Category Archives: birds

Episode 257: Some Animals of Belize



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A big birthday shout-out this week to Yori!!!

I was fortunate enough to visit the country of Belize in December and saw lots of amazing animals! I’ve chosen four to highlight in this week’s episode.

Further reading:

There may be more bird species in the tropics than we know

The adorable proboscis bat, my favorite:

Proboscis bats all in a row (photograph by me!):

The black howler monkey has a massive hyoid bone that allows it to make big loud calls:

The white-crowned manakin is impossibly cute:

The mealy parrot is cheerful and loud:

A morning view and night view from our villa balcony, photos by me!

Show transcript:

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

Let’s start the new year off right with an episode about some animals I saw in person recently during my vacation to Belize!

But first, we have our first birthday shout-out of the year! A very happy birthday to Yori, whose birthday is on the 8th of January! I hope you have a great day!

Belize is a country on the eastern coast of Central America on the Caribbean Ocean, just south of Mexico and north of Guatemala. It used to be called British Honduras but has been an independent country since 1981. The coast is protected by a series of coral reefs that are so little studied that there are probably dozens if not hundreds of animals and plants waiting to be discovered around them. Belize is serious about protecting the reefs and about conservation in general, which is great because it has some of the highest animal and plant life diversity in the Americas.

My brother and his family had made vacation plans for Belize in spring of 2021, about the time the Covid-19 vaccine was rolling out and things were looking up. They rented a big villa with more bedrooms than they needed so they generously invited me and one of my cousins to join them. I didn’t mention the trip on the podcast because I was worried it would end up canceled. But we were able to visit in mid-December, with negative Covid tests coming and going, and wearing our masks appropriately in all public areas.

Belize is absolutely gorgeous. We stayed right on the coast in an upstairs flat with a big balcony that overlooked the ocean. We spent most of the time relaxing on the beach or the balcony and eating amazing food, but we did go on two excursions.

We all went on a riverboat wildlife tour of the Monkey River, and a few days later my brother and cousin and I went on a birdwatching expedition to the nearby Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary. We had to get up at 5am for that one but it was worth it. In both excursions we saw lots of animals of all kinds, so many that it was hard for me to choose which ones to highlight in this episode.

One animal that I fell in love with on the Monkey River is the proboscis bat. Belize has a lot of bat species but I didn’t expect to see any, much less up close.

The proboscis bat lives throughout Central America and the northern half of South America. It’s only about 2.5 inches long, or 6 cm, and gets its name from its pointed nose. It lives near water, especially wetlands, because it eats insects that live around water like mosquitoes and caddisflies. It’s so small that it sometimes gets caught in spiderwebs, especially of the big spider Argiope submaronica, [ar-JY-opee] a species of orbweaver spider that holds its legs in an X pattern while it’s on its web. Different species live throughout the world, especially in warm places. It does actually eat the bats it catches, which is hard on the bat but a nice big meal for the spider. There’s two sides to every story.

How, you may ask, did I manage to see a bat up close during broad daylight while on a boat? The proboscis bat spends the day on a tree trunk or branch or log near the water, especially in shady areas, and our guide was able to ease the boat up to not one but two different trees with bats asleep on them. The proboscis bat is gray-brown with darker and lighter markings that help it blend in against bark, and it sleeps perched on the side of the tree with its head pointing down. It literally looks like a little bump on a log that way. But it’s not usually alone. It lives in small groups and everyone roosts on the same tree during the day, and the best thing is that they roost in a row one above the other, head to tail. Nothing to see here, just a row of bumps on this log.

The second group of proboscis bats we saw we got a little too close to and suddenly all the bats took off in all different directions. Everyone else in the boat yelped and ducked except me, although I think they were mostly just startled. I could tell the bats were about to fly and just sat there thinking, “Oh no, we’ve disturbed the bats!” and then their amazing little wings unfolded and they all flew away. I’m still sorry we bothered them but it was a wonderful sight. Bats are so great.

Another animal we saw and heard on our Monkey River trip was the black howler monkey. It gets its name from the male’s appearance because males have mostly black fur while females are more golden.

It’s pretty big for a monkey, with a big male growing over two feet long, or 65 cm, not counting its tail. Females are smaller. The black howler’s tail is as long as its body and is prehensile to help it navigate through the trees. Its tail only has hair on the upper side, with the lower side bare to help it grab onto tree limbs more securely. Part of the reason the black howler monkey uses its tail so much to climb around in trees is that its arms can’t move as far as the arms of many primates, and that’s because of something called the hyoid bone.

The hyoid bone is found in a whole lot of animals, not just howler monkeys. In humans it’s shaped like a little horseshoe and it’s found near the top of the throat. While everyone has a hyoid bone, it’s larger and more prominent in men, and it causes the bump in the throat sometimes called an Adam’s apple. A lot of muscles attach to the bone, including the tongue, and it helps us talk and breathe properly. But in howler monkeys, the hyoid bone is much larger and shaped more like a cup. Air resonates in the cup, which is how howler monkeys make such loud, deep, booming calls. Male howler monkeys have much larger hyoid bones than females, but having such an enlarged hyoid bone restricts the range of motion in the arms.

The black howler monkey is really loud. It’s especially noisy at sunrise when males in a troop roar together to let other troops know where they are and to announce that they’re the biggest, baddest males around and no one better mess with them. These sounds can be heard three miles away, or 5 km.

The black howler monkey lives in forests and spends most of the time in the trees, eating fruit, leaves, and flowers. Its diet isn’t all that high in caloric energy, though, so unlike many species of monkey, the black howler spends a lot of time just lazing around in trees, resting or napping.

We only saw two howler monkeys on our Monkey River trip even though they’re common throughout the area. We all got out of the boat and our guide grabbed a machete, which I think was pretty much just for show because the trail we were on was obviously well traveled and wide. We were going to hike 15 or 20 minutes into the rainforest to find a troop of howlers, but there had been so much rain in the last week that the trail was ankle-deep in mud. We were all sliding around and my sister-in-law actually lost a shoe and had to fish it out of the mud. We were all relieved when after only about five minutes we came across a young male howler and stopped to watch him.

He was sitting way way up high in the treetops, naturally, and there were definitely other monkeys around him that we couldn’t see because after a few minutes we spotted an even younger monkey walking along a branch. It was mid-morning by then and the male was eating, so when our guide banged his machete on a tree trunk and imitated the territorial call of a male howler, the male up in the tree only responded half-heartedly. I got audio and you should be able to tell which call is our guide and which call is the monkey because the guide was so much louder, since he was so close to me.

[guide and howler monkey sounds]

We also saw a LOT of birds! As you may know, birdwatching is one of my hobbies, so I was excited and amazed at the variety of birds in Belize. I did some birding on my own with my cousin along, and my brother came with us one early morning on an actual birdwatching trip with a local guide. I’m going to be on the Casual Birder podcast soon talking about the birds I saw on the trip, although I’m not sure yet when it will air. I’ll let you know or you could just subscribe to the Casual Birder Podcast now and beat the rush.

Anyway, one bird we saw is a tiny adorable little floof called the white-crowned manakin. It only grows about 4 inches long at most, or 10 cm, and has red eyes, a short tail, and looks superficially like a wren in shape. The female is olive-green with a gray head but the male is glossy black with a bright white cap that he can raise up in a fluffy crest. He looks like the lead singer of an edgy indie band.

The white-crowned manakin is a common bird throughout parts of Central and South America. The reason I decided to talk about it in this episode is because of a study released in November 2021 that discovered the white-crowned manakin isn’t actually a single species. Genetic studies found that some isolated populations of the bird are different enough from the others to be considered a completely different species. These populations may look similar but their plumage patterns and songs are very different from the main population too. Since there are so many birds in South America that aren’t very well studied, conservationists are concerned that other known bird species may actually have genetically different populations that look very similar. If we don’t know what birds are rare, we don’t know how to protect them.

The last animal we’ll cover today is another bird, the mealy parrot, also called the southern mealy Amazon parrot. It’s a big parrot, mostly green, that lives in rainforests in parts of Central and South America. Like other parrots, it’s a smart, social animal that lives in flocks. It gets its name because many individuals have paler feathers on their back and upper wings that make them look like they’ve been dusted with flour, and meal is another word for flour. It mostly eats fruit, nuts, berries, and other plant material, including flowers. It’s still a common parrot but habitat loss, hunting, and trapping of birds to sell as pets on the black market has caused their numbers to decline recently. If you decide you want a pet parrot, make sure you buy yours from a reputable breeder who is selling domesticated parrots, not wild-caught ones.

Because we started birding so early, we were lucky enough to hear the mealy parrots calling, something they do early in the day and at night. We also heard some howler monkeys in the distance. But while we kept hearing a whole flock of mealy parrots, they were always just out of sight. We would hurry as quietly as we could up the trail and they would retreat ahead of us, calling cheerfully as though taunting us. It was actually really funny. Then, finally, just when I’d started to assume I would never see the wild parrots we kept hearing, there they were! And there were lots of them! We also saw a small flock of red-lored parrots that look similar but have a red band just above their upper bill, lots of keel-billed toucans, the national bird of Belize, and lots lots more!

This is some audio I took of the mealy parrots calling while we were trying to spot them.

