Category Archives: birds

Episode 186: Velvet Animals



This week’s episode is about some invertebrates who look like they’re made of velvet! Thanks to Rosy and Simon for their suggestions!

Further reading:

Red Velvet Mite

Chigger Bites

Structure and pigment make the eyed elater’s eyespots black

The red velvet mite looks like a tiny red velvet cake but is NOT CAKE, NOT A SPIDER, NOT A SPIDER CAKE:

GIANT RED VELVET MITE:

Regular sized red velvet mites on a fingertip and one parasitizing a daddy long legs spider:

An eastern velvet ant female (it’s actually a wasp, not an ant):

Velvet worms on hands:

A blue velvet worm!

Look at its teeny mouf!

An eyed click beetle DO YOU SEE THE EYES(pots):

The velvet asity (maybe you notice that it’s uh not an invertebrate):

Show transcript:

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

As we continue invertebrate August, we’ve got a nicely themed episode this week, velvet invertebrates! Thanks to Simon and Rosy for their suggestions!

First, let’s talk about Rosy’s suggestion, the red velvet mite. It sounds delicious, but only because it makes me think of red velvet cake. But the red velvet mite is an arachnid, related to spiders and scorpions–but it’s not actually a spider.

In English, the word mite, spelled m-i-t-e, means a tiny thing, and mites are tiny. Most are under a millimeter long. Scientists actually group mites into two kinds, parasitic mites that are closely related to ticks, and velvet mites that are closely related to chiggers. Chiggers, my least favorite. All the many species of velvet mite and chigger are in the order Trombidiformes.

You know what? Let’s talk briefly about chiggers, because there’s a lot of bad information about them out there. The chigger lives in vegetation, especially tall weeds and shrubs. Various species live throughout the world but it’s more common in warm, humid areas. In some places it’s called a harvest mite or scrub-itch mite.

The chigger is only parasitic as a larva. The larvae only have six legs, compared to adults that have eight. A larva waits on a blade of grass or a leaf for an animal to brush past it, and when it does, the larva grabs on. The longer you stay in one place, for instance when you’re blackberry picking, the more likely it is that a chigger will crawl onto you. It’s very nearly microscopic so you can’t look for chiggers and pick them off the way you can ticks. Like velvet mites, they’re red in color but generally paler than actual velvet mites.

A chigger bite causes intense itching, swelling, redness, and takes sometimes several weeks to heal, especially if you scratch it. It also gets infected easily. Many people believe that the chigger actually burrows into the skin. The chigger does eat skin cells from the layers of skin below the outer layer, but they don’t actually have mouthparts that can bite that deeply. They certainly can’t burrow into the skin. What they do instead is give the skin a little bite and inject digestive enzymes into the wound. The enzymes break down the skin cells they touch, and also harden the tissues around the wound. The chigger slurps up the liquefied skin cells and injects more enzymes, which seep down deeper into the skin, until basically what it’s created is a tube of hardened skin cells that reaches the lower layers of skin. The tube is called a stylosome, in case you were wondering. All this takes several days, so the best way to treat chigger bites before they get bad is to take a hot shower as soon as possible after you’ve been blackberry picking or whatever, and scrub well, especially around places where your clothing was tight. You also need to wash your clothes in hot, soapy water to kill any chiggers still on them.

The best way to deal with chiggers is to wear a good insect repellent and make sure to apply it all the way from your feet up, paying special attention to ankles, the backs of your knees, and around your waist and stomach.

Okay, that’s enough of that. Let’s talk about actual red velvet mites that don’t bite and that you can see. The red velvet mite is covered with short, dense hairlike structures that may act as sensors to help the mite find its way around in the dark or underground. The hairs are orangey-red, although some species may have white spots. Adults have eight legs like spiders do, but each pair of legs grows from a different part of the cephalothorax instead of from the same place like in spiders. Adult red velvet mites generally eat insect larvae and eggs. But the red velvet mite larvae are parasites—but not chigger-type parasites. They don’t bother people or pets, and in fact they only parasitize invertebrates like insects and spiders. A red velvet mite larva will grab onto certain types of insect like grasshoppers or beetles, or some spiders like daddy long-legs. It rides around on the insect and sucks its hemolymph like eensy-beensy insect ticks.

To attract a female, the male red velvet mite leaves droplets of sperm on twigs and grass in a little area and spins an intricate trail of silk leading to the droplets. The female examines the silk trail and if she finds it well-made, she’ll gather up some of the sperm to fertilize her eggs. But if another male comes across the trail, he’ll tear it up. The female lays her eggs in the soil.

There are thousands of species of velvet mite throughout the world, with many more undoubtedly yet to be discovered. Most are teensy, but there are some bigger species called giant red velvet mites.

There are actually two totally different mites called by that name. The first one lives in southwestern North America in dry areas, and includes several species in the genus Dinothrombium. The adults eat ants and termites. Like other mites, people are most likely to see them walking around on outside walls or patios or deck railings, usually lots of them in one area and often after summer rain. That’s why they’re sometimes called rain bugs. But while most velvet mites are just little moving red dots, the giant red velvet mite can grow up to 12 mm, which is almost half an inch long. In the mite world, that really is giant.

The other species called the giant red velvet mite lives in parts of northern India in dry areas, Trombidium grandissumum, and it can grow up to two cm long, or over ¾ of an inch. Like most other red velvet mites, it mostly lives underground and eats insect larvae, many of which are harmful to crops.

So why are red velvet mites so red? Surely that would make them easier for predators to see. Well, the red velvet mite contains compounds that make them taste bad and may be toxic, so the bright red color advertises that to predators.

The red velvet mite will curl its legs in to make itself smaller if it feels threatened, which is oddly sweet. Be safe, little mites.

Next, let’s learn about the velvet ant. It’s not an ant at all but a wasp, although wasps and ants are closely related. The female has no wings although the male does, but the male doesn’t have a stinger while the female does. Sometimes it’s called the cow killer ant because its sting is so painful that people think it could practically kill a cow. It can’t kill a cow. Or a person, for that matter, but one species of velvet ant was scored for how painful its sting was and it ranks right up there with bullet ants.

Like the red velvet mite, there are thousands of species of velvet ant that live throughout the world. The females and usually the males have plush-looking hairs, some species with orange or red hairs, some with other colors and patterns like black and white. In the case of the velvet ant, the bright coloration is to warn potential predators that this is a dangerous wasp and they should steer clear! It’s also a tough insect with a thick exoskeleton.

The biggest species of velvet ant is the eastern velvet ant, which lives in the eastern United States. It can grow almost two centimeters long, or three-quarters of an inch, and is orangey-red with a black stripe on its abdomen and black legs.

If you remember way back to episode 28, about crawdads and cicadas, we talked briefly about a huge wasp called the cicada killer. The cicada killer can grow up to two inches long, or 5 cm, which is simply enormous when one gets into your house and you worry it’s going to just move in and complain that the furniture is too small. Anyway, the cicada killer does something horrible to the cicada. The female stings a cicada, which paralyzes it but doesn’t kill it. Then it carries the cicada to its burrow and lays an egg on it. When the egg hatches a day or two later, the larva eats the still-living cicada.

Well, I bring this up because velvet ants do the same thing to cicada killers! Comeuppance in the insect world! The female velvet ant searches for cicada killer burrows, and when it finds one with a larva inside, eating a cicada, it lays an egg on the larva. The egg hatches and the velvet ant larva promptly eats the cicada killer larva which is in turn eating the cicada. This is a way different circle of life than they talked about in the Lion King.

Next, let’s talk about a different kind of invertebrate, the velvet worm. It’s not a worm and it’s also not fuzzy like the animals we’ve talked about so far, but its body does have a soft, velvety texture. There are about 180 species known in two families. It lives in tropical areas in Central and South America, the Caribbean, parts of Africa and Asia, and Australia and New Zealand, but we know it used to be more widespread because we’ve found velvet worms in Baltic amber from what is now northern Europe. It has a soft, segmented body that’s covered with a very thin layer of chitin with tiny overlapping scales. This makes the velvet worm look velvety and acts as a water repellent so the body won’t dry out, but it also needs plenty of humidity in its environment to survive.

At first glance, the velvet worm looks like a caterpillar. It has a caterpillar’s stumpy bumps of legs and a long soft-looking body like a caterpillar. Various species grow to various sizes, but the largest is only about eight inches long, or 20 cm, and most are much shorter. Different species are different colors, from brown or reddish to blue, white, or even bright green like a caterpillar. But it’s not related to any animal that goes through a caterpillar-like stage of life. Scientists aren’t even completely sure what the velvet worm is actually most closely related to. It shares features with some of the strange animals that evolved during the Cambrian, and currently many researchers think it’s a descendant of a group of Cambrian animals called lobopodians, a group which includes Hallucigenia. You may remember Hallucigenia from episode 69.

Some beautifully preserved fossil ancestors of velvet worms have been found in a Canadian fossil bed dated to 425 million years ago. While modern velvet worms live exclusively on land, its 425 million years old ancestors lived in shallow coastal water.

These days, velvet worms are uncommon animals that mostly live in leaf litter or under rotting logs or similar places. Two species even live in caves. It’s mostly nocturnal, although it will come out during the day in rainy weather. During the day, or when it’s too dry or cold for its liking, it will rest in tiny crevices in its habitat. That may be just a deep crack in the earth or a rock, a tunnel originally dug by termites, or a little hidden spot inside a rotting log. It’s eaten by a lot of animals, including birds, insects, spiders, rodents, and snakes, so it’s good at hiding.

But when the velvet worm is out hunting, it is fearsome to its prey. It mostly eats small invertebrates like insects, worms, spiders, and snails, but it can kill animals its own size or even a little larger. And it doesn’t need to eat very often, maybe once a week or even just once a month.

The velvet worm has a pair of retractable antennae that act as feelers that the velvet worm uses to very lightly touch potential prey to see whether it wants to attack. It will sneak up on an animal and use these feelers to touch it so lightly that the animal has no idea the velvet worm is there or is touching it. If that doesn’t creep you out completely, you haven’t read the spooky horror stories I’ve read, that’s all I can say. At the base of the antennae the velvet worm has a pair of eyes, although some species don’t have eyes at all.

The velvet worm’s mouth contains a sharp pair of mandibles, but these are actually inside the mouth, sort of like teeth although they’re nothing like teeth, rather than external mandibles like those of insects. But it’s behind the mouth where things get really interesting, because that’s where the slime is secreted. The velvet worm has a pair of slime glands in its body that generate and hold extremely sticky slime. The velvet worm squirts it from two tiny openings on the sides of its head to form a sort of net that ensnares its prey. If the prey is large or strong, the velvet worm may squirt more slime at its legs to keep it immobilized.

The slime immediately starts to dry and harden, and as it dries it contracts. Then the velvet worm bites the animal and injects digestive saliva into the wound that liquefies the tissues it comes in contact with. Sort of like a chigger. While it’s waiting for the saliva to do its work, the velvet worm eats up the slime it discharged, because it’s made of proteins and takes several weeks to regenerate. Then the velvet worm clamps its mouth over the wound and slurps up the liquefied insides of its prey, which by the way is very dead by this point.

