Category Archives: cephalopods

Episode 287: Sand Crabs, Sea Slugs, and a Mystery Octopus

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It’s INVERTEBRATE AUGUST! Thanks to Elizabeth, Richard, and Llewelly for their suggestions this week!

Further reading:

Meet Phylliroe: the sea slug that looks and swims like a fish

Hey, so these sea slugs decapitate themselves and grow new bodies

Found, Then Lost, Then Found Again: Scientists Have Rediscovered the Sand Octopus

A sand crab in the air:

Sand crabs in the water, feeding:

Phylliroe is a sea slug that looks like a fish (pictures from article linked to above):

How I used to draw snails when I was a kid, adding an extra foot because I didn’t understand that the “foot” of a snail/slug is the flat part of the body that touches the ground:

The mysterious sand octopus in mid-swim:

Show transcript:

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

It’s the first week of invertebrate August and we’re heading to the ocean for our first episode! Let’s jump right in with an episode about sand crabs, a couple of sea slugs, and an octopus mystery that was recently solved. Thanks to Elizabeth, my brother Richard, and Llewelly for their suggestions!

We’ll start with Elizabeth’s suggestion. The sand crab is also called the sand bug, the mole crab, or similar names that refer to its habit of burrowing into the sand. It’s common throughout much of the world’s oceans, especially in warm areas, and can be extremely numerous. It’s also sometimes called the sand flea, but it’s not the kind of tiny jumping crustacean that bites, also called the sand flea. This little crustacean is harmless to humans. It doesn’t even have pincers.

The sand crab isn’t a true crab although it is closely related to them. It’s gray-brown and has a tough carapace to protect it when it’s washed around by waves and to help protect it from predators. Females are larger than males and can grow up to an inch and a half long in the largest species, or about 35 mm, and an inch wide, or 25 mm. So it’s longer than it is wide, unlike most crabs, and its carapace is domed sort of like a tiny tortoise shell. Overall, it’s shaped sort of like a streamlined barrel. I saw one site that called it the sand cicada and it is actually about the same size and shape as a cicada, which it isn’t related to at all except that they’re both invertebrates. Some species have little spines on the carapace while others are smooth.

The sand crab lives in the ocean, specifically in the intertidal zone right at the area where waves wash up on the beach. This is called the swash, by the way, which is a great word. The sand crab burrows into the sand tail-first, using its strong rear legs, and during the time that there’s water over the sand, it unfurls its feathery antennae to filter tiny food particles from the water. When the wave goes out, it retracts its antennae and works on staying buried in the sand as the next wave rolls in.

In some species, males are very similar to females, but smaller. In other species, they’re tiny, barely 3 mm long at most, and even as adults they resemble larvae. The male finds a female and grabs hold of her leg, and there he stays. I tried to find out more about this, but it doesn’t look like the humble sand crab gets a lot of attention. If you’re interested in becoming a scientist who studies invertebrates and you want to spend a lot of time on the beach, the sand crab would make a good study buddy.

Lots of fish and birds eat sand crabs, and people do too. In many places they’re considered a delicacy and grilled as a snack. This isn’t surprising since they’re related to other crustaceans people like to eat, like crabs and lobsters.

Next, let’s learn about two strange sea slugs. We’ve talked about sea slugs a few times before, including in episodes 215 and 129, but there are a lot of species, with more being discovered pretty often.

Llewelly sent me a link ages ago about a sea slug that’s related to the sea bunny, which we talked about in the cutest invertebrates episode, 215. It’s called Phylliroe and doesn’t look like a little bunny or a slug. It looks like a fish.

Phylliroe grows a few inches long at most, or 5 cm, and the article Llewelly sent, which I’ve linked to in the show notes, points out that it’s about the size of a goldfish. Its rear end is shaped roughly like a fish tail, which it uses just like a fish tail to propel itself through the water. It’s probable that Phylliroe’s shape doesn’t have anything to do with disguising it, but instead is just the result of convergent evolution. A body streamlined to move through the water with minimal resistance is always going to be fish-shaped, because that’s why fish are shaped the way they are. The fish-like tail is also an efficient way to move through the water relatively quickly.

Phylliroe mostly eats tiny jellyfish, which it grabs with its small foot. It doesn’t need a big flat foot to glide on, since it doesn’t live on the sea floor like some of its relations, so over many, many generations its foot has become smaller and smaller until it’s just a little tiny foot near its mouth. It’s still sticky, though, which means jellies stick to it, which means it’s easier for Phylliroe to eat the jellies.

Phylliroe is mostly see-through, although you can see its digestive system. It also has two so-called horns, called rhinophores, that it probably uses to sense the chemical signature of its prey in the water. If you remember the sea bunny, its rhinophores look like bunny ears. Phylliroe’s look more like thick antennae or barbels. Phylliroe also exhibits bioluminescence, which is not a typical trait for a sea slug.

My brother Richard alerted me to another sea slug a while back, this one referred to as the Deadpool slug. The reason why it’s called the Deadpool slug is lost on me because I haven’t seen that movie or read the comic book, but the sea slug can separate its head from its body when it wants to, and it just grows a new body. The old body eventually dies instead of growing a new head.

The Deadpool slug is one of a type of sea slug that we talked about back in episode 129, about the blurry line between plants and animals. It eats algae and incorporates the algae’s chloroplasts into its body to use. Chloroplasts are what allows a plant to photosynthesize energy from sunlight, and the sea slug absolutely uses them for the same thing. Researchers think the Deadpool slug uses the energy from photosynthesis to regrow its body even though it has no digestive system after it separates its head from its body.

The big question is why the Deadpool slug wants to grow a new body in the first place. It doesn’t seem to be a defensive strategy if the sea slug is attacked. Instead, researchers think it often happens when the body contains too many parasites, specifically a type of tiny parasitic copepod, which is a crustacean. It might also happen after a predator bites a big chunk off the slug. Instead of hauling around a damaged body, the sea slug just jettisons the old body and regrows it.

Let’s finish with a recently solved octopus mystery that goes back almost 200 years. In 1838, the United States launched a scientific expedition throughout the Pacific Ocean and parts of the Atlantic that lasted four years. While it was mostly for exploration and mapping of places seldom or never visited by outsiders, the expedition also brought along a team of scientists and artists to document and study all the animals and plants they found. One of the things they found was an octopus.

The scientists didn’t fish the octopus up themselves. They actually bought several of them at a fish market in Brazil. It was red with little white spots all over it and not very big, although a dead octopus tends to shrink, especially when it’s out of water. The specimens were preserved in a jar of alcohol and brought back to the United States, where in 1852 they were studied by an expert on mollusks, Augustus Addison Gould. Octopuses are in the phylum Mollusca and Gould had examined lots and lots of octopuses. He decided this one was a new species and named it Callistoctopus furvus.

At some point the specimens were either lost or destroyed. Decades passed, then a century, then almost two centuries. Modern scientists thought Gould was probably wrong and that the little red octopus was one known from the Mediterranean Sea, Calistoctopus macropus. It’s red with little white spots, and has a mantle length only about 8 inches long, or 20 cm, although it has long arms and has been measured as almost five feet long, or 1.5 meters, if you include the arms. It lives in shallow water, where it spends a lot of time hunting for small animals that live in coral or in sea grass. It’s sometimes called the grass octopus.

Then a graduate student in Brazil named Manuella Dultra was studying octopuses, and part of her research involved talking to local fishers. They told her about an octopus that lived in shallow water and often buried itself in sand to hide, which is why they called it the sand octopus. They also said it was generally only seen when the wind blew from the east, and was more likely to be out and about during the new moon. Naturally Dultra wanted to find one. She asked the fishers to keep an eye out, and in 2013 she was given a freshly caught specimen.

The biologists at Dultra’s university identified the octopus as C. macropus, the grass octopus. Dultra wasn’t so sure. She noticed a lot of differences that seemed significant, and decided to do more research. She and her team gathered genetic material from specimens the local fishers caught, and sure enough, it was different from the grass octopus.

At the same time, researchers in Mexico had also found a sand octopus that they thought might be C. furvus. When Dultra compared her specimens’ DNA profile with the DNA profile from the Mexican octopus, it matched.

The discovery is still very new and isn’t accepted by all scientists yet, not until more studies are completed. The sand octopus appears to be rare, and once it’s definitely identified as its own species or subspecies and we learn more about it, we can do more to protect it.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at 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 if you’d like to support us for as little as one dollar a month and get monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 262: Animals Discovered in 2021

It’s the second annual discoveries episode! Lots of animals new to science were described in 2021 so let’s find out about some of them.

Further reading:

First description of a new octopus species without using a scalpel

Marine Biologists Discover New Species of Octopus

Bleating or screaming? Two new, very loud, frog species described in eastern Australia

Meet the freaky fanged frog from the Philippines

New alpine moth solves a 180-year-old mystery

Meet the latest member of Hokie Nation, a newly discovered millipede that lives at Virginia Tech

Fourteen new species of shrew found on Indonesian island

New beautiful, dragon-like species of lizard discovered in the Tropical Andes

Newly discovered whale species—introducing Ramari’s beaked whale (Mesoplodon eueu)!

Scientists describe a new Himalayan snake species found via Instagram

The emperor dumbo octopus (deceased):

The star octopus:

New frog just dropped (that’s actually the robust bleating tree frog, already known):

The slender bleating tree frog:

The screaming tree frog:

The Mindoro fanged frog:

Some frogs do have lil bitty fangs:

The hidden Alpine moth, mystery solver:

The Hokie twisted-claw millipede:

One of 14 new species of shrew:

The snake picture that led to a discovery:

Show transcript:

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

This episode marks our 5th year anniversary! I also finally got the ebook download codes sent to everyone who backed the Kickstarter at that level. The paperback and hardback books will hopefully be ready for me to order by the end of February and I can get them mailed out to backers as soon as humanly possible. Then I’ll focus on the audiobook! A few Kickstarter backers still haven’t responded to the survey, either with their mailing address for a physical book or for names and birthdays for the birthday shout-outs, so if that’s you, please get that information to me!

Anyway, happy birthday to Strange Animals Podcast and let’s learn about some animals new to science in 2021!

It’s easy to think that with all the animals already known, and all the people in the world, surely there aren’t very many new animals that haven’t been discovered yet. But the world is a really big place and parts of it, especially the oceans, have hardly been explored by scientists.

It can be confusing to talk about when an animal was discovered because there are multiple parts to a scientific discovery. The first part is actually finding an animal that the field scientists think might be new to science. Then they have to study the animal and compare it to known animals to determine whether it can be considered a new species or subspecies. Then they ultimately need to publish an official scientific description and give the new animal a scientific name. This process often takes years.

That’s what happened with the emperor dumbo octopus, which was first discovered in 2016. Only one individual was captured by a deep-sea rover and unfortunately it didn’t survive being brought to the surface. Instead of dissecting the body to study the internal organs, because it’s so rare, the research team decided to make a detailed 3D scan of the octopus’s body instead and see if that gave them enough information.

They approached a German medical center that specializes in brain and neurological issues, who agreed to make a scan of the octopus. It turned out that the scan was so detailed and clear that it actually worked better than dissection, plus it was non-invasive so the preserved octopus body is still intact and can be studied by other scientists. Not only that, the scan is available online for other scientists to study without them having to travel to Germany.

The emperor dumbo octopus grows around a foot long, or 30 cm, and has large fins on the sides of its mantle that look like elephant ears. There are 45 species of dumbo octopus known and obviously, more are still being discovered. They’re all deep-sea octopuses. This one was found near the sea floor almost 2.5 miles below the surface, or 4,000 meters. It was described in April of 2021 as Grimpoteuthis imperator.

Oh, and here’s a small correction from the octopus episode from a few years ago. When I was talking about different ways of pluralizing the word octopus, I mispronounced the word octopodes. It’s oc-TOP-uh-deez, not oc-tuh-podes.

Another octopus discovered in 2021 is called the star octopus that has a mantle length up to 7 inches long, or 18 cm. It lives off the southwestern coast of Australia in shallow water and is very common. It’s even caught by a local sustainable fishery. The problem is that it looks very similar to another common octopus, the gloomy octopus. The main difference is that the gloomy octopus is mostly gray or brown with rusty-red on its arms, while the star octopus is more of a yellowy-brown in color. Since individual octopuses show a lot of variation in coloration and pattern, no one noticed the difference until a recent genetic study of gloomy octopuses. The star octopus was described in November 2021 as Octopus djinda, where “djinda” is the word for star in the Nyoongar language of the area.

A study of the bleating tree frog in eastern Australia also led to a new discovery. The bleating tree frog is an incredibly loud little frog, but an analysis of sound recordings revealed that not all the calls were from the same type of frog. In fact, in addition to the bleating tree frog, there are two other really loud frog species in the same area. They look very similar but genetically they’re separate species. The two new species were described in November 2021 as the screaming tree frog and the slender bleating tree frog.

