or 85 km, and 20 miles wide, or 30 km. The Zanzibar leopard was probably separated from the mainland population of leopards when sea levels rose after the last ice age. It’s smaller than a mainland leopard, with smaller spots, but not much is known about it since it hasn’t been studied in the wild and it may be extinct now. Unfortunately, many people on the island believed that the leopards were witches’ familiars, and that they should be killed. In 1964 the islanders overthrew the government, but also unfortunately, the newly installed government persecuted people it decided were witches. This included a government-run campaign to kill all leopards on the island. By the mid-1990s, conservationists suspected the Zanzibar leopard was extinct.

But there is hope. Earlier this year an Animal Planet show caught footage on a camera trap of what appears to be a Zanzibar leopard. Hopefully there are still some of the leopards remaining, and if so, hopefully they can also be protected.

Speaking of Tanzania, let’s finish with a big cat that might very well be a real animal—or something even more mysterious. The nunda is supposed to be a huge gray cat with tabby stripes, reported in Tanzania. Its paw prints are supposed to resemble a leopard’s, but are as big as a lion’s.

In a 1927 article, a British administrator named William Hichens reported about his investigation into nunda attacks around the village of Lindi in Tanzania. The attacks occurred in 1922, and started with a night watchman who was found dead one morning. Clutched in the dead man’s hand was a tuft of gray fur that Hichens thought might have been torn from a lion’s mane. But lions were rare in that part of Tanzania, and two locals reported seeing a huge brindled cat attack the man during the night. A few nights after that, another watchman was also killed in the same way, including the tuft of hair clutched in one hand, and that was followed by more attacks in other villages over the next several weeks. The attacks stopped, but resumed in the 1930s. Some huge footprints and more of the gray fur were found by a British hunter who tried to track the animal.

So what might the nunda be? The description doesn’t sound like any known big cat. Cryptozoologist Bernard Heuvelmans suggested it might be a huge African golden cat with anomalous markings. The African golden cat is related to the caracal and the serval, both fairly small, long-legged cats. It has variable markings and coloring, from reddish to grey, from spotted to nearly plain. But it’s only about twice the size of a domestic cat. Its paws are large for its size, but it’s not anywhere near the size of a leopard, much less a lion.

Of course, it might be a larger subspecies of golden cat, or a totally different species. But there is another possibility, one that’s far creepier and darker than an unknown big cat.

According to a book called Wild Cats of the World by Mel and Fiona Sunquist, published in 2012, in the early 20th century a group of witch doctors in that part of Tanzania ran an extortion racket. They demanded money from people and threatened to turn into lions and kill them if they didn’t pay up. And they did kill people—over 100 of them, according to the book. The murders were committed by young men who dressed like lions, including wearing lion paws on their feet so they left lion paw prints.

That would explain the rash of murders in a localized area, and the fact that so many of the victims were found clutching gray fur. The fur was never tested and could have come from any animal and been planted on the victims.

Zoologist Karl Shuker suggests that if the deaths weren’t due to these lion-men, the mystery big cat might be a type of leopard with stripes instead of spots. Leopards with stripes due to genetic coat anomalies are extremely rare, but they aren’t unheard-of. They’re sometimes referred to as king leopards. I have a picture of one in the show notes. While leopards can cross-breed with tigers, tigers don’t live in Africa, so a striped leopard-tiger hybrid wouldn’t be hanging around in Tanzania, certainly not in the 1920s.

Whatever the cause, no one has reported a nunda sighting in about 80 years.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.com. We’re on Twitter at strangebeasties and have a facebook page at facebook.com/strangeanimalspodcast. 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 whatever platform you listen on. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 059: The Onza and the Yemish



This week we’re going to learn about some more big cats, especially the mysterious onza of Mexico and the yemish of Patagonia.

And you should totally check out the charming podcast Cool Facts about Animals.

A jaguar:

A jaguarundi:

A puma, not dead:

The Rodriguez onza, dead:

A giant otter:

Further reading:

The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals by Karl P.N. Shuker

Monsters of Patagonia by Austin Whittall

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to learn about a couple of mystery cats that you might not have heard of, and learn about a few non-mystery animals along the way.

There are several cats native to Mexico. We’ve talked about the puma recently, in episode 52. It’s the same cat that’s also called the cougar or mountain lion, and it lives throughout most of the Americas. It’s tawny or brownish in color with few markings beyond dark and white areas on the face, and sometimes faint tail rings and mottled spots on the legs.

The jaguar is a spotted cat related to lions, tigers, leopards, and other big cats. It lives throughout much of Central and South America, and in North America as far north as Mexico, and was once common in the southwestern United States too but was hunted to extinction there. It prefers tropical forests and swamps, likes to swim, and is relatively stocky with a shorter tail than its relatives. Its background color is tawny or brownish with a white belly, and its spots, called rosettes, are darker. But melanistic jaguars aren’t especially uncommon. They look all black at first glance, but their spots are visible up close. Oh, and a big shout-out to the charming podcast Cool Facts About Animals who did a show about jaguars recently. I definitely recommend it, especially if you’ve got younger kids who love animals.

In 2011, a hunter and his daughter in Arizona took pictures of a spotted cat treed by their dogs, and alerted wildlife officials. The officials studied the photos and said yes, that’s a jaguar. Since then, he’s been monitored by trail cam and conservationists working in the Santa Rita Mountains. Since jaguars have unique spot patterns, we know it’s the same cat, a male that local elementary school kids have named El Jefe. Officials think El Jefe moved to Arizona from a nearby jaguar sanctuary in Mexico, and for years he was the only known jaguar in the United States. In late 2017, a second male jaguar was caught on camera in southern Arizona. Researchers hope that more jaguars will move into the area, which was part of their original range.

Pumas and jaguars are the two biggest cats found in Mexico. But there is a third big cat, a mystery big cat. The onza has been reported in Mexico for centuries. It’s supposed to look like a puma but more lightly built with longer legs and possibly darker fur or dark markings, especially striping on the legs.

The first problem is the name onza. The term is applied to a lot of different big cats in Mexico and other Spanish and Portuguese-speaking countries. For instance, in Brazil the word onça means jaguar, and in fact the jaguar’s scientific name is Pathera onca. The related English word ounce was once the name of the lynx and is now sometimes used for the snow leopard, Panthera uncia. So it’s possible that old reports of onzas just refer to pumas or jaguars, or one of the many other cats that live in the area, such as the jaguarundi.

The jaguarundi sometimes lives in Mexico as far north as southern Texas, although it’s much more common in South and Central America. It’s black or brownish-grey, which is called the grey phase, or red-brown or tawny, called the red phase. In the past the two phases were thought to be separate species. Adult jaguarundis don’t usually have any markings, but cubs have spots on their bellies. That is adorable. It’s closely related to the puma but is smaller, not much bigger than a domestic cat, and unlike most cats it’s diurnal instead of nocturnal, which means it’s mostly active during the day.