[mealy parrot calls]

We didn’t see a jaguar or a manatee during our visit to Belize, but I did learn how to properly pronounce the word spelled T-A-P-I-R. There are lots of different pronunciations throughout the world, but from now on I’m going with the Belizean one of TAP-eer. We didn’t see a tapir either but we did see crocodiles and green iguanas and a couple of basilisks and lots more. I was even brave enough to get in a kayak and paddle around ON THE OCEAN, admittedly in very calm, shallow water with my family around to encourage me, and saw some kind of small rays, moon jellies, and a crab. I’m scared of the ocean but as soon as I started seeing jellies from my kayak I got a lot less scared and a lot more interested, so I’m proud of myself for facing my fears.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 252: Mini Rex



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Thanks to Zachary for suggesting this topic! Let’s learn about some sightings of what look like miniature theropod dinosaurs running around in the American Southwest!

Further reading:

All About Birds: Wild Turkey

A collared lizard running (photo by Joe McDonald from this page):

Basilisks running:

A female wild turkey:

A male wild turkey (note the tuft of hair-like feathers sticking forward, called a beard) (picture from this page):

Show transcript:

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

Thanks to Zachary for his email a while back that helped shape this episode. Zachary has kept a lot of different kinds of pets, which we had a nice conversation about, and one of the reptiles he’s kept as a pet is in this episode. I’ll reveal which one at the end.

But first, a small correction, maybe. Paul from the awesome podcast Varmints! messaged me to point out that the word spelled A-N-O-L-E is pronounced a-NOLL, not a-NO-lee. I’d looked it up before I recorded so that confused me, so I looked it up again and it turns out that both pronunciations are used in different places and both are correct. So if you’ve always heard it a-NOLL, you’re fine, but now I can’t decide which pronunciation I should use.

This week we’re going to learn about an interesting mystery of the American southwest. Even though non-avian dinosaurs went extinct 66 million years ago, occasionally someone spots what they think is a little dinosaur running along on its hind legs. They’re sometimes called mini rexes.

Many reports come from the American southwest, especially Colorado, Arizona, and Texas. For instance, in the late 1960s two teenaged brothers were looking for arrowheads near their home in Dove Creek, Colorado when they were startled by an animal running away from them at high speed. The boys said it looked like a miniature dinosaur, only about 14 inches tall, or 35 centimeters. It was kicking up so much dust as it ran on its hind legs that the boys had trouble making out details. They did note that it seemed to be brown and possibly had a row of spines running down its back, maybe even two rows of spines, similar to an iguana’s. It had long hind legs and shorter front legs that it held out in front of it as it ran.

The animal left behind three-toed footprints that the boys followed until they disappeared into some brush. The boys were familiar with turkey footprints but these were different, with the toes closer together and no rear-pointing toe prints.

In April 1996, in Cortez, Colorado, a woman saw an animal run past her house on its hind legs, seemingly from a nearby pond. It was greenish-gray and stood about 3.5 feet tall, or about a meter. It had a long neck and long, tapering tail. She didn’t notice its front legs but its hind legs had muscular thighs but were thinner below the hock joint.

One night in July 2001, a woman and her grown daughter were driving near Yellow Jacket, Colorado when they noticed an animal at the edge of the road. At first the driver thought it was a small deer and slammed on the brakes so she wouldn’t hit it, but when it darted across the road both women were shocked to see what looked like a small dinosaur pass through the headlight beams of the car. They reported it was about 3 feet tall, or 91 centimeters, and that it had no feathers or fur. Its legs were thin and long, while its arms were tiny and held out in front of its body. It had a slender neck, a small head, and a long tapering tail.

The witnesses in both the 1996 sighting and the 2001 sighting noted that the animal they saw ran gracefully. They also all agreed that the animals’ skin appeared smooth.

Lots of dinosaurs used to walk on their hind legs, but the reptiles living today are all four-footed. There are a few lizards that run on their hind legs occasionally, though, and one of them lives in the American southwest. The collared lizard, also called the mountain boomer, will run on its hind legs to escape predators. Females are usually light brown while males have a blue-green body and light brown head. The name collared lizard comes from the two black stripes both males and females show around their necks, with a white stripe in between. During breeding season, in early summer, females also have orange spots along their sides.

The collared lizard can run up to 16 miles an hour, or 26 kilometers per hour, for short bursts on its hind legs. It uses its long tail for balance as it runs, and its hind legs are three times the length of its front legs. This makes it a good jumper too. It mostly eats insects but will occasionally eat berries, small snakes, and even other lizards. It hibernates in winter in rock crevices.

While the teenaged boys probably saw a collared lizard in the 1960s, the other two sightings we just covered sound much different. The collared lizard typically only grows up to 14 inches long, or 35 centimeters, including its long tail.

A few other lizards are known to run on their hind legs, such as the basilisk that lives in rainforests of Central and South America. It’s famous for its ability to run across water on its hind legs. It’s much larger than the collared lizard, up to 2.5 feet long, or 76 centimeters, including its long tail. It holds its front legs out to its sides when running on its hind legs, and the toes on its hind feet have flaps of skin that help stop it from sinking. It has a crest on its head, and the male also has crests on his back and tail. It can be brown or green in color.

The basilisk is sometimes kept as an exotic pet. In 1981 in New Kensington, Pennsylvania, four boys playing along some railroad tracks saw a green lizard that they thought was a baby dinosaur. It was 2 feet long, or 61 centimeters, and had a crest and an extremely long tail. It ran away on its hind legs but one of the boys, who was 11 years old, managed to catch it. It startled him by squealing and he dropped it again, and this time it got away. It sounds like an escaped pet basilisk.

But let’s go back to our mini rex sightings from 1996 and 2001, the ones of dinosaur-like animals running gracefully on their hind legs with a long neck and long tail. These don’t sound like lizards at all. When lizards run on their hind legs, they don’t look much like how we imagine a tiny raptor dinosaur would look. They appear awkward while running, with their arms sticking out and their heads pointing more or less upward. While all the lizards known that can run on their hind legs have long tails, they all have relatively short necks.

There’s another type of animal that’s closely related to the dinosaurs, though, and every single one walks on its hind legs. That’s right: birds! All the birds alive today are descended from dinosaurs whose front legs evolved for flight. Even flightless birds are well adapted to walk on two legs.

Let’s look at the details of those two sightings again. Both were of animals estimated as about three feet tall or a little taller, or up to about a meter, with long neck, small head, long tapering tail held above the ground, and long, strong legs that were nevertheless thin. Both also appeared smooth. In one of the sightings, the front legs were tiny and held forward; in the other, the witness didn’t notice the front legs.

My suggestion is that in these two sightings, at least, the witnesses saw a particular kind of bird, a wild turkey. That may sound ridiculous if you’re thinking of a male turkey displaying his feathers, but most of the time turkeys don’t look round and poofy. Most of the time, in fact, the wild turkey’s feathers are sleek and its tail is an ordinary-looking long, skinny bird tail instead of a dramatic fan. Its feathers are mostly brown and black, the upper part of its long neck is bare of feathers, as is its small head, and its legs are long and strong but relatively thin. It also typically stands 3 to 3.5 feet tall, or up to about a meter, although some big males can stand over 4 feet tall, or 1.2 meters. As for the front legs seen by witnesses in 2001, a full-grown male turkey has a tuft of long, hair-like feathers growing from the middle of his breast, called a beard. It sticks out from the rest of the feathers and might look like tiny arms if you were already convinced you were looking at a dinosaur instead of a bird.

That’s not to say that all mini-rex sightings are of turkeys, of course, but some of them probably are. The wild turkey lives throughout much of the United States, including most of Colorado. Since birds are the closest animals we have to dinosaurs these days, though, that’s still pretty neat.

Finally, the reptile Zachary kept as a pet was the collared lizard. I didn’t want to say so at the beginning and potentially spoil part of the mystery for some people!

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 251: Modern Mimics and HIREC



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This week let’s look at some animals that have evolved rapidly to adapt to human-caused environmental pressures. Thanks to Otto and Pranav for their suggestions!

Further reading:

Long-term changes of plumage between urban and rural populations of white-crowned sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys)

A light-colored peppered moth (left) and darker-colored peppered moths (right):

Soot is hard to clean off buildings and other items (image from this page):

A white-crowned sparrow in the California countryside:

A (deceased museum specimen being photographed) white-crowned sparrow from the city of San Francisco, CA (taken from the study linked above):

A decorator crab that has attached bits of plastic and other trash to its body (image from this page):

The hermit crab sometimes uses trash instead of shells to hide in:

Show transcript:

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

This week we have two listener suggestions. Otto suggested we learn about camouflage that mimics modern things, and Pranav suggested animals that show rapid evolution due to humans.

We’ve talked about animals that use camouflage in lots of episodes, especially episode 191, Masters of Disguise. If you want to learn more about camouflage itself, that’s a good one to listen to. In addition, rapid evolution due to humans is a hot area of research right now. It even has its own scientific term, human-induced rapid evolutionary change, often shortened to the acronym HIREC.

Let’s start this episode with the story of a humble moth, because it’s a classic example of both HIREC and modern camouflage.

The peppered moth lives throughout much of the northern hemisphere. Its wingspan is a little over 2 inches across, or about 6 centimeters, and its caterpillar looks just like a little twig. Not only that, the caterpillar can change its coloring to match the twigs of the tree it’s on. But it’s not the caterpillars we’re talking about today.

The peppered moth gets its name from the coloring of its wings, which are white with black speckles, like pepper spilled on a plate. The pattern of speckles is unique to each individual, with some moths having more pepper speckles than others. Some moths have so many speckles that they look gray. But in the 19th century, geneticists studying moths in England noticed that the peppered moth seemed to be changing color as a species. Specifically, some of the peppered moths were completely black.