But the really amazing thing is that some species of velvet worm are social. It lives in family groups that hunt together, led by a dominant female. She eats first, then the other females, then the males, then any young. Females are usually larger than males.

Velvet worms have been well studied and I could go on and on about them. I might return to them eventually and give them their own episode. But let’s go on now to our last velvet animal, the velvet asity.

Simon suggested the velvet asity of Madagascar when we were talking on twitter about an insect called the eyed elater, or eyed click beetle, which lives in forests in North and Central America. It’s a slender beetle that grows about 2.5 inches long, or 4.5 cm. The larvae are sometimes called wireworms because they’re so long and skinny. They eat the grubs of other beetles that live in rotting wood, but it’s not known what the adults eat, if anything.

Like other click beetles, if it feels threatened, the eyed click beetle can suddenly launch itself away with its click mechanism. This is a spine underneath its thorax that fits into a groove between its legs. If the insect is threatened, it flexes its body to release the spine, which snaps against whatever surface the beetle is touching and catapults it sometimes several inches away.

The eyed click beetle is black and mottled gray to blend in with tree bark, but it has two large eye spots that are probably meant to frighten predators away. The eye spots are black outlined with white, and the black part contains cone-shaped microtubules made of modified setae that contain the pigment melanin. Between the pigment and the shape of the hairs and the way they’re aligned, the eyespots absorb 96.1% of light that hits them. This makes them look much larger and more conspicuous to potential predators.

Quite a few insects and some other animals have developed similar coloring that will absorb light, often called super-black. And that brings us to the velvet asity, the male of which is almost all super-black as an adult except for bright lime green wattles above the eyes.

Uh, and this is where I have to admit I made a mistake. I often take quick notes about animals people recommend, especially if the recommendation comes from a Twitter conversation that’s easily lost. Later on I transfer my notes to the big ideas spreadsheet. Well, this time I made a note that said “Velvet asity of Madagascar, Simon replied with this to a twitter post about the eyed elater, with specialized hairs in the eyespots that deaden reflection.” That’s literally what’s in my notes, and I listed it under the invertebrates tab because I forgot what the velvet asity is and just assumed it was another insect like the eyed click beetle.

But the velvet asity isn’t an invertebrate, which I only discovered after I’d started researching the other velvet animals in this episode. It’s a bird. But what a bird it is! It’s a little round bird with a very short tail, short wings, and amazing coloration! While the female is a streaky olive color, the male’s breeding plumage is striking.

The super-black coloring of the male velvet asity deadens reflections and makes its green eyebrows look even brighter, which attracts females. The velvet asity lives in the rainforests of Madagascar and mostly eats fruit, but it will also eat nectar and some insects. During breeding season, males gather in small groups called leks to show off for females with a mating dance that involves him flipping all the way around the branch he’s standing on. The female weaves a pear-shaped nest that hangs from a branch and is camouflaged because she uses materials like strips of bark, leaves, and moss to make it. She also takes care of the eggs and chicks by herself. All the male does is show off, but you can hardly blame him. If you’ve got it, flaunt it, velvet asity.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 181: Updates 3 and a lake monster!



It’s our annual updates and corrections episode, with a fun mystery animal at the end!

Thanks to everyone who contributed, including Bob, Richard J. who is my brother, Richard J. who isn’t my brother, Connor, Simon, Sam, Llewelly, Andrew Gable of the excellent Forgotten Darkness Podcast, and probably many others whose names I didn’t write down!

Further reading:

Northern bald ibis (Akh-bird)

Researchers learn more about teen-age T. rex

A squid fossil offers a rare record of pterosaur feeding behavior

The mysterious, legendary giant squid’s genome is revealed

Why giant squid are still mystifying scientists 150 years after they were discovered (excellent photos but you have to turn off your ad-blocker)

We now know the real range of the extinct Carolina parakeet

Platypus on brink of extinction

Discovery at ‘flower burial’ site could unravel mystery of Neanderthal death rites

A Neanderthal woman from Chagyrskyra Cave

The Iraqi Afa – a Middle Eastern mystery lizard

Further watching/listening:

Richard J. sent me a link to the Axolotl song and it’s EPIC

Bob sent me some more rat songs after I mentioned the song “Ben” in the rats episode, including The Naked Mole Rap and Rats in My Room (from 1957!)

The 2012 video purportedly of the Lagarfljótsormurinn monster

A squid fossil with a pterosaur tooth embedded:

A giant squid (not fossilized):

White-throated magpie-jay:

An updated map of the Carolina parakeet’s range:

A still from the video taken of a supposed Lagarfljót worm in 2012:

An even clearer photo of the Lagarfljót worm:

Show transcript:

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

This is our third annual updates and corrections episode, where I bring us up to date about some topics we’ve covered in the past. We’ll also talk about an interesting mystery animal at the end. There are lots of links in the show notes to articles I used in the episode’s research and to some videos you might find interesting.

While I was putting this episode together, I went through all the emails I received in the last year and discovered a few suggestions that never made it onto the list. I’m getting really backed up on suggestions again, with a bunch that are a year old or more, so the next few months will be all suggestion episodes! If you’re waiting to hear an episode about your suggestion, hopefully I’ll get to it soon.

Anyway, let’s start the updates episode with some corrections. In episode 173 about the forest raven, I mentioned that the northern bald ibis was considered sacred by ancient Egyptians. Simon asked me if that was actually the case or if only the sacred ibis was considered sacred. I mean, it’s right there in the name, sacred ibis.

I did a little digging and it turns out that while the sacred ibis was associated with the god Thoth, along with the baboon, the northern bald ibis was often depicted on temple walls. It was associated with the ankh, which ancient Egyptians considered part of the soul. That’s a really simplistic way to put it, but you’ll have to find an ancient history podcast to really do the subject justice. So the northern bald ibis was important to the ancient Egyptians and sort of considered sacred, but in a different way from the actual sacred ibis.

In episode 146 while I was talking about the archerfish, I said something about how I didn’t fully understand how the archerfish actually spits water so that it forms a bullet-like blob. Bob wrote and kindly explained in a very clear way what goes on: “Basically, the fish spits a stream of water, but squeezes it so that the back end of the stream is moving faster than the front. So it bunches up as it flies and hits the target with one big smack. Beyond that, the water bullet would fall apart as the back part moves through the front part of the stream, but the fish can apparently judge the distance just right.” That is really awesome.

In another correction, Sam told me ages ago that the official pronouns for Sue the T rex are they/them, because that’s what Sue has requested on their Twitter profile. I forgot to mention this last time, sorry.

While we’re talking about Tyrannosaurus rex, researchers have IDed two teenaged T rex specimens found in Montana. Originally paleontologists thought the specimens might be a related species that grew to a much smaller size, Nanotyrannus, but the team studying them have determined that they were juvenile T rexes. To learn how old the specimens were and how fast they grew, they cut extremely thin slices from the leg bones and examined them under high magnification.

The study of fossil bone microstructure is called paleohistology and it’s a new field that’s helped us learn a lot about long-extinct animals like dinosaurs. We know from this study that T rex grew as fast as modern warm-blooded animals like birds and mammals, and we know that the specimens were 13 and 15 years old when they died. T rex didn’t reach its adult size until it was about twenty, and there are definite differences in the morphology of the juvenile specimens compared to an adult. The young T rexes were built for speed and had sharper teeth to cut meat instead of crush through heavy bones the way adults could. This suggests that juvenile T rexes needed to outrun both predators and smaller prey.

In other fossil news, Llewelly sent me a link about a pterosaur tooth caught in a squid fossil. We know pterosaurs ate fish because paleontologists have found fossilized fish bones and scales in the stomach area of pterosaur remains, but now we know they also ate squid. The fossil was discovered in Bavaria in 2012 and is remarkably well preserved, especially considering how few squid fossils we have. One of the things preserved in the fossil is a sharp, slender tooth that matches that of a pterosaur. Researchers think the pterosaur misjudged the squid’s size and swooped down to grab it from the water, but the squid was about a foot long, or 30 cm, and would have been too heavy for the pterosaur to pick up. One of its teeth broke off and remained embedded in the squid’s mantle, where it remains to this day 150 million years later.

And speaking of squid, the giant squid’s genome has been sequenced. Researchers want to see if they can pinpoint how the giant squid became so large compared to most other cephalopods, but so far they haven’t figured this out. They’re also looking at ways that the giant squid differs from other cephalopods and from vertebrates, including humans, to better understand how vertebrates evolved. They have discovered a gene that seems to be unique to cephalopods that helps it produce iridescence.

The Richard J. who is my brother sent me an article about giant squid a while back. There’s a link in the show notes. It has some up-to-date photos from the last few years as well as some of the oldest ones known, and lots of interesting information about the discovery of giant squid.

The Richard J. who is not my brother also followed up after the magpies episode and asked about the magpie jay. He said that the white-throated magpie jay is his favorite bird, and now that I’ve looked at pictures of it, I see why.

There are two species of magpie jay, the black-throated and the white-throated, which are so closely related that they sometimes interbreed where their ranges overlap. They live in parts of Mexico and nearby countries. They look a little like blue jays, with blue feathers on the back and tail, white face and belly, and black markings. Both species also have a floofy crest of curved feathers that looks like something a parrot would wear. A stylish parrot. Like other corvids, it’s omnivorous. It’s also a big bird, almost two feet long including the long tail, or 56 cm.

In other bird news, Connor sent me an article about the range of the Carolina parakeet before it was driven to extinction. Researchers have narrowed down and refined the bird’s range by researching diaries, newspaper reports, and other sightings of the bird well back into the 16th century. It turns out that the two subspecies didn’t overlap much at all, and the ranges of both were much smaller than have been assumed. I put a copy of the map in the show notes, along with a link to the article.

One update about an insect comes from Lynnea, who wrote in after episode 160, about a couple of unusual bee species. Lynnea said that some bees do indeed spin cocoons. I’d go into more detail, but I have an entire episode planned about strange and interesting bees. My goal is to release it in August, so it won’t be long!

In mammal news, the platypus is on the brink of extinction now more than ever. Australia’s drought, which caused the horrible wildfires we talked about in January, is also causing problems for the platypus. The platypus is adapted to hunt underwater, and the drought has reduced the amount of water available in streams and rivers. Not only that, damming of waterways, introduced predators like foxes, fish traps that drown platypuses, and farming practices that destroy platypus burrows are making things even worse. If serious conservation efforts aren’t put into place quickly, it could go extinct sooner than estimated. Conservationists are working to get the platypus put on the endangered species list throughout Australia so it can be saved.

A Neandertal skeleton found in a cave in the foothills of Iraqi Kurdistan appears to be a deliberate burial in an area where many other burials were found in the 1950s. The new skeleton is probably more than 70,000 years old and is an older adult. It was overlooked during the 1950s excavation due to its location deep inside a fissure in the cave. The research team is studying the remains and the area where they were found to learn more about how Neandertals buried their dead. They also hope to recover DNA from the specimen.