The jaguarundi has a flattish head, more like an otter than a cat. A gray phase jaguarundi may be the animal referred to in the writings of Bernal Diaz del Castillo, who in the early 16th century wrote about a lion that resembled a wolf in Montezuma’s menagerie, in 1519. It also happens to be called an onza in some parts of Mexico.

Some animals labeled onzas have been killed and examined. On January 1, 1986 a big cat killed in Sinaloa State in Mexico, called the Rodriguez onza, was examined by a team of experts, including Stephen O’Brien, an expert in feline molecular genetics. They reported that the animal’s DNA was indistinguishable from that of a puma. But it definitely didn’t look like an ordinary puma. I have a picture of it in the show notes. It was long-bodied and slender with dark markings. So it’s possible that stories of onzas arose from sightings of pumas with this sort of coat color variation, or it’s possible there is a remote population of pumas with a leggier build than ordinary pumas, and every so often one wanders out where it’s seen or killed. Pumas can show considerable variance in appearance, so it wouldn’t be that unusual for an occasional individual to be born that’s longer legged than most and that also has more or darker markings than usual.

Then again, who knows? There might be a subspecies of puma or a completely different species of cat out there. If so, hopefully we’ll find out more about it soon so it can be protected and studied.

Jaguarundis make a lot of different vocalizations. Here’s one. It sounds more like a bird than a cat, but I promise you, that’s a jaguarundi.

[cat sound]

Way back in episode 22 I touched on the yemish, or Patagonian water tiger. I think it’s time to revisit it in more detail. Look, I have a fantastic book called Monsters of Patagonia so you’re going to be hearing about Patagonia on this podcast for a long, long time.

The iemisch, or hyminche, or lemisch, or some other variation, is often called a water tiger but linked not with a feline at all, but with a ground sloth. This is entirely the fault of a single man, Florentino Ameghino.

Ameghino lived in the late 19th century and died in 1911. He was from Argentina, born to Italian immigrants, and is still highly regarded as a paleontologist, anthropologist, zoologist, and naturalist, from back in the days when you could specialize in lots of disciplines and still do tons of field work. He has an actual crater on the moon named after him. You don’t get a moon crater unless you’re pretty awesome. But Ameghino had at least one bee in his bonnet, and it involved giant ground sloths like megatherium. He was convinced they were still alive in the remote areas of South America, especially Patagonia.

In an 1898 paper he wrote about the yemish in Patagonia, which he said was a “Mysterious four legged massive beast, of a terrible and invulnerable appearance, whose body cannot be penetrated by missiles or burning branches. They call it Iemisch or ‘water tiger’ and mentioning its name terrorizes them; when interrogated and asked for details, they become grim, drop their heads, turn mute or evade answering.”

I got this quote from the Monsters of Patagonia book, of course. You can find a link in the show notes if you want to order your own copy of the book. It’s a fun read, but I should point out that I do a lot of fact-checking before I include information from the book because there are some inaccuracies and fringey theories. Also, it has no index.

Ameghino said his brother Carlos, who was also a paleontologist, had sent him a piece of hide reputedly from a yemish, which he had gotten from a Tehuelche hunter. The hide had tiny bones embedded in it, called osteoderms, which are a feature of giant ground sloths. Ameghino claimed that the yemish was a giant ground sloth, which he named Neomylodon.

Mylodon, as opposed to Ameghino’s Neomylodon, was a 10 foot long, or 3 meter, ground sloth that did indeed have osteoderms embedded in its thick hide. It had long, sharp claws and ate plants, probably dug burrows, and lived throughout Patagonia and probably most of South America. The important thing here is that mylodon remains, including dung as well as dead animals, have been found in caves in Patagonia, and the remains look so fresh that the discoverers thought they were only a few years old. It turns out that they’re all about 10,000 years old, but were preserved by cold, dry conditions in the caves.

So the piece of hide was probably really from a giant ground sloth, but not one that had been alive recently. Most researchers think that the sloths of Patagonia were already extinct when the area was first settled by humans, but discoveries of what looked like recently dead animals with fearsome claws and a hide that couldn’t be pierced with arrows might very well have contributed to stories of local monsters.

But that’s beside the point, because once you get past Ameghino’s obsession with the yemish being a real live giant ground sloth, it’s clear it’s something completely un-slothlike. The exact term yemish isn’t known from any language in Patagonia, but it might be a corruption of hymché, a water monster, or yem’chen, which means water tiger in the Aonikenk language. An even closer match from the same language means sea wolf and is pronounced ee-m’cheen [iü’mchün]. Other languages in the area call the elephant seal yabich, which also sounds similar to yemish. In other words, it’s pretty clear that the yemish is a water animal of some sort.

The sea wolf is what we call a sea lion, a type of huge seal. Sea lions and elephant seals sometimes come up rivers and into freshwater lakes, which may account for some of the numerous lake monster legends in Patagonia. As for the hymché, it may have a natural explanation too that is nevertheless just as mysterious as just calling it a monster.

French naturalist André Tournouer explored Patagonia in 1900, and at one point while following a stream, he and his expedition saw what their guide called a hymché. It was the size of a large puma but with dark fur, rounded head, no visible ears, and pale hair around the eyes. It sank under the water when Tournouer shot at it, and later they found some catlike tracks in the sand along the bank.

From the description, it’s possible that the hymché was a spectacled bear. We learned about it in episode 42. It lives in the Andes Mountains of South America but was formerly much more widespread, and is usually black with lighter markings around the eyes that give it its name. Its ears are small and its head is more rounded than other bears. While it spends most of its time in the treetops, it actually does swim quite well. But as far as we know, spectacled bears don’t live in Patagonia.

So, back to the yemish. According to Ameghino’s 1898 paper, he said the Tehuelche referred to it as the water tiger. Since there is no local word for tiger in South America, since tigers live in Asia, this is probably a translation of the local word for puma. The jaguar did formerly live in Patagonia but was hunted to extinction there over a century ago. The yemish supposedly spent much of its time in the river and dragged horses and other animals into the water when they came down to drink. Its feet were flat, its ears tiny, it had big claws and fangs, and its toes were webbed for swimming. It had shorter legs than a puma but was bigger than one.

This sounds like one specific animal that does live in Patagonia, and it’s not a tiger or any kind of feline at all. It may be an otter. Flat feet with claws and webbed toes? Check. Tiny ears and scary teeth? Check. Longer than a puma but with much shorter legs? Check. Otters don’t kill animals as big as horses, of course, but this could be an exaggeration. Otters will scavenge on freshly dead animals, so the story of a mule that fell off a precipice onto a river bank, and was discovered dead and half-eaten the next morning with strange paw prints all around it, fits with an otter family having an unexpected feast delivered to their doorstep.