This is what the slender bleating tree frog sounds like:

[frog call]

This is what the screaming tree frog sounds like:

[another frog call]

Another newly discovered frog hiding in plain sight is the Mindoro fanged frog, found on Mindoro Island in the Philippines. It looks identical to the Acanth’s fanged frog on another island but its mating call is slightly different. That prompted scientists to use both acoustic tests of its calls and genetic tests of both frogs to determine that they are indeed separate species.

Lots of insects were discovered last year too. One of those, the hidden alpine moth, ended up solving a 180-year-old scientific mystery that no one even realized was a mystery.

The moth was actually discovered in the 1990s by researchers who were pretty sure it was a new species. It’s a diurnal moth, meaning it’s active during the day, and it lives throughout parts of the Alps. Its wingspan is up to 16mm and it’s mostly brown and silver.

Before they could describe it as a new species and give it a scientific name, the scientists had to make absolutely sure it hadn’t already been named. There are around 5,000 species of moth known to science that live in the Alps, many of them rare. The researchers narrowed it down finally to six little-known species, any one of which might turn out to be the same moth as the one they’d found.

Then they had to find specimens of those six species collected by earlier scientists, which meant hunting through the collections of different museums throughout Europe. Museums never have all their items on display at any given time. There’s always a lot of stuff in storage waiting for further study, and the larger a museum, the more stuff in storage it has. Finding one specific little moth can be difficult.

Finally, though, the scientists got all six of the other moth species together. When they sat down to examine and compare them to their new moth, they got a real surprise.

All six moths were actually the same species of moth, Dichrorampha alpestrana, described in 1843. They’d all been misidentified as new species and given new names over the last century and a half. But the new moth was different and at long last, in July 2021, it was named Dichrorampha velata. And those other six species were stricken from the record! Denied!

You don’t necessarily need to travel to remote places to find an animal new to science. A professor of taxonomy at Virginia Tech, a college in the eastern United States, turned over a rock by the campus’s duck pond and discovered a new species of millipede. It’s about three quarters of an inch long, or 2 cm, and is mostly a dark maroon in color. It’s called the Hokie twisted-claw millipede.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world on the island of Sulawesi, a team of scientists discovered FOURTEEN different species of shrew, all described in one paper at the end of December 2021. Fourteen! It’s the largest number of new mammals described at the same time since 1931. The inventory of shrews living on Sulawesi took about a decade so it’s not like they found them all at once, but it was still confusing trying to figure out what animal belonged to a known species and what animal might belong to a new species. Sulawesi already had 7 known species of shrew and now it has 21 in all.

Shrews are small mammals that mostly eat insects and are most closely related to moles and hedgehogs. Once you add the 14 new species, there are 461 known species of shrew living in the world, and odds are good there are more just waiting to be discovered. Probably not on Sulawesi, though. I think they got them all this time.

In South America, researchers in central Peru found a new species of wood lizard that they were finally able to describe in September 2021 after extensive field studies. It’s called the Feiruz wood lizard and it lives in the tropical Andes in forested areas near the Huallaga River. It’s related to iguanas and has a spiny crest down its neck and the upper part of its back. The females are usually a soft brown or green but males are brighter and vary in color from green to orangey-brown to gray, and males also have spots on their sides.

The Feiruz wood lizard’s habitat is fragmented and increasingly threatened by development, although some of the lizards do live in a national park. Researchers have also found a lot of other animals and plants new to science in the area, so hopefully it can be protected soon.

So far, all the animals we’ve talked about have been small. What about big animals? Well, in October 2021 a new whale was described. Is that big enough for you? It’s not even the same new whale we talked about in last year’s discoveries episode.

The new whale is called Mesoplodon eueu, or Ramari’s beaked whale. It’s been known about for a while but scientists thought it was a population of True’s beaked whale that lives in the Indian Ocean instead of the Atlantic.

When a dead whale washed ashore on the South Island of New Zealand in 2011, it was initially identified as a True’s beaked whale. A Mātauranga Māori whale expert named Ramari Stewart wasn’t so sure, though. She thought it looked different than a True’s beaked whale. She got together with marine biologist Emma Carroll to study the whale and compare it to True’s beaked whale, which took a while since we don’t actually know very much about True’s beaked whale either.

The end result, though, is that the new whale is indeed a new species. It grows around 18 feet long, or 5.5 meters, and probably lives in the open ocean where it dives deeply to find food.

We could go on and on because so many animals were discovered last year, but let’s finish with a fun one from India. In June of 2020, a graduate student named Virender Bhardwaj was stuck at home during lockdowns. He was able to go on walks, so he took pictures of interesting things he saw and posted them online. One day he posted a picture of a common local snake called the kukri snake.

A herpetologist at India’s National Centre for Biological Sciences noticed the picture and immediately suspected it wasn’t a known species of kukri snake. He contacted Bhardwaj to see where he’d found the snake, and by the end of the month Bhardwaj had managed to catch two of them. Genetic analysis was delayed because of the lockdowns, but they described it in December of 2021 as the Churah Valley kukri snake.

The new snake is stripey and grows over a foot long, or 30 cm. It probably mostly eats eggs.

It just goes to show, no matter where you live, you might be the one to find a new species of animal. Learn all you can about your local animals so that if you see one that doesn’t quite match what you expect, you can take pictures and contact an expert. Maybe next year I’ll be talking about your discovery.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at 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 if you’d like to support us for as little as one dollar a month and get monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 236: Updates 4 and a Mystery Snake!

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

Further reading:

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

The dog Bunny’s Facebook page

3D printed replicas reveal swimming capabilities of ancient cephalopods

Enormous ancient fish discovered by accident

A rare observation of a vampire bat adopting an unrelated pup

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

Neanderthals and Homo sapiens used identical Nubian technology

Entire genome from Pestera Muierii 1 sequenced

Animal Species Named from Photos

Cryptophidion, named from photos:

The sunbeam snake showing off that iridescence:

Show transcript:

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at 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 if you’d like to support us that way.


Thanks for listening!

Episode 215: The Cutest Invertebrates

Thanks to Lorenzo and Page for suggestions used in this week’s episode, and a belated thanks to Ethan for last week’s episode! Let’s learn about some of the cutest invertebrates out there!

Further reading:

Photosynthesis-like process found in insects

Mystery of the Venezuelan Poodle Moth

Further viewing:

Dr. Arthur Anker’s photos from his Venezuela trip, including the poodle moth

The pea aphid, red morph and regular green

So many ladybugs:

The sea bunny is a real animal, but it’s not a real bunny:

A larval sea bunny is SO TINY that fingertip looks like it’s the size of a BUILDING:

The bobtail squid not hiding (left) and hiding (right):

The bobtail squid is SO CUTE I MIGHT DIE:

The Venezuelan poodle moth:

Not a Venezuelan poodle moth–it’s a female muslin moth from Eurasia:

Not a Venezuelan poodle moth–it’s a silkworm moth from Asia:

The dot-lined white moth:

Show transcript:

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

This week I promised we’d cover a cute, happy animal to make up for last week’s extinction event episode, but instead of mammals let’s look at some cute invertebrates! One of them is even a mystery animal. Thanks to Page and Lorenzo for suggesting two of the animals we’re going to cover today!

We’ll start with Lorenzo’s suggestion, the pea aphid. Years and years ago I spent a slow day at work making a list of cute foods with a coworker, and peas were at the top of the list. Blueberries were second and I don’t remember the rest of the list. Generally, cuteness depended on how small the food was and how round. Aphids are really small and peas are round, so the pea aphid has to be adorable.

The pea aphid, however, is not round. It’s shaped sort of like a tiny pale-green teardrop with long legs, long antennae, and teeny black dots for eyes. It’s actually kind of big for an aphid, not that that’s saying much since it only grows 4 mm long at most. It’s called the pea aphid because it likes to live on pea plants, although it’s also happy on plants related to peas, such as beans, clover, and alfalfa. Cute as it is, farmers and gardeners do not like the pea aphid because it eats the sap of the plants it lives on, which can weaken the plant and can spread plant diseases.

During most of the year, all pea aphids are females. Each adult produces eggs that don’t need to be fertilized to hatch, but instead of laying her eggs like most insects, they develop inside her and she gives birth to live babies, all of them female. An aphid can have up to 12 babies a day, called nymphs, and the nymphs grow up in about a week or a little longer. Then they too start having babies. Even though lots of other insects and other animals eat aphids, as you can see, they will always be numerous.

As the summer turns to fall and the days become shorter, some of the baby aphids are born with wings. Some are also born male, and sometimes the males also have wings, although they might not have mouths. These males and winged females mate and the females fly off to lay their eggs on clover and alfalfa plants, assuming they aren’t already on clover or alfalfa plants. The eggs don’t hatch until spring, and all the resulting nymphs are female.

Sometimes winged females are born if the plants where the aphids live get too crowded. The winged females can fly away and find new plants.

If you’ve ever had a garden, you’re probably familiar with aphids. They spend most of the time on the undersides of leaves, drinking sap through specialized mouthparts called stylets. You may also have noticed that when you try to smush the aphids, all of them immediately drop to the ground. This protects them not just from being smooshed by a gardener’s thumb, but from being eaten along with the leaves when a deer or other animal browses on the plants where they live.

Sometimes, instead of being leaf green, pea aphids are a pale reddish color. This is called the red morph. Red morph pea aphids are more likely to live on certain plants while the ordinary green pea aphids are more likely to live on others, although many times you can find both varieties on a single plant.

The red coloration of red morph pea aphids is due to larger quantities of a chemical called carotenoid [kerOTenoid] in its body. All pea aphids contain carotenoids, though, and it’s not just used for coloration. Research suggests that the carotenoids absorb sunlight and produce energy that the aphid can use. It’s a limited form of photosynthesis—you know, that thing that only plants do.

Not only that, the pea aphid produces the carotenoids in its body. Every other animal that needs carotenoids absorbs them from plants it eats, with the possible exception of a type of mite. The genetic sequence that allows the pea aphid to make its own carotenoids originally came from fungi. Somehow the aphid captured the genetic material from fungi, probably after eating it, and passed those genes down to its descendants. This is called lateral gene transfer and scientists aren’t sure exactly how it works or how common it is.

Pea aphids also contain beneficial bacteria that produce nutrients it needs that it doesn’t get from the sap it eats. The aphids can’t live without the bacteria, and the bacteria can’t survive outside of the aphids.

Even though the pea aphid is really common just about everywhere these days, it’s actually an invasive species in most places. It’s native to temperate parts of Eurasia but has spread to the rest of the world on cultivated plants. For small infestations of aphids, some people release certain species of ladybugs into their gardens, because many ladybugs love eating aphids.

Ladybugs, of course, are another cute invertebrate, specifically a family of beetles. They’re also small and round, although not as small as aphids. A typical ladybug grows about 10 mm long at most. Depending on the species, a ladybug can be red, orange, yellow, or brown, usually with black spots but sometimes with black stripes, or it may be mostly black with red or yellow spots. Most eat tiny insects and other animals, but some species eat plant material.

The ladybug’s bright coloring warns birds and other predators that it contains a toxin that makes it taste nasty. This even affects humans. I mean, obviously don’t eat ladybugs, but sometimes if there are ladybugs on grapes used to make wine, and the ladybugs end up crushed along with the grapes in a wine press, the whole batch of wine will end up tasting bad. It’s called ladybird taint so winemakers try to make sure any ladybugs are removed from the grapes before they’re crushed.

In many cultures around the world, ladybugs are supposed to bring good luck. In some places, if you see a ladybug you should make a wish. We’ve talked about ladybugs before, most recently in episode 203, so let’s move on to our next cute invertebrate.

This one lives in the ocean. It’s called the sea bunny or sea rabbit, a type of nudribranch [noodi-bronk] that lives along the coastline of the Indian Ocean, especially in tropical waters. Nudibranchs are a type of mollusk that are sometimes called sea slugs. Many are brightly colored with beautiful patterns. Compared to some, the sea bunny is a little on the plain side. It’s white, yellow, or rarely green, with tiny brown or black speckles. It looks fuzzy because it’s covered in little protuberances that it uses to sense the world around it, as well as longer, thinner fibers called spicules. It also has two larger black-tipped protuberances that look for all the world like little bunny ears, although they’re actually chemoreceptors called rhinophores. It really is amazing how much the sea bunny actually resembles a little white bunny with dark speckles, which would make it cute right there, because bunnies are cute, but it’s also really small. It barely grows an inch long, or 2.5 cm.

Like other nudibranchs, the sea bunny is a hermaphrodite, which means it produces both eggs and sperm, although it can’t fertilize its own eggs. When it finds a potential mate, they both perform a little courtship dance to decide if they like each other. After mating, both lay strings of eggs in a spiral pattern. The eggs hatch into larvae that are free-swimming, although the adults crawl along the ocean floor looking for small animals to eat. Some nudibranch larvae have small coiled shells like snails, which they shed when they metamorphose into an adult, but the sea bunny hatches into a teeny-tiny miniature sea bunny.