Black peppered moths had never been documented before 1811. They were still rare in the mid-19th century, but by 1900 almost all of the peppered moths in cities in England were black. Scientists noticed this and tried to figure out what was going on.

Pollution is what was going on. The industrial revolution was in full swing, but all those factories and trains and even ordinary houses were burning coal. Burning coal results in soot that’s carried on smoke and settles on everything. If you have a coal fire in your house, your walls and furniture are going to end up dark with soot. My aunt and uncle renovated a house from the late 19th century and had a lot of trouble cleaning soot from the walls and woodwork, even the old curtains that had been in the house. Similarly, when I lived briefly near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, there were still a lot of brick and stone buildings that were black from soot, but one beautiful old church had recently been cleaned and it turned out that the stone it was built from was pale gray, not black.

It wasn’t coal soot getting on the moths, though. It was coal soot on the trees where the moths spent most of their time. Most tree trunks are gray, but with all that coal soot in the air, the trees were coated with it and were much darker gray or even black. A light-colored moth that settled on a black tree branch showed up to predators, but a black moth on the same branch was camouflaged. The black moths survived more often to lay eggs while the white or gray moths didn’t, passing on the genetic likelihood that their babies would grow up to be dark-colored instead of light-colored.

It wasn’t just peppered moths that this happened to, either. More than 100 species of moth were documented to be dark gray or black during this time when they were ordinarily much lighter in color. Scientists call this industrial melanism.

Soot is made up of tiny particles that work their way into the crevices of wood and stone and everything else they come in contact with. You can’t just wipe or rinse it off. It’s acidic too and will kill plants, especially lichens that grow on trees, and it even eats away at stone and brick. It’s dangerous to breathe because the tiny particles lodge in your lungs and eventually stop you from being able to absorb oxygen as efficiently. If you’ve heard of the infamous London smog from the olden days, a big contributor to the smog was coal smoke. In 1952 a five-day smog event in London killed an estimated 12,000 people. That led directly to the Clean Air Act of 1956, and these days London doesn’t have that kind of deadly smog anymore.

Once factories and homes switched to electricity, natural gas, or other alternatives to burning coal, and trains switched to diesel fuel, trees stopped being coated with soot. Older trees that had survived were still dark, but young ones grew up with normal colored trunks and branches. Gradually, the black moths became less and less numerous compared to light-colored moths.

Cities in general result in rapid evolution of animals, including how they camouflage themselves. A study published in May of 2021 found that some birds living in cities are developing different colored feathers. Specifically, white-crowned sparrows living in San Francisco, California have much duller, darker feathers on their backs than white-crowned sparrows living outside of the city. Other studies have found that birds in cities sing much louder and at a higher pitch than birds in the countryside, since they have to compete with traffic and other noise.

A Swiss study on the effects of light on ermine moths indicated that while moths who developed from caterpillars collected from the countryside showed a normal attraction to light, moths from caterpillars collected in the city ignored the light. Since moths often die when they collide with electric lights, the city moths who survived to lay eggs were the ones who didn’t fly into a hot lightbulb.

Another study compared the genomes of white-footed mice that live in various parks in New York City with white-footed mice that live in state parks well outside of the city. The mice in city parks showed a lot less genetic diversity, naturally, since those mice are isolated populations. Mice can’t take cabs to visit mice in other parks, much less leave the city for a vacation. But the city mice showed another surprising difference. Their digestive systems have adapted to a much different diet than their country cousins. Some researchers suggest that the city mice may eat more junk food, which people throw away and the mice find, while other researchers think it’s just a difference in the kinds of insects and plants available in city parks for the mice to eat. Either way, it’s a distinct genetic difference that shows how the city mice are evolving to adapt to their urban environments.

Another example is a type of reptile called the crested anole. It’s related to the iguana and is native to the Americas. There are lots of species and subspecies of anole, many of which live on islands and show distinct adaptations to various habitats. The crested anole lives in Puerto Rico and on some nearby islands and grows up to 3 inches long, or 7.5 cm, not counting its long tail. The male is more brightly colored than the female, usually green or brown with darker spots. It’s not related to the chameleon but it is able to change color. It eats small animals, including insects, worms, even other anoles. Anoles are really interesting animals that deserve their own episode one day, so let’s just talk about how the crested anole that lives in cities has adapted to urban life.

One thing the crested anole is known for is its ability to climb right up tree trunks and even perch head-down in a tree. Its toe pads have microscopic scales and hairs that help them adhere to smooth surfaces, something like a gecko’s toes. But there’s a big difference in a tree trunk, no matter how smooth it is, and a pane of glass. Anoles in cities can climb up and down windows and painted walls. Researchers examined the toe pads of city crested anoles and compared them to the toe pads of crested anoles who lived in the countryside. They found that the city anoles had larger toes with more scales, and they even had longer legs. The research team also raced anoles along various surfaces and filmed them in slow motion to study how they were able to maneuver, which sounds like a great day at work.

The crested anoles have only lived in cities for a few decades, so their differences from country anoles evolved very quickly. But not all species of anole can adapt as well and as rapidly as the crested anoles have. Other city anole species don’t show differences from their country cousins.

Human-induced rapid evolutionary change isn’t restricted to cities. Trophy hunters who target the biggest animals with the biggest horns or antlers and leave smaller individuals alone have resulted in only smaller males with smaller horns or antlers surviving to breed. Many populations of bighorn sheep now actually only have small horns. Similarly, elephants have been killed for their tusks for long enough that many elephants are being born without tusks, because tuskless elephants are the ones that survive to breed. Entire populations of some fish species are smaller overall after many generations of being caught with nets, because only the individuals who are small enough to escape the nets survive to breed.

I tried hard to find more examples of animals that camouflage themselves to blend in to human-made items like roads. I’m sure this is happening throughout much of the world, but I couldn’t find any scientific studies about it. If any of you are thinking of going into biology, that might be an interesting field of study. But I did find one other example.

Self-decoration is a type of camouflage I don’t think we’ve talked about before. It’s where an animal decorates its body with items that help it blend in with its surroundings. Some caterpillars will stick little bits of lichen or other plant pieces to their bodies to help them hide, and some invertebrates of various kinds actually pile their own poop on their back as a disguise.

A group of crabs called decorator crabs will stick plants, sponges, and other items to their backs, and different species have preferences as to what items they use. Some species prefer stinging or toxic decorations, such as certain sea anemones which they basically pick up and plant on their backs. Researchers think the sea anemones actually benefit from being used as camouflage, because crabs are messy eaters and the anemones can catch and eat pieces of food that float away from the crab’s mouthparts. A decorator crab’s carapace is often rough in texture with tiny hooks to help things stick to it like Velcro.

Some decorator crabs don’t seek out particular decorations but just make use of whatever small items they find in their local environment. In the past few decades, scientists, divers, and other people who find crabs interesting have noticed more and more decorator crabs using little pieces of trash as decoration. This includes fragments of plastic and pieces of fishing nets.

This is similar to what’s happening with hermit crabs, which we talked about in episode 182. In many places hermit crabs are using trash like bottle caps instead of shells since there’s so much trash on beaches these days. This is your reminder to pick up any trash you find on the beach, but be careful not to cut yourself and also make sure you’re picking up actual trash and not a camouflaged crab.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 246: MOTHMAN!



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Don’t forget our Kickstarter! I can’t believe it reached its funding goal THE FIRST DAY!

We’re getting so close to Halloween! This week we’ll learn about Mothman! Is it a moth? Is it a ghostly entity from another world? Is it a bird? (hint: it’s probably a bird)

Sandhill cranes (not mothmen):

A Canada goose (not mothman):

A great bustard (not mothman):

A green heron (definitely not mothman but look at those big cute feets and that telescoping neck):

A barn owl’s eyes reflecting red (photo taken from Frank’s Barn Owls and Mourning Doves, which has lots of lovely pictures):

Barn owls look like strange little people while standing up straight:

Barn owls got legs:

All owls got legs:

Show transcript:

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

This week for monster month, let’s cover a spooky monster with a silly name, mothman! We’ll go over the facts as clearly as possible and see if we can figure out what kind of creature mothman might be.

First, though, a quick reminder that our Kickstarter is still going on if you’re listening to this before Nov. 5, 2021! There’s a link in the show notes if you want to go look at it. We actually reached our funding goal on the very first day, so thank you all so much for backing the project, sharing the project on social media, or just putting up with me spamming you about it all month.

Now, on to mothman.

As far as anyone can tell, it all started in 1966, specifically November 12, outside of Clendenin, West Virginia, in the eastern United States. Five men were digging a grave in a cemetery outside of town when one of them saw something big fly low across the trees and right over their heads. The witness thought it looked like a man with wings, but with red eyes and an estimated wingspan of 10 feet, or 3 meters. This definitely happened, even though it sounds like the opening scene of a scary movie.

That story didn’t come to light until after the next sighting hit the newspapers and caused a lot of excitement. The second sighting took place only three days later near Point Pleasant, West Virginia, in the McClintic Wildlife Area. Locals call it the TNT area, since explosives were stored there during WWII. The TNT area is about 70 miles, or over 110 km, away from Clendenin, which has led to a lot of people discounting the gravedigger’s sighting. We’ll come back to that later, though.

On Nov. 15, 1966, two young couples decided to go out driving. They were bored and it was a cold, clear Tuesday night. Remember, this was the olden days when there weren’t as many things to do as there are today. You could watch TV, but only if there was something you wanted to watch on one of the three TV stations available in the United States. If you wanted to watch a movie, you had to go to a movie theater, and so on.