Another Neandertal skeleton, this one from a woman who died between 60,000 and 80,000 years ago in what is now Siberia, has had her DNA sequenced and compared to other Neandertal DNA. From the genetic differences found, researchers think the Neandertals of the area lived in small groups of less than 60 individuals each. She was also more closely related to Neandertal remains found in Croatia than other remains found in Siberia, which suggests that the local population was replaced by populations that migrated into the area at some point.

Also, I have discovered that I’ve been pronouncing Denisovan wrong all this time. I know, shocker that I’d ever mispronounce a word.

Now for a lizard and a couple of corrections and additions to the recent Sirrush episode. Last year, Richard J. and I wrote back and forth about a few things regarding one of my older episodes. Specifically he asked for details about two lizards that I mentioned in episode 21. I promised to get back to him about them and then TOTALLY FORGOT. I found the email exchange while researching this episode and feel really bad now. But then I updated the episode 21 show notes with links to information about both of those lizards so now I feel slightly less guilty.

Richard specifically mentioned that the word sirrush, or rather mush-khush-shu, may mean something like “the splendor serpent.” I totally forgot to mention this in the episode even though it’s awesome and I love it.

One of the lizards Richard asked about was the afa lizard, which I talked about briefly in episode 21. Reportedly the lizard once lived in the marshes near the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in what is now Iraq. Richard wanted to know more about that lizard because he wondered if it might be related to the sirrush legend, which is how we got to talking about the sirrush in the first place and which led to the sirrush episode. Well, Richard followed up with some information he had learned from a coworker who speaks Arabic. Afa apparently just means snake in Arabic, although of course there are different words for snake, and the word has different pronunciations in different dialects. He also mentioned that it’s not just the water monitor lizard that’s known to swim; other monitors do too, including the Nile monitor. I chased down the original article I used to research the afa and found it on Karl Shuker’s blog, and Shuker suggests also that the mysterious afa might be a species of monitor lizard, possibly one unknown to science. We can’t know for certain if the afa influenced the sirrush legend, but it’s neat to think about.

Next up, in cryptid news, Andrew Gable of the excellent Forgotten Darkness podcast suggested that some sightings of the White River Monster, which we talked about in episode 153, might have been an alligator—especially the discovery of tracks and crushed plants on the bank of a small island. This isn’t something I’d thought about or seen suggested anywhere, but it definitely makes sense. I highly recommend the Forgotten Darkness podcast and put a link in the show notes if you want to check it out.

And that leads us to a lake monster to finish up the episode. The Lagarfljót [LAH-gar-flote] worm is a monster from Iceland, which is said to live in the lake that gives it its name. The lake is a pretty big one, 16 miles long, or 25 km, and about a mile and a half wide at its widest, or 2.5 km. It’s 367 feet deep at its deepest spot, or 112 m. It’s fed by a river with the same name and by other rivers filled with runoff from glaciers, and the water is murky because it’s full of silt.

Sightings of the monster go back centuries, with the first sighting generally thought to be from 1345. Iceland kept a sort of yearbook of important events for centuries, which is pretty neat, so we have a lot of information about events from the 14th century on. An entry in the year 1345 talks about the sighting of a strange thing in the water. The thing looked like small islands or humps, but each hump was separated by hundreds of feet, or uh let’s say at least 60 meters. The same event was recorded in later years too.

There’s an old folktale about how the monster came to be, and I’m going to quote directly from an English translation of the story that was collected in 1862 and published in 1866. “A woman living on the banks of the Lagarfljót [River] once gave her daughter a gold ring; the girl would fain see herself in possession of more gold than this one ring, and asked her mother how she could turn the ornament to the best account. The other answered, ‘Put it under a heath-worm.’ This the damsel forthwith did, placing both worm and ring in her linen-basket, and keeping them there some days. But when she looked at the worm next, she found him so wonderfully grown and swollen out, that her basket was beginning to split to pieces. This frightened her so much that, catching up the basket, worm and ring, she flung them all into the river. After a long time this worm waxed wondrous large, and began to kill men and beasts that forded the river. Sometimes he stretched his head up on to the bank, and spouted forth a filthy and deadly poison from his mouth. No one knew how to put a stop to this calamity, until at last two Finns were induced to try to slay the snake. They flung themselves into the water, but soon came forth again, declaring that they had here a mighty fiend to deal with, and that neither could they kill the snake nor get the gold, for under the latter was a second monster twice as hard to vanquish as the first. But they contrived, however, to bind the snake with two fetters, one behind his breast-fin, the other at his tail; therefore the monster has no further power to do harm to man or beast; but it sometimes happens that he stretches his curved body above the water, which is always a sign of some coming distress, hunger, or hard times.”

The heath worm is a type of black slug, not a worm or snake at all, and it certainly won’t grow into a dragon no matter how much gold you give it. But obviously there’s something going on in the lake because there have been strange sightings right up to the present day. There’s even a video taken of what surely does look like a slow-moving serpentine creature just under the water’s surface. There’s a link in the show notes if you want to watch the video.

So let’s talk about the video. It was taken in February of 2012 by a farmer who lives in the area. Unlike a lot of monster videos it really does look like there’s something swimming under the water. It looks like a slow-moving snake with a bulbous head, but it’s not clear how big it is. A researcher in Finland analyzed the video frame by frame and determined that although the serpentine figure under the water looks like it’s moving forward, it’s actually not. The appearance of forward movement is an optical illusion, and the researcher suggested there was a fish net or rope caught under the water and coated with ice, which was being moved by the current.

So in a way I guess a Finn finally slayed the monster after all.

But, of course, the video isn’t the only evidence of something in the lake. If those widely spaced humps in the water aren’t a monstrous lake serpent of some kind, what could they be?

One suggestion is that huge bubbles of methane occasionally rise from the lake’s bottom and get trapped under the surface ice in winter. The methane pushes against the ice until it breaks through, and since methane refracts light differently from ordinary air, it’s possible that it could cause an optical illusion from shore that makes it appear as though humps were rising out of the water. This actually fits with stories about the monster, which is supposed to spew poison and make the ground shake. Iceland is volcanically and geologically highly active, so earthquakes that cause poisonous methane to bubble up from below the lake are not uncommon.

Unfortunately, if something huge did once live in the lake, it would have died by now. In the early 2000s, several rivers in the area were dammed to produce hydroelectricity, and two glacial rivers were diverted to run into the lake. This initially made the lake deeper than it used to be, but has also increased how silty the water is. As a result, not as much light can penetrate deep into the water, which means not as many plants can live in the water, which means not as many small animals can survive by eating the plants, which means larger animals like fish don’t have enough small animals to eat. Therefore the ecosystem in the lake is starting to collapse. Some conservationists warn that the lake will silt up entirely within a century at the rate sand and dirt is being carried into it by the diverted rivers. I think the takeaway from this and episode 179 is that diverting rivers to flow into established lakes is probably not a good idea.

At the moment, though, the lake does look beautiful on the surface, so if you get a chance to visit, definitely go and take lots of pictures. You probably won’t see the Lagarfljót worm, but you never know.

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 173: The Mystery of the Forest Raven



We have a fun mystery bird this week, the forest raven! Was it a real bird??? (hint: yes, but not a raven)

The “forest raven” illustration from Swiss naturalist Conrad Gessner’s Historiae Animalium, published in 1555:

Scans of the original pages about the forest raven. It’s written in Latin:

The Northern bald ibis. Wacky hair!

Flying bald ibises:

Further viewing:

This Weird Bird May Have Been the First Protected Species

Show transcript:

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

It’s high time we had a mystery animal episode, so this week we’re going to learn about a mystery bird, one with a satisfying conclusion.

The story starts almost 470 years ago, when a scholar and physician named Conrad Gessner, who lived in Switzerland, published a book called Historia animalium. The book wasn’t like the medieval bestiaries of previous centuries, in which fantastical and real animals were listed together and half the information consisted of local superstitions. Gessner was an early naturalist, a scientist long before the term was in general use. Historia animalium consisted of five volumes with a total of more than 4,500 pages, and in it Gessner attempted to describe every single animal in the world, drawing from classical sources such as Pliny the Elder and Aristotle as well as his own observations and study.

The book contained animals that had only recently been discovered by Europeans at the time, including animals from the Americas and the East Indies. It also included a few entries which no one today believes ever existed, like the fish-like sea monk and sea bishop. Those and similar monsters were probably added by Gessner’s publishers against his will or maybe just without him knowing, since he was seriously ill by the time the volume on fish was published. For the most part, the book was as scholarly as was possible in the mid-16th century and was lavishly illustrated too.

Volume three, about birds, was published in 1555, and it included an entry for a bird Gessner called the waldrapp, or forest raven. But the illustration didn’t look anything like a raven. The bird has a relatively long neck, a crest of feathers on the back of its head, and a really long bill that ends in a little hook. Gessner wrote that the bird was found in Switzerland and was good to eat.

In fact, I spent an entire morning finding the original scanned pages of a copy of the forest raven entry, typing them as well as I could and modernizing the spelling where I knew how, and using Google translate from Latin to English. The results were…not entirely coherent. Then, after I’d done all that, I continued my research, and that included watching a short BBC film about the bird–which included part of the translation! So I transcribed it. Here’s a translation cobbled together from the BBC’s translation and other parts of the passage that me and Google translate could figure out:

“The bird is generally called by our people the Waldrapp, or forest raven, because it lives in uninhabited woods where it nests in high cliffs or old ruined towers in castles. Men sometimes rob the nests by hanging from ropes. It acquires a bald head in its age. It is the size of a hen, quite black from a distance, but if you look at it close, especially in the sun, you will consider it mixed with green. The Swiss forest raven has the body of a crane, long legs, and a thick red bill, slightly curved and six inches long. Its legs and feet are longer than those of a chicken. Its tail is short, it has long feathers at the back of its head, and the bill is red. The bill is suited for poking in the ground to extract worms and beetles which hide themselves in such places. It flies very high and lays two or three eggs. The young ones are also praised as an article of food and are considered a great delicacy, for they have lovely flesh and soft bones. Those who rob the nests of young take care to leave one chick so the parents will return the following year.”

All that sounds like a perfectly ordinary bird, although not a raven. But what was it? That’s the problem. No one knew, and eventually scholars decided that Gessner must have included a bird that didn’t exist.

But it did sound like one particular bird, just not one related in any way to the raven and not one that lived in Switzerland or other parts of Europe. That’s the northern bald ibis, which was once common across the Middle East and northern Africa.

Here’s a description of the Northern bald ibis. Let’s see how it matches up with Gessner’s forest raven.