Not only that, but some tribes do call otters “river tigers.” Stories of monstrous otter-like animals are common throughout much of South America, not just Patagonia, and are frequently translated as “river tiger.” In Monsters of Patagonia, Whittall wonders why some tribes have two names for the otter in that case, an ordinary name and a name denoting a monster. It’s possible the monster version of the otter either refers to a folkloric beast, an animal like a sea lion that was once seen far from its ordinary home, or two kinds of otter in the area, one bigger and more ferocious than the other.

The southern river otter lives in Patagonia, both in rivers and along the seashore. It’s not especially big, maybe four feet long including the tail, or 1.2 meters. But the rare marine otter also lives along the western and southern coasts of Patagonia. Its scientific name, Lontra felina, means “otter cat, and in Spanish it’s often called gato marino, or sea cat. But the marine otter is small, typically smaller than the river otter and at the very most, around five feet long or 1.5 meters.

But if you remember episode 37, about the dobhar-chu, you may remember the giant otter. It lives in South America north of Patagonia and is now endangered, with only around 5,000 animals left in the wild after being hunted extensively for its fur for decades. It’s protected now, although loss of habitat and poaching are still big problems. It grows to around 6 feet long now, or 1.8 meters, but when it was more common some big males could grow over eight feet long, or 2.5 meters. If in the past an occasional giant otter—twice the length of an ordinary otter—strayed into the rivers of Patagonia, it would definitely be seen as a monster.

Whittall rejects the idea that the yemish is an otter, although he doesn’t mention the giant otter. He also rejects the jaguarondi as the yemish since it’s much too small, although it does like to swim and fish and, as mentioned earlier, it does look remarkably like an otter in many ways. He suggests the yemish might be an unknown giant aquatic rodent, citing as proof the existence of a cow-sized rodent that once lived in Patagonia during the ice age. I’m not convinced. Nothing about the yemish sounds like a rodent. It does sound like an otter, possibly a known otter, possibly a now extinct otter—or, maybe, a giant version of the jaguarondi, also now extinct. But maybe not.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.com. We’re on Twitter at strangebeasties and have a facebook page at facebook.com/strangeanimalspodcast. 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 whatever platform you listen on. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 052: British Big Cats



Here’s another in the 2018 series of out-of-place animals, this time ABCs–alien big cats: big cats where there shouldn’t be any big cats. Like the British Isles, where no one should find a lynx or puma wandering around these days. But not only do people see big cats in Britain, they sometimes catch or kill them too.

The Eurasian lynx:

The European wildcat:

The puma:

A photo of the Beast of Bodmin Moor:

Mr. Tinkler’s unexpected serval:

The Kellas cat:

Show transcript:

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

This week’s episode is about some more out of place animals, but a specific type. There are so many reports of big cats in places where big cats should not be, especially black panthers, that cryptozoologists have a term for them: ABCs, or Alien Big Cats. Thanks again to Maureen for the topic suggestion!

There are whole books written about ABCs, so I won’t be able to do more than touch on the highlights in this episode. Big cat reports from Great Britain are especially common, so that’s what I’ll focus on this time.

Many reports of black panthers turn out to be large domestic cats seen at a distance, where tricks of perspective and poor light contribute to the cat looking much bigger than it really is. Some big cat reports turn out to be real animals that escaped from captivity, but other reports are not so easy to explain away.

The British Isles only fully separated from mainland Europe about 8,000 years ago as the land rose due to isostatic rebound after the weight of glaciers was gone and due to rising sea levels from melted glaciers. Before that, it was connected to what is now Denmark and the Netherlands via a large area of marshland for several thousand years. We know one European big cat crossed into Britain during that time: the Eurasian lynx, which only went extinct in Britain about 1,500 years ago. Other ice age big cats went extinct long before, around 25 to 30,000 years ago, or 12,000 years ago in the case of the cave lion.

Of all the big cats that once lived in Britain, only the Eurasian lynx is still around. It now lives in parts of Asia and Europe on up to Siberia. It’s larger than the related North American bobcat and the Canadian lynx, but still nowhere near as big as tigers and lions. The Eurasian lynx stands about 28 inches tall at the shoulder, or 70 cm, and is heavily built with thick spotted fur and a short bobtail. The tip of its tail is black although the rest of the animal is mostly buff to orangey-brown with darker brown spots, and it has long black tufts of fur on the tips of its ears. It’s a distinctive animal.

There is one other wild cat that we know still lives in Britain, the European wildcat. It used to live throughout the British Isles but now only remains in Scotland, although it also lives in parts of Europe. At first glance the wildcat looks like a domestic cat with tabby markings, but it’s a little larger and more heavily built than most domestic breeds. But since it can and does interbreed with the closely related domestic cat, it can be hard to tell the wildcat apart from a feral domestic tabby. It’s also very rare. Only a few hundred remain in the Scottish highlands at most, possibly only a few dozen. In the last few years, Scotland has worked hard to protect the remaining wildcats. An active program to neuter all feral domestic and hybrid cats in the West Highlands has helped reduce the number of crossbreedings, and more land has been designated as a wildcat haven.

There are very old stories of a vicious big cat in Britain, with the first mention in a Welsh manuscript dating to some time before 1250, called the Black Book of Carmarthen. It’s a collection of histories and legends told in verse. A fragment of a poem frequently referred to as Pa gur after the first two words of the first line, or more descriptively, Arthur and the Porter, is about King Arthur and probably dates to around 1100. The Cath Palug is mentioned in the stanza right at the end before the rest of the poem is lost due to damage. I’ll quote an English translation of the last few lines, because I was an English major and will use any excuse to read poetry out loud.

“Cei the fair went to Mona

To devastate Lleown.

His shield was ready

Against Cath Palug

When the people welcomed him.

Who pierced the Cath Palug?

Nine score before dawn

Would fall for its food.”

Kay was Arthur’s foster-brother, but in this poem he’s described as Arthur’s nephew. Lleown possibly means lions, and Mona is Ynys Môn, or Anglesey. The cat was a monster that had already killed 180 men when Kay finally defeated it. But the Cath Palug appears in other Arthur legends, and from them we can learn a bit more about it. In some stories it was the offspring of Henwen, the great white sow, who was chased into the sea and gave birth to a black kitten. The kitten swam to the island of Ynys Mon where the sons of Palug raised it, only for it to turn into a monster. In other versions of the story, a man fishing in a lake swore to dedicate his first catch to God, but broke his oath. On his third cast he caught a black kitten, which he kept and raised. But it grew enormous and killed him, his family, and anyone else who came near the lake. Sir Kay, or Arthur in other versions of the story, polished his shield so the cat would attack its reflection and not the man.