Anyway, Steve Mallette and his wife Mary and their friends Roger Scarberry and his wife Linda went out driving that Tuesday night. Toward midnight, as they drove through the TNT area, their car came over a hill and they saw a huge creature in front of them.

Some 35 years later, in July 2001, Linda gave an interview to the author of the book I used as my main reference for this episode, called Mothman: The Facts Behind the Legend. She mentioned details that aren’t in any of the newspaper articles from 1966, or that give a better explanation of what happened than the articles did. There’s always a possibility that after 35 years, her memory wasn’t accurate, so I’m mostly going by the newspaper articles for my information, but she does mention something interesting in that interview.

She says this about the very first sighting of the creature:

We had just topped a hill in the TNT area, and when the headlights of our car hit it, it looked directly at us, as if it was scared. It had one of its wings caught in a guide wire near a section of road close to the power plant, and was pulling on its wings with its hands, trying to free itself. Its hands were really big. It was really scared. We stopped the car and sat still while it was trying to free itself from the wire. We didn’t sit there long, just long enough to scare it, I think. It seemed to think we were going to hurt it. We were all screaming, ‘Go! Go! Go!’ But, we couldn’t perform the actual action of leaving the scene. It was like we were hypnotized. It finally got its wing loose from the wire and ran into the power plant. I felt sorry for it.”

In the original reports from 1966, the couples said the creature was 6 or 7 feet tall, or 1.8 to 2.1 meters, with a wingspan of 10 feet, or 3 meters. Its eyes were big and glowed red in the car’s headlights and its wings were white and angel-like. Its body was gray. While it was a clumsy runner, it could fly at an estimated 100 mph, or 161 km/hour.

Let’s stop right here before we talk about what else happened that spooky night. A ten-foot wingspan is big for a bird but not unheard-of. The trumpeter swan, several species of vulture, Andean condor, Marabou stork, two species of pelican, and several species of albatross have wingspans of at least ten feet across. Some of those have wingspans of 12 feet, or 3.7 meters.

The heaviest bird that can still fly is probably the great bustard, which has a wingspan of up to 8 feet, or 2.5 meters. A big male can weigh up to 44 lbs, or 18 kg. Mothman is described as a man-sized creature with wings. Even if it was stick-thin, a person that tall would weigh far too much to get off the ground with a wingspan barely longer than its armspan.

So that’s one thing to keep in mind. Let’s find out what happened next on that cold November night.

After their initial fright, Roger Scarberry, who was driving, naturally decided to get out of the TNT area. He headed back to town. The newspaper articles report that the strange creature followed them for some distance, gliding above their car. All four of the people in the car were frightened, and after about half an hour they decided to go to the police. In her 2001 interview, Linda said,

“We wouldn’t have went to the police, but it kept following us. We saw it sitting in different places as we drove back down Route 62 toward Point Pleasant, and saw it sitting in various places once we got in town, too. It was as if it was letting us know that it could catch up to us, no matter where we went, or how fast we went there. When we first left the TNT area, it was sitting on the sign when we went around the bend and when the headlights hit it, it went straight up into the air, very fast. That’s when it followed us and hit the top of the car two or three times while we were going over one hundred miles per hour down Route 62, toward Point Pleasant. The last place we saw it was sitting on top of the flood wall. It was sitting crouched down, with its arms around its legs and its wings tucked against its back. It didn’t seem scared, then. I guess it figured out that we weren’t going to hurt it, so it followed us. We didn’t know what else to do but go to the police station.”

So, the people in the car initially saw the creature with its wing caught in a guide wire, and when it got its wing free, it ran clumsily into a nearby abandoned building. But Linda says they then saw it as they were driving away from the TNT area, presumably just a few minutes later, and that it was sitting on a sign and flew straight up in the air when the headlights lit it up.

Next, she said the car was going about 100 mph but the creature was flying above it, keeping pace, and even hit the top of the car a few times. No one said they had their head out the window to look up, so how did they know the creature was flying over their car? Presumably they assumed that’s what it was doing because it thumped the roof of their car a few times—but how do they actually know that’s what happened? They heard some thumps and made an assumption because they were scared, but at 100 mph on a back road a car is naturally going to be making a lot of noise and shaking a lot as it goes over uneven pavement. Not to mention that none of the newspaper reports mention that the creature hit the roof of their car.

I don’t think the creature was ever flying above their car. I also think the creature they saw initially was not the same creature they saw fly up from the sign. I especially don’t think the thing they saw repeatedly as they drove to town was the same one as the others. But we’ll come back to that again too in a few minutes.

The story appeared in the papers on Wednesday, November 16 and that evening, half the town went to the TNT area to look for the creature. They spotted it, too. Four people reported seeing a huge bird at 10pm on Wednesday night. The creature stared at them as they sat in their car, then flew away. Reporters also turned up another sighting of a creature with red-reflecting eyes a few hours’ drive away, also on Tuesday night, and the gravedigger’s story from several days before. By Thursday night an estimated 1,000 people arrived at the TNT area to look for the creature.

By the end of November 1966, though, things were quieting down. A November 22 article in the Huntington Herald-Dispatch is titled “Mason Bird-Monster Presumed Gone Now.” I’ll read part of the article.

“It was a week ago today that the first sighting was reported of a large red-eyed winged creature in the McClintic area. Since then there have been about 10 or more similar reports.

“The latest report was by four teenaged youths who said they saw a large bird with red eyes fly away from their car at a very high rate of speed. This was 3 a.m. Sunday.”

The article goes on to quote various authorities, including a wildlife biologist who suggested it might be a sandhill crane. It also ends with the suggestion that the sightings may lead to an eventual legend and tourism draw, which is exactly what happened, although it took almost 50 years for it to really gain traction.

The sandhill crane theory is repeated in a lot of newspapers and occasionally crops up today, so let’s learn a little bit about the sandhill crane and see if it makes any sense as a solution.

The sandhill crane is a big bird. A big male can have a wingspan of almost 8 feet, or 2.3 meters. It’s mostly gray in color and since it has long legs, it can stand 4 ½ feet tall, or 135 cm. In the dark, this might look like a man-sized gray creature with angel wings.

But actually, the sandhill crane theory is nonsense and here’s why. First, sandhill cranes don’t migrate through West Virginia. By mid-November the nearest sandhill cranes are in their wintering grounds in Alabama or Florida, where they congregate in wetlands in the thousands, or on their way to those areas from their breeding grounds in Canada. Second, sandhill cranes are not nocturnal. They’re not active at night at all. They also aren’t clumsy on the ground—quite the opposite, since they’re well known for the elegant dances mated pairs perform. Third, the sandhill crane has a long neck, a small head, and a long bill, very different from the description given of Mothman. I’ve seen sandhill cranes and they’re beautiful birds, but there’s nothing spooky about them.

Other birds were suggested as culprits too, including a Canada goose, an Andean condor, and an oversized green heron. The Andean condor has never been seen in North America and isn’t nocturnal anyway, plus it looks like a gigantic vulture, which it is. The Canada goose is a common, well-known bird that has a long neck but short legs, and isn’t nocturnal. The green heron is a small and humble bird with a wingspan barely more than two feet across, or 68 cm. It has long yellow legs with really big feet and a long, heavy bill.

It’s worth noting that none of the newspaper reports mention a bill, although they do stress that the creature had big eyes that glowed red in the light. The head isn’t prominent either, with one newspaper quoting Roger Scarberry as saying the head was “not an outstanding characteristic.”

By the end of November, newspapers had started calling the creature Mothman more and more, and that’s the name that stuck even though it didn’t actually look like a moth. It did look like another animal, though, and the newspapers even picked up on that by the end of December 1966, when a snowy owl was shot in the area.

The snowy owl is also a large bird, mostly snow-white although young birds have black and gray markings. Its eyes are yellow. Its wingspan can be as much as six feet across, or 1.8 meters. It lives throughout the Arctic and nearby regions and is migratory, sometimes traveling long distances to find food. It mostly eats small animals like lemmings although it will also kill birds, including ducks. It’s rare for one to stray as far south as West Virginia, but the bird killed in December 1966 fits the description of a snowy owl. Its wingspan was almost five feet across, or 1.5 meters.

The newspapers declared that the snowy owl was the culprit behind the mothman sightings. Linda doesn’t agree according to her interview, and I actually don’t either. I do think it’s an owl, just not a snowy owl.

I don’t even think mothman was inspired by a very big owl, like a great horned owl. I think it was a much smaller, more common bird. The barn owl is common throughout much of the world, including West Virginia. Its wingspan is 3.5 feet across at most, or just over one meter.

The reason I think that mothman was a barn owl is because the four people in the car saw several of them around midnight, although they assumed they were seeing the same creature over and over. It’s nocturnal, although it’s also sometimes active at dawn and dusk or even in daytime, and it hunts low over the ground listening for the sound of small animals like mice. Because it flies so low, the barn owl is sometimes hit by cars and would certainly be vulnerable to getting a wing caught in the guide wire of a power pole.

The barn owl has a heart-shaped face that is usually white. Its body is pale underneath and gray or brown above. It doesn’t have ear tufts. Its eyes are large and completely black, but they reflect red at night. It also has an inconspicuous beak with a ridge of feathers at its base that can look like the suggestion of a human-like nose. In other words, it can look superficially like it has a human head and face, especially when seen at night in the glare of headlights, but weird and eerie because it doesn’t quite match up with human features.