Cute as it is, don’t pet a sea bunny! It’s toxic! One of the things that sea bunnies especially like to eat are sponges, and many sponges contain toxins. The sea bunny absorbs these toxins to protect it from predators. Even its eggs are toxic.

Next we’ll talk about another intensely cute marine animal, the bobtail squid. It’s only a few inches long, or up to 8 cm at most, with a rounded mantle and short little arms. Small and round, the hallmarks of cuteness. It’s also sometimes called the dumpling squid, which is extra cute and potentially delicious. Basically, it’s no longer than your thumb and smaller around than a golf ball.

The bobtail squid lives along the coast of the Pacific Ocean and parts of the Atlantic and Indian oceans, and it’s not just one species. It’s an entire order containing around 70 species. The oceans are full of adorable little squids.

The bobtail squid has a symbiotic relationship with a type of bacteria, much like the pea aphid and its beneficial bacteria, but in the bobtail squid’s case, the bacteria don’t provide nutrients, they provide light. The bacteria are bioluminescent and help the squid hide from predators. You may be thinking, “Wait a minute, how does it help the squid hide to be lit up from within like a tiny squid-shaped lamp?” but that just proves that you’re a land animal and not a water animal. If you’re a big fish on the hunt for yummy bobtail squid to eat, you’re probably hiding in deep water where the squid can’t see you in the darkness, looking up for the telltale shadowy outline of a squid against the surface of the water. Day or night, the water’s surface is much brighter than the water underneath it because it’s reflecting sun, moon, or starlight, but if the squid is glowing faintly, instead of showing up as a dark shape against the brighter surface, it blends in. The light only shines downward and the squid adjusts it to be brighter or dimmer to match the amount of light shining on the water.

The bobtail squid is mostly nocturnal and will hide in the sand during the day or if it feels threatened, using its arms to pull sand over its body. All squids have large eyes, but the bobtail squid’s eyes are especially large in comparison to its small body, which makes it even cuter. It eats small animals and especially likes shrimp. It can also change colors to blend in with its surroundings and communicate with other squid.

Let’s finish with Page’s suggestion, the Venezuelan poodle moth. I was going to start the episode with this one because it’s so fuzzy and cute, but when I started research I realized that there’s a mystery associated with this insect. I like to end episodes with a mystery if I can. I want to keep everyone guessing.

In late 2008 and early 2009, a zoologist named Arthur Anker was in southeastern Venezuela in South America, and photographed a fuzzy white moth he found. He didn’t know what it was so he labeled it as a poodle moth when he posted the picture online. I’ve put a link in the show notes to all the photos he posted from his trip, including the poodle moth, and they’re absolutely gorgeous. He has a lot of moth photos but the poodle moth was the one that went viral in 2012.

There are other cute, fuzzy moths that sometimes get called poodle moths, such as the silkworm moth. Silkworm moths are native to Asia and are one of the few domesticated insects in the world, together with the honeybee. If you’ve ever had a silk shirt, that silk probably came from the domestic silkworm, which has been raised for at least 5,000 years in China and other places.

Silk comes from the cocoons the silkworm moth larva spins. Each cocoon can contain up to a mile of silk fiber, or 1.6 km, in one long, thin thread. The problem is, to harvest the silk properly, you have to kill the silkworm inside, usually by throwing the cocoon into boiling water. If the silkworm is allowed to mature, it releases enzymes to break down the silk so it can get out of the cocoon, and that weakens any fabric made from the silk. You can get silk made from cocoons of silkworms that weren’t killed, though, sometimes collected from wild moths.

Domestic silkworm moths have been bred so that they don’t produce pigments, since that means the silk won’t have any pigments either and can be dyed more easily. Domestic silkworms differ from their wild relatives in other ways too. Their cocoons are bigger, they no longer have any fear of predators, and they can no longer fly because their wings are too small for their bodies. The moth is covered in short white hairs that make it look fuzzy and cute, with black eyes. The larvae eat the leaves of the white mulberry tree or related trees, but adult moths don’t eat at all and don’t even have functional mouths.

So the silkworm moth is definitely a cute invertebrate, but what’s going on with the Venezuelan poodle moth? What’s the big mystery?

Well, no one knows what species it is. Some people have even accused Dr. Anker of making it up completely. Considering how many thousands of moths live in Venezuela, and how many new moth species are discovered every year, it’s likely that the poodle moth is new to science. The trouble is that no one has seen it since. Anker wasn’t on a collecting trip and he didn’t realize the poodle moth might be something new to science, so he just took a picture of it and left it alone.

The best guess by entomologists who’ve examined the picture is that the poodle moth is a member of the genus Artace, possibly a close relation of the dot-lined white moth. The dot-lined white moth is white and fuzzy with tiny black dots on its wings. It mostly lives in the southeastern United States but there have been sightings in Colombia, which is a country in South America just west of Venezuela.

There are other fuzzy white moths in the world that are known to science, including the muslin moth that’s equally small and cute. Female muslin moths are white and fuzzy with some gray or brownish-gray speckles on the wings, while male muslin moths are dark gray and fuzzy with black speckles on the wings. They live mostly in Eurasia.

Hopefully soon a scientist can find and capture a Venezuelan poodle moth and solve the mystery once and for all. Hopefully that scientist will also take lots of pictures so we can verify that it’s just as cute as it looks in its first picture.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at 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 if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!



It’s a bonus monster month in June, because everything is awful and learning about monsters will take our minds off the awfulness. This week let’s learn about some mysterious stories from around the world that feature huge octopus or squid!

Further watching:

River Monsters episode about the Lusca

A colossal squid, up close to that gigantic eyeball:

Blue holes in the ocean and on land:

A giant Pacific octopus swimming:

The popular image of the kraken since the 1750s:

Show transcript:

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

Last week’s mystery bird got me thinking about how far away Halloween feels and how we haven’t really had a lot of monsters or mystery animals lately. So let’s have an extra monster month in June! We’ll start with a topic I’ve touched on in past episodes but haven’t covered in depth, three stories of GIANT OCTOPUS TYPE MONSTERS from around the world.

If you haven’t listened to episode 142, about octopuses, that ran last October, I recommend you listen to it for information about octopus biology and habits. This week we are all about the mysterious and gigantic octopuses.

Let’s jump right in with a monster from Japan, Akkorokamui. Its origins trace back to the folklore of the Ainu, a group of people who in the past mostly lived on Hokkaido, the second largest island in the country. These days they live throughout Japan. The story goes that a monster lives off the coast of Hokkaido, an octopus-like animal that in some stories is said to be 400 feet long, or over 120 meters. It’s supposed to swallow boats and whales whole. But Akkorokamui isn’t just an octopus. It has human features as well and godlike powers of healing. It’s also red, and because it’s so big, when it rises near the surface of the water, the water and even the sky look red too.

Akkorokamui is supposed to originally be from the land. A humongous red spider lived in the mountains, but one day it came down from the mountains and attacked a town, stomping down buildings as the earth shook. The villagers prayed for help, and the god of the sea heard them. He pulled the giant spider into the water where it turned into a giant octopus.

The problem with folktales, as we talked about way back in episode 17, about the Thunderbird, is that they’re not usually meant to be taken at face value. Stories impart many different kinds of information, especially in societies where writing isn’t known or isn’t known by everyone. Folktales can give warnings, record historical events, and entertain listeners, all at once. It’s possible the story of Akkorokamui is this kind of story, possibly one imparting historic information about an earthquake or tsunami that brought down a mountain and destroyed a town. That’s just a guess, though, since I don’t understand Japanese—and even if I did, the Ainu people were historically treated as inferior by the Japanese since their ancestors came from other parts of Asia, so many of their stories were never recorded properly. The Ainu people today have lost some of their historic cultural memories as they assimilated into Japanese society.

So we don’t know if Akkorokamui was once thought of as a real living animal, a spiritual entity, or just a story. There are a few reported sightings of the monster, but they’re all old and light on details. One account from the 19th century is supposedly from a Japanese fisherman who saw a monster with tentacles as big around as a grown man. It was so big that the fisherman at first thought he was just seeing reflected sunset light on the ocean. Then he came closer and realized what he was looking at—and that it was looking back at him from one enormous eye. He estimated it was something like 260 feet long, or 80 meters. Fortunately, instead of swallowing his boat, the monster sank back into the ocean.

Whether or not the folktale Akkorokamui was ever considered to be a real animal, it’s possible that some people who have seen enormous octopuses or squids have called them Akkorokamui. If you’ve listened to episode 74 about the colossal and giant squids, you may remember that both can grow over 40 feet long, or 12 meters, although the giant squid has longer arms while the colossal squid has a longer mantle in proportion to its arms. The two feeding tentacles that squids have are even longer than its arms when extended, which increases the longest measured length to 55 feet, or almost 17 meters. Both squid species are deep-sea animals that are rarely seen near the surface. But both are usually pink or red in color. A squid that big would terrify anyone, especially if they’re fishing in a small boat.

Another octopus-like sea monster is the lusca, this one from Caribbean folklore. The Caribbean Sea is part of the Atlantic Ocean outside of the Gulf of Mexico. Within the Caribbean Sea are thousands of islands, some tiny, some large, including those known collectively as the West Indies. Many reports of the lusca come from the Bahamas, specifically the so-called blue holes that dot many of the islands.

Blue holes are big round sinkholes that connect to the ocean through underground passages. Usually blue holes contain seawater, but some may have a layer of fresh water on top. Some blue holes are underwater while some are on land. The islands of the Bahamas aren’t the only places where blue holes exist. Australia, China, and Egypt all have famous blue holes, for instance, but they’re not uncommon across the world.

Blue holes form in land that contains a lot of limestone. Limestone weathers more easily than other types of rock, and most caves are formed by water percolating through limestone and slowly wearing passages through it. This is how blue holes formed too. During the Pleistocene, when the oceans were substantially lower since so much water was locked up in glaciers, blue holes formed on land, and many of them were later submerged when the sea levels rose. They can be large at the surface, but divers who try to descend into a blue hole soon discover that it pinches closed and turns into twisty passages that eventually reach the ocean, although no diver has been able to navigate so far. Many, many divers have died exploring blue holes.

Andros Island in the Bahamas has 178 blue holes on land and more than 50 in the ocean surrounding the island. It’s also the source of a lot of lusca reports.

So what does the lusca look like? Reports describe a monster that’s sharklike in the front with long octopus-like legs. It’s supposed to be huge, with an armspan of 75 feet, or 23 meters, or even more. The story goes that the tides that rise and fall in the blue holes aren’t due to tides at all but to the lusca breathing in and out.

But people really do occasionally see what they think is a lusca, and sometimes people swimming in a blue hole are dragged under and never seen again. Since blue holes don’t contain currents, it must be an animal living in the water that occasionally grabs a swimmer.

The problem is, there’s very little oxygen in the water deep within a blue hole. Fish and other animals live near the surface, but only bacteria that can thrive in low-oxygen environments live deeper. So even though the blue holes are connected to the ocean, it’s not a passage that most animals could survive. Larger animals wouldn’t be able to squeeze through the narrow openings in the rock anyway.

But maybe they don’t need to. Most blue holes have side passages carved out by freshwater streams flowing into the marine water, which causes a chemical reaction that speeds the dissolving of limestone. Some blue holes on Andros Island have side passages that extend a couple of miles, or several kilometers. It’s possible that some of these side passages also connect to the ocean, and some of them may connect to other blue holes. Most of the blue holes and side passages aren’t mapped since it’s so hard to get equipment through them.

But as far as we know, there is no monster that looks like a shark with octopus-like legs. That has to be a story to scare people, right? Maybe not. The largest octopus known to science is the giant Pacific octopus, which we talked about in episode 142. The largest ever measured had an armspan of 32 feet, or almost 10 meters. It lives in deep water and like all octopuses, it can squeeze its boneless body through quite small openings. When it swims, its arms trail behind it something like a squid’s, and it moves headfirst through the water. A big octopus has a big mantle with openings on both sides for the gills and an aperture above the siphon. The mantle of the octopus could easily be mistaken for the nose of a shark, with a glimpse of the openings assumed to be its partially open mouth. And a large octopus could easily grab a human swimming in a blue hole and drag it to its side passage lair to eat. Big octopuses eat sharks.

The giant Pacific octopus lives in the Pacific, though, not the Atlantic. If the lusca is a huge octopus, it’s probably a species unknown to science, possibly one whose mantle is more pointy in shape, more like a squid’s. That would make it resemble a shark’s snout even more.

Finally, let’s look at a monster many of us are already familiar with, the kraken. Many people think the legend of the kraken was just an exaggerated description of the giant squid. But that’s actually not the case.

The kraken is a Scandinavian monster that dates back to at least the 13th century, when a Norwegian historian wrote about it. That historian, whose name we don’t know, said it was so big that sailors took it for land while it was basking at the surface. The sailors would stop to make camp on what they thought was an island, but when they lit a campfire the kraken submerged and drowned the sailors. It could swallow ships and whales whole.