The Cath Palug was probably not a real cat but an animal of folklore. There’s always a possibility, of course, that the stories were based on the European lynx. But the lynx is not black even as a cub, and it’s not a dangerous animal to humans the way tigers sometimes are.

The first modern report of an Alien Big Cat in Britain comes from about 1770. The writer William Cobbett described seeing a gray cat the size of a Spaniel dog when he was a boy. It climbed into a hollow elm tree near Waverley Abbey, a ruin in Surrey. Later in his life, while traveling in Canada, he saw a wild gray cat, possibly a lynx, and thought it looked like the cat he saw in England.

Lynxes are occasionally killed or captured in Britain. In 1903 a lynx was shot and killed in Devon after it killed two dogs. The animal was taxidermied and given to a local museum, which labeled it as a Eurasian lynx—but a study of the animal published in 2013 proved that it was a Canadian lynx that had been kept in captivity for at least part of its life. In 1927 newspapers reported a lynx caught in Scotland. I found a copy of the article from the Sunday Post dated the 16th of January 1927, which I’ll quote part of:

“Shepherds reported having seen an animal like a leopard, but without spots on its coat, stalking the sheep in the heather. A farmer who set a steel trap on a mountainside was astonished to find the following morning that he had captured a large, fierce, yellow animal of unknown species. He obtained a gun and, cautiously approaching it, shot it. The body was sent to the London Zoo, where it was identified as that of a lynx… Two other specimens have been killed in Scotland recently. How they reached there is unknown, but it is believed that they must have escaped from some traveling menagerie.”

Unfortunately the article doesn’t give much information about the animal. It’s only called large, fierce, and yellow, and the shepherds who’d seen it before it was trapped said it looked like a leopard without spots. That’s strange if this really was a lynx, because while some individual lynxes may have spots that don’t show up well against the background coat, all lynxes have spots. They also have bobtails and the distinctive black ear tufts, but those details aren’t reported.

It’s possible the poor cat wasn’t a lynx at all but a puma. The puma, also called a cougar or mountain lion, is native to the Americas. It’s bigger than a lynx, standing almost three feet tall at the shoulder, or 90 cm, and is usually tawny in color with lighter belly, and has a long tail that may show some faint ringing. You’d think that the London Zoo expert who examined the animal would know the difference between a long-tailed puma and a short-tailed lynx, though, so who knows what it really was? But in 1980 an honest-to-goodness puma was captured in Scotland. The puma spent the remainder of her life at the Highland Wildlife Park zoo, where they named her Felicity, and after she died was taxidermied and is now in the Inverness Museum. Felicity was probably an escaped or released pet, since the zoo director reported that she liked being tickled. Wild animals don’t typically like to be tickled.

Many other large cats of various species have been killed or captured in Britain. In most, if not all, cases the animals were probably exotic pets that were either released when they became too difficult to manage, or escaped and weren’t reported because the owners didn’t have a license to own the animal in the first place. But there are many other sightings of more mysterious large cats.

The Surrey Puma is one of the earliest cases. The first sightings were made in the 1930s around the Surrey/Hampshire border, but since this is the same area where William Cobbett saw his Spaniel-sized gray cat, many people think that 1770 account is the earliest known. In 1955 a woman walking her dog saw a puma-like cat slinking away from a dead calf, which it had evidently been feeding on. Many reports followed through the 1960s. Naturalists who examined paw prints discovered in the area identified the prints as made by dogs. Occasionally someone would snap a photo, but they were always too blurry to be conclusive—until 2014. One quiet Friday morning a man named Allan Tinkler, from Molesey in north Surrey, was eating breakfast with his children when he saw a strange cat in his garden. It stayed in the yard for over half an hour and was definitely not a domestic cat. I’ve got one of the pictures he took in the show notes, and it clearly shows a small wildcat called a serval.

The serval is a long-legged, large-eared African cat with spots over most of its body and some stripes along the neck and shoulders. It turned out that this particular serval was an escaped pet, and its owner retrieved it safely and took it home. They also had a license to keep it. Servals are frequently kept as pets and will sometimes cross-breed with domestic cats, producing tame kittens with serval-like markings. This hybridization is the basis of the domestic cat breed called the Savannah cat.

Obviously that serval wasn’t the cause of sightings going back decades or even centuries, but with no clear photos or captured animals, we can’t guess what the Surrey Puma might really be.

The Beast of Bodmin Moor is another case that received a lot of attention starting in the late 1970s. Bodmin Moor is in Cornwall, England, and over the years people have reported seeing big cats in the area, brown or black in color and about the size of a German shepherd, with long tails. One persistent rumor is that in 1978, when a circus owner named Mary Chipperfield had to close her zoo in Plymouth, she released three pumas onto the moor rather than give them to Dartmoor Zoo. Supposedly the Beast of Bodmin Moor is a descendant of these pumas.

In 1994, after something killed a number of sheep on the moor, the local MP called for an official investigation into the beast. A biologist and a zoologist headed the investigation. They looked at the sheep supposedly killed by a big cat, at tracks, photographs, and video footage, and conducted a search of the moor. Their conclusion, after six months, was that there was no evidence for any big cats of any type living on the moor. The tracks were made by dogs, the sheep carcasses did not show signs of being killed or eaten by cats, and the photos and videos showed domestic cats seen in places where scale was hard to judge.

Locals weren’t at all appeased. Many people were convinced big cats lived on the moor. A few days after the official report, a boy found the skull of a big cat near the River Fowey. But the Natural History Museum in London, which examined the skull, determined that it was from a leopard that had been prepared for taxidermy after death, and was probably taken from a leopard-skin rug.

Mysterious big cats have been spotted all over Britain, and considering how many exotic cats have been caught and killed over the years, it’s clear something is going on. It’s unlikely that any exotic species have successfully established breeding populations in Britain, but it’s not completely out of the question. But there is one other possibility.

For a long time the Kellas cat, or cait sìth, which means ‘fairy cat,’ was thought to be a Scottish folktale. It was a big black cat flecked with white, and with a white spot on its chest, that was supposed to be an omen of doom or even a type of evil spirit. Then a gamekeeper caught one in a fox snare in 1984, and in the following years a few more were shot or captured. It turns out that the Kellas cat is a landrace population of hybrids between European wildcats and domestic cats. A landrace is a locally adapted animal—not a subspecies, although in some cases it could eventually develop into one, but not really a separate breed of animal, although traits of a landrace population can be standardized into a breed through selective breeding. In the case of the Kellas cat, it’s black with a white spot on the chest, and has long white guardhairs that give it a flecked appearance.