The Northern bald ibis is a fairly large bird, about a foot long, or 31 cm, with a wingspan of four and a half feet, or 135 cm. That’s about the size of a goose. It has black feathers that shine with iridescent colors in sunlight, including bronze, violet, and green. It has long, dull red legs and a long, curved bill that’s also reddish. Its head is the same shade of dull red and has no feathers, but it does have a crest of long feathers on the back of its head and neck. It nests on cliff ledges and prefers to hunt for food in areas where the grass or other vegetation is short, such as pastures, fallow fields, semi-arid steppes, and golf courses, often ten miles or more from the cliffs where it nests, or 15 km. It eats insects and other small invertebrates, but it especially likes lizards and beetles. It probes into soft, sandy soil with its bill to find most of its food. The birds live in small flocks and often fly in a V formation.

The northern bald ibis mates for life. The male finds a good nesting site and tidies it up, then waits to see if he can attract a female. The female inspects the site and the male to decide if she likes them, and if she does, the pair build a nest of twigs lined with grass, and the female lays two to four eggs.

Oh, and the northern bald ibis is sometimes also called the waldrapp, just as Gessner reported.

All this information certainly sounds like the same bird Gessner described. But the northern bald ibis doesn’t live in Switzerland or other parts of Europe. It’s only known from the Middle East and northern Africa. Right?

That’s what people after Gessner thought, until 1941. That’s when a team of scientists excavating ancient sites in Switzerland found the bones of what turned out to be northern bald ibises—but the bones weren’t fossilized. They were only a few hundred years old. More remains, both fossil and subfossil, have since been found in France, Germany, Austria, and Spain, and the bird probably lived in even more areas.

It turns out that the northern bald ibis was once common in many parts of Europe, especially around the Alps. It was considered a sacred bird in ancient Egypt, and was supposed to be one of the birds released by Noah during the great flood to help him find land, so was venerated by people of different faiths in the Middle East. But in Europe, it was just considered good to eat. The Archibishop Leonard of Salzburg called for its protection in the Swiss Alps as long ago as 1504, but by the early 17th century, only a matter of decades after Gessner’s book was published, the bird was extinct in Europe. It didn’t take long for Europeans to forget it even existed.

Unfortunately, the northern bald ibis is still endangered due to hunting, habitat loss, and poisoning from pesticides. It’s also sometimes electrocuted when it lands on electricity pylons that aren’t insulated for birds, although efforts are underway to make pylons bird-safe in many areas. A successful captive breeding program has been in place since the late 1970s, though, and that’s a good thing, since the last migratory population went extinct in 1989 and the remaining non-migratory colonies declined to only a few hundred individuals.

The breeding program has gone so well that birds started being reintroduced in some areas of their former range in about 2003, including Spain, Germany, Austria, and Italy. Tagging of the remaining wild birds has also revealed that a small population still migrates from the Middle East to Africa to winter in central Ethiopia. In some areas, conservationists have added nesting platforms to the existing cliffs so that more birds can nest safely. Hopefully their numbers will continue to climb.

I’ll finish with a final piece of trivia about the northern bald ibis that I think you’ll like. It’s a member of the pelican family. Have a nice day.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 171: The Animals of St. Kilda



Thanks to Emma for the suggestion! Let’s learn about some animals that live on the St. Kilda islands off the coast of Scotland!

St. Kilda:

Soay rams (kept on farms, not the feral sheep):

A small flock of Soay sheep (these are from a farm too):

A Boreray ram (on a farm):

A Boreray ewe with her babies (also on a farm, or at least I think so):

The St. Kilda wren (not a sheep):

The St. Kilda field mouse (also not a sheep) is the size of a hamster:

Show transcript:

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

This week’s episode is a suggestion from Emma, who long ago told me about the interesting history and unique animals of the island of St. Kilda in Scotland. I’ve been meaning to cover it ever since, so finally I’m getting around to it after only two years or so.

Emma says, “It’s an amazing little island and sort of a reverse of the usual ‘humans cause extinction’ story. The humans on the island went ‘extinct’, being evacuated from the island partly because increased mainland human contact was bringing illnesses they couldn’t fight without hospitals. Two lots of rad ancient sheep and some unique wrens and mice are happily living there to this day.”

St. Kilda is not one but a group of islands off the coast of Scotland, but the largest island and the only one where people once lived is called Hirta. In 1930, everyone who still lived there moved to the mainland, but by that time hardly anyone remained on St. Kilda anyway. The island probably never had more than a few hundred people in residence at any given time. In 1957 St Kilda was designated as a nature reserve and in 1986 as a World Heritage Site.

Since then, as Emma says, the animals of the islands have mostly been left alone. This includes two breeds of sheep that were left behind on two of the smaller islands when the last residents moved away.

One of these sheep breeds is the Soay, which originally lived on a tiny island called Soay, which actually means “sheep island.” The island of Soay is only about 250 acres in size, or 100 hectares, but that’s not the only place they used to be found. The breed has lived in northern Europe for probably 4,000 years, and was a popular sheep in Britain for centuries. When all the people moved away, 107 sheep living on Soay were moved to Hirta. The sheep on Hirta are feral and receive no care from humans, but they also have basically no predators on the island. They have been studied since 1955 by a small team of scientists and conservationists.

The Soay is a primitive breed of sheep that closely resembles its wild ancestor, the Asiatic mouflon. It’s brown, usually with lighter markings on the face and rump, and the rams often grow a short mane of hair in addition to wool. Rams have dark brown horns and ewes often grow smaller horns too. It also has a short tail. In late spring, Soay sheep shed their fleece naturally instead of needing to be shorn. This is the case with many primitive sheep breeds. Its wool is considered high quality and sought after by handcrafters.

Also like many primitive breeds, the Soay doesn’t have much of a flocking instinct. Soay sheep have been exported from the islands and are kept on farms in many areas for their wool, but if a sheep dog tries to herd a flock of Soay, the poor dog is going to be so frustrated. Soay scatter instead of flocking together. It can also be an aggressive sheep, especially the rams, but it’s also a small breed, with even a big ram rarely heavier than 70 lbs, or 32 kg. And these days, the feral Soay sheep are actually getting smaller overall and have been for the last twenty years. The research team that studies the sheep thinks it’s because climate change has led to shorter, warmer winters, which allows more of the sheep to survive, including smaller sheep that would ordinarily have trouble in cold weather. The smaller sheep breed and their offspring are more likely to be small too, and after twenty years of this the breed overall is smaller than it used to be.

While the Soay used to be a popular breed throughout much of Europe, it’s an at-risk rare breed these days. There are fewer than 1500 breeding ewes registered on farms, in addition to the feral flock on Hirta.

The other breed of St. Kilda sheep is called the Boreray, and it’s also a feral sheep on one of the St. Kilda islands. In this case it lives on the island of Boreray. It’s even rarer than the Soay sheep, the rarest sheep breed in the UK. In 1999 there were only 84 individuals known, but a conservation effort by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust has increased the number to nearly 900 breeding ewes as of 2018.

The Boreray is a little smaller than the Soay and shares characteristics with that breed, including a short tail and its fleece shedding naturally in late spring. It’s usually gray or white, although sometimes brown, often with a speckled black face. Its wool is much coarser than the Soay’s and was traditionally used to make tweed fabric or carpets.

But sheep are domesticated animals, feral or not. What about some of the other animals of St. Kilda?

The St. Kilda wren is a subspecies of Eurasian wren that’s found nowhere else in the world. Like other wrens it’s a tiny songbird, brown and gray with a short tail. It was only recognized as a separate subspecies in 1884, and as happened a lot in those days, museum collectors killed so many of them to stuff and mount that the bird nearly went extinct. Fortunately, early conservationists realized the danger in time, and a special Act of Parliament in 1904 protected the bird. After all the people were evacuated from Hirta, a small team of scientists studied the wren. In 1931 68 nesting pairs were counted, and in 2002 230 breeding pairs were counted. That’s still a low population, but since the wren has almost no predators on St. Kilda, that’s a decent number for such a small habitat.

The St. Kilda wren eats insects, spiders, and other small invertebrates. The male builds the nest out of dead grass and other plants, moss, and seabird feathers.

This is what the St. Kilda wren sounds like:

[St Kilda wren singing]

Another animal found nowhere else in the world is the St. Kilda field mouse, a subspecies of wood mouse. There used to be another mouse subspecies found only on St. Kilda, the St. Kilda house mouse. Both mice were described in 1899, and both are larger than mainland mice. But because the house mouse is dependent on humans, once everyone evacuated the islands the St. Kilda house mouse went extinct within two years.

But the field mouse was fine, and is common throughout the island of Hirta and at least one other island. It actually moved into the abandoned buildings after the house mice went extinct, since houses are full of little nooks and crannies that mice can use as homes. Researchers think the mouse may have been on the islands for something like a thousand years, arriving with Viking settlers.

The St. Kilda field mouse is twice as large and heavy as mainland mice, probably because it basically has no predators. It’s an omnivore like most other mice, and eats seeds, moss, insects and other small animals, and even scavenges meat from dead sheep and birds.

Many sea birds nest on St. Kilda, including Atlantic puffins and northern gannets. The grey seal started breeding on Hirta after everyone left. But except for the sheep, the mice, and the gray seals coming ashore during breeding season, there are no other mammals living on St. Kilda. There are also no trees, no bees, and a limited number of plants and animals, all due to how remote the islands are. They’re 41 miles, or 66 km, away from the Outer Hebrides, a series of much larger islands off the Scottish coast.

Humans have probably lived on Hirta for two thousand years, maybe longer, and have visited the St. Kilda islands as long as 5,000 years ago. But now that the people are gone, the mice and sheep and birds are free to live their quiet lives. As long as they don’t mind a few curious scientists keeping an eye on them.

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 at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us and get twice-monthly bonus episodes for as little as one dollar a month.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 161: Strange Bird Sounds 2



I still have a cold, so let’s let some birds do part of the talking in this episode about more weird bird calls!

Further reading:

Listen to the Loudest Bird Ever Recorded

Further listening/watching:

A video of the screaming piha. You need to see this.

The yellow-bellied sapsucker is a real bird, and an adorable one too:

The mute swan is not actually mute:

The white bellbird is the loudest bird ever recorded (photo by Anselmo d’Affonseca):

The screaming piha is hilariously loud. Left, sitting like a normal bird. Right, screaming:

Show transcript:

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

I still have this rotten cold, although I’m getting over it. As you can hear, my voice is pretty messed up, so for this episode I’ll let birds do some of the talking for me. Yes, it’s another weird bird calls episode!

We’ll start with this cute little call:

[yellow-bellied sapsucker call]

That’s not a dog’s squeaky toy, it’s a yellow-bellied sapsucker. Yes, that’s a real bird. It’s a type of woodpecker that lives in much of eastern and northern North America, breeding in Canada and spending winters in the eastern United States and Mexico. I get them in my yard sometimes. The sapsucker will also drum on dead trees and other items to make a loud sound to communicate with other sapsuckers.

It mostly eats tree sap, but it also eats berries, small insects, and fruit. To get the tree sap, it drills small holes in tree bark, usually in neat rows, and licks up the sap that oozes from the holes. If you ever see a tree with rows of little holes in the bark, that was done by a sapsucker. It can sometimes even kill trees this way, but for the most part it doesn’t hurt the tree unless the tree is already dying.