Nothing about the story mentions squid-like arms until the 1750s when a bishop called Erik Pontoppidan wrote about the kraken. Pontoppidan repeated the story of the kraken appearing island-like and then submerging, but said that it wasn’t the submerging that was so dangerous, it was the whirlpool the kraken caused as it submerged. I’d say that’s just a little bit of hair-splitting, because those sailors were in trouble either way. But Pontoppidan also said that the kraken could pull ships down into the ocean with its arms, which immediately made people think of squid and octopuses of enormous size. The idea of a stupendously large squid or octopus with its arms wrapped around a ship made its way into popular culture and remains there today.

The kraken story was probably inspired by whales, which of course were well known to Scandinavian sailors and fishers. It also might have been inspired by remote islands that are so low in the water that they’re sometimes submerged.

All that aside, could a cephalopod of enormous size actually reach out of deep water and grab the railing or masts of a ship or boat? Actually, it can’t do that, no matter how big or small. Remember that cephalopods have no skeleton, and while their arms are remarkably strong, it takes a whole lot of energy to lift a body part out of the water. We don’t notice this when swimming because our bodies are naturally buoyant especially with our lungs filled with air, and we have bones to give our bodies structure. An octopus spends most of its life supported by the water. When it comes out of the water, it stays very flat to the ground. It can only lift an arm out of the water if it can brace itself against something.

So the dramatic movie scenes where massive kraken arms suddenly shoot out of the water to seize a ship are just fantasy. But an octopus could grab onto the side of a ship with its suction cups and even heave itself onboard that way, potentially capsizing it. So that’s something fun to think about the next time you’re in a boat.

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

Thanks for listening!

Episode 155: Extreme Sexual Dimorphism

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

The elephant seal male and female are very different sizes:

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

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

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

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

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

Lamprologus callipterus males are much larger than females:

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

Show transcript:

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

I still have a lot of listener suggestions to get to, and don’t worry, I’ve got them all on the list. But I have other topics I want to cover first, like this week’s subject of extreme sexual dimorphism!

Sexual dimorphism is when the male of a species looks much different from the female. Not all animals show sexual dimorphism and most that do have relatively small differences. A lot of male birds are more brightly colored than females, for instance. The peacock is probably the most spectacular example, with the males having a brightly colored, iridescent fan of a tail to show off for the hens, which are mostly brown and gray, although they do have iridescent green neck feathers too.

But eclectus parrot males and females don’t even look like the same bird. The male is mostly green while the female is mostly red and purple. In fact, the first scientists to see them thought they were different species.

Males of some species are larger than females, while females of some species are larger than males. In the case of the elephant seal, the males are much larger than females. We talked about the northern elephant seal briefly last week, but only how big the male is. A male southern elephant seal can grow up to 20 feet long, or 6 meters, and can weigh up to 8,800 pounds, or 4,000 kg. The female usually only grows to about half that length and weight. The difference in this case is because males are fiercely territorial and fight each other, so a big male has an advantage over other males and reproduces more often. But the female doesn’t fight, so her smaller size means she doesn’t need to eat as much.

Another major size difference happens in spiders, but in this case the female is far larger than the male in many species. For instance, the body of the female western black widow spider, which lives throughout western North America, is about half an inch in length, or 16 mm, although of course that doesn’t count the legs. But the male is only half this length at most. Not only that, the male is skinny where the female has a large rounded abdomen, and the male is brown with pale markings, while the female is glossy black with a red hourglass marking on her abdomen. Female western widows can be dangerous since their venom is strong enough to kill many animals, although usually their bite is only painful and not deadly to humans and other mammals. But while the male does have venom, he can only inject a tiny amount with a bite so isn’t considered very dangerous in comparison.

The reason many male spiders are so much smaller than females is that the females of some species of spider will eat the male after or even during mating if she’s hungry. The smaller the male is, the less of a meal he would be and the less likely the female will bother to eat him. In the case of the western black widow, the male prefers to mate with females who are in good condition. In other words, he doesn’t want to spend time with a hungry female.

If you remember episode 139, about skunks and other stinky animals, we talked about the woodhoopoe and mentioned the bill differences between males and females. The male woodhoopoe has a longer, more curved bill than the female because males and females eat a slightly different diet of insects so they won’t compete for the same food sources.

But a bird called the huia took beak differences to the extreme. The huia lived in New Zealand, although it officially went extinct in 1907. It was a wattlebird, which gets its name from the brightly colored patch of skin on either side of the face, called wattles. In the case of the huia, the wattles were orange, while the feathers over most of the body were glossy black. It also had a strip of white at the tip of the long tail. The male’s beak was fairly long and pointy, although it also curved down slightly. But the female’s beak was much longer and more slender, curving downward in an arc.

The huia lived in forests in New Zealand, where it ate insects, especially beetle grubs that live in rotting logs. People used to think that a mated pair worked together to get at grubs and other insects. The male would use his shorter, stouter bill to break away pieces of rotting wood until the grub’s tunnel was exposed, and then the female would use her longer, more slender bill to fish the grub out of the tunnel. But actual observations of the huia before it went extinct indicate that it actually didn’t do this. Like the woodhoopoe, males and females preyed on different kinds of insects. The male did break open rotting wood with its beak in a way that’s very different from woodpeckers, though. Instead of hammering at the wood, it would wedge its bill into a crevice of the wood and open its beak, and the muscles and other structures it used to do so were so strong that it could easily break pieces of wood off. This action is known as gaping and other birds do it too, but the huia was probably better at it than any other bird known.

The huia went extinct partly due to habitat loss as European settlers cleared forests to make way for farming, and partly due to overhunting. Museums wanted stuffed huias for display, and the feathers were in demand to decorate hats. And as a result, we don’t have any huias left.

Sometimes the size difference between males and females reaches extreme proportions. We’ve talked about the anglerfish several times in different episodes, and it’s a good example. It’s a deep-sea fish with a bioluminescent lure on its head that it uses to attract prey. Different species grow to different sizes, but let’s just talk about one this time, the triplewart seadevil.

The triplewart seadevil is found throughout much of the world’s oceans, preferably in medium deep water but sometimes in shallow water and sometimes as deep as 13,000 feet, or 4000 meters. The female grows to about a foot long, or 30 cm. It’s black in color, although young fish are brown. Its body is covered with short spines and it has a lure on its head like other anglerfish. The lure is called an illicium, and it’s a highly modified dorsal spine that the fish can move around, including extending and retracting it. At the end of the illicium is a little bulb that contains bioluminescent bacteria. Whatever animals are attracted to the glowing illicium, the fish gulps down with its great big mouth.

But that’s the female triplewart seadevil. The male is tiny, only 30 mm long at the most. The male doesn’t have an illicium; instead, his jaws and teeth are specialized for one thing: to bite onto the female and never let go. When a male finds a female, he chooses a spot on her underside to latch on, and once he does, his mouth and one side of his body actually fuse to the female’s body. Their circulatory and digestive systems fuse too. Before the male finds a female, he has great big eyes, but once he fuses with a female his eyes degenerate because he no longer needs them. He’s fully dependent on the female, and in return she always has a male around to fertilize her eggs. But this attachment is actually pretty rare, because it’s hard for deep-sea fish to find each other.

Another sea creature where the females are much larger and very different from the males is the argonaut, or paper nautilus. The argonaut is an octopus that lives in the open ocean in tropical and subtropical waters. Instead of living on the bottom of the ocean, though, the paper nautilus lives near the surface, and while the female looks superficially similar to a nautilus, it’s only distantly related.

The female argonaut generally grows to about 4 inches long, or 10 cm, although the shell she makes can be up to a foot across, or 30 cm. In contrast, males are barely half an inch long, or 13 mm. The female’s eight arms are long because she uses them to catch prey, with two of her arms being larger than the others. She grabs small animals like sea slugs, crustaceans, and small fish and bites it with her beak, and like other octopuses she can inject venom at that point too. But the male has tiny little short arms except for one, which is slightly larger.

Like other cephalopods, the male uses one of his arms to transfer sperm to the female so she can fertilize her eggs. In most cephalopods that means an actual little packet of sperm that the male places inside the female’s mantle for her to use later. But in the argonaut, the male’s larger modified arm is called a hectocotylus, and it has little grooves that hold sperm. The male inserts the hectocotylus into the female’s mantle, then detaches it and leaves the arm inside her. Then he leaves and regrows the arm, as far as researchers know. We don’t actually know for sure since it’s never been observed, but octopuses do have the ability to regenerate lost arms. The female usually keeps the hectocotylus and sometimes ends up with several.

At that point the female creates a shell by secreting calcite from the tips of her two larger arms. The shell is delicate, papery, and white, and it resembles the shell of the ammonite, which we talked about in episode 86. The female lays her eggs inside the shell, then squeezes inside too, although she can come and go as she likes.

There’s still a lot we don’t know about the argonaut, but we know more than we used to. In the olden days people thought the female used her two larger arms as sails at the surface of the water. Eventually scientists figured out that was wrong, but they were still confused as to why there only seemed to be female argonauts. They didn’t know that the males were so small and so different, and in fact when early researchers found hectocotyluses inside the females, they assumed they were parasitic worms of some kind. Eventually they worked that part out too.

But still, for a very long time researchers thought the argonaut’s shell was just for protecting the eggs, but it turns out that the female uses the shell as a flotation device. She can control how much air the shell contains, which allows her to control how close to the surface she stays. In a 2010 study of argonauts rescued from fishing nets and released into a harbor, if the shell doesn’t contain enough air, the argonaut will jet to the surface and stick the top of its shell above the water. The shell has small openings at this point so air can get in, and once the argonaut decides it’s enough, she seals the holes by covering them with two of her arms. Then she jets downward again until she’s deep enough below the surface that the pressure compresses the air inside the shell and cancels out the weight of the shell. This means the argonaut won’t bob to the surface but she also won’t sink, and instead she can just swim normally by shooting water from her funnel like other octopuses.

A species of cichlid fish from Lake Tanganyika in Africa, Lamprologus callipterus, also differs in size due to a shell, but not like the argonaut. Instead, the male is much larger than the female. The male can be up to five inches long, or nearly 13 cm, while the female is less than two inches long, or 4 ½ cm. The females lay their eggs in shells, but not shells they make. The shells come from snails, so the male needs to be larger so he can pick up and carry a big empty shell. The female, though, still needs to be small enough to fit inside the shell.

A moth called the rusty tussock moth is also sexually dimorphic. Its caterpillar grows around 1 to 1.5 inches long, or 3 to 4 cm, with females being a little larger than male caterpillars but otherwise very similar. But after the caterpillars pupate, they’re much different. The male moth has orangey or reddish-brown wings and a wingspan of about 1.5 inches, or almost 4 cm. The female doesn’t have wings at all. She emerges from her cocoon and perches next to it, and releases pheromones that attract a male. After the female mates, she lays her eggs on her old cocoon and dies, as does the male.

Let’s finish up with an animal you may never have heard of, the green spoonworm. It’s a marine worm that lives throughout much of the Mediterranean and the northeastern Atlantic Ocean. It lives on the sea floor in shallow water, partly buried in gravel and sand. The female grows up to about six inches long, or 15 cm, and sort of looks like a mostly deflated dark green balloon, although it may also look kind of lumpy. It also has a feeding proboscis that it can extend several feet, or about a meter.

As a larva, the green spoonworm floats around in the water, but whether it becomes male or female depends on where it settles. If it lands on the seafloor it transforms into a female and starts secreting a toxin called bonellin. Bonellin is what gives the green spoonworm its dark green color. The bonellin is mostly concentrated in the feeding proboscis and allows the spoonworm to paralyze and kill the tiny animals it eats.

But if the larva happens to land on a female green spoonworm, contact with the bonellin causes it to become a male. And the male is only a few mm long, doesn’t produce bonellin, and can’t even survive on its own. The female sucks the male into her body through the feeding proboscis, but instead of digesting him, he lives inside her and fertilizes her eggs. In return she provides him with all the nutrients he needs. A female may have more than one male living inside her, making sure that her eggs will always be fertilized.

There are lots more animals that show extreme sexual dimorphism, of course, but that at least gives you an idea of how different animals evolve to fit different environmental pressures. Weird as they seem to us, to the animals in question, it’s just normal–and it’s our appearance and how we do things that would seem weird to them. Perspective is everything.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or whatever platform you listen on. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us and get twice-monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 142: Gigantic and Otherwise Octopuses

Happy birthday to me! For my birthday, we’re all going to learn about octopuses, including a mysterious gigantic octopus (maybe)! Thanks to Wyatt for his question about skeletons and movement that is a SURPRISE SPOOKY SKELETON SEGMENT of the episode, or maybe not that much of a surprise if you read this first.