While the Kellas cat is not much bigger or heavier than a domestic cat, it’s possible that at least some sightings of mysterious big cats are actually Kellas cat sightings. And honestly, if I had the choice between seeing an escaped exotic pet and seeing a fairy cat, I’ll take the fairy cat every time.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.com. We’re on Twitter at strangebeasties and have a facebook page at facebook.com/strangeanimalspodcast. 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 whatever platform you listen on. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 044: Extinct and Back from the Brink



Our episode this week is about some causes of extinction, but to keep from getting too depressing we’ll look at a lot of animals that were brought back from the brink of extinction by people who saw a problem in time to put it right. We’ll learn a lot about the passenger pigeon this week especially. Thanks to both Maureen and Emily for their suggestions! I didn’t mean to lean so heavily on North American animals in this episode–it just happened that way. I try to mix it up a little more than this ordinarily.

The passenger pigeon (stuffed):

The tiny black robin. It fights crime!

The Tecopa Pupfish is not happy about being extinct:

The West Virginia Northern Flying Squirrel SO CUTE:

This is what the Golden Lion Tamarin thinks about habitat destruction:

A rare Amur tiger dad hanging out with one of his cubs:

The Organization for Bat Conservation

Episode transcript:

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

This week we’re going to learn about how animals go extinct, with examples of lots of animals who’ve gone extinct and others that have been saved from extinction by human intervention. Both topics were suggestions by Maureen, who also suggested several of the animals I included. I could have kept adding to this episode until it was 24 hours long, but I had to stop somewhere, and now that I’m recording I realize there are aspects of extinction I didn’t address at all.

Extinction means that a population of life forms have all died. That sounds pretty definitive, but it’s also hard to know exactly when it’s happened for any given species. Sometimes you can look online and find the specific day that the very last animal of a species died. In the case of the passenger pigeon, that was September 1, 1914, when a captive bird called Martha was found dead in her cage. Martha had been kept in the Cincinnati Zoo long after the last wild passenger pigeon was shot around 1901. But we don’t know for sure that she was the very last passenger pigeon alive at that point. Passenger pigeons were spotted in the wild for years after Martha died.

The passenger pigeon looks similar to the mourning dove, which is a common and very pretty dove throughout most of North America, but it’s not all that closely related. The passenger pigeon was a swift and elegant flyer but was awkward on the ground. And while mourning doves have a soft, musical call, the passenger pigeon apparently didn’t sound very musical at all. Its calls were mostly loud, harsh clucks that were described as deafening when one of the massive flocks of birds took off in alarm.

So what caused the passenger pigeon to go extinct? As is often the case, it wasn’t just one thing. We’ll come back to the passenger pigeon later, but for now let’s discuss one rather unusual cause that contributed to its extinction.

The passenger pigeon was famous for its numbers. There may have been as many as five billion birds alive at any given time, in flocks that numbered millions of birds each. I’m not exaggerating, either. A single flock could take an entire day to fully pass overhead and literally darkened the sky, there were so many individual birds. With so many birds, it wasn’t that hard for hawks and other hunting birds to catch as many pigeons as they could eat—but there are only so many hawks, and millions upon millions of pigeons. The passenger pigeon also nested in a relatively small area within its eastern North American range. Its nesting colonies were so huge they were called cities. A female laid one or two eggs, which both parents incubated. Sometimes there were so many pigeons in a tree that limbs would break off. By the end of nesting season, pigeon poop underneath roosts could be as deep as a foot, or 30 cm.

And while millions of adult birds were tending millions of eggs and babies, predators gorged themselves on pigeon. Hawks, eagles, owls, and other birds of prey naturally caught lots of pigeons, but other animals moved in to take advantage of the buffet. Bears, foxes, wolves, mountain lions, and smaller animals like possums and raccoons would all eat as much pigeon as they could catch. But there were so many birds that there literally weren’t enough predators to make a dent in the population before the babies could fly and the flocks left the nesting grounds for another year. I mean, birds sometimes just laid their eggs directly on the ground. They were not very hard to catch.

The problem was that once the passenger pigeon’s numbers fell due to other factors, the predators’ yearly glut of pigeon eating started making a difference. The once enormous flocks grew smaller and smaller. And since the passenger pigeon was adapted to thrive in huge colonies, where individuals worked together to gather food and feed babies communally, once the flocks dropped below a certain number, the birds weren’t able to raise their young effectively.

This is depressing, so let’s cleanse the palate with a bird that was saved from certain extinction not too long ago. There are actually a number of species I could have chosen, but I decided on the black robin because it’s tiny, jet black, and has a name that sounds like an alternate-universe DC comic book character.

When I say robin, my North American listeners think of a big thrush-type bird that always looks like it’s frowning, and my European listeners think of a tiny round ball of floof. The black robin is the round ball of floof type, but it’s not from Europe. It’s found only on a few small islands off the coast of New Zealand—really small islands. In 1980, the entire population of black robins lived on Little Mangere Island, which is 279 acres in size, or 113 hectares. Of course, the entire population of black robins in 1980 was five individuals, only one of which was a female. That bird was called Old Blue, and she basically saved her species. A team of conservationists led by Don Merton established a breeding program and today there are more than 250 of the birds.

The black robin was almost driven extinct mainly by introduced predators like cats, rats, and dogs. That’s a common problem, especially in island habitats. Like the dodo, the black robin had never had to deal with mammals that wanted to eat it. It isn’t entirely flightless but it spends most of its time on the ground, digging through brush and dead leaves for insects, and isn’t a very strong flier.

Habitat loss is another huge cause of extinction, and if I wanted to spend all year on this one topic I could. But I won’t, because that would be really grim and not fun at all. One of the factors contributing to the passenger pigeon’s extinction was habitat loss. It mainly ate acorns and small nuts, insects, and seeds found in forests, and when European settlers decided they wanted to turn huge sections of North American woodland into farms and towns, the passenger pigeon soon didn’t have enough forested areas to sustain its massive population. It would have had a hard time as a result even if all other factors had been in its favor.

Habitat loss doesn’t just mean cutting down trees. It can mean polluting a river, bottom dredging in the ocean, diverting water to farmland, and filling in wetlands. It also isn’t always caused by humans. Natural causes like forest fires and volcanoes can lead to habitat loss and extinctions. And many of the dinosaurs, of course, were killed off by a massive meteor impact and its long-term repercussions on climate.

I could choose any of literally thousands of examples of animals that went extinct due to habitat loss, but here’s just one. I mainly chose it because it has a cute name. The Tecopa pupfish was an awesome little fish that lived in California, specifically in the Mojave desert, which is not a place you’d ordinarily expect to find any fish. There are hot springs in the Mojave, though, and the pupfish lived happily in water that was 110 degrees F, or 43 C, or even a little warmer. That’s the temperature of a comfortably warm bath. It ate algae but it also gobbled up mosquito larvae, and it was only about an inch and a half in length, or 4 cm. It didn’t live in the actual hot springs pools, which were too hot, but in a pair of outflows, basically streams that flowed away from the pool down to the Amargosa River.