Males and females both forage for insects to feed their babies. They usually dip the insects in tree sap before feeding them to the chicks. Yummy!

Next up is this little grunty call:

[mute swan call]

Maybe it’s not exciting or loud, but it’s made by a bird you wouldn’t expect to hear, the mute swan. I mean, the word mute is right there in its name but it’s not mute at all. The mute swan is a big white waterfowl from Eurasia, although it’s been introduced to other parts of the world since it’s so pretty. Its legs are black with an orange and black bill, and it has a long neck that it uses to reach plants that are deeper underwater than ducks and most geese can get at. Its wingspan can be seven and a half feet across, or 2.4 meters. It’s more closely related to the black swan of Australia and the black-necked swan of South America than it is to other swan species from Eurasia.

Mute swans get their name not because they can’t make sounds, obviously, but because they’re not as noisy as other swan species. Not only does it make the little grunting sounds we just heard, it will sometimes hiss aggressively if a person or animal gets too close to its nest. Also, swans can give you such a wallop with their wings that they could knock you out stone cold, so it’s best to just watch them from a distance and not get too close. When mute swans fly, their wings make a distinctive thrumming sound that helps them stay in contact with other mute swans. This is what their wingbeats sound like:

[mute swans flying]

That sounds more like a UFO than a bird, just saying.

Next is a weird metallic call that doesn’t sound like a noise a bird could make either. It sounds like an industrial machine of some kind:

[white bellbird call]

That’s the sound the male white bellbird gives to attract a female. It also happens to be the loudest bird call ever recorded. In late 2018, an ornithologist from Brazil teamed up with a bioacoustician from the United States. They traveled into the mountainous forests of the Brazilian Amazon to record both the white bellbird and our next bird, which I’ll get to in a minute.

The male white bellbird is white with a black bill with a long wattle hanging from it. The female is green streaked with brown. It’s about the size of a pigeon but the male is as loud as a piledriver hammering rock. The male sits on an exposed perch to call, usually the top of a tree. If a female is interested, she’ll join him. The male will turn his back on the female, then turn around quickly to face her during the call, which adds an extra level of drama to an already dramatic call. These birds are the rock stars of the bird world.

The white bellbird eats fruit, some of it rather large, so the bird can open its beak really wide. This makes its beak act as the bell of an instrument like a trumpet, which helps increase the volume of its call. It also has a robust syrinx and unusually strong abdominal muscles. Its call can reach 125 decibels, which is louder than a firetruck’s siren, a rock band, and even a thunderclap.

Let’s finish with another extremely loud bird:

[screaming piha call]

That’s the male screaming piha, which is related to the white bellbird and lives in the same areas in South America. It’s a drab-looking bird, plain grayish in color, and it looks like a type of thrush. It’s a little bit bigger than an American robin. But drab as it is, keep in mind the bird has “screaming” right in its name. It’s almost as loud as the white bellbird.

The screaming piha eats fruit and insects, and it especially likes figs, which it often swallows whole. I like figs too but I chew them. Also, I don’t scream to attract a mate. The male usually perches in a tree and starts with a couple of relatively ordinary-sounding notes. But when he does the actual screaming part, he tips backwards on his perch, pulls his head back into his shoulders, so to speak, opens his beak wide to show how orange it is inside, and SCREAMS. It’s hilarious to watch. I’ve linked to a video in the show notes and you really do owe it to yourself to give it a watch.

The male gives these calls to attract a female, but it’s also useful to define his territory to other males. During mating season the males gather in a group called a lek to show off for females, and then pairs return to the male’s territory to build a nest. We don’t know a whole lot about the bird’s nesting behavior, but they appear to only lay one egg. Fortunately the screaming piha is a common bird that’s doing well, because if you’ve watched that video of one screaming you’ll agree that it’s probably the funniest bird ever and we definitely need them in the world.

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 159: Sky Animals



To celebrate my new book, Skyway, this week let’s learn about sky animals! They’re fictitious, but could they really exist? And what animals are really found in the high atmosphere?

You can order a copy of Skyway today on Kindle or other ebook formats! It’s a collection of short stories published by Mannison Press, with the same characters and setting from my novel Skytown (also available)!

Further reading:

“The Horror of the Heights” by Arthur Conan Doyle (and you can even listen to a nice audio version at this link too!)

Charles Fort’s books are online (and in the public domain) if not in an especially readable format

Further Listening:

unlocked Patreon episode The Birds That Never Land

Rüppell’s vulture:

The bar-headed goose:

The common crane:

Bombus impetuosus, an Alpine bumblebee that lives on Mount Everest:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’ve got something a little different. Usually I save the weirder topics for Patreon bonus episodes, and in fact I had originally planned this as a Patreon episode. But I have a new book coming out called Skyway, so in honor of my new book, let’s learn about some sky animals!

Skyway is a collection of short stories about the same characters in my other book Skytown, so if you’ve read Skytown and liked it, you can buy Skyway as of tomorrow, if you’re listening on the day this episode goes live. I’ll put links to both books in the show notes so you can buy a copy if you like. The books have some adult language but are appropriate for teens although they’re not actually young adult books.

Anyway, the reason I say this episode is a little different is because first we’re going to learn about some interesting sky animals that are literary rather than real. Then we’ll learn about some animals that are real, but also interesting—specifically, animals that fly the highest.

Back before airplanes and other flying machines were invented, people literally weren’t sure what was up high in the sky. They thought the sky continued at least to the moon and maybe beyond, with perfectly breathable air and possibly with strange unknown animals floating around up there, too far away to see from the ground.

People weren’t even sure if the sky was safe for land animals. When hot-air balloons big enough to carry weight were invented in the late 18th century, inventors tried an important experiment before letting anyone get in one. In 1783 in France, a sheep, a duck, and a rooster were sent aloft in a balloon to see what effects the trip would have on them. The team behind the flight assumed that the duck would be fine, since ducks can fly quite high, so it was included as a sort of control. They weren’t sure about the rooster, since chickens aren’t very good flyers and never fly very high, and they were most nervous about the sheep, since it was most like a person. The balloon traveled about two miles in ten minutes, or 3 km, and landed safely. All three animals were fine.

After that, people started riding in balloons and it became a huge fad, especially in France. By 1852 balloons were better designed to hold more weight and be easier to control, and that year a woman dressed as the goddess Europa and a bull dressed as Zeus ascended in a balloon over London. But the bull was obviously so frightened by the balloon ride that the people watching the spectacle complained to the police, who charged the man who arranged the balloon ride with animal cruelty. The bull was okay, though, and no one made him get in a balloon again.

After airplanes were invented and became reliable, if not especially safe, the world went nuts about flying all over again. In 1922 Arthur Conan Doyle published a story called “The Horror of the Heights,” about a pilot who flew high into the sky and came across sky animals. You can tell from the story’s title that things did not go well for the main character.

The story is written as though it’s an excerpt from a journal kept by the main character, named Joyce-Armstrong. Early on, Joyce-Armstrong is talking about height records achieved by pilots and that no one has had any trouble that high in the sky. He says,

“The thirty-thousand-foot level has been reached time after time with no discomfort beyond cold and asthma. What does this prove? A visitor might descend upon this planet a thousand times and never see a tiger. Yet tigers exist, and if he chanced to come down into a jungle he might be devoured. There are jungles of the upper air, and there are worse things than tigers which inhabit them.”

After that are some really lovely descriptions of the pilot’s ascent into the sky, trying for both a height record and to see the so-called jungle of the upper air. In the story, he climbs to over 41,000 feet in an open cockpit monoplane without any special equipment. He’s wearing, like, a nice warm hat and wool socks. In actuality, at 40,000 feet, or 12,000 meters, the temperature can be as low as -70 degrees F, or -57 Celsius.

Anyway, Joyce-Armstrong writes in his journal, “Suddenly I was aware of something new. The air in front of me had lost its crystal clearness. It was full of long, ragged wisps of something which I can only compare to very fine cigarette smoke. It hung about in wreaths and coils, turning and twisting slowly in the sunlight. As the monoplane shot through it, I was aware of a faint taste of oil upon my lips, and there was a greasy scum upon the woodwork of the machine. Some infinitely fine organic matter appeared to be suspended in the atmosphere. There was no life there. It was inchoate and diffuse, extending for many square acres and then fringing off into the void. No, it was not life. But might it not be the remains of life? …The thought was in my mind when my eyes looked upwards and I saw the most wonderful vision that ever man has seen. …Conceive a jelly-fish such as sails in our summer seas, bell-shaped and of enormous size—far larger, I should judge, than the dome of St. Paul’s. It was of a light pink colour veined with a delicate green, but the whole huge fabric so tenuous that it was but a fairy outline against the dark blue sky. It pulsated with a delicate and regular rhythm. From it there depended two long, drooping, green tentacles, which swayed slowly backwards and forwards. This gorgeous vision passed gently with noiseless dignity over my head, as light and fragile as a soap-bubble…”

After that, Joyce-Armstrong sees more of the sky jellyfish and some long smoke-like creatures that he calls the serpents of the outer air. And then he’s attacked by a huge purplish creature sort of like a sky octopus with sticky tentacles. He escapes and flies home, writes his journal entry, and says he’s going back to capture one of the smaller sky jellyfish and bring it back to show everyone. And after that, the journal ends except for a terrible addendum scrawled in pencil on the last page. It’s a fun story that you can read for free online, since it’s in the public domain. I’ll put a link in the show notes.

Arthur Conan Doyle is the same author who invented Sherlock Holmes, if the name sounds familiar. But he wasn’t the first one to imagine strange high-altitude sky animals. He was influenced by the writings of a man named Charles Fort. Fort liked to collect the accounts of weird happenings reported in newspaper articles and magazines, and he published his first book in 1919. If you’re a Patreon subscriber you may remember Fort from a bonus episode last October where I talked about a few of his animal-related cases. I’d unlock the episode for anyone to listen to except that I just re-listened to it myself, and at the end I talk about my recent eye surgery in really way too much detail. So I won’t unlock it, but I will say that Fort had a weird writing style that can be hard to follow. He likes to present outlandish theories as though he’s deadly serious, then claim that he’s only joking, then say, “Well, maybe I’m not joking.” His main goal is to make readers think about things that would never have occurred to them.

Fort was especially interested in falls of fish and frogs and other things, which we talked about in episode 140 last October. In his first book he suggested there are places in the sky where items collect, and that occasionally things fall out of those places. He called this the Super-Sargasso Sea, after the Sargasso Sea that’s supposed to be a becalmed area of the ocean where sailing ships get caught because there’s no wind or currents. The Sargasso Sea is a real place in the North Atlantic Ocean that has clear blue water and which is full of a type of seaweed called Sargassum. It’s also full of plastic, unfortunately, since that’s where the North Atlantic garbage patch is.

But Fort described his Super-Sargasso Sea as something between another dimension and an alien world that just brushes up against the earth’s atmosphere. He pointed out that this theory made as much sense as any other explanation for falling frogs and other things, which of course is why he suggested it. He didn’t actually believe it.