Further reading:

How octopus arms make decisions

Octopus shows unique hunting, social and sexual behavior

Kraken Rises: New Fossil Evidence Revives Sea Monster Debate

The larger Pacific striped octopus is not especially large, but it is interesting and pretty:

The giant Pacific octopus is the largest species known. It even eats sharks, like this one:

Show transcript:

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

Today happens to be my birthday, and not just any birthday. It’s a significant birthday that ends with a zero. That’s right, I’m TWENTY! Or maybe a little bit older than that. So for my birthday celebration, and one week closer to Halloween, let’s learn about the octopus. The episode was going to be about possible giant octopuses, but as I researched, octopuses in general turned out to be so interesting and weird that that’s what the episode is about. But we will talk about some mystery gigantic octopuses at the very end.

The first thing to know about the octopus is what the correct plural is. Sometimes people say octopi but that’s actually technically incorrect, although it’s not like you’ll be arrested if you say octopi. The correct plural of octopus is octopuses, although octopodes is also correct. No one says octopodes because that sounds weird.

But who cares about that, because we’re talking about awesome creepy weird cephalopods! The octopus lives in the ocean but it can come out of the water and walk around on land if it wants to, although it usually only does so for a matter of minutes. The octopus breathes through gills but it can also absorb a certain amount of oxygen through its skin, as long as its skin stays moist. Generally people don’t see octopuses come out of the water because most octopuses are nocturnal.

Most octopuses spend their time on the ocean floor, crawling around looking for food. When it’s threatened or frightened, though, it swims by sucking water into its body cavity and shooting it back out through a tube called a siphon, which allows it to jet propel itself quickly through the water headfirst with its arms trailing, so that it looks like a squid. But most of the time the octopus doesn’t swim like this, because when it does, the heart that pumps blood through most of the body stops. The octopus has three hearts, but two of them are only auxiliary hearts that move blood to the gills to make sure the blood stays oxygenated.

Octopus blood is blue because it’s copper-based instead of iron-based like the blood of mammals and other vertebrates. This allows it to absorb more oxygen than iron-based blood can. Since many octopuses live in cold water that doesn’t contain very much oxygen, they need all the help they can get.

The octopus also uses its siphon to release ink into the water when it’s threatened. Of course it’s not ink, but it is black and resembles ink. Also, people have used octopus ink to write with so, you know, I guess maybe it is sort of ink. Anyway, when the octopus releases ink, it can choose to mix it with mucus. Without the mucus, the ink makes a cloud of dark water that hides the octopus while it jets away, and it may also interfere with the predator’s sense of smell. With the mucus, the ink forms a blob that looks solid and in fact looks a lot like a dark-colored octopus. This is called a pseudomorph or false body, and the octopus uses it to confuse predators into thinking it’s still right there, when in fact the octopus is jetting away while the predator attacks the false body. Researchers have found that young sea turtles who attack the false body thinking it’s the real octopus later ignore real octopuses instead of trying to eat them.

In addition to their ninja-like ability to disappear behind a smoke screen, or ink screen, the octopus can also change its color and even its texture to blend in with its background. Its skin contains cells with different-colored pigments, and tiny muscles can change both the color and the texture of the cells. Think of it like being able to shiver to give yourself goosebumps whenever you want, but at the same time you can change the color and shape of the goosebumps. An octopus species that lives in shallow water and is active during the day generally can camouflage itself better than a species that lives in deeper water and is nocturnal, and small species are typically better at camouflage than large ones. Some species mimic rocks or algae with six arms and use the other two arms to creep along the ocean floor, inching away from a potential predator without it noticing.

But the octopus doesn’t just use its ability to change colors to hide from predators. It also communicates with other octopuses by changing colors. And some species have a special threat display of bright colors that warns predators away. This is especially true of the blue-ringed octopus that lives in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, which will display bright blue spots if it feels threatened. Since the blue-ringed octopus has the strongest venom of any octopus, if you see this particular threat display, swim away quickly. I don’t know why I’m assuming my listeners include sharks and whales. Actually, the place you’re most likely to encounter a blue-ringed octopus is in a shallow tide pool on the beach, so watch where you step.

You probably already know what an octopus looks like, but I haven’t actually mentioned it yet. The octopus has a bulbous body with two large eyes, eight arms lined on the bottom with suckers, and in the middle of the arms, a mouth with a beak. The beak looks sort of like a parrot’s beak and is made of chitin, a tough material that’s similar to keratin. Inside the mouth, the octopus has a radula, a tongue-like structure studded with tiny tooth-like bumps.

Until about ten years ago, researchers thought that only the blue-ringed octopus was venomous. The blue-ringed octopus is tiny but super venomous. Its venom can kill humans, although that’s extremely rare. But now we’ve learned that all octopuses appear to have venomous saliva, most of it relatively weak, but enough to kill mollusks and other small animals. The octopus eats anything it can catch, for the most part, including crabs, shrimp, small fish, mollusks, and so forth. Its suckers can attach so firmly to a bivalve’s shells that it can pull the shells apart. If it can’t manage this, though, it will cover the shells with its toxic saliva. The toxin dissolves tiny holes in the shell and kills the mollusk, allowing the octopus to open the shells easily and eat the animal inside. It can also inject the toxins into crabs to paralyze them, then uses its beak to bite the shells open without the crab being able to fight back.

The octopus can regrow an arm if it’s bitten off or otherwise lost. Some species will even drop an arm like some lizards can drop their tails in order to distract a predator. In the case of the lizard, its tail thrashes around after it’s detached, while in the case of an octopus arm, the arm continues to crawl away and tries to escape from being hurt. This is creepy to the extreme, especially when you realize the arm acts this way because it contains a sort of brain of its own.

An octopus’s brain doesn’t fully control its arms. In fact, the arms contain about twice the number of neurons that the brain contains, which means they can act autonomously in a lot of ways. Basically, each octopus arm processes information the same way that a brain does, without involving the actual brain. The arms have an excellent sense of touch, naturally, and the suckers have chemical receptors that act as a sense of taste as well. When an arm touches something, the arm decides whether it’s food, or if it’s dangerous, or if it’s in the way, or so forth. Then it decides what it should do about it. The arms use the peripheral nervous system, again not the brain, to make decisions that require arms to work together. The result is that the arms can all work at different tasks, together or separately, while the central brain is processing other information, primarily from its eyes. But also as a result, the octopus doesn’t have a good sense of where its body is in space at all times. You don’t have to see your arms to figure out where they are in relation to your body, but the octopus does.

This is all very different from the way our brains work. Researchers study the octopus to determine how its brain works with the arms to help the octopus navigate its environment. Some researchers point out that the octopus’s intelligence is so different from the intelligence of other animals we’ve studied that it’s as close as we can come to studying intelligent life from another planet.

The main reason why the octopus has such a different nervous system is that it’s an invertebrate. Humans and other mammals, birds, reptiles, and fish are all vertebrates, meaning they have a backbone of some kind. The backbone contains a spinal cord that is the main pathway for the nervous system, connecting the brain with the rest of the body. The brain processes everything that the body does. But invertebrates and vertebrates started evolving separately over half a billion years ago, and while most invertebrates don’t demonstrate a lot of what we would consider intelligence, the octopus does. Instead of a central spinal cord of nerves, the octopus, like other invertebrates, has concentrations of neurons throughout its body, called ganglia. The ganglia form a sort of neural net. This actually means the octopus can process information much more quickly than a human or other vertebrate can.

And the octopus is intelligent, probably as intelligent as parrots, crows, and primates. An octopus can learn to recognize individual humans and solve complex puzzles, can learn from watching another octopus solve a problem, and many species use tools in the wild. Some species of octopus spend the day in dens that they make out of rocks, including a rock door that they close after they go inside. The veined octopus will collect pieces of coconut shells, stack them up, and carry them around. If it’s threatened, or if it just wants to take a nap or rest, it uses the coconut shells as a hiding place.

Octopuses in captivity can cause a lot of trouble because they’re so intelligent. They will dismantle their tanks out of curiosity or just escape. An octopus in an aquarium in Bermuda escaped repeatedly in order to eat the fish and other animals displayed in nearby tanks. A common New Zealand octopus named Inky, kept at the National Aquarium, was famous for causing mischief, and one day in 2016 he managed to move the lid to his enclosure just enough to squeeze out. Then he walked around until he found a small pipe. He squeezed into the pipe, and fortunately for him it was a pipe that led directly outside and into the ocean.

The reason that octopuses can squeeze through such tiny openings is that they have NO BONES. There is not a single bone in the octopus’s body. The only hard part of the body is its beak. As long as the octopus can get its beak through an opening, the rest of the body can squish through too.

And that brings us to a surprise spooky SKELETON SECTION, thanks to a suggestion by Wyatt!

[spooky scary skeletons song!]

Wyatt wants to know how bones work and move, which is a good question and will help us learn about octopuses too. Bones have many purposes, including making blood cells and protecting the brain—that would be the skull part of the skeleton, of course—but mainly bones help your body move. Muscles are attached to bones, and when you contract a muscle, it moves the bone and therefore the rest of that part of your body. Without muscles, your bones couldn’t move; but without bones, your muscles wouldn’t do much. Also, you’d look sort of like a blob because bones provide structure for your body.

But if you need bones to move, how does an octopus move? An octopus has no bones! Do I even know what I’m talking about?

The octopus’s muscles are structured differently than muscles in animals with bones. Our muscles are made up of fibers that contract in one direction. Let’s say you pick up something heavy. To do so, you contract the fibers in some muscles to shorten them, which makes the bone they’re attached to move. Then, when you push a heavy door closed, you contract other muscles and at the same time you relax the muscles you used to pick up something heavy. This pulls the arm bone in the other direction.

But in the octopus, the fibers in its muscles run in three directions. When one set of fibers contracts, the other two tighten against each other and form a hard surface for the contracted fibers to move. So they’re muscles that also sort of act like bones. It’s called a muscular hydrostat, and it actually can result in muscle movements much more precise than muscle movements where a bone is involved.

There are exceptions to the “bones and muscles work together” rule, of course. Your tongue is a muscle. So is an elephant’s trunk, or at least it’s made up of lots and lots of muscles that aren’t attached to bones. Tongues and elephant trunks and worms and things like that all use muscular hydrostatic functioning to move.

The octopus has a lifespan that seems abbreviated compared to other intelligent animals. It typically only lives a year or two and dies soon after it has babies. After the female lays her eggs, she stops eating and instead just takes care of the eggs, which she attaches to a rock or other hard surface. It usually takes several months for the eggs to hatch, and all that time the female protects them and makes sure they have plenty of well-oxygenated water circulating around them. She dies about the time the babies hatch. As for the male, he doesn’t take care of the eggs but after he mates with a female he starts showing signs of old age and usually dies within a few weeks. That’s if the female doesn’t just decide to eat him after mating. Most male octopuses stay as far away as they can from a female while mating, and uses one of his arms to transfer a packet of sperm into her mantle, which she uses to fertilize her eggs.

At least one octopus species has been observed to brood its eggs for four and a half years, guarding them from predators and keeping them clean. Researchers studying life in an area of Monterey Bay called Monterey Canyon, off the coast of western North America, regularly survey animals in the area. In May of 2007 they saw a female octopus on a rocky ledge about 4,600 feet, or 1,400 meters, below the surface. She had distinctive scars so the researchers could identify her, and she didn’t leave her eggs once during the next four and a half years. She also didn’t appear to eat or even be interested in the small crabs and other delicious octopus food within easy reach of her. As the years went by she became thinner and paler. She and her eggs were still there in September of 2011 but when the researchers returned in October, she was gone and her eggs had hatched.

Babies are teensy when they’re first hatched, typically only a few millimeters long. The babies drift with the currents and eat tiny animals like zooplankton as they grow. One exception is the same deep-sea octopus species that spends so long protecting its eggs, Graneledone boreopacifica. Because they develop in the egg for so long, babies of this species are much larger than most baby octopuses and can even hunt for small prey immediately.

Another exception to the usual octopus habit of only reproducing once before dying is the larger Pacific striped octopus, which lives in the eastern Pacific Ocean in warm, shallow water. Not only is it gregarious, instead of mostly solitary like other octopus species, it can reproduce repeatedly without dying. Mated pairs sometimes live and hunt together and even share food. Despite the word “larger” in its name, the larger Pacific striped octopus only grows to about three inches across, or 7 cm. It is striped, though. It’s quite attractive, in fact. And its many differences from other octopus species show just how little we know about octopuses.

So how big can an octopus grow? We don’t actually know. The species that grows the largest is called the giant Pacific octopus, and the biggest one ever measured had an armspan of about 30 feet, or 9 meters.

But there are always rumors and sightings of octopuses of colossal sizes, often referred to as the gigantic octopus or the colossal octopus. In 2002 a fishing trawler brought up the incomplete carcass of a dead octopus near New Zealand, and estimates of its armspan when it was alive are around 32 feet, or 10 meters. In 1928 a man named Robert Todd Aiken reported seeing six octopuses off the coast of Oahu, Hawaii with armspans of nearly 40 feet, or 12.5 meters. In 1950, also off the coast of Oahu, a diver named Madison Rigdon reported seeing an octopus with each arm alone measuring almost 30 feet, or over 9 meters.