The problem is, humans really like hot springs. In the 1950s and 60s, people flocked to the Tecopa Hot Springs to soak in the water. Bathhouses were built, the hot springs pools were enlarged, and in 1965, both outflows from the springs were diverted into a single newly dug channel. After that, the water flowed faster. That meant it remained too hot for the pupfish unless the fish moved downstream, and when it moved downstream to where it was comfortable, it had to compete with another subspecies of pupfish, the Amargosa River pupfish. It also had to compete with introduced species of fish.

By 1966, almost no Tecopa pupfish remained. In 1970 it was put on the endangered species list, but by then it was far too late. By 1972 there were no Tecopa pupfish.

Oh my gosh, that’s so depressing. I need another success story. The West Virginia Northern Flying Squirrel is an adorable and fascinating rodent, a subspecies of the more common northern flying squirrel, but it lives only in the highest elevations of the central Appalachian Mountains. During the ice ages, it was isolated from other flying squirrel populations by glaciers and developed separately. It has a broad, flat tail and loose folds of skin that connect its forelegs to its hind legs along its sides. When it jumps from a branch, it holds its legs out to pull the skin folds taut, which allows it to glide through the air.

But it almost died out completely due to industrial logging. By 1985, only ten individuals were found in four different areas of its range. It was listed as a protected species in 1985, and that together with the conservancy of its mountaintop habitats, allowed it to increase to a small but healthy population today.

The West Virginia Northern Flying Squirrel was lucky because its habitat became protected and started to recover from heavy logging, so the flying squirrels were able to stay put and lead their ordinary squirrelly lives. Other species aren’t as fortunate. The Golden Lion Tamarin, for instance, has been snatched from the jaws of certain death but still faces an uphill battle due to habitat destruction.

The golden lion tamarin is a monkey native to the coastal forests of Brazil. It’s a gorgeous monkey with golden-orange fur that grows long around the face so it looks like a lion’s mane. The golden lion tamarin is only around 10 inches long, or 25 cm, not counting its long tail, and it lives in trees where it runs and leaps and climbs a lot like a big golden squirrel.

The problem, of course, is that the Atlantic Forest of Brazil keeps getting cut down. What used to be nearly unbroken forest that stretched for thousands of miles has now shrunk to only around 8% of its original size, and it’s in little bits and pieces widely separated from each other. By 1969, there were only 150 tamarins left.

Fortunately for everyone, especially the tamarins, an aggressive conservation program was well underway by 1984. Zoos throughout the world started breeding golden tamarins for reintroduction into protected wilderness in Brazil. As it happens, while I was still researching this episode, I got an email from a listener that is just so perfect, I have to share it. Emily wrote,

“I used to volunteer at the zoo and I was in charge of making sure the Golden Lion Tamarin monkeys didn’t escape their habitat. There were no fences around it, since they were trying to simulate natural conditions enough so that they could eventually be released back into the jungle. So my job was to walk around the enclosure and shoot them with a water gun. It was set on “very soft.” Just a gentle aquatic nudge to get back in the tree! They were tiny, luxurious creatures and I hated it when my scheduled changed and I had to stop volunteering.”

I love this so much. Thank you, Emily, for sharing the story with me and agreeing to let me use it on the show. I feel like I should pause for a moment so everyone listening can just imagine how awesome it would be to walk around spritzing beautiful little monkeys with water.

Anyway, the population of golden lion tamarins is now over 3,000. And even better, the Brazilian government has made an effort to develop protected wilderness corridors connecting what used to be separate sections of forest. This will help not just the tamarins but lots of other animals too.

Now I feel great. But we’re not done talking about causes of extinction, and unfortunately we’ve reached the worst part: overhunting by humans.

That was the main cause of extinction for the passenger pigeon. People would just shoot up into the air at the seemingly endless flocks of birds. They didn’t even have to aim. Every shot would bring down a rain of dead and injured birds. Almost no one imagined the passenger pigeon could possibly go extinct—there were just too many of them. Even when the flocks were noticeably smaller and the birds’ range had shifted away from the more populated eastern states, professional hunters and trappers continued to follow the flocks and kill as many birds as possible. The dead pigeons were shipped by train to big cities as cheap meat—so cheap that by 1876 it actually cost more to ship a barrel of pigeons on ice than it cost to buy the pigeons when they arrived. By 1878, only one large nesting site remained—and 50,000 pigeons were killed there every single day. No babies survived from that nesting and the surviving adults were killed when they tried to start new nests in another area.

It was senseless. It makes me so mad. But while the passenger pigeon was a great big lesson on how quickly a species can be driven to extinction from an enormous, thriving population, it happens on a smaller scale all the time.

The Caribbean Monk Seal, sometimes called the wolf seal, grew to about 8 feet in length, or 2.5 meters, and had sleek dark gray fur that sometimes looked greenish due to algae growing on it. They were curious, friendly animals that didn’t fear humans, and you can see where this is going. The first European to see the Caribbean monk seal was Christopher Columbus, whose men killed eight seals. The next European to see the Caribbean monk seal was Ponce de Leon, whose men killed 14 seals. Things didn’t get any better from then on.

Seals provided oil from their fat, much like oil made from whale blubber. It could be used to grease machinery or burn in lamps—remember, this was before petroleum products and electricity. Hunting the seals for oil, meat, and skins wasn’t the only problem, though. Conservation back in the 19th century wasn’t all that great. Scientific expeditions usually just killed as many animals as they could find, because that was how they were studied. In only four days, an 1886 expedition specifically made to study seals killed 42 animals and captured a newly born pup that died a week later.

The Caribbean monk seal held on for decades despite the slaughter, but the last one was spotted in 1952 and that was it. Not only were the seals hunted nearly to extinction, the fish and crabs the seals ate were also overhunted. What seals remained had almost nothing to eat and frequently starved to death.

We need a big success story after that one. Let’s talk about the California condor.

The California condor is an enormous bird with a wingspan ten feet wide, or over 3 meters. It’s a scavenger so it looks superficially like a vulture, with a bald head. Its feathers are black with white patches under the wings, and it has a floof of feathers around its neck that looks precisely like it’s wearing a really fancy opera cape. By 1987, the entire world population of the California condor was 27 birds. And those 27 birds were not going to survive long without help. Poaching and habitat loss had almost wiped them out, along with poisoning from lead bullets—the birds would eat the bullets frequently left in the discarded guts after a hunter field dressed a kill.

So all 27 birds were captured and placed into a breeding program, although only 14 birds were able to breed. By 1991 there were enough condors that individuals started to be released into the wild again. Currently there are almost 450 birds total.