This is how Fort describes the super-Sargasso Sea: “I think of a region somewhere above this earth’s surface in which gravitation is inoperative…. I think that things raised from this earth’s surface to that region have been held there until shaken down by storms…. [T]hings raised by this earth’s cyclones: horses and barns and elephants and flies and dodoes, moas, and pterodactyls; leaves from modern trees and leaves of the Carboniferous era…. [F]ishes dried and hard, there a short time; others there long enough to putrefy…. [O]r living fishes, also—ponds of fresh water: oceans of salt water.

“But is it a part of this earth, and does it revolve with and over this earth—

“Or does it flatly overlie this earth…?

“I shall have to accept that, floating in the sky of this earth, there often are fields of ice as extensive as those on the Arctic Ocean—volumes of water in which are many fishes and frogs—tracts of lands covered with caterpillars—

“Aviators of the future. They fly up and up. Then they get out and walk. The fishing’s good: the bait’s right there. … Sometime I shall write a guide book to the Super-Sargasso Sea, for aviators, but just at present there wouldn’t be much call for it.”

That quote is actually cobbled together from pages 90-91, 179, and 182 of my copy of The Complete Books of Charles Fort, because one thing Fort is not good at is a straightforward, clear narrative. Reading his books is like experiencing someone else’s fever dream. But you can definitely see where Conan Doyle got his inspiration for “The Horror of the Heights.”

These days we know a lot more about the sky—or, more technically, about the atmosphere that surrounds the Earth. Researchers have labeled different parts of the atmosphere since the different layers have different properties. The layer closest to the earth, the one that we breathe and live in, is the troposphere. That’s where weather happens, that’s where most clouds are, and that’s where 99% of the water vapor in the entire atmosphere is located. The troposphere extends about 6 miles above the earth, or 10 km, or 33,000 feet. Mount Everest is 29,000 feet high, by the way, or 8,850 meters. Above the troposphere is the stratosphere, which extends to about 31 miles above the earth, or 50 km.

The jet stream, a steady wind that commercial jet planes use to help them cross oceans and continents faster, occurs roughly where the troposphere becomes the stratosphere. Above the jet stream, there’s hardly any turbulence. There are no updrafts, basically no weather, just increasingly thin air. Weather balloons and spy planes ascend into the stratosphere and that’s also where the ozone layer is, but there’s basically not much up that high.

Above the stratosphere is the mesosphere, where the air is too thin for any animal known to breathe, plus the air pressure is only about 1% of the pressure found at sea level. There just aren’t very many air molecules in the mesosphere. This is where meteors typically burn up, and the only vehicles that fly there are rockets. It extends to about 53 miles above the earth, or 85 km, and above that is the thermosphere, the exosphere, and then empty space, although it’s hard to know exactly where the thermosphere and exosphere end and space begins. It’s so far away from the earth’s surface that some satellites orbit within the thermosphere, and that’s where the northern and southern lights are generated as charged particles from the sun bounce against molecules.

But let’s return to the troposphere, our comfortable air-filled home. As far as we know, there aren’t any animals that live exclusively in the air and never land. Even the common swift, which lives almost its entire life in the air, catching insects and sleeping on the wing, has to land to lay eggs and take care of its babies. But what animals fly the highest?

As far as we know, the highest-flying bird is Rüppell’s vulture, an endangered bird that lives in central Africa. It’s been recorded flying as high as 37,000 feet, or 11,300 meters, and we know it was flying at 37,000 feet because, unfortunately, it was sucked into a jet engine and killed. There’s so little oxygen at that height that a human would pass out pretty much instantly, but the vulture’s blood contains a variant type of hemoglobin that is more efficient at carrying oxygen so that it gets more oxygen with every breath. It has a wingspan of 8 ½ feet, or 2.6 meters, and is brown or black with a lighter belly and a white ruff around the neck. Its tongue is spiky to help it pull meat off the bones of the dead animals it eats, but if there’s no meat left on a carcass, it will eat the hide and even bones. The more I learn about vultures, the more I like them.

Any bird that migrates above the Himalayas has to be able to fly incredibly high, since that’s where Mount Everest is and many other mountains that reach nearly into the stratosphere. The bar-headed goose has been recorded flying at 29,000 feet, or 8,800 meters, and in fact, mountaineers climbing Mount Everest have claimed to see and hear the geese flying overhead. The bar-headed goose has the same variant hemoglobin that Rüppell’s vulture has so it absorbs more oxygen with every breath.

The bar-headed goose is pale gray with black and white markings, especially black stripes on its head. It’s not an especially big goose, with a wingspan of about five feet, or 160 cm. It nests in China and Mongolia during the summer, then migrates to India and surrounding areas for the winter, and it generally crosses the Himalayas at night when winds aren’t as high.

The common crane is another high-flying bird, which has been recorded flying at 33,000 feet, or 10,000 meters, above the Himalayas. It’s a large bird with long legs and a wingspan of nearly 8 feet, or 2.4 meters. It’s gray with a red crown on its head and a white streak down its neck, and a tail that’s not so much a tail as just a bunch of floofy feathers stuck to its butt. Supposedly it flies so high to avoid eagles, but it’s a strong bird with a stabby beak that has been observed fighting eagles that attack it. It nests in Russia and Scandinavia but flies to many different wintering sites across Europe, Africa, and Asia.

So those are the three highest-flying birds known, but what about insects? How high can an insect fly?

Most insects can’t fly if the air is too cold, typically if it’s below 50 degrees Fahrenheit, or 10 degrees Celsius. Since the air is that cold just a few thousand feet above ground, that means most insects don’t fly very high, especially small ones. But not all of them.

Because insects are so small and lightweight, they’re often carried by the wind even if they aren’t technically flying, an activity called kiting. In 1961 during a study of insect migrations, an insect trap installed on an airplane caught a single winged termite at 19,000 feet, or 5.8 kilometers above sea level. An insect trap on a weather balloon collected a small spider at 16,000 feet, or 5 km. If you’re wondering how the spider got in the air in the first place, many small spider species travel to new habitats by ballooning, which in this case has nothing to do with a balloon. The spider lifts its abdomen until it feels a breeze, and then it spins a short piece of silk. The breeze lifts the silk and therefore the spider and carries it sometimes long distances.

Some bumblebee species live and fly just fine at high altitudes. The bumblebee Bombus impetuosus lives on Mount Everest, although not at its very top because nothing grows that high. It lives at around 10,600 feet, or 3,250 meters, and studies of how it flies show that it actually beats its wings in a different way from other bumblebees in order to fly at high altitudes where the air is thin.

So maybe there aren’t weird jellyfish-like creatures floating around in the stratosphere, but there are certainly other animals that occasionally reach incredible heights. So I guess the only thing the fictional pilot Joyce-Armstrong really had to worry about was freezing to death.

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 at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us and get twice-monthly bonus episodes for as little as one dollar a month.

Thanks for listening!

 


Episode 155: Extreme Sexual Dimorphism



Many animals have differences between males and females, but some species have EXTREME differences!

The elephant seal male and female are very different sizes:

The huia female (bottom) had a beak very different from the male (top):

The eclectus parrot male (left) looks totally different from the female (right):

The triplewart seadevil, an anglerfish. On the drawing, you can see the male labeled in very small letters:

The female argonaut, also called the paper nautilus, makes a delicate see-through shell:

The male argonaut has no shell and is much smaller than the female (photo by Ryo Minemizu):

Lamprologus callipterus males are much larger than females:

The female green spoonworm. Male not pictured because he’s only a few millimeters long:

Show transcript:

 


Episode 146: Three strange animals



The next few weeks will be all listener suggestions! This week, Dylan and Genevieve of What Are You? Podcast request a strange fish, Kim suggests a strange invertebrate, and Callum suggests a strange bird. Thanks for the great suggestions!

An archerfish, pew pew pew:

A regular roly poly and a spiky yellow woodlouse. Can you spot which is which??

A nightjar. Turn out light pls, is too bright:

A white-winged nightjar showing off his wings:

Show transcript:

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

I’m really, really behind in getting to suggestions, as you will probably know if you have sent in a suggestion and you think I’ve forgotten all about it. So before the end of the year, which is coming up frighteningly fast, I’m going to try to get to a lot of the older suggestions. So this week we’re going to learn about a fish, an invertebrate, and a bird.

We’ll start with the archerfish, suggested by Dylan and Genevieve, who are part of the What Are You? Podcast. If you don’t already listen to What Are You?, I really recommend it. It’s a new animal podcast that’s especially for younger kids. If you like Cool Facts About Animals, you’ll like What Are You? Anyway, Dylan and Genevieve both really like the archerfish, so let’s find out why it’s such a weird and interesting fish.

The archerfish isn’t one fish, it’s a family of fish who all catch insects in an unusual way. Most archerfish species are small, maybe 7 inches at the most, or 18 cm, but the largescale archerfish can sometimes grow up to 16 inches long, or 40 cm. All archerfish live in Asia or Australia, especially southeast Asia. They like rivers and streams, sometimes ponds, and a few species live in mangrove swamps and the mouths of rivers where the water is brackish. That means it’s saltier than ordinary fresh water but not as salty as the ocean.

The reason the archerfish is so weird is the way it catches insects. Think about its name for a minute. Archer-fish. Hmm. An archer is someone who uses a bow and arrow, but obviously the archerfish doesn’t have arms and hands so it can’t shoot tiny arrows at insects. But it can shoot water at insects, and that’s exactly what it does.

The archerfish has really good eyesight, and it learns to compensate for the way light refracts when it passes from air to water. When it sees an insect or other small animal, maybe a spider sitting on a branch above its stream, it rises to the surface but only far enough so that its mouth is above water. Then it forms its tongue and mouth to make a sort of channel for the water to pass through. Then it contracts its gill covers, which shoots a stream of water out of its mouth. But because it shapes it mouth in a really specific way, the stream of water turns into a blob as it flies through the air, like a tiny water bullet. The water hits the spider, which falls from its branch and into the stream, where the archerfish slurps it up.

But the archerfish has to learn how to aim. Young archerfish aren’t very good at it, and they have to practice to shoot accurately and far. They can even learn by watching other archerfish shooting water, which is rare among all animals but practically unheard-of in fish.

Sometimes the archerfish will shoot underwater, sending out a jet of water instead of a bullet. It does this mostly to expose small animals hidden in the silt at the bottom of a pond or stream. And sometimes, of course, if the insect is close enough to the surface of the water, the archerfish will just jump up and grab it.

The archerfish shoots water with a force that’s actually six times stronger than its muscles would allow, and it does this by taking advantage of natural water dynamics. This means it uses a lot less energy to shoot water than if it was only using its muscles, and it gets a better result. It can shoot water up to ten feet away, or three meters, to bring down an insect or other small animal, although of course it prefers closer targets.