One thing people usually don’t realize is that owls actually have quite long legs. An owl standing with its legs extended and its body straight genuinely looks like a tiny, creepy person with wings instead of arms. The male barn owl even shows off his legs and his flying ability in a courtship display called the moth flight, where he hovers in front of a female with his legs dangling.

The gravedigger who supposedly saw a manlike creature with wings fly over him only came forward after the story hit the newspapers. People who doubted it was the same creature because it was seen so far away from the TNT area are assuming Mothman was a single entity when it was probably different birds being seen in different places.

If you’re still doubtful, let’s go back to Linda’s interview that we quoted earlier. She says repeatedly that she thought the creature was scared and she also mentions she felt sorry for it. We can infer several things from these statements. First, Linda is obviously a compassionate person who can feel sorry for a creature even when she’s terrified by it. Second, she must be honest because she hasn’t changed her story to make Mothman seem menacing or dangerous. She seems to be reporting exactly what she remembers seeing and feeling. Third, Mothman does not actually seem to be very big.

When you’re scared, especially if it’s dark, anything threatening or out of place seems larger than it really is, especially when you think back on it. Combine that with most people not knowing that an owl has really long legs and not knowing how huge a big bird’s wings really are when they’re unfolded, and that’s the recipe for a monster story.

Linda does specifically say the creature had huge hands that it was using to pull at its wing. My suggestion is that the owl was standing on one leg, which was extended to its full length because it didn’t want to put any more pressure on its wing than it had to. It was either using its other foot to pull at its wing or, more likely to my mind, to try and grab the guide wire to hoist itself up to a better angle. In addition to having very long legs, owls have huge talons, and in the dark that huge talon would have looked like a human-like hand. With one leg on the ground and one leg stretched up toward its wing, Linda naturally assumed it had the ordinary compliment of two legs and two arms in addition to two wings.

Once the creature freed its wing, it didn’t fly away. Its wing was probably hurt and it ran toward the nearest shelter, an abandoned building. The witnesses said it was a clumsy runner, and that’s true of owls too. Their talons are made for grabbing, not walking on.

Then, a few minutes later, the witnesses saw the creature—or something that looked like it—on a sign as they left the TNT area. I don’t know the size of the sign but even if it was a big sign, would a human-sized creature really perch on it? It flew straight up, which also seems unlikely for a creature as heavy as a human six feet tall. Heavy birds can’t fly straight up, but an owl can because it’s actually not very heavy at all. It looks big because owls have such thick, fluffy feathers.

Later, Linda reports seeing the creature—or, again, something that looked like it—sitting on a wall. She says “It was sitting crouched down, with its arms around its legs and its wings tucked against its back.” This actually sounds like the way an owl usually sits except of course that an owl doesn’t have arms. Linda thought it had arms so she would have assumed they were wrapped around its legs, which is why she couldn’t see them.

Obviously the people who saw the creature were terrified. That’s a natural reaction to seeing something at night that you can’t identify and think might be dangerous and even supernatural. I don’t think any of the initial witnesses were lying or stupid or drunk, or anything like that. They had a frightening encounter they couldn’t understand, and that’s nothing to be ashamed of. Last year I woke up in the middle of the night and heard a little girl’s voice say, “Oh, hello there!” in the darkness of my bedroom in my locked house with no other people in the house with me. It was absolutely terrifying–but then I woke up better and realized that I’d been dreaming and my cat Dracula was snoring, and as I woke up my brain interpreted the little cat snores as a person talking. That doesn’t mean I was stupid and that doesn’t change the fact that I was really scared even after I realized what happened.

The trouble is that many people, after they’ve had a frightening experience like this, refuse to consider that they might have been wrong about what they saw. They say things like, “I know what I saw!” without taking into account that maybe their brain was doing its best to fill in details so they could better evaluate the potential danger. You brain is hard-wired to give you as much information about danger as possible so you can decide whether to run away or prepare to fight or just laugh and tell your little brother he didn’t actually scare you. If you can’t see details properly because it’s dark and the car’s headlights are making weird shadows, your brain fills in the details based on what you can see (and what you expect to see), and it’s not always correct. If in doubt, your brain assumes the thing you’re seeing is dangerous. That’s how our far-distant ancestors survived when movement in tall grass might actually have been a cave bear and not just the wind.

In other words, after a scary experience is over and you’re thinking back about what happened, ask yourself if it’s more likely that you saw a flying man with wings and red eyes, or if you saw an owl and your brain added other details to convince you to run just in case you were in danger.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 238: The Pink Fairy Armadillo and Two Adorable Friends



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

Further reading:

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

The cute and fuzzy pink fairy armadillo:

The cute and fuzzy rusty spotted cat:

The cute and fuzzy baby Arctic tern:

Adult Arctic terns:

Show transcript:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 224: Diprotodon and Friends



Thanks to Ruby and Tex for their suggestions this week!

Diprotodon was big and had a big nose:

Koala!

The bush thick-knee looks like it has regular knees, actually:

Show Transcript:

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

This week let’s head to Australia for a short episode about three interesting animals. Thanks to Ruby and Tex for their suggestions!

Recently, we had an episode about the wombat—episode 208, to be exact. Ruby suggested we talk about an extinct giant wombat called Diprotodon too, because while we touched on it in the wombat episode, an animal that awesome deserves more attention. Also, Ruby had just gone to the Australian Museum and learned about it, and naturally wanted to share that knowledge. So let’s find out more about Diprotodon!

Diprotodon was the largest marsupial ever known. It stood around 6 ½ feet tall at the shoulder, or two meters, and up to 12 feet long, or 4 meters. It was related to the wombat but probably didn’t look much like one, although I bet it was pretty cute. It was heavily built and its legs were pillar-like, similar to a rhinoceros’s legs, but its feet were actually kind of small in comparison. It had massive flat front teeth and long claws.

So did those big teeth and claws mean it ate meat? Nope, it was a plant-eater, just like the wombat. It ate plants of all kinds in the savannas and plains where it lived, and its teeth were adapted to shear through branches and roots like chisels and grind up plant material at the same time. It also did a lot of digging, which is what it used its long claws for. The female had a rear-facing pouch so dirt wouldn’t get on her joey while she was digging.

Diprotodon had a larger nasal aperture in its skull than would be expected for an animal its size. It probably just had a really big nose, but some researchers think it might actually have had a short trunk sort of like a tapir’s.

Diprotodon probably lived in small groups made up of related females and their babies, while males probably spent most of their time either solitary or in small bachelor groups. It may have been migratory too. It went extinct somewhere between 42,000 and 25,000 years ago, along with many other species of Australian megafauna. Researchers think climate change was probably the main cause of its extinction, as the climate where it lived became drier.

Diprotodon was also related to the modern koala. We talked about the koala in episode 94, but Tex wanted to know more about it.

In episode 94 we learned that the koala smells like a cough drop because of all the eucalyptus leaves it eats. Eucalyptus oil is a common ingredient in cough drops. Here’s some other basic information about the koala from that episode, and then we’ll go on to learn something new about it.

The koala is a marsupial that lives near the coasts of eastern and southern Australia in eucalyptus trees, also called gum trees. It’s gray, gray-brown, or brown in color, with no tail, short floofy ears, a flat face with a big black nose, and long claws that help it cling to tree trunks. Almost its entire diet is made up of eucalyptus leaves, which are toxic, but the koala’s liver produces a type of protein that breaks down the toxins so it doesn’t get sick. It spends almost its whole life in trees except when it needs to move from one tree to another one.

In a study published in May 2020, researchers finally figured out how the koala gets water. Until this study, everyone assumed that the koala usually got enough moisture from the leaves it eats that it didn’t need to drink water most of the time. Now, though, researchers have observed koalas licking water from tree trunks during rain. This makes sense, because koalas prefer to stay in a tree whenever possible. The study determined that the koala gets about three-quarters of the moisture it needs from leaves, and during droughts it will come down from its tree to drink from streams. But in ordinary circumstances, it licks water from the tree trunks during and just after rain, and will do so even when other water sources are available.

I bet if you called someone a tree-licker, they would think it’s an insult, but really it’s adorable. You can say, “You’re such a tree-licker” to someone, and if they get mad at you, you can explain about koalas, hopefully before they hit you.

Let’s finish this short episode with a type of bird. It’s called the bush thick-knee. It’s nocturnal and while it can fly, it spends most of its time walking along the ground looking for small animals to eat. It’s a large, slender bird with a wingspan over three feet across, or one meter, and long legs.

The bush thick-knee eats frogs, lizard, small snakes, small mammals, crustaceans and mollusks, and insects and spiders. It will sometimes eat seeds or other plant material too. During the day it hides in long grass where it’s hidden from predators and has some shade, and at night it comes out and walks around. It’s especially active on moonlit nights.

And during those moonlit nights, or dark nights, it makes a sound like this:

[bush thick-knee sound]

Apparently people who live where the bush thick-knee is common find the sound really annoying, but I think it’s awesome and creepy.

Okay, that’s it. I actually have a serious reason for this episode being so short, which I won’t bother you with, but next week we’re going to have a good long episode. Until then, listen to this bird, just listen to it!

[more bush thick-knee calls]

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 222: Two Dangerous Birds of New Guinea



This week let’s learn about a couple of dangerous birds of New Guinea! They’re not what you might think.

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Further Reading/Watching:

How Dangerous Are Cassowaries, Really?