Fortunately, in 2019 California hunters will no longer be allowed to use lead bullets at all, and a lot of hunters have already started using lead-free ammunition. This will allow more condors to be released in areas of California where they used to live but were hunted to extinction over a century ago. Lead poisoning is a big problem for all scavengers, including bald eagles.

Our last success story is the Amur tiger, also called the Siberian tiger. It had a lot of names in the past because its range was so large, from Korea to northeastern China, eastern Mongolia, and parts of Russia. It’s a big tiger, as big as the Bengal tiger in the past although the remaining population of Amur tigers is overall smaller than Bengal tigers today. Its head is broad, with a skull similar to a lion’s. Its coat color and markings vary considerably, and its winter coat grows very long and shaggy.

The Amur tiger was already under pressure from hunting and habitat loss when the Russian Civil War broke out in 1917. Tigers were either killed by accident during the fighting, or killed by soldiers on patrol, almost wiping out what animals remained. And after that, tiger hunting wasn’t prohibited until 1947, at which time only a few dozen tigers were left.

Fortunately, it survived. In 2007 the Russian government even set aside a national park just for the Amur tiger. No human activity is allowed in most of the park and tiger numbers are climbing. In 2015, a logging company agreed to dismantle abandoned logging roads so they couldn’t be used by poachers. Bridges were removed, trenches dug, and some areas were simply bulldozed so that vehicles can’t get through. That’s the same year that camera traps got rare photos of an adult Amur tiger male, a female, and three cubs. Since male tigers are usually solitary, that was pretty awesome.

Genetically the Amur tiger is very similar to the extinct Caspian tiger. There’s a possibility that as the Amur tiger’s population grows, it could be reintroduced to parts of Asia where the Caspian tiger once lived.

That brings me to something I meant to mention in last week’s episode. If you listened to the recent Relic: The Lost Treasure podcast episode where I was a guest, you heard me absolutely mangle an explanation of what a subspecies is. So here’s my attempt to clarify what I was trying to say. A subspecies develops when an animal population becomes isolated from the rest of the population for long enough to start evolving in different ways from the parent population. A subspecies can still produce fertile offspring with the parent species and other subspecies of the same species, and may look almost the same, but on a molecular level it’s different enough that if given enough time, it will continue to develop into a different species.

It’s a complicated topic and I said the word species too many times. But hopefully that gives you an idea. Technically humans are a subspecies of Homo sapiens, by the way. Our official scientific name is Homo sapiens sapiens. The extra sapiens indicates that we’re a subspecies and that we’re extra smart, because sapiens means intelligent. All tigers are subspecies of the species Panthera tigris, and the Bengal tiger is called Panthera tigris tigris, because I guess they’re extra tigery.

Anyway, it’s important to remember that while a subspecies may look almost identical to the parent species, it’s developing in different ways due to different evolutionary pressures in its specific habitat. The dodo’s ancestor was a type of pigeon that decided to stay on the island of Mauritius. It probably continued to look like a pigeon for a long time before its evolutionary changes started to show. It’s easy to think that a subspecies going extinct isn’t as important as a full species going extinct, but that’s not the case.

Thinking about extinction can make us feel angry and helpless. But there are lots of things you can do to help, simple things like picking up trash when you’re out hiking, remembering to bring your reusable bags into the grocery store, and using a refillable water bottle instead of buying a new plastic bottle of water. If you have some extra money, there are lots of good conservation organizations that can use a donation. One I try to donate to every year is the Organization for Bat Conservation. I’ll put a link to it in the show notes if you’re interested. If you don’t have extra money but can donate your time to a local organization, that’s just as good. Although you probably won’t be lucky enough to get to spritz monkeys gently with water.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.com. We’re on Twitter at strangebeasties and have a facebook page at facebook.com/strangeanimalspodcast. 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 iTunes or whatever platform you listen on. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 034: Saber-Toothed Animals



This week we’ve got a heaping helping of animals with big pointy teeth! Whether you spell it saber or sabre, you don’t want teeth of that description biting you.

Smilodon is the best saber-toothed cat:

Thylacosmilus’s weird chin bone:

Thylacosmilus might have looked something like this when alive:

Kolponomos might have looked something like this when alive:

And the sabertooth fish is still alive!

Show transcript:

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

For this week’s episode, we’re looking at saber-toothed animals. The animal people generally think of as THE saber-tooth cat, or saber-tooth tiger, is Smilodon fatalis. Smilodon and its relatives were members of the feline family, although not very closely related to the big and little cats living today. We have a whole bunch of Smilodon fossils, many from the La Brea tar pits in California.

Smilodon was probably descended from a saber-tooth cat called Megantereon, which lived in North America, Eurasia, and Africa. It might have still been around only half a million years ago, was definitely around as recently as 2.5 million years ago, definitely around as long as 4.5 million years ago, and recent finds have been tentatively dated to 7 million years ago. So Megantereon was a very successful animal. It was stocky with strong forelimbs and neck, with long upper canines—not as big as Smilodon’s, but certainly saber-toothed. It wasn’t a giant cat, probably close to a jaguar in size, with males probably being around 5 or 6 feet long (or around 1.5 meters) not including the tail and a little over 2 feet high at the shoulder, or 72 cm. It probably killed its prey by leaping on it and biting its throat.

Megantereon probably acted a lot like a leopard, including climbing trees, but its descendant, Smilodon, was too heavy for tree-climbing. Smilodon was a big, tough kitty about the size of a modern lion. It lived in North America, and migrated into South America at some point too. It probably looked more like a bear than a cat since it was stocky, heavily muscled, and had a broad head and jaws that could open much wider than modern cats’.

Smilodon cubs didn’t have saber teeth. A cub only started growing its big teeth when it was around a year and a half old, and by around three years old the fangs were fully grown, about 7” long or 18 cm. Very few remains of young Smilodons have been found in the La Brea tar pits, so researchers think cubs were mostly fed and cared for by their mother until they had fully grown fangs and had learned to use them.

For a long time researchers thought Smilodon lived in forested areas, but recent studies show that it probably preferred open areas. One 2016 study compared carbon and nitrogen isotopes found in collagen samples from bones of Smilodon and other predators with those of prey animals in South America to find out what they were eating. It turns out that Smilodon ate a lot of Megatherium and other giant ground sloths, as well as a camel-like ungulate called Macrauchenia. There’s even some evidence that Smilodon may have hunted in family groups. Overall, the finding suggests that Smilodon lived a lot more like modern lions do than like other big cats.

The first Smilodon fossils found date to around 2.5 million years ago, but remains found in Florida dated to 5 million years ago have recently been described as a related saber-toothed cat. Smilodon lived until only 10,000 years ago at the end of the Pleistocene. It preyed on ice age megafauna and researchers think it may have died out when its main prey animals went extinct. Humans probably had something to do with their extinction too.