But because octopuses are soft-bodied animals that are eaten by so many predators, and because the biggest ones typically live in deeper water, we just don’t know that much about how big they can get. When we do find a big dead octopus, its size is difficult to estimate since cephalopods actually shrink quite quickly after they die.

We only have a few remains of ancient octopuses, mostly body impressions and fossilized beaks. In 2009, paleontologists working in Lebanon reported finding five specimens of fossilized octopus that date to 95 million years ago. The specimens are remarkably well preserved, too, which allows researchers to determine that the octopuses belong to three different species that appear to be unchanged from their modern counterparts. In 2014 the impressions of cephalopod beaks dated to around 80 million years ago were found in Hokkaido, Japan. The impressions were well preserved and paleontologists have determined that all but one belonged to an extinct species related to the vampire squid, that we talked about in episode 11. They estimate its body to have been about two feet across, or 60 cm, without the arms. The other beak impression was from a different species, one related to modern squid.

If you listened to episode 86 about ammonoids and nautiloids, which are related to octopuses, you may remember that some extinct species grew enormous, probably over 19 feet long, or 6 meters. Since those species have shells, we have a lot more fossilized remains.

But we have almost no remains of ancient octopuses, so we have no way of knowing how big some species once grew. The colossal squid was only determined to be a real animal a matter of years ago (and we talked about it and giant squid in episode 74). I wouldn’t be one bit surprised if the colossal octopus was one day found to be a real animal too.

Let’s finish with an ancient cephalopod mystery. The octopus is a messy eater, so sometimes researchers can identify an octopus’s territory by the way it leaves shells lying around. Some species of octopus arrange shells and other items in heaped-up patterns around its den. In 2011 a pair of paleontologists named Mark McMenamin and Dianna Schulte McMenamin examined an unusual pattern of ichthyosaur remains in Nevada and suggested that they might have been arranged by an octopus after eating them. But since the nine ichthyosaurs are 45 feet long, or 14 meters, the octopus would have had to be equally enormous. Dr. McMenamin and other Dr. McMenamin think the octopus might have killed the ichthyosaurs by either breaking their necks or drowning them, or both. In 2013 the team investigating the site found what may be part of a fossilized cephalopod beak, further backing up the theory. Then again, that species of ichthyosaur, Shonisaurus, ate squid and other cephalopods, so it’s possible the beak was actually inside an ichthyosaur stomach when it died and that a giant octopus or other cephalopod had nothing to do with the deaths. Still, it’s fun to think about, and it might be true!

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

Thanks for listening!

Episode 101: Flying Without Wings

What better way to start out the new year than by learning about some animals that fly (or glide) without wings! Thanks to Llewelly for suggesting the colugo!

Colugo looking startled:

A colugo, flying, which startles everyone else:

Flying fish! ZOOM!

A flying gurnard, not flying:

Flying squid! ZOOM!

Flying squid close-up, mid-zoom:

Show transcript:

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

It’s the first week of a new year, so let’s start it off right and learn about some animals that fly without wings.

The first of our non-winged flying animals is a suggestion from Llewelly, who sent me some links about it and we both freaked out a little because it’s such an awesome animal. It’s called the colugo, and technically it doesn’t fly, it glides. It looks kind of like a big squirrel and kind of like a small lemur, and in fact it’s also sometimes called a flying lemur. But it’s not closely related to squirrels or lemurs. It’s actually not related closely to anything alive today.

Before we learn about the colugo specifically, let me explain a little bit about gliding animals. Gliding animals have a flap of skin called a gliding membrane or patagium. In the case of gliding mammals, like the flying squirrel or the colugo, the patagium connects each foreleg with the hindleg on that side. When the animal wants to glide, it stretches its legs out, which also stretches out the patagium. For a long time scientists assumed that the patagium was just skin and didn’t do anything except increase the animal’s surface area and act as a sort of parachute. But it turns out that the patagium contains tiny muscles like those recently discovered in the membranes of bat wings. And the skin between the fingers of the bat’s forelimbs, which creates the wings, are actually considered patagia. In fact, any gliding membrane, even if it’s part of a real wing, is considered a patagium, so birds actually have them too.

The colugo has a patagium between its legs like other gliding mammals, but it also has a patagium between its hind legs and its tail, and even its fingers and toes are connected with small patagia. It’s the most well-adapted mammal known for gliding, so well-adapted that it can glide incredible distances. One was measured as having glided almost 500 feet in one jump, or 150 meters. This is almost the length of two football fields.

The colugo lives in South Asia and is endangered mainly due to habitat loss. It grows to about 16 inches long, or 40 cm, with a small head, big eyes, and little round ears. It’s gray with some mottled white and black markings that help hide it against tree trunks, and its legs are long and slender. It eats plants. We don’t know a whole lot about the colugo, because it’s shy and lives in the treetops of tropical forests, but what we do know is really weird.

For instance, its babies. If you listened to episode 45 about monotremes, where we also discuss the differences between marsupial and placental mammals, you may remember that placental mammal babies are born mostly developed while marsupial mammal babies are born very early and finish developing outside of the mother, either in a pouch or just clinging to the mother’s fur. Well, the colugo is a placental mammal, but its babies are born extremely early, more like a marsupial. They finish developing outside of the mother, which takes six months or so, and the mother colugo keeps her tail curved up most of the time so that her patagium is wrapped around her babies like a pouch.

The colugo has weird teeth, too. The front teeth, or incisors, are shaped like tiny combs. This is similar to the incisors of lemurs, which look like tiny combs because the lemur uses them as tiny combs to groom its fur. But unlike any other mammal known, some of the colugo’s upper incisors have two roots instead of just one. Why? No one knows.

So what is the colugo related to? For a long time, no one was sure. Researchers even thought it might be a close relation of bats. These days, the two species of colugo make up their own order, Dermoptera. Order is the classification right below mammal so that’s kind of a big deal. While they’re not closely related to anything alive today, researchers place them in the same general group of animals that gave rise to the primates. But they’re about as closely related to rabbits as they are to monkeys.

In 2017 a team of scientists surveying bats in Malaysia picked up a recording of some unusual ultrasonic calls. They weren’t bat calls. Eventually they determined the calls came from colugos in the trees around the microphones, although some researchers have doubts and think the calls may actually be from other animals known to make ultrasonic sounds, like the tarsier. The colugo has been recorded making sounds audible to humans in other studies. There’s no evidence that the colugo uses echolocation like bats do.

Mammals took to gliding very early on. A few years ago, two fossils discovered in China and dated to about 160 million years ago—you know, 100 million years before the dinosaurs died out—show two different species of mammal that were able to glide. We know they could glide because the fossils are so well preserved that researchers can see the patagium between the front and hind legs of both. They’re the earliest known gliding mammals. Both the fossils belonged to a branch of mammals that have completely died out, so they’re not related to the colugo or anything else.

So what other animals fly, or glide, without real wings? You’ve heard of flying fish, of course. Do they really jump out of the water and glide on their fins? They do, and it’s a lot more awesome even than it sounds.

There isn’t just one species of flying fish but over 60, all of them with elongated pectoral fins that act like an airplane’s wings when they jump out of the water. Some species have two pairs of elongated fins. Back in the early 20th century, engineers studied flying fish fins to help design better airplane wings. But the flying fish has a lot of other adaptations that make it good at gliding, including a stiffened body and robust spine, and strong muscles that allow it to jump out of the water at high speeds.

So how well does the flying fish glide? This is where it gets crazy amazing. The longest recorded flight of a flying fish was 1,300 feet, or 400 meters. That’s way better than the colugo. It’s been recorded as reaching 20 feet, or 6 meters, above the water’s surface and flying at speeds of about 45 mph, or 70 km/h. And as if this wasn’t amazing enough, when the fish starts to descend, it can choose to slide back into the water or it can put its tail down and push off against the surface of the water to get back in the air for another glide. It can even change directions when it pushes back off. It will sometimes flap its fins like wings, but so far researchers haven’t found any evidence that this helps it fly. It may just flap its fins to stabilize its flight.

Most flying fish species are fairly small, although the biggest is a respectable 1 1/2 feet long, or about half a meter. Most flying fish live in the ocean, usually in warmer waters, and they’re all extremely slender and streamlined. They mostly eat plankton.

Sometimes flying fish land in boats or even on the decks of small ships. It’s considered a delicacy, with a taste similar to that of a sardine, and many species have started to decline as a result of overfishing.

Gliding flight has evolved in fish more than once in species that aren’t related, so there are more flying fish than there are flying fish, if you see what I mean. No, you don’t. That only made sense to me. The earliest known flying fish is a fossil dated some 240 million  years old, totally unrelated to the flying fish of today. And there are species alive today not related to the various flying fish species that can glide, if not as well as actual flying fish.

One fish that may or may not glide is called the flying gurnard. It’s a bulky fish that grows more than a foot and a half long, or 50 cm, and can weigh four lbs, or 1.8 kg. It lives in the warmer parts of the Atlantic Ocean in shallow coastal areas, where it mostly stays on the seafloor and eats crustaceans, bivalves, and other small invertebrates. It will also eat small fish if it can catch them. It has a face sort of like a frog’s and can be reddish, brown, or greenish, with spots and patches of other colors. But most importantly, its pectoral fins are extremely large, looking more like fan-like wings than fins. The so-called wings are shimmery, semi-transparent, and lined with bright blue. They sort of look like butterfly wings and can be more than 8 inches long, or 20 cm. The fins actually have two parts, a smaller section in front that looks more like an ordinary fin, and the larger wing-like section behind.

The flying gurnard’s popular name refers to its wing-like fins, which it uses to scare potential predators and to walk around on the sea floor with and poke into the sand to find food. But there are stories dating back thousands of years that not only can the flying gurnard jump out of the water to fly, its flight resembles a swallow’s swooping flight. But it’s much too heavy to fly, so those stories are only tall tales. OR ARE THEY? At least one ichthyologist, a Dr. Humphrey Greenwood, reports having seen a flying gurnard leap out of the water, spread its fins, and glide in a controlled manner for a short distance.

The last animal that flies, or glides, without wings is one I bet you would never guess. It’s the flying squid. And yes, I thought it was a made-up animal when I first heard about it. Squid can’t fly! But there one squid that does regularly leap out of the water and glide for short distances.

The Japanese flying squid lives near the ocean’s surface in schools, where it eats fish and crustaceans. Despite its name, it doesn’t just live around Japan but throughout much of the Pacific Ocean. It doesn’t live very long, less than a year, but has a complicated migratory life. Not as complicated as an eel, but pretty complicated. A squid hatches only five days or so after its mother lays the eggs. The baby squid, called a paralarva, eats plankton and doesn’t yet have arms or tentacles, since they’re fused together at first. The fused tentacles split once the baby has grown to about half an inch long, or some 10 mm, which gives you an idea of how tiny it is when it first hatches.

As the baby squid grows, it begins its migration with the other baby squids that hatched at the same time. The migration follows the ocean surface currents and different subspecies have different migration patterns. Males mature first and transfer their packets of sperm, called spermatophores, to the females for later. Then the males die and the females continue their migration back to the same area where they were hatched. They lay a few hundred to a few thousand tiny eggs and then die, leaving the eggs to hatch only a few days later and start the whole process again.

I can hear you thinking, Why yes, Kate, this is all very interesting BUT YOU HAVE NOT TOLD US HOW SQUIDS FLY. Okay, I’ll do that now.

The Japanese flying squid has a mantle, or main part of the body and head, with a pair of fins at the end that stick out quite a bit. Its eight legs and two feeding tentacles are relatively short, shorter than its mantle length of about a foot and a half long in a big female, or 50 cm. Males are smaller. Like all squids and octopuses, the flying squid moves by shooting water out of its siphon, making it jet-propelled. It travels mantle first with the legs trailing behind.

Well, the Japanese flying squid jumps out of the water and shoots through the air this way, with the fins on its mantle helping to stabilize the squid when it’s in the air and keep it flying straight. It also holds its legs and tentacles out so that the membrane between the legs is stretched taut, making a flat surface that it can angle to catch the most air. It can “fly” some 150 feet, or 50 meters, per jump, traveling at about 25 mph, or 11 meters per second. Researchers used to think it only jumped out of the water to avoid predators, but more recent studies show that it’s also a more efficient way to travel long distances than just staying in the water. Oh, and no one knew for sure that the Japanese flying squid could actually fly until about 15 years ago when researchers caught video of it happening.

Like other squids, the Japanese flying squid can change colors and release a cloud of ink to confuse predators. It also has three hearts.

There are other gliding animals and they’re all weird and interesting, so I’ll probably revisit this topic again in the future. In the meantime, if you want to learn about flying snakes, you can go back and listen to episode 56 about strange snakes. Since that’s currently my 8th most popular episode, you may have listened to it already. Thanks.