Inside the Cassowary’s Casque

Breakfast Club Ep. 34: Jack Dumbacher on Poisonous Birds (a long video but a really great deep dive into the pitohui)

The mighty cassowary with a mighty casque on its head, looking like a modern dinosaur, which it is:

A cassowary and babies:

A hooded pitohui, looking surprised to learn it’s toxic:

Show transcript:

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

It’s time to revisit New Guinea and its weird and amazing birds! This week we’re going to look at two dangerous birds of New Guinea. Thanks again to M Is for Awesome for the suggestion.

Lots of birds are pretty or cute, and that’s great. But some birds…are dangerous. For instance, the cassowary. There are three species alive today, all of which live in New Guinea along with some other nearby islands. The southern cassowary lives in northeastern Australia too.

It’s a big, shy, flightless bird that lives deep in the rainforest. The biggest species is the southern cassowary, which can grow up to six and a half feet tall, or 2 meters. Its wings are small but it can run extremely fast, up to 30 mph, or 50 km/h. It can also jump and even swim extremely well. This is surprising not just because it’s such a big bird but because it looks ungainly. It’s shaped sort of like its relation, the emu, although its neck is shorter, with a big chunky body, long strong legs, and a little head in comparison. Females are larger than males on average with more brightly colored necks.

The cassowary’s body is covered with black feathers while the legs are bare, as is the neck and head. The neck is bright blue in females, paler blue in males, with red wattles that hang down as decoration. The face is a lighter blue with a black bill. It has spine-like feathers that grow from its small wings, which appear to be for decoration too, or at least the cassowary doesn’t seem to use those spiny feathers for anything. But the most unusual thing about the cassowary is the casque on its head.

The casque is a sort of plate that grows on the top of the bird’s head. Different species of cassowary have different shaped casques, and there’s some variation in size and shape of casques from individual to individual. The dwarf cassowary is the smallest, naturally, and has a relatively low casque. The northern cassowary has a larger, taller casque and the southern cassowary has the largest, tallest casque, shaped sort of like your hand if you keep it flat with all your fingers together, only instead of flat it’s sticking up from the top of the bird’s head. Looking at a cassowary is like looking at a dinosaur with a beak.

The casque consists of a bony core made up of two layers around an open space, and it’s covered with a keratin sheath. This is similar in structure to the kind of horns many hoofed animals have, like cattle and sheep, but there are plenty of differences. The sheath isn’t as hard as the keratin sheath on a mammal’s horn, for one thing. It’s actually a little bit leathery. It also contains a pocket inside the skull beneath the casque that’s full of delicate tissue made up mostly of tiny blood vessels.

No one except the cassowary knows for sure what the casque is for. Over the years, researchers have suggested it might be used as a weapon, it might act as a shield to keep falling fruit from injuring its head when it’s under a fruit tree, it might knock the casque against a tree to make fruit fall, it might use it to dig with, it might use the empty space inside as a resonant chamber to make noise with, or it might use the empty space inside to help it hear faint sounds.

Most likely, the casque is primarily for display. Since the cassowary does communicate with low-frequency booming sounds to attract mates, it might also help with resonance or amplification of its calls.

The cassowary mostly eats fruit, which it swallows whole, even large fruit like apples. This is good for the plants, since it poops out seeds which are then ready to sprout in their own little pile of fresh fertilizer. It will also eat flowers and other plant material, but if it can catch a frog or mouse, or other small animal, including insects and snails, it will eat them too. It even sometimes eats carrion.

A female’s territory overlaps that of several males, and she seems to form a bond with all of them. In breeding season she makes deep, booming calls, which a male answers with a running dance. The female often chases the male into water and follows him in, where he then chases her out of the water before they mate. Then the male builds a nest on the ground, basically just a pile of grass and leaves, and the female lays her eggs in the nest. The male takes care of the eggs and the chicks when they hatch. Meanwhile, the female leaves and finds one of the other males in her territory. She will usually have a clutch of eggs with each male.

So, why is the cassowary considered dangerous? Because of its big, strong legs and big feet with claws. Its first claw is especially long and sharp. A cassowary will kick if it feels threatened or if it’s protecting its eggs or chicks, and many people consider it the most dangerous bird in the world.

In reality, though, while many people have been injured by cassowaries, usually ones kept in captivity for their feathers, only a few have died. One 16yo boy died in 1926 when a cassowary kicked him in the neck, but that’s the most recent death known. Dogs are in more danger.

These days, a lot of people are chased or injured by cassowaries demanding food. This happens when a cassowary is fed by tourists or even locals who think they’re cute and maybe want to take selfies with them. The cassowaries lose their fear of humans and get aggressive. Don’t feed wild animals and don’t get too close to them. If you must take a selfie with a wild animal, the quokka is a lot less dangerous.

Next, let’s talk about the hooded pitohui. It lives in forests throughout much of New Guinea and eats seeds, insects and other invertebrates, and fruit. It’s related to orioles and looks very similar, with a dark orange body and black wings, head, and tail. Its eyes are red. It’s a social songbird that lives in family groups where everyone works to help raise the babies.

Obviously, it’s not kicking anyone to death. Instead, it’s toxic.

The people who live in New Guinea know all about its toxicity, of course. They know not to bother killing the pitohui because it tastes nasty and will make you sick. They mentioned this to European naturalists as long ago as 1895. But ha ha ha, birds aren’t toxic, obviously that’s just superstition by “primitive natives,” right? So it wasn’t until 1989 that a grad student studying birds of paradise made a surprising discovery.

Jack Dumbacher was trying to net some birds of paradise to study but kept catching pitohuis in his nets. He would untangle the birds and let them fly away, but naturally they were upset and one scratched him. He was in a hurry so he just licked the cuts clean. His tongue started to tingle, then burn, and then it went numb. Uh oh.

Fortunately the effects didn’t last long, but when he mentioned it to another researcher who turned out to have had the same thing happen, they realized something weird was going on. Dumbacher asked some of the local people what the cause might be, and they all said, “Yeah, don’t lick the pitihui bird.”

Dumbacher did, though, because sometimes scientists have to lick things. The next time his nets caught a pitihui, Dumbacher plucked one of its feathers and put it in his mouth. His mouth immediately started to burn.

Dumbacher was amazed to learn about a toxic bird, but it took a year for anyone else to take an interest, specifically Dr. John W. Daly, an expert in poison dart frogs in Central and South America. Back in the 1960s while he was studying the frogs, in order to determine which ones were actually toxic and which ones weren’t, he frequently poked a frog and licked his finger, so Daly completely understood Dumbacher putting a feather in his mouth.

Maybe don’t put random stuff in your mouth. Both Dumbacher and Daly were lucky they didn’t die, because it turns out that poison dart frogs and pitihuis both contain one of the deadliest neurotoxins in the world, called batrachotoxin.

A chemical analysis determined that both animals excrete the exact same toxin. If you remember episode 204, where we talked about poison dart frogs, you’ll remember that in captivity, poison dart frogs lose their toxicity. Daly was the one who figured this out, but he couldn’t figure out why except that he was pretty sure they absorbed the toxins from something they were eating in the wild. He thought the same might be true for the pitihui.

Dumbacher agreed, and after he achieved his doctorate he started making expeditions to New Guinea to try to find out what. Both he and Daly thought it was probably an insect. But there are a lot of insects in Papua New Guinea and he couldn’t stay there and test insects for toxins all the time. He came and went as often as he could, and to make his trips easier he left his equipment in a village rather than hauling it back and forth with him.

What he didn’t know is that one villager, named Avit Wako, had gotten interested in the project. When Dumbacher was gone, he continued the experiments. In 1995 Dumbacher sent a student intern to the village, since he didn’t have time to go himself, and Avit Wako said, “Hey, good to see you! I solved your problem. The toxin comes from this particular kind of beetle.” He was right, too. The toxin comes from beetles in the genus Choresine.

We still aren’t sure what beetle or other insect supplies toxins to poison dart frogs. Maybe they should get Avit Wako on the case.

The hooded pitohui, along with its close relation the variable pitohui, is the most toxic, but there are other species and many of them are toxic too. The pitohuis are separated into three different families that aren’t as closely related as originally thought, although they all look pretty similar.

But the pitohui isn’t the only toxic bird in New Guinea. The blue-capped ifrit is another little songbird that lives only in the rainforests of New Guinea. It’s brownish-yellow with a yellow belly and black and white markings on the head. It isn’t closely related to the pitohui but its skin and feathers contain the same toxin that the pitohui’s does, which researchers think they also get from the same beetle.

There’s also a bird called the rufous shrikethrush that lives in New Guinea and Australia. It’s a little gray-brown bird with a reddish-brown breast, and it mostly eats insects. It is actually related to the pitohui, and like the pitohui its skin and feathers are toxic—but only in the subspecies that live in New Guinea. Australian shrikethrushes aren’t toxic because the toxic beetles aren’t found in Australia.

New Guinea undoubtedly has bird species that haven’t been described scientifically yet. Who knows how many of them may also be toxic? Just to be on the safe side, don’t lick any of them.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 217: Three (Small) Mystery Animals



This week we’re going to look at three small mystery animals! Well, the mysteries are small. The animals are not particularly small.