Smilodon wasn’t the only big predator in North America during the ice age, though. It wasn’t even the only big feline predator. It shared its territory with the American lion and the American cheetah. Neither of those had saber teeth but they’re awesome so I’m going to tell you a little bit about them anyway.

The American lion died out at the same time as much of the other ice age megafauna, around 11,000 years ago. Unlike Smilodon, it’s closely related to modern big cats—in fact, most researchers consider it a subspecies of the modern African lion. We don’t know for sure if the males had manes, but we do know that the American lion was much bigger than modern lions although not as heavy as Smilodon. It probably stood almost four feet tall at the shoulder, or 1.2 meters. Remains of American lions have been found in the La Brea tar pits so we know they shared territory with Smilodon.

The American cheetah lived on the prairies of North America. Its body plan resembled the modern cheetah’s and it was built for speed, but researchers aren’t sure if it was actually closely related to the modern cheetah. It may be more closely related to the cougar. It was a little larger and heavier than a modern cheetah. Either way, it’s probably the reason why pronghorn antelopes are so fast. They can run over 55 miles per hour or 88 km per hour, much faster than gray wolves and cougars, their current predators. The American cheetah died out around 12,000 years ago.

There are a lot of saber-toothed cats known to science, all related to Smilodon. But there are other animals with similar teeth that are unrelated to the saber-toothed cats. Thylacosmilus atrox looked superficially like a saber-toothed cat. It lived in South America, with most fossils found in Argentina, and went extinct close to three million years ago, long before Smilodon appeared in South America. But Thylacosmilus wasn’t a feline at all. It wasn’t even slightly related to felines. In fact, it was a marsupial, sometimes called a pouched saber-tooth because marsupials keep their babies in pouches, like kangaroos and possums.

Thylacosmilus was about the same size as Megantereon or a modern jaguar. Its saber-like canines were bigger than Smilodon’s and had roots so deep they were practically pressed up against the braincase. But it had something no saber-toothed cat had. Its lower jaw had a pair of bony downward projections called flanges. Think of it as a chin that went horribly wrong. The chin bones pointed downward at the same angle that the fangs pointed downward, and apparently protected them. Researchers aren’t sure if the fangs were actually inside the mouth or just pressed up against the outside of the chin.

Like Smilodon and its relatives, Thylacosmilus had immensely powerful forelegs that it used to grapple prey. But its jaws were weak. Smilodon’s jaws were much weaker than a big cat’s, but Thylacosmilus literally couldn’t outbite a domestic cat. Researchers think it grappled and subdued its prey with its forelegs, then delivered a precision bite with its fangs that severed the animal’s windpipe or major neck arteries. To do this, it didn’t need a strong bite, it needed strong neck muscles, and that’s exactly what it had.

Kolponomos was another saber-toothed animal, totally unlike Smilodon except for its teeth and powerful neck muscles. It’s related to bears, but that branch of the bear family also gave rise to pinnipeds like seals. Kolponomos lived around 20 million years ago along the Pacific coast and used its fangs not to bite the necks of its prey, but to pry shellfish off of rocks. Its snout was narrow and sloped downward, but we don’t have a complete skeleton so we don’t know how big it was or what it really looked like, but it probably resembled a buff sea otter with big fangs more than a seal or bear.

Clearly, saber teeth have evolved multiple times in different types of animals to serve different purposes. They’re not a recent development, either. 250 million years ago, just before dinosaurs evolved and took over the world. An animal called a gorgonopsid, or gorgon for short, lived in what is now Africa and Eurasia. Not a whole lot was known about it until 1998 when a very nearly complete skeleton was discovered in South Africa.

Complete skeletons are almost never found in the fossil record. Dinosaur and other animal skeletons displayed in museums are usually assembled from different individual animals. Sometimes a particular bone has never been found at all so scientists have to make an educated guess. But this gorgon looked like it had died and just flopped over. Nothing ate parts of it, nothing scattered its bones after it decayed. There it was, just waiting for the paleo team to find it.

Gorgon wasn’t a mammal. It wasn’t exactly a reptile either. It was a precursor to mammals, a reptilian creature with mammalian characteristics. It resembled a lion crossed with a monitor lizard, although researchers aren’t sure if it had actual fur or both bristles and scales. It was big—some ten feet or 3 meters long with saber-tooth fangs nearly 5” or 12 centimeters long. Reptiles living today have legs that stick out from the sides of their bodies, so when they walk their bellies are very close to the ground, but gorgon’s stance was different. Its walk probably resembled what’s called the “high walk” of crocodilians, where the gator lifts its body and tail off the ground entirely to walk more easily and quickly on land. Researchers think gorgon hunted by ambushing its prey and delivering a massive bite, then retreating to wait for the injured animal to weaken. This is similar to how komodo dragons hunt.

Gorgon died off in the Permo-Triassic extinction event 250 million years ago. Everyone knows about the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction that ended the rule of the dinosaurs, but the Permo-Triassic extinction was even worse. More than 95% of all marine animals died out, and some 70% of land animals. Even a lot of insects went extinct, and some evidence suggests that a lot of plants went extinct too. Scientists don’t know what caused the extinctions, but it might have been a meteor strike like the one generally accepted to have caused the Cretaceous-Paleogene event. Whatever happened, it hit marine life hard because the oceans became extremely acidic due to increased CO2 levels in the air and the increased temperature at the ocean’s surface in many areas—104o F or 40o C. It took millions of years for the oceans to recover.

So far all the animals in this episode are extinct. While a lot of living animals have fangs of one kind or another, there don’t seem to be any that use their fangs the way saber-toothed cats did. But I don’t want to leave you after saying, “Yeah, something happened and everything DIED,” so I’ll finish up by talking about the sabertooth fish, of the family Evermannellidae. It’s alive and it’s wonderfully creepy.

The sabertooth fish lives in the depths of tropical and subtropical waters. It has tubular eyes that point upwards so it can see its prey, mostly squid, silhouetted against the far-off surface. It’s grayish-brown in color with a greenish iridescence. Its fins are brown. It has smooth skin without scales and a big mouth that can open extremely wide, which is good because the sabertooth fish can swallow prey that’s actually bigger than it is. Its stomach distends to hold whatever can fit down its gullet. This sounds terrifying, especially when you look at its teeth, but keep in mind that it’s only about seven inches long, or 18 cm. It has two pairs of curved fangs, one in the upper jaw, one in the lower, with smaller teeth in the back of its mouth. If you’ve ever tried to catch a living squid with just your mouth—and I really hope you have not—you’ll probably have noticed that it’s hard to keep the squid from slithering away. Wouldn’t some saber teeth help with that? The sabertooth fish thinks so.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.com. We’re on Twitter at strangebeasties and have a facebook page at facebook.com/strangeanimalspodcast. 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 iTunes or whatever platform you listen on. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way. Rewards include stickers and twice-monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!