Archerfish do well in aquariums, so they’ve been studied by scientists to find out how smart they are. It turns out, they’re pretty darn clever. The archerfish takes into account the size of its target to adjust how strong a blob of water it needs to shoot. It also recognizes individual humans by their facial features. So it’s probably a good thing that they don’t have little arms and hands.

Next, Kim sent me some great suggestions way back in August, and I feel terrible that I’ve taken so long to get to any of them. We’ll look at one of those today, an invertebrate officially called a terrestrial isopod, although you may know it by one of a lot of different names. My preferred name for it is roly poly, but it’s also called a sowbug, a wood louse, a pillbug, a doodlebug, and many others.

You have probably seen roly polies, because they’re really common. The most well-known family are the various species that can actually roll up into a ball when threatened, Armadillidiidae, and someone with a sense of humor came up with that name. They’re native to Europe, but they’ve been introduced all over the world. They’re gray or brown-gray in color, armored on the back with overlapping segments, with seven pairs of little legs underneath and a pair of little antennae.

Roly polies eat decaying plant material and sometimes living plants, especially if the plant is wet. In a pinch, they will also eat dead insects and other decaying matter, but mostly they just want that yummy rotting leaf. As a result, they’re valuable decomposers in the food web. They also need moisture to breathe, so they’re often found in soil, under rocks and leaf litter, and in moss.

But Armadillidiidae isn’t the only family of roly polies. Most roly polies actually can’t roll up at all, so I should start using one of their other names, woodlouse. Technically, woodlice are crustaceans. You know, related to crabs and lobsters. But they are infinitely cuter than other crustaceans. And if you’re curious about whether they taste like lobster, apparently they taste awful, like urine. I don’t even want to think about how anyone knows what a woodlouse tastes like, or how anyone knows what urine tastes like. Yuck. Anyway, they’re descended from marine isopods that ventured out on land over 300 million years ago, but a few species have returned to the water and are aquatic.

All woodlice have segmented, flattened bodies with seven pairs of legs. When a woodlouse molts its exoskeleton, it does it in two stages. It molts the back half first, then the front half a few days later. This means that it’s not as unprotected as other arthropods that shed the whole exoskeleton at once.

There’s another arthropod called a pill millipede that looks a lot like a woodlouse, including being able to roll into a ball. But it’s actually not very closely related to the woodlouse. Pill millipedes have 18 pairs of legs and a smoother appearance.

Almost all woodlice are gray or brown, although a few may have small yellow spots. But one is actually yellow and looks very different from other woodlice. It’s called the spiky yellow woodlouse, which is a perfect description. It’s critically endangered, because it only lives in one part of the world, a volcanic tropical island in the South Atlantic, Saint Helena. It lives in trees, but it’s so threatened by habitat loss and introduced rats and other non-native species of woodlice that a captive breeding program is underway to save it. There may be as few as 100 individuals left in the wild, but fortunately it’s a lot easier to keep in captivity than, say, 100 rhinoceroses.

Let’s finish with a bird. Callum suggested caprimulgiformes, which includes nightjars, potoos, oilbirds, and whippoorwills. We’ve talked about a few of them before in previous episodes, including the oilbird in episode 121 and the Nechisar nightjar in episode 70. I know we’ve talked about the tawny frogmouth somewhere, but I can’t remember which episode. Maybe it was a Patreon episode. But we’ve never looked at most caprimulgiformes, so let’s do that now, because they are weird birds. We’ll focus on the nightjars, which are also sometimes called goatsuckers, not to be confused with the chupacabra, which also means goatsucker. In the olden days people used to think nightjars snuck into barns at night and suckled milk from dairy goats. They don’t, though. Birds can’t digest milk.

Nightjars and their close relatives are nocturnal, although some species are mostly crepuscular, which means they’re most active at dawn and dusk. Like the owl, the nightjar’s feathers are very soft so that it can fly silently. It eats insects, especially moths.

There are three subfamilies of nightjars: the typical nightjars, the eared nightjars, and the nighthawks, with lots of species in each group. They live throughout most of the world and they all look similar. We’ll take one typical nightjar as an example, the European nightjar. It lives throughout most of Europe and part of Asia, although it migrates to Africa for the winter. It’s brown and gray mottled with lighter and darker speckles, which makes it really hard to see when it’s sitting on a branch or on the ground in dead leaves. Its head appears flattened and it has a short, broad bill. Its feet are small. It has large eyes and sees well even in darkness. It grows to about 11 inches long, or 28 cm, with a wingspan of about two feet, or 60 cm.

The female nightjar lays her eggs directly on the ground instead of building a nest. Usually she’ll pick a spot where long grass or other vegetation hangs over to form a little hidden alcove. Since the nightjar is so well camouflaged, it can incubate its eggs on the ground in plain sight and probably won’t be seen. If a predator does approach the nest, the parents will pretend to be injured, so that the predator follows the supposedly injured bird hoping for an easy meal. Once the nightjar has drawn the predator far enough away from the nest, it flies away. Some nightjars can even pretend to be injured while flying.

Some nightjars have beautiful, haunting songs while some are nearly silent. The male chuck will’s widow, which lives in the southeastern United States and much of Mexico, sings at night and also claps his wings to show off for females. His song sounds like this.

[chuck will’s widow song]

Because nightjars are so well camouflaged and mostly nocturnal, they’re hard for birdwatchers and scientists to spot. As a result, there are undoubtedly nightjar species still unknown to science. This is the case with the Nechisar nightjar, which we talked about in episode 70. It’s only known from a single wing found on an otherwise squashed dead bird that was hit by a car. And until 1997, the white-winged nightjar from South America was only known from two museum specimens.

Since the first white-winged nightjar nest was discovered in 1997, researchers have learned a lot about it. It’s only been found in a few places in Brazil, Bolivia, and Paraguay, and it likes open lowlands and savannas. The male has white markings on his wings, and during breeding season he finds a termite mound to stand on, spreads his wings to show them off, and then flies up. As he does, his wings make a distinctive sound. Since most nightjars fly silently like owls, the beating of the male’s wings is intended to attract a female. This is what it sounds like:

[white-winged nightjar wings beating]

Like other nightjars, the white-winged nightjar female lays her eggs directly on the ground. Some researchers think she times the eggs to hatch around the full moon so the parent birds have more light to forage for insects. In years where there’s lots of food, the female may lay eggs in a second nest near the first one and incubate them while the male feeds the babies of the first nest.

Many nightjar species are endangered due to habitat loss, but it’s also killed by cars more often than other birds because of its habit of sitting in the road. That does not strike me as being very smart. Maybe it needs to talk to the archerfish for some advice.

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!

This is what the little nightjar sounds like. It lives in South America:

[little nightjar calls]


Episode 144: Strange Bird Sounds



This week we’re going to learn not about strange birds, but about strange sounds some birds make. Thanks to Sam for the suggestion, and thanks to Llewelly and Leo for suggesting two of the birds we feature today!

Further watching:

Greater prairie chicken courtship display

A bittern, weird swamp bird:

An American woodcock, adorable:

Ocellated turkey, beautiful and goofy:

Greater prairie chicken:

Show transcript:

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

Halloween is over and we’re all just about sick of candy, or maybe that’s just me. Either way, if you live in the northern hemisphere we’re heading into winter, but if you live in the southern hemisphere spring is in full swing! And spring means birdsong! Thanks to Sam for the suggestion that we do a whole episode about interesting bird calls, and thanks to Llewelly and Leo for some excellent bird suggestions.

But we can’t cover all the weird bird calls out there in one episode. I think I’ll make this a recurring topic, and every so often we’ll get a weird birdsong episode. This time we’ll learn about a few birds of North America, although one is from Central America. Let’s start with this unusual sound.

[Bittern call]

That’s the call of the male American bittern, a type of heron that lives throughout most of North America. It’s brown with paler streaks that help camouflage it in the reeds and water grasses where it spends most of its time. It likes freshwater marshes and other wetlands with lots of tall plants to hide in. When the bittern feels threatened, it stands still, points its long bill upwards with its neck stretched out, and sways slightly to imitate the reeds around it. But it still does this even if it’s standing out in the open, because while it’s a neat bird, it maybe is not exactly a genius.

The bittern eats fish, crustaceans, insects, and other small animals. Like many birds, whatever parts of its food it can’t digest, like fish scales and dragonfly wings, form into pellets in its digestive tract that it regurgitates later. Males sometimes fight over territories by flying upwards in a spiral, both birds trying to stab each other with their bills.

The male is the one that makes the weird call we just heard. He gulps air to inflate his esophagus, which is the inside part of the throat, and uses the air to make his call. This is more similar to the way frogs call than birds. He also clacks his bill. He only makes this call during breeding season, which is in the spring and summer.

Next, let’s listen to the call of another North American bird, the American woodcock:

[American woodcock sound]

The American woodcock is a relatively small bird with short legs, basically no tail, large black eyes, and a long pointy bill. It’s considered a game bird although I’m not sure why, since people don’t seem to eat it. It’s brown with black and lighter brown markings which camouflage it perfectly among dead leaves, and it looks like a shore bird because it’s actually closely related to shore birds like sandpipers. It lives in woodlands and pastures throughout eastern North America. It uses its long bill to probe the ground for earthworms, and the tip of the upper half of the bill, properly called a mandible, is flexible so the woodcock can grab a worm without actually opening its beak. It also eats small insects and other invertebrates, and seeds. It’s mostly active at dawn and dusk, and it migrates at night.

In spring, the male woodcock attracts females by a flight display called sky dancing. He spirals upward, then down again, chirping melodically while the wind through three specialized primary feathers in his wings make a twittering sound, which is what we just heard.

Next is this bird, which was suggested by Llewelly.

[ocellated turkey call]

That’s the ocellated turkey, also called the green peacock. It mostly only lives in a small area of Mexico called the Yucatan Peninsula. It’s a type of wild turkey and at first glance it looks and acts like an ordinary turkey. But when the male fans his tail as a display to females, the tail feathers have colorful eyespot patterns like a peacock’s tail.

The ocellated turkey has a bluish head bare of feathers, with a red wattle on its face. Its body feathers are black, copper, green, and white, which makes it even prettier than an ordinary turkey. I know people think turkeys are ugly, but wild ones are actually quite attractive birds. Both males and females have eyespots on the tail feathers.

The ocellated turkey is smaller than the wild turkey, which it’s related to. It’s also related to chickens, pheasants, partridges, and peacocks, more properly called peafowl. Like most of these other birds, it can fly but prefers to walk or run on its sturdy legs.

It eats seeds and other plant parts, insects, and other small animals. Most of the year, males form small bachelor flocks while females form larger flocks together with their half-grown babies. In breeding season, though, males will fight each other, although mostly they just want to impress hen turkeys with their elaborate display dances and gobbling calls, which we just heard.

The ocellated turkey is related to another bird with an interesting call, this one from the Midwestern area of North America, the greater prairie chicken. Thanks to Leo who suggested this one ages ago! This is what the greater prairie chicken sounds like:

[greater prairie chicken calls]

It’s about the size of an actual chicken with a short tail, rounded wings, and mostly brown and black feathers. The male has big round patches on either side of the neck that are bare of feathers. The skin on this patch is a yellowy-orange, as is the male’s comb. During mating season, the male inflates the neck patch to show off for females and performs a display dance.