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

Thanks for listening!

Episode 100: The Centipede of Episodes!

It’s our 100th episode! Thanks to my fellow animal podcasters who sent 100th episode congratulations! Thanks also to Simon and Julia, who suggested a couple of animals I used in this episode.

An Amazonian giant centipede eating a mouse oh dear god no:

The kouprey:

The Karthala scops owl:

A sea mouse. It sounds cuter than it is. Why are you touching it? Stop touching it:

A sea mouse in the water where it belongs:

Mother and baby mountain goats. Much cuter than a sea mouse:

A hairy octopus:

Further reading:

Silas Claiborne Turnbo’s giant centipede account collection

Show transcript:

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

This is our 100th episode! I’ll be playing clips from some of my favorite animal podcasts throughout the show, and I highly recommend all of them if you don’t already listen!

For our big 100 show, I’ve decided to cover several animals, some mysterious, some not so mysterious, and all weird. But we’ll start with one that just seems to fit with the 100th episode, the centipede—because centipedes are supposed to have 100 legs.

So do they have 100 legs? They don’t, actually. Different species of centipede have different numbers of legs, from only 30 to something like 300. Centipedes have been around for some 430 million years and there are thousands of species alive today.

A centipede has a flattened head with a pair of long mandibles and antennae. The body is also flattened and made up of segments, a different number of segments depending on the centipede’s species, but at least 15. Each segment has a pair of legs except for the last two segments, which have no legs. The first segment’s legs project forward and end in sharp claws with venom glands. These legs are called forcipules, and they actually look like pincers. No other animal has forcipules, only centipedes. The centipede uses its forcipules to capture and hold prey. The last pair of legs points backwards and sometimes look like tail stingers, but they’re just modified legs that act as sensory antennae. Each pair of legs is a little longer than the pair in front of it, which helps keep the legs from bumping into each other when the centipede walks.

Like other arthropods, the centipede has to molt its exoskeleton to grow larger. When it does, some species grow more segments and legs. Others hatch with all the segments and legs they’ll ever have.

The centipede lives throughout the world, even in the Arctic and in deserts, which is odd because the centipede’s exoskeleton doesn’t have the wax-like coating that other insects and arachnids have. As a result, it needs a moist environment so it won’t lose too much moisture from its body and die. It likes rotten wood, leaf litter, soil, especially soil under stones, and basements. Some centipedes have no eyes at all, many have eyes that can only sense light and dark, and some have relatively sophisticated compound eyes. Most centipedes are nocturnal.

Many centipedes are venomous and their bites can cause allergic reactions in people who also react to bee stings. Usually, though, a centipede bite is painful but not dangerous. Small centipedes can’t bite hard enough to break the skin. I’m using bite in a metaphorical way, of course, since scorpions “bite” using their forcipules, which as you’ll remember are actually modified legs.

The largest centipedes alive today belong to the genus Scolopendra. This genus includes the Amazonian giant centipede, which can grow over a foot long, or 30 cm. It’s reddish or black with yellow bands on the legs, and lives in parts of South America and the Caribbean. It eats insects, spiders, including tarantulas, frogs and other amphibians, small snakes, birds, mice and other small mammals, and lizards. It’s even been known to catch bats in midair by hanging down from cave ceilings and grabbing the bat as it flies by. Because it’s so big, its venom can be dangerous to children. A four-year-old in Venezuela died in 2014 after being bitten by one, but this is unusual, and bites generally only lead to a few days of pain, fever, and swelling.

You’ll often hear that the Amazonian giant centipede is the longest in the world, but this isn’t actually the case. Its close relation, the Galapagos centipede, is substantially longer. The Galapagos Islands have EVERYTHING. The Galapagos centipede can grow 17 inches long, or 43 cm, and is black with red legs.

Another member of Scolopendra is the waterfall centipede, which grows a mere 8 inches long, or 20 cm, but which is amphibious. The waterfall centipede was only discovered in 2000, when entomologist George Beccaloni was on his honeymoon in Thailand. Naturally he was poking around looking for bugs, and I trust his spouse was aware that that’s what he would do on his honeymoon, when he spotted a dark greenish-black centipede with long legs. It ran into the water and hid under a rock, which he knew was extremely odd behavior for a centipede. They need moisture but they avoid entering water. Beccaloni noted that the centipede was able to swim in an eel-like manner. He captured it and later determined it was a new species. Only four specimens have been found so far in various parts of South Asia. Beccaloni hypothesizes that it eats insects and other small animals found in the water.

There are stories of huge centipedes found in the depths of jungles throughout the world, centipedes longer than a grown man is tall. These are most likely tall tales, since centipedes breathe through tiny notches in their exoskeleton like other arthropods and don’t have proper lungs. As we learned in the spiders episode a few months ago, arthropods just can’t get too big or they can’t get enough oxygen to live. But some of the stories of huge unknown centipedes have an unsettling ring of truth.

There are stories from the Ozark Mountains in North America about centipedes that grow as long as 18 inches, or almost 46 cm. Historian Silas Claiborne Turnbo collected accounts of giant centipede encounters in the 19th century, which are available online. I’ll put a link in the show notes.

All the accounts come across as truthful and not exaggerated at all. I think it’s worth it to read the last few paragraphs of the centipedes chapter of Turnbo’s manuscript verbatim, because they’re really interesting and I kept finding garbled accounts of the stories in various places online. Whenever possible, go to the primary source.

“R. M. Jones, of near Protem, Mo., tells of finding a centipede once imprisoned in a hollow tree. Mr. Jones said that after his father, John Jones, settled on the flat of land on the east side of Big Buck Creek in the southeast part of Taney County, his father told him one day in the autumn of 1861 to split some rails to build a hog pen. Going out across the Pond Hollow onto the flat of land he felled a post oak tree one and one-half feet in diameter. There was a small cavity at the butt of the tree. After chopping off one rail cut he found that the hollow extended only four or five feet into the rail cut, and was perfectly sound above it. After splitting the log open he was astonished at finding a centipede eight inches in length, coiled in a knot in the upper part of the cavity. At first there appeared to be no life about it. ‘I took two sticks,’ said he, ‘and unrolled it and found that it was alive. It was wrapped around numerous young centipedes which were massed together in the shape of a little ball. The old centipede was almost white in color. After a thorough examination of the stump and the ground around it, I found no place where the centipede could have crawled in. Neither, in the log, was there any place where it could enter. How it got there I am not able to explain and how long it had been an inhabitant there is another mystery to me.’

“William Patton, who settled on Clear Creek in Marion County, Ark., in 1854 and became totally blind and is dead now, says that one day while his eyesight was good he was in the woods on foot stock hunting. When about 1 ½ miles west of where the village of Powell now is, he noticed something a short distance from him crawl into a hollow tree at the ground. ‘On approaching the tree to identify the object,’ remarked Mr. Patton, ‘I saw a monster centipede lying just on the inside of the hollow which was the object I had just observed crawl into the tree. I placed the muzzle of my rifle near the opening and shot it nearly in twain, and taking a long stick I pulled it out of the hollow and finished killing it with stones. I had no way of measuring it accurately, but a close estimation proved that it was not less than 14 inches long and over an inch wide.’

“The biggest centipede found in the Ozarks that I have a record of was captured alive by Bent Music on Jimmies Creek in Marion County in 1860. Henry Onstott an uncle of the writer and Harvey Laughlin who was a cousin of mine kept a drugstore in Yellville and collected rare specimens of lizards, serpents, spiders, horned frogs and centipedes and kept them in a large glass jar which sat on their counter. The jar was full of alcohol, and the collection was put in the jar for preservation as they were brought in. Amongst the collection was the monster centipede mentioned above. It was of such unusual size that it made on almost shudder to look at it. Brice Milum, who was a merchant at Yellville when Mr. Music brought the centipede to town, says that he assisted in the measuring of it, before it was put in the alcohol and its length was found to be 18 inches. It attracted a great deal of attention and was the largest centipede the writer ever saw. The jar with its contents was either destroyed or carried off during the heat of the war. Henry Onstott died in Yellville and is buried in the old cemetery one half a mile west of town.”

There are large centipedes around the Ozarks, including the red-headed centipede that can grow over eight inches long, or 20 cm. A hiker was bitten by a six-inch red-headed centipede a few years ago in Southwestern Missouri and had to be treated at a hospital. The red-headed centipede mostly stays underground during the day, although it will come out on cloudy days. It has especially potent venom and lives in the southwestern United States and northern Mexico. And, interestingly, females guard their babies carefully for a few days after they hatch. Since the red-headed centipede is a member of the genus Scolopendra, the ones that grow so long, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if individuals sometimes grow much longer than eight inches.

One story of a giant centipede called the upah turned out to have a much different solution. Naturalist Jeremy Holden was visiting a village in western Sumatra in the early 2000s when he heard stories of the upah. It was supposed to be a green centipede that grew up to about a foot long, or 30 cm, and had a painful bite. It was also supposed to make an eerie yowling sound like a cat. Holden discounted this as ridiculous, since no centipedes are known to make vocalizations of any kind, until he actually heard one. He was in the forest with a guide, who insisted that this was the upah. The sound came from high up in the treetops so Holden couldn’t see what was making it. But on a later trip to Sumatra with a birdwatcher friend, Holden heard the same sound, but this time the friend knew exactly what was making it. It wasn’t a centipede at all but a small bird called the Malaysian honeyguide. The honeyguide has a distinctive catlike call followed by a rattling sound, but is extremely hard to spot even for seasoned birdwatchers with powerful binoculars. This is what a Malaysian honeyguide sounds like, if you’re curious:

[honeyguide call]

The worst kind of centipede is the house centipedes. I hate those things. I’d rather have a pet spider that lives in my hair than touch a house centipede. House centipedes are the really fast ones that have really long legs that sort of make them look like evil feathers running around on the walls.

Next, let’s take a look at the kouprey, a bovine that is rare and possibly extinct. Thanks to Simon who suggested this ages ago, after the mystery cattle episode, or at least he mentioned it to me while we were talking on Twitter.

The kouprey is a wild ox from Southeast Asia and may be closely related to the aurochs. It’s big and can stand over six feet tall at the shoulder, or almost two meters. It has long legs, a slightly humped back, and a long tail. Males have horns that look like typical cow horns, but females have horns that spiral upward like antelope horns. Cows and calves are gray with darker bellies and legs, while grown bulls are dark brown with white stockings. It lives in small bands led by a female and eats grass and other plants. Males are usually solitary or may band together in bachelor groups. It likes open forest and low, forested hills. Sometimes it grazes with herds of buffalo and other types of wild ox.

The kouprey wasn’t known to science until 1937, when a bull was sent to a zoo in Paris from Cambodia. It was already rare then. A 2006 study that showed the kouprey was actually a hybrid of a domestic cow and another species of wild ox, the banteng, was later rescinded by the researchers as inaccurate. Genetic studies have since proven that the hybrid hypothesis was indeed wrong.

Unfortunately, if the kouprey still exists, there are almost none left. In the late 1960s only about 100 were estimated to still remain. While it’s protected, it’s poached for meat and horns, and is vulnerable to diseases of domestic cattle and habitat loss. The last verified sighting of a kouprey was in 1983, and there are no individuals in captivity. But conservationists haven’t given up yet. They continue to search for the kouprey in its historical range, including setting camera traps. Since the kouprey looks very similar to other wild oxen, it’s possible there are still some hiding in plain sight.

Next up, let’s look at a rare owl. Thanks to Julia who suggested the Karthala scops owl, which only lives in one place in the world. That one place in the world happens to be an active volcano. Specifically, it lives on the island of Grande Comore between Africa and Madagascar, in the forest on the slopes of Mount Karthala.

It’s a small owl with a wingspan of only 18 inches, or 45 cm. Some of the owls are greyish-brown and some are dark brown. It probably eats insects and small animals, but not much is known about it. It’s critically endangered due to habitat loss, as more and more of its forest is being cut down to make way for farmland. It sounds like this, and if you don’t think this is adorable I just can’t help you:

[owl call]

The Karthala scops owl wasn’t discovered by science until 1958, when an ornithologist named C.W. Benson found a feather living a sunbird nest. He thought it might be a nightjar feather, but it turned out to belong to an unknown owl. At first researchers thought it was a subspecies of the Madagascar scops owl, but it’s now considered to be a new species. Unlike many other scops owl species, the Karthala scops owl doesn’t have ear tufts.

That’s pretty much all that’s known about the Karthala scops owl right now. Researchers estimate there are around 1,000 pairs living on the volcano, and hopefully conservation efforts can be put into place to protect their habitat.

The sea mouse has been on my ideas list from the beginning, so let’s learn a little bit about it today too. It’s not a mouse, although it does live in the sea. It’s actually a genus of polychaete worm that lives along the coasts of the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, although it doesn’t really look like a worm. It looks kind of mouse-like, if you’re being generous, mostly because it has setae, or hairlike structures, on its back that look sort of like fur. Some species grow up to a foot long, or 30 cm, but most are usually smaller, maybe half that size or less. It’s shaped roughly like a mouse with no head or tail, and is about three inches wide, or 7.5 cm, at its widest.