Further Reading:

Long-Extinct Gibbon Found Inside Tomb of Chinese Emperor’s Grandmother

Ancient Egypt’s Mona Lisa? An elaborately drawn extinct goose, of course

A case of mistaken identity for Australia’s extinct big bird

Bones of a mystery gibbon found in a noblewoman’s tomb:

Gibbons painted about a thousand years ago by artist Yi Yuanji:

A couple of gibbons at MAX FLUFF:

The mystery goose painting (left) compared with a modern version of the painting (middle) and a red-breasted goose (right):

All the geese from the painting:

A red-breasted goose, not historically known from Egypt:

The mystery bird rock art:

An emu (with babies):

Genyornis compared to a human:

Genyornis leg bones compared to emu leg bones (right), but on left is a comparison of a so-called Genyornis (actually not) egg and an emu egg:

A couple of megapodes in their egg field:

Show transcript:

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

We’re long overdue for an episode about a mystery animal, so this week let’s look at not one, not two, but three mysteries! They’re all small scientific mysteries, not big spooky ones, but I think you’ll find them interesting.

We’ll start at an archaeological dig in China. In 2004, archaeologists excavated a noblewoman’s tomb in northwestern China, which they dated to about 2,200 to 2,300 years old. The tomb might have been for a woman called Lady Xia, who was the grandmother of the first emperor of China. So, kind of a big deal.

The archaeologists discovered twelve pits in the tomb, and each pit contained the skeletons of various animals, some of them domesticated animals but some of them wild. Having a private menagerie was a status symbol back then, as it sometimes has been in other cultures around the world. In pit #12, they found remains of a leopard, a black bear, a crane, a lynx, and a type of small ape called a gibbon.

The gibbon remains were a surprise, because today all species of gibbon in China live only in the very southern areas and are critically endangered by habitat loss and hunting. Either a gibbon had been transported hundreds of miles over difficult terrain 2,300 years ago, or gibbons lived in the area.

Gibbons are small apes and there are 16 species alive today. They all live in southern Asia. We talked about the siamang in episode 76, and the siamang is a type of gibbon. Many gibbons, including the siamang, have inflatable resonant chambers in the throat to amplify their calls, but all gibbons make loud, often musical sounds to communicate with each other. They spend most of the time in treetops and mostly eat fruit, along with other plant material.

Because this part of northwestern China is subtropical, and because it’s been so long since the animals died, the skeletons aren’t complete. The only gibbon bones left were part of a cranium and mandible. Obviously, scientists had to be careful with the bones and couldn’t run any tests that might damage them. They made a 3D scan of the bones and used the scan to compare the gibbon’s skull and jaw with those of living species of gibbon, to determine what species it was.

It turned out that not only was it a species unknown to science, it was different enough from other gibbons that it belonged in its own genus.

According to experts in Chinese history and literature, gibbons were considered noble animals that often appeared in paintings and poetry. Various species of gibbon lived throughout much of China until around the 14th century. After the 14th century, though, habitat loss and hunting drove the gibbons farther south until now there are almost no gibbons left in China. Lady Xia’s pet gibbon is the first species known that definitely went extinct in the modern era, which makes it even more important that the gibbons still alive today are protected along with their habitats.

Speaking of ancient paintings of animals, 4,600 years ago, an artist made a painting of some geese for a tomb in Egypt. The painting is five feet long, or 1.5 meters, and is a fragment of a larger wall decoration that has been lost. It’s called the “Meidum Geese.” It’s a lovely painting and the geese are incredibly lifelike—so lifelike, in fact, that it should be easy to identify them.

But maybe not quite so easy after all.

There are three species of geese in the painting. Two are probably the graylag goose and the greater white-fronted goose. The third looks similar to the red-breasted goose, but there are enough differences that researchers aren’t sure. No red-breasted goose remains have ever been found in Egypt; it only lives in Europe and Asia.

It’s quite likely that the mystery goose is an extinct species. Other animal species depicted in Egyptian art are extinct now, even though they were common when the art was made. Egypt’s climate is much dryer than it was thousands of years ago, so naturally there were different animals back then even if you don’t factor in human activity like hunting.

The painting was discovered in 1871. One Italian archaeologist named Francesco Tiradritti claims it’s a hoax, painted by one of the curators at the Cairo Museum back when it was first found. One of the reasons he thinks it’s a hoax is that the red-breasted goose isn’t known in Egypt. This isn’t a very good argument to me. First of all, the goose doesn’t exactly match the red-breasted goose, while a hoaxer would probably work from a model or a picture to get the details right. Second of all, a hoaxer would probably have been careful to only include goose species that are known to live in Egypt. Tiradritti’s argument basically seems to be that the Meidum geese are too good and therefore could only possibly be painted by someone who had trained in Italy. In reality, though, ancient people of all cultures were perfectly capable of being masterful artists even though they were not European.

Other experts have rebutted Tiradritti’s claim and point out that he’s not an art historian and that many actual art historians have studied the Meidum geese and declared them genuine. Not only that, but scenes carved in other tombs seem to depict the same types of geese that are in the painting.

Speaking of geese and artwork, let’s move on to our final mystery animal. This one’s complicated, because it’s not just one mystery, it’s two.

Ancient artwork sometimes gives scientists useful information about when and where an animal lived and what it looked like. Sometimes, though, the artwork reveals more mysteries than it solves. For instance, some rock art found in Australia’s Northern Territory.

The art depicts two birds with long goose-like necks, drawn with a pigment called red ochre. It’s sort of a rusty color. The birds have legs that are about as long as the neck, and small heads with short, blunt bills.

At first the archaeologists studying the site thought the art depicted emus. Then they took a closer look and realized the details were wrong for emus, but they did match a different bird. Genyornis newtoni was distantly related to modern ducks and geese, but was flightless and really big. It stood seven feet tall, or over two meters. It had strong but relatively short legs, a goose-like neck, tiny wings, and a short, blunt bill. It probably ate fruit and small animals.

The finding excited the palaeontologists, because Genyornis was supposed to have gone extinct around 45,000 years ago. That meant that if the art really did depict the bird, the art had to be that old too.

The reason that researchers dated the extinction of Genyornis to about 45,000 years ago is because that’s when its eggshells stop being found, even though until then they were fairly common in ancient sand dunes.

But something didn’t add up. Genyornis was a little taller but six times heavier than the emu, but its eggs were no larger than an emu’s egg. A 2016 study suggested that the eggshells identified as Genyornis eggs were actually from a completely different bird, specifically a type of megapode.

Megapodes are birds that live in Australia and some nearby islands, including New Guinea. In fact, I think we’ll learn about some megapodes in an upcoming episode about more weird New Guinea birds. One interesting thing about megapodes is the way they incubate their eggs. Instead of keeping the eggs warm by sitting on them, megapodes build nest mounds. Most make a big mound of leaves and other vegetation, because as vegetation decays, it releases heat. The female lays her eggs on the mound and the male guards and tends the eggs, placing more leaves over them as needed or sometimes removing it to keep the eggs from getting too hot. Other megapodes lay their eggs in warm sand or even in volcanic areas where the ground stays warm. In other words, it makes sense that lots of these old eggshells would be found in what were once sand dunes, since the eggs were most likely buried in the sand to start with. Researchers think the sand dune eggs belonged to an extinct species of megapode called the giant malleefowl.

So that’s one mystery solved, but it leaves us with other mysteries. When did the Genyornis actually go extinct? How old is the rock art and does it really depict Genyornis?

Since its discovery around 2010, the so-called Genyornis rock art has been carefully studied. Geologists have determined the age of the rock face where the painting appears, and it’s not nearly as old as 45,000 years. Right about 13,800 years ago, a rock overhang collapsed, exposing a rock surface. Then some people came along and decided that rock surface would be the perfect place to paint two birds. So the painting can’t be any older than that.

A close analysis of the painting shows that there’s more than meets the eye, too. The initial painting was of a person with animal characteristics, called an anthropomorph, and at some point later someone painted the birds over it. The painting also contains the image of a barbed spear piercing one of the birds. So whatever the birds are, they were birds that people hunted.

Meanwhile, other experts were studying Genyornis. The current determination is that it went extinct around 25,000 or 30,000 years ago.

So we have rock art that cannot be older than a tad under 14,000 years old, but it appears to be art of a bird that went extinct at least 25,000 years ago. What’s going on?

It’s probable that Genyornis actually lived a lot more recently than 25,000 years ago. Scientists can only make determinations of when an animal went extinct by the fossils and subfossil remains they find or don’t find. There aren’t a lot of Genyornis fossils to start with, but the ones we do have mostly come from the same area where the rock art was found.

If the rock art really is of Genyornis, and it does seem to be, then people were most likely hunting Genyornis less than 14,000 years ago and possibly much more recently. Hopefully soon researchers will find more recent evidence so we can get a better idea of when it really went extinct and why.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 206: The Bowerbird and the Victoria Crowned Pigeon



This week let’s learn about two birds of New Guinea, bowerbirds and the Victoria crowned pigeon! Both are beautiful and the bowerbird is kind of weird. Thanks to M Is for Awesome for the suggestion!

Further Reading:

The Women Who Removed Birds from People’s Hats

Various bowers made by various species of bowerbird:

The golden-fronted bowerbird:

Not a bowerbird but a close relation, a dead bird of paradise from New Guinea, decorating an old-timey lady’s fancy hat. I would not want to put this on my head:

A Victoria crowned pigeon, wearing a built-in fancy hat:

A Victoria crowned pigeon baby. Such miniature floof:

Show transcript:

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

This week we are finally going to look at some birds of New Guinea, a topic suggested ages ago by M Is for Awesome! There are so many weird and amazing birds in New Guinea that instead of trying to talk about a bunch of them very briefly in one episode, I’m going to make this another ongoing series throughout the year. Every so often we’ll revisit New Guinea (in our minds, anyway) and learn about a few more birds. In this episode we’ll learn some basic information about New Guinea and then learn about two really interesting birds that live there.