The display takes place in groups where both males and females come together on what are called booming grounds. A male inflates his neck pouches, raises his tail to show a white patch of feathers, raises long black feathers on his neck to look like horns, and lowers his head. Then he stamps the ground, leaps in the air, makes cackling and loud cooing sounds, rushes at other males, and basically tries to impress as many females as he can. It’s actually really funny to watch. I’ll try to find a good video of it and link to it from the show notes.

There used to be a subspecies of greater prairie chicken called the heath hen that lived in the eastern United States, but it went extinct in 1932 from overhunting. It actually pretty much went extinct by 1870, maybe as early as 1840, with only a small population remaining on the island of Martha’s Vineyard. The Martha’s Vineyard birds were protected in 1908 and started to rebound from only 70 birds to nearly 2,000, but a combination of inbreeding, poultry disease, a fire that destroyed most of the nests in 1916, and several unusually severe winters sent the population plummeting again. In 1927, only 13 birds remained, and 11 of them were males. The next year only males remained, and by 1932 the very last male was seen all alone on the booming grounds. He died soon afterwards, and that was the end of the heath hen.

Modern conservationists have considered introducing greater prairie chickens to Martha’s Vineyard, since the heath hen was important to the local ecosystem. There’s even been speculation that the heath hen might be a good candidate for de-extinction, with genetic material collected from museum specimens and edited into the closely related greater prairie chicken genome.

We’ll finish up with a chirping song that some of you may recognize. See if you can figure it out.

[chirps]

Did you get that one? It was a trick question, because that’s not a bird! It’s a CHEETAH! And now you have a hint about what next week’s episode is about.

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 139: Skunks and Other Stinkers



This week we’re commemorating my HOUSE getting SKUNKED by a SKUNK and it was STINKY

The skunk, stinky but adorkable, especially when it’s eating yellow jackets:

The stink badger looks like a shaved skunk with a bobbed tail:

The zorilla wants to be your stinky friend:

A woodhoopoe, most magnificent:

A Eurasian hoopoe, looking snazzy:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to learn about some animals that are infamous for their stinkiness. This wasn’t the topic I had planned on for this week, but last week my house got skunked. That is, a skunk sprayed an animal very close to my house, which means I woke up at 4:45am gagging from the smell of point-blank skunk odor. And this was with the windows closed and the air conditioning going. It was so bad I thought I would throw up, so I yanked on my clothes, grabbed my purse, and fled the house at 5:30am. I went to work early—don’t worry, I got coffee on the way—and spent the whole day smelling skunk faintly where the smell clung to my hair and, oddly, my phone case. Also I spent the whole day complaining to my coworkers.

Fortunately, when I got home the smell had dissipated somewhat, so I opened all the windows and doors and by the next morning it was mostly gone. But it got me wondering why skunk spray smells so, so bad and how many other stinky animals are out there.

The skunk is native to North and South America, although there are two species of related animals that live in some of the islands of the Malay Archipelago, called stink badgers. No seriously, that’s really what they’re called. Skunks and stink badgers are related to actual badgers and to weasels, but not closely.

The stink badger is black or dark brown with a white stripe that runs from its head down the back of its neck and along its spine, and finishes at its little short tuft of a tail. The skunk is black or dark brown with one or two white stripes or white spots, depending on the species, which continues down its long fluffy tail. In all cases, though, these stinky animals are vividly patterned with dark fur and bright white markings as a warning to other animals. Do not get too close or there’s a world of stink coming your way. Also, I can verify from my own experience that the white markings of a skunk make it much easier to see in the darkness and therefore avoid. Since the skunk is crepuscular, meaning it’s most active around dusk and dawn, that’s important. The stink badger is more nocturnal than the skunk.

Both the skunk and the stink badger have relatively short legs with sharp claws. Both are relatively small, about the size of a cat. Both are also good diggers and spend the daytime asleep in their burrows. In winter the skunk doesn’t hibernate but it does stay in its burrow more, spending most of its time asleep. This is the best way to deal with winter cold, if you ask me.

Female skunks share a den in the winter but males are usually solitary. This means the females retain a higher amount of body fat when the weather warms up, since they didn’t need to burn that fat to keep themselves warm. Researchers think this helps the females stay in better condition for a spring pregnancy. Meanwhile, males are skinnier at the beginning of the winter but by staying alone they’re less likely to contract disease or parasites.

Mating season for skunks is in spring and babies are born in early summer. They mostly stay in the burrow for about two months, then start accompanying their mother when she goes out foraging. The mother is really protective of her babies and will spray any animal that approaches.

Although the skunk can hear and smell well, it has poor vision. That’s why so many are killed by cars. The skunk’s biggest predator is the great horned owl, because owls don’t have much of a sense of smell and don’t care about being sprayed.

The skunk and the stink badger are both omnivorous and will dig up grubs and earthworms, will sometimes eat carrion, and also eat frogs, crustaceans, and other small animals, leaves and other plant parts, especially berries and nuts, and insects. The skunk especially likes bees. It has thick fur that helps protect it from stings, and will eat all the bees it can catch.

The skunk also eats other stinging insects, including the dreaded yellow jacket. That’s a type of wasp that’s common where I live, with incredibly painful stings. A few years ago I noticed a yellow jacket nest in the ground behind my garage, and that night when the yellow jackets were asleep I carefully trimmed the long grass around the nest opening to see how extensive it was. Then I made a mental note to get some yellow jacket poison the following day. When I went back out to deal with the nest the next night, it was gone. A skunk had discovered it, probably because I’d exposed it by trimming back the grass, and had dug the whole nest up to eat the yellow jackets. There wasn’t a single one left. Ever since I have been lowkey fond of skunks, although I do wish they wouldn’t spray so close to my house.

So what is skunk spray and why is it so stinky? The skunk has two anal glands that contain an oily liquid made up of sulfurous chemical compounds. If a skunk feels threatened, it will raise its tail and fluff it out as a warning. It may also hiss, stomp its feet, and pretend to charge its potential attacker. The skunk doesn’t actually want to spray if it can avoid it, though. Its anal glands only hold enough of the oil to spray a few times, and when the skunk runs out it can’t spray again for almost two weeks. But if its warnings don’t work, it will use muscles to contract the glands and spray the oily liquid more than ten feet, or 3 meters.

If you’ve only ever smelled skunk spray in the distance, you may not think it’s so bad. But the smell is horrific up close, strong enough to induce vomiting, and it can cause irritation to the skin or even temporary blindness if it gets in the eyes. And the skunk is really accurate when spraying, aiming at the face. Not only that, because it’s an oil, the spray clings to skin, hair, or fur, and it won’t just wash off. It can literally take weeks to wear off normally. If your clothes get sprayed, or your dog’s collar, the smell will never come out and you will have to throw the clothes away.

Domestic dogs get sprayed by skunks a lot. Some dogs just never learn. I once had a cat who was sprayed by a skunk too. You may have heard that you can remove the smell by washing your pet in tomato juice, but this actually doesn’t work. I asked a veterinarian how to clean up my cat, and this is what she told me. This worked great, by the way.

Mix hydrogen peroxide about half and half with warm water and add about a spoonful of dishwashing liquid. Rub the mixture into the fur thoroughly, making sure to work it in well right down to the skin. If you can tell where the spray is, concentrate on that part. Do your best not to get the mixture into your pet’s eyes, and make sure to use good warm water. Part of the reason animals hate getting bathed is because they get cold really easily once their fur is wet, so using really warm water helps. Then rinse your pet thoroughly, making sure to get all the soap out so they won’t get itchy. You may need to mix up another batch of the hydrogen peroxide, water, and soap and give the stinkiest areas another wash. After you’ve rinsed your pet thoroughly, wrap them up in a towel and gently squeeze as much of the water out of the fur as you can. Then make sure you have a dry towel to put in your pet’s bed or basket or wherever it wants to hide after its horrible bath.

In July of 2019 a research team published a report about a type of fungus that makes a chemical called pericosine A that neutralizes noxious chemicals. The researchers tested pericosine on skunk spray and discovered that it neutralized the smell harmlessly. So it’s probably just a matter of time before pericosine is marketed to veterinarians to help pet owners. Let’s hope so.

Even skunks don’t like to be sprayed, incidentally. Males fight each other during mating season and will sometimes spray each other. A skunk reacts like any other animal when it gets sprayed.

The zorilla is another stinky animal related to the skunk, although it lives in parts of Africa. It’s brown with white markings and is sometimes called the striped polecat or African skunk. It’s about the same size as a skunk or stink badger and looks and acts very similar, although it’s a carnivore and much more social than the skunk. It’s also related to the honey badger, which we talked about in episode 62. If you remember, the honey badger is also black with a broad white or silvery stripe down its back, and it can invert its anal sacs and discharge a stinky oil, although it doesn’t spray like a skunk.

It’s not really surprising that all these animals are related, since most members of the weasel family, known as mustelids, have anal scent glands that produce a strong odor. Most species just use the glands to mark their territory, though.

But are there animals who spray like skunks but aren’t related to the skunk? Many animals have anal glands for marking territory, and if threatened some animals will empty the anal glands as a form as defense. The king ratsnake will sometimes do this, as will the lesser anteater, the opossum, and others.

But there’s another animal that actually sprays a smelly substance for defense, and it’s not one you’d expect. It’s a bird called the hoopoe, along with its relative the woodhoopoe.

The woodhoopoe lives in woods, savannah, and rainforests of Africa. It looks something like a cuckoo, with a very long tail marked with white spots. It’s mostly a metallic black in color, although some species have markings in other colors. Males have longer, more curved bills than females because they eat larger insects that live in bark and rotten wood while females eat smaller insects that live mostly on leaves. In this way, mated pairs don’t compete with each other for food.

The hoopoe lives across Eurasia and parts of Africa, and while it’s related to the woodhoopoe, it looks very different. It has a long crest that it can raise and lower like a crown, and it’s a pretty tan or brown color with black and white markings. Both males and females have long, slightly curved bills that they use to catch insects and other small animals.

Female hoopoes and woodhoopoes are picky about nesting spots. The female likes to nest in dead trees in rotting wood, or sometimes in a gap in a rock wall. The female incubates her eggs alone. But animals find dead trees and crumbling walls easy to climb, so to protect her nest the female can spray a foul-smelling liquid from the gland that most birds just use to secrete preening oil. This is the case for the female hoopoe and woodhoopoe too most of the time, but after she lays her eggs the gland becomes weaponized. Not only that, when the babies hatch, they develop the same gland. The female rubs the stinky oil on her babies and on the nest to deter predators, and researchers think it may also deter parasites. If an animal approaches the nest anyway, the female can spray the oil at it. And if the female is off catching food for her babies, the babies will hiss, peck, and squirt liquid poop at the predator. At that point, most predators probably just decide to go hunt something else. After they clean up.

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!