The sea mouse is usually a scavenger, although at least one species hunts crabs and other polychaete worms. It spends a lot of its time burrowing in the sand or mud on the ocean bed, looking for decaying animal bodies to eat. It also has gills and antennae, although these aren’t readily noticeable because of the setae covering the animal’s back.

Underneath the setae, the sea mouse is segmented. It doesn’t have real legs but it does have appendages along its sides called parapodia, which it uses like little leglets to push itself along. Sometimes a sea mouse is found washed ashore after a storm. Often it scurries through the wet sand and looks even more like a mouse.

The most interesting thing about the sea mouse is its setae. The setae are about an inch long and are dark red, yellow, black, or brown under ordinary circumstances, depending on species. But when light shines on them just right, they glow with green and blue iridescence. The setae are hollow and made of chitin. The setae are much thinner than a human hair, and nanotech researchers have used them to create nanowires.

Here’s a sweet little mystery animal I got from one of my favorite books, Karl Shuker’s Search for the Last Undiscovered Animals. In 1858, French missionary Emmanuel Domenech published a book called Missionary adventures in Texas and Mexico. A personal narrative of six years’ sojourn in those regions, and in that book he mentions an interesting animal. This event apparently took place in or near Fredericksburg, Texas, sometime before about 1850. The woman in question may have been Comanche. I’ll quote the relevant passage, from pages 122 and 123 of the book.

“An American officer assured me that he had seen an Indian woman, dressed in the skin of a lion which she had killed with her own hand—a circumstance which manifested on her part no less strength than courage, for the lion of Texas, which has no mane, is a very large and formidable animal. This woman was always accompanied by a very singular animal about the size of a cat, but of the form and appearance of a goat. Its horns were rose-coloured, its fur was of the finest quality, glossy like silk and white as snow; but instead of hoofs this little animal had claws. This officer offered five hundred francs for it; and the commandant’s wife, who also spoke of this animal, offered a brilliant of great value in exchange for it; but the Indian woman refused both these offers, and kept her animal, saying that she knew a wood where they were found in abundance; and promised, that if she ever returned again, she would catch others expressly for them.”

So what could this strange little animal be? It sounds like a mountain goat. Mountain goats live in mountainous areas of western North America, but might well have been unknown elsewhere in the mid-19th century. They’re pure white with narrow black horns and hooves, but an albino individual might have horns that appear to be pinkish, at least at the base where the horn core is, due to lack of pigment in the horns allowing blood to show through the surface. While male mountain goats can grow more than three feet tall at the shoulder, or 1 meter, females are much smaller and have smaller horns. Most tellingly, mountain goats have sharp dewclaws as well as cloven hooves that can spread apart to provide better traction on rocks. To someone not familiar with mountain goats, this could look like claws rather than feet. My guess is the woman had a young mountain goat she was keeping as a pet, possibly an albino one, which would explain its size and appearance. It’s nice to think that she cared so much for her little pet that she refused huge amounts of money for it.

Let’s finish up with a rare and tiny cephalopod called the hairy octopus. It’s tiny, only two inches across, or five centimeters, and covered with strands of tissue that give it its name. The so-called hair of the hairy octopus camouflages it by making it look like a piece of seaweed or algae. It can also change colors like other octopuses, to blend in even more with its surroundings. It can appear red, brown, cream, or white, with or without spots and other patterns. It’s only ever been seen in the Lembeh Strait off the coast of Indonesia, and then only rarely.

It’s so rare, in fact, that it still hasn’t been formally described by science. So if you’re thinking about becoming a biologist and you find cephalopods like octopus and squid interesting, this might be the field for you. You might get to give the hairy octopus its official scientific name one day!

Thanks so much to all of you, whether you’re a fellow podcaster, a Patreon subscriber, a regular listener, or someone who just downloaded your first episode of Strange Animals Podcast to see if you like it. I’m having a lot of fun making these episodes, and I’m always surprised at how many people tell me they enjoy listening. I tend to forget anyone listens at all, so whenever I get an email or a review or someone tweets to me about an episode, I’m always startled and pleased. I’ve been trying hard to make the show’s sound quality better, and while I don’t always have the time to do as much research for each episode as I’d like, I do my best to make sure all the information I present is up to date and as accurate as possible.

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

Thanks for listening, and happy new year!

Episode 086: Ammonoids and Nautiloids

Is it extinct? Is it alive? What is the difference between the ammonite and the nautilus? Did Kate get the two confused her whole life until a few months ago and thought they were both extinct? Maybe.

A fossilized ammonite shell:

Another fossilized ammonite shell of a different shape:

A third fossilized ammonite shell of a yet different shape:

A gigantic fossilized ammonite shell:

A fossilized ammonite shell of gem quality, called an ammolite:

This is what an ammonite might have looked like when it was alive. I drew this myself IN MS PAINT because I couldn’t find anything online I liked. There’s 15 minutes of my life I won’t get back:

This is an alive and not extinct nautilus:

Another alive and not extinct nautilus:

The slimy or crusty nautilus. Look, I don’t make these names up:

A nautilus tucked up in its shell and peeking out to see if that diver is going to eat it:

You can contribute to helping conserve the nautilus:

Save the Nautilus

Show transcript:

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

This week let’s learn about two groups of mollusks, ammonoids and nautiloids. One group is extinct, one is still around…but they both look a lot alike, and they’re way more interesting than the word mollusk makes them sound!

We’ll start with ammonoids, specifically ammonites. Ammonites first appear in the fossil record around 409 million years ago, but they died out at the same time as the dinosaurs, around 66 million years ago. Many ammonite fossils look like snail shells, but the shell contains sections inside called chambers. The largest chamber, at the end of the shell, was for the ammonite’s body, except for a thin tube that extended through the smaller inner chambers, which allowed the animal to pump water or air into and out of the chambers in order to make itself more or less buoyant in the water. Some ammonites lived at the bottom of the ocean in shallow water, but many swam or floated throughout the ocean.

Comparing ammonites to snail shells may not give you the right idea about ammonites, though. Even big snails are pretty small. While many ammonites were no larger than modern snails, many others were bigger than your hand, sometimes twice the size of your hand even if you have really big hands. But during the Jurassic and part of the Cretaceous, some ammonites got even bigger. One species grew almost two feet across, or 53 cm, another grew some 4 ½ feet across, or 137 cm, and one species grew as much as 6 ½ feet across, or 2 meters. It was found in Germany in 1895 and dates to about 78 million years ago. And it wasn’t actually a complete fossil. Researchers estimate that in life it would have been something like eight and a half feet across, or 2.55 meters.

We have a lot of ammonite fossils, and many of them are beautifully preserved. Some still show a mother-of-pearl layer, a lustrous, iridescent layer of shell that modern molluscs still form. Some ammonite fossils are so lustrous that they’re considered gems, called ammolites. Ammolites are usually polished and made into jewelry. In the olden days people thought ammonites were petrified snakes, and would sometimes even carve the end of the ammonite shell into a snake’s head.

Many fossil ammonites aren’t fossils of the actual shell. When an ammonite died, its empty shell would fill with sediment. Frequently the shell itself wasn’t preserved, but the sediment inside was. That gives us elaborate casts of the insides of ammonite shells, in such good condition that researchers can determine the internal anatomy of the shell. We know mosasaurs frequently ate ammonites because we have fossils with tooth marks that match mosasaur teeth.

There are so many ammonite fossils that paleontologists can date layers of rock by examining which species of ammonite appear in it, called index fossils. Different species frequently had much different shells, some smooth, some with spines or ridges, with tight coils or open coils. Some didn’t coil at all, and instead were straight or had only one or two bends.

But despite all these thousands upon thousands of ammonite fossils, we still don’t know what the animal’s soft parts looked like. Hardly any impressions of ammonite bodies are preserved, only the shells. But ammonites are related to cephalopods like squid, so researchers believe they probably had tentacles.

Nautiloids are also cephalopods. They’re related to ammonites but not closely, about as closely as they’re related to squid. And nautiloids are still alive.

I only found that out recently. A few months ago I came across a picture of a man holding a big snail-like shell with eyes and a bunch of small tentacle things sticking out of the end. I thought it was photoshopped, because I knew those things were extinct! Then I realized that I’ve had nautilus and ammonite mixed up my whole life, and thought they were both extinct and basically the same animal.

They do look a lot alike. Nautilus shells are smooth and rounded like a snail shell, and like the ammonite, nautilus shells also contain chambers filled with gas that keeps the animal from sinking. The nautilus’s body is in the last chamber and extends outside of the shell, with a pair of simple eyes, a beak-like mouth, and as many as 90 small tentacles around the mouth. The top of the shell is striped with brown, while the bottom is white.

Nautilus tentacles are retractable and don’t have suckers the way other cephalopod tentacles do. They do have ridges and secrete sticky mucus that helps them keep hold of their prey. The nautilus also has tentacles around its eyes that are different from its mouth tentacles, and researchers think they act as sensory organs, detecting scent trails in the water. When a nautilus wants to rest, it holds onto a rock with its mouth tentacles so it won’t drift away.

Like squid, the nautilus has a tongue-like structure called a radula, which is studded with exactly nine teeth that it uses to cut up pieces of its prey, mostly crustaceans. It also eats carrion. Like other cephalopods, the nautilus has blue blood instead of red since it contains hemocyanin instead of hemoglobin. Also like squid and other cephalopods, the nautilus has a siphon, properly called a hyponome. In the nautilus, the hyponome is a flap that’s folded over to form a tube, instead of an actual tube in squid and octopus. The animal sucks in and expels water through the hyponome, which propels it through the ocean. If it’s threatened, the nautilus can actually withdraw all the way into its shell like a snail, covering the entrance with two large, folded tentacles.

The first fossil nautiloids are found in rocks dating to the Cambrian period, some 500 million years ago. Earlier nautiloids are sometimes straight, sometimes slightly curved, and sometimes coiled like ammonite shells. Even so, overall the nautilus hasn’t changed much since the Cambrian. Like the ammonite, some species of nautiloid once reached over 8 feet across, or 2.5 meters.

Today there are only six species of nautilus left, and they’re endangered due to habitat loss, pollution, and poaching. The shells of larger individuals can be worth a few hundred dollars to collectors, and while selling the shells is illegal in many countries, as long as there are unscrupulous or just clueless people who buy the shells, poaching of nautiloids will continue to be a problem. A good rule is that if you’re a tourist and someone is selling any kind of animal part, don’t buy it. Even if you think it’s harmless, you might be contributing to the extinction of an animal—plus, it’s probably going to get confiscated by customs anyway.

The problem is that the nautilus matures very slowly. It lives to be over 20 years old, but it isn’t mature until it’s about 15 years old. Its eggs take a long time to hatch too. So the nautilus is slow to recover from overhunting, which makes it vulnerable to extinction.

One species of nautilus is so rare it’s only been seen a few times, and hadn’t been seen in more than 30 years until one was spotted in 2015 off the coast of Papua New Guinea. It’s called Allonautilus scrobiculatus, and unlike other nautilus species, its shell is covered with a thick coating of hairy slime that gives it its popular name, the slimy nautilus or crusty nautilus. It grows to about 8 inches across, or 20 cm. Its close relative Allonautilus perforates is even rarer. In fact, it’s never been seen alive, and researchers don’t know much about it since all they have to study are empty shells found drifting in the water. It grows to about 7 inches across, or 18 cm.

Most living nautiloids are about that size, but the biggest is a subspecies of the chambered nautilus, often called the emperor nautilus. Before you get too excited, though, the biggest ones only grow to about ten inches across, or 25 cm.

Nautiloids don’t like water that’s too warm so they usually live near the bottom of the ocean, although their shells can’t withstand the pressures of abyssal depths. If a nautilus descends too far, its shell implodes and it dies instantly, like a hapless diver in a malfunctioning bathysphere. Nautiloids live in the Indo-Pacific Ocean and like the deeper parts of coral reefs.

So why did ammonites die out during the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event while nautiloids didn’t? Researchers think ammonites laid eggs that floated near the top of the ocean, while nautiloids lay eggs that stay on the bottom of the ocean. Specifically, female nautiloids attach their eggs to rocks in warm water, which take up to a year to hatch. Eggs at the bottom of the ocean were protected from most of the effects of the meteor impact, while those near the surface were killed.

Is it possible that some ammonites survived and still live in the deep sea, unknown to humans? I’m going to say probably not. Ammonites shared a lot of physical similarities with nautiloids, so they probably weren’t able to live in the deep sea without imploding. While it would be amazing if scientists discovered a living ammonite, we should celebrate that the humble nautilus is definitely still alive. It’s still blowing my mind, to be honest.

If you’d like to help nautilus conservation efforts, you can visit save the for more information. I’ll put a link in the show notes.

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Thanks for listening!