New Guinea comes up in lots of episodes because so many animals live there. It’s almost the world’s largest island, second only to Greenland. Australia is considered a continent, not an island. New Guinea is actually pretty close to Australia so there’s a lot of overlap between animals that live in Australia and animals that live in New Guinea.

A big reason New Guinea has so many animals is its geography. It has everything from ridiculously high mountains with glaciers to lowland rainforests, savannas, wetlands, mangrove forests, rivers, lakes, alpine tundra, and coral reefs off the coast. About the only thing it doesn’t have is a desert. Most of the island is warm and humid with lots of rain.

Of course people live in New Guinea too, and have for at least 40,000 years, possibly as long as 60,000 years. Back then, New Guinea was connected to Australia by a land bridge similar to the one that has connected North America with Asia when sea levels were low. Some of the earliest humans to migrate out of Africa settled in New Guinea, and the people there developed agriculture independently of the people who settled in the Middle East. More people arrived much later, only around 3,500 years ago, from parts of Asia. But because the land is so hard to navigate due to the mountains and rivers and so forth, people who moved to a new part of the island were largely isolated from the people in other parts. Some 7,000 languages are spoken on the island right up to the present day, with several hundred more languages once spoken.

Unfortunately, as happens so often, after European explorers discovered the island in the 16th century, they decided they would like to have it for themselves. So they took it, which is just rude. The eastern half of the island is now independent as of 1975, called Papua New Guinea, while the western half, usually just called Papua, is now part of Indonesia. Indonesia is an Asian country and unfortunately, they’re being just as bad to the indigenous people of the area as Europeans were.

There are still lots of places in New Guinea that scientists haven’t explored, mostly in the mountains, and undoubtedly lots and lots of animals and birds that are completely unknown to science. Some of the animals and birds of the mountains may never have been seen by any person at all.

M specifically wanted us to cover bowerbirds, so let’s start with them. Bowerbirds live in Australia and New Guinea along with a few smaller islands, with twenty species known. You may have heard about them before, because a male bowerbird builds what’s called a bower and decorates it with items he selects to attract a female. A bower is a nice little shady area where you’d like to have a picnic, unless you’re a female bowerbird in which case you’d like to examine all the things a male has collected and evaluate his elaborate courtship dance.

Because the female builds a nest and takes care of her eggs and chicks by herself, she’s really picky about who she mates with. She wants the strongest, healthiest male she can find so her babies will be healthy too. She looks for a male who has the energy to build a bower, collect pretty items to decorate it, and then perform an elaborate courtship dance when the female shows up. She will visit numerous bowers before she makes a decision, narrowing them down over the course of several days or even weeks until she chooses between the best candidates.

Researchers think the bowerbird is most closely related to corvids, which as you may remember includes birds like crows, magpies, and jays, but they’re also closely related to birds of paradise. Some bowerbirds are plain black or brown, some are mostly black or brown with green or other colored markings, while some are brightly colored overall. For instance, the male flame bowerbird that lives in rainforests in New Guinea has a bright orangey-red head and shoulders shading to bright yellow body and wings, with a black tail tipped with yellow. The female is more brown but she has a bright yellow belly.

The species most people have heard of is the satin bowerbird, where the male has black feathers that shine iridescent blue in sunlight and who collects almost exclusively blue items to attract a female. The satin bowerbird lives in Australia, not New Guinea. The bowerbirds that live in Australia are more well studied than the ones in New Guinea because it’s easier to find them.

Not all bowerbirds build bowers, though. The catbirds of Australia and New Guinea are mostly green, and instead of the males building bowers to attract a mate who then goes off to lay her eggs and take of the babies herself, both parents take care of the babies.

Let’s talk a little more about these bowers. There are two main types, the maypole bower and the avenue bower, and a particular species of bowerbird will only ever build one or the other. A male who builds a maypole bower chooses a sapling tree or large fern and places sticks against it all around. Some maypole bowers look like little huts. An avenue bower is made of two walls of sticks with a walkway between. These structures can be big, sometimes up to three feet high, or about a meter, although most are smaller. Most bowerbirds are fairly big too, about the size of a jay or magpie.

Once he’s built the bower, the male finds and places items around it that he hopes a female will like. He will spend hours arranging and rearranging them. Some species put light-colored objects down first, then display colored items on top. Some birds will place smaller items in front, larger items in back, so that when the female is inside the bower all the items appear to be about the same size. Different species of bowerbird prefer different colors of item.

The items a male chooses for decoration vary from bird to bird depending on what he can find, or what he can steal from other males, and can include shells, stones, coins, pieces of glass, berries, feathers, bones, flowers, leaves, bottle caps, dead beetles, fungus, moss, snail shells, bark, nuts, and many other things.

Bowerbirds mainly eat fruit, but they also eat insects and some also eat nectar and flowers.

Let’s look into the story of a particular bowerbird before we move on to another type of bird. The male golden-fronted bowerbird is a rusty reddish-brown with a long golden crest, while the female is olive brown. The species was described in 1895 from skins imported to decorate hats.

In the 19th century women wore fancy hats, at least in Europe and America and other places that were influenced by this fancy-hat-wearing trend, and the more well-to-do a woman was, the fancier she wanted her hats. This was before synthetic dyes, so the brightest, fanciest, and most expensive way to decorate a hat was with the feathers of exotic birds. Sometimes it wasn’t just a few feathers or even a lot of feathers, but an entire wing or a bunch of bird wings. As the style grew more and more elaborate, often it was an entire dead bird, stuffed and mounted on a hat. I am not known for my sense of style, but that just seems really gross. But it was the style at the time and it meant hat-makers would pay a lot for exotic birds, especially ones with brightly colored feathers. The demand for feathers was so high, it nearly drove some species to extinction.

When an American woman named Harriet Hemenway heard about the slaughter of birds happening all around the world just so women could have fancier and fancier hats, she and her cousin Minna Hall started spreading the word to all the women they knew: stop buying and wearing hats with dead birds on them. The women attracted more and more supporters, both among hat-wearing ladies and people who just liked birds, and Hemenway and Hall pushed for a boycott of the feather trade. They even started the Massachusetts Audubon Society, the forerunner of the National Audubon Society that’s still around today.

You would think that this would be an obvious law to put into place. I mean, yes, don’t kill millions of rare birds just for hat decorations. But there was a lot of money involved in feather imports back then. People who were getting rich off dead birds called the Audubon Society extremists who wanted to put people out of jobs. Fortunately, the women persisted, and in 1900 the first federal conservation act was put into place in the United States to stop the import of feathers.

But before the feather trade was banned, some scientists made a habit of looking through imports of feathers and bird skins to find new species. That’s how one ornithologist discovered the golden-fronted bower bird, but he didn’t know where it was from. He described the species from the skin and that’s where the story ended for almost a century.

In 1979, a biologist named Jared Diamond was hired to survey New Guinea for the site of a national park. He spent a month hiking through areas where no scientist had ever been before, and returned in 1981 for another few weeks to look for bowerbirds specifically. And as you may have guessed, he saw golden-fronted bowerbirds alive and well in the Foja Mountains. The mountains are steep and inaccessible, which has helped protect the bird from hunters and habitat loss. The first photographs of the bird were only taken in 2005.

Next, let’s look at a pigeon that lives in New Guinea. New Guinea has a whole lot of pigeons and doves, something like 60 species although some are now extinct due to habitat loss and other factors. The Victoria crowned pigeon is a beautiful bird that lives in the lowlands and swampy forests. It’s increasingly threatened in the wild due to habitat loss and hunting, but it’s so pretty that many people keep it in captivity. Unfortunately that also means people trap the wild birds to sell, even though it’s illegal and the birds are hard to take care of properly, although they do tend to be easy to tame. Some zoos let them wander around the grounds the same way peacocks often do.

The Victoria crowned pigeon is indeed a pigeon. It’s a soft blue-grey all over with a reddish patch on its breast, lighter blue wing bars and tail tip, red eyes in a dark blue mask, and a gorgeous spray of feathers on its head that are tipped with white. It’s just lovely. It’s the sort of bird that people would have put on hats in the olden days, but I’m glad they don’t anymore. It’s an especially large bird, too, at least twice as big as ordinary pigeons you see in cities. Basically it’s the size of a big chicken. It mostly eats fruit, especially figs, although it will also eat seeds and small animals like insects, and it doesn’t fly much. It mostly eats fruit that has fallen from trees.

Like all pigeons it’s a sociable bird that usually forages in a small flock or in pairs. It only lays one egg at a time and its baby is blue with white streaks. Both parents feed the baby with crop milk, which we’ve talked about before in various episodes. It’s not actually milk, just a nutritious shed lining of the crop.

During courtship, the male dances for the female to show off his crest, and he also makes a loud booming noise that doesn’t actually sound like a pigeon call. It sounds more like a special effect from a movie set in space. This is what it sounds like:

[pigeon booming]

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 202: Terror Birds and Pseudotooth Birds



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

Further reading:

Exceptionally preserved fossil gives voice to ancient terror bird

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

Look at that beak! Llallawavis scagliai:

Big birdie!

A red-legged seriema and an unfortunate snake:

Another big birdie!

Toothy birdie!

Show transcript:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us and get twice-monthly bonus episodes for as little as one dollar a month.

Thanks for